Thursday, November 04, 2004

In the land of "hakuna matata"

With the talk of the sea few days ago, I was reminded of my lone trip on the sea. I made a three day dhow trip visiting few islands around Lamu. Lamu is a small island off the Kenyan coast close to Somali border. Before I start with the blog, some admin issues: I would do this writing in part. The first part will be about getting to Lamu, the second one will be about Lamu itself and the third one will be about the sea trip. (so long way off before you could get to my sea story). Atleast that's the plan as things stand now. (Anyway, before you start reading let me warn you, this first part is long, real long. Now that it has turned out like this, I will shorten the other two)

I was in Nairobi researching for my Masters thesis and for a while, I was not distracted by the touristy attraction all around. I had too many things to do. Doing research on a shoe string budget in a foreign county with the institute that was to play the host going bankrupt was not easy. This non touristy nature was also due to other reasons. First, I did not have the money to go on a safari (the cheapest was US$ 80 a night and this was “peel your own potatoes and make your own bed” kind of deal and the most expensive was US 250/hour of safari-ing on a hot air balloon; included within this price was a glass of champagne after the ‘tiring’ ride over animals). I also felt guilty going ga-ga over wild life there when I did not visit a single national park in India. Alternatively, I could have had a good time visiting nice urban watering holes but I too scared to move around in the night on the streets of Nairobi. However, this non tourist status existed until I met Kieron.

I was at one of the seminars being conducted by ILO on the 'informal sector'. Informal sector, is a single term that represents all the tiny manufacturing and servicing activities that one mostly get to see in the slum in urban areas all over lesser developed countries. I did not know of this ‘informal sector’ studies until I went to Kenya. Anyway, Kieron is from the Royal College of Design in London and is Irish (so did not tower over me). Since the attendance to the seminar was less than what ILO expected which in turn meant that the budget was in excess of the expenses. The bloke who was in charge of this meet, an Englishman, was a sport and allowed the booze to flow. This gave opportunity for many of us to interact with one and another. Since I was on a 'passion fruit juice' trip then, I was ordering fresh juice. I could buy booze anywhere but sipping fresh fruit juice in a star hotel is something I cannot afford. Another reason why I did not drinking was that I did not want to display my poor alcohol holding capacity especially on a near empty stomach. In hindsight this was a good decision for those professional could really drink.

It was in this seminar that I met Kieron, he was experimenting on cheap communication systems to disseminate innovative designs to metal workers. We got talking and then he was shocked that I was in Nairobi for over 5 weeks and have never been anyplace except to the Indian restaurant close to River Road, YMCA close to Uhuru park, and to the Iskon temple in Ngara (where free desi food was given every sunday including ghee filled sweet dish).

So few days later he was at my workplace in Westlands. Ngara and Westlands are filled with Indians. Westland with the ultra-rich and Ngara with middle-class (I was staying as a paying guest in Ngara). He had a small piki-piki (motor cycle) this meant that I could visit many interesting places around the city. (It was in one interesting place that a woman friend of Kieron had asked me out. Actually he only time in my entire existence until now, a woman asked me if we could meet. Heck I was married. So for a moment I was sad for myself. Actually for a long moment)

Since Christmas was not far away, Kieron asked me if I wanted to go out of Nairobi. I sure was. He said we could go to Lamu. Lamu is a small island close to Somalia. It was between Lamu, Mombasa and Zanzibar that the Swahili culture was born. Since I could not afford the airticket, Kieron said that we could take the night bus to Mombasa, spend a few hours, take another bus to Malindi and stop for that night. Next day we could take another bus that will take us to the point from where the ferry would take us to Lamu. However, there have been some cases of Somali gun men stopping the buses to Lamu and looting them but these days, the buses move in a convoy and each one would carry a gunman. As it sounded exciting, I was all game for it.

I did not remember much of the night bus to Mombasa except that we stopped somewhere to eat and drink some tea. We arrived in Mombasa at dawn and many men were returning from the mosque. Kieron was all excited since at this time of the day, around the local cafes, one can find old women selling spicy chick peas with coconut and can be eaten with a ‘cripy puri like bread’. This, he said, is very special and is only available at this time of the day. It was something not too different from our chat but then it was different and very nice. Perhaps it is the time and place that made the significant difference to the taste. So we had this kenyan variation of puri-channa for breakfast. and soon headed for Malindi. Mombasa has fort Jesus built by Portuguese, a nice old harbour and some lovely bazaars but we decided to do a bit of sight seeing on our way back.

Malindi, Kieron told me was the hide-out for the mafia. So in middle of know where, one can find huge hotels, bars and other such interesting places where the mafia would like to cool their heels. (Folks, Mombasa also featured in the movie 'Company'. Maybe Malindi-Mombasa is the area where goons from all over the world sip booze in coconuts and put up their feet for a while). Malinidi is also the place from where Vasco da gama was given a guide, who then helped him navigate to India. First thing we did after reaching Malindi was to shower and crash. We were too tired. Woke up hungry in the afternoon to the calls of the meuzzin. We then went out into the town to eat. I remember Malindi to be a hot and dusty place. We found a nice cool place near the market next to the bus stop. ‘Found’ because I was looking for a place that served passion fruit juice.

We went back and slept until the evening. Then went around looked some trinket shops and went to the beach where a memorial for Vasco da Gama was built. For dinner we went to this huge Indian restaurant where we two were the only customers. Maybe the actual ‘customers’ arrive latter in the night. The owners were out in the front porch and did not even say hello to me. They sure must be in cahoots with the Mafioso.

Next morning took our bus that took us to Lamu as we ate brightly coloured (with carcinogenic colour for sure) boabad seeds and gaped at the alien landscape with Baobab tree that looked as if they are growing upside down and twin headed palm tree and fields of sharp sisal hemp.

End of part I