The internal flight took just over an hour, and we arrived in Mombasa to be met and taken to our hotel, The Mombasa Beach Hotel. It was immediately noticeable that this place was very different to Nairobi. The temperature was approaching thirty degrees, and there seemed to be palm trees everywhere. Arriving at the hotel, we found it to be a very pleasant, reasonably upmarket hotel, fronting a beach of white sand, with the beautiful clear blue waters lapping gently inside a natural reef. Fortunately, it wasn’t as large as some of the nearby hotels, and the room was just right, with a sea-front balcony overlooking the swimming pool, the beach fringed by gently swaying palms.
Our stay here was to be deliberately restful, and no animal-viewing excursions had been arranged. The city itself offered various attractions, not least its variety of architectural styles; everything from Arab influences, to Hindu temples, and Colonial buildings that had endured down the years. We were soon in the warm clear water, and enjoying an afternoon relaxing on the beach. The service was great too, as waiters would bring anything you desired, at any time. Many vendors wandered the beaches, offering anything from colourful beads or carved elephants, to hair-braiding. They were not at all pushy, wanting to avoid any problems with hotel security. At the time, a shuttle bus was offered, touring the hotels, and depositing tourists into the old town of Mombasa, collecting you at intervals for the return trip. And it was free too.
However, we were about to find our own guide, to give us an insight into life there, away from the conventional tourist spots. As I told in part one, our Asian neighbour in Wimbledon had a brother in the city, where he owned and ran the large Nissan car dealership. On our second morning, he arrived in reception, and introduced himself. He apparently considered it his mission to look after us during our stay. A pleasant man in his late 30s, affluent by Kenyan standards, he seemed to have the impression that we were very important people, and determined to treat us like visiting dignitaries. It seemed impossible to refuse his hospitality, so we went with him to his car, to be told we were going to be introduced to his family. His name was Mahesh, and he was to make a great difference to our stay there.
His first act was to take us to the outskirts of Mombasa, where he told us he would show us what it was ‘really like.’ His large luxury Nissan car was immediately out of place, as he skirted the edge of the city, arriving at a huge town, constructed entirely of shanty dwellings. Bumpy roads and tumbledown shacks gave a very different view of Kenya’s second city indeed. He gave a commentary as he drove, telling how people from all over the country arrived there looking for work. Having no accommodation, they set themselves up in these insanitary places, as they earned comparatively good wages working in the tourist industry there, much of which was sent home to their families. It was a place with a menacing feel; gangs of young men stood on corners, and everyone looked very poor, and shabbily dressed. We were uncomfortable with the concept of viewing the plight of these people as some sort of tourist excursion, and managed to tell him this without causing him any offence. Some of the young children threw stones at the car as we turned around, proving that we were unwelcome, and right to leave. Heading back towards the city, he turned off onto a long dirt road, at the end of which was his house. Perhaps I had been expecting something grand, given his position, but we found a large flat-roof bungalow, inside a walled compound. There were metal fences across the driveway, guarded by two tall men, armed with clubs. Mahesh explained that he employed them to guard his house, to deter burglars. they were Samburu people, from a traditionally warlike tribe, and a long way from their ancestral homeland. We certainly didn’t envy him having to live like this.
Inside the house, we were introduced to his wife, and her elderly parents. Their children were at school, and we were told that we would meet them that evening, when we were all going to a restaurant, his treat. We were given tea and Indian sweet cakes, and made to feel very welcome. After some uncomfortable chit-chat about their family back in Wimbledon, Mahesh took us back to the hotel, asking us to be ready later that evening, for the short journey to the restaurant in the city. They arrived just after 7pm, in a minibus containing all the family, including two very pleasant children, a boy and a girl, aged 10 and 12. There was even a driver, one of the employees from the car company, an African man. We were driven to the restaurant, which was something of a disappointment, at least by appearances. He had arranged to hire the whole thing, an open-air affair, with a covered roof, and long tables all laid out. Other friends and business acquaintances had been invited, and we were eighteen in number. The tables were covered in sticky vinyl, and there were no menus, as all the food had been ordered in advance. Lights suspended from the roof covering gave the place a party atmosphere, but there was no alcohol offered, as they were Hindu, and did not drink.
What followed was a lengthy and delicious repast, consisting of numerous courses of vegetarian Indian food. It was nothing like the Indian food we were used to in London, and was served in small amounts, with constantly changing flavours and textures. Everyone continued to treat us like guests of honour, with many offering business cards. The children were very inquisitive about London. They spoke excellent English, and behaved impeccably. Mahesh was visibly proud of them, and also seemed to be basking in some perception of importance about having such esteemed guests from England. The meal went on for a long time, finishing with more sweet cakes, and Indian ice-cream. I decided that it would be impolite to offer money towards the bill. I had no idea what it would cost anyway, but I was flabbergasted when I saw Mahesh, who was sitting next to me, place a few notes on a plate to settle the account. It was less than the equivalent of £25. Amazing value for such a large party, but also indicative of the lower salaries there, and the cost of living outside of the popular tourist areas. We said our farewells to the other diners, and Mahesh suggested a walk along the street, to take in the atmosphere of the area, which was unmistakably an Indian district. At a roadside stall, he bought us something I had never had before, though I have tried it since. It was Paan, a selection of nuts herbs and spices, wrapped in a Betel leaf. Although this can be used as a stimulant, our selection contained some menthol herbs, chopped nuts, and a red plant, all said to aid digestion. It was certainly unusual, and it was very difficult not to want to constantly spit. When we had chewed away all the flavour, Mahesh suggested we throw it into a waste bin nearby, though he swallowed his! Back at the hotel, we discussed what a good evening it had been, considering we had eaten no meat at all, and only had fruit juice to drink.
Although he had offered to collect us again the next day, we had told him that we were considering a boat trip. So he left it that he would come and see us in two days time, to show us around some more.