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Mombasa World Cup

KENYA | Friday, 28 February 2014 | Views [430]

I will try to type quickly, as the computer at the hotel here in Mombasa charges by the minute.  That is one thing that has surprised me about this place, which was extremely inexpensive, is that the extras are so pricey.  A snickers bar will cost you nearly $2, and FHM magazine will go for $22.  Or you can have a room at this 4-star hotel on the ocean including a private balcony, massive breakfast buffet, table service dinner, pools, waterslide, activities, towel service, plenty of water bottles, monkeys, etc. for $60.  
I have been spending most of my time doing scuba diving training in the hotel pool in the hopes of getting a license, I didn't realise how involved it would be, but it is fun, and today I should complete the training with two dives in the Indian Ocean.  It is fun but I am anxious to get out of the pool because there is nothign to see there and I am always afraid some kids will dive off the high dive onto my head.  All the people at this resort stay at the pool, they don't go onto the beach which has been some disappointment to me, as I prefer to lie on the beach to get more sun and to hear the ocean, rather than all the people shouting at the pool.  They don't go on the beach because it is a public area, which means there are people walking camels up and down, little girls with bowls of fruit or beer balanced on their heads, little boys trying to ask for or steal your money or sell you their sister.  If I went down there all alone the excitement would be too much for them all to handle and they would freak out.  Today I am going to walk down the beach to another hotel with a few shillings to try to see if I can hang on the beach with another hotel where they have lounges set up. 
The other day I decided to leave the resort to go watch the World Cup final in Mombasa town.  This is an island on the east coast of Africa which is used as a main port. I think I am on the mainland of Africa but I am also in the place called Mombasa.  My friend Nirav in London is Kenyan and he had advised me on a number of places to go, so I selected one and gave it to my taxi driver that the hotel had called.  He insisted that the place would be dead for the World Cup and that I should probably just stay at the hotel if I wanted some atmosphere.  I asked him if there was anywhere in Mombasa town that was good, and he said I could go to Florida, where there is a 100-inch TV screen showing the game, but he said it was too bad I couldn't go there.  When I asked him why not he said it would be 2000 shillings ($37) there and back.   I immediately accepted and then I got suspicious as to how I would know he woudl stick around and also I kicked myself for not haggling with him.  Nirav had told me to divide the price of everything by 2 or 3 before accepting.  But I had heard that it was like a $35 taxi ride one-way already and so I didnt feel too bad.  The taxi driver said that he would just wait for me to finish watching the game and that he wouldn't take payment until after he brought me back. 
It was about a 30 minute trip to Mombasa, and all you could see was gas stations with recognisable brand names, and thousands of people walking on the street along a miles-line sort of market.  This is Sunday night after-dark.  The whole trip had a strong smell of the fuel in the lamps at all the shacks, some of the people were actually just frying something up.  They were parrafin lamps the driver said.  I couldn't really tell if it was a market or the people's houses.  I wanted to know more but the driver wasn't really talking.  80% of the cars on the road were vans, mostly full and pulling in and out of the market or whatever it was.  Most of the vans had electric blue or green or purple lights on in the inside, and they all had names or slogans painted on the back in big letters.  Here are some I remember: 
Created to Worship
Big Baller
Forgive Dem Boss
Smart Company
Road Killaz
They tended to be in the hip-hop style, with misspelled words, and vaguely threatening of violence.  When we arrived in Mombasa town itself, we also started to see buses.  The buses didn't have names but were elaborately painted up with the logos of famous soccer teams, no doubt stealing the copyrights.  I remember Arsenal and Ajax.  The city looked post-apocalyptic.  The driver said that we were on the main street but there weren't traffic lights and people looked kind of menacing.  He told me that the place we were going to would not be full yet, as the game didnt start for 2 hours, and wouldn't I like to try the cuisine in Mombasa town first.  I wasn't too keen as I still didnt know this guy's name and he is kind of a big menacing person.  I didnt know if he was just going to watch me eat or circle the corner, or what, and I didnt really want to stop the car in this neighborhood.  I told him I would just have a drink at the bar and watch their giant TV. 
We went to five cash machines and the fifth one worked.  Some of them had a guy with a gun outside them.  Lots of guns here in Kenya.  For example, at our resort at any given time there are about 2 dozen security men on duty (for less than 100 rooms in the resort).  They all have different uniforms, ranging in style from beach casual to casual friday to revolutionary.  About half have no weapons, then there are some with billy-clubs, to pistols, to AK-47s, and one I saw with what looked to me like an Uzi.  Gun safety isn't yet en vogue, they use their gun hand to point at things, and when at rest the gun sits on their lap pointing at the guy next to them rather than up into the air.  Anyway, the gunmen outside the ATM was reassuring, and the driver seemed to know all of them and would chat with them in Swahili while I went inside(I dont' know what the topic was, but I know that it was not about whether there was any cash left in the machine because I had to find that out by trial and error).  
After we were cashed up, the driver ignored my advice about going straight to the club and instead we drove around and met all his friends.  This guy was possibly the Mayor of Mombasa because everyone seemed happy to see him and talk in Swahili with him.  He gave me a tour of some random places, mainly leftovers from the days when Britain ruled Kenya.  He kept starting sentences with 'This used to be...', or 'Mombasa used to be...'.  At one point he told me that Mombasa used to be an historical city.  The Mayor suggested that tomorrow he could give me a proper daylight tour of the city when I had more time but I politely declined.  In response, he continued the tour into a very delapidated part of the city with narrow streets. 
There were a few mosques we passed in this neighborhood but the Mayor said he was bringing me here to show me the love of football that existed in Kenya.  ( I was thinking it might be better to witness this at the club), but he took me down an alleyway with Liverpool FC graffiti all over the walls.  There was a big homemade banner across the road that read 'You Will Never Walk Alone', which is the traditional Liverpool team song.  As we got further down the alley the graffiti started changing to supporters of Brazil.  The Mayor greeted his electorate, little Muslim kids out the window.  He pulled us into a dead-end parking lot and told me to stay in the car and I got a little wary, as some guys he was greeting were crossign the parkign lot from the back of the car and coming around both sides, and I felt a bit exposed with the window open.  I have heard that if you are on vacation in a foreign country and the situation doesn't feel right, it probably isn't, and thats how I felt.  He leaned back in the car and told me to wait there again, so I did and he squeezed through a gate to talk to some people I couldnt see.  He came back and told me to follow him that we were allowed to see the port.  We past 3 soldiers seated with chairs against a wall with AKs and they all said Jambo (Hello).  We walked down a steep path where there was a giant old shipping vesell and jetty on a harbour.  The Mayor explained that although Mombasa used to do a lot of trade, now it is mainly limited to building materials for Dubai and some vegetables sent to other African nations, the ship there was headed to Zanzibar, it was a horrible mess.  The water was calm and he insisted that we walk to the end of the Jetty but I did not want to do that.  The tide was low and it was probably a 30 foot drop and there was a small sandy beach and shallow water.  I had about $150 in my pocket.  The soldiers were no longer visible and probably about 50 yards away plus an additioanl 50 yards higher in the air than us.  I kept my distance from him and then we eventually just turned around and went back.  I was probably scared for nothing.   When we past the soldiers he shook hands with one of them and slipped him a note, probably a 50 shilling note which is the smallest (70 cents) I guess for letting us in after hours.  
A big booming sound went off over a loudspeaker which was the Muslim call to prayer.  We drove back through the tiny streets and heard stopped for him to say hello to some folks and there was some shouting from inside a building with an open door up a few steps.  He told me to go ahead and wander in while he talked to someone, said there was football on, I got in there there was a couple dozen Muslim guys in chairs like a classroom watching TV.  The TV show seemed to be either about boxing or some kind of reality hidden-camera prank show, but it wasn't in English. I'm not sure it was in Swahili either.  After a while they all started turning around looking at me so I got out of there and got back in the car.  We went and stopped at Fort Jesus, which is a slave-trading post from the old days and now a tourist attraction.  It is a massive fort, with like a 40 foot wall, made of coral.  I tried to figure out how you make such a big fort out of coral (do they mix it with concrete or something?) but my driver, Festus as he now told me his name was, didn't speak English well enough to explore this. 
Festus' tribal name was Kaoli.  Not sure if that is his Swahili-language name or the name of his tribe.  There are 42 tribes in Kenya and I think they all have their own languages.  Swahili is the lingua franca across Africa, even down in South Africa.  Festus said tribes were still important there even in the cities and for example President Moi is notorious for favouring his own tribe for government positions, etc.  They are having an election next year and I saw lots of ads on TV and some graffiti for the opponent. 
We then went on towards the nightclub where I was headed, and stopped to look at the President's holiday residence in Mombasa, but you couldn't really see much over the high walls.  We stopped in a really delapidated market there because Festus thought it was still too early to go to the nightclub even though I was already full.  When I say market, it is really like a social market where people are going up and down sampling the foods and chatting as if they were on a Sunday night out.  It was dark and the market was lit by those smelly lamps.  The fuel for them costs like 40 shillings for a litre, gas costs like 85 shillings a litre ( about $6/gallon). Festus seemed to know these guys and helped himself to a giant wok sitting on homemade charcoal filled with potato chips and after some hesitation so did I.  They were actually cassava (spelling?) chips, or cassava crisps as they call them, they were pretty delicious  The guy has a device that slices a thin pringles-shaped shaving off the cassava and fries it right up and dumps it in a big bucket and everybody helps themselves.  Eventually Festus ordered us a bag to go, and this was the best part because they put chili powder on them and squeezed a green lemon juice over them.  It doesn't sound like a great combination but this really hit the spot.  Then they put it in a clear piece of plastic-wrap and held the plastic wrap against the hot wok to melt it closed, a 2-litre ziplock bag the african way.  I handed over the equivalent of 60 cents. Another guy came up with a very large coconut and took a machete to it, taking the top off of it and showed me how to drink down the clear coconut water, it didnt taste that bad or that good but I was proud that I found the intestinal fortitude not to reject it as I am a bit queasy about new foods.  After like 5 minutes Festus had finished his and handed it back to the machete guy who carved out the inside, which is a tasteless white substance the consistency and look of an egg-white omelet, the machete guy somehow carved a wooden spoon out of the coconut to use to eat the insides.  I handed over my coconut which was about 3/4 empty for the guy to do the same for me and as he did it the remaining water spilled out.  All hell broke loose.  Everybody started shouting and pointing to the machete guy who was oblivious that the coconut wasn't empty yet.  Maybe in their culture it is disrepectful not to finish your coconut water.  Festus bought me this coconut and his for about 35 cents each.  We had been there a fair bit of time by the time I finished eating that and then there was a guy who came over with what looked like a log from a tree and sure enough it was a palm tree and he was cutting tiny slices off the end of it, I think it is called 'Heart of the Palm'.  I was full, it was another tasteless food except more difficult to digest because it was like damp wood.  I was interested to see how he would package this food to sell to me but I had enough and politely declined.   Then there were some other guys selling meats, and their main tactic is to try to get you to touch the bloody mess so that you will want to buy it from them and have them cook it up. 
We got to the nightclub and I payed my $2.50 entry fee.  Apparently Festus was coming in to watch the game too, and got into a long winded discussion with the door staff, presumably about whether he should pay entry fee.  After a long while, about 5 minutes, I went into the neighboring casino to have a look around while Festus sorted out his business.  Eventually I came back and they were still arguing.  Finally a resigned Festus took me aside, and said that he couldn't talk any sense into them and that they insist that the cassava crisps bag must stay in the coat-check room, that we couldn't eat them while we watched the game.  I gave him a consoling nod to show my disappointment and then headed in.  It was a pretty massive nightclub/bar/casino/restaurant.  It was mostly empty except for a lot of beautiful women in short skirts who all wanted to know what team I was supporting, which was France.  Festus told me that this nightclub is a common spot for sailors coming into port but is a mainstream nightclub on Fridays and Saturday nights.  Today was Sunday and it was pretty dead.  The outdoor dance floor was wet from the tide splashing over the wall into the club.  The screen was massive, it was at least 10 feet wide.  I headed into the casino to try my luck at blackjack.  It was just me in there and the staff was playing for fun.  Eventually a Korean guy joined me, he was there with his son and two daughters.  The whole staff would come to watch us play and live and die with every $1.50 bet.  The pit-boss and the dealer openly rooted against us.  The bar-waiter stood right beside us and waited for our drink order which came along every 20 minutes, the drinks were free.  I won nearly $5 after an hour.  Then I went to watch the game and there was a good crowd and atmosphere, about 50 people (including about a dozen of the miniskirts and a dozen staff).  I also saw a white guy there, the first I had seen since I left my hotel.  This was the world cup final and I was surprised to find that nearly everyone was supporting Italy, considering they are big fans here of English soccer and half the French team have made their name by playing soccer in England.  People shouted through the whole match in Swahili and English.  When the Italians scored you would have thought that someone spilled some coconut water because they all started running around the outdoor theatre where we were watching.  The Italian players were life-sized on the big screen as they were group-hugging and celebrating and these fans got up and jumped against the screen as if they were there too, trying to hug the wall and each other.  They often got up and jumped in front of the screen to blow imaginary whistles, or to get on their knees, maybe to plead with a certain player, 'Please boss don't hurt them, they're only small french men'.  When the final whistle blew, one guy grabbed the Italian and French t-shirts that were hung on the wall and he put one on and gave one to his friend.  The security came over to put a stop to it and the Italian-shirt guy play-fought with the French-shirt guy, pretending to punch him while the other guy mock-fell to the floor while everybody laughed.  It was a fun time had by all.  Everybody was riding through the streets honking their horn and shouting as if Kenya had won the Cup. We had our cassava crisps which were now soggy and ruined and drove back home. 

Tags: danger, football, mombasa, taxicab


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