The Kenyan Spectrum: The Good, The Bad & The Just Alright – Part III

Paradise Lost

A conceptual image of Paradise is reality, but can only be found within the architectural framework of an idealist’s imagination.  Just like Happiness and Sadness, Good and Evil—these concepts do not exist, yet are everywhere.  They are undiscoverable, can’t be found, hidden from the materialistic world; though they simply wait, readily available to be experienced whenever the heart is open and the mind broad.

In The Island of Lost Maps, author Miles Harvey states:

“These days… not even the truest of true believers would dare to put Paradise on a map.  Yet despite the cynicism of our age, we humans have not lost our urge to quest after that place of perfect contentment, never quite finding it but never giving up hope, sometimes drawing so near that we can almost smell the faint sweet scent of its blossoms or spy the distant glimmer of its waters” (Harvey, pg. 234).

Our paradise began with a departure for Africa, leaving the ardors of daily living.  The smells of inky bills.  The sounds of scratchy cell phones in spotty reception.  The cluttered schedules boggling a mind of needs and necessities.  What a dream.  Then, their complete disappearance as paradise blossomed, thrived, and then wavered in and out of reality as we experienced the traveler’s lifestyle.  But the very concept continued to flourish.  We moved through life.  We felt the gift of the present moment, lost in distant lands and foreign cultures.  From Ethiopia to Djibouti, to Ethiopia and Kenya—three months with one backpack of amenities.  The simplicities of the very basic.

However, as suddenly as human life is extinguished, paradise can be lost.  For our African journey—presently exploring the Kenyan coastline of sand, sun and sea—this slippery concept fell from the rocks and crashed into the sea.  It came to an end as the same fate threatened our very own lives.

Saturday night.  The beach empty.  A moon neared its full capacity as the calm waters of Ras Kitau bay lapped at the shimmering sands.  There was a man approaching.  I watched him with a keen eye.  As he neared and greeted, he grabbed my hand and drew me in.  Suddenly, his weapon appeared and caught the moonlight above my head.  Lily screamed.

Akamba Buses carried us from Nairobi to Mombassa, east to the shores of Kenya.  From there we hired a taxi, took the ferry and continued south towards the Tanzanian border.  It was dark by the time we got to Ukunda, where we turned left and headed into Diani Beach.

For sixteen days we found home and lived a paradise at Diani Beachalets.  For 800ksh a night, Lily and I stayed in a banda, our small cottage, one without electricity, without a fan and with lots of monkeys.  When it rained it leaked.  And when it rained, the grasses turned green with the scents of earth filling the sea air.  We did much of nothing.  We read close to ten books a piece.  We lounged on the beach in the sand and up on the grasses upon wooden plank chairs.  We walked the beach.  We swam.  We met our traveling neighbors and exchanged stories.  We explored the strip of Diani Beach, shopped and prepared our meals morning, afternoon and evening, fending off the marauding primates.  It was rustic; that yearned for simplicity the traveler craves.  And with it all, we immersed ourselves in the local culture.

“Rafiki, rafiki! Jambo!”  A tall lean man slowly walked towards us.  “Howz yo day, brotha?”

“Good, good.  The ideal holiday.”  And it was.  Lily and I were sprawled on the beach under intense sunrays.  Heat penetrated and sunk into our bodies, causing perspiration to spew from every pore.  Every ten minutes we rose to cool in the crystal shallows of the Indian Ocean.

“Yah, brotha.  This is good, the good life.”  There was an awkward silence.  Then he continued.  “So brotha,” he started squatting next to me.  “I’m a business man and wanted you to promote me.”  His name was Alex, aka Coolio.  He was our trusty Kenyan Beach Boy.  Others exploited us, ran away with our cash.  Beach Boys like The Kenyan Busta Rhymes and Simple Max offered their services, granted us trust and then never came around again.  But Alex was different.  He was real.  I could look into his cloudy eyes and see honesty.  With most you couldn’t.

“You know,” he began, “Many Beach Boys smoke heroin and look for their money.  They will scam and they will run.”

“Like your friend Busta Rhymes?”

“No man, he is different.”

“Really?” Lily asked.  “How could he be different?  He took our 700ksh and left.”

“His family, you know.  One just died of malaria.” Alex nodded his head.  “Really.”

“Ohhhh,” we replied suspiciously.  Yet we trusted him.  We bought homemade sandals, which his mother made for us.  And we bought bracelets for friends, a personalized wooden sign and a keychain pendant, along with a batch of fresh coconuts.  One day, as I was stepping onto the beach, I saw him whistling to a shell.

“Alex, what the hell you doing?”  I figured he was just stoned, whiling away his time.

Alex looked up.  “Hermit crabs, you know, they like the whistle.  When you whistle, they come out.  They say hello to the whistle.”  Only in paradise can you find hermit crabs dancing to a melodic whistle.

We met more Kenyan Beach Boys in other places.  Vasco de Gama and Omar were brothers, partners in dhow sailing.  We became closer with them then Alex as the two Kenyan sailors helped us, supported our emotions in a time of need, and showed us their seas with respect.  Vasco was a local from Lamu.  Omar was a local from Pate Island.

Paradise can often be confined to a generalization:  Isolation.  Relaxation.  Serenity.  Peacefulness.  Even a Corona advertisement—sun, sand, turquoise waters, your lover, and (for me) a Negra Modelo with two lime wedges.  Paradise varies as often as the clouds of the monsoons, and each can be described differently.  Lily and I lived our paradise in Ethiopia within the metropolis of Addis Ababa to the desolate Hamer region, and on to the comforts of Nairobi towards the beaches of Diani.  Then we transitioned and came away with a little less baggage and a lot more awareness.

From south to north; Diani above Tanzania to Lamu below Somalia.  We bused it.  We ferried it.  And we arrived, carried away to a beach on an island in the middle of nowhere.  We expected another paradise and saw it.  It was Shela Beach on Lamu Island at the Sunset Guest House.  For six nights we had the top floor terraced-bedroom complete with electricity, multiple fans, a solar heated shower and refrigerator.  In fact, we had the entire accommodation to ourselves, and what often felt like the entire seaside.

Lamu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Narrow winding alleys, exquisitely carved wooden doors lining coral pathways and the bustling Arabs with the men’s flowing white gowns and the women’s mystic black bui-buis (traditional Islamic head scarves), each sparkling in the fierce village lighting.  The town is enchanting with scents of humanity harvesting, preparing and cooking spicy Swahili dishes.  Mix the aromas with various loads of donkey dung, cat shat, raw prawns and decomposing red snapper, and some squashed cockroaches into the perfume and viola—a rustic seaport ripe with tradition.  Only two cars exist on the island—one belonging to the hospital, the other to the police station—therefore the colony of donkeys dominate transportation, together with the fleets of dhows and long narrow motor boats.

Saturday was such a day for exploring the civilization.  Lily and I bought our groceries at one of the two shops and drank a fair share of fresh juices from coconut and sweet lime to tamarind.  It was late by the time we were heading back, too late.  We had to cross the DMZ between Lamu town and Shela Beach, a forty-minute walk passed the jetty, along a boardwalk and onto the sandy beach.  It was dark.  The moon was waxing.  The stars danced silently to the whispers of the sea.

As I stated, Lily and I were alone on the beach.  It was approximately 7:30PM.  I had on a backpack stocked with groceries and my camera was slung on the outside across my shoulder.  We were close to Shela Beach, too close.

Suddenly a man neared.  He approached, held out his hand in the dark and spoke, “Jambo!”  I returned the gesture and in a strange manner felt him draw me nearer.  As I looked into his white eyes, I felt his hands trembling over mine.  He was repeating something in Swahili.  He was expressing desperation, appearing possessed.  Then, he pulled me closer.  I tried to step back, withdraw my hand, but it was too late, too close, too dark.

The stranger was dressed in a traditional red-plaid kikoi (sarong), with a white tank top and a shirt wrapped around his head like a Sikh turban.  I remember his hands being strong, his biceps pronounced.  He was dark, a real dark black, and was wielding a panga, or an axe, in the local Swahili language.  Suddenly, Lily screamed as the man swung the weapon above my head and moved his other hand over my throat.

It was a blur, caught without Time, experienced on a supposed utopian island in the middle of nowhere.  Lots of money flowed to the island thanks to tourism.  Big hotels.  Fancy restaurants.  Old merchants descending from the rich Arabic economies of the 16th and 17th slave trade.  And adjacent to the affluence was desperation.

With happiness there is neighboring sadness.

Inside paradise exists hell.

For when there is light there is darkness.

Lily and I were momentarily shoved into the middle of these juxtapositions, where duality persists, the truth of our humanity flickers, as well as the fragility of human life.

My image remains to this day: a man trembling, chanting, bewitched with terror, swinging an axe toward my skull, threatening my life’s blood to spill upon the wet sands of heaven.  He was aiming for my head, my shoulder, my chest.  And he still spoke his mantra as I deflected the attempts with one hand, struggling to escape from the grip upon my throat.  Lily still screamed.  She shouted.  Her soul fought for comprehension through a decibel  unheard of.  The man was obviously thrown off by her reaction, which I hardly heard, for my world was silent, my head clear, my vision of the axe sharp in the moonlight.  Suddenly, with a push, the man stumbled back and his hand slipped from my throat.  The axe came down.

It was odd standing there, utterly calm and serene, conscious and at peak awareness.  Lily was still screaming fifteen feet away.  She was crying and began heaving.  The man was standing some twenty feet away in the other direction; the axe in one hand and an object dangling from the other.  I stared at him.  He stared at me.  Lily continued and began shouting.  Then, he turned and ran.  I watched him the whole way, sprinting from the beach up into the bush, until disappearing.  I turned to Lily and moved towards her, wrapping my arms around her sobbing body.  We turned into each other and then walked away briskly, grateful for living, for each other.

We were alive.  We were in shock.  Yet the man had obtained one important element of my soul.  That object dangling from his grasp, which had recently slipped off my throat was my camera—a Nikon D200 carrying a 28mm Nikkor lens with a polarized filter, an 8GB RiData Memory Card with over 300 priceless photographs of Lamu and one Nikon Li-ion Battery Pack.  Total value: $4000USD.  I felt as though I lost a limb.  I still feel the loss today—a creative eye devoid of expression, a career lacking the necessity to continue, but a life saved and another thief existing in darkness, another personal hell thriving in paradise.  The duality of Mother Nature exists in the paradise experienced and remains in a paradise lost.  The journey ends with a certain death; metaphorically in terms of creation and purpose, and literally among family and friends.

The Kenyan Spectrum: The Good, The Bad, & The Just Alright – Part II

Ecstatic Elephants & Horny Rhinos

Like a mystical revelation of sorts, a dreamland where things are real and others phantasmal, there was relief.  It had been three days of torment—physical, mental, and hardly spiritual—traveling overland atop a lorry truck from Ethiopia to Nairobi.  Three days of early mornings, tortuous afternoons, and sultry nights underneath holey mosquito nets.

Lily and I approached the Westland suburb of Nairobi, dazed by time and filth.  As we arrived in taxi, the avenues grew emerald, denser with thick brush and high boughs.  Trees were lush.  They harbored blossoms of radiant oranges and opulent reds.  It was as if we were driving down a boardwalk in Savannah, Georgia; huge homes covered in gray shade, ungodly in comparison to the neighboring slums.  We continued and drove into the heart of gated properties, lavish arbors, and personal security booths before coming to Loresho, into one of those secured communities, and up a driveway where a guard smiled Welcome.

Now, as a virgin to the masses of Nairobi, swollen with the preconceived perceptions of a city littered with crime—my image was bleak, miserable, possibly even suicidal.  But as a traveler, I figured it was worth a stop to decide for myself.  I’ve been buffed into further partiality.

There was a maid.  She was Kenyan.  I mean she was black.  Her name was Penina.

Penina cleaned the house, scrubbed the toilets, made our beds, washed the dishes, and scoured the stains off our clothes.  She was beautiful, kind, soft-spoken.  Penina was gentle.  Next, there were our guards (plural).  Together, they divvied up the 24 hour-seven day shift; and at each arrival or departure they would swing open the gate, wave hello as we passed, and congenially walk the door back to its original position.

Then there was a refrigerator.  There was a shower with hot water.  There was a polished porcelain can (two in fact!), which we sat on, thus relishing that unforgettable feeling of hot buttcheeks to cold seat.  And there was beer.  Tusker, Pilsner, Guinness.  Crates of bottles all to our helping.  Mystical.

At this point, I reached a conclusion: there is nothing like having family or friends, however far removed, living in a foreign land.  Albeit, Allyson was not present on the afternoon of our arrival.  She was working at an international school as a math and science teacher for the children of diplomats, bureaucrats, FBI agents and the like.  It was a good job.  And it showed.  Being Lily’s cousin—half-removed, fully removed, third, fourth or one-hundredth (I didn’t mind)—an image of Allyson appeared in my mind as we first settled in her home.  It was a statue of Jesus, the one found atop a church’s roofline or above an alter.  He was standing above me; his hands spread wide, palms up, with white robes flowing to the ground.  The face was Allyson’s and in her alluring posture she spoke thus: Come my brothers and sisters.  Come hither and bathe in me waters, indulge in thee kosher pickles of mine.  They are fuller and sweet, likened to my beer.  I shall care for you.  And I accepted.

Thursday afternoon and all of Friday, Lily and I lounged indoors, made sandwiches and ate, caressed our clean skin, read books, popped frosty 500ml bottles of Tusker, and in thirty-six hours feasted our eyes upon the entire first season of Lost.  Ecstasy indulged.

But of course we were active.  We did not let Penina do all the work.  We folded our laundry, flushed the toilets, and did our dishes.  And as the weekend dawned, we even stepped outdoors with Allyson to merge into that feared Nairobian society.

A city constructed by the advent of the East Africa railway, Nairobi boomed when the capital of the British Protectorate relocated from Mombassa in 1901.  There, the government made camp beside a stream known by the Maasai as Cold Water, or Uaso Nairobi.  On what was once swampland, wealth quickly flowed into the growing city via train, inviting humanity while slowly eradicating the roving lions and wildebeests.

“Nairobi is relatively safe,” Allyson informed us as we drove through the jam of city cars.  “It’s only downtown after dark when there can be trouble.  There are no apartments or homes for locals, only tourist hotels.”

Lily and I weren’t following.

Allyson continued.  “It’s a trap, attracting criminals to a city in the dark that’s scattered with cash-toting tourists.  If there were locals living in apartments or affordable housing, an ordinary society of ordinary citizens would exist.  But when businesses close for the day and workers return home to the outskirts of the city, there remains the tourist at hotels, restaurants and bars mixing with the locals who join, along with the many creepers hiding in shadows.”

We nodded and watched the vendors with newspapers, magazines, maps and cheap sunglasses scurry between traffic.  Our first stop of the day would be the Nairobi National Park just outside the city.  We wheedled thru cars, beat the circles’ red lights and surpassed the traffic cops in Allyson’s rattling Isuzu Trooper.  Shortly, we entered the Park’s gates.  We were on safari.

Odd to be minutes away from the city with pulsing pollution and hordes of humanity moving in all sorts of means.  Calloused barefeet, bicycles carrying a six-foot stack of plastic crates, human mules lugging wooden carts of furniture, 150cc motorcycles spitting noise, graphic matatus, righteous buses and lumbering lorry trucks swerving; and then to emerge in a sanctuary where wildlife bounded freely.  Home to masses of birds, the world’s largest concentration of rhinos, along with lions, cheetahs, leopards, buffalo, antelope, ostriches, warthogs, and more—the Park’s fence remains agape, allowing the nomadic herds to move in and out between the great Rift Valley.  But with a constant supply of water even in the dry season, the Nairobi National Park is plentiful.

As we pulled in with the Trooper, a giant family of monkeys sprawled across the road.  They groomed one another, picked their own butts and others, and gave chase in the trees’ limbs above.  They looked at us with imploring eyes, then turned back to their present occupations, ignoring our similarities and differences as if we were twin species.

Our car rested on the side of the road for ten minutes as we observed.  I could not help but feel their likeness, as if they were communicating their emotions thru eyes, cries and gestures.  And not to digress into a thesis on evolution, but the link between their posture, their movements and actions with that of our own was hard to deny.  They were a hillbilly family of over-simplified humans, minds focused on the rudimentary, yet filled with the baser instincts of survival.  However, we evolved and moved on.

We saw the rhinos and giraffes, the buffalo and ostrich, the massive birds in aplenty, along with gazelles and antelopes, and the twitching ear of a lazy male lion asleep in tall grass.  All the while we were in our own vehicle, cracking cans of Redds and wrenching back bottlecaps of Tusker with a bag of spicy Chev between our laps.  The monkey-man’s safari, but it was perfect for what it was.

The following day consisted of elephant orphans at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and a visit to the Langatta Giraffe Centre where we handfed Rothschild’s giraffes on their blue tongues of sandpaper.

Four days and five nights rest, relaxation, over-indulgence on grub and booze, and a laid-back sense of exploration.  We did much of nothing and much of everything in Nairobi, where for the first time on our three-month journey we felt the shine of holiday.  We could do whatever we wanted.  We could go anywhere and hold zero responsibility of when to return.  We were on vacation, and before we took this party to the Kenyan coast, we spent our final day exploring the downtown sector on foot.

Beneath tall buildings, well-manicured Kenyans along a network of avenues and highways intermixed with Lily and me.  We wandered Nairobi.  We tucked into shops and offices.  We ate and drank a selection of international cuisine.  And we ran the brunt of our errands, securing timetables and scheduling departures.  We entered Uhuru Park (Freedom Park), which commemorates Kenya’s 1963 independence and we sat in the shades, silent, witnessing.  We spoke casually with locals, asking the time or requesting directions.  We found the Internet and connected with family.  We did what any backpacker, traveler or tourist would do—the Nothing and the Everything.  Nairobi was fanciful: a mixture of reality and hedonism.  It’s a culture I will return to any day.

Early Tuesday morning we left, catching a bus to Mombassa for the coastal sunshine.  Yet, with paradise comes hell—with light there shall be darkness—and far from the saintly shelter of Allyson’s home, Lily and I were exposed.  We would be lucky to walk away with our lives.

To be continued…


The Kenyan Spectrum: The Good, The Bad, & The Just Alright – Part I

The Ethiopian/Kenyan Overland

Kenya came with a crush and departed with deep rejuvenation.  To extrapolate, my fiancée Lily Brewis and I entered the East African country along its northern limits.  The day prior was spent rumbling along the nonexistent infrastructure of Ethiopia’s southern roadways before arriving to the border-town of nowhere-Moyale.  We checked into a dump, ate, drank and passed out to the smells of our squat toilet, which emitted fumes of someone else’s noxious bile.  Then we rose, left disgustedly, stamped our departure passes, strolled across into Kenya, more stamps, pens and papers—then KABLAAM! We were in Kenya surrounded by tall, beefy, tall, lanky, short and muscular, drunk and squeamish Kenyan men.  Inside the country for all but thirty minutes and already witness to two fistfights and a handful of aggressive arguments breaching the borders of hostility.  This is the furthest north, another nowhere-land, the Moyale side of Kenya, and we had 1200 kilometers of terrain before reaching the comforts of Nairobi.

“You need truck, so I give you 2500 schillings to Nairobi.”

A tall bald Kenyan was approaching us.  In fact, Kenyans of all sizes and proportions encircled, drawing tighter.

“No, not Nairobi.  Marsabit,” I announced.

“Okay,” he said.  “Hakuna matata.”

And there it was.  The first of many, numerous, overplayed, overused, most obnoxious little phrases carrying little-to-no meaning due to its prevalence.  Hakuna Matata—the No Problem of Swahili made infamous by Disney’s The Lion King and the hotshot Kenyan Beach Boys with their red eyes and slurred English.  “Hakuna matata,” the bald man repeated.  “I give you two seats atop for 1000ksh each.”

“500 each,” Lily rebuked (1000 Kenyan schillings is equal to approximately $15USD).

The man and his lot would not have it.  We moved on.

Sure enough, we were soon on our way, headed south to the next nowhere-town of Marsabit.  And we had a view for 500ksh each, which included fresh air, sunshine, rain, wind and a grid full of bugs.  Let me draw you a better picture:  1000ksh total bought us our two seats atop a lorry truck, which consisted of clasping a cylindrical metal tube that was part of a skeletal frame enclosing a truckbed loaded with one dozen 600 pound disgruntled bulls.  These beasts mingled below us like drunken Midwestern poker players, mavericks as aggressive as the Kenyans of the border, heaving their horny heads into the meaty sides of their counterparts, cramming for space as they pissed and shat themselves for the 3-day trek to Nairobi.

Appalling?  Unnerving?  Thrill-seeking?

Yes.  Yes.  And yes.

And the first leg lasted ten hours.  Six hundred minutes seated on thin metal piping thru the roughest, most untamed dirt roads of the Dida Gulgalu Desert.  Translation: it means Desert of Rocks, which includes the barren pathway we traveled that ran through its heart.  Simply, the road was wretched.

Somewhere in the journey, one of the bulls fainted and fell to the floor.  Other bulls stepped on it, trampled it and stumbled while we rumbled.  Eventually, the caretaker riding with the meager fare atop noticed, jumped down into the fray and reached his hand into the creature’s mouth.  His hand and forearm sunk in up to the elbow, where in he grimaced, twisting and turning his limb as if arm-wrestling a maniacal tongue.  As we watched the spectacle with alarm, I imagined what the tongue looked like.  It was a deep crimson red, the color of blood as sinewy gobs of phlegm and puss dripped off its sides.  Large suction-cup pores spit hot liquids like miniature volcanoes, fending off the foreign hand with bursts of flame.  The tongue hissed and slithered under its grip.

My nightmare was shattered, or merely altered, when the caretaker dislodged his arm from the bull’s throat to reveal a twelve-inch worm as black as death.  It was enormous and repulsive.  I looked at Lily in reproach.  She winced.  And together we turned to our neighbor.  His name was Hussein.  Our expressions said everything.

“It is a parasite.  Coming from water.  It grows until killing the cattle.”

There was a long pause.

“This one,” he continued, pointing at the bull now on its feet, “Almost died.”

The caretaker then crushed the worm in his hands, obliterating the monster into oblivion.  Actually, that’s a fabrication.  He threw it into in the dry brush where a passing raven would spot it and ravenously pick it apart.

Marsabit.  We were overjoyed, more so than any cakewalk winner at your local fair.  Lily and I climbed off, unloaded our backpacks, turned from the beasts in the truckbed and those seated in the cabin, and walked away.  Next, we checked into the JeyJey Centre for accommodation and looked into the mirror.

“Mirror, mirror on the wall…”

Appalling, unnerving, thrill-seeking?

Our faces appeared like we were from the coalmines, emerging after a twelve-hour shift some two miles beneath the Earth’s surface.  In fact, we were pasted with coal because two hours into the trip, our driver felt the urge to pickup some 80lbs of charcoal, which became strapped directly behind us.  Thus, with wind the black powder swirled around into the air and covered our bodies.  Then add a heaping tablespoon of sun, a kilo of dust and a few barrels of rain for effect.  We were gruesome.  I’ve never been so dirty, nor in love with a woman that looked like a brute in for hard labor.

And this was day one out of three.  The following consisted of the same, this time on a lorry loaded with goats that looked comparatively feeble, along with the recipe of wind, sun, rain and grit in the form of dirt and more insects.

Day Two—ten hours later we reached Isiolo.

Day Three—we entered East Leigh, the northeastern district of Nairobi.  Shortly, we stepped into ecstasy.

To be continued…