The Kenyan Coast

As I’ve mentioned, I spent the past weekend (Saturday though Wednesday) traveling to the Kenyan Coast with the other volunteers. I can’t remember how much I’ve talked about who they are, so I’ll give a description now. Maria and Bennett are a couple from San Diego who are in their twenties. They are living here for about a year, and Maria is doing thesis research at Daraja and also observing primates. Paria from San Francisco came with Matt, who was previously at Daraja for six months, left, and now is back for four months. Pia is a volunteer from Denmark, and is probably one of the most interesting people I have met. Maybe I’ll devote an entry later to her life story. Her son Jeppe came to visit from Denmark, and as we all had speculated, he is just as cool as his mother. That made seven of us, ranging in age from 18 to 51, who had known each other for a month. What a random group, but what a fun group to travel with. Maria, Bennett and I spent two nights in Mombasa, then two in Watamu up North, and the others are still there.

After our first day in Mombasa, we used matatus for every transportation need. Matatus are the main mode of transportation for all Kenyans, and are like old Volkswagon buses gutted out and outfitted with as many plastic-topped cushioned seats as can fit. Many have neon designs painted on the inside, and ceilings cushioned with the same material as the seats. Little bumper sticker quotes adorn the walls, more often than not inadequately suited for the inside of a bus. “Repainte and be blessed.” (Repent, maybe?) “God is good all the time.” “Broken hearts welcome here.” It takes two men to drive a matatu: one drives, while the other hangs half of his body out the open window or door yelling for customers. He does not stop when all the seats are full, either- he keeps on yelling until people are squatting in the half-aisles or hanging out the door of the bus like him as well. On our first trip into Mombasa, Matt was squeezed into the aisle beside four people sitting on four seats and sitting on my knees. All passengers play musical chairs as the people in the back corners try to remove themselves from the matatu and new passengers contort themselves into awkward positions as they hop on at random points along the side of the road. Some matatus blast atrociously loud music, and some play none at all. In one matatu, the radio was broken, so the very beginning of one reggae song played over and over. We must have heard the first 2 to 30 seconds at least 50 times. I heard it on the radio at Daraja last night, and could not for the life of me figure out why I knew this random song so well until Bennett reminded me.

Downtown Mombasa was not so exciting, especially since we went on a Sunday when most everything was closed. However, we did get to go to Fort Jesus, a structure built by Portuguese slave traders (I think I’m getting the history right), then later as a jail. The structures are old and built entirely of coral mortared together, and you can walk around and climb all over it was if it were a playground. We scrambled up into the watchtowers to look out over the coast and the bay, and thoroughly explored each room and museum exhibit. Further up North near Watamu, the Gede ruins were the same. We walked freely throughout the old town, imagining that we were the Swahili that lived there in the 13th or 14th centuries. The town, undiscovered by the Portuguese when they explored the coast, lies in the middle of a forest. Great 300-year-old Baobob trees grow up between the knee-high walls that mark the buildings of the town. The nature that has now overrun the village gives the ruins a peaceful and beautiful feel next to the acres of coral foundation that we could explore without restriction.

The shade from the trees at Gede was much appreciated, because the Kenyan coast is HOT. At 9:00 in the morning each day, we would already be sweaty and sticky from the humidity. At Daraja, the heat is dry and more mild, and clouds usually roll in in the afternoon, sometimes with rain to offer. However, Mombasa is unforgiving with its heat, even if it gets somewhat cloudy in the afternoon. We spent as much time as possible in the water, as much to avoid the curio vendors on the beaches as to avoid the heat. In Watamu, we went out on a snorkel expedition in the marine preserve one morning. The fish were similar to Hawaii, with Peacock Groupers, Moorish Idols, Christmas Wrasses, and other triggerfish, butterflyfish, wrasse, and parrotfish that looked familiar to me. I saw a couple new crazy-looking ones to identify at home. Finally, I saw a small brown ray, dotted with electric blue spots and swimming quickly along the bottom, and tried to follow it for a while. When I got tired of wearing a snorkel mask, I simply floated on my back in the salty, warm Indian ocean and watched the sky.

At night in Watamu, the iron sheets slide over the doors to the curio shops and the lights switch on in similar looking shacks across the street that sell food. On our last night, we decided to save a bit of money, and walked up the street stand-hopping, ordering a little bit from each place. Most sold beef and chicken on a stick, chapati, and samosas, and some even had chips (fries in the US). Each place had a mini grill with sizzling meat enticing passerby out front, and a sitting area with a couple of plastic tables or picnic benches in back. We sat with mostly other Kenyans, attempting at conversations in half-Swahili, half-English. Though the dinner for Bennett, who ate at least nine skewers of meat, may not have gone well, the warm chapati I ate made my stomach very content.

We arrived back at Daraja, welcomed by hugs from the girls and Pilau. Nicholas and Karaoke had completed the window frames on the shed, and the roof is going on as I type. At lunch, yesterday, I sat chatting with Mary P, when suddenly Erin Schrode (she was the grade above me at Marin Academy) walked into the dining hall. She had to walk halfway down the dining hall towards me before I convinced myself that I was not dreaming. She was indeed there, taking a weekend in East Africa while studying abroad in Ghana!

So I’m going to Masai Mara on safari on next Saturday, and going straight to Nairobi to fly home from there. I am in denial. I cannot believe I am leaving Daraja in a little over a week. I am going to take Bryn’s advice from her comment and, as Liz always said, run the last mile with my heart. Here goes!

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5 Responses to The Kenyan Coast

  1. Jessica says:

    oh my gosh, wow. time is a crazy thing. i had all sorts of comments floating around in my head as a read, but now all i want to do is echo bryn and liz’s wise words. enjoy your time with the girls and really take in every bit of your remaining time in Kenya. as always, sending so much love.

  2. chocomama says:

    i love your colorful descriptions. the matatus sound both fabulous (from an anthropological/sociological/cultural standpoint) and somewhat — how shall i gently say it — rickety, perhaps? (from a volvo driving chocomama standpoint — always take the source into account)… and i can guess that i don’t know the half of it! i appreciate and admire the community aspect inherent in the culture, at least so far as i have discerned it from your blog.

    your time will fly by from now on… i cannot wait to see the photos and hear more stories. you have taken wonderful advantage of this amazing opportunity.

    btw, what happened with the whale sharks? (i like all things “whale” related…) did you see any?

    sending love!

  3. PapaG says:

    There is nothing like local transportation to get a sense of how similar/connected all of us are. Can’t wait to hear more stories about that when you are back.

    Enjoy your week and really enjoy the safari. So much to learn…

  4. PapaG says:

    Hey, can you write one more blog entry with pics of the shed? Your fans are clamoring…..

  5. Maddy Scheer says:

    AHH! yes run the last mile with your heart. you have come so far and your experiences sound so incredible! I can’t wait for you to come back into my arms but I know that it will be so hard to leave the home you have found here. I hope that your last moments in Kenya are special and you should know that you are an incredible human being, don’t forget that!!!

    LOVE YOU SO MUCH! Maddy

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