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October 28th 2007 by Aaron & Tina
Mombasa Momentarily

Posted under Africa & Kenya

Back in Nairobi, we slowly reacquainted ourselves with civilization and recovered from the harsh conditions of our safari. We had preconceived a glamorized image of an African safari and had failed to mentally prepare ourselves for the strenuous bone-rattling travel. Four long days of jerking, dusty, sun-exposed driving and three nights of roughing it in the wild had left us in a state of exhaustion. We were in desperate need of a vacation.

We stopped by the Indian Consulate in the Nairobi city-center to apply for tourist visas, which we will need for our January arrival. Most countries do not require a formal “visa” for U.S. citizens; we just pay a nominal fee at the airport or border crossing and they give us a stamp, usually allowing us to stay in the country for up to three months. However some countries, like India and China, insist on making things more complicated for travelers, who simply want to spend money in their respective countries, by making us endure the arduous, time-consuming process of obtaining a visa in advance. We have been told by many people whom we’ve met along our way, mostly from Egypt and the Middle East, that our own beloved United States is the most difficult country of all for which to obtain a visa (which I have no trouble believing) so we probably shouldn’t complain. Visas are a necessary evil. We spent two hours at the Consulate, mostly waiting in line, and were instructed to return in five business days to collect our visas. Hmmm…what to do for five days in Kenya? We decided to head southeast by bus to the coastal city of Mombasa where we would spend a couple of days before taking another bus to the island of Lamu.

As we’ve said, the roads in Kenya are awful, even by African standards. Many of the primary roads are paved but even those have gigantic potholes. Then there are diversions every few kilometers where the road is under construction so you look longingly at the sealed highway on your left as you are jerked along the dirt path detour running parallel to it. From Nairobi to Mombasa, we rode the Akamba Express bus, a journey that was scheduled to last 7-8 hours. The dirt roads were undulating and uneven, jarring every organ in our bodies. We finally arrived on a road that seemed to be of the first world variety and were abruptly halted by a third world traffic jam. After an hour at a standstill, the line of cars and trucks in front of us created their own alternate route along the side of the road. The wreckage consisted of four large semi-trucks scattered across the road and shoulder, all overturned and one ablaze. It looked as though a petrol-carrying semi-truck had collided with at least one other truck in an attempt to pass on the narrow, two-lane road. The fiery inferno had melted all eighteen tires and left only charred remains. It was surreal and tragic and, with the way our bus driver was playing chicken with oncoming traffic, it could easily have been us on the side of that road.

After nine grueling hours, we rolled into the dirty, unimpressive city of Mombasa, the largest coastal port in East Africa. Mischievous-looking groups of young men loitered in the dark, dusty streets and, with nightfall approaching, we wanted to quickly find our hostel and settle in for the night. Before the bus had come to a complete halt, it was already swarmed by the aforementioned loiterers, all wanting something from someone. Our packs had been stowed in the baggage compartment underneath the bus and we pushed and shoved our way through the claustrophobic crowd to retrieve them. We found ourselves entangled in a mass of writhing bodies, practically crawling on top of each other for our attentions, all soliciting taxi rides without an official taxi cab in sight. Unable to converse in such disruptive conditions, we ducked our heads, clutched our packs tightly, and bulldozed our way toward the bus station, seeking solace inside its doors. But there were no doors. The bus station was merely a desk in the façade of a building, protected by a cage of painted metal bars. Fortunately, it was indented slightly, which afforded us a few feet of breathing room. With the most persistent of the taxi touts looming a mere five feet away, we quietly discussed that we would indeed need a taxi. In light of the abundance of taxi drivers, we shrewdly negotiated our fare and soon arrived at our hostel. Aaron waited with the bags while Tina inspected the room and when she returned her only response was, “One night.” Sometimes you just get a bad feeling about a place. From the guidebook, Tina picked out an upscale Indian restaurant, named Shehnai, and Aaron was too weary to protest. We decided to splurge after the day’s beating. The ambience was spectacular and the food truly extraordinary. During dinner, we decided to take the earliest morning bus up the coast to Lamu.

We arrived at 5:45am at the Tawakal bus terminal and managed to secure the last two seats on a bus to Lamu. The roads leaving Mombasa were surprisingly well maintained and we were hopefully optimistic about a comfortable ride. We stopped in Malindi after two hours and many of the original passengers disembarked while others boarded, filling the bus beyond its capacity. A few unfortunate passengers sat on plastic crates in the aisle for the remaining four hours. When our journey resumed, we had the unfortunate displeasure of sitting behind a sour-smelling Swahili woman, whose pungent body odor invaded our nasal passages, aided by the breeze from her open window. The cries of infant children and the obnoxious voices of men talking loudly into their cell phones filled our heads but as the bus rolled away, a soothing chanted recitation of the Qur’an began to play over the loudspeaker. We have heard these recitations many times before and have come to appreciate their musical quality. It lulled the bus chatter to a quiet murmur until eventually all we could hear was the clanking of the bus as it hit bumps and potholes. The final two hour stretch was literally, without a doubt, the worst road that we have ever traveled! We clinched the headrest of the seats in front of us, trying to stay in our seats, as the bus lurched from one pothole to another and thrashed from side to side. It was impossible to read or even to think, we simply had to endure it. Other adventurers who have traveled overland in southern and eastern Africa tell us how much worse the Kenyan roads are than anywhere else that they have traveled. It’s not hard to believe. By the time we reached Lamu, we had already decided that we would fly back to Nairobi, whatever the cost.

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