|Day 9, 10 July 2010: Mombasa, the city that should be capital
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
The breakfast bell clanged in the train corridors at exactly 7 AM. From the neighbouring cabin, the voice of the normally placid Duncan thundered, “What is the Swahili for ‘I’m going to shove that bell up your arse’?” Much grumbling and head-holding later, we stumbled to the dining car. We chatted quietly to our breakfast companions, two English lads from Manchester and Birmingham, who like most of the young foreigners we met were working in international development.
Quantities of tea and coffee necessitated trips to the Choo (correctly pronounced “cho”, although we chose not to). The Choo on the train consisted of a hole in the floor bounded by sculpted metal footrests. Using them was a delicate balancing act. Looking down was not advisable, as the train tracks could be seen rushing past. Going to Choo was an interesting experience, but not one I’d care to repeat.
The scrubby acacia and grassland began to give way to a lusher, damper sort of greenery. We spotted our first palm tree, rapidly followed by many more. People from small mud-hut villages gathered by the train tracks to watch it pass. Most of the adults stood slackly, but the children approached incredibly close, running next to the train shouting “Hello” and waving furiously. Others held out their hands and yelled “Sweet!” The latter was certainly much less appealing. The closer we got to Mombasa, the more indifferent the people were to our passage.
Train on a curve
The train came to a rolling stop at a few stations. No one boarded the first or second class carriages (which were mostly occupied by whites and Asians) but we could see people clambering in through the doors and the windows of the third class carriages to the rear of the train, assisted by many arms and hands. People hung out the windows as we inexorably approached Mombasa. The beauty of the coconut-palm-dotted landscape was scarred by industrial warehouses and rubbish heaps. We passed through Mombasa’s open landfill, which stank even worse than Kibera, being thoroughly combed by people in search of anything valuable. A fire burned somewhere near the centre. From the smell of the smoke, a fair amount of plastic was involved. The column of black smoke rolled sideways through a number of makeshift dwelling at the fringes of the dump. Birds circled overhead in the deep blue cloud-dotted sky. The smell of the landfill lingered until we entered the heart of Mombasa and pulled into the train station.
The hire car met us in the station car park. Once again, there were three people walking around doing one person’s job at half speed. While George and Anne filled in paperwork and inspected the vehicle, the rest of us planned a route into the old town. They dropped us off at an entrance to the labyrinth of streets that form the marketplace and continued to our self-catering cottage in Tiwi to purchase groceries and drop off our luggage. We picked our way through the narrow passages in a daze, skipping out of the paths of the three-wheeled tuk-tuks, an activity that clashed directly with the necessity for stepping around the pavement merchants who occupied the spaces between shop fronts and stalls. Everything under the sun seemed to be for sale. The ethnic mix was much more diverse than in Nairobi: Asian, Middle Eastern and Black Kenyans milled around in a variety of styles of dress. Some women were in western-style clothing. Others had a kalmeez and headscarves. Some wore the chador; others the niqab. All were quite stylish, even if restricted to black, with intricate details visible at hems, on sleeves and around buttonholes.
Children approached us, tugging at our clothes and begging for 20 shillings. As soon as one set melted away, another replaced them. The hubbub prevented me from taking out my camera. We made our way to the fort, which offered some respite and space from the street children and hawkers. It was mid-day and blisteringly hot as well as humid. We stood uncertainly at the end of the street leading to the fort. We agreed that a cool drink was in order. I had a sudden intuition about a shady side street off to the left, so I dove down it before anyone could argue with me. I passed a row of nearly identical tat shops before I finally espied a coffeehouse. I lunged for its cool dimness. The smiling proprietor led us past the only other occupant, a middle-aged woman who watched us pass with interest. We removed our shoes to enter a side room, where we sat on cushions around a low table. The market noise drifted in through the windows, but sounded very distant and unthreatening. It was quite possibly the best sit-down I’ve ever had.
While we inspected the menu, the woman came over to speak to us. It transpired that she was a retired English expat who’d lived in Mombasa for five years and that this was her favourite coffeehouse. She recommend that we order “A Platter of Swahili Side Dishes”, as the samosas were fantastic. We heeded her advice, along with mango juices all around, Turkish coffee for Duncan and the bloke and masala tea for me.
Jonathan arrived just as our juices did. Jonathan was an exchange student from a school for the physically disabled who stayed with Duncan’s family 15 years previously. He is blind in one eye and his left leg sits at an awkward angle. He moved with speed and determination on his crutches because, as we discovered later, the rest of Mombasa doesn’t give way for disability. He sat at the table. Introductions were made and a halting conversation begun - halting because Jonathan’s English was rusty and he appeared to be naturally rather taciturn. He ordered a juice and shared in the bounty of our samosas, which we fell on with unbecoming greed. The potato balls were my favourite - highly spiced, very hot and fluffy.
Duncan & Jonathan
Liz & Duncan
Once we were sated, Jonathan offered to take us to a good market stall for handbags, which Liz and I wish to purchase. It took ages to get there since we seemed to take the most roundabout, smelliest route possible. We passed a small rubbish dump. We passed an infirmary, which had a large wooden box secured to the wall that read “Anti-Corruption Suggestion Box”. At the shop, Jonathan sat down to chat with one of the proprietors while Liz and I perused the wares. We haggled a bit, but lacked the energy for a vigorous exercise.
A call from George and Anne let us know they’d finally managed to cross to Likoni on the ferry in their vehicle, and that we should make our way to the docks to cross on foot. Jonathan also lived on the other side of Mombasa, so he flagged down a couple of tuk-tuks (along with about half a dozen unsolicited helpers) to take us to the docks. The bloke and I got cheated out of 50 shillings by our driver, who deliberately gave us the wrong change and drove off. We joined the queue for foot passengers onto the ferry. This was not a pleasant experience. We were packed on the dock like sardines. I was suddenly very aware of my camera and my new (empty) handbag. I clutched them with sweaty paws, returning the stares of the surrounding passenger with probably unnecessary ferocity, but I was tired, hot and dehydrated so I didn’t care.
The ferry inched across the channel dividing Mombasa from Likoni, Diani and Tiwi. The sun beat down on our exposed heads. We prepared to disembark, wondering aloud why the city planners didn’t opt for a bridge to cross the very short distance over the water. A woman in front of us was helped by a man to hoist an unfeasibly large parcel onto her head. He thrust equally heavy bags into her hands. Slowly she moved forward, balancing the parcel gracefully. He sauntered off, carrying nothing.
We proceeded up the docks with Jonathan, who had a word with the big guard wielding a big stick at the ramp. Seeing Jonathan’s crutches, he allowed us to walk up the car ramp rather than the steep steps into the centre of Likoni. Jonathan said he would like to show Duncan his house. He insisted it was a mere five minute walk away. Twenty minutes later we were still slogging through the impossible heat, noise and dust, being accosted on all sides by hawkers, motorcycle taxis (piki-pikis) and tuk-tuk drivers. As I was beginning to lose my mind, I insisted on stopping to buy water and drank off half a litre in one go.
George and Anne phoned us at this opportune moment to say that they were coming to pick us up and would arrive in 15 minutes. We had to tell Jonathan that we would be unable to see his house. He began to climb into a tuk-tuk, insisting that the drive (!) was very short. It took us some time to convince him that we had to meet our friends to go to our lodgings, 25 minutes from Likoni. We managed to shed the piki-pikis and tuk-tuks, which had pinned us to a street corner, by entering the appointed meeting spot, a shady bar. We convinced an extremely surly barmaid to bring us fizzy drinks. (I’d become quite fond of bitter lemon by that point.) We consoled the disappointed Jonathan as best we could before saying goodbye on George and Anne’s arrival.
We bumped along the dusty road and came to a stop at an impressive set of gates, behind which growled what sounded like about 20 hungry Dobermans. We drove through to our cottage, almost on the beach. It was brilliant. Clothes were exchanged for swimsuits. Running down to the beach and frolicking ensued, right up until suppertime.