I have been to Kenya more times than I can count – heck, I was born in Kenya, but I had not yet been to Mombasa until this past week! It is June and the weather is nice and cool (well, cool for Mombasa – staying between 21° and 29°C) – I spend the first week at the Sarova White Sands for a Pedagogical Workshop for Universities across Africa, and then have to relocate to more affordable digs at the Reef Hotel.
The Sarova White Sands hotel is – just a dream! The high ceilings of the lobby, the many islands of seating dotting the lobby, tastefully decorated with Swahili-style timber and rattan weave love seats here, and deeply cushioned day beds over there, or one can float past this and step down into meticulously kept grounds out to the low wall beyond which lies the dazzling expanse of the Indian Ocean.
The grounds, as you can see, are immaculately kept, the view out to the big blue Indian ocean beautifully framed by the numerous palm trees lining the walkways, and large comfy sofas set right at the egde of the hotel lawn, with the white beach stretching away to meet the ocean – eating breakfast every morning knowing all that was just out of view, or walking past it as I went off to the workshop rooms simply suffused my whole body with the joy of being alive, and I could not wait for the workshop to end so I could soak it all up at my leisure.
The Whitesands itself had its additional pleasures – the vast array of local and international dishes on offer at every mealtime, the warm and pleasant servers, always willing to go that extra mile to please, and the tastefully decorated dining area and its surrounding terraces; best of all, for me, however, was the special eggless stations to be be found at the desert station at lunch and dinner, as well at the pastry station at breakfast. This was the first time I had ever seen such an arrangement, and being allergic to eggs that made me feel extra at home.
Two days in the workshop organisers surprised us with dinner on the renowned Tamarind Dhow – I simply cannot put into words the excitement that I felt as we cast off! I could hardly sit still!! Comfortable wooden benches with deep cushions lined the sides of the dhow, and dinner places were set out on wooden tables built into the boat (I assume – I didn’t check) across the lower and upper decks, and oldies music pulsed around us, adding a layer of pleasure that threatened to tip me overboard!
Writing about this I am filled again with the feeling of extreme excitement and filled with gratitude at my good fortune – while some of my fellow passengers gripped the sides of the dhow with ashen knuckles I flitted around the deck from table to table – to the upper deck and back below – stopping to dance to an old favourite when it came on, and just not knowing what to do with myself! At some point I was forced to sit in one place so I could place my order – on offer was a four course meal, starting with a fresh or spicy soup, a salad and a main for which we could choose from a variety of fresh seafood prepared on a charcoal barbecue grill standing right there on board, including snapper, lobster, prawns, and crab, or prepared Swahili style (not being a fan of seafood I opted for a regular steak – boring, I know!) All this was finished off with some fresh fruit and coffee – and everything accompanied by some delicious wine if the fancy took you (as it took me!)
Drifting along in the pitch darkness and seeing the coastline get further and further away, sipping on a glass of wine, and being gently rocked by this ancient dhow, is honestly a sensation that I will never forget – I wished for it never to end but alas we were eventually fed (food – delicious), we danced, we chatted, and two or three hours later found ourselves back on shore, and the dream at an end.
On the last day of the workshop I finally have an afternoon free, and the only thing on my mind is to finally start on my copy of The Door by Magda Szabó, so I find an empty day bed facing out onto the ocean, order a cocktail – the Mombasa Raha, which translates to Mombasa Enjoyment – and sink into the mountain of cushions and start reading.
The arrival of the cocktail ought to have completed this picture but alas, it was too sickly sweet for my liking, so I try the Sarova Sundownder – but no thanks – also not my taste at all – well, forget the cocktails – sitting here is so deeply relaxing that nothing can spoil it!
At the end of the workshop I extended my stay for three days so that I could explore Mombasa on my own – on the itinerary was Fort Jesus (of course!), the old town, getting myself a henna session, and shopping for Kangas! And perhaps catch a local dish at a local restaurant.
Right outside Fort Jesus were some guides offering to take one around for a fee, and after failing to agree a fee with a slim young woman she passed me on to a gruff-looking light-skinned gentleman, who agreed to take me around the Fort as well as the old town for KES 500 (about $5).
Fort Jesus was quite a revelation – built in the shape of the cross by the Portugese in the 1500s, it was later taken over by the Omanis, and although it was eventually abandoned and fell to ruin, present day Mombasa still ahs strong links with Oman, and one of the great families of the land, ascendants of the great African intellectual Ali Mazrui could trace their origins from these Omanis, and boasted an impressive burial plot right in front of the entrance to the fort.
Abdullah, my guide, then walked me through the old town, and brought me to some friend of his who make leather sandals – they measured me for a pair of sandals which I could pick up in about an hour, and all for the princely sum of KES 800. We wandered around the narrow roads within the old town, jumping out of the way every now and then to avoid getting hit by the tuk-tuks whizzing around (motorbikes with a two seater enclosure attached to the back). Finally we came to the market, where I ate some freshly made kashates (apparently these are coconut and something – not the peanut in sugar – find the right name) and haggled with a young man over a half kilo of cashew nuts.
In the meantime Abdullah’s Henna artist was now waiting for me at a house nearby, so we hurried over so she could get to work. I was ushered into a small dimly lit front room with a floor covered with cushions along one wall, and a matress along another – further in one corner was a small kitchen curved out of the space, and a woman sat on a low stool making chapati over a tiny charcoal stove. At various points the wall was punctuated by an opening covered by a curtain, behind which I assumed lay the bed rooms, and indeed at some point a young man with a towel around his waist emerged from one of them and entered another, only to emerge some time later fully dressed and apparently washed up as well.
The woman doing my henna had a baby with her, who she gave to one of the women in the house to tend to while she applied my henna – I had the choice between the black colouring, which was really created using black hair dye, it ruend out, or the more traditional brown orangey henna – given my dark skin complexion (darker than the mainly mixed race Swahili women anyway) I thought the black would suit me better, and 20 minutes later I had beautiful designs three quarters of the way up my arms, after which I had to wave my arms in front of a fan for another 30 minutes to allow the henna to dry so I could peel off which I assumed We drifted along to one of the better known Swhailli cuisine restaurants in Mombasa – Fordhani, where we settled down to steaming plates of Mutton Biriyani each, accompanied by sweet tamarind juice. (was it? -check menu!)
After lunch we made our way back to the shoemakers, and found that my sandals had been ready for a while already, and they fitted me like glove! At this point I was quite tired and decided to part from my guide, but given that we’d spent the better part of 4 hours together, that he’d organised for the henna and the sandals I ended up giving him $20, and had him gave down a tuk-tuk to take me back to the hotel.
The tuk-tuk driver looked a little rough around the edges but Abdullah assured me he knew him from his home town of Lamu, and I could trust him to get me back, so off we went. Along the way the tuk-tuk driver stopped to fuel up, and then produced a brown paper bag out of nowhere (it seemed to me), and shook some leaves out of it, which he proceeded to chew.
“Do you eat Mira?” He asked.
Yes – these leaves – they put you in a good mood – here – try some! You have to chew them along with some gum so their effect is not too high” he said proffering me some leaves. Half curious half not wanting to turn him down I took the leaves and the gum and said I would try them later. We went on without further incident until he dropped me off at the hotel, but I later threw the innocuous-looking leaves into the bin – I ate the gum, though.
The next day I made my way on my own to the market to buy some kangas. I had heard that the most dependable quality kangas were to be found at Mali ya Abdullah – a veritable institution in Mombasa, as some people claim to still have the kangas they bought off him 20 years prior. By now his son had opened an equally respected shop called Mali ya Mwana wa Abdullah – surely enough the shop had a wide variety of really lovely and unique designs, and I must say I went a little crazy buying Kangas, batiks, ankara, etc!
As I was walking away from Mali Ya Abdullah, weighed down with my purchases, I spied his son’s shop, and unable to resist taking a peek I stopped by there too and ended up picking up more fabric! I was also after some locally made silver jewelry but fortunately or unfortunately I found the shop closed. I took the rest of the day to enjoy the beach and relax a little, and headed home the next day.
Mombasa turned out to be quite an enchanting city – I did not have time to visit the nearby towns of Lamu and (what was the other one?), but I am assured that thee will be more enchanting still – I can’t wait to come back!