Friday, August 24, 2012

Long Weekend in Mombasa and Watamu (Part 1)


What a weekend! We had Monday off from school in celebration of the holiday known as Eid. Eid, for the uninitiated (as I was a mere month ago) is the day that marks the end of Ramadan, which means the end of a full month of fasting. The celebrations are joyful and colorful, everywhere on the streets you can find little girls with their arms and legs covered in elaborate henna tattoos to mark the occasion and everyone is dressed in their finest and most colorful clothes, or for the men, their whitest robes. The town of Mombasa was somewhat sleepy throughout the month of Ramadan as about 70% of the population is Muslim here; many restaurants and stores were closed. But now the hustle and bustle has been restored and the city has roared back to life.
            I decided to make the most of the long weekend and go into tourist hyper drive. On Saturday I headed into Old Town Mombasa with my friends Kristine (A wonderfully energetic new teacher in the Junior School who hails from the Philippines but has spent the past five years teaching in Germany) and Edwina (The wife of my boss, Naheed, who also teaches in the Junior School and who knows Mombasa in and out. A fantastic tour guide). We headed to Jahazi Coffee Shop in Old Town which is a Swahili style building that serves Swahili food (Samosas, Swahili Coffee, Mango Juice, and other assorted delights) and has a really fantastic atmosphere. The coffee shop is actually owned by three teachers and administrators at the Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa (AKAM) so we are just keeping it in the family when we go there. It’s atmosphere and cuisine have recently been praised by a number of prominent guidebooks so the clientele has shifted from locals and AKAM employees to a more touristy crowd.
            After Jahazi, we headed out in search of a henna artist as Kristine wanted to get in the Eid spirit and join the festivities. Edwina, being as connected as she is, made a few calls and before we knew it we were off to the depths of Old Town, plunging through old, storied streets full of colonial homes, street-side shops, beautiful woodworking shops and what was apparently the first maternity ward in Mombasa (for the English and American women only, thanks Colonialism). We finally came upon this house that we teeming with women and girls all waiting to get their arms and legs decorated, I definitely stood out as the sole male presence and I had to gain the permission of the lady of the house in order to enter. Inside were even more girls in their hijabs. The woman got right to work on Kristine’s arm and within minutes her arm was decorated in elaborate floral patterns and dazzling shapes and lines. When it came to agreeing on the price, the woman unfortunately tried to gouge us. Edwina spent a good 10 minutes heatedly debating with her until we just paid her the going rate for this sort of work and rushed out into the street with her smoldering glare on our backs.
            Putting that unpleasantness behind us we headed to Fort Jesus for a tour. Fort Jesus is a large Portuguese fort that was built in 1593 as the Portuguese were extending their influence around the world and opening trade routes to finance their empire. Vasco De Gama had made his way to this part of the world a little less than a century before but he was driven away by the local peoples and ended up landing farther north. The fort itself is shaped like a human being with a head, torso, arms and legs. It looks out over the Indian Ocean and was a prime center for trade as it allowed trade between South East Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Southern Africa. The museum here holds elaborate lusterware bowls from the Middle East, Pottery from China, Scissors from Venice and furniture from Portugal, all of which were found on site. Fort Jesus is remarkably well preserved and was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Check out the pictures below to get a sense of what it looked like! Unfortunately for us our hired tour guide was somewhat of a flop, but the site itself was interesting enough.

My day ended with an evening of duty in the dorms and an attempted Fantasy Football draft with my close group of Bowdoin friends. Unfortunately, the internet service at school blocks Google Video Chat and the Draft website so I was unable to really participate, which was kind of a drag. I was still able to catch up with some people though and it looks like everyone is dealing relatively well with life post-Bowdoin. Some are employed, some are not, but we are all staying in touch and I couldn’t be happier about that.

On the stairs in the Swahili House

Kristine getting worked on, before the conflict over price. 

Our friendly, if uninteresting tour guide

View through the arrow slit onto the Indian Ocean

Wall Painting by the Portuguese. They were obviously sailors and warriors before they became artists.

Bowl with Kufic Script from the Middle East

Portugese representation of America from an Atlas in the Museum. Mexico looks a bit like Italy and we've been flattened out a bit. Valiant effort though!

They did a better job with Africa! Pretty spot on!

Kristine on my left, Edwina on my right

It's not all leisure on the coast of Kenya

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