Zannah and I had heard mixed reviews of the night train from Nairobi to Mombasa. Lonely Planet says some people love it while some hate it, and the stories I heard from other travelers seemed to confirm that. My opinion was no doubt influenced by the fact that I’d recently spent a lot of time on trains in India, and everything about the train to Mombasa was a step up. Our train was on time, it was easy to find our car, and we had a two-level sleeping compartment all to ourselves. Dinner and breakfast in the dining car were included with our ticket. The colonial-era train wasn’t fancy or fast, but it turned out to be a very comfortable way to reach the coast.
Mombasa itself, however, didn’t do much for us. Just outside of the city we began to see rows of slums and huge fields of garbage.
We checked into a downtown hotel and tried, without success, to find some kind of charm on the hot, congested city streets. Early that afternoon Zannah took a taxi out to visit some of her parent’s friends who lived just up the coast, while I worked on photos and explored more of Mombasa. The city’s most popular tourist attraction, apparently, is Fort Jesus, originally built by the Portuguese in 1593. I arrived at the fort just before sunset and found a local soccer game more interesting than the old building. And I don’t really like soccer.
The next morning Zannah and I took an express matatu to Malindi, where we would catch a plane to Lamu. Found all over Kenya, matatus are minivans that serve as buses, running both short and long routes. Matatus have 13 passenger seats, but – unremarkably – our matatu to Malindi held 19 of us, with many adults holding kids on their laps.
Zannah had the pleasure of sitting next to a teenage Romeo. Despite the presence of his stern-looking Muslim father in the front seat, this suave young operator spent most of the ride waging a bold campaign to win Zannah’s heart. With the matatu’s speakers pumping out a constant stream of loud Kenyan dance music, the teenager was free to work his magic without being overheard. He warmed up by staring into Zannah’s eyes as he danced in his seat and sang the lyrics of each song. Then – to establish his credentials as legitimate suitor – he assured Zannah that he was already 17 years old. Zannah must have looked skeptical (he appeared to be about 14), so as proof he directed her attention to the thin tuft of hair clinging to his chin.
Matatu Ride from Mombasa to Malindi (Video)
Soon the earnest young Romeo raised the stakes. “He doesn’t love you,” he told Zannah, pointing towards me. “I love you. No one could love you more than me.” Zannah told him she was married, but the smitten teenager remained undaunted. “Trust me,” he insisted. “Why don’t you trust me?” Switching tactics, he waxed poetic. “Love is pain,” he explained. “Love is everlasting.” Zannah seemed a little relieved when the matatu dropped us off at the Malindi airport.
Just 30 minutes after taking off, our little twin-prop plane landed on an island near Lamu. A short ferry ride took us the rest of the way. One of Unesco’s World Heritage Sites, Lamu is the oldest living town in East Africa. Motor vehicles are prohibited, so donkeys are the primary mode of transportation for both people and goods. The town itself is very small, clustered around a few long streets that run parallel to the ocean. It was easy to walk everywhere.
Ferry from the Airport to Lamu (Video)
Zannah and I looked at several different hotels before choosing one with a central location and a rooftop restaurant. We didn’t have much of a plan for our visit. We just wanted to relax, see Lamu, and check out the beach at Shela – a smaller, more upscale town a few kilometers south.
As we wandered through Lamu’s narrow alleys that afternoon we were approached by a short gray-haired man who introduced himself as Ali Hippy. “I am in the Lonely Planet guidebook,” he said proudly. For over 20 years Ali Hippy has been inviting groups of tourists to have dinner at his house, and we agreed to join him the next night. As he walked away he recited one of his many catch-phrases: “I will not let you leave dinner until you say to me, ‘Stop, Ali Hippy, before you kill me with food!’”
Zannah had a bad feeling about our new friend Ali. “I’m not sure that was a good idea,” she said ominously.
The next morning we made the walk to Shela. At the beach, just past the town, we ran into a man leading two camels. Zannah befriended Marco Polo, the nicer of the two.
In the afternoon I took out my big camera for some street portraits. The kids seemed to enjoy having their photo taken, but most of the adults refused. And not one of the many Muslim women wearing a burqa would allow me to take her photo. No surprise, really, but still disappointing – the burqa-clad women, eyes flashing from the small opening in their flowing black robes, cut striking figures as they walked past the white-washed buildings.
That evening we met up with Ali Hippy and the other tourists he’d invited to dinner – a big Australian family, a young British guy with his girlfriend, and a European couple we’d also seen in the Masai Mara and Lake Nakuru. Ali led us to his modest house on the north end of town and we all sat down on mats in the front courtyard. To Zannah’s horror, the young British guy produced a guitar and started singing. “That’s something I would expect an American to do!” she complained. And it turned out the British guy was returning for a second night at Ali’s, which Zannah found incomprehensible.
Zannah was even more horrified when, after serving us several courses of traditional Swahili food, Ali brought out all his kids to help him play music and sing. “I think we just supported child abuse,” she commented later. I can’t say that I particularly liked Ali Hippy, but – unlike Zannah, who dismissed the whole dinner as “gimmicky” – I was glad we went. If nothing else, the evening was memorable.
Ali Hippy’s Family Singing (Video)
The next afternoon we took a boat to the airport and flew back to Nairobi, where we spent just one night before heading north to the area around Mt. Kenya.