Kenyan Coast: donkeys, dhows and doing nothing

Tiwi Beach, Mombasa, Kenya

It’s been awhile since I last posted anything – I blame the small towns and lack of internet and not my general laziness in getting my butt off the bed/hammock/sun chair/beach.  After Nairobi, Tamara and I boarded a tiny propeller plane for the 1 hour flight to Lamu which is a small island town off the north east coast of Kenya.  When we arrived in Lamu, we couldn’t believe our eyes.  First of all, the airstrip, and note that I didn’t say airport because it was literally a small dirt path in the grass where our plane landed, is on an island with no other buildings except for a sign that said “Duty Free” pointing to an abandoned hut.  The concept of airport security or screening is non-existent since anyone can walk onto the airstrip from all directions – no stress of body scanners! We then took a dhow (wooden boat) to Lamu Island where the town is situated.

Lamu Town is such a small town covered with Swahili houses and mosques.  There’s only 4 cars on the island (one of which is thankfully an ambulance) and everyone gets around by foot or by donkey.  We met Ali who works for our guest house, Jambo House, and he guided us through the narrow streets of Lamu.  Along the way, we discovered the friendliness of the people of Lamu since everyone we passed by said “Jambo!” (hello!) or “Habari” (how are you?) or “Karibu!” (welcome!).  They have an open sewage system but surprisingly it doesn’t smell – all you can smell is the occasional whiff of Swahili cooking or donkey poo (former better than the latter).  Jambo House is an old Swahili house run by Arnold, a German expat, who was super nice and spent the next 20 minutes explaining everything in Lamu including where to eat, what to see and do.  We then set off in the night to wander the streets of Lamu (it’s that safe!) with the aid of my headlamp – for those who made fun of my headlamp, I told you it would come in handy one day! We found a thatch-roofed restaurant by the seafront and ordered barracuda fillet with coconut rice and mango juice.  The fish was simply prepared (salt, pepper and lime) but so delicious because it was freshly caught that day by local fishermen! At night on the rooftop of Jambo House, we saw so many stars – such a surreal moment to be lying on a rooftop of a Swahili House in a small town on the coast of Kenya gazing at the stars.

The next morning, Arnold prepared us an amazing breakfast on the rooftop which helped fuel us for the scorching day of wandering around Lamu.  The town is situated 2 degrees south of the equator by the Indian Ocean so the heat plus the humidity made it feel like we were in a sauna.  That coupled by walking around the town, and I was sweating off all the food I had consumed in India.  Even with the scorching heat, most women are covered up from head to toe in a black bui bui since it’s a very devoutly Muslim town.  We walked along the main street which is as wide as an alley in North America, all the while people were super friendly and pointing us in the right direction whenever we got lost (which happened a lot since the streets are all so narrow and windy, imagine the chase scene at the beginning of Inception when Leo had to squeeze through narrow streets).  We also walked along the seafront and saw all the dhows, sail boats, fishing boats and speed boats.  Since there were not that many tourists here, by the end of the second day, everyone knew us and would ask us how our day went doing whatever activity we had planned.  That night, I treated myself to a much needed massage.  After months of sleeping on uncomfortable and saggy mattresses, my back had developed a permanent kink.  Charity, the massage therapist, was very nice and was able to pull off an intense massage even in 35+ degree weather.  While I got my massage, Tamara was beautifully decorated with henna paintings on her arms and legs by a local Swahili woman.  Her niece came along who sand us Arabic songs about the Prophet Mohammed and his mother Amina.

The next morning, feeling refreshed, we went on a cooking class with a local Swahili woman named Dida and she showed up with her adorable 3 year old daughter, Nana.  We first walked to the local market near the town square to buy the ingredients for our feast.  We went to the fish market and saw the local fishermen selling their just-caught fish.  It was so interesting to see that even the sight of hundreds of flies buzzing around didn’t turn me off.  Next was the vegetable market where we bought tomatoes, onions, garlic, chilli peppers, okra, carrots and potatoes for under $3! We also picked up some fresh coconuts, rice  and curry powder from a nearby store.  Then we walked back to Dida’s house – Nana leading the way – which is on the first floor of a old Swahili house near Jambo House.  Her grandmother, who is this sweet old lady (reminded me of the Aboriginal woman from the Simpsons movie) welcomed us and Dida gave us a tour of her house.  Her kitchen is a small room with only one window, a tap and a drain.  All of the cooking was done on the floor over a clay stove the size of a mop pail.  Dida loaded up the stove with charcoal and started a fire with kerosene.  Then we went outside to pick fresh bilimbi from a nearby tree – well, actually Nana did it since she was the only one we could hoist over the fence.  Bilimbi is a local vegetable which is a mix of cucumber and lime.  It was so good just eating it raw off the tree.  Back in the kitchen, Dida showed us how to grate a coconut using this wooden stool contraption specifically designed to grate coconuts.  Basically, it’s a small bench with a serrated knife on one end.  We gave it a try but since neither Tamara or I have much experience cooking or have any arm muscle, Dida put us to shame with her skills.  She then peeled and cut up all the vegetables using one knife (no cutting board!).  Another contraption she used was a woven sock-like tube made out of coconut leaves to get the milk out of the coconut grating.  Throughout the rest of the morning, while she was cooking, children and other women would come in and out of her house – some to say hi and others to get water from her tap.  A boy came in wearing a traditional wedding kurta so Dida started making fun of him saying today was the day he was to get married.  Nana popped in a bunch of times with her friends and always with a new candy that someone bought her since she’s just that cute.  Dida told us more about her life in Lamu and before we knew it, the food was all prepared and it was time to eat! We all sat down on her living/sitting room floor and dug into the tasty dishes she prepared.  First, we had grilled tuna with coconut rice and a tomato/carrot-based curry.  Then, stir-fried okra, bilimbi with onion and chili oil and to wash it all down, fresh tamarind juice.  It was the best meal we’ve had so far on this Africa trip and definitely did not taste like it was made on the floor of an old Swahili kitchen.  After eating and digesting over photos that Nana brought out to show off, we sadly said good-bye and promised to keep in touch.

With our swollen bellies, we took a speed boat to nearby Shella Beach.  Then spent the rest of the afternoon itis-napping on the beach and trying to digest our massive lunch by splashing around in the crystal blue water.  One of the local beach boys tried to get our attention by doing handstands and back flips on the beach which we thought was hilarious.  The hospitality of Lamu continued in Shella and when the beach boy got the hint that we weren’t going to fall in love with his gymnastic/acrobatic skills, he left us alone.

The next morning, we woke up early to take a bus from Lamu to Mombasa.  First, we had to take the public dhow to the main land and that was a feat in itself.  The dhow broke down in the middle of the 20 minute voyage and for a second, I just imagined how I would be able to swim with my 16kg pack to continue the journey.  After some tinkering of the engine by one of the boatmen, it started up again and we were on our way (or so I thought).  On the mainland, we boarded our bus and immediately realized it was a sauna on wheels.  The windows were a welcome break from the heat but with that also brought in all the dust from the dirt road we were bouncing around on.  After 10 minutes, we were covered in a film of sweat and dirt – how attractive!  Thirty minutes into our ride, the bus got a flat tire in the middle of nowhere and everyone got out to help/observe/take a bathroom break in the bush.  Surprisingly, the bus driver and some men from the bus got the tire changed in record time and we were finally on our way again.  Throughout all my travels, I’ve never been on a more interesting bus ride than this one.  Along the way, we saw small towns of just mud huts, small children suddenly appearing from the bush onto the side of the road, women balancing huge buckets on their head and we were just transported to a place that I couldn’t have ever imagined.  The coolest thing was seeing the rain (yes, surprisingly I welcome the rain, you would too in 35+ degree weather) and in Kenya’s rainy season, it doesn’t rain for long.  Only individual clouds would produce rain so if we drove by it or the cloud blew by, the rain would stop.  Another unbelievable sight was seeing local children and women scoop up rain water in buckets from puddles by the dirt road after it had recently rained.  With the water shortage in Kenya, this is normal.  Even with such lack of basic neccessities, the friendliness and helpfulness of Kenyans was amazing.  We picked up this little girl along the way and since she didn’t have a ticket, some of the people on the bus helped fashion a makeshift seat in the aisle using luggage and whatever else they could find so she could sit comfortably for the 8 hour trip.  As I was dozing off in the hot bus, all of a sudden, I heard a clucking sound and turned around to see a chicken! A man was traveling with his family and had a chicken in his hand while his wife was holding a baby the same size of the chicken.  I must have had a look of shock in my eyes because the locals around me starting laughing and were yelling, “yes, chicken chicken!” I would have never in my life ever thought that I would be sharing a bus ride with a chicken (that wasn’t in a KFC bucket).

We finally reached Mombasa which is on the south-east coast of Kenya and caught a Likoni ferry to cross on our way to Tiwi Beach.  There were so many people waiting for the ferry that I felt like we were in that ferry scene in War of the Worlds (clearly from all the movie references in this post, I watch a lot of movies).  I saw old ladies, who moments ago were hobbling around, outrun young men for a spot on the ferry – and carrying large bags too! We finally crossed and jumped into a taxi to take us to the remote Tiwi Beach south of Mombasa.  When we got to Coral Cove Cottages, it was already dark but a security guard showed us to our cottage.  It was massive! There were 2 rooms, a full kitchen, dining room table/chairs, a L-shaped couch and coffee table and a huge veranda with a perfect view of the beach.  We spent the next 4 days cooking food (tried to emulate Dida’s cooking with some success), lying on the beach, lazing around on the veranda, talking to local beach boys (and counseling them on their love lives – many have long distance relationships with tourists from/in Europe and they don’t understand what they want) and trying to keep the monkeys out of the cottage (there are menacing monkeys that hang out in the trees by the cottage and they are quick!).  For food, we bought fresh fruits, vegetables and sea food from locals that would come by every morning on their bicycles.  It was such a relaxing couple of days and so peaceful since there was no one else on the beach.  It rained a few times but definitely a welcome break from the stifling heat.  The beach was very nice and perfect for sun bathing in the late afternoons because it was so quiet.  Even after visiting so many beaches around the world, there’s something different about beaches in Africa.  Maybe it’s the relaxing atmosphere devoid of any distractions, technology or stress but I could spend hours on the beach just doing nothing at all.  I better get used to it because next we’ll be traveling to Zanzibar Island in Tanzania for another string of beach bumming!

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2 thoughts on “Kenyan Coast: donkeys, dhows and doing nothing

  1. […] in OMG! The 11 hour bus ride is probably up there in terms of backbreaking and interesting with the bus ride from Lamu to Mombasa in Kenya or the bus ride from Goa to Mumbai in India.  We first stopped by the local bus station […]

  2. […] with the windows down on a dirt road in 35C, 95% humidity weather (yes, that actually happened in Kenya), a refreshing, slightly moist, cloth is your saviour! Usually, I can get away with using 2-3 wipes […]

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