A Travellerspoint blog

February 2008

Dar Es Salaam

Dar Es Salaam remains mercifully untouched by the foreigners who flood its airport during tourist season. They flock north and south of the city to white sand beaches and swim up bars. Without them, the city is clean, orderly and largely sober, owing to a significant Muslim population. Municipal workers in orange vests and bare feet sweep the streets and cluster in small groups at roundabouts, picking up trash and maintaining the immaculate state of the streets. The roads are full of personal vehicles and motorcycles. There is little need for the endless streams of matatus that Nairobi’s vast spread demands; the city is comfortably walkable. We got lost repeatedly, only to find ourselves once again back at the intersection from which we started. The city has a geography comfortably grasped in a two hour walk, as opposed to Nairobi which I barely understand after a dozen trips over an eight month period.
When we were sequestered north of the city at the Jangwani Beach Hotel we were told that Dar was dangerous and that we were restricted from going for our own safety. We chaffed at this restriction on our freedom and sarcastically noted the absurdity of suggesting that Dar was too dangerous - the Kenyan office is located in a city nicknamed ‘Nairobbery.’ The reality is that Dar has a whole lot of nothing in a surprisingly small amount of space. It would have been better – and more accurate – to say: “Don’t go to Dar. You will just be bored. Not to mention two hours from your free meals and a 24 hour bar.”
However, the over eager diagnosis of peril was not merely a company line from the PC Tanzania office. Tanzanian volunteers we met decried ‘The Q Bar’ near the Peace Corps office in Dar as an out of control prostitute free-for-all. “Don’t bring too much cash,” they said, “And make sure you keep an eye on your drink.” This sounded great. James and Marcus and I were eagerly awaiting our chance to descend into the depravity of the Q Bar. Where we expected to be aswim in prostitutes and creepy old ex-pats we found instead a pleasant well lit courtyard bar that I would be happy taking my family to. This in contrast to ‘Casablanca’ in Mombasa, where a Tuesday night walk to use the restroom gets you three package pats. I imagine Tanzanian volunteers evacuated to Nairobi undergoing nervous breakdowns like the cousin from the sticks who warns you about Des Moines after 8p on a Friday and ends up at the Robert Taylor Homes at 2:30a after a Bull’s Championship. The end of their first day finding them mugged, hopelessly lost and emotionally destabilized.
The long and short of it is that Dar is boring. And slow. And hopelessly unsophisticated when compared to Nairobi. It is for those qualities that I find myself jealous of volunteers here. I have often wondered about my Peace Corps experience and the other ways it could have occurred. If I had chosen Agriculture – a Peace Corps work sector endlessly more structured and concrete than Public Health – and if I had been assigned to a country where I actually had to learn a language, would my feelings about being away from home be different?
Dar feels appropriate to the work of a Peace Corps Volunteer. Nairobi is hard edged and overgrown. It’s layers of grime and desperation and the shallow luster of new wealth built next to – on top of – dire poverty all constantly surround and assault you. Any public exposure is continually invasive: you are cajoled and needled in rude, heavily accented english. It is exhausting compared to the quiet peace of Dar.
A family friend high up in USAID told me that Peace Corps Kenya is Africa’s best Peace Corps Program. USAID probably thinks that because of the budget, the infrastructure, the endless chain of International Aid organizations and NGOs all comfortably nestled into Nairobi’s top-quality hospitality sector. There are good hospitals and reliable utilities and a high degree of political stability (at least until recently). But the same things that encourage the permanent installation of so much foreign money – as well as the money itself - is exactly what makes Kenya such a difficult and frustrating place in which to serve.
Too many of us found our service to be more about money – how much we could bring and how it looked on grant applications to possess a Peace Corps Volunteer – than about learning to live in another country. Kenyan’s I met without water or electricity knew to ask me for sponsorship for their children, a donation to this project or that foundation. Too often, before being a person, Peace Corps volunteers were dollar signs. Kenya which has (had) the most stable government and highest level of Western aid in East Africa, has the worst roads of all the countries I have visited. Its cities are dirtier, dingier and more broken down than any others. The money, it seems, is eating the country from the inside out. And its evident in the experience of the volunteers who serve there.
Visiting the Peace Corps office in Dar I spoke with a Tanzanian volunteer who felt a similar process was beginning to occur here as a result of the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDs Relief (PEPFAR). Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into Tanzania to be spent on AIDs projects. Emily said that their Mid-Service training seemed to forget ideas of community integrations for a focus on grant writing, budgeting and accounting. Money as the center of Peace Corps Service just as it is the center of the America’s foreign policy in the third world. The fear it raises is that the Peace Corps too is becoming an organization more focused on throwing money and recording statistics than on person-to-person change; for host country nationals and for Peace Corps Volunteers.
The decision’s I’ve made - distinctions I have reached – here are life changing shifts of intention and perspective. The evacuation came at a good time for me and I am thankful for the manner in which it is making moving to the next part of my life easier. However, had I to do it over again, I would ask not to be in Kenya. I would wish for someplace like this. For the quiet and regional flavor of Dar Es Salaam or any other place not yet swallowed by the endless money blindly sent to change it.

Posted by Natyb25 01:57 Comments (1)

Mombasa Tourism

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.

Posted by Natyb25 02:31 Comments (0)

Lamu to Mombasa

The wind has been turned off like a tap. For the last three days its been blowing non-stop, gale force. It has been preemptively ending card games, slamming doors and blowing bottles off tables. Rachel and I initially moved or mattress out to the roof-top terrace because the bedroom was so stiflingly hot. We suspend a mosquito net from the backs of four chairs and sleep out under the stars. The first night of the wind we woke in the pitch black shivering; a foreign enough sensation that we relished the goosebumps. But when we wake up this morning in the dark at five it’s still enough that we can hear the ocean lapping at the hulls of the dhows in the harbor. As we pick up our sheets and mattress under the slowly dimming stars we hear the first call to prayer of the day, the Arabic echoing clearly through the already warm morning air.
Downstairs in our rented apartment Charles is already awake, finishing his packing. Normally at this time of the year this guest house is fully booked. There are four two-person rooms on the second floor that share a small common room. The three-person apartment we have paid for on the third and a pair of stepped rooftop terraces and another bedroom for two on top of the house. There are two full time house boys and a chef constantly on duty. Normally our apartment would rent for $75 to $200 a day. We are paying 2000 shillings each per night, or the equivalent of about $8 a person. Normally holding 13-15 guests, the house now contains as many guests as staff. And we aren’t even needy guests, preferring to wash our own clothes in borrowed basins and shop for and cook our own meals in the fully equipped kitchen. Such is the state of Kenyan tourism in the wake of the election troubles.
We leave a fair sized tip as well as an odd collection of freebies: discarded weight from over-heavy packs. My Chacos were already on their last legs and I’ve ordered a new pair that should have arrived at home in the states by now. They are heavy and I’m glad to leave them on the floor by the bed. There’s also Charles’ tent. He’s reached that inevitable plateau where, trip or no trip, he just needs to go home. We will be parting ways after Mombasa and so the Kenyan bought tent that he was going to use in the parks in Rwanda is also being dropped. This is probably in his best interest considering that its constructed of a thick tarp like plastic that make it better suited to the humane suffocation of an aged and beloved pet than anything else. We also leave a Frisbee and hacky sack. A bottle of shaving cream. A half-finished jar of peanut butter. Ironically, every one of these objects are ones that most of the Kenyans I have met have only a passing familiarity with. Mwanza (our chef), holding out my sleeping bag and the Frisbee, asked me to explain just how you pitch a tent. We try to sneak off in the dark but they awake. Goodbyes and thank yous are breathily whispered through windows as we pass the ground floor room where they sleep.
The descending tide has left the sand uncharacteristically firm. Any coolness remaining in the pre-dawn air is soon overwhelmed by the exertion of schlepping our packs and the remaining tent down the beach. Fishing boats are already coming in with a morning catch. They heft the slick and shiny flesh on their shoulders as we pass. It’s three kilometers to Lamu. We gradually join a growing parade of travelers heading to the early ferry back to the mainland. Even a month ago, ferries ran from Lamu three times a day. With the decline in Western visters, its now down to just this one. If you want to leave without hiring a private boat you need to be in the main harbor by 7a.
We pack into a motarized dhow, the luggage piled in the bow twice as high as the gunnels. A sign says the max capacity is 100. In a space roughly the size of two station wagons end to end, there are roughly 70 people. There’s already no standing room remaining. They sit on the side rails, stand on the stern and the engine housing, they crouch in the bottom of the boat, sitting on carry-alls and duffels. I can’t see where the other 30 people would sit. Perhaps they cling gamely to the underside of the hull like barnacles. Climbing out is a similarly pushy and unorganized process to climbing in. The stone docks we climb are worn by wind and weather, the steps collapsing into one another as though the concrete had melted in the sun and run down towards the water in a river.
Sitting in the front of the bus, I find that an enterprising traveler has already commandeered much of my leg space with a 20 liter jerri-can and a cardboard box tied with string. The box, I will eventually learn, contains a rooster owned by the woman sitting behind me. Over the course of the seven hour trip she will repeatedly hand me corn to feed the chicken and periodically encourage me to kick the box until he audibly responds. Undoubtedly he is a fighting cock and needs to be kept angry. The radio on the bus is mercifully broken and aside from the armed guards sitting by the door – in the case of bush bandits – the most notable thing about the bus ride is just how unnotable it is. Seven hours squeezed between two other people, sweating in the equatorial heat, choking on dust from the road, a chicken in a box periodically interrupting my fevered dozing with an angry crow is astonishingly and casually normal. I never even take out my book.
In Mombasa it’s a short walk to the Qwale guesthouse. We stay in a triple. The florescent light won’t stop flickering and it’s the one room shower/sink/toilet combo again. The economy of space makes multi-tasking a breeze: you can spit toothpaste in the sink, pee in the toilet and stand under the shower at the same time. Apparently having rusted out over the course of its life, the showerhead has a plastic bag with holes poked in it stretched tightly across its underside. At the base of each bed is a topsheet, a towel and a small wad of toilet paper. Any paper left in the bathroom would be soaked.
We head down to the Likoni Ferry in search of a park where Somali immigrants gather in the afternoons to chew miraa, drink tea and scream at soccer matches in their native language. We find eventually a quieter spot than that outside a small duka. Our neighbor at the next table is the perfect kind of stranger. Helpful, coherent and totally uninterested in anything we are doing. He graciously answers a few questions and then goes back to his own chewing.
Miraa is a mild stimulant whose effect is augmented considerably by other substances. The scariest drunks here, in my experience, are those who stagger toward you and reveal white teeth covered in the green mulch of chewed miraa. It comes in small bundles – handfuls – of maybe 100 stems. Red/brown at the stiffer end up to green at the frayed remains of the leaves at the other. You pick off the leaves and chew with your back teeth from the softer green end towards the harder red one. When the pulp stops sliding easily, you switch to front teeth: peeling the pulp off the hard stem. It has a bitter, cotton-mouthing taste that fades as your gums and tongue go tingly or numb.
In my experience, its not a particularly potent or interesting amphetamine. The high is low-key and it grows slowly. It also requires an intensive investment of time and effort to extract a fairly minor payoff. However, the same attributes that would make it ill-fitted for Williamsburg Hipsters jauting about the East Village in the wee hours of a Sunday morning make sitting in the park for an afternoon chewing it a remarkably pleasant experience. It passes the time and leaves focus for other things, like playing cards, but you don’t even have to pay attention.
As the sun sets, we catch a matatu back to the center of town. The tout is at that pleasantly exhausted part of the day where he wakes only enough to take our money and shut the door before laying his head back against the window. We walk to get a late dinner of schwarma sandwiches at a café a few blocks from the hotel. Even close to 11p the streets of Mombasa feel safe and welcoming. A light breeze has cut the heat of the day and the sidewalks are full of families walking together in and out of the street lights. It is a far cry from the dim and frightening grime of Nairobi at this time of night.
On the way we pass a darkened city park where an LCD projector has been set up to show the latest game of the Africa’s Cup being played in Accra, Ghana. Men and women and children lounge, stretched out, on the grass, crouched in trees and seated on utility boxes and dry empty fountains as they watch. We sit outside on the sidewalk patio and hear the muffled cheers and gasps of the crowd as we eat.

Posted by Natyb25 04:33 Comments (1)


Removing our shoes, we tie them around our necks to walk along the stone walls of the closed estates. High tide: the ocean waves quietly lapping against stone steps up to carved and ornamental double doors. The chalky white of dried salt on dark wood. We pass a boat yard with a rusted crain a launching ramp. The strong fish smell that tourists wrinkle their noses at; that locals know means work, money, food.
There are streams of pundas. The donkeys trot by with woven reed sacks draped over them, laden with concrete or thick rectangular cut coral stone, bags of flour or cans of water. Their thin brown fur is marked by a black stripe that runs the length of their back and down – like an arrow – the center of each leg. Like the donkey has grown from this central black line; it’s essential form: four legs, a body and head.
The largest road in Lamu town runs along the water. The shallow timber ribbed long boats with their patched and faded sails lined up in rows alongside. Balconies are a relief: sitting above the casual sight lines of the hawkers and dhow captains who greet with the unctuous tones of desperate salesmen. Above you are free to look, to touch with your eyes the things and people that it would be too much trouble to admit you notice when at play below.
The menu is Arabic or Bantu or something in between. Computers made in Japan and resold in India, pirated software from Morocco and a keyboard from Dubai: the Third World Computer. The sub-standard combined parts of the western world’s discarded office. Keyboards and thus menus where every “O” is an “Ω” and every “T” a “+.”
Back down into the narrow streets and cracked white walls; away from the open brilliance of the water. The streets stand at 90 degree angles. The intersections appearing without warning like a choice circumstances force on you unsuspecting. In front of a low, tumble-down building of faded concrete girls in head scarves and long dresses run barefoot with boys in brown shirts and smoky blue shirts: a recess game of tag prior to rules or authority. No one – and everyone – is “it”; they dart from one end of the yard to the other like flies around a street lamp in the dim light of dusk.
The crowded alleys and walkways bring everything closer: the sudden whiff of shit or roasting meat like walking into a wall. Smoke from fires and pipes. Trails of smeared donkey manure pressed into cracks in worn cobblestones by bare brown feet under full length white caftans topped with thick beards and embroidered kofias. Dark doorways into dim shops hung with brilliant colors or dusty shelves with monotonous brown paper packaging. A shop with no lights that we explore with kerosene lanterns like cavers in an ancient crypt; the dim golden light casting long deep shadows that dignify and age the brick-a-brack of tourist trade.
The charm, the disgust, the curiosity flow from the immediacy, the inescapable closeness and intensity of the claustrophobic labyrinth of crooked streets. There is no safe and comfortable tour behind tinted glass and cool climate conditioned air. The charm of these Swahili streets - like the fish and food markets whose narrow aisles fill with foreigners untouched by hunger or household – is their inescapable intimacy. It’s an earnest feeling engendered by a bankrupt mechanism.
The closer we come – the more detail this closeness forces upon us – the more disruptive our presence must be. Our proximity betrays the honesty of the experience in which we aspire to envelope ourselves. The longer we stay - the easier our passage - the more we bring with us the same things we hope to escape in coming.

Posted by Natyb25 22:15 Comments (1)

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