Monday, November 9

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Further Mombasa adventures

Though attempts were made to visit Fort Jesus and Old Town on our first full day in Mombasa, it was only on Friday that we made our first successful visit to either of these historical landmarks, mostly because we finally brought along a map then. It's quite easy to get lost in Mombasa. It holds true to the Kenyan tradition of avoiding street signs as often as possible, and the streets in Old Town are exceptionally difficult. They're narrow enough to only allow a single car to pass through, and the buildings crowd along the sides so tight that finding any landmark is impossible. You only know you're getting closer to Fort Jesus when the curio shops with their window displays full of wooden animal sculptures and paintings of pastoral scenes start cropping up and the prices for everything kick up a few notches.

That said, both Fort Jesus and Old Town were nice places. Fort Jesus is a very well preserved Portuguese castle used to defend the coastline and trade routes. It didn't do this terribly well as the fort changed hands between Europeans, Arabs and Africans several times over its hundreds of years of service. Still, it's one of the oldest, if not the oldest, building in all of Kenya, and that is cool. Less cool is the choice of the curators to describe Fort Jesus as an exemplar of High Renaissance architectural thought and not give the least description of what that might possibly involve.

Surrounding Fort Jesus is Old Town. It's kind of an odd place and a mix of competing influences. The buildings were constructed by merchants and traders centuries ago and many bear plaques that describe the histories of those earliest owners. The doors and hanging balconies are all of the carved wood that are so famous along the Indian coast. These are the tourist draws, and there are plenty of overpriced caf├ęs and curio shops along the streets to take advantage of these visitors. At the same time, though, Old Town is a highly residential neighborhood. When you walk those streets you walk under lines of laundry or past children making their way to and from school and people hanging out on their stoops or in the many alleys. Farther out from Fort Jesus are textile shops and other such useful places that are of little concern to tourists but very important to the locals. It kind of makes tours awkward as you constantly feel as though you're peeking into people's homes, which, of course, you are. Maybe that wouldn't be so bad if Old Town were more like Browne's Addition, and the locals know people are looking at their homes and make every effort to make them as beautiful as possible, but Old Town is poor. There are only a few public water spigots, and you are never out of sight of someone crippled by polio or whatever and carrying a metal bowl. It's a less than pleasant contrast when tourists with the latest digital cameras, myself among them, are walking past those who, at the best, couldn't afford such technological finery if they saved every shilling they earned for a year. I can solace myself with this whole “working at an orphanage for a year” thing, but I wonder how those who are only visiting for a week or two deal with it.

A short walk from the public beach, visited by Demetra and myself three times in three days to enjoy its warm waters, gentle waves and white sand beaches, is Haller Park, which we visited on Saturday, our last full day in Mombasa. It's the closest thing I've found to a zoo in Kenya. There were scheduled feeding times which guaranteed you could be within feet of giraffes and hippos, and there was a reptile park which kept snakes and monitor lizards and tortoises on islands. Kind of different since the country is otherwise content to throw up a fence around some lake or patch of the savanna and let people drive through with no guarantee of ever seeing an animal. It was nice though, if only because it allowed people to walk through at their own pace and offered some peace from the heat and sound of traffic.

And then we drove back to Nakuru in a single shot on Sunday. We left Mombasa at 7 in the morning and arrived at the center at 8 in the evening, not quite enough time to finish the last half of Anna Karenina but only because it got too dark to read in the last hours. This trip, our first major break since July, was very necessary, and now we're prepared to deal with the children for another month. We're already looking forward to planning a trip to Uganda to try and find some gorillas in December. Good times.

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