Category Archives: Travel

Lamu: Tortoise Coitus and Farting Yogis

It has been six years since I was last in Lamu and as I squeeze through the narrow alleys towards the house where I am being hosted, memories pop out at me from each corner. I had forgotten how specific Lamu town smells. The humidity in the area teases out an almost aromatic fragrance from the donkey dung scattered on uneven pathways. Surprisingly it isn’t unpleasant. The house I am staying in has a lush central garden that has become my view as I write. Every now and then the branches succumb to the flirtation of the breeze, and the garden sways littering delicate white frangipanis on to the deep brown soil.

Periodically the air is punctuated with the heavy grunts and alarming hisses of the randy tortoises who seem to spend every few hours copulating. Tortoise coitus is alarming. He mounts her and visibly thrusts, his neck getting longer and straining, and his face contorting in an expression that is very disturbing in how human like it is. Animals mate, they don’t make love. You expect it to be perfunctory, almost business like. These two tortoises are at it a lot, but I think she has finally had enough. This morning as I scoop up the hot bahazi with the still warm mahamri, he mounts her and she tries to get away. She crawls towards the garden. Still mounted he follows. It looks like he is steering her. She keeps walking. He keeps following. I feel a wave of inexplicable anguish wash over me. She must feel so helpless trying to get away from him, and he won’t get off her, his weight on her body reminding her that she is trapped to his will. I get an unwanted peek at his jewels. It is much bigger than I thought it would be and waves around like a palm tree branch in the wind. I suddenly lose my appetite for breakfast.

Lamu is a noisy place. There is a gujurati phrase, which when translated loses its lightness, everyone lives in each other’s armpits. The houses are built in a way in which everything is amplified, and you have to get used to the forced intimacy of sounds creeping into your space. This morning at 2:00am a baby coughed and I awoke. I lay in bed listening to the comforting of a mother’s cooing and wondering if I will ever wake up at 2:00am to the sound of my own baby coughing. Yesterday the loud taarab music that seemed to be playing from a loudspeaker within the neighbourhood suddenly switched to 70s Bollywood music, and just like that I was snatched from a balmy Lamu afternoon and spat into my dad’s car somewhere in Voi on a road trip to Mombasa. But without a doubt the most striking sound of all is the loud Adhan that pierces the air every couple of hours. I have never lived in a place where Islam is so interwoven into the day, and the call to prayer fills me with an inexplicable peace that my body had lost the memory of.

Yesterday evening after a full day of writing, needing to stretch out my spine, we wandered down to a little cafeteria behind which a yoga class was taking place. The average age of the mostly mzungu students at the class was 75, and that was after you had accounted for myself and two Swahili women in their late thirties. The teacher, a taut man named Kelly, tapped at his ipad to play the pre-loaded tracks of indian chanting whilst he led a gentle class that comprised mostly of stretches. The end of the class saw us in happy baby pose, where you lie down on your back, legs up in the air, knees bent, hands clutching your feet as you roll around. As we lay on our backs and spread our legs up to the air, it started. Loud ones, staccato ones, shrill ones, squeaky ones, hissing ones. One by one, the orchestra of farts sputtered out into the air from the tired bowels of the elderly yogis. And the most astounding thing of all, is that not a single person laughed. There was nary a giggle. We all acted as if we had just experienced an onset of temporary deafness, and continued wiggling around in happy baby pose.

As I lay awake waiting to hear the Adhan at dawn, I thought about the farting yogis, and why the rest of us innately understood how important it was to preserve their dignity and pretend we hadn’t heard the litany of flatulence. A memory popped into my head of my grandma a few weeks ago when I lay in bed next to her. Her brain had gone back into a familiar loop, and as she does every Sunday, she commented on how beautiful my teeth were, and asked how I had managed to transform them considering how dreadful they were before. My teeth are not great, but they have never been dreadful. Her brain has constructed some story about them which she has fixated upon for the last several years, which every time we are together forces its way to the front of her brain comes out in the exact same way, every time.

This time she went to touch her own teeth for emphasis, but when her fingers met only gum, her eyes filled with alarm. When I asked her what was wrong, she wailed, ‘they are gone, they are gone, they are gone’. I am not proud to say this, but a giggle popped out of my mouth.

‘What would you do if you woke up one morning to find you had no teeth?’

She looked at me aghast.

My laughter had poked her already tenuous sense of dignity, at an age where the structural integrity of your dignity is entirely reliant on the people around you playing along.

And I had broken the rules.


Dip Tea in Mumbai

‘The whole of Nairobi is ours.’

The hairy-toed man with orange hennaed floppy hair declares. He stands on a round platform on top of the shop counter.

I am having difficulty taking him seriously right now, because his left hip is thrust out and he has an exquisite brushed gold Parisian lace sari wrapped around his skinny waist. With his silver ringed fingers, he expertly folds the pleats, tucks them into the waistband of his trousers, and then gives me a self satisfied Paan stained smile. At his feet are piles and piles of saris glittering at me from a ceiling mirror that’s been installed to help customers see the 6 metre long sari in all its glory.

We are in one of the multi storeyed sari shops in Mumbai and I am irritated. It is hot. We have been there for hours. I feel like if I see one more sequin, I might throw up all over his hairy toes. He senses this, and immediately orders for tea. Maybe he figures all this lace has lowered my blood sugar levels. This is a common tactic in sari shops. The moment they see you fidgeting, they order tea. If they notice your stamina is wavering, they order little chilly vegetable sandwiches. If they sense you are getting bored, they order airtime bundles. They basically do everything in their power to make you comfortable so that you have no excuse to leave their premises before making a purchase.

I have always thought, Kenyan businesses could learn a thing or two from sari shops in Mumbai. Often, the most I can look forward to here, is a shrug of the shoulders and a stifled ‘shauri yako.’

When the young boy returns, he places the tray on the counter, and announces,

‘Dip Tea Ma’am. Just for you.’

Hmmm. The cup has a string hanging out. I give this young boy the side eye. This does not look like chai, but its weaker cousin from the Kingdom masquerading as tea. I had been looking forward to the sweet, dark, hot, cardamom infused velvety cup of comfort to make this whole ordeal bearable. Instead my foreign accent must have made him think my palette needed the ‘exotic’ tea bag tea. Ironically, the ‘Dip Tea’ was a big deal, reserved only for special customers.

By this time, without us noticing, the prices of the saris he is showing us has gradually inched up. In between pulling out yards of brocade and cutwork and net and satin, he boasts about how all of Nairobi buys from his shop, which has several branches, each with several floors. Of course, this isn’t his shop. He is merely the opener.

There appears to be a strict hierarchy when it comes to the salesman at sari shops. There are the openers; sweet-talking flamboyant charmers whose job it is to shock and awe, pulling out sari after sari from the shelves and unfolding them so you can see ‘the work.’ All I can think of is, who is going to fold all those saris? But of course, there is a person whose job it is to do specifically this. ‘Beta’ which means son, has this delightful job, and Beta is normally a youngish boy probably at apprentice level. There seems to be a real culture of mentorship within these structures. Beta is basically their bitch. But their job is to teach Beta all the dubious tricks of the trade that is selling saris to every possible kind of woman. Beta also functions as a model. You see, if you really can’t be bothered to try the sari on, you just sit there, sipping your tea with your pinkie pointing out, as they drape the sari on this young boy, Beta who then swishes down a fake runway until you are satisfied. Then there is the closer; this one is deadly. He doesn’t take no for an answer, and by then you have been so worn down by the openers, Beta and endless cups of sweet tea, that even the sari that looks like a mosquito net from a house in Kabuchai seems like a worthy one of a kind investment. It is odd that in a city where the male gaze is so strong, every salesperson I have encountered in a sari shop is a man, and as rows of women crane at mirrors to see if their backsides look too big, they do so oblivious to the obvious male gaze.

We leave that shop and head to another, grabbing a samosa sandwich with a side of pickled cabbage from a street vendor, whose questionable hygiene I will pay a very dear price for in the coming days.

The next shop is slicker. It doesn’t have the aged patina of the last family owned chain. This one has smooth white surfaces, tall sexy mirrors and long leather sofas arranged in cubicles around your very own stage. On the sofa to my left, a young woman is asked what her budget is. She says,

‘One thousand.’

I feel sorry for her. There is no sari she is getting for one thousand rupees. The salesman asks,

‘Pounds yes?’

She replies,

‘that is the starting point, but I need to buy my whole trousseau.’

I do the math. Say ten outfits in a trousseau, each at a thousand pounds, makes it 10,000 pounds or 1.3 million shillings! Bloody brits ruining the prices for us Kenyans! She is quickly whisked away to the High Rollers room, and I try to catch glimpses of what a thousand pound sari looks like. The door opens only to let in tray after tray of delicious smelling food. I stop myself from yelling, ‘She’s a bride damnit. Don’t you know that species do not eat. Bring the food this way!’

Our opener is watching my flabbergastion (I am making up this a word, because that is precisely what it was) with amusement. He tells me that 90% of their business is from Non Resident Indians (NRIs) or diaspora, and that would be the same for most of the shops in the area. And they spend a lot of money in a very short period of time, so this goings-on in the VIP room that has my jaw affixed to the ground, is as common a scene as traffic jams are in Nairobi. Of course it makes sense. Indian weddings are a big deal, and amplified by Bollywood and a booming fashion scene, the industry has extended its French manicured claws all over the world.

Kenyans. Kenyans. Kenyans. Surely. Imagine! I am speechless. Look at how cleverly India has crafted this industry to seduce their diasporans to return and part with huge chunks of cash. Yaani. What can we come up with here in Kenya to lure our diasporans to come back home to bolster the economy, spend their cash and leave with a little piece of something precious from home. And land is the most unimaginative answer you can give here. What else can we create? I am leaving this one here.

As my brain whirrs at the magnitude of the figures he has tossed out at me, on the sofa to my right, an elderly woman is skyping from her phone, showing her sister in Chicago the sari she wants to buy. It is really ugly. Baby poop coloured net with garish gold flowers. I want to whisper in her ear, ‘honey, it is horrific,’ but her sister ooooohs across the phone, and I leave them to their bad taste.

As for me. I couldn’t resist the brushed gold Parisian lace silk sari.

P.s. Thank you all for your love letters filled with kind words. If you missed my inebriated last post, Chanyado has been nominated for best new blog at the Blog Awards Kenya. Show us some love by voting here :

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Mumbai Missive 2: Horn Ok Please

One day, perhaps quite a long time ago, Bhaisab, a rather clever Mumbai driver with a curled up moustache decided that really it was quite inefficient to have to come to a complete stop at a junction before entering the road. He had what could be considered a brainwave. If he could find a way to alert other drivers of his impending arrival, he wouldn’t need to stop at all, but could just carry on and they would simply rearrange their driving trajectory to accommodate him. He was very pleased with himself. At first. But what sort of gadget could he invent that would do such a magical thing. As he sat in his car on the side of the road, oiled up head cradled in slightly sweaty hand, mimicking the thinking pose, his mind started wandering. In the middle of a reverie about golden fried, hot crispy jalebis with insides that melted the way he wished his wife’s would she saw him, he shifted his elbow to get more comfortable and just like that…. Beeeeeeeeeeeep! That’s it. He got it. If only he just hooted to let people know he was coming, it would eliminate the need to stop or indicate or even brake!

Bhaisab pleased with himself, twisted the ends of his moustache between the tips of his fingers in glee at the thought of arriving back to his wife earlier each day. Indeed it was a splendid idea and worked just as Bhaisaab had planned for many weeks. Until one Friday evening in a fit of gloating spurred on by more Kingfisher beers than his temperament was used to, he boasted to his colleagues about this marvellous invention. The response was as he had hoped; a thoughtful sea of bobbing heads, in consensus at the ingenuity of the idea. They vowed to try it for themselves. And so on Monday morning, six more drivers put foot to pedal and hand to horn as they navigated the Mumbai roads. More loose lips brought on by more Kingfishers spread this cult of honking and before long the mooing cows trawling the roadside were drowned out by persistent hooting. Bhaisab had not forseen this, and had no idea that he would be responsible for changing the soundtrack of Mumbai forever.

This is my theory behind what led to the ‘Horn Ok Please’ phenomenon that has drowned out Mumbai.

Now, many years later, nobody looks before they enter a junction. Nobody stops. Nobody indicates to show they are changing lanes. Everybody just honks. All the time. For everything. And anything in the way is expected to move itself. Mind boggingly it seems to work. Even if it means that Mumbai as a general populace records the highest hearing loss of any city. Ok, I made that last part up, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

My sister told me about a very interesting conversation she had with a professor at Mumbai who had visited Kenya several years ago. In his opinion, equity of wealth distribution can be evidenced by a variety of wheelers. Kenya was far behind India at that time. We had only four wheelers and two wheelers while India boasted two, three, four and multiple wheelers. So perhaps the recent proliferation of different wheelers on our roads is a positive sign.

Whilst in Mumbai, three wheelers have been my transport of choice. Rickshaws (Tuks Tuks) are the easiest way to get around a lot of the city; being so nifty they squeeze into spaces that defy the laws of physics. But they are also undoubtedly the most unnerving of transport choices. With unbelievable turning circles which they utilise to great effect, performing impromptu U-turns on multi-lane highways, they pay no heed to the huge buses hurtling along at breakneck speeds. At times like those that I wish I carried my own helmet. I have had many a pondering during Rickshaw rides about what a skull hitting the pavement sounds like. Would it be a clean cut like breaking open a coconut. Or would it fragment like when you crack an egg. Is it a dull drawn out thud sound. Or more of a clean short snap.

My favourite part of riding in a Rickshaw is the ability to experience the city in a way that you just can’t in the confines of a car. Life bustles its way into your space and you become a part of this heaving breathing monster that is the city. Red lipsticked Hijras (transvestites) poke their heads through the doorway and threaten to lift up their heavy saris to give you a peek of their package if you don’t part with a reasonable sum of money. To show they are serious, they clap their hands together, their fingers splayed apart and palms smacking together. Passengers in neighbouring rickshaws, close enough to reach out and touch, suss you out with indiscreet side eyes. Smells seep in; the heady thick fragrance of ripe mangoes, the eye watering smell of spices being fried, the sharp odor of sewage that has been sitting around for many days, the occasional delicate jasmine floating its way into your nostrils.

Then there are the Rickshaw drivers. Clad in brown, they wear stoic expressions in even the most hair rising situations, seemingly unmoved by the constant proximity to death. With left legs folded underneath them in a half lotus position, they make matatu drivers look like Sunday School bus drivers. These men are unflappable. I suspect at Rickshaw driving school, there is a module on ‘Developing Balls Of Steel: A Practical Course’. They probably have to go through a boot camp where they are put through a series of tests where their flinch/sweat level is assessed. Staring contests with Tigers. Bungee jumping from Everest. Spending an entire week with their Mother in Laws.

Even as they seemingly flaunt all the rules, there does seem to be an invisible code of conduct. One afternoon, our Rickshaw driver perturbed by another driver who was driving perilously close to us, leaned out and said to the man ‘Come on Man. You know what you are doing is wrong. Why would you still do that?’ His tone was not agressive. It wasn’t even angry. It was the kind of tone you use to tell a child that they have to go to sleep before midnight on a school day. This after we had just scraped the side of another car. It struck me as so odd. This almost brotherly guidance and nod to an invisible set of rules.

I wonder how much the traffic behavior of a city reveals the temperament of its peoples.
In Phnom Penh in Cambodia which was just as busy as Mumbai, the traffic had a peaceful fluidity. To cross the street, you went against every Nairobian instinct, and stepped out onto the busy road, walking very very slowly, taking baby steps and not making any sudden moves. The vehicles would then calmly work their way around you. It echoed the gentleness that I found so remarkable in Cambodians, the sense of adjusting yourself in consideration of others around. The philosophy that space is shared and all the lifestyle implications that come with that.

Mumbai with all its madness had an unlikely easy going nature about it. I rarely saw any aggression and it was never personal. Even the honking was less about a middle finger and more about exclaiming that you were there. In a space that is jostling with so many people, I can somewhat understand the need to assert your existence. To say here I am. In among the throng of millions. I exist. Of course, crossing the road in Mumbai requires you to cast away any attachment you have to living, channel your inner Rudisha and high tail it across the road. Or you could just find a cow and wait by its side until it decides to cross the road.

What do you think Nairobi roads say about us as a people?

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Mumbai Missives: Third First Impression

It  is my third time here and at dawn, Mumbai is nothing like Nairobi. Driving in from the airport at 6:30 am, the city still waking up, has a ruffled intimacy about it;  a city that has yet to brush its teeth and put itself together. The smell of warm sleep thick in the air, there is a dreamy languor hovering in the air. Not like Nairobi which at that time of the morning is already heaving with irritated impatience. It is a lovely time to arrive in a city which when fully awake is an assault on the senses. As we drive down the still dark streets, I see men in white cotton dhotis facing the Frangipani lined roadside, floating through their morning yoga sun salutations, their bodies effortlessly floating in a rhythm that is centuries old. When the sun finally deigns to rise, it carries with a haze, a thick smog obscuring the horizon and smudging the skyline as if a child scribbled white chalk over the outlines of the buildings. And of course, the Mumbai fragrance is also aroused. A mixture of thick ocean air, sewage and heavy masala.

There are a lot of people in Mumbai. In fact, it houses half of Kenya’s population in a city the same size as Nairobi. And you can feel it. Life spills out onto the streets. Space is a premium. And so is dignity. Buildings sit higgledy piggledy atop each other. Clothes hung out to dry on lines outside roadside shacks kiss the puffs of fumes farted out by Technicolor buses speeding by. The city could use a lick of paint. And a few of those city council workers that toil away on our highway. Nairobi positively sparkles in comparison to Mumbai. But the city feels like a lived in sofa set, shaping itself around the human body, not bothering to mask the stains spilled by clumsy exuberant children who became shaky wrinkle lined senior citizens.

If you thought Nairobi traffic is chaotic, Mumbai is like the apocalypse of order. Lanes are but a mere suggestion. Rickshaws, bicycles, motorbikes, scooters, cars, buses, trucks, pedestrians, cow all bully their way through in a battle of wits. A simple 500m ride can have you soil your pants several times over in sheer nerves.  And the din. Everyone hoots. All the time. Everywhere. The soundtrack of Mumbai is a cacophony of honks. I think perhaps Mumbai wallahs don’t fully trust that you can see them coming. They prefer to alert you of their impending arrival in a more obvious manner.

Beep. I am coming. Beep. Do you see me? Beep. I said I was coming. Beep. Watch out. Beep. You Bastard. Beep. Move. Beep. Be careful. Beep. Son of a. Beep. Daughter of a. Beep. Mother of a. Beep. Oh hello there. Beep. Take that. Beep. Ok I am coming

I wanted to post more tonight but the internet is infuriatingly slow. So till tomorrow.

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