Saturday, 16 June 2007

I love Lamu

Rachel Grant has told me all about Lamu, so we head off at dawn to the bus with high hopes. These are dashed somewhat when it becomes apparent that the big, new, yellow bus is not for us and we are loaded onto a sad old wreck with more welding repairs than I care to think about. Still, we have good seats for a change, and it's a comfy enough journey considering the state of the roads and the age of the bus. En route we pick up a couple of soldiers, who climb on board clutching their rifles and, after hopefully eyeing our seats, sit right beside our backpacks. Armed guards, that should keep 'em safe!

Your average Kenyan long distance bus. Cheap and cheerful hardly begins to describe them.
It takes just over six hours to get to Mokowe, from where we pile onto an old dhow, upgraded with a diesel engine, for the quite pleasant trip round to Lamu. We're then set upon by a group of very persuasive young men for the final boat leg to Shela beach. We have a guest house in mind, but agree to view their 'house'. After some serious haggling we rent for the next six nights the top floor of the house - bedroom, bathroom, living spaces, kitchen, rooftop terrace, and a houseboy called Albert, for 1200Ksh/night.

The shady verandah of Lamu´s British house.

Albert is despatched to stock the fridge with beer and wine and we go out for a well-earned meal and a walk along the beach. Every second person we meet seems to be a dhow captain, and they all offer fishing trips, trips to nearby islands and ruins, with bbq lunches, etc. The evenings seem quite quiet, lunch is the social meal of the day and the hours from 4-6 are when the cafes are full of men drinking chai and talking over the day.We while away the evening on the terrace, looking at the stars, listening to the donkeys and the sounds of our neighbourhood, and even a little mosque chanting for atmosphere. Our local mosque has dispensed with a loudspeaker and relies instead solely on the human voice to call the village faithful to prayer. This could be another one for the suggestion box.

In the light of day the view from our terrace reveals many other similar arrangements - the roofs are divided into thatched-roofed areas for sitting, open areas for laundry and a few pot plants, leaving space for the all-important satellite dish. The papers are all a day late, but does it really matter when you can get news as it happens on Aljazeera - which astonishingly is currently advertising the show Made in Taiwan: Nathan and Oscar’s Excellent Adventure. Must be the TV3 connection I guess. Almost as odd as hearing "How Bizarre" by OMC on the radio at the dentist in Nairobi the other day.

Our first full day on Lamu starts slowly, and this proves to be the general pattern of things as we slip easily into the groove of life here. There are lots of little shops round about us, stocking fantastic fresh tropical fruits - so we start our days with pawpaw, mango and passionfruit salads, and I even made pancakes one morning. The beach is a few minutes walk away, but the weather's a bit squiffy, sometimes drizzly, and often windy, so we only end up swimming a few times. There are donkeys all over Shela; used as transport on the largely vehicle-free island and to carry loads from fruit and vegetables, to the coral bricks used in building, to a goat which I saw squished into a woven basket slung over a donkey's back. They seem to wander around all over the place, and at the moment have young ones, which are very cute. It rained hard one night, but what woke us was the bellowing of the donkeys. We also notice many more women wearing full face veils here, more even than in Mombasa. Look on the map, we're not so far from Somalia and you can see it in the people.

Donkey´s rule on Lamu. They seem useful, content and well looked after - but still some enthusiastic (and possibly misguided) Englishwoman has set up a donkey sanctuary here for them. We saw a only a couple of animals in her grassy enclosure.

Lamu town is a forty minute walk away, and it's nice to stroll down there poke around the back streets, buy a paper and a decent coffee, have a bite to eat and a drink, and catch up with the locals (all very friendly) and fellow travellers. Sarah and Pat from Ireland have joined us in our house in Shela, renting the other bedroom on our floor, and they introduce us to Maaike and Maaike, two Dutch midwives who have been doing an internship in Eldoret. One night we all agree to eat with Ali Hippy, a bit of a local identity, who invites us to his house and cooks up a storm. It's a pleasant if slightly surreal evening, as we are collected from a local bar, and walked up, down and around to his house, where we are sat down on the floor, the gloom lifted slightly by the light of a couple of hurricane lamps. The food is pretty good, if served at a bit of a fast clip, but then there's the entertainment. Ali plays keyboards and treats us to his "golden voice", and various relatives and friends join in. A couple of the children don't seem quite right, and the local village albino is also in attendance, but the music is nice and we all enjoy ourselves. At nine promptly we are sent back through the maze, put on a boat, and returned to Shela, a thousand shillings poorer!

One of the few local sights is a set of 16th century Swahili ruins on a neighbouring island. We're sold a trip there, including lunch, on a dhow. Max is fascinated by these single masted, classic sail boats, with their simple mechanisms of wooden beams, ropes and one large cloth sail, usually well patched. The other tourists on the dhow have been collected from Lamu jetty, but because of the wind they can't get the boat near Shela's, so Max and I are ceremoniously carried on board. The boat boys are definitely earning their money today. Because we need to go up a tidal channel some poling is involved but on our way back, when the wind is up, the boys on the boat really have to work hard to control and steer the dhow bakc to our beach. They are reassuringly competent though, even though the trip back is a tad scary. We don't end up seeing the ruins, opting instead to check out the surf at the beach on Manda Island - a nice change after the pond we have got used to at Shela.

A few more fruit salads and a few more dinners, and it's all over for us - time to stop being beach bums and to click back into traveller mode. We have decided to retrace our steps by road - firstly back to Mombasa (yep, another six hours on the bus), and then to Nairobi on Sunday. We haven't seen this bit yet as most of it was at night on the train on the way up. Max has a final (hopefully anyway) dental appointment with Mary on Monday morning,

RVR - more railway acronyms

The Nairobi-Mombasa train is fantastic. Hercule Poirot might have looked a little out of place among the slightly motley collection of travellers and locals who came to dine, but he would have approved of the classic gong rung to announce dinner, and the four-course meal it introduced. The menu could have come from the early 1900s, heavily influenced by the worst of English cooking - watery vegetable soup, overcooked fish, roast chicken and very boiled vegetables, finished with crumbly cake and custard. Still when served by white-coated attendants, on monogrammed china with embossed silverware, all is forgiven. Talking of embossing, there are a number of acronyms in use which tell the story of the railway. EAR&H - the original, on the silver cutlery, butter dish and sugar container; KUR, then post-Amin KR on the china, and now RVR (Rift Valley Railways) on our tickets as East Africa once again tries to link up their lines, no doubt for economic reasons. There's quite a bit of cooperation among Uganda, Kenya & Tanzania, which stretches to our single entry visas being valid for multiple entries to and from the East African nations.
Our compartment is a joy too - just two berths which are turned into snug beds while we eat dinner, and with a complicated webbing system so Max won't fall out of the top bunk should anything untoward happen during the night. We have a wardrobe (sadly unopenable), a little sink and a mirror, and there's even a ladder to make scaling up to the top bunk manageable for anyone.

Our very fabulous compartment on the African version of the Oriental Express.
After dinner finishes it's close to 9pm, time for us to retire to our compartment for the evening. The night is broken by the usual stops and starts and we're both still sound asleep at 7am when the breakfast gong sounds. It's bacon and eggs, and toast and marmalade, and lashings of not bad coffee.
We get to Mombasa an hour ahead of schedule at 10.30, it's already hot. Fortunately it's a quick taxi ride to the Beracha Guesthouse, and before long we're relaxing in a very pleasant room watching Aljazeera. It's 1000Ksh, so considerably cheaper than Nairobi, and has the important things (clean bathroom, good sized bed), some things we don't necessarily need (proximity to three mosques!), and could usefully add a mirror and a toilet seat. I might suggest this to them - most businesses in this part of the world proudly boast a Suggestion Box. We have resisted so far ...
Eventually we rouse ourselves and go off to explore the town. First though we head to the bus souk and book a ticket to Lamu for the morning. Mombasa Buses has a big, new, yellow bus parked outside, reassuringly decorated with Nike swooshes, and the Dutch football team crest, with a handwritten sign advising their new Mombasa/Malindi/Lamu express service. It's the standard 500Ksh for the fare, and we're sold.
Then it's off for a wander through the network of narrow lanes that comprises Mombasa's old town. After a bit we stumble upon Island Foods, good briyani and chai does us for lunch, and across the road is an internet cafe which is only 40Ksh an hour. Perfect to while away the hot part of the day.
But we should be better tourists than this - so walk down to the waterfront and admire Fort Jesus, an old Portuguese number from the late 16th century, which changed hands about 12 times before the Brits finally nabbed it in the late 1800s. There's a strong Italian influence on the Swahili Coast, not sure why but Italians have invested heavily in property and tourism - sadly not all their projects are as stylish as you'd imagine. Across the narrow channel of Mombasa harbour is something of a monstrosity - Mafiaso we're soberly informed by the locals.
There's not really too much else to do on a Saturday afternoon in Mombasa, except take in some local ambience at a beer garden. As usual, there's football on TV and cold Tuskers in the fridge. Moslems are in the beer garden too, albeit drinking cokes and bitter lemons. Maybe it's the football??

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Now we're in Nairobbery...

...but having a great time. I think essentially I'm a city person who quite likes the countryside - Nairobi has the things I've been missing, without realising it.
After our pricey Scandinavia experience, we decide to go downmarket for the trip from Moshi to Nairobi - and pay a mere 15,000 Tsh (about $NZ15 each) to the Spider bus line for the trip. It starts at 6.30am, with a minibus to nearby Arusha. Arusha is the gateway to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro national parks, and is a much bigger town than Moshi. Its conference centre is also hosting the UN Conference on Genocide in Rwanda - just another reminder, if we needed it, that we are in a most interesting part of the world.
Gunter, the Swiss cyclist we met in Zambia, recommended the Terminal Hotel to us, and we think it's a great place. While one would possibly turn up one's nose at it at home, it is clean, secure and spacious. Our room has two beds with sweet candlewick bedspreads, a full bathroom with room for us to hang our washing line (and hot water), a table where we can make breakfast, and a desk, plus two wardrobes. It's also surrounded by internet cafes, restaurants of all types, Nairobi Java coffee shop and with a supermarket over the road. Quite perfect.
It is possible that I'm beginning to look a little Kenyan - I have bought a couple of tops, some sandals, new knickers and am sporting a rather remarkable Kenyan haircut. I'm not sure that Mohammed had done much training on fine, straight hair and required a few timely instructions from me, so don't expect any photos any time soon.
Another reminder that we are in an interesting part of the world is an overheard conversation in Nairobi Java - two guys with strong east European accents are speaking with someone who looks Ethiopian, about starting a satellite TV station, renting relay stations and getting cameramen and journalists into Mogadishu to cover a conference. They have $70,000 and six days to do the job, and need to get it done. Not the sort of thing you'd come across in Wellington.

Max is under the tender care of Dr Mary Ndueti - who seems to be doing a good job. For possibly a third what it would cost at home he has had an initial examination, an x-ray, a peg implanted and a temporary tooth placed on it, and tomorrow morning at 7am (before Mary has to leave to go to a funeral up country) a better temporary tooth will be attached. We have decided to use the intervening time to go up to Mombasa, and then Malindi and Lamu, and are booked on the train tomorrow night. We're back in 10 days, when the finished crown will be ready.
After buying our train ticket, we decided to check out the Railway Museum. Definitely worth it. The Brits and the Germans both started major railway projects early in the 20th century - the Brits built theirs from Mombasa to Lake Victoria, in about three years - a prelude to serious spats in this part of Africa as part of WW1. The museum shows the astonishing profile of the railway line, with some stations at over 9000 feet, and tells the colourful story of the man-eating lions that developed a taste for the Indian coolies, brought over from India for the labouring work involved. Most of these Indians stayed, in either Kenya or Uganda, forming the basis of the Asian population visible (well in Kenya anyway, I can't speak for Uganda) to this day. In fact Kenya as a separate entity didn't even exist then, it was still referred to as British East Africa. The railways have had a patchy history, being at one stage Kenya Uganda Railways, then East Africa Railways, and ("since Idi Amin began misbehaving" - a direct quote from the museum guide) now Kenya Railways, though apparently there is some talk of amalgamating the services again. Unfortunately the lines have suffered from a century or so of neglect, and the trip we're taking to the coast, once a 12 hour journey, is now 16 hours. We have not been able to ascertain how long the trip from Nairobi to Lake Victoria takes...but probably longer than it should. Our trip though includes dinner, bed and breakfast, and I have fond imaginings that it will be like the Orient Express, with silver service and dressing for dinner (in my new knickers and sandals). We will see.

Towards the roof of Africa - Mt Kilimanjaro

We think it's only fair to also try out the "fast" version of Zanzibar ferries, and unfortunately choose a slightly choppy sea on which to do so...I'm not very happy by the time we get back to Dar. Then we have to soldier our way through all the taxi drivers and various other hangers on at the port, and walk the 500m or so up to Jambo Inn, which is full!! What is going on?? We go round the corner to the very similar Safari Hotel and luckily get a room - it could have become nasty otherwise!
We have heard that Scandinavia Buses (reputedly the safest in East Africa, this from other travellers who have relayed numerous horror stories to me about speeding buses, overtaking on blind corners with drivers constantly chewing qat to stay awake through the night) have two departures to Moshi in northern Tanzania, the deluxe version leaving at 8.30 and the economy bus going at 9.30. We front up to their depot at 8, fully expecting to be on the cheaper edition, only to be told that there's only one, it's deluxe and it leaves in 30 minutes. Hmmm, not really much of a choice there. The bus trip though is very pleasant; we are given drinks, snacks, napkins etc, and arrive at a sunny Moshi mid-afternoon. Mt Kilimanjaro is peeking out from between fluffy clouds and before long we are having our sundowner at the Kindoroko Hotel's rooftop bar (which we have spied from our much more modest Buffalo Hotel window). It's a good thing we get some photos and have a good look, as the next morning it's grey and drizzly.
Mt Kilamanjaro, as seen from the rooftop terrace of the Kindoroko Hotel.

Swahili is a lovely language, and remarkably familiar - Serengeti, Kilimanjaro and Safari for example (also all names of local ales), and Daktari, which we see plastered over all sorts of little businesses, which presumably have something to do with health. This is of interest to us, as Max has broken a tooth, and we have decided to make our way to Nairobi, and a good Daktari, in order to sort it out. We will come back to Tanzania though, we have not finished with this country yet.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Zanzibar - a collision and collusion of cultures

It's so exciting catching the ferry to Zanzibar - the exotic island of spices and slaves. We have negotiated hard with the street-savvy ferry ticket sellers and are pleased to have got passage for a mere $20US (usual price is over $30). However, this pleasure is somewhat mitigated when we have to walk about 2km to the far end of the port (it's sort of like flying Freedom Air, and ending up in Gate 87F), and join a large and motley crew of fellow travellers in a muddy holding area - luckily it's only for a couple of hours!! The crossing is scheduled to take us 4 hours, compared to the usual 2.5, but hey we're not doing anything else this afternoon. There's a lot of freight on this sailing, and it's amazing to see huge and incredibly heavy baskets of avocadoes and chunks of machinery get loaded onto the backs of rather muscular half naked African men and walked up the narrow gangplank. I could have watched all day.

These classic Swahili dhows sail up and down the coast and between Zanzibar and the mainland.
Soon enough though, it's time for us to stagger up the same gangplank under the weight of our packs, and secure a couple of seats in the front part of the boat. Somewhat to my surprise, the Mandeleo (I think this is it's name - it was written one way on our ticket, and the two life rings on our deck have it spelt two further ways) is surprisingly comfy. Most women seem happy to lay out their kanga (a piece of cloth usually worn around the waist, over the top of their other clothes, also used to secure their babies to their backs, with their money securely tied into a corner of the cloth) on the aisle floor and go to sleep, with their children around them. We choose instead to watch the James Bond movie that is thoughtfully provided for our entertainment. Before we know it, well, actually long after JB has saved the world again, we pull into port. To our surprise we have to go through an immigration process - Zanzibar is somewhat autonomous it seems and even now has a tense relationship with the rest of Tanzania. By the time this is all over, it's well and truly dark, and we are set upon by friend and foe alike as soon as we emerge from the immigration office. It's all a bit much really, but finally we decide one guy looks reasonably honest, and we clamber into his taxi for the remarkably short ride to our hotel - it's in Narrow Street which is too narrow for vehicles, so we are essentially paying him 1000 Tanzanian shillings to be shown the way - good value considering the maze that is Stone Town.

The hotel is another surprise - a good one. Our room is huge, with a large bed (as opposed to two small ones which is the norm), a sofa and an armchair, so we can watch our TV in comfort, a sort of dressing room and then a bathroom that is almost big enough to swing that cat in. We are very happy and decide to stay for two nights. Ahmed, our genial host (he tells us he's 24 and planning to marry soon, but he looks about 15), walks us through the maze again, dropping breadcrumbs for us so we can find our way back from Mercury's - a nearby restaurant/bar named after (riding on the coattails of) Freddie Mercury who was born in Zanzibar. It's pretty touristy, but then so is the whole island, and somehow even after a couple of beers, we find our way back to bed.

Breakfast the next morning confirms that we have made a sound decision in picking this hotel ... and then we are off, well we will be once the downpour stops. It's really tipping down. It's 29 May and the rainy season officially finishes at the end of the month - but today it stops late morning, and we head out to explore. Stone Town is really one of those places where you have to follow your nose and enjoy being "lost". It's really atmospheric, reminding us of both Old Havana and Fez - every now and then we pop out at the waterfront, get our bearings and dive back in. Sooner or later we find the touristy end of things, lovely hotels and gardens, nice restaurants and cafes and shops - we haven't seen shops like this in ages and it's a good opportunity to buy a wedding present for friends getting married late in June, and stock up on some more reading for ourselves.

Zanzibar is a strongly Moslem community, but the mix of African, Arab and Indian cultures means for us great food, football and music. It's a very appealing mix, though occasionally quite odd. There are a few Maasai people in town, hard to know whether they are just here for the tips, as they're a long way from their traditional home, but to see them alongside women covered from head to toe, men in long robes and little caps, and all of us tourists, is an intriguing sight. It's easy to sit in an open cafe, buy a coffee (something Tanzania does well) and watch the world go by. So we do. So far Zanzibar is feeling like a holiday within the holiday - and the next day when we head to a beach resort (of a very minor kind) this feeling is reinforced. Even though we get more rain, it's something of a relief to be away from the day-to-day hassles we have become used to. The Kendwa Rocks Beach Resort is a mixed sort of place, but obviously successful as they have embarked on a construction programme next to our banda (concrete floored bamboo hut with those two little beds I mentioned earlier). The restaurant is across a wide expanse of beautiful white sand, which I become practised at sprinting across in the pouring rain. Luckily we have lots of reading material and the BBC World Service to amuse ourselves with. We do swim a couple of times, but only because we are determined. The day we leave the sun comes out and it's bright and cheerful. Hmm!