I have a fair degree of certainty that this man has just woken from a sound sleep. Coming into the office it was deserted. Three desks littered with brochures, each emblazoned with doubtful English. Posters of electric blue lagoons and white sand beaches. Dusty carved figures and faded African prints. No people. Only after calling out a few times did a woman emerge from the far office, her expression indicating severe embarrassment to be caught carrying a cup of tea. She placed it on the desk in a brisk manner that suggests this was why she exited the back office in the first place. As though the Mombasa Tourism office can only operate with a fresh cup of chai steaming away on its desks.
I am already resigned to being here. It's half stubborn self definition and half the expectation of an experience like the one we are currently having. I have a rigid and thorny self definition: I am not a tourist; I live here. Except that, technically, I don't anymore. I want to remain unique and exceptional here. I want status – a ranking above normal – for the months of struggle towards integration with life here. The other half of my resignation is linked to this desire for special status. The people who need the tourism office are likely in pursuit of knowledge that we have already acquired. What you bargain for and what you don't. What a menu in a Kenyan restaurant actually means in terms of what's available. Where and when to walk in the city and what to carry. How to deal with street children and touts and hawkers. We've learned these things through months of mistakes and awkward moments of silence. It's knowledge – competency – that I am proud of and entering here seems to strip me of it.
James (as his name plate indicates) is the tourism officer. He exits the center rear office after a minute or so of knocking by the tea woman. The office he exits is dark. This, combined with the full, arms and head stretching, eye closing yawn that racks his upper body, causes him to resemble a bear staggering out of hibernation. Whether it's his nap being interrupted or his general feelings about his job – probably both – his enthusiasm is minimal to say the least.
We've come today for two reasons. The first is that tonight is our last night with Charles and he has volunteered to take us out to a nice dinner in celebration. We want seafood, but all we have been able to find is more than we want to ask Charles to pay. The second thing is the Lonely Planet myth of a cargo dhow ride to Zanzibar. Supposedly it is possible to pay for passage on a motarized cargo dhow going from Mombasa to Zanzibar. We want to know if such a thing is really possible.
In some sense, this is a stupid question since: a) if it is possible, it's not something the tourism office would or could sanction and b) anyone who has successfully negotiated with a commercial dhow to camp on their deck during an international port change is likely not to be the kind of person who would be sitting where we are right now, across the desk from a man whose primary job is dealing with foreigners who are intimidated by the prospect of taking a ride on a minibus and are still amazed by how hot it is here.
Rachel explains about dinner:
"We would like seafood, but a place like 'The Tamarind' is too expensive. We want something a step or two down." The Tamarind is said to be one of the best restaurants in East Africa. It's prices are on the high end for American fancy restaurants.
James stretches his jaw downward and repeatedly opens his eyes wide as though he's just put in contact lenses for the first time. He reaches to his right and, stifling a yawn, grabs a brochure and spreads it out in front of us.
"There is a wonderful restaurant here called: 'The Tamarind.' It is very famous."
Rachel and I exchange looks. I feel fairly certain that if we had started off describing our preference for human flesh roasted over burning tires, James would still have this brochure as his go-to.
"…um. Right. But like I said, The Tamarind is a little too expensive. Is there something a little cheaper?"
James closes one eye and then the other and purses his lips in thought.
"You're sure this place is too much for you to pay?" He appears unable to grasp that white people in Mombasa would be unable to afford something. He has a point. Indeed, as much as I feel conceitedly confident that we are not the type of travelers to use a tourism office, I have trouble imagining the ones who would. East Africa is not a casual destination. Visitors interested in tourism have most likely come from far enough away that they had a specific reason for making the trip. East Africa, and Mombasa in particular, is not the kind of convenient stopover where you think to yourself: "And, as long as we're passing through, let's kill a day or two in Mombasa! Gotta be something to do around there."
Given that, anyone who did arrive here without an actual purpose or even vague idea of what there is to do would likely possess a great deal of money and little judgment of how it should be spent. Blindly recommending 'The Tamarind' might work with such people. We, however are not that kind of traveler.
James tries for 'The Tamarind' once more, his office mate with the tea nodding her head: "It's very romantic…" before moving on to suggesting a two day dhow ride-snorkeling excursion.
"Right, but we are actually looking for a place to have dinner." He nods.
"Yes. They serve dinner on the boat both nights." He emphasizes this point by tapping his pen against the brochure.
Rachel continues an insistent line of questioning in pursuit of dining options. On the island of Mombasa there are apparently no more than six restaurants. According to the tea lady three of theses are: "Very romantic." James' final offering is unveiled with the smug satisfaction that suggests he was testing to see if we would refuse all his other options before he trusted us enough to mention his personal choice. From his desk drawer he removes a flyer for the Rehema Restaurant. This restaurant is across the seat. Turning around in my chair I can see the sign over the door. The flyer James offers us is the same one I was handed as we walked by looking for this office not more than twenty minutes ago. Though the description of the food is vague, I admit I am intrigued by the promise of air conditioning.
We move on, at last, to the dhow to Zanzibar. James sighs and presses the heels of his palms deep into his eye sockets as though we have presented him with a very difficult word problem.
"That is very illegal. There is no boat until Zanzibar."
James suggests (obviously) that we should fly. If we are determined to take the bus we should not go to the stage to get a ticket.
"It could be difficult. There may be danger for you. Someone else should go."
"Perhaps you can take us?" I offer, jumping into the conversation for the first time. I am imagining spending the afternoon torturing this man. Having him escort us everywhere. Asking him to be in photos with street children. Insisting he take us into a mosque during prayer. Having him translate ignorant, banal questions asked in overly loud annunciated English.
"No. I cannot. I must be here in the office, but your hotel can send someone, I am sure."
Qwale Guesthouse has a single full time staff member: a woman at the front desk who naps on a cushion on the floor in between customers. I suppose if one of us took over the front desk she could go.
I don't blame James for his half feigned interest and total lack of knowledge. His conduct and skill are spectacularly typical of the city and district employees I have dealt with in Kenya. Moreover, with the election violence, it would not surprise me to learn that we are the first tourists in here all week. I would probably be napping too.
As we get up to leave James makes his first unsolicited effort to be helpful.
"You must have a map." He hands us a two page fold-out Bata Shoe ad and points to the lower right corner where there is a 4X4 inch map of Mombasa. The Bata store locations are marked by large red stars that cover the names of nearby streets.
"Oh good," I say, "In case we have a sudden craving for quality footwear."
He nods enthusiastically. Whether this stems from the quality footwear or the fact that we are finally leaving, I can't tell.