Friday, June 23, 2006

Holidays, expensive twin and other stuff

So the parents and the twin came visiting end of May! WOW! It was incredible, amazing and wonderful and I’m truly grateful to their brood whom I know were skeptical about a visit to Africa but I assure you, they had an amazing time and got to do non-tourist things. We did the obligatory visit to the home on the hills and coming back, we came through the Eldama Ravine so they got to see this amazing vista that is part of the Great Rift Valley. There’s a bridge you cross on the way to Kabernet and we stopped right on it to look down. The river, the Kerio, runs from the equator through the valley and at the moment, the water levels were way down and from where we were, it was about 10 storeys through an enormous rock formation. I would truly love to raft that river one day so I’m currently looking for excursions in that part of town. The parents truly loved the experience and I took them to the Masai market where after a little practice, became more efficient bargainers than I ever could. I hate bargaining, especially with cab drivers and bartenders but the discount is worth it. My advice, go with someone who can differentiate the tribes. You can always tell who the Masai women are. They sit patiently on their mats, are terrible when it comes to bargaining (they’ll lower the price by 10 shillings at most on the smaller items) and if you’re not interested, they don’t chase you down and go back to humming or beading whatever work they have near them. The Kikuyu (sorry my friends) will practically leech themselves on you to make a sale and will lower the price by almost 50% after an hour of following you all over the market place so their product is rendered completely useless to begin with. The Kisii, are great soap stone carvers but be careful. They will tell you that it is an original so walk around first, look at other pieces and if they’re replicated then they’re lying. But if you’re fortunate enough to have the carver there and watch him/her work, then buy from them. Unfortunately, if you’re white, you will be very much the center of attention and the prices will be given a 300% markup. But the parents handled themselves very well. I still get stopped at the Hilton and in various gift shops they breezed in and get asked "Wapi mama yako?" (where's your mama?)

I’m back from holiday and I’m completely tired and still grinning from a much needed break away from life in the city. All I’m thinking right now was that exactly four hours ago, I was walking across the softest and whitest sand, staring at an amazing blue sky that met the shimmering green waters of the Indian Ocean under a very hot sun. Know I’m looking at the filthy towers of one of our media houses and a very ugly dirty grey sky with an even dirtier city underneath it and a long day of work. Oh, yeah, and I’m missing breakfast. For the past two weeks I’ve been eating well, amazingly well. I realized that I don’t eat breakfast at all and now that my tummy has gotten used to being fed a healthy diet of eggs, beef bacon, sausages, rich coffee, amazingly delicious fruits and juices.

My wonderful twin and I took the train down which many people were skeptical about but it turned out to be just fine. Always book first class. The food is suspect so we bought sandwiches and beers for dinner instead of paying for dinner and breakfast. Saved us a bunch of money and stomach worries considering how awful the train dining area is. The compartments are standard and fairly clean and for about $30, the price wasn't bad at all. They give you beddings and there’s a waiter who comes around and takes drink orders. The train leaves the station at exactly 7 p.m. and is supposed to arrive at about 8.30. In its hey days, Kenya Railways ran two trains to Mombasa, one at 5.30 which would be an all stops kinda train and the latter one would be the express, making only two stops at Mtito Andei (remember the Ghost and the Darkness?) and in Voi. The twin and I were giggling like idiots when the train jerked off to a start. We have always loved taking the train and for us, to repeat the experience as adults was amazing. We were pretty much stupid for the next five hours, giggling and having Gin and Tonics, an homage to our mother’s fave train drink. We had brought our own sammiches but there was a waiter running around taking orders. Drinks are incredibly cheap on the train, $1 for beers and slightly more for the gin. There are two dinner times, in order to accommodate all the passengers. A waiter comes by playing a xylophone announcing each dinner time, the first at 7.30, the next at 9. At about 8 pm, an attendant came by to make our beds. It’s basically a bed in a bag, with sheets, blankets and pillows. Very clean and there were NO roaches. LOL, we’d been hassled by the brothers and told to look for roaches and rats and to carry a can of insecticide. We had the latter so we sprayed our compartment because of all the moths flying in near the lights. We were pretty knackered because we had both done some serious running around prior to our trip so by about 10pm, we were yawning heavily and slightly buzzed. The compartments come with sinks and running water, but use bottled even to brush your teeth. There are loos on each end of the car, fairly clean but one thing’s for sure. Most men cannot aim straight even when they are not moving so you can imagine what a moving train loo looks like. Take lots of antibacterial wipes and for ladies, the flushable loo wipes are necessary. I opted to sleep on the top cabin, and so I hoisted myself up there and promptly fell asleep. That gentle rocking motion is oh so therapeutic. I didn’t wake up again until about 3, when we’d stopped in Mtito. I sat up to make sure our windows were closed....yes I know that lions don’t come through open train windows at night but I wanted to make sure! Looked over and down to make sure the twin was ok and fell right back asleep again. Woke up about an hour later because the train was moving seriously fast. We were going downhill and it almost felt like we were flying off the tracks. I closed my eyes, said a silent prayer and passed out in the middle of it. Woke up at about 5.30. We’d stopped at a place called Samburu. Beautiful savannah vegetation, and open field everywhere. You could feel the slight humidity but even better, the sun rising in the east, the direction of the ocean and the colors cast over the painting will ever capture that. Cough, cough, oh yeah, we were parallel to the main highway and the trucks were booking it past us belching out fumes.

We woke up later and after a quick brush, climbed back into bed. We took turns looking out the window, trying to recognize scenes from our past. One game our mother used to always play with us was she’d give ten shillings (a lot of money then!) to whomever spotted the first baobab tree. She always knew where the first one grew but we were always off by like 50 miles. Another vivid memory was trying to catch the first scent of salty air but we were both a little stuffed up from hanging our heads outside the window for ages from the previous night. This country is so beautiful that I began to ache just thinking of heading back on Sunday. Sob. As we approached Mombasa, we discovered yet another good reason to have taken the train. There is a section of road in an area called Mariakani, that does disservice to the name road in itself. It’s more of a dirt road with bits of pave all over. It’s even worse than the Naivasha stretch. We were chugging along comfortably at 30mph passing limping cars carrying bruised spines and bums. This useless government has yet to address that road though I think there are no less than 10 fully paid tax free committees that are seeing to it. Lazy fat bastards. Let me not go off on our useless regime at the moment, there has been a lot to rant about, including our connection to Armenia.

We pulled into Mombasa two hours after we were supposed to arrive. Welcome to the coast, where everything slooooooowwwwwssss down, just a tad. Don’t come here with your city haste and rush. Even leaving the station was done in a lazy affair as we strolled out. Our travel agent had arranged for a taxi to pick us up and sure enough, Martin was out there waiting for us. We got into his car (unmarked cab) and we told him we had to stop in town and get a few things first. So he took us around which was nice because we got to see how big the city has become. But it still has a much more laid back feel than Nairobi. We stopped at a street hawkers stall to bargain the heck out of some Gucci and Ray Ban sunglasses (at $3 for two pairs each). We then decided to shop in Diani which is on the southside of the coast, instead of the Mombasa side as the Nakumatt at Likoni is always busy, so we proceeded to the ferry, which you have to take to over the harbor to the other side. When we started to go down toward the ferry ramp, we were pulled over to the side by the police officers standing guard. They leaned in through our open windows and greeted us warmly. They then asked Martin, "Wapi PSV ?" (Public Service Vehicle license). Martin said he didn’t have one. "Wapi license? " Martin again shook his head much to our dismay. We found out later that the drivers on the coast are hassled so much by cops about their licenses that even if they have them, they are reluctant to show them. Hence the unmarked cabs and it is also recommended that you say they are a friend who’s driving you around on errands. We did realize later on that there is a very clear bias as a station wagon loaded with 6! tourists sitting practically on each other was casually waved through. Anyway, Martin got arrested and was marched to a cargo container that was acting as a jail. We were so relaxed and seemingly unfazed such that we just sat there for a bit, called the cab company and told the owner what the problem was. So he sent another driver after about 10 minutes and we switched cabs. Our new cabbie wasn’t as exciting so we said quick hellos and then got on the ferry. (Oh, Martin got out of jail later that evening and all was well.) Depending on traffic and time of day, there are three ferries going to and fro the island to the other side. We had to wait about 15 minutes for the next one. That ferry fills up quickly. There are quite a lot of pedestrians who’ll cross and catch the matatus on either side so the foot traffic is large but very well organized. In previous years vehicles and people alike rushed to get a spot, but now they load the cars up first and then the pedestrians and bikes get on afterwards. Once inside, the twin and I decided to go up to the top level to check out the view. Very, very nice and I recommend it to anyone taking the ferry. The harbor is obviously quite deep and we were told that dolphins and sometimes sharks will follow the huge tankers that keep the Mombasa harbor in business. All we saw were squid though, loads of them. Is it called a school? Not sure. Anyway, gorgeous view and for the first time, I could smell the salt. It was amazing. The trip itself took about 15 minutes to cross and we passed the other two ferries going to the other side.

I won’t bore you with the details of the 30 minute drive toward Diani but I will tell you times have changed. All our family holidays were spent in this part of the world for about 10 years and I remember lush vegetation, palm tree plantations, a few mud huts here and there, the occasional kiosk or vegetable stand but nothing like what has happened now. There has been so much expansion and construction on this once, very sleepy stretch that it has become impossible to recognize and is quite distressing. I only hoped that the beaches had not seen this Miami-esque scale of development as that would have ruined the whole trip for us. When we got to Ukunda (the largest town in that area - quite small actually but a central post of sorts) we took a left turn on a 2 mile road to Diani. When you get to the end, you either go left or right and judging by the billboards ads, one is completely spoiled for choice. There’s a new Shaanti Holistic place that advertises yoga and a whole plethora of meditative therapy...but no champagne? No alcohol of sorts. Yeah, like I’m going to spend a bunch load of money on a weekend at the beach and not have a margarita to show for it.

LOL, sorry, as I write this, my neighbors downstairs are screaming at their six year old son who has locked himself in the car and is trying to start it. The kid has some issues because he cries ALL the time. The past two Saturdays - the only two I’ve spent at my place, the kid has woken me up consistently at 7 a.m. wailing for one reason or another. I’m watching them try to coax "Dan" out but he’s having none of it. They’ve tried to bribe him with a belt, a solid beating and now they’ve resorted to promises of buying him with a phone, milk and ice-cream. LOL. Oh damn, he’s started the car, I just hope he doesn’t find the brakes. Oh, the door is open, there is silence and he’s out...and there’s that screaming. Wow, he’s getting thumped properly. Poor kid. Still getting smacked, still screaming. Sigh.

Anyway, we were staying at the Leisure Lodge Resort which is about 2 km to the left of the turn-off. It is an amazingly large resort hotel which boasts the only 18 hole golf course in all of the south coast. We took a brief trip there (to see if they were showing the England game) and I got a glimpse of the 18th and it really is quite an impressive and impeccably kept course. The resort itself is quite massive but cleverly hidden from the main road and the beach front view shows the resort has tried as much as possible to blend in with the surrounding vegetation and looks like it has always been there. When we arrived, I was disappointed not to receive the ice-cold mint towels that the Whitesands in the North Coast offers. (It’s the little things people, the little things!) Instead, we got a super sweet fruity beverage and an extremely slow check in service. I won’t blame them seeing as it was low season and they staff that way, but to have one person receiving guests and answering phone calls is just bad. The twin and I weren’t too perturbed about that, her especially as she was getting her first glimpse and scent of the true essence that is the South Coast of Mombasa. When you come through this massive reception, you immediately see the reef in the distance with waves crashing upon it and then right in front of that is the deliciously salty Indian Ocean lapping gently in the low tide. We were given an upgrade, after I gave the poor lass this long drawn out story about our history with the region and how our true childhood was spent here, blah, blah, blah. A porter came over and led us to our room. Now, most if not all beach hotels section off their rooms so you’ll find something like mini apartment complexes sharing a pool and most have a sea view. They always leave the doors open for available rooms on check-in days so when you come in, a gentle sea breeze overwhelms you and your room just looks delectable. Give it a couple of hours and then you start to see the minor flaws you overlooked while you tipped the guy your country’s GDP out of the sheer joy that swept over you when he brought you in to this oasis. I shudder to think what our upgrade was from because the room was fairly standard. Large king size bed, a twin beside it if you’re bringing kids. Telly, except they were having a dispute with DSTV (South African Cable monopoly bastards) so there was no satellite at the time. We had to settle for Deutsche TV, an Indian channel and blessedly some CNN and BBC.

We immediately changed into beach gear and practically fled down to the beach giggling like idiots. Oh that soft, white sand that is so much better than the grainy cement of northern Atlantic beaches or the brown dirt of some of the Pacific. We dropped our stuff off on a couple of the hotel deck chairs and ran into the still outgoing surf. BRRRR! At first but then we got comfortable and it was amazing. We were deliriously happy and didn’t care that the sky was grey and the water was not particularly welcoming. Bless the twin for buying the $4 Target swim shoes because I did not want to feel any grainy beach at all. The water was lovely though and just perfect. You get this heady intoxicated feeling when you’re in the Indian Ocean and it’s exciting, calming and incredibly therapeutic. We didn’t stay long as we were starving so we went up to the main open dining area by one of the pools to go get a bite to eat. Service was super slow but seeing as it was the low season, there were fewer staff so you just had to forget your city habits and just settle down and relax. Yummy burgers with ice cold diet cokes followed and the sun finally came out. We swam briefly after lunch then went back to the rooms to start unpacking. At around 5, we went back to the beach just as the high tide was coming in. Swam for a bit and then a brisk work out in the hotel pool (Treviche, but the sis and I called it Ceviche) and then off to the rooms to get ready for dinner.

Prior to dinner, we had a much needed GNT and discovered that they have a very welcome happy hour. We sat there reminiscing about our previous visits and discussed our plans for the next day. Dinner time was announced by the dining staff who gathered around with various local instruments and they went dancing around the large reception area, the bar and other places the tourists were gathered. We wanted to wait though for that initial rush to die down so we waited for about an hour until 8.30. I have to give the hotel kudos for its dining menu. It has the standard buffet on offer but they also offer a five course dining option with access to the extremely delicious and probably the best salad bar I’ve experienced in Kenya. We chose the five course and went for the fish. DELICIOUS. Best hotel food I’ve tasted in a long, long time. Was amazing. We stuffed ourselves silly and had a nice half carafe of house white to go with it. By 9.30, we were exhausted and quite portly at the point. I insisted we take a walk to the beach to digest before crashing for the evening so we staggered down the many walkways toward the sound of pounding surf. The tide was peaking then and the rush of wind and salt air just added to our already intoxicated senses and I turned to the twin and said, "I love you very much, but right now, I wish you were a completely different gender, unrelated and of Italian descent." She mumbled something about the feeling being mutual and we sighed, hating each other for a bit before heading back up. The hotel has 24hr security so it was comforting to see this guard walking around with what looked like a bull but was really this massive rottweiler whose paw prints made a deeper impression in the sand than his handler.

Off to bed we went and I barely managed to make it in before I was out like a light and slept for a solid 8 hours in one position. I woke up at about 6.30 and had that wonderful feeling, trying to figure out exactly where I am. I turned over hoping my sister had turned into Totti but alas, I was stuck with her. I tried to get her to come and swim with me but she declined respectfully. I didn’t know you could use the "f" word in so many forms as a verb, noun, adjective etc. all in one breath and turn over and continue muttering until sleep clouded the senses. I went down to the beach and that sun was already hot and burning. The tide was quite high and I worked over to the nearby Leopard Beach Hotel as they have a very interesting reef/rock formations around the water-sport area and also a cool break wall. I walked around, the surf rushing to meet me, swirling around my feet, eww, seaweed, cool, amethyst shell....was absolutely awesome. I walked around for a bit then headed back toward the rooms. I had a fantastic morning swim and did some serious laps before heading back to the room. The twin was still asleep so I flung my wet swim suit at her to wake her up.

Breakfast was standard fare, omelette bar, great fruit selections, and yummy sausages. Keeping in mind this is an Islamic part of Kenya, the pig products were tucked very far away from everything else so it was quite a hunt for the bacon and sausages I desperately craved. Once found, they were absolutely delicious. We needed to run some errands that morning (Friday) so we got ready for a dash to the Diani Shopping Center. We could have taken a taxi but their prices are EXORBITANT and seeing as we were only going a short distance, we opted for a matatu. There are many running between the hotels on that long Diani stretch so we didn’t have to wait for long. We took one down first to the Barclays shopping center. A small sort of strip mall with cyber cafes, a tiny supermarket and a billion curio places to trap tourists. I needed to use the ATM but other than that, they didn’t have what we wanted so we continued on to the Diani center. We had to get a matatu from the junction and about five minutes later we were there. The Diani shopping center has evolved from the one shop place we remember it to be, to a large strip mall that has just about anything the heart desires. There’s a neat little supermarket with quite a good selection of most things. Because there is a very large German and Italian population here, the food selection is wonderful. The cheeses looked particularly delightful but we didn’t want to bother with buying bread and such. We bought our liquor supply (much cheaper than even happy hour) and we picked up a very much needed deep conditioner. My hair dresser was already pissed off that I was going to the coast without braiding my hair. We did get annoyed with the Muthaiga Mini Market though because they charge extra for shopping bags! Bastards. We putted around for a bit and then decided to head back. We got a matatu to the junction again, jumped out and waited for one coming from the Ukunda direction. It came quickly and we got in. LOL, interesting thing. Kenyans truly discriminate against each other and I think it might explain why there are very few locals visiting the South Coast because one cannot believe a Kenyan could be a tourist in that region. The matatu driver asked us where we were going and we told him. As we approached the hotel, he said, "Staff entrance, yes?" We said, "Umm, no, main gate." He looked back at us in shock and then said, "Nyinyi ni wageni?" (You are tourists?) We nodded and he turned back in silence. What is so hard to believe about two Kenyan girls going on holiday by themselves that makes everyone think they’re either staff or hookers. (A lot of pent up rage on this one actually.) Like if my boys, Miguel, Jamie or Tristan came to visit, knowing how close we were, people would automatically assume that I’m a pro looking for a green card.

Urghh. Anyway, back to hotel. It was only 11 but it was 12 somewhere so out came the wonderfully refreshing beers. We sat down on our balcony and read for about an hour. We were still stuffed from breakfast so we went down to the beach chairs. We lay back in a tiny cove which had about 8 chairs. We smiled at our fellow guests and settled down to some serious reading. Occasionally you’d look up, look around, smile and go back to reading. By the way, I found the best therapy in the world. It was right then and there. You just lay back, let the sun warm you, sometimes jump up and go take a quick dip, come back and lie down, sip your beer, rub in more sun block and then read some more. True tale: I had been seriously stressed and I tend to break out around my flush points, i.e., neck, wrists etc. Well I’d gone to the coast with a really bad case but not even 24 hours after being in that water and that environment, it had dramatically reduced in irritation and appearance. By the time I’d left, you couldn’t even tell I’d had an outbreak. I took off my watch and placed at the bottom of my beach bag to be ignored for the duration of my stay. I sent nasty text messages to just about everyone I knew saying, "On the beach, sipping a Tusker. You?" The replies ranged from heartfelt sobbing to angry and detailed instructions as to what I could do with my holiday. I smiled and put my phone together with my watch.

I could go on and on but that was pretty much how the whole stay went. That afternoon however, we did something incredible. Since the tide was going out, we decided to walk toward the south (Diani direction except on the beach) and see how far we could go. I was convinced we could walk as far as where we used to live during our holidays. I was so glad for my beach shoes because there was a lot of exposed coral and grainy sand we had to walk over and there were dead urchins and such all over the place. The worst beach ever...right outside Alfajiri. It's a very private place to get to and they don't advertise so I definitely see the appeal for Brad and Angelina and family but it's not a swimmer's resort. It was closed for the low season but it looked wonderful from the outside. Like I said, if the hotel has no beach shots, they're hiding something from you. We walked on for a while and then realized we'd found the beach entrance to our home! We ran up the secret jungle path (counting all the steps - an old family tradition), looking out for giant monitor lizards and snakes, and found ourselves years back in our lives. Long story short, we came home. We met the new owner of our old place, a lovely lady who bought it for her grandkids. I already asked her to adopt us. She's made some incredible changes and it actually looks like it should be an exclusive beach nightclub. Amazing place. Wow. She let us jump in the kidney shaped pool in which we'd learned to swim at the age of 5 and we took an amazing swim. We hugged her goodbye and then skipped down the path again. We took more pictures and then ran into the ocean. I know now why the beach spoiled me. That particular section of the beach front has always been smooth, seaweed free and there are always fishermens boats anchored nearby just begging to be clambered into. We would have happily stayed there except it was five and the tide was coming in and we had to walk back the four miles very quickly because there was a coral section that jutted out that would soon be inaccessible. We barely made it, exhausted but jubillant at having done something incredible with the only person in the world who would know exactly what you were feeling at that moment.

The following day, we hired a boat at around 3 in the afternoon from one of the nagging beach boys. "I'll give you a good price because you're my sista, you're not a mzungu."That is the one thing that ruins the coast, the beach boys and they can do and get anything for you, including being your companion for the duration of your stay. Yech! Anyway, there's a sand bar that is always exposed during the low tide and we wanted to get as close to it as possible. so we hired the boat with two guys who paddled us over to the bar. The sand on the bar is so soft and refined that you will sink to your knees immeadiately on the outer banks so you have to practically crawl. It was awesome! They pointed out the urchins hugging the surrounding coral reef and they mentioned Moray eels but those I didn't bother to look for. In between the marine biology lesson, they would mention their shop in Ukunda, their starving family, the club where they could get you in and then back to the difference between the older and younger urchins. LOL. Welcome to Kenya. It was something else to be all the way out there and the sister who'd battled the expense (only $6 r/trip for two) was greatful in the end that we had undertaken that adventure.

Leaving the lodge was tragic, tragic, tragic. The twin had announced very early in the morning that she had no intention of going back to Nairobi and that I was on my own and she wasn't sure how she'd survive seeing as her bank account and mine were threatening to show negative balances. We had decided to fly back from Diani to Wilson Airport in Nairobi and we took Aero Kenya, a turbo prop plane (very expensive but the convenience is well worth it). There were 18 passengers total on our small plane and although there was not inflight service or entertainment...or safety instructions for that matter, it was still a more pleasant flight than the cattle flight that is Kenya Airways. The flight was awesome. We flew over the Mara and the views were spectacular. You could follow the Athi and Tana Rivers massive path through the parched land, unfortunately dried up in some parts but capable of sustaining life on its banks. I wanted to cry as we flew closer to Nairobi because I DID not want to go to work the following day. We had to fly in over the larger airport, Jomo Kenyatta because there are no landing lights at Wilson (I shit you not) so the tower had to identify us. Was really neat flying over all these parked jumbos and then back up into the air, around the Nairobi National Park and then onto to Wilson Airport.

It was an amazing holiday and I got to do it with my sister and more so, it was expolaratory research for my career path. I found the hotel I'm going to buy and it's wonderful. Right now it's a burnt shell but it has promise.

I've written for ages but I had to make up for my silence. I'm sad I'm going to miss Ben and Talley's wedding coming up sooon, sniff, sniff, sniff but I'll have a bottle of champagne on you two. I love you both very much and come to Kenya for your honeymoon! More later and much sooner, I promise.

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