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Memories and More in Mombasa (June 23 - 25)

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Here it is February 2011, and we are finally in the process of finishing our blog of our African trip. It proved quite impossible to keep it up in Africa almost entirely because I could not upload the photos on the site. Instead, we continued to write about our journey hoping that we would be able to complete it at some point. I then ran into problems downloading my photos at home and have just recently resolved that issue. Our main reason now for doing this blog is for us to have this account of our time in Africa. We love sharing this with you, but as it is not current, it may not hold the same interest for you. Still we will continue with our journey.........

At 3:45 p.m. on the dot, June 23rd, Cholo arrived with his taxi to take us to Nairobi Railway Station, where we were to catch the overnight passenger train to Mombasa. We had to get there early as Dana has reserved tickets over the phone, and we needed to pay before 5 p.m. The station seemed to be little changed from the one I rather vaguely remember from when I was last there sometime in the 1950s – for a very large city, it is pretty low key – perhaps reflecting what presently seems to be the relative unpopularity of rail transport, either passenger or goods, in Kenya.

Once the tickets were bought, we waited at the station watching other passengers gradually assembling for our train or boarding other trains headed for unknown (to us) destinations. At last came the moment when, over the public address system, we were asked to board the train. We found our two-berth sleeper compartment and made ourselves comfortable. I wanted to sleep on the upper bed as this had been my favourite way back when. We soon noticed that the majority of other passengers travelling in the first-class sleeper compartments were, like us, tourists rather than Kenyans. Our journey began right on time (7 p.m.), and we were soon enjoying the rhythm of the train’s wheels passing over the rail joints, and the rocking of the carriage. Soon after the start, a train steward went by our compartment ringing a bell calling us to the first sitting for dinner. In the restaurant car, tables for four were set on each side of a central gangway. We sat with two young American women who were in Kenya as part of a larger group of volunteers at an orphanage on the slopes of Mt. Kenya. Service was rapid and efficient, and the food was tasty though, for vegetarians, uninspired and incomplete, chicken soup being the only option for the starter.

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Our train berth

Back in our compartment, we found the bedding had been prepared during our absence. Dana and I were both tired, so, almost immediately, we decided to retire for the night. Neither of us slept particularly well, mainly because of the noise and the rocking. But I would not have missed the experience for anything! I just loved every moment. Early in the morning, we were called to breakfast by the ringing bell. Again, it was sufficient without being great – and was served efficiently and very graciously. During our absence from our compartment, the bedding had been packed away – so Dana and I spent the next couple of hours hanging out of the window looking at the scenery, waving back to anyone who waved at us, and, every now and again, throwing pencils to young children who were watching the train as it passed them by.

A gradual increase in the number of people, buildings and roads indicated our approach to Mombasa, and soon (about 10 a.m.) we were disembarking from the train – and ended up at an hotel in central Mombasa.

We spent just two nights in the city as the prime reason for our being there was for me to revisit some of the places that had been important parts of my life in the two years I had lived there (1953 and parts of ’52 and ’54 as far as I can remember).

The first day, almost immediately after checking into the hotel, we wandered through the Old City area, then went into Fort Jesus for a couple of hours. Imagining parts of its long history (built by the Portuguese in the fifteen hundreds) still excited me in a similar way to how it had when I was 9 and 10 years old. Then we headed along the coastal part of the Old City as I wanted to see if there were any large dhows in the port there. Before reaching our destination, however, we encountered some concrete tiers where twenty or thirty people – mostly Arab men – were sitting drinking coffee or tea, animatedly discussing some topic or other, or quietly gazing out over the creek that separated Mombasa Island from the mainland to the north. We sat down and drank small, handleless cups of strong coffee that were brought to us from a nearby stand, then occupied ourselves gazing over the water at the far shore. The sun was setting fast, so we went to pay – then were offered more coffee by the stand owner, a slightly built man named Said. There, we fell into interesting discussions centred mainly around comparative religion, art and literature with some men, obviously regular customers, who were gathered around the stand. Storm clouds appeared to be gathering overhead, so, promising ourselves we would return the next evening, we started to head back to our hotel. The rain soon started to fall, and we were both soaked by the time we reached our destination.

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Fort Jesus

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The Mombasa tea shop

Back in our room, after drying ourselves off, we looked through various tourist booklets trying to decide where to go for supper, eventually deciding on an Indian restaurant that was about a 20-minute walk away. Although it was completely dark by the time we ventured back into the streets, we elected to walk to the restaurant after assurances from the hotel staff that we would be safe. The streets were thronged with people for the entire distance we had to cover, and neither of us felt in the least bit unsafe, either on the way to the restaurant, where we ate an unremarkable curry. or on our return.
The second day started with a long walk in hot, humid conditions – we were heading for a nearby shopping centre to replace a lost surge-protector for Dana’s computer. “Nearby” turned out to be wrong – the mall seemed to have moved, and we walked much further than we had expected. Once the item was safely purchased, we decided to go to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) offices to enquire about how best we might get to the Shimba Hills National Reserve and/or Kisite Marine Park. We decided to take a small taxi – very fortunately as a heavy downpour began minutes after we climbed into the taxi. When we reached the KWS offices, we asked the taxi driver to wait whilst we went in and made our enquiries. The KWS person, a senior officer, was obviously dedicated to his work, was very friendly, and most helpful. As a result of what he told us, we decided not to go to the Shimba Hills, but instead to go the next day to Shimoni whence we could try to get out to Kisite.

For now, though, there were – for me – more places from my youth that I wanted to try to find – the Mombasa Yacht Club, Mombasa Primary School, and, perhaps, the house that my family and I lived in more than 55 years ago (could it really be that long!).

First, the Yacht Club. Dana and I found the taxi waiting for us when we came out of the KWS office. The driver thought he knew the way there, and, with some difficulty, succeeded in delivering us to the front gate. Once I explained to the manager my reason for being there, he warmly welcomed us into the clubhouse and let us roam around the grounds. I found little that fitted with my memories. There was a swimming pool that had not been there, and the trees were very much larger and shadier than anything I remembered. The yachts were all completely different to those that I had played around and sailed in, and the beach was much tinier (partly because the tide was high!) and more littered with debris. The next-door dry-dock, the boat-entrance to which my friend, Steve Hobson, and I had tried to build a causeway across until we were reported to our fathers who – in no uncertain terms – ordered us to desist, was still there but now securely fenced off. When we weren’t tossing stones in for our causeway, Steve and I fished there for fish that we called tembo. These and many other happy memories came flooding back, and I was happy recounting them to Dana, and a few to the manager, who was a lovely man. I left with a burgee, and two Mombasa Yacht Club centenary souvenirs – an orange polo-style shirt that I subsequently loved wearing and a booklet outlining the club’s history.

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The Yacht Club

We then taxied to the area of Mombasa (Port Tudor) in which I thought our house had been located. I recognized absolutely nothing – unsurprisingly as there were so many new houses and other buildings – so we gave up and had our driver take us to the Old Port. There, we looked at a couple of ocean-going dhows moored just offshore, then strolled on to the café for some late-evening company and discussion. We found that none of our friends from the previous evening was there, however, apart from the coffee-maker, Said, who transferred his job to someone else and took us through parts of the Old City that were new to us, including a visit to his home and family.

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Old buildings in Mombasa

At some point during the day, we made arrangements, over the phone with someone in Shimoni, to be picked up early the next morning, so we retired to bed early to get a good night’s sleep.

Posted by danjali 21:04 Archived in Kenya

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