Journey to the Swahili Coast, 2013
We squished ourselves into the mini-van, all 8 of us that is, we were weighed down by suitcases, gym bags and carry-on bags that wouldn’t otherwise fit into the boot. It was nighttime, 9:45 pm to be exact and neither Jeremy nor Jessy were anywhere near sleeping mode. This was, after all, our first big, extended family trip to Kenya’s Swahili Coast—everyone was up for it. Our stuffed van beetled through our dimly lit Kileleshwa suburb then drove past the President’s State House and eventually into the seedier part of Nairobbery—River Road. A dodgy area at the best of times but this is where we would catch our Coast bus to Mombasa on the Swahili Coast. The bus stand was chock-a-block with pedestrians, touts, dolly wallahs, blind beggars, taxis, bus conductors, prostitutes and other poor souls who crawled along on all fours desperately looking for a handout.
It was a madhouse. Everybody had the same idea—Get the hell out of cold, hectic Nairobbery. We all unloaded from our taxi to a broken pavement where we plopped young Jeremy and Jessy on our packs and quickly covered them in a fleece and blanket to ward of the bitter night air associated with being at 5,000 feet above sea level. I loaned the maid my fleece vest as she was not used to being outside in the cold and besides she was wearing a flimsy coat. We thought we would only be waiting for ten minutes before boarding our bus but it was nowhere to be seen. All the coast buses were backed up in a queue.
A driver who had parked his car rather unwisely behind one of the buses caused a commotion when other buses could not pull in. Shouting broke out then a group of men physically moved the car out of the way. The Somali driver soon returned and started shouting at the bus guy who had mobilized the car movers. Things became quite heated, almost to the point of fighting with the Somali driver pulling a knife on the bus tout. Cooler heads prevailed and he drove his car off. Our bus finally fired up its engine and a legless beggar positioned himself right behind the exhaust. Jessy asked why he did that and I told her he just wanted to stay warm.
We finally got on our warm executive bus, with Jessy and Jeremy promptly falling asleep. The bus lumbered out of Nairobbery, bouncing over potholes and barely stopping for the numerous speed bumps that seem to plague Kenyan roads. Our driver was a bit jerky and often woke Gracie and I from our slumbers as we sat at the front of the bus. Luckily, the kids and Gracie’s siblings crashed out but the lurching bus didn’t seem to faze them. At one point, the driver suddenly pulled over and there was a sudden crush at the front doors.
‘Piss stop,’ yelled Gracie’s brother Josie who bolted by me into the dark stillness.
Back on the road and we drifted in and out of mist with the bus’ highbeams barely made a dent in the fog. We would be eventually leaving the high plateau and descending into the dry wastes of Akambaland. I would have rather taken the daytime bus but Gracie said that might be too much for the kids. We briefly stopped for another piss break at Mtito Andei, then the bus hooted at us to get back on board.
We arrived on the coastal plain just as a pale sun tried breaking through the early morning mist that billowed towards us. Mud and wattle huts lined the road along with small kiosks offering long clear plastic bags of green and ripe tomatoes, mangoes, potatoes and red onions. Whenever we approached speed bumps, young boys ran alongside hoisting up trays of packaged roasted cashews and groundnuts for us to buy. We were finally getting near Mombasa. Parts of this section reminded me of the Thousand Hills that I had come to associate with Rwanda. It’s quite verdant! In between the mist and hills, I caught glimpses of a sparkling mirror in the distance—the Indian Ocean. The kids had woken up by now and were excited to see the sea for the first time. Jeremy thought it was a river or lake.
Mombasa was a jumble of tumble-down apartment buildings, banged up cars, slow diesel-spewing trucks, a chaos of hand-painted signs and makeshift shelters. All manner of folk were walking to town. Naturally we got caught up in an early morning traffic jam which is so indicative of this busy port-of-call—Mombasa. In town, we soon alighted and waited for our transport to Malindi—about 100 kilometers north on the coast. It was decidedly humid and everyone had shorn their warmer upcountry outer gear. Jessy and Jeremy were too engaged with all manner of humanity swirling around them to notice that they were hungry. It was 6:30 am.
Due of the size of our group, Gracie managed to grab two tuk tuks that would transport over to where the Malindi matatus departed from. The invasion of tuk tuks is something new in Kenya—no doubt an import from India. They are flimsy contraptions made of cheap metal over top of a motorbike. There is one seat for the driver and behind him there is a bench seat where three passengers can squeeze into. The luggage fits into a small area behind the bench. I regaled Harry and Josie of my story of carrying a sitar in case, tabla drums in case, a huge travel pack and another pack with Indian clothes in New Delhi in 1982. I hadn’t ridden in a tuk tuk since my return trip to India in 1999. The tuk tuk ride is by no means comfortable—it is only good for a short ride.
Because of their size, the tuk tuks can only take 3 passengers with luggage, and we bumped our way over more potholes and speed bumps to our next staging area. Josie, Harry and I followed the others, keeping our eyes on our luggage in case any wayward hands seized upon an opportunity. We only waited ten minutes as Gracie commandeered another matatu that would take us to Malindi. A small family of three sat in the front seats and our group of eight filled the remainder. It was a converted safari van but we had lots of room. Jeremy and Jessy were still mesmerized by their new surroundings, as were Gracie’s siblings as none of them had been to the Swahili Coast before. This was familiar territory for Gracie as her fish business takes her up and down this coast. As for me, I hadn't been here since 2002 when Gracie and I stayed on the coast. Jeremy and Jessica were thrilled to see estuaries, travel over bridges, witness rivers, see boats and the hectic life on the busy coast. I was amazed to see that the bars were indeed open at Mtwapa with many bar girls hoisting cold Tuskers before 8 am no less. We hadn’t even had breakfast yet and they were already guzzling cold beer--for crying out softly.
The road north is still enchanting and the greenness of it is intoxicating. We passed an ancient forest on our left that is held sacred to the Mijikenda tribes of the coast. Truth be told, it is the last remnant of Equatorial Forest that once spread over as far as the west coast of Equatorial Africa. We passed vast sisal plantations, which looked very much like the pineapple plantations of Hawaii. A pack of baboons crept out of the undergrowth and this excited Jeremy. We passed Kilifi and the turnoff to Watamu, then passed a butterfly farm. Further along, a few new buildings heralded our entry into Malindi.
The front seat passengers off loaded and we thought that the driver would take us directly to our resort—Tamani Jua, which was just a short distance out of the main downtown. Malindi had become more Italian than when I was first here in 1982. The matatu driver drove us around but in the end dropped us in the middle of nowhere. We flagged down a couple of tuk tuks, loaded our gear and ourselves and bumped our way past a busy downtown lined with numerous curio shops, kiosks, supermarkets that catering to Italian clientele.
The infamous “Stardust” nightclub was still standing and we passed another called “24” plus the famous “Pata Pata” nightclub which is reputedly the largest disco in East Africa. We finally got to the front door of our resort, got ushered in by friendly staff and were offered a cool drink to slake our thirst. It had been nearly 12 hours since we left Nairobbery last night. We were famished and everyone attacked the buffet breakfast table. We loaded up on coffee, tea, sausages, toast, fresh baked croissants, juice, fresh fruits including finger bananas, papaya, mango, passion fruit and watermelon. There was a cook who personally made us Spanish omelettes. We were the last ones to enjoy breaking the fast, so to say.
The return trip was something else. Just a day or so after we arrived on the coast, there had been a horrific accident involving buses on the Nairobbery to Mombasa route. As a result, the government decreed that there would no longer be bus travel at night. If your bus did not reach its destination by nightfall then you would be stuck having to sleep in the bus until daybreak. That was fine but many holidaymakers had already booked return trips on the night buses so what to do. Would we get stuck in Malindi or Mombasa without a bus?
Luckily for us, one of Gracie’s friends in Malindi knew someone in the MASH bus company and we were just able to snag seven of the last seats available. I would have rode on the top of the bus if need be. Gracie and I had to mobilize our gang into packing the night before our return bus ride as we would have to rise at 5 am to get our taxi ride at 5:45am so that we could make roll-call for the MASH bus at 6am. We got up and were ready to roll at 6am but our taxi was too small for all our gear and personage. Luckily a tuk tuk came by and Gracie hailed him down and we stuffed our luggage and Gracie into it and off she went. The discos were still rocking with guys and gals coming out still holding on to their Tusker beers. We arrived at the bus stop on time but still had to wait for some stragglers who showed up late and off we went at 6:30am. We had no time to get breakfast and I hoped the kids and Gracie’s siblings would hold up.
Gracie and I were worried because none of us had had any breakfast. It didn’t bother me but Gracie and I were worried for the Jeremy and Jessy as they never miss a meal especially breakfast. I had the foresight to sneak some packets of biscuits from our resort and had bought four small boxes of UHT milk. Just as we were leaving some kids carrying trays of roasted groundnuts and sesame seed snaps. Gracie bought enough that might stem our hunger till we were able to get a meal—when and wherever that might be. Off we drove towards Mombasa and all points west.
We never did stop for breakfast in Mombasa and just kept going. We soon left the muggy coast and started gaining elevation towards the Voi Hills. Because the government had changed the bus schedule, we were unsure where the bus might stop given that we needed to get to Nairobbery before dark. Normally the bus would stop at Voi but as we got closer to the hills, I realized that we had already passed its turnoff. Surely the bus would stop at the halfway point of Mtito Andei for a much needed piss and food stop. We hurried by that turnoff too and Gracie and I were wondering if we would ever get food for the kids.
Past Mtito Andei, we suddenly pulled into a place where all the other MASH buses had parked. We quickly disembarked, some heading for the loo whilst most of us went to the large cafeteria teeming with the bus masses. We found some chairs and sat down as Gracie went to pay for our food. I waited near her in case I needed to grab food off her. There was a great push to pay and order and receive the food as it was everyman for themselves. Gracie waited and then I saw her going back to the pay counter.
‘What’s the problem?’ I asked.
‘They ran out of food,’ she said.
I was dumbfounded. They knew that the bus schedule had changed and that everyone was riding during the day now. How the hell could they run out of food? Gracie told me to buy some sodas, so I went to buy 8 bottles but they had run out of some flavours so I was stuck buying tepid plastic bottles of Coke and Orange Fanta. I went to buy some plastic wrapped cake at another counter but they too had run out. Gracie was then told there was food again and back she went to the cashier and where they handed out the food. All our party had downed their soda by then so I bought some more but this time I also got some apple juice for the kids. Our bus conductor gave me a dirty eye but I told him we hadn’t eaten anything since leaving Malindi nearly 4 hours ago and the kids were hungry.
The place was staring to empty and Gracie came back to me empty-handed again—‘Can you believe it? They ran out food again.’ By now I had had enough and had half a mind to just go up and grab someone’s food. We were the last ones trying to get food. Gracie went up to our driver and talked with him. She knew the guy as she travels this road frequently and she managed to talk the guy into getting some food for us, especially for Jeremy and Jessy who were starving by now.
The driver instructed the cooking staff to get us some chapatis and beef stew and get it fast. We were the last ones to get food, the last ones to eat our food and the last ones to get on the bus. Our bus was the last one to leave. I didn’t eat a damn thing and apart from some peanuts, sesame snaps, and biscuits in Malindi, I only had a tepid coke and several bottles of water for this long part of the trip. We eventually arrived at 6:30 pm into a quiet Nairobbery and took our final van ride back to Kileleshwa.