Belize Pt I – Dark Seas

There’s a place in paradise with a little casita along its shores. Here, the whole world slips away.


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.