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.


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!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Old friends in Lamu, 2016.

Day 4 Friends from the Past

Apart from dodging, some cockleshells, barnacles, broken glass, donkey shit, abandoned flip flops, and shells at low tide, the preferred mode of transport to Lamu is by boat—all be it a high powered one if so inclined. There were no power boats here in 1982, everything was done by sail and the mercurial winds of Manda Strait. There was a huge ocean-going jihazi dhow that was powered by a noisy, greasy diesel engine that took backpackers and other mzungus from the last bit of Kenyan mainland to Lamu.

My return trip here in 2000/2001 saw the first power boat which belonged to the Prince of Monaco. He used his power boat to jet over to the Manda Beach Resort to try and turn down the music from German Joe’s Disco and, if that did not succeed, punch out his lights, so to say.

For you maritime lovers and boatheads, the Mozambican dhow has now replaced the traditional dhow here and the locally-made fiberglass Chriscraft knockoffs are usurping those two boats with anything ranging from 15 hp up to twin 250 hp outboard motors.

Unless you are water skiing: I see no need for the speed unless you are outrunning Kenyan customs and involved in illicit mira or arms smuggling from Somalia.

Nevertheless, I boated over to Lamu in a fiberglass boat at a leisurely pace to run some errands. It was high tide and slightly treacherous underfoot to, and at times, one would have to crawl along the sea wall in an epic walk to Lamu, so I opted for the power boat. There was a strong tail wind as we powered along, but it felt like we were underwhelmed by our whopping 15 hp motor. The captain managed to hit every wake of faster, heavier power boats that clipped along and easily passed us. To avoid those brutes, we hugged the shore, so as to not to hit too many oncoming waves.

As we got nearer to town, the concrete walls gave way to a new paved corniche that now leads into the old town of Lamu. We passed by a few hawkers who were selling fruit, hard candies, tepid sodas and other sundry items they could cart around in the shade. We boated by the huge, yet now empty edifice and faded stencil of Lamu Ginners which to me sounded like a place where they made gin, but I think it is some godown for making cotton or something. The place looks as deserted as the last time I was here and was overgrown with umbrella acacia, scarlet bougainvillea bushes and a vacant coral rag building which looked like a haunted house backdrop.

Further along, a few deserted dhows had been haphazardly thrown up on the shore, perhaps being vulcanized for parts or utterly abandoned—a bit of a dhow graveyard. Other newer models were just moored here alongside the older forgotten battered ones.

Off to our right moored near the island, was what looked like a floating barge or prop from Kevin Costner’s colossal commercial movie bust—Waterworld. I yelled “SMOKERS”, but no one caught on to the movie dialogue-pity! I was told it was a floating barge alright, but belonging to some crazy Brit who decided to have a floating bar and liquor store in the strait between Manda Island and Lamutown. Seemed like a daft idea to me—you would need a boat, skiff or dhow to get to it, but perhaps the Brit did this with the intention of avoiding some liquour law or tax evasion scheme. Lamu, after all, was an Islamic town, but alcohol could still be had at a few watery establishments at a premium price mind you.

We eventually docked at the main pier and I awkwardly got off the boat and onto the barnacle ridden concrete steps and slowly made my way into town. Naturally I was approached by everyone and their brother—all touts.

Jambo, my name is Yahya and I am offering a historic tour of Lamu.’

‘Donkey ride, sunset dhow trip for you today?’

‘Please sir, do you have 250 bob (Kenyan shilling) as I am a fishermen and need to buy a needle and thread to fix my net.’ ‘The other day you couldn’t help, but today you can?

Jambo. Where are you going? Let me help you find the bank.’

I had been to Lamu probably before some of these touts were born. I think I still know my way around here—or at least that is what I thought.

After my bank business, I made my way along the busy main street just off the wide open corniche trying to avoid donkey carts, garbage men pushing a handcart and shouting at everyone to give way, past others hawking cheap Chinese electronic goods, popcorn, roasted groundnuts and cashews, donkey doo, touts with blackened teeth offering city tours and other personal services.

At some point, while I was checking the internet in what was called a bookstore that sold electronic goods, a yelling match broke out just a few dukas or stores away. At first, I thought it was someone hawking their goods, but then it became a furious shouting match. Curiosity got the better of me, so I stuck my nosey head out the door along with the others in the shop.

A crowd had swelled with a local BuiBui woman yelling at an elderly Indian shop keeper, but it was getting beyond the shouting point to pushing and full-on confrontation that now spilled out onto the main street—stopping busy foot traffic and even the heavily-laden the donkey carts in their tracks. Some men were trying to restrain the women and who knows what had precipitated this, but it soon was resolved.

As I headed off to the new Seven to Seven supermarket, a huge figure clad in the traditional brilliant white Swahili dishdasha called kanzu stood out, especially in this darkened narrow passageway that is called a street in Lamu. It was like seeing Gandalf with his brilliant white hue. However, this man had an expansive smile one that you associated with familiarity—it was a face I have known for many years—my old friend Sheikh Ahmed Badawy. He’s the same physical size of a James Earl Jones and with the same over-powering baritone voice to go along with it.

I hadn’t seen the rascal since 2001.

I yelled out his name, “Sheikh Badawy” and he remembered me saying—“Where have you been?”

We didn’t greet the traditional way they do in Lamu, me bending down and kissing his right hand wrist as a sign of respect, but as old friends in a gigantic bear hug.

He asked if I still worked at Nexen in Yemen and I was surprised he still remembered that, but I told him I was in Doha now. He told me he had worked in Yemen at a university, but then was forced to leave because of the war between North and South Yemen in the 1990s. My erstwhile and erudite friend, and former mentor, Bill Curry had too been in the same situation, maybe even the same university, and he also had to do rapid evacuation sans his final payout. Mombasa Bill had explained the whole scenario to me over Skype awhile back, but somehow had managed to get compensated by the British government when he accidentally bumped into some head mucky muck in a British embassy. I wondered if Sheikh might not be entitled to the same compensation.

 We caught up on old times.

Since 2001, he had attained another masters in TESL from a British uni and was trying to get a job in the Gulf, but had been turned down by the University of Qatar. To soften the blow, I told him that I too had been spurned by them, but it was because of my age.

All of a sudden, we turned off from the busy street scene and entered a tight alleyway that lead north in the maze of Lamu’s side street of the Stonetown. We passed by dukas (small stores), no larger than a broom closet back home packed to the hilt and onto their steps with everything from phone cards, to Omo laundry detergent, sweets, tubs of Cowboy lard, withered chewing gums, packets of groundnuts, toothpaste, soap, …etc.

As we climbed the narrow alley, Sheikh, who is as tall as me, was stopped by a much shorter local who grabbed the Sheikh’s right wrist and kissed it. Then as I was looking at this old man’s bespectacled face, I realized that I knew him too.

We too shook hands and exchanged traditional greetings:

‘Jambo (Hello)’

‘Habari ako?’ (How are you?)

Or sometimes, because of their Arabian roots, ‘Salam alaikum’

It was an old Lamu friend Sayed who ran the Rainbow Lodge that Janine and I stayed at in 1988, but I had known him from an earlier trip when I took his picture in the doorway of the same lodging. Apart from Sheikh Ahmed Badaway, Sayed was probably the oldest friend I had in Lamu. Ali Hippy probably was the oldest since I first met him in 1982 when I got off the boat at the Lamu main pier.

The Rainbow Lodge probably closed during the down years during the 1990s when tourism literally went south, south to Zanzibar when Tanzania started to open up to tourism and capitalism after enduring many years of a grim form of African socialism under Julius Nyerere.

We talked briefly about the old days as others rushed by us and I didn’t want to detain him too long as he was carrying a 25 kg bag of cement on his shoulders, so we agreed to meet again. I told him I had a photo of him and he said just to give it to the Sheikh for safe keeping. Sayed still showed his two big front teeth when he smiled.

As we walked, the Sheikh talked about someone called Hadrami which made us talk about the Hadramawt where I had worked for Nexen.  He mentioned that he had been in Tarim and mentioned going to Gabr el Hud (The Tomb of Hud)—he was one of the early prophets. I told him, ‘I’ve been to Tarim and Seyoun, but my trip was cut short. They didn’t allow me to go beyond Tarim.’

Part of my 1999 trip’s itinerary was to go to Hud’s Tomb, but never made it as the Yemeni Army blocked that passage after Tarim. When I worked in the Hadramawt for Nexen from 2001-2003, we were forbidden to make trips outside our work camp as it would be considered as “grounds for dismissal” as my boss Bill Curry had told me in my interview.

The Sheikh and I had only walked a short distance when suddenly we turned left only to come upon a long line of men waiting to get into a house. On the left side of the narrow alley, in a small alcove, was what looked like a wooden cart with a stretcher on top draped in a fancy woven cloth with intricate gold and green embroidered Arabic script stitched onto it—no doubt some sura from the Koran.

Then the Sheikh explained that a very important person had died; the woman who owned one of the big resorts along Lamu’s Corniche. Initially, locals, mostly men in their kanzus had come to pay their respects to this woman. A little while later, a line of women in white veils also showed up and then once ushered inside the house, started singing praises to her.

The line of men and women grew and soon spread to where we were standing in the cross alleyway. Naturally, before and after paying their respects, everyone came to shake hands with the Sheikh and, because I was the only mzungu there, and an honoured friend of the imminent Sheikh no less, they were obliged to shake my hand too!

I must say that I felt somewhat out of place and a tad disrespectable, dressed in a tatty sweaty shirt and ratty shorts, but I did not know I would be meeting so many Lamu notables today. These were, for lack of a better word, the upper class or patricians of, if not Lamu society, then perhaps the entire Swahili society on the coast. Everyone had a pedigree of some sort going back to the founding of Lamu with my friend, Sheikh Ahmed, at the top of this pecking order.

After a multitude of greeting and salaams, we turned away from the busy side street to continue our walk to somewhere. It seemed like they would bury the body soon, but I had no idea when she had actually passed away.

I asked Sheikh, ‘According to Islamic tradition, isn’t the body supposed to be buried three days after death?’

“The family is waiting for her sons to return before the actual burial takes place,” he said, and continued, “you know they are spread out: one son is in Oman, another in England and one in Germany.”

We struggled up the side street which led to an open area with a plaster arch that we walked under announcing that we had arrived at the big mosque on the island. I had known that Sheikh Badawy’s ancestors, probably great, great grandfather had built this. Just inside the gate, we sat down on a concrete ledge that had a fresh coat of noora or lime wash on it, and for the next hour or so, the Sheikh regaled me with the history of this place—his history that is.

It was a blustery day here on one of the few hills on the island. A few grey cumulus clouds drifted by and it looked like it could rain again if only a quick sun shower. It had rained heavily yesterday when we got caught out in the squall that came in from the Indian Ocean. I mentioned the recent rains to the Sheikh, but he seemed to think it was a blessing. Perhaps they don’t get any rain here these days. I’ve never seen it rain here before in Lamu, but then, perhaps I was here during the ‘dry seasons’.

Some other men greeted him then sat down and chatted with the Sheikh, and were obviously looking and making some comment about me.

The Sheikh translated, ‘They want to know why you are wearing shorts in the complex.’

There was really no need to explain. If I had known I would meet the Sheikh and then be invited to a funeral in a mosque I would have dressed for the occasion, but he already knew that and had allayed their suspicions.

Again, as the faithful completed their prayers in the mosque, they passed by where we were sitting and stopped to pay their respects.

‘My great grandfather started this,’ he announced, swinging his right arm in a wide arc around the complex.

He pointed to what appeared to be a cinder block two storey house just at the corner of this mosque complex, “that’s my mother’s house over there.” There was another stucco and plastered arch with Momma Badawy’s house painted in green above it.

“I was born in that room up there.”

A motorbike drove by and I thought it was a tad disrespectful in a holy area especially when he beeped at no one—this left both us wondering who he was beeping at.

‘I don’t remember this area being paved with patio bricks,’ I said.

I said this while looking at some donkeys rolling in the sand just off the paved area. ‘Wasn’t this all sand before,’ I added. ‘I only remember this as sand and everyone sitting here at night reciting from the Qur’an during the Maulidi in 1986.”

‘Yes, you are right,’ he said, ‘I am planning to pave the whole area up to my mother’s place.’

I think he had got some kind of grant from a European or American agency. This was after all a World Heritage site.

Just then, some other African guy, not dressed in traditional kanzu came up, he looked like he was from upcountry, saying, ‘He was born up there.’

This guy looked a tad crazed, like he had been chewing qat. I don’t think he was Muslim, probably a tout, but I wasn’t buying anything he was selling as I was trying to listen to what the Sheikh had to say.

The Sheikh seemed to tolerate him, but nothing more.

I don’t even know if Sheikh knew him or vice versa.

Thank god he left. I felt uncomfortable being around the guy especially in the presence of his holiness.

At some point, some older gentleman came by with his entourage, and this time, it was the Sheikh who got up to greet him, as up to this point, it was the others who bowed to kiss his wrist, but this time the Sheikh did this. We shook hands and after the Sheikh explained that this man was the head of the mosque—perhaps the mullah or the religious sheikh of this mosque.

A little while later, an older crippled woman, held up by two crutches, struggled by us and the Sheikh shouted out a greeting to her, and when she was out of earshot, told me that he had taken her on the Haj many years ago.

The Sheikh kept peering back down the alley we had earlier walked up as if expecting someone.

‘I’m just staying here until they bring the body by as they go to the mosque.’

A little while later, the line of people coming into the mosque complex increased and then a procession of eight pallbearers in kanzus entered carrying the stretcher of green and gold embroidered cloth that covered the deceased. As they made their way to the mosque, the pall bearers changed positions with different men, all in freshly starched kanzus, taking their turn carrying the shrouded body.

I suppose it would be a great honour or sign of respect or both to carry the body of someone who had died. As they got close to us, the Sheikh stood up and he too joined in. He shuffled to the front of the men then shouldered the load for a short distance and then handed that duty over to some other younger man. They finally carried the body into the mosque.

I had a ring side seat and even the Sheikh was surprised that I didn’t have a camera or phone handy to take a shot of the event. We sat for a little longer then I bid him adieu as he most likely wanted to go into the mosque his grandad had built and pray with the others.

I hope to meet him again as I am here for maybe another month. He would be easy to find as he reminded me pointing up at one of the Swahili houses on the street just behind us, ‘Just look for the house with the red paint.’

Then he was gone again.