Saturday, August 25, 2012

Long Weekend in Mombasa and Watamu (Part 2)


On Sunday, I woke up early and headed north with Lindsey Thompson. Lindsey is a recent Bowdoin grad (two years my senior) who started working at the Academy last year. Coming from Bowdoin she is (naturally) enthusiastic, outgoing and great at what she is doing; she loves teaching Math and moved from a Teaching Fellow to a full-time Teacher this year. I knew her only really by name when I was at Bowdoin but was a great resource for me during my application process here and has been a great help in getting me settled here as well.
            The day itself was overcast, the first day of its kind since I have been here, but my excitement at being able to get off campus for a weekend banished any gloomy thoughts the clouds might have instilled in me. We rode in a Matatu with fifteen of our new closest friends. The ride up was uneventful (thankfully) and in no time we had checked into Eco-Lodge, our home for the night. More on that later.
            We headed into the town of Watamu for lunch. We walked along the road until a man pulled up on his motorcycle, asked where we were heading and offered us a ride into town for $2 total. Seeing a good deal in the works, we hopped on and off we went into town. It was like a whole new world… a world full of Italians. Yes, that’s right. Italians. Everywhere. Watamu is apparently a HUGE vacation spot for the golden-skinned, far-too-revealing-speedo wearing Italians. So much so that instead of English (a national language here) the street kids and vendors speak Italian!
            After a lunch of fish, we headed down to the beach. To get there we had to wind our way through an elaborate network of backstreets and unmarked paths but we emerged onto a beautiful white sand beach. We were helped on our way by a nice woman, Mama Zina, who guided us to her beachside shop; we admired, but ultimately did not purchase anything. After a short walk on the beach, the clouds were beginning to look more ominous so we scurried back to the road.
            Near Watamu are the ruins of an old Swahili town built in the 12th century and active and vibrant until around the 16th century. Lindsey had visited before but was blown away the last time so she wanted to go back and I was more than willing to check it out. After paying a small fee to the National Park Service, we passed through the gates and picked up a tour guide, who introduced himself as Mr. T. Lindsey being Miss Thompson and me being Mr. Taylor (something I am still adjusting to, the kids call me “sir” or “Mr. Taylor” and I introduce myself that way, it is bizarre, I feel so old!), we were thrilled to have a guide with a similar last name. We soon realized his moniker was a play off his actual last name, Chai, which is Swahili for Tea, so he was actually introducing himself as Mr. TEA. Ahhhh. I though I escaped painful puns when I bid my dear father adieu at Logan Airport, but apparently they exist everywhere; good thing I have a healthy appreciation for and deeply miss my father’s puns. It got even better when at our first stop on the tour, Mr. Tea was explaining a mosque floor plan to us and after instilling us with some new knowledge finished by saying, “there you go, a little cup from Mr. Tea.” Ouch.
            The rest of the tour was fantastic, Mr. Tea far outshined my guide from the day before at Fort Jesus; he was full of energy and great facts. The ruins themselves are remarkably well preserved and are surrounded by deep, thick forest. There are baobab trees everywhere that rise tall, thick and strong from the earth. Their branches seem frail and spindly compared to their gargantuan trunks. There were monkeys all over the place, scurrying through the ruins and bounding up the trees.
            The city was divided into Upper, Middle, and Lower class by large circular walls. There is nothing left of the lower class houses as they were thought to be stick and mud structures but what is left of the Upper class houses reveals a city that had a substantial amount of wealth. Large elaborate floor plans contained vast reception rooms, imposing courts of judgment, spring-fed bathhouses and spacious storage rooms. Here, like Fort Jesus, fragments of pottery from all over the world, metal objects from Venice, and ivory pieces were discovered. The architecture was overwhelmingly influenced by Islamic style as the Omani Sultanate of the time expanded its reach into this region and took the city from the local tribe with the help of rival tribesman. This past year at Bowdoin I took a class entitled “The Art of Three Faiths” taught by one of my favorite professors, Professor Perkinson. It focused on art and architecture in the Mediterranean as influenced by the Christian, Islamic, and Jewish faiths around the year 1000. It was a great introduction into the world of Islamic art for me, as most of my previous studies had focused on Christian Europe around the 14th through 16th centuries.  The last place I though I would rediscover Islamic architecture was on the coast of Kenya, but lo and behold, out of the Kenyan Costal forest emerged the pointed arches, kufic inscriptions, and Mihrabs. I found that I was able to point out the features of these old mosques and caught myself mentally correcting our tour guide when he misused architectural vocabulary. So, proof in a small way that a Bowdoin Education can be relevant the world over, even when you least expect it.
            After our remarkably entertaining tour (if you go to the Gede Ruins, find Mr. Chai and have him guide you), Lindsey and I wandered the ruins on our own while the skies slowly began to open up and the rains began. We decided it was probably time to head out and began the long walk back to the road. Then the real rain came, I’m talking sheets and sheets of rain, by the time we hopped on a matatu, we were drenched to the core, easily the coldest I have been since I have arrived in Kenya, which isn’t really saying much, but wet we were. We were dropped on the side of the road and trudged our way back through the sand to Eco-Lodge, our home for the evening.
            The Lodge was established by a German woman a few years back who then transferred ownership over to the local village. It produces enough money to provide a solid lifestyle for the workers and to send every child in the village to Secondary School, a big deal in rural areas here. They have three “houses” based on different local architectural styles, and ours was made out of bound together leaves that formed a 20 yard by 8 yard structure that looked more or less like a hedgehog. It was very roomy inside, enough for three beds. The main lodge was elevated with a bar/ dining area on top where we spent the rest of our evening reading the night away. I tore my way through Shadow of the Wind, which I thoroughly enjoyed and Lindsey was working on A Brief History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson and frequently regaled me, in a disturbingly delighted manner, about the different ways the population of earth could be decimated by asteroid or volcanic eruption. The location and time we had on our hands allowed a necessary and supremely enjoyable break from life at the Academy. As much as I have come to enjoy my time here, spending a week straight in the compound necessitates time away. I have found that I have made my way from one bubble (the Bowdoin Bubble) to the AKAM Bubble!
            The rain continued through the morning and we read most of the early part of the day. We finally pulled ourselves together and headed to a Mangrove forest where the Park Service there has set up an elevated walkway where you can walk above the Mangroves and observe the wildlife. It was another delightful excursion, but unfortunately my camera ran out of juice in the process so I couldn’t document the natural beauty there, I guess I’ll just have to go back!
            The AKAM staff was gathering at a hotel down in Nyali, just South of us, so we waved a bus down and joined them at the beach for volleyball, drinks and my first swim in the Kenyan Indian Ocean.
            All in all, a fantastic weekend. I am fully planning on keeping up with these travels, having just planned a trip up Mt. Kenya over my October Break. Time to put my Bowdoin Outing Club Mountaineering experience to use!

-Mzungu currently enjoying the sights, sounds and sun of the Kenyan Coast


Blaze, the Eco-Lodge Dog

Millipedes! Everywhere! I'll post about them later

Fish and Chips. The Whole Fish... and Chips

The Watamu Beach on a dreary day

Lindsey's Foray into the sea


The Fluted Tomb so named because "the wind blows through a hole at the top of the column and makes noise." Or, perhaps because the column is fluted.

The size of my palm. Cue Shudder.

Mr. T / Chai

Lindsey in a Baobab Tree House


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  2. Such great photos. And I love the idea that all the way in Kenya you've got the Polar Bear network helping you out.