Culture Hopping: Life is the Essential Ingredient (Location: Planet Earth)

Like a roasted pepper, you’re done: well cooked, charred on the outside, burnt and spent. But on the inside, hidden within the veil of life’s fire-burner, you’re soft and ready.  Anticipating for more.

However, it doesn’t come all that easy.  After the months, weeks, or maybe only the days of travel, you return home to the accustomed life once left behind, and there, piled with new baggage you were ready to unpack, you find yourself overloaded with a new beginning.

And despite how many times you attempt to escape from this, seeking the bliss of freedom discovered upon the open road, mixed within the world’s vast cultures—leaving, returning, leaving, returning—you are met face to face time again with this long winding road home.  It stares at you.  It tempts you.

Upon returning, afflictive emotions once erased resurface (hint: they never leave!).  In order to take this road, you know you must begin the new journey with your new bags; keep on traveling, keep on truckin’ to peel away your surface layers to reach that core initially sought.

You must emerge from the cultures of the ancient times of open-air fires with stone, brick and mortar to reveal the modern complexity of steal and chrome.  The time allotted is the progress made, and until then the core will not be exposed.  Instead, the fires will continue to char, and char, and char returning you back to the start of that winding path, through and through.  Call it culture hopping.

And You Are?

Whether Africa, Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, South America, North America, or some distant cardinal tropic marooned from the flanks of one’s accustomed culture, the traveler is an explorer in the miasmic layers, colors and spices of the world’s cultures.  To have that desire for taste, for preparation and creative roast is to obtain the initial interest of discovering a lifestyle other than one’s own.

It is a yearning for experience, for knowledge, for an accumulation of wealth that can never be bought, taught or sought in books:  It’s the potential growth of the soul that comes with willingness, dedication and an awareness given the time and space to be sown in the soils of one’s consciousness.

Through the journey beyond, an epic tale of letting go and allowing the fires to char on their own accord, experience becomes wisdom.  It becomes that seed enriched with appreciation for life, a life involving a continued exploration of man, woman, Nature and their intriguing interwoven dynamics.  Alone, this path cultivates and further roasts one’s seed of awareness allowing the pepper to blossom and the fires cook.

For such a traveler, life is the essential ingredient.  Within mind, body and soul there contains essential components only fed when the traveler throws oneself into this very unknown.  This is where life revolves.

Certain characters are necessary for the traveler to embark and take upon these fires when ready:  Such one loves the unknown.

He or she loves taking this upon destiny like a parasite caught in flesh.  It is a necessity, a fertilizer sucked from the deepest soils, where the senses abide to the farthest root tips; stretching, distending, growing further and reaching for that appreciation of life, its beauty and the diversity which flourishes.  These cultures of humanity define the sustenance of life, and without their firsthand experience there would be no worth to the traveler in the life surrounding.

And so, with a firm grip upon an adventurous nature, a character ready and willing to let it all go for something without any future at all, the traveler within me tossed this mind, body and soul into the deep soils of the earth.  Seed planted, sustenance fed—my pepper of various layers, colors and spices began to sprout.  The fire was already provided.  I began my culture hopping.

Cultures Revealed, The Culture Transformed

I went abroad, explored the cultures of islands, of development and riches, of poverty and those stricken with the despair of unjust treatment to their basic human rights.  I went abroad and found turmoil in the markets, unlike my hometown grocer’s well stocked and aligned isles.  I was ingrained within these new markets like a spider in a neighbor’s web, weaving my thread with theirs, calm and observant with the people of Africa, Asia, south-north-east-west and beyond.  I spun more, throwing an innocuous trust within my surroundings.

Further, I found isolated pockets of forest, tropical with malarial mosquitoes and monkeys.   I saw fauna and flora of the imagination, and I let my own wander to color my thoughts with its fragrance.

Things filled my senses.  Life invaded me.  From one culture to the next, I let go, stepping deeper into the unknown.  And I let go once more.

Literally it all consumed me, and as the small seed, a sponge underneath the flowing faucet, I soaked in it.  I was free.  I was the traveler.  I absorbed this flow—people, thoughts, situations and circumstances, foreign politics, cuisines and their palates, lifestyles and manners.  They became a part of who I was, and who I sought to become.

From one individual to the next, from village to village, city to city, via bicycle, rickshaw, tuk-tuk, taxi, bus, train, boat—or by foot—I was culture hopping.  I was experiencing this life I knew and never knew.  It was withdrawn from within me where I allowed an awareness to manifest the road ahead.  And on every step, the journey started anew as the flames were fueled, the fires turning hotter.

Eventually, I was done.

The pepper: blackened, charred, burnt on the outside.  Work was now necessary to peel away the layers, and so the traveler returned home to the culture left behind.  There, after faced with one phenomenon to the next, culture hopping at its finest (the pepper well-done, the spider entombed within, a sponge oozing the sustenance of life), explorations changed courses and routes led homeward to the familiar lifestyle.  But through each interlope and interchange of culture there was that reunion affected by this so-called hopping.

It was a reemergence with the traveler’s old self, bags ready to unpack before discovering there were still more bags to be carried.

Still Traveling

Often it’s unexpected, meeting this thing left behind which is now present; all around you, within family and friends and customs and routines.  It is the traveler of the past; the traveler before the traveler was ever a “traveler”.  In essence it is the mind, body and soul in which everyone knew and everything expected despite the change.

Returning from Southeast Asia to southern California, my confidence and belief within my own self and the direction I was heading hit a steel-plated wall.  All happiness faded.

But now, unexpected, the new traveler facing the old traveler before the traveler was ever a traveler becomes paralyzed.  He or she is overwhelmed with the past culture amounting to that of the new various cultures adopted.  Known collectively as “culture shock”, there is no turning back.

The old sages comment, “Easy is the choice to begin or not, but once begun, better finish.”

And like a dish of foie gras to a vegetarian consciousness, like a Russian bath for the Hawaiian local, culture shock throws you into a chasm where the lights are dimmed to view only the faintest silhouettes ahead.  There is nothing left behind.  You must continue and accept a responsibility, for this very shock is the effect of your culture hopping.  It stuns, saddens—and more significantly—paralyzes the senses and any feeling of centeredness.

Questions arise again, afflictive emotions stir as remorse composes a symphony of disgust, despair and pain before the next layer of pepper is charred.  There’s never the chance of having the opportunity to live the life of its soft sweet flesh.  This is the case of reemergence into Western society.

Returning from Southeast Asia to southern California, my confidence and belief within my own self and the direction I was heading hit that wall.  Happiness gone.  Despair arisen.  Confusion ahead.   What I remember most having returned from the months abroad was entering that Ralph’s “superstore” on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena.

Culture shock as loaves of bagged bread—signed, sealed and delivered—shook with a consumerism’s shopping rage.  It was like an exemplified spree; carts with gargantuan mouths, open and wired to the teeth.  They could be stuffed full, occupying up to ten bags if willed.  There were meats, animals to be more specific, which now took the form of slice after slice, shank and steak and thigh and breast—or why not whole? My eyes witnessed the abundant glory to what a Newari family in the Nepalese Himalayas might perceive:  I’m in heaven!

No.  To me, having experienced the impoverished of India, Africa and Asia—as well as the freeway underpasses of California’s forgotten homeless; having walked the mountains and beaches where a family was considered lucky if a porter succeeded in bringing what they requested, this mass production of animals, genetically modified fruits and vegetables, and aisles upon aisles of sugared dumplings called Ding-Dongs hit my lower abdomen with an iron cudgel.

Cheeses and yogurts fermented beyond their expiration date.  Fizzing bottles of Coca-Cola and Dew blew their tops.  Bottles of water became dirty.

What happened to the market?  To morality?  What happened with globalization and to our care for others’ well-being?

No, I concluded, there was never a moral concern for life.  And there never will be.  What the hell am I doing here? I was culture shocked.

A Welcome Home

It’s the most difficult stretch of the journey; to return home to family and friends, to routine—to life as you once knew it—and apply successfully all the lessons of travel.  People look at you as they did in the past, but you say, you stand up for yourself:  No, I’ve changed.

The world revolves.

You see the news.  You have the luxuries you once forgot and indeed took advantage of in the past.  Daily life causes its stresses.  Anger, confusion, and all the other emotions come to greet you with a slap in the face, smiling like they’ve never done before.  Even those plates of food adorning your dining table are a blessing, but no one else seems to see.

Likewise, you yourself begin to struggle.  In your silent prayers you return your conscience back to the center and thank the sustenance before you and your family.  You thank the Universe for this life compared to others witnessed far away, an observance you’re beginning to forget.

As with most, the first return and its adaptation is the hardest.  You cope with it, you deal with it and you hopefully take in the lessons for your growth.  The second and third become easier due to experience, and with the appropriate placement of the lessons recalled, your life, whether traveling or at “home” in your own culture, becomes a continued journey of culture hopping.

You are the traveler and you feed this, caring for yourself with the practice of your experiences from the places you’ve been.  It is your new culture in which you live and grow from.  But how do you get passed the initial return, and the second and the third?

Over my travels, an unknown quote to an unreligious individual has reminded me of strength and courage: “God comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable.”  It is a message shouting there is always more growth to be had.  Once you think you’ve reached the top, you’ve actually hit bottom.

Greeted with the eruption of past habits and routines, I have taken the journey of reentering the life I left behind as a whole new opportunity to evolve further to that infinite goal.  And what keeps me sane throughout the process is the remembrance of the journey passed and how it’s still in its entirety churning within me.

Therefore, I’m brought to the present, the internal traveler awoken within to become the traveler of the present moment no matter what road I might be on.  I see family and friends; they might mistake me for someone of the past.

Sure, I’m still that person, but now I’m him, which includes this new traveler.

I see shelves of abundance in a culture appearing oblivious to the rest of humanity’s infirmities and I become grateful to have that awareness of the resources in my life, their precious blessings, and how most persons round the globe might not have such a luxury as the basic necessity of shelter to plates to eat upon, or surviving family and a network of friends.

I remember how I used to take things for granted, including as a boy that dumpling of sugar, the so-called Ding-Dong.  Hence, there is no need to despise it, but better yet be appreciative of the options and leave it for others who might harbor interest.  And I’m grateful for the world’s diversity and the cultures out there to be explored.

Though what remains most important, disregarding the adventure of external discovery, is the magnitude of a continued internal exploration.  It is an application of one’s new understanding and belief into mainstream life that keeps this cyclone of the Self gyrating.

Barriers discovered, analyzed and then toppled; passed through to advance further into the conscious Self.

Each step hosts the opportunity for growth—mentally, emotionally and spiritually—and with the continued practice of one’s lifestyle within the new surroundings of home, obstacles of daily living no longer appear as they once did.  Instead they take the form of that flame, licking the edges of skin to provide a tool to peel away the outer layers to reach its deepest core.  That fire is of love and peace, as is the core—as is the practice, the people and places—as are those once termed “obstacles”.

And So, To Hopping

Today, there is more of Asia, West Africa, Europe and more Central America, including my own culture, within me.

As a traveler with a continuous yearning for growth through an experience of culture hopping, and a lessening culture shock, I have come to peer through a cleared perception, recognizing the differences and similarities of each land and its people.  I have come to accept these cultural barriers as a part of this physical world, established in total for our growth.  Beyond these barriers, they dissolve and I perceive a life with the oneness of all peoples.  My heart opens as I remind myself and take recognition.  Happiness returns.

Yes, I’m still traveling.

Life keeps churning, and as a morsel within the stew—that spice—as a bubble in a boiling pot, I have only so long before I leave and transform, before I am eaten by my own creation.

In order to fill this duty with its finest, in order to allow the fires to masterfully complete its roast, a strive to dig deeper attains progress.  It is the act of reaffirming the underlying connection between people and their cultures.  It is the subtle continued establishment within the mind that they—we—have founded this very life and that we are here together to share it.  Through this realization, carrying for myself and reawakening from sleep each fleeting moment, the afflictive emotions associated with the road and the return into daily life subsides.

A roasted pepper, charred skin peeled, I am now ready to continue with the ingredients of this infinite stew of culture, traveling deeper into the feast of life.  Culture hopping is my vehicle of choice.

Travel Film: The Wildside to Lamu

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.

To watch the newest film about our experience in Lamu, which is directed and produced by Cam2Ygoi Productions, please follow the below link.  Forewarned… the film is 10:33 minutes, with film footage, photographs, dialogue and music, so the downloading time will require patience:

The Wildside to Lamu

Viewing also available on Vimeo at:

Photo Essay: Kenya by the Coast

What is the What of Lamu, Kenya

There were stories after stories.  I sat outside and listened to the man.  He was panting.  Sweat trickled down his black face, shimmering off the pools on his forehead.  He wore a sleeveless T-shirt and baggy shorts.  Both were dirty and unkempt and both stuck to his sticky skin.  Atop the head and woven into his hair was a basket of woolen fabric knitted into a hat.  It contained his dreadlocks; a local Rastafarian resembling Bob Marley in plump form.  But this man’s name was Kito.  He had come to visit his friend, a young Abdullah.  Abdullah was in prison, locked in the local cell on top a hill overlooking Lamu town.  And apparently, Abdullah was not looking well.

“Abdullah’s eyes are glossed over,” Kito explained.  “And puss is coming from the corners.  He says he wakes up every morning and cannot open the eyes because of crust.”

Pinkeye: conjunctivitis born as a viral disease from surrounding bacteria:  Conjunctiva of the eye inflames; belonging to the genus Arterivirus; highly contagious.

I asked Kito what the jail cell looked like.

“It’s small, no more then this deck.”  We were clustered outside the police station, in an area no larger then four feet by six.

“And there are three other prisoners with him.”

“What about beds?” Lily queried.

“No sista.  No beds.  No chairs.  No blankets.  No sinks.  No nothing, except one bucket.  They sleep on the concrete floor.  They sit on the concrete floor.  They eat off the concrete floor.  And they squat over this one bucket and shit into it.”  Kito paused for effect, dropping his head in abjection.  “And there’s no washing of hands or body.  No moving for the exercise.  He doesn’t have much longer, you know?  Nobody does in this place,” he concluded pointing inside the building.

Kito had been to jail… like myself.  For eight months Kito was locked up in England after living there for ten years.  He was married to an English woman.  They had a daughter together.  Then he was jailed and later deported back to the island of Lamu off the coast of northeastern Kenya.  He saw his daughter whenever his ex-partner decided to visit.  She was coming in one week.  It had already been over a year.

“So I treat my friends as my family.  They’re all I have in this place.  Abdullah is my brother, you know?  He is family.  And my brother will not live long in this jail, nobody can.  Maximum one year and then dead.  You get sick and you die.  Jail in Kenya is execution.  Abdullah is going to die and it was not his fault.”

Abdullah was a businessman in the tourist trade of Lamu.  He was a sailor and organized trips to take people to Manda Toto for snorkeling, as well as sunset sails through the mangroves on local dhow boats.  On one particular trip, a group canceled the night before.  Abdullah had already bought the supplies for the all-day sail.  The one remaining passenger was nowhere to be found and thus showed up the morning of the scheduled departure.  Abdullah explained the situation—they weren’t going.  Of course, the one remaining tourist wanted his money back.  But Abdullah did not have it.  It was in the groceries.  So the English tourist reported him to the police and the police came to arrest Abdullah.  He was locked up with bail set at 2000ksh, approximately $30USD.

That was seven days ago and to this day his family is too poor for that.  His friends have their families to care for.  2000ksh is a fortune in many parts of the world, in fact, in too many parts of the world.

Shortly, Solomon appeared.  This was the Chief of Police for the Department of Tourism on the Island of Lamu; the man the English had dealt with, the man who arrested poor Abdullah.  On this day, Lily and I arrived to report the incident that occurred the night before—robbed by an axe-wielding heroin addict who threatened my life and ran away with a $4000USD camera.  In retrospect, we would be deciding the fate of another local, a man like Abdullah and Kito and police chief Solomon.  But a man with a question mark on his soul of whether or not he was deserving of such a fate.  That was yet to be decided.

I stepped into Solomon’s office and stood behind a counter while he and three other large bald Kenyans maneuvered into the room.  Solomon was tall and lanky, skinny with a narrowing head and dark brown eyes.  “So please recount the story of last night,” he requested, “with as much detail as you can remember.”

And so I began.

Lily and I were each drinking a jug of juice—one sweet lime and one fresh coconut.  It was Monday.  Two days had passed since the mugging, one day since our report to the police.  We were at Bush Gardens along the waterfront of Lamu town, observing an old Swahili culture beat under the heat.  The sun was high.  Sweaty bodies pushed donkeys, men rode them like over-sized children, and others hauled empty oil drums in trembling carts while most stood at the jetty staring.  Their clothes were faded from the sun and the lifestyle of fisherman and sailors.

It is a separate experience ambling along the waterfront of Lamu town.  While walking along the boardwalk, a tourist’s amble quickly turns into something akin to a trot as hawkers and touters goad for your attention:

“Nice pants brotha!”

“Hey sista!”

“Where you go?  To Shela?  I take you there?”

“Jambo nice couple, you want to snorkel?  Or maybe an evening mangrove sail?  The sunset, you know?”

They hawk and then they wait.  And then they stalk, these local fishermen and sailors of the tourist trade.  We are their sole income.  We must help.

After recounting the incident to Solomon and his police chiefs, we were led into further information.  Lamu is a tourist economy.  When economy is up, the culture thrives.  When it is down, it suffers.

Since the outbreak of violence after Kenya’s 2007 election, the entire country’s economy has suffered.  Few travelers care to explore the culture.  Now three years later, things are looking brighter.  Yet people are still desperate.

“There is a problem,” one man began telling me.  He was a boat driver and gave us a ride from Shela to Lamu town.  After we told him about the mugging, he gave us his sentiments and shared the deeper side of Lamu.  “People inland have drug and alcohol problems.  Many many use heroin.  And many drink.  Inland is where they have problems, and at night they come out to the beaches to do what they did to you.”

“So it happens often?” Lily asked.

“Yes, but it is better now.”  We paused as the motor droned and the sea breezes cooled our skin.  “But heroin is bad.  Alcohol is bad.  We don’t do that.  I’m a native and our people of Lamu are not happy with this.  My father told me it is okay to smoke the marijuana.  You can think.  You can work.  You can live a good life.  He said, ‘Smoke marijuana if you want, but stay away from everything else.’

“So brotha,” our captain said looking at me.  “Smoke the marijuana and be happy.”

Solomon had said the same… about the increase of violence:  “Last week two German ladies were robbed.  Same place.  Same time.  The man came from the bush onto the beach and pulled out a knife.  He took their cameras and their mobile phones and some money.  But we caught him and he is here in the cell.  So I think we have a good chance with this one.”

We spread the word.  We told our friend Habeeb at the General Store.  We told the boat captains and the hawkers and asked for their help.  We told other tourists and travelers to be weary—cautious—to have eyes in the back of their heads.  We told them to be smart.  And what everyone told us was this:

Don’t walk at night!

Lily and I had let our guard down.  We believed we were in paradise, a land of imagination, one fueled by emotions.  And we walked the beach at night under a cloudless sky littered with flittering debris of stardust and spacious chatter.  We paid the price because we were on a continent called Africa.  We were on a planet called Mother Earth where humanity suffers and resorts to violence against fellow brothers and sisters.  In retrospect, it made no difference where we were.  It could have been Mexico or Hawaii or New York.  The man with the axe, strung out on heroin, walked away with my camera loaded with a full memory card.  We walked away with our lives.  Consider us lucky.

Throughout the remaining week, I checked in with Solomon.  He wrote up an official report for insurance purposes and relayed any information.  “We have leads the camera is in Mombassa.”


“Yes,” Solomon nodded.  “We think he has left the island and is in Mombassa to sell the camera.  It will be difficult now, but we will keep trying.”

I told Kito about the news and he shrugged.  “I’m sorry we could not help you more, but these things are hard and too often.  This island is beautiful, but it is as normal as Nairobi.  You know, we have more serious issues.  The jail here, where Abdullah is, is full of guns, bombs and weapons.  If one thing happens, this town will go up.”

“What do you mean?  Why?”

“Why the guns?”

“Yeah, why is the jail full of them?”

“Last month,” Kito began, “there was a small fishing boat off the shore.  They were two fishermen from Lamu and it was night.  Suddenly, they saw a flare go off from another boat, so they motored to it and found a group of men.  The group needed help so the two fishermen rode up.  All of a sudden there were guns on them everywhere.  The other boat was full of Somali pirates.”

As the crow flies, the island of Lamu is approximately 70 kilometers south of Somalia.  It’s in the hotspot.  The island is a dichotomy of beauty versus evil.  It is pristine, yet chaotic.

Kito continued.  “There is a US Navy base somewhere here.  It’s hidden.  Nobody knows where.  When the fishermen were able to make a SMS call from their mobile, Kenyan police and US Navy swarmed the area and captured the pirates…all eleven of them.  And now their guns are here, and others from earlier times.”

Pirates, drugs, violence and paradise.  It all seemed to fit the adventurous package in which we were seeking.  I realized Lamu was like any other place, with the good and the bad.  While Lily and I were there, with the experiences we had, we offered our good energies to help the good, promote the positive.  Abdullah needed help, so we approached Kito.

“We’d like to help Abdullah.  How can we help?”

Kito smiled broadly.  “He needs to get out of there now.  He is sick and slowly dieing.  We need 2000ksh to bring him home and then he needs medicine to heal.”

Lily and I looked into Kito’s eyes and then we analyzed the situation.  We felt from our hearts and allowed our decisions to be lead from this place.  Then we handed over 2500ksh, some to get Abdullah out of jail and some for his medicines.

Kito’s face lit up.  His eyes became grateful.  And then he disappeared, heading up the hill to the police station.

Stories of life filled our conscience.  It flowered our appreciation for life and nurtured our understanding about the diversities of humanity.  We saw the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.  We shook Abdullah’s hand and felt his happiness.  We promoted our brothers Vasco de Gama and Omar with a snorkeling trip to Manda Toto.  Then days later we left Lamu with its lessons.  We bused back to Nairobi via Mombassa into the palace of Alison, and then onward over land and sea to the place from which we came.  We were safe.  We were sound.  We were richer with life, culture and understanding.  And then we slept, waiting for Africa to return.

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.