Nairobi, Kenya The Land of the Smutty Coconut

My day started on Mahe with a mile long walk uphill to the bus stop carrying 55 pounds of luggage in the rain. A taxi to the airport would have cost $30 and the constant price gouging on this island has worn me down to penny-pinching mode, so I opted for the $1 alternative.

The flight out of Mahe was uneventful, aside from a dumbfoundingly slow check-in line. But that seems positively expeditious now that I’m in Kenya.

Stories about hassles and bureaucracy aren’t very interesting. I’ve learned not to share them with other travelers, cause I end up having to listen to theirs and I don’t need that extra dose of pain and frustration in my life. But in this forum I don’t have to worry about hearing your stories, and I desperately need to vent, so please enjoy the following Kafka-escapade:

There are three foreign immigration lines at Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi. One is ambiguously labeled “Visa” and the other two are even more ambiguously labeled “Other Passports.” Not having a visa, and indeed having what I consider to be an “other” passport, I chose the shorter of the latter two lines. I waited at the front of that line for 20 minutes while the same two people stood at the counter in front of me, talking casually to the immigration agent in Swahili. Finally the agent looked past his two buddies and told me that he was going to take a long time and I should wait in a different line. By this point, the other “other” line was 30 people long, and it got even longer when everyone behind me rushed to the new line before I could get there.

So I started waiting in this new line when it occurred to me that the “Visa” line might be for people applying to GET visas, rather than those who already have them. I took a risk and switched lines again. After 5 minutes in this third line, a free-roaming immigration agent came by and asked if I already had a visa. I answered no, and he told me I had to get back in the “Other Passports” line.

Going back to this second line, it took a good 30 minutes to get to the front, where I was told – and it pains me even in writing this – that I was in the wrong line. Since I’m applying for a visa, I should naturally be in the line labeled “Visa.” I explained very clearly that I had just been told the opposite by a guy on the floor. The agent expressed pity and suggested the man was either uninformed, or perhaps some rogue troublemaker. It seems not impossible to me that there are people in this country who get their kicks like that.

So back into the “Visa” line again. By this point, my entire flight has been processed, so the lines are slimming. The guy takes my visa application and everything is going fine. He says it will cost $50. I ask if they take credit card. Of course, they don’t. He tells me to go to one of the banks outside baggage claim, get the $50, and come back. He sends me off, passport in hand, fully stamped and processed. I don’t know why I came back with the money, but I did.

Getting the money from the bank teller was a hoot. I asked for $100 and the teller gave me a $50 and a $5. When I showed him his mistake, he looked at me like I was trying to swindle him. A little bit of shouting cleared that up – either by convincing him I was honest or scaring him out of his “commission.”

But the real fun didn’t start until I was out of the terminal – a white guy, traveling by myself, exposed zippers everywhere, with the letters U.S.A. tattooed in fluorescent colors across my forehead. I had a caravan of people behind me as I walked shouting anything they could think of to get my attention. Bangkok all over again.

I knew I was looking for the Metro bus into the city, but there’s no one you can ask for directions because every single person has an angle. “Oh, the bus is very dangerous. You come with me.” “Oh, the roads are no good this time of day. You must take a taxi.” “Yes, I can sell you a bus ticket right here. You pay in US dollars?”

Any piece of information you share spreads through the group in seconds and they’re all trying to figure a way to make it work for them. The only thing to do is get out of there on foot and get some breathing room. I did that, and soon after I managed to find the bus and get into the city.

The next curveball came at the train station, where I was told there was no train running today. It used to be a daily train, but with the sharp drop in tourism following the embassy bombings in 1998, and then another drop when some planes crashed into some buildings in 2001, and then another drop when Al Qaeda blew up a hotel in Mombasa in 2002…now the train runs every other day.

There is one fundamental rule about Nairobi. I’ve read it and been told it at least a dozen times. It is that you must absolutely never under any circumstances or for any length of time be out after dark. I don’t know what happens at night here, but there is definitely no kidding around about that rule. And there I was at the train station at 6pm and I just found out I’m stuck for the night.

Fortunately, I was standing next to a group of young Italian aid workers. They were planning to go to Mombasa too and had run into the same problem. They offered to give me a ride in their van back to the hostel they were staying at. They seemed a little dodgy, but the situation around me was a whole lot dodgier.

Going with the Italians turned out to be a really really good idea. They took me to what I discovered is a Catholic mission on the outskirts of the city. It’s gated and secured on all sides like a military compound, only with crosses instead of guns. They got me a room in one of the cottages for $14 a night with three buffet meals included.

I had dinner tonight with two Sudanese priests. They’re here getting trained to deal with trauma victims in their country – which I am sure there is no shortage of. We had a fascinating conversation in which they explained the history of the Sudanese conflict. They had very thick accents and I could only understand about half of what they said, but it was a lot more than I knew before.

The thing that surprised me most was learning how pleased they are with the war in Iraq. It turns out the Iraqi government had been supporting the Arab leadership in Khartoum, providing weapons and money for their war against the Christians in the south. With Iraq crippled, the Sudanese government has lost their supplier and are suddenly scrambling. According to these priests, the current peace negotiations are the direct result of the Iraq war. Otherwise the Arabs wouldn’t even be at the table.

From their point of view, the Bush administration has been a liberating force for southern Sudan. They were thrilled when we defied the UN. They understand the messy circumstances of the war and that many people are very angry, but they are in a desperate situation and global politics are not important to them.

Three hours in Kenya and I’m having this conversation.

It’s been an interesting day. This place is alive in a way I don’t often experience. There are life and death struggles everywhere you look. The dire is commonplace. Chaos is the norm. It’s upsetting and it’s tragic, but it’s something else too that I can’t quite articulate and I don’t want to risk trying.

There’s a lot to say about my time on land in the Seychelles and if I agonize over it the way I usually do, I’ll never get around to posting this. So instead here are some semi-stream-of-consciousness ramblings:

The Seychellois are a mixture of Arab, Indian, Chinese, and European heritage, but they are predominantly a nation of freed African slaves. The islands were uninhabited before their discovery by Europeans in the 17th century, and continued to be uninhabited for quite a while after that.

The tiny bits of real estate that poke out above the Indian Ocean are summit points of the mostly sunken continent of Gondwanaland. The 8 00-some meter peak on the main island of Mahe is the Everest of a lost, prehistoric region we’re unlikely to ever know much about.

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I dig that.

I had three days on the island after my dive trip, and as a daily constitutional, I hiked from one end of the island as high up towards the summit as the roads would go, then down to the other side of the island and back. I’ve still got a mountain climb to prepare for and can’t be slacking off.

The government is – or was until very recently – nominally communist. But like so many other places, its professed ‘ism’ is a thin cover for hysterical greed and self-interest. It was taken by force in the late 70s by some guy with the very sinister-sounding name of Rene, who has since become one of the richest men in the world. I won’t pretend to know how a guy with a country as small as this one could end up as rich as he has, but I suspect it has something to do with the incredible number of banks in the country’s one very small town center. Aside from some DVD rental shops and a casino, banks are about the only thing going in Victoria. I think I smell an international tax haven.

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The combined population of the islands is somewhere around 100,000. It’s small enough that even though the people are thoroughly screwed over and poor, no one is actually starving. Tourist dollars likely have something to do with that too.

The prices in the Seychelles are crazy. I’ve never paid so much for so little. $110 isn’t outrageous for a hotel room in the states, but for a hard bed, intermittent cold, brown water, and a tiny TV with one channel in French, it’s a lot. Fortunately, I only booked one night at that rate before arriving. Once on the island, I was able to get my remaining nights for $70 – still 5 times what I’m paying in Kenya for the same thing.

I paid $12 for a nuked frozen burger patty and a bottle of water.

Most interesting menu item I saw: giant fruit bat curry. That was on the island of La Digue, where I got let off for an afternoon during the dive trip.

I rented a bike to get around. The owner identified me as American – a rare thing on an island of mostly French tourists.

“I love Americans. They are very strong. And very rich. If anyone tries to steal your bike, you will shoot them, yes?’
“No problem. I’ve got a handgun in my bag.”
“Yes. I thought so.”

La Digue is home to L’Union, one of the finest beaches in the world. Walking on L’Union is like invading a collective dreamspace – where we all go in our minds when we don’t want to be where we are. It doesn’t entirely feel like a real place.

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I stole these pictures from Carlo’s camera and they’re not the ones I would’ve taken. What makes L’Union special is the large, smooth, curvaceous slabs of granite that partition the beach into a series of perfect little alcoves.

Also, there are a lot of naked French boobs on display.

Speaking of things salacious, one of the things the Seychelles was famous for among whalers and merchants back in the day was the coco d’mer. It’s a type of coconut, found only on one island, whose shape reminded lonely sailors of…well, you figure it out.

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They sell them now for hundreds of dollars, which strikes me as a lot to pay for a pornographic coconut.

The islands have a strange history of international espionage. There were, during the cold war, secret spy satellite control stations on opposite sides of Mahe – one owned by the U.S., the other by the Soviets. They both paid huge sums of cash to the local government for use of the land, and managed a tense coexistence for several decades. The islands were also a haven for mercenaries and assassins, which I imagine would’ve made for some interesting night life.

The primary language is Creole, a bastardized version of French, but everyone speaks English as well.

This is the only place I’ve ever been where the locals seem to be having more fun than the tourists. The main beaches are often packed with kids playing soccer, music, and practicing the Brazilian dance/martial art of kapuera (I’m very curious how that got here).

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By contrast, the French tourists sit around a lot, get sunburned, and occasionally take walks.

There is one movie theater in the country, the Indian owned and run Deepham Cinema. They have imported their homeland’s love of rigidly enforced, arbitrary rules designed to make customers suffer.

The start time of their early screening is 6:47pm. Patrons are not allowed into the building before this time. They’re forced to wait out in the street until a repurposed fire alarm goes off, signaling to enter. Everyone has to run inside and scramble for a seat as soon as the bell sounds, because the movie has already started.

There are two doors leading into the theater. They are both wide open. Customers are only allowed through one of the doors. There is no sign indicating that this is the case. If the other door is attempted, the guy in the ticket booth starts screaming and bangs his shoe against the glass.

If you ever find yourself in the Deepham Cinema on Mahe island, DO NOT rest yo ur leg on the seat in front of you.

At the time of my visit, they were screening Spiderman 2 and had somehow acquired a massive, 20 foot plastic cut-out of Spiderman hanging upside-down on a web above their marquee. It covered the entire front of the building. I don’t know where it came from or how in the world it got there.

Ah, yes. Spiders. Palm spiders are real, they are very large, and they are all over the island.

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4 Responses to Nairobi, Kenya The Land of the Smutty Coconut

  1. Geologist

    Gondwanaland is actually the supercontinent formed by Africa, Antarctica, India, and Australia. It was centered approximately over where the Indian ocean is today. Gondwanaland didn’t actually sink, It just split apart into its respective continents.

    As a rule, most of the small islands in the Indian Ocean are volcanic isles that arose from the ocean crust after the continents split (Maldives, Reunion, Mauritius, etc).

    Coincidentally, the exception to this rule is the Seychelles, which are on the Seychelles Bank. If you look at a map that shows the ocean floor, you can see it. It’s a crescent shaped chunk on which the islands are located. That crescent shaped chunk is actually made of continental crust rather than oceanic, which has a different composition, meaning that the Seychelles bank was in fact once part of the Gondwanaland supercontinent. It was supposedly wedged in between India and the African coast of modern day Kenya and Tanzania.

    So you’re right that the Seychelles are the summits of a long lost part of Gondwanaland, but the Seychelles are the only part of the supercontinent that the sea actually covers.

  2. Wendy

    I totally love ure journal. The decriptions totally made me home sick coz u decscribed them perfectly. Cant wait to read of where u go next…
    Later

  3. diana

    I’m from Kenya and it was so fun to read this. You’re an excellent writer!! AND SO FUNNY. I really enjoyed reading this.

  4. Dogbreath

    Hey Matt, LOVE!!!!!! your videos!!!!! Thank you so much for pursuing & sharing your vison with the world!

    I love that you include animals in your travels & videos. I’m particularly intrigued by the lemurs of Madagascar, especially since that phase of your journey, while beautifully included in the video itself, seems to have been one that sadly ended up on your blog’s cutting room floor…. unless I’m just not seeing it listed under some other location? –

    Maybe you’ll write about the lemurs in your book. That would be great! Lemurs are so cool!

    I will absolutely buy your book, so please write it!

    I love, love, love what you have done. THANK YOU SO MUCH!

    Lori

    Skokie, IL, USA

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