The last stop on our East Africa tour was Kenya. We loved Kenya but we quickly learned two very important things:
1) Don’t trust anyone (especially Kenya Airways), and
2) Everything is negotiable.
Once we figured these two things out, our time there was a lot more enjoyable.
Usually when we travel, we’ve figured out that we can ask our hotel/hostel staff for help determining local/”correct” prices for things. Otherwise, as tourists we get massively ripped off. But we found that in Kenya, that’s not the case, regardless of whether you’re asking a hotel receptionist, random guy on the street, or police/security. We stayed at a lovely backpacker’s place on the coast in a town called Kilifi, with ecofriendly buildings and policies, amazing food, and such a relaxing atmosphere (pictures below). But when we would ask the receptionist how much it cost to get a tuk tuk to town (a three-wheel motorcycle with seats in the back to carry multiple people), they would always tell us a price that was 4 times the correct amount.
We met a lovely Kenyan woman from Nairobi who confirmed our suspicions and explained that this is just part of life in Kenya. Once we figured that out, it was almost fun to see how low we could go with prices and how easy it was to get a much lower price if you just push back a little. Now that we’re back Stateside, I find myself wanting to bargain prices all over the place—like Target, restaurants, the gym…. Worth a try, right?
Another note about Kenya: NEVER fly with Kenya Airways. I was screwed over no less than three times in a month by Kenya Airways cancelling flights, having outrageously poor customer service, and horrible communication systems. After several hundred dollars and myriad visits to Kenya Airways offices across the continent (one visit in each country I went to haha, just to push things along), I now know: NEVER fly with Kenya Airways.
We stayed only night in Mombasa, the second largest Kenyan city after Nairobi and a regional hotspot for beach vacationers. We were happy with our accommodation, a cute backpacker’s place called Tulia’s with a pool, a dude playing guitar, and several cute dogs, but after the pristine, clean beaches of Zanzibar, Mombasa’s beaches were less impressive. The Mombasa market was awesome, huge and lively and with tons of fabric, and we enjoyed a morning with a local tour guide named Bacari (he explained: “like Bacardi the rum, without the ‘d’!”).
Our favorite place by far was a small town and UNESCO World Heritage site called Lamu, a town in the north close to Somalia (but not that close—don’t worry!) To get there, we took a matatu, or local bus. These small buses are packed to bursting, with colorful graffiti and bizarre English sayings splattered across them and a guy precariously hanging out the open door yelling out the destination and collecting bus fare. We were tucked between an old woman who couldn’t stop staring at us and boxes of live chicks (yes, chickens) cheeping in protest as we bounced over the bumpy roads. Rwanda also used to have matatus as the primary mode of transportation; within the past few years, however, Rwanda replaced the matatus with standardized white buses, with no heckling money collectors and the correct (and safe) number of passengers on board, but losing a bit of cultural vibrance that Kenya still maintains.
We were instructed not to take the matatu all the way north and instead take a plane for $25/each for the final leg of the journey. This was due to a recurrence of carjackings and robberies in the area attributed to Al Shabaab, a jihadist extremist group with connections to Al Qaeda. The group has been trying to establish an Islamic state in Somalia for more than 10 years and are responsible for multiple deadly bombings of high profile areas, including the one in a large Kenyan mall in 2013 that was big in international news. Under the Trump administration, US airstrikes in Somalia have increased, with Trump relaxing guidelines meant to protect against civilian casualties. The US has carried out more than 3 dozen airstrikes thus far, five within the last month, with numerous civilian casualties. Definitely a good reason to avoid the bus for the last bit of the trip. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/16/somalia-us-military-airstrike-al-shabaab)
Lamu was amazing, by far our favorite place on this trip. The town is situated on an island just off the mainland and reachable only by boat. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001 for its prominent role as both an ancient and current religious scholarly hub and for its unique architecture that shows a blend of cultural influences resulting in a distinctly Swahili style. It was allegedly founded around 1370, and it’s a place seemingly untouched by time. No motor vehicles are present on the island and the primary form of transportation is donkey. The houses draw on Arabic, Indian, and European influences, with elaborate wooden doors, multiple stories with intricate wooden balconies, and walls made entirely of ocean coral. The locals are a mix of Arab and Swahili and the majority of the town is Muslim.
A little to the south, is the town of Shela, where we stayed. Less hectic, the quiet, white houses are stacked atop of each other with rooftop terraces to enjoy the beautiful view and delicious seafood is served at romantic restaurants. The inhabitants of this town moved from a nearby island in the 17th century when the island water turned brackish, allegedly because a famous imman, or holy man, died around the same time. Shela is the area’s only water source, contained in water collection sites within the town’s iconic sandy dunes. We went on a boat trip and saw the ruins of the first town, as well as sailed around on a dhow, the traditional sailing boat of the area.
Now we’ve finished our travels and have started a new chapter of our lives in Durham, NC. I’ve started work at a reproductive health org called Ipas (www.ipas.org) doing international work on abortion and contraception care. Colin is starting a business to help job seekers find meaningful work. This marks the end of our travel blogging for awhile, although I’ll be blogging on my new site (www.lesliemassicotte.com) on topics of sexuality, gender roles, and women’s issues if you’re interested in following along there. Thanks for reading everyone! Much love <3