Mombasa: A Trip to the Seaside

After a frightfully hard journey from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, we were delighted to climb aboard the train to Mombasa for a taste of relaxed Swahili culture and more importantly for a drop of the Indian Ocean.

The Lunatic Express

The Lunatic Express (915km long) was completed in 1901 after seven years of bitter toil. The project was ferociously expensive; thousands of workers died during its construction and throughout, the builders were plagued by malaria, heat exhaustion, flooding and the famous man eating lions of Tsavo.

At 7.00, a bell rang, someone waved a green flag and with a slight tug, all twenty four carriages began to move. Soon afterwards, we heard the sweet song of a small xylophone, summoning passengers to dinner. In the dining car, the tables were set with starched, white tablecloths and the tea and coffee came in heavyweight silver pots stamped with the crest of the long-defunct East African Railways & Harbours. Stewards in starched whites balanced trays of food, rolling with the train and overhead. A row of frantic, swirling fans did their best to keep us cool.

The following morning, we ground to a halt. Delays were to be expected but we found ourselves hurriedly abandoning our cabin when news reached us of a derailment ahead. We would be forced to complete the final hour of the journey by ‘matatu’. “What prey tell is a matatu?” I hear you ask. It is a lethal, overflowing minibuses laden with assorted goods oft seen hurtling down the pockmarked roads of Kenya at ludicrous speeds and usually involved in the kinds of maneuvers usually reserved for a Formula 1 circuit. The kind of vehicle, in other words, that the British Government warns against, for fear of death.

Arriving in Mombasa

Thankfully, we survived the journey and were deposited safe and sound at the railway station. From there, we made our way to a hotel and caught up on some sleep before venturing out for a bite to eat. “I don’t remember leaving the room in this much of a mess,” I said upon our return. But the penny didn’t drop until we opened the door: our room had been broken into, we’d been robbed. “No, no, no, no, no,” said Malachy. All of our cameras were taken as well as a mobile phone – they even rooted out the chargers. What was more upsetting was that we’d lost our memory card and with it, the wonderful photos we’d taken on safari. God must have been on our side though because the thieves failed to discover our cash, credit cards, passports or travelers cheques. We called the police and made our report but even then, we knew we would never see those cameras again. We’d only been in Mombasa for a few hours.

First impressions of Mombasa

I have no photographs of Mombasa. But let’s imagine… Imagine a city, built on a 15km square island with a population of almost half a million, the majority of whom are Muslim. Imagine if you will, East Africa’s largest port, bustling with activity. A ferry plies the harbour, erupting in a kaleidoscope of colour as its passengers are disgorged on shore. Picture dozens of rippled, barefoot men dwarfed beneath bulky bags weighing down upon their shoulders, as they dance one by one from ship to shore, like a stream of sweaty, worker ants. Imagine the narrow, twisted and sun-bathed streets of ‘Old Town’, a modern day reminder of the Portuguese occupation of Mombasa complete with lacy, fretwork balconies and the famous, intricately carved door-ways. Imagine the austere facade of Fort Jesus, built in 1593 to fend off local enemies and Turkish warships. Finally, imagine two Irish travelers basking in the shade of the coconut trees on white, sandy Tiwi beach fresh from a dip in the azure blue waters of the Indian Ocean.

“Jambo!” they say. Wonderful word. It means “Hello” and the language is Kiswahili, a Bantu language of the coast and islands of eastern Africa. It is the language of the Swahili people whose culture is a mix of African and Arab/Persian influence. It is the langue franca of much of East Africa and is far easier to grapple with than either Arabic or Amharic!

The cuisine too, was more palatable than anything we’d come across so far. On every street corner you can find covered, wooden carts laden with assorted fruits and vegetables. For a few shillings, the seller will whip up a hearty fruit salad of pineapple, watermelon, avocado, mango and apple. How about a tasty deep-fried cassava (not unlike our old friend, the parsnip)? Or perhaps you feel like a drink? Fancy a freshly opened coconut? “I give you a good price, my friend!” Maybe something more substantial? Why not try a surua cookoo (pink, coconut soup) – absolutely delicious with a delicately spiced chicken pilau. Perhaps chicken biryani? The choice is yours, my friend.

– Written by Niamh O Riordan and published in The Imokilly People

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