Monday, January 16, 2017

Sour Grapes in the Land of Bitter Lemons

                               Welcome to the Hotel Lavadhiotis (2001)
     
           Such a lovely place! The flight here was rather non-descript, lo and behold—there were no touts, hussies, taxi sheisters, hipsters, flipsters and finger poppin’ daddies waiting to pounce on me as I de-planed the plane. Quite a deserted airport here in Larnaka, Cyprus.

Emerson at Kourian ruins, 2001
The first building I saw as we touched down was a mosque located next to some salty marsh. Apparently, it is supposed to be the fourth most important Islamic religious site in the Middle East. It contains the tomb of the Prophet's (PBUH) Aunt Umm Haram who died here after she fell off a mule on a local journey. She was buried on the spot called Hala Sultan Tekkesi (tekke means Muslim shrine). This site has become something of a pilgrimage for Turkish citizens of Northern Cyprus and other Muslims in the Levant.
I actually had to bug someone to give me a lift to downtown Larnaka as the cabbies were all too busy watching TV and drinking cups of (dare I say)—'Greek coffee'.
The drive into town was in subdued light and I could barely make out the mosque which is set beside a salty marsh lake that was dotted with pink flamingos—the kind that Costco sells.
I finally got to the Lavadhiotis Hotel, which was right downtown on a busy side street. It looked quite posh and a buxom bleach blonde receptionist with a husky voice greeted me—“Kal mare!”
I answered—“No I’ve already eaten. Thank you”
She replied—“No, that is a Greek greeting”.
I said, “Oh. I thought that was fried squid”.
Yanee, she was probably thinking—what a wanker!
Her huge Ionian green eyes gazed deeply into mine and for a moment I was bewitched. Her husky voice broke the spell and she calmly told me that it was the 'low season' and it would be only 11 Cypriot pounds per night—so much for romantic notions as hard economy set in.
It was the 'low season' so I did indeed get a break on the price as there was hardly anyone staying at the hotel. Hardly anyone except for Sweden's version of Jellyroll Morton who was constantly trying to learn how to play "Fly Me To The Moon" on the saxophone. Naturally, I sang the melody in my best impression of Mel Torme despite knowing that it was “Old Blues Eyes” tune (George eat your heart out!).

The following morning, there was a French couple with a rather precocious daughter who went around staring at everyone during the buffet breakfast. That was until I did the kid’s routine of “see food”—that usually breaks them up, especially with bananas and bran!
The 'rooms' here are really self-contained apartments with TV, balcony with Ikea chairs, a 4-burner stove top, fridge, sink, plus dishes and cupboards. I settled in and decided to go for a wee walk.
              Larnaka is known for its impressive promenade that stretches the length of a long sandy beach. The boulevard is lined with palm trees, tavernas, pubs, McDonalds, bistros and yes, even a little kiosk that sells Dairy Queen ice cream—How could they?
             The beach is quite wide and there must be a brisk trade in beach umbrellas, chaises lounges and melanomas during the peak summer months. The sun was waning, so I headed over to some rocks to catch a bit of the sun. It felt nice on my face and I almost fell asleep, but the neighbouring cats that were prowling amongst the breakwater rocks kept me awake.

Next day at breakfast

            The ‘Continental breakfast’ at the hotel is quite substantial. For two Cypriot pounds, you get a huge smorgasbord of: Tang or a lemon drink (not bitter), a huge pot of tea or Nescrape, as much toast as you want, chocolate chip cookies, a mysterious blend of orange and peach conserve, blackened olives, corn flakes, hot boiled eggs, cheese and mortadella. Of course, I brought along my smallish jar of Marmite just to piss off the British patrons— “Sod off you lot and get your own jar!”
               There's an Armenian Christian gal having breakie behind me—she must have snuck off on her parents. She is quite the beguiling babe: a statuesque, olive-skinned beauty with long tresses of almond hair. She is chatting with some Greek boyfriend, but she is carrying the bulk of the conversation. I couldn’t help notice that she has an American or Canadian accent.
              Earlier I went for a bracing walk along the Corniche against the wind, but on the return portion, the sun warmed my face and body. There were lots of Euro-eccentrics on the beach.
              Some old geyser was running along the beach in his native raiment— a G-string whilst others were doing their part for the Larnaka lunatic chapter of the Polar Bear Club. Blimey, but it wasn't the slightest bit warm, rather chilly actually—talk about shrinkage!
              It's incontheivable to believe that I would be wearing long pants, covered shoes, Columbia Safari jacket and a Mountain Equipment Coop Gore-Tex wind shell to keep out the biting wind—the shame was too much to bear.
             It felt like a spring day in the Canadian Rockies: the kind where you burn your face, but freeze your arse off because of the cold wind howling off a nearby glacier which keeps you true to the season.
            At any rate, there's lots of Turkish influences here and there must be Muslims still living in the area as I saw a sign for Ismail Mohamed—Exporter.

 But, maybe they buggered off because the Turkish minority suffered so much at the hands of those Greek Cypriot gang's which was prior to the Turkish invasion in 1974. There's a huge mosque called—Imam Pasha's Mosque and it is presently undergoing renovations to prepare the minaret with huge ashlar blocks. God knows when they worship as I have not heard the call to prayer yet. However, I did hear church bells this morning that woke me up at 6:00am.
Lots of interesting looking old buildings, arches and the old Sultan's Hammam (Turkish bath) has been turned into (of all things)—a youth hostel!
I do not know if I could handle that lifestyle or way of travelling anymore—I have become too much of a softie and enjoy my creature comforts. Now I am just a frivolous raconteur, somewhat of a savant rather than the penniless vagabond of the 80s and 90s that most of you have come to love and cherish. During those halcyon years, I wouldn't have imagined staying anywhere posh, so I suppose that is why I could travel on the cheap and for so long. "We live the life we choose, we'd fight and never lose those were the days, oh yes, those were the days—la, la, la"—ya, Lalaland.

'"I wanna go home, oh how I wanna go home"

            Today I had the brilliant idea that I would head up to see the Turkish side of Cyprus—a much-debated point around these parts. First, I had to run a few errands then I ordered a 'service taxi' that would take me to Nicosia/Lefkosa for 11:00am.
            With a mad Ahab at the wheel, we roared off to the appointed site in a Dodge Caravan amidst lots of Greek curses, hand waving and other rude gesticulations by our driver which didn't seem to alleviate matters, but blew off sufficient steam.
             Nevertheless, we were all a complete wreck by the time we got to our destination and individually we felt like throttling the driver. However, he did manage to take me to Checkpoint Charlie at Pafos Gate which was kind of him until I realized I owed him an additional two Cypriot pounds—rotten sod!
               And to further compound my agony, I found out that I had missed getting into the 'other side’ (the Turkish side that is) by a mere five minutes. No wonder the Gleek (plick) border guard had a smile on his face. He was probably just as happy that I wasn't going to give those damn Turks any business—HA!
              To say the least, I was just a tad pissed off with the Greek hotel hussy and the taxi driver as they must have known what time the border closed—it couldn't be that much of a secret could it? But, then on further peregrinations, I realized—Why on earth would a Greek Cypriot want to go to the 'dark side' of Northern Cyprus anyways? The Greek Cypriots don't even recognise the North nor the Turks who our living there. Furthermore, the Greeks are probably not welcome there.
              This became even more evident because if you were to cross in this 'no-man's land' and get a Turkish stamp, you would therefore, not be allowed to re-enter back into the Greek side. The plot thickens—thus, you would be obliged (nay forced) to seek departure from a northern port back to the Turkish motherland.
              On that matter, the Greek Cypriot maps I saw don’t pull any punches either with bold letters stating—“AREA INACCESSIBLE BECAUSE OF THE TURKISH OCCUPATION”.
              The Turkish side does their best to rub it in because upon arriving near the outskirts of Nicosia/Lefkosa, you and everyone else travelling on the road north have a visual prompt that reminds you of where you are and in particular—where the Turks are.
             There is a mountain range that acts as a backdrop to the lovely city of Nicosia and on this mountain, has been painted or carved out of rock a huge Turkish flag. Beside it, in equally imposing white letters set against the grey rock face is—KKTC (KUZEY KIBRIS TURK CUMHURIYETI) or the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
             I smiled when I first saw this sign, but this was frowned upon by the scowling taxi driver who saw me in his rear mirror—too bad he didn't see everyone else he just about hit on the highway!
              So there I was, stuck at the Greek/Turkish border—what could I do?
              I was barred from entry into the beloved homeland of Ataturk and that modern Turkish-Cypriot born swine herder Dentkash. Apparently. Dentkash is the stick in the mud in recent negotiations between the Greek and Turkish communities who are trying to sort out the divided island.
             Apparently, the Euros have told both parties to get their shit together and get this island problem settled or neither the Greek Cypriots nor the Turks will be accepted into EU. A rather daunting task given the intransigence of Dentkash’s position in spite of a mellowing from mainland Turks.  Nevertheless, there was lots of propaganda that were promoting the atrocities that had been committed by those Turkish imperialist forces under Ecevit.
              In particular, there were pictures of two martyrs to the cause—called the Deryneia Martyrs. Deryneia is a Greek Cypriot town that lies next to Famagusta on the Green Line that separates the Republic of Cyprus from Northern Cyprus.
              Tasos Isaak was part of a Greek Cypriot crowd of supporters who had gathered for the march for ‘unification’, which ultimately ended badly. In all the confusion and confrontation with the Turkish community, Tasos got separated from his mates and was set upon by a paramilitary group of Turkish nationals—none other than the Turkish variation of Nazis called—the “Grey Wolves". The 'Grey Wolves' beat the Greek guy into submission with iron bars and wooden beams right under the eyes of the Turkish police. Perhaps, this guy should have heeded a warning that a friend Tim Sawyer (who teaches in Stambool) told Mike Bowie and myself—"Don't get a Turk mad at you". Tall Tim (AKA ConstanTimople) should know about this as he had the boots put to him outside a Stambool bar by some young Turks a few years back.
The Turkish side of Lefkosa


At any rate, this martyr madness didn’t end here. Three days later at Tasos Isaac's funeral, a friend was so overcome with grief that he sought some sort of retribution for his friends untimely and unfortunate death.
Solomos Solomou decided to outrun both the UN security forces and Greek Cypriot police to pass through the border, shimmy up a Turkish flagpole and try to take down the Turkish flag.
What was the guy thinking—that the Turks would allow him to defile their ground and flag?
He was dropped by five bullets from a dozen Turkish sharpshooters. What the heck did this guy expect? Moreover, did the other Greek Cypriots expect that the passionate Turks would allow their flag to be pulled down—unbelievable? And pray, what would you expect to happen if it was an American, Israeli, British flag or anybody's flag and right in front of their armed troops—geez, it's not shocking is it? OK, maybe this guy's a martyr, but he's one stupid f*#%**g martyr if you ask me!
All of these atrocities were captured on film or video for posterity and act as a rallying cry for the Greek Cypriots. I’m sure that the Turkish Cypriots have their own ‘dark stories’ to tell of their incursion at the hands of the Greek Cypriots.
Enough of this blood wrenching martyrdom, I was starting to get hungry.
I sashayed past bombed out houses and hotels, shot out windows as most of the buildings were pock marked with bullet holes. Sandbags were propped up against walls and they looked like they weren’t going to be moved any day soon. I headed out through Pafos Gate, which isn’t a gate in the true sense, but rather, a huge thoroughfare into the UN sector.

souk
I skirted the battlements of the old city walls that demarcated the Turkish from the Greek side—the Green Line. These ramparts are quite stunning in architectural terms and afford the Turks an excellent view of the 'other side'.
These are correctly referred to as –the “Venetian Ramparts” and they were originally built by the Venetians between 1567-1570 to rebuff the Ottoman Turk invaders to Lefkosa.
I looked up and saw a few lonely Turkish guys looking down from a chai stand high on the ramparts rather wistfully at the slender ladies in short skirts of the Greek persuasion. These lads and their glances of longing reminded me of one of my Syrian workers at the site of Tel ‘Atij in north-eastern Syria—Mohammed Ahmed. After work, Mohammed would get dressed up in his finest with sunglasses and peer from his nearby house over to our little encampment where us Canadian archaeologists called ‘home’.
He always looked like he was waiting for an invite from us in the hopes of sampling our ‘sundowners’. But, it was not to be. I figured that he just wanted to fit in with “the westerners”, but he would never be able to and that’s what these Turkish lads reminded me of.
They and Mohammed wanted no yearned for western liberalism and freedom, but I am not sure that they could have handled it. What we in ‘the west’ take for granted is actually “quite intoxicating” as my good friend George Evashuk so rightly pointed out to me on numerous occasions.
Nevertheless, I was looking a little wistfully myself, but at least, I was walking behind said babes.
I walked down a few side streets, but there were signs that warned of “Absolutely No Photography”, as this was a UN safety corridor between the two factions. I kept walking with the intention of keeping as close as I could to the “Green Line”.
I wanted to see how people lived and carried on under the oppression of a divided city.
There was one stretch of buildings that looked like an old market souk with lots of little arches and arcades. These were full mostly of carpenter shops, ironmongery, balcony builders and upholstery shops. There were Greek blue and white flags at certain intersections that were manned by Greek forces. I continued on until I came upon a small group of tourists with cameras at the ready. I thought-AHA! now I can take some pictures. It was, in fact, the only lookout where you could take pictures.
The Greek army guy guarding the “Green Line” observation post looked like Nik Kypreos’ (the hockey player) brother except he had traded a hockey stick for an M-16. Nik would have fit in here as the name “Kypreos” means Cyprus in Greek.
Nik Kypreos in Green Zone

I climbed the steps that led to a sheltered platform that afforded me a view across no-man’s land. To be truthful, I don’t know what all the fuss was about regarding photos, as there was absolutely nothing worth photographing. All that’s there is dirty old laundry that is strung up haphazardly, empty lots, deserted houses, shot out windows and some old moldy sandbags propped up on the Turkish side.
What could possibly be offensive about taking photos of a ghetto—there were no people to speak of?
I suppose this is what Beirut must have looked like after the Israelis, Amal Militia, Palestinians, US, Syrians, and Phalange armies all took a turn bombing the shite out of the place.
However, here, the Greeks have turned it into something of a national shrine with a renovated museum cum tourist information cum propaganda mongering centre. Also, the street that leads up to the gun post has been transformed into a boulevard lined with trees and tiny tavernas. There was quite a feeling of gaiety in spite of the severity of the situation.
Naturally, I was famished and I sought sustenance of a Cypriot variety. As per usual, the Krauts and the Pommies were all getting pissed on cheap beer and a high cholesterol diet of soggy, deep fried fare. Whilst the French and the leather clad tres-chic Italianos were trying to outshout each other in their own ‘special’ romance language.
I opted for boring instant soup and some prehistoric bread, which could have caused personal harm if loaded into a bazooka.
What was killing me was the music—“Oh, please release me”—I wish they would!
The taverna owners had gone out of their way to find the most annoying pap from the 1960s and 1970s. Maybe it was karaoke, but there was a cheap imitation of some Greek diva doing a poor take on Bette Midler's— “From a distance…”
Really, I wish I did hear this from a distance instead of right on top of me. And the band played on… “God is watching us.” and I thought of what my grandfather would have said— “…and Jesus wept…”
To temper all this unleashed passion was a sign that I kept seeing everywhere on the Greek side— “Nicosia, the last divided capital city in the world.”
Funny, but I think the Israelis and the Palestinians might have something to say about that one.
The song that finally drove me out of there was when some truck driving, drug taking, tobacco chewing, son of a gun who started singing—“I wanna go home, oh, how I wanna go home.” I took that cue and started to head back to Larnaka.
I weaved around some streets and came upon a disused mosque called Arablar Mosque.
I poked my nose inside one of the shattered windows between the iron bars and the place was bereft of rugs, furniture except for a weathered old wooden minbar where the mullah would have led the faithful.
Further along, I hit upon a street called Ippokratous which is some sort of taverna mall that was strictly for pedestrian traffic. It was kind of neat and intimate with intimate coffee rooms and cozy little tables set up outside for late night of frivolity and enchantment.
Too bad the place was deserted as it was in between mealtime. Nevertheless, it was chock a block with taverna after taverna all set on cobblestone streets. In amongst all this were tiny little tourist shops selling everything from antiques, coins, maps, postcards and your usual brik-a-brat.
At one point in the bowels of this food area, I noticed that there were many Filipinos girls parading their stuff. I had been told that there were around 20,000 Tamil Nadus and Filipinas who were ‘domestics’ here, but these girls were too dolled-up and they looked beat- up to be ‘domestics’. Maybe there was a story there for someone. I moved on.
Further along, I spied some neat postcards, so I decided to buy some.
It was a pokey little shop that was more a kiosk than a shop. There were tattered paintings and old posters with a thick layer of dust on them.
I was soon busy talking to the Greek Cypriot stamp collector and his odd-looking girlfriend who I thought looked Russian. It turned out that she was indeed Russian and that she teaches Russian in Nicosia. Wouldn't have thought there would be much call for that language in this area.
When she found out that I was Canadian, she asked me if she could go to Canada as if I was an ambassador or immigration officer. Naturally, I pleaded ignorance.
The collector had some old postcards that I started to leaf through and eventually I picked a few of them. They were pre-invasion postcards depicting a carefree state of affairs in Kyrenia and the great beaches of Famagusta.
This storeowner asked me if I needed stamps and I said of course. He handed me a wad of stamps that he had pulled from a dusty binder under his desk. I never thought any more about it and dutifully pasted them onto my postcards that I would send to friends.
It wasn’t until I was later in Limassol that another store owner pointed out that I had, in fact, not only bought ‘antique’ postcards, but also, ‘antique’ stamps. “The stamps are not as old as the cards”, he said, but they were 1981 vintage.
I was a bit worried and wondered if the Post Office would accept them. At any rate, the coin collector gave me a tip in getting a ‘service taxi’ back to Larnaka as it was starting to get late. The taxi trip back to my hotel was just as hectic, but this time I was in the front seat beside the harried driver of a beat up old Mercedes stretch station wagon.
Later, that evening, I was part of an interesting conversation with a vivacious blonde night clerk at the Hotel Livadhiotus. Actually, it was a three-way discussion about the Turkish question in Cyprus. There was an older British couple who were part of the discussion too. The Greek beauty didn’t want any part of the Turkish population, she called them—“fucking Muslims…they destroyed everything, all the churches…”
Yes, the Turks have a bad record against Christians, especially the Armenians of Eastern Anatolia and the Kurdish populations according to Dalrymple the Younger's book--From the Holy Mountain.
The Greek gal maintained that Turkey invaded the island and I wondered why mainland Greece didn’t come to the rescue.
She was quite bitter about the whole experience. She said that Turkey would screw it up for Cyprus’ getting accepted into the EU. I asked her why she wanted to get into the EU when the Greek Cypriot’s were already European.
In Larnaka, there is absolutely everything you could ever want from Europe.
Cyprus is by no means backwards, and on the contrary, appears to be quite affluent. I guess that explains why they had ‘domestics’ shipped over from the Philippines or Sri Lanka after all.



Sunday, September 11, 2016

Nepal 1982

Bangkok 1982
So there I was sweating buckets at the old Bangkok Airport, standing in front of a photo counter in the duty-free zone that I hoped sold slide film. Earlier, I had checked my travel pack in, got my boarding pass and had passed through security and x-ray machines. I was getting ready for the trip of a lifetime to the mountain kingdom of Nepal, and had been counting on buying slide film at a duty-free shop.
Some experienced traveller I was.
I had been told earlier by more ‘learned’ Aussie traveller that I would be able to find Kodachrome 64 and 25 ASA film at the Duty Free shops. However, upon asking this shop keeper for any slide film, the blood drained from my face when he said he didn’t have any.
Now what to do?
Some professional photographer I was too!
Dreams of taking incredible shots of the Himalayan trek were dissolving.
What’s the point of going to Kathmandu and doing a trek if I don’t have any slide film?
I hummed and hawed for a few minutes as the reality of not having slide film weighed heavy on me—me a photographer no less.
I was reminded of something that my old Winnipeg Tribune photo editor told me just two years earlier: “You can run out of time on a photo shoot, but under no circumstances, come back here and tell me that you ran out of film—always carry extra” he said chomping on a stale stogie. Well I had flunked that one, hadn’t I.
I looked at the time of departure—Christ I still had two hours to boarding time and I already had my boarding pass. I had to make a quick decision.
Could I find slide film outside the airport?
I decided to go for it.
I had to show my passport and boarding card and plead with the Thai army security guys to let me go back out and try to find some film. After a bit of persuasion, Canadian style, they allowed me to go, but I had to leave my boarding pass with them.
I ran like hell out to the Arrivals area and crazily flagged down a taxi that had just dropped off some passengers. I jumped in the passenger seat and yelled at the guy— “I need to find a place where they sell film!”
Luckily he understood some English as Thailand had recently experienced a boom in tourists—this was 1982 after all.
I looked at my watch and realized I only had an hour to find a camera shop.
Just as we pulled away, I yelled at him, “If you get me back here in less than an hour, I’ll give you a $20 US tip on top of the fare,” I said waving a fresh $20 bill at him.
He seemed to like that, mind you twenty bucks was quite a nice chunk of change back then and a hard currency at that.
He drove like someone out of Mad Max, honking at everyone that blocked our path, careening all over the road. He took me to the first shop with a Kodak sign, but they only had colour negative film—no good for me. Then to another shop, but they only did printing.
You would think I would be a little more organized what with being on the road for eight months.
The clock was ticking. I got fed up and just asked the shop keeper where I could get slide film. He muttered something in Thai to my driver and off again we went and eventually came to another shop with a huge Fuji film sign. It was a professional camera and film shop. This time I was in luck as they had a few Kodachrome 64 (without mailers) but mostly Ektachrome slide film—the supposed professional film.
 At this point, I didn’t care anymore and was just happy to find any slide film. I bought all he had (15 rolls). The film wasn’t cheap either and I cursed that fellow traveller for leading me astray.
We had an equally scary ride at breakneck speed back to the airport and arrived with 10 minutes to spare. I paid the cabbie the meter rate and gave him the $20 dollar bill. I thanked him profusely. I hurried back through security, saw the security guys again and showed my passport and retrieved my boarding pass. I was all sweaty again but relieved to have film.

On to Nepal.
A few weeks later in Kathmandu, between myself and American fellow trekkers, Dan Callaway and Brian Stern, we had organized a 31-day Annapurna Circuit trek along with a host of Nepali guys from the Tamang tribe.  Our guide, Kalam Singh Tamang, had worked as a cook on larger Sherpa-led expeditions, but now he wanted to form his own trekking company employing his in-laws as porters.
Also, I didn’t want to be encumbered anymore with the finicky Nikon Nikonos camera I had bought in crazy Tokyo just eight months ago. I thought I was being smart buying an underwater camera that would be dust proof and water proof—silly me! It had knobs for guessing how far away someone was and another for the light meter, it was unlike my OM-1 and OM-2 that I had stupidly left back home.
I had checked out some camera shops in Kathmandu and had chatted up the Nepali Hindu guy at the counter to swap my underwater camera for a used Olympus OM-1 he had on sale. The picture quality on the Nikonos was good, but not as sharp as a 50 mm Zuiko lens on this old OM-1. I swapped, thinking I had got the better of the deal.
It wasn’t until I was riding on the top of our crowded Nepali bus to Pokhara and in trying to take a picture, that I realized that the light meter didn’t work. I checked to see if the battery had been put in wrongly, but then was horrified to find—no battery at all.
Good grief now what to do.
Neither Dan nor Brian had an extra battery—who would carry such a thing?
It just so happened that on our crowded bus also rode two fellow Canadians that I knew from Banff. Earlier, I had run into Booby and Roki Bernstein on Freak Street as they were stocking up on clothes, trinkets and whatnot for their groovy import shop called “The Source”.  I hadn’t seen them in almost a year and in chatting with them on the bus, I told them of my plight of not having a battery for the light meter. The camera still worked, but the light meter didn’t.
Before I could say anymore, Roki kindly offered me her battery from her camera, but when I tried it—no luck. So there I was, in a smoke filled bus, heading off to where we would start our trek, with my x-ray bag full of slide film, but with a camera that had no light meter—Geezuz!
Not a great way to begin the trek of a lifetime.
Despite the bus taking over an hour, we had only managed to go 50 kilometers from Kathmandu. I had to make a decision. Above the din of the bus, I talked with our guide Kalam, then with Brian and Dan again about me returning to Kathmandu in the hopes of finding a battery for my light meter.
As it turned out, Dan had picked up a stomach bug and was feeling proper poorly. It was agreed that our gang could hold up at Dumre just for today, pitch camp while Dan recovered, but would start off on our trek tomorrow morning bright and early—with or without me.
We were only half way to our starting point at Dumre and since it was midday, there was the likelihood that I might still be able to catch a bus returning to Kathmandu from Pokhara. At the next bus stop, I left my heavy Lowe Kinnikinnik travel pack with the guys and was lucky to catch a bus heading back to Kathmandu.
Once back in the Kathmandu bus terminal, I grabbed a taxi and off to Freak Street, back to the shop where I had swapped my camera.
Unfortunately, the guy did not have any batteries that were new or would fit my OM-1, nor did any other camera shop for that matter—bugger! What options did I have now? I decided I could guess at the exposures or ask someone else with a working light meter for their exposures. What a pain in the ass I would be on the trek now.
In the fading afternoon light, I hurried back to the bus station hoping to catch a bus back to Dumre. Unfortunately there was no overnight bus service to Pokhara, but there was a bus that was heading to Pokhara that would stop for the night along the way.
Luckily, I got the last seat on that bus.
One has to bear in mind that darkness sets in early here in the Himalayas and after an hour or so, we pulled into a guesthouse for the night. At a roadhouse in Mugling, I ate some tasty daal bhaat tarkari (rice, lentils and curried vegetables) by hurricane lamp then a Nepali police officer and myself were the only customers to go upstairs to sleep. Unfortunately, our sleeping area was nothing more than a row of army surplus cots in a huge dorm with a cheap tin corrugated roof which reverberated when a sudden downpour came. We were up around 4,000 feet so it was quite chilly and all I had to keep warm was my Helly-Hansen fleece and my Gore-Tex MEC jacket and some flea-ridden wool blankets. To add to this chilly encounter, there was a plague of rats that crawled on the roof and on us which made it quite a fitful night of sleeping.
The cacophonous bus horns woke us from our crappy slumbers and after a quick breakfast, we were herded back onto the bus and off again on the next part of my sub-continent adventure.
The Nepalis love their cheap cigarettes and I was soon feeling nauseous because no one opened their windows. At the next bus stop, I’d had enough and fought my way past the throngs on this crowded bus and climbed the outside rickety metal ladder that led to the roof. Once on top and with the cold Himalayan air buffeting me, I quickly donned my Gore-Tex jacket over top of my fleece as it was a tad nippy here in the mountain air. I had just come from balmy Bangkok after all.

The air was bracing and the mountain scenery unforgettable, but I had absolutely no idea what ranges and peaks I was looking at. One of the gigantic burlap bags I leaned against had broken open probably caused from the lads flinging them up to the roof. The bag was full of little sealed bags of bite-sized chevda—a spicy mix of peanuts and other tasty fried things—the Indian equivalent to our nuts and bolt, but with a little chili heat. I munched on a packet to pass the time of day. I was the only brave soul riding the roof and I felt like a pasha up here surveying all I controlled.
The bus eventually arrived at our starting point of Dumre in the early afternoon. Thankfully, Kalam had left one of the porters, Osman, behind, so we headed off at a fast pace in the hopes of catching up with everyone by dinner time. We had only walked a couple of kilometers when I heard some voices yelling at me up ahead. It was Dan and Brian who were sprawled out on blankets either writing in their journal or reading a book, but apparently waiting for lunch to be prepared.
Thankfully, I had made it here after all with or without a light meter.

The real trek would begin tomorrow.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Stagnight: Shela style


 

Stagnight: Shela style

We’d been told that there were going to be weddings in Shela this week, but I had forgotten about it. There were actually three: two Swahili style and the other “western” style with karaoke put on by Peponi’s only for the well-heeled and well-oiled. We chose to attend the former as that was the only ones we were allowed into—the other “western” one would require formal attire of which I foolishly left back my tuxedo back in Doha—and rightly so!

We did not get formal invites to the Swahili stag, but it seems most of the folk of this small village were attending—at least the majority of men.

You could hear the polyphonic rhythm of the drums before you actually saw the event. It was stag venue just behind where we were lodging in a maidan or open area that had been roped off and a makeshift wooden fence had been constructed around a sandy square. It seems like this was a familiar venue as many other such events were likely staged here. Edward and Milton (whom I call Abote) led Jeremy, Lynette, Beatrice, Jessica and I to the venue where the fierce drumming and shouting was emanating from.

As Quay Lude, lead singer and front man for the Arizona glam rock group The Tubes would say— “the place was jumping”, well here it was literally. Two combatants squared off in the traditional stick fight in the center of the dusty square. This display was something that I have come to associate with the mini Haj, or Maulidi festival that celebrates the Prophet’s (PBUH) birthday that is held every year in nearby Lamu.

The stick swingers are dressed in the usual garb of tailored shirts or t-shirts and kikois which are similar to the Yemeni futa or what most would say are lungi. I prefer the Swahili word kikoi since we are in East Africa after all. Many local men were wearing the traditional Swahili cap called kofia which is white with gold and silver embroidering with flowery Arabic script—maybe from the Koran. Just behind us were a bunch of young miraa-chewing lads who were sitting atop of an unfinished concrete building oblivious to nasty rebar that was jutting out at weird angles.

At one point, a wayward chicken got into the act, sorry buddy, but this wasn’t the time for the funky chicken dance, just the funky Swahili guys and their moves and feints.

The stick fight is more ceremonial than actual battling, but the younger Turks take it more seriously and there is also a group chanting from the home side and howls when someone lands a blow. The left hand is used to parry the blows with the right hand swinging the stick down hard on the opponents stick or feinting a blow. I am not particularly sure if there is a winning side or how someone would or does win the fight.

The wedding party or special guests are just down the fence from the drummer and they are seated at a long table covered in a flowery kikoi. The best man has what looks like a Remembrance Day wreath with garlands of yellow flowers draped around his neck. It is all makeshift as they have to set up chairs and the table in the sand. A stainless steel tray is brought in with a decanter of what looks like a barium shake—pink in colour. Glad they are drinking it as I fear they have infused this pink, milky concoction with dreaded rose water. Naturally, Arabic coffee is offered to the party of six—all men. There are a couple of kids sitting with their legs swinging in the high wooden chairs.

After a while, a member from the wedding party or an older stick swinger comes and taps one of the younger fighters on the shoulder and after grabbing the stick, he throws the stick to the next willing opponent. At the end of the event, two elders from the wedding party step into the ring and they mostly dance pretending they are fighting and members from the audience run to them and carefully slide 50, 100, 500 shillingi notes under the kofia making sure the notes don’t fall in the sand.

But what really moves this noisy scene is the drumming.

Just in front of me is the drumming section right up against the makeshift fence. The drumming group is made up of two types of drums, two the size of congas, two other drums similar to the Indian dhol drum that is associated with Punjabi bhangra music, and another two smaller conga drums and some wild man wailing away with two thickly knotted hemp ropes at what looks like an aluminium pie plate on top of another larger pie plate. These drummer guys sit at the back of the square facing the stick swingers. The drummers keep the beat going and the stick swingers’ move to it, so to say, much like the Thai boxers do in Lumphini stadium in Bangkok.

What is interesting about the drummers is their nationalities. The main drummer on the conga, maintains and changes the rhythm to accommodate the stick swingers. It’s the same size as a traditional conga drum, but with a zebra skin drum head. There is no drumstand to support it, he just has his legs around it and beats the bejeezus out of it with a huge stick that looks like a rhino or hippo tusk. This drummer is African—the only one there.

Even though everyone here except for us wazungus is African—the majority are Bajuni or Swahili folk, but this main drummer probably is originally from the mainland. As I say, he changes the rhythm with rim shots, missing a beat or speeding up the beat and the others follow as do the stick swingers.

It sounds like the rolling thunder of a train.

 Seated on the right beside the African guy is a local guy whom I called Mister Turtle since he is always trying to get me and the family to go see turtles hatching. I guess he does this drumming in his spare time. He merely wails away at another large conga keeping a steady bass drum beat. To the left of the African guy is one guy seated playing the dhol drum and he doesn’t look like a local either— he looks Indian to me and he plays a different rhythm from the others and quite nicely I might add.

Next to him is another dhol drummer—a local guy. The final chap, who is set off from these drummers, is the aluminum pie plate guy who is wailing away with his thick hemp rope drumsticks while another guy facing him makes sure the plates don’t fly off. The sound is much like someone flailing away on an open high-hat of a drum kit. Nevertheless, it is quite hypnotic, if not trancey.

I felt like I could join in if asked to, but I didn’t want to upset proceedings. The whole concert, if that is what we can call it, went on for an hour and a half. In the end the groom and the best man then were obliged to do their part of stick fighting and more shillingi were tucked under their kofias.

On the far side is where you can find the Swahili womenfolk leaning against the makeshift fence. There are also women looking on from the safety of 1st and 2nd floor balconies of nearby Swahili houses. Most of the local women are dressed in their finest chintz and floral kangas and there are a few BuiBui peeking out from under their black chadors. There were a couple of beauties in amongst them, but mostly covered up.

Naturally, I should have been taking shots and filming this with my digital camera, but someone (who shall remain guilty) had dropped that into the salty Indian Ocean—pity.

Day Whatever


Day whatever

Shela is a small labyrinthine Islamic village—actually it was settled before Lamu by those people who came here after abandoning the small town of Takwa on nearby Manda Island. First timers to Shela could quite easily get lost here. Odd that, the kids know there way around here better than their mom. On our frequent forays out of our Swahili guesthouse, we have managed to find a dozen different ways of getting back to our lair.

Most days we go down to the beach, and mind you that can be 5 times days depending on if: the kids and Gracie go running, we go to see if it is low tide, we go to check out the resident dogs of Peponi’s, go for a treat at Stop and Go café, we take a boat to Lamu or go to check out my email at Peponi’s patio. During those times, it is not unusual to pass by a small herd of braying donkeys, some mangy cats howling at each other, some noisy school kids off to the madrassa, some Rasta dhow boys smacked out on miraa who want to know if we want sunset cruise, Mr. Turtle drumming up business, or some fishermen hauling a freshly caught 25 kg yellowfin tuna and leaving a trail of blood on the concrete, another man carrying a very small baby hammerhead shark and some red snapper off to market, or a reed basket of mud crabs trying to pinch us. We usually see the new version of Ali Hippy either sitting on a step outside Janataan Guesthouse or down on the concrete ledge next to Peponi’s. His name is Ali Samosa and he is always looking for customers to buy his famous samosas.

Being that as it may, there is something liberating about being in a place where there is no vehicular traffic and only tame donkeys to avoid, and their associated donkey doo. Back in Nairobbery, the kids are rarely allowed into the open parking space in our compound for fear of cars coming and going, they are never out of the security compound by themselves, and god forbid, never allowed to walk down our road to nearby shops on their own. The roads where we live in Nairobi have cuckoo matatu drivers, many whacked on miraa, who are dodgy drivers at the best of times and quite dangerous when stoned.

Here in Shela, we have no such fears.

The kids know their way down to Peponi’s and the beach right next to it, they even know the different routes to get from the beach back to our accommodation—Baitil Aman. So much so, that the other day when we were on that beach, one of Gracie’s workers had just arrived by dhow from Lamu with some antibiotics for me and I instructed him to take it up to our place here. I figured that he would probably want to banter in Luo with the “aunties”, but in asking him, he had no clue of where our place was.

Jessica volunteered to show him and I had no trouble letting her show him the way something we would never have allowed her to do in Nairobi. Besides most of the shopkeepers, local guides, salon owners and artists, know the kids by now and keep an eye out for them.

The kids have the run of our Swahili house with its spacious three floors, endless rooms and open rooftop. Outside our room, there is a sheltered sitting area like a verandah that looks out over a garden, there are concrete benches with thick cushions to recline on, a heavy mangrove coffee table to put your feet up on or play 52 card pickup. At the other end of this sheltered verandah is a dining table that can seat 12 people and this is where we eat breakfast, sometimes lunch and dinner. We usually eat the Swahili version of a lightly sweetened cardamom/coconut flavoured dutchie called mandazi. This along with copious cups of sweet milky tea and followed by either fresh passion or lime juice. The kids and I often take a break from the mandazis and opt for a dry cereal with milk. A late lunch could be pilau, chicken curry, or a large plate of samosas. Dinner often is grilled snapper, broad beans or mung beans cooked in coconut milk with chapatis, or as a treat—deep fried or grilled chicken and chips.

The kids often come out of our house to go to neighbouring dukas or shops to buy sodas, water or phone credit, and to watch and pet the numerous donkeys and their babies who frequent the area. It’s like the kids have a personal petting zoo.

Day whatever

Despite taking the normal precautions of travelling and living in an equatorial zone known as the malaria coast, one by one our extended family is succumbing to the #1 killer in the world—malaria or falciparum plasmodium.

We started taking the prescribed malaria prophylaxis, Meflaquon, back in Nairobi before starting our journey. I took 500 mg per week each Thursday and the kids are on 250 mg. per week. I assumed the maids, or as the kids call them “aunties”, were taking it, but you never know as they didn’t seem to be bothered about taking them—maybe it is a mzungu thing? In Africa, getting a disease seems to not be a big issue or even trying to prevent getting one—I guess that is why AIDS and HIV took off here as no one likes using condoms—still!

At any rate, after being here for two weeks, Auntie Lynette felt loagy and tired—we just thought it is some flu virus, but then she was running a temperature. So we got the Coartem treatment stuff for her and she is still not 100%, no appetite, but better than before. Next, was Jessica who sat wrapped in a fleece, another fleece on top and two towels and she was still feeling cold at sitting on our verandah. Mind you the evening breeze coming off the Indian Ocean these days is decidedly cool compared to the muggy days we spent here on the malaria coast, but surely not in need of a fleece. She had succumbed to malaria and we took no chances and got her on the treatment as well. We had gone to the island clinic with Lynette, but could not do the blood test for malaria since we were all on prophylaxis.

This would not be such a big deal with Jessie’s condition, but we were reminded that Gracie’s younger brother Josie had succumbed to malaria in Lamu years ago which eventually turned into cerebral malaria—the most dangerous strain, which nearly killed him. The fact of the matter is that both Gracie’s dad and aunt had died from it, so we weren’t going to take any chances. Neither Gracie nor I slept well and we couldn’t wait to see what the treatment would reveal in the morning. Thankfully Jessie was OK in the morning, but Lynette was still quite out of it—no appetite and sleeping all day.

We thought we were out of the woods, but next up was the youngest—Jeremy. He had no symptoms until one night he leaned up against me and he was like a boiling pot next to me. I told Gracie, because unlike Jessica who had the chills two nights before, Jeremy was boiling. I laid some cushions on top to keep off the mossies and keep him warm. When I took them off, so he could be carried to bed, he had soaked all his clothing. We woke him up and gave him treatment and then sent him to bed.

The upshot of this is that Gracie didn’t take any prophylaxis and says she thinks she is immune from it as perhaps her body has built up a resistance to the strain of malaria here on Lamu. One wonders why there is such a bad strain since the majority of the island is desert with sand dunes, and I haven’t seen any standing water where the malarial blighters can breed. Having said that, my old African hand, Bill Curry, just succumbed to dengue fever a few weeks back and he got that in Mombasa area just down the coast from here, so who knows.

When we told our chef about our ailments, he just shrugged and said it was just “Lamu fever”—whatever the hell that is.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Into Al-Shebab Country


Another Coast Trip, 2016

Into Al Shebab Country

As the last time back in 2013, we did the same overnight bus trip from Nairobi, but this time we took the Buscar express all the way to Malindi. It was a nondescript yet noisy ride at that as the drivers (two) insisting on playing Swahili taraab and Hindipop music at mega volumes. I suppose they did this to ensure that the drivers, whom I suspect were high from miraa anyways, from falling asleep at the wheel. But I fear it was to keep us paying customers awake too. Nondescript that is until the driver had to swerve to avoid some “mad” person who stood in the middle of the narrow two-lane highway just before sunrise. Well that certainly woke me up after I finally managed to fall asleep. I noticed that for the most part, Jessica was awake for most of the overnight drive.

We arrived in Malindi around 9 am, gathered our luggage and hired two tuk-tuks to take us to our old favourite haunt from our last trip—Tamani Jua. Apart from some other Italians, whom are probably residents here, we were the only paying customers at this Italian-run resort. Surprising since I thought this was the “high season”.

We had decided to break up two hellacious bus trips with an overnight in Malindi. Gracie decided that we would rest up for a bit and then go for a brunch back in Malindi. We sorted out our rooms and showered then went for a brief kip. We would eventually have a fine feast of chicken and chips with fresh passion juice and kachumbari which is the Kenyan equivalent of salsa at the Barani Restaurant. We were famished and I was amazed at the speed that they brought us our meals—all six of us within minutes.

Nevertheless, it was great to be on the coast again as it was quite balmy compared to frigid Nairobi and its ‘sharp showers’, and its cold nights spent huddled around the electric fire watching nauseating teen dramas, Nollywood hocus pocus juju dramas and endless re-runs of cartoons on Nicholodean.

We left early the next morning bound for Lamu.

Lamu

It’s been 14 years since I was last here in Lamu and 32 years since I first came to this island. Lamu Island is part of a greater archipelago of islands stretching like a necklace from here almost to the Somali border which is not that far away. In fact, we are a little west of the old UNESCO World Heritage site of Lamu, in the smaller town of Shela. Even though I have been coming here for years, it is actually my first time staying in Shela.

Coming to Lamu was my first exposure to Islam and Muslim culture. To be clear, it is really Swahili culture: a mélange of mainland Bantu people, some exotic spices of Persian, Zanzibari, Comorian, Omani, Yemeni and far eastern extractions along with the indigenous, if I can call them that, Bajuni folk who inhabit the string of pearls that form the Lamu Archipelago.

However, I will not be taking this bus ride from Malindi to here anytime in the future as this bus ride beats the crap out of you. The 14-hour bus trip from Nairobi to Malindi is quite enough even on good tarmac. The rest of the journey from Malindi to Mokowe is more like an endurance race for the body. I thought the old Arusha to Dar was the worst bus ride I had taken and from Kapiri Mposhi to Lusaka is not roaring hell either—with potholes that can swallow a Mini Cooper. This Kenyan version is something akin to a boat ride—quite rollicking. If you suffered from car sickness—this ride is not for you at all. And by the time you reach Mokowe, the last bit of Kenyan mainland before Somalia, you feel like you have been put in a tumble dryer for 4 hours. What surprised me most of all was the stoicism of the fellow passengers, some having to stand for portions of the trip, and the sheer battering that our Buscar bus has to endure. I wonder what the life expectancy of these buses are.

The first time I took this journey, and for a few after was with Tana River Bus service, but I don’t see them running anymore. I did see another bus company I used before called Tawakal, but I think they are a larger firm who are a national bus company.

My wife deserves some award for taking this longish bus trip sometimes every week—I think I would check into the loony bin if I had to do that or replace my battered ass. Maybe Jessy and Jeremy deserve a medal for enduing it too. Luckily we had brought along some mandazis, packets of UHT milk, water and a few biscuits to stave off hunger on the longish drive.

The only thing that broke up that monotony, if that’s what you call being thrashed about, are the police /army road blocks where everyone except the burka gals had to alight from the bus to get checked out. There are two smaller police checks outside of Malindi where the road is still good then two larger ones near Witu and Kapini where the road, if that’s what you can call it, has disintegrated. These roadblocks are manned by Kenya’s finest: a woman soldier for femmes and a brute of a guy for men. They actually checked my passport to see if I was indeed Emerson Gronk. The female soldier also looked at my passport and thumbed through it looking for my entrance visa and asked—“You are here for 3 months?”

I was surprised and just said—“No, just 2 months.”

At the second roadblock, they separated the Kenyans from the wazungu (foreigners). I had to get in line with a bunch of Chinese who were travelling en masse as they are want to do—and they are most welcome to it. We had passed by Coast Bus which seemed packed to the hilt with them—they, the new travellers or new colonizers of Africa. Damn exploiters! Harrumph!

I had to laugh as the Kenyan sergeant asked each one of them their age and name. Laugh, because he found their accent funny and he didn’t know how to spell their names. The last gal, a little princess, was a tad rude when the guy asked her age, she chipped back cheekily—“You can read it in the passport.”

Of course he could, he just wanted her to say it in Inglisi pleezi.

Make no mistake about it—we were in Al Shebab country after all. Over the recent years, the Shebab had shot up a number of buses on this route and terrorized villagers in the Witu, Kapini area plus did a bold attack on Manda Island just opposite where we would be staying in Shela, and in the process, kidnapping some French tourists. Mind you, that was a few years back.

Since that time and the Westgate Massacre, peace has been restored in this area (we hope). Especially with the Kenyan Army joining the OAU, and for lack of a better word, invading southern Somalia. In the past bus trips, this bus trip went through the land of the shiftas. Those rag tag bunch of rogue Somali soldiers, who shot at and then robbed the buses. From 1986 onwards there was always a couple of Kenyan army guys who rode the bus. Nowadays, we get an army escort from the first checkpoint to the last one just outside Mpekatoni. Mind you, once we set off it is like an opening scene from one of the Mad Max movies as each bus is shuttling back and forth to see who will be the first one in lead so that the other busses and occupants eat their dust. The road is a dusty, teeth-rattling, corduroy affair.

Around Witu, the highway really cuts through a jungle—maybe the last remnant of that great Equatorial jungle which stretched from the Ivory Coast to here and I can see why Al Shebab chose this particular region to attack. It would be virtually impossible to detect them given the ground cover provided by the dense bush—albeit thorn tree or scrubland. At times, some of the thorns and leaves showered down on us through the windows as the bus lurched dangerously close to the sides of the road, scraping the bus in the process.

We did see some baboons lazing about in the swampland and then later saw a troop off on a dusty, lonely track that lead nowhere. I did see some grey-haired macaque monkeys up a tree as we hurtled along.

This is, without a doubt, one of the loneliest stretches of land if not in Kenya, perhaps in Africa. Hardly any signs of settlement and one wonders where the hell people are going when they get off in the middle of nowhere with no huts in sight. Where the land is arable there are great swaths of corn growing as it is one of the staples here—a tough, what I would call cow corn, that is dried and ground up into something resembling a thick, wall paper paste with a taste not that dissimilar—called ugali.

It was from this part of the journey that we took on more passengers than there were seats. As mentioned, some of those either stood for a portion of the ride or hoped to get a seat once some passengers alighted, in the middle of nowhere nonetheless. The driver didn’t dally too long and with a honk and banging on the side of the bus by the ticket taker, it meant time to go with the ticket taker usually running and hopping on at the last moment.

I was curious about one young guy who got on with his New York Yankees baseball cap at a tilt, holding firmly onto what look like a sound board. Perhaps he was a singer or a musician. What perplexed me was where he was going, what show he was doing and would the small hamlet have a steady flow of electricity—somewhat a bane of this country wherever you are. It’s seemed odd to be hucking around a soundboard that is until he alighted at Witu, where upon I saw his mates help offload four largish speaker cabinets and other parts of the sound system. Just the same, at some point, we did pass a small collection of mud and straw huts with a small crowd of thirty or so villagers gathered around a solo speaker or singer who was either an evangelist doing an open air sermon or maybe political rally, or perhaps some mini concert.

We finally arrived at the end of the road at Makowe. The town is built up since I last rode the bus to here. Before, you would just come to end and there would be the jetty which you would carefully have to navigate your way down as barnacles had grown from the high tide and it was a tad slippery to descend to an awaiting large dhow called a jihazi which would take you to Lamu just across an inlet where the Lamu touts would wait to pounce on you once you landed. However, this time the touts pounced on you as we alighted from the bus. Naturally they swarmed around me—the only mzungu on this bus. Times have changed.

I had to laugh out loud when they unloaded our luggage from under the bus—it looked like it had been through a war—it was all covered in a heavy dust from the dirty track we’d been on for the last four hours.

Our group, all six of us, and our seven pieces of luggage were stacked on a small motorboat and they carefully helped us onto the powerboat. It was the first time the kids and the maids had been on one and Gracie made sure that we all got life vests except for me. It’s because, apart from Jessy and myself, none of our entourage know how to swim despite the adults growing up on the shores of one of Africa’s Great Lakes and as I so righteously declare, along with that British explorer guy named Speke, the Source of the Nile—Lake Victoria. Nevertheless, the ride was quite choppy owing to the high waves caused by the winds that had kicked up by the kazi wind.

We bumped along and the kids really enjoyed their first taste of salty air with Aunties Lynette and Beatrice holding firmly onto the side of the boat for fear that we would capsize. It’s the first time I have come into this place with my back to Lamu.

There is something to be said about arriving at a destination by boat—beats the hell out of by bus, car or plane. I think that old kayaker and travel writer Paul Theroux would approve.

We zoomed by dense mangrove stands that made loud sucking noises, tidal pools and then close to the Lamu’s corniche with a stunning backdrop of bleached coral rag buildings gleaming under the African sun of Lamu’s old Stonetown, and a first for me, as we sped towards our final destination just west of Lamu called Shela.

Once we docked next to Peponi’s, the ultra-tres chic resort, we were swarmed again by other Bajuni touts who offered their eager hands to shuttle our luggage to our guest house—Bait il Aman guest house. Like Lamu, Shela is a maze: a labyrinthine of coral rag houses. One can easily get lost here and luckily=y we had these guys to guide us.

As we started off a chap stepped forward, with a wide smile and grabbed my hand—it was our old friend Edward who had previously set up our accommodation and stay at the guest house he was now working at. Gracie had known Edward for some time as her fish business had put her in touch with him some 17 years ago. He was also the head guy at our old retreat of Stone House. I had met him there back in 2000 with Mike Bowie. I had met my wife there too. Lamu is full of such memories, most romantic ones too!

On the boat trip over, I noticed that there were more Swahili houses, actually huge mansions that the rich Euros had built on Manda Island. When I first came to Lamu in 1982, there were no such places on Manda—only the deserted sun bleached collapsed ruins at Takwa. On my last visit here in 2003, that Swiss guy named Joe had built the Manda Island resort and that was the only building on the island—how times have changed. Also, there was a proliferation of speed boats bombing up and down this busy passageway of water.

Edward, and our growing group of lackeys plus gear, headed off after a number of guides offered their services for day trips to Takwa, donkey rides, fish BBQ on Manda Island, and sunset cruise.

Lamu and Shela had suffered in recent years because of the Al Shebab insurgencies and terrorist alerts issued by British, French, Italian, American and Canadian foreign offices. We had docked next door to the famous Peponi’s Hotel which I had heard had just opened for the summer with over 300 guests expected—perhaps things were looking up.

Lamu had been dubbed “the Kathmandu of Africa” by the Africa on a G-string guidebook in the 1980s. True. There were some very up-market restaurants and cafes on the island back then: New Mahrus Hotel, The Pancake House, Kenya Cold Drinks, Petley’s, Mr. Ghai’s Curry House and the ever so posh The Equator, which even accepted American Express cards and I know that first hand as I treated my younger brother and then gf to dinner there. The Equator resembled the inside of a dhow that had been cut in half, with the owner, Ron, an eccentric British Kenyan, who sounded like Vincent Price and played Beethoven 78s on an old gramophone. It was a tad expensive—you needed an AMEX card to pay for the extravagant meal.

Those places are long gone and so is Lamu’s old claim to fame.

We did pass a number of wazungu en route to our guest house. Maybe times had changed and the tourists were coming back—thank god!

After zigzagging a few times past donkeys, scruffy kids and donkey do, we finally arrived at our destination for the next month or so—Baitil Aman Guest House.

Edward showed us to our quarters which were up on the second floor. To describe it as spacious would be an understatement—our accommodation could easily sleep two large families. The maids and the kids each had their own generous and ornate traditional Swahili bed, but they would share just two beds. Gracie and I had the honeymoon suite with walk-in mosquito net and en suite bathroom. There were two additional beds should Gracie’s siblings decide to show up (They never did). Two huge bathrooms with shower, linen and towels.

Yes, it was good to be back on the Swahili Coast!