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Finding Your Way In Mombasa

So, there is just over two weeks left for me in Kenya. My departure is really starting to loom in front of me. A conversation that I had with Jess comes to mind as I am relaxing this weekend in Mombasa.

This is the real thing, true traveling. We've traveled together before--Europe, Jamaica. This is the big cahoney, though. There is real potential for problems here, far more than we'd imagined. Unemployment here is greater than 50%; you see whole lines of people sitting next to walls, perhaps in the hope that someone will offer them something. Even educated people don't have opportunities here; the brother of the PA I work with is an accountant, out of work for more than a year, with no real hopes of getting a good job. People here are desperate in many instances, and desperation yields crime. Reading the paper here can be a daily shock. A word of advice, don't go to Nairobi, better known here as Nairobbery. Muggings, stabbing, hijackings, and wanton violence are daily fare. It's actually a little scary to read the paper, I had to stop doing it.

Not that this is unusual for Africa. Kenya is one of the most stable countries on this continent. I was reading about the economy of Zimbabwe the other day, where people cart their money around in wheelbarrow (Wheelbarrows!) because the currency is so worthless.  Somalia is falling into chaos, which is terrifying to the typical Kenyan, and violence regularly spills over the borders here as cattle raiders come and kill whole villages in Northern Kenya. You hear the stories from people, and you don't believe them, and then you see it on the news at night. It's sobering, to say the least.

From a traveler's point of view, this country is the real deal. In Jamaica, you have to watch your butt. You keep an eye on everything around you, and you keep your hand on your bag, but other than that, the most dangerous thing about the country are the drivers. You can relax in Jamaica, you can go to a little coast town and vacation there. Here you watch what is around you at all times. You don't go out after dark. You don't act naive and silly and attract attention. You certainly don't sunbath topless on the beach, which we saw in Jamaica. Otherwise you are a target.

I am not saying that walking around in the streets is dangerous; I'm walking around Mombasa today. I've never been in a truly dangerous situation here, I've never been threatened or encountered a hostile person. Kenyans are friendly, jovial, and very welcoming. Mombasa is a very lively, busy, and interesting place; I love it. You just have to be very careful. You can't let down your guard.

At worst I've had hustlers target me. I have had people in the streets come up to me, follow me, try to be a guide for a tip. Once, at a supermarket no less, I was hustled out of $1.50 (100 shillings) because some very nice older fellow talked to me for a long time, gave me his address, even gave me a present, and somehow convinced me it was cultural to reciprocate the gift with something (he wanted 500 shillings).  It's a strange feeling to know you're being hustled, even to be angry about it, and still feel obliged to hand over that bill. After all, it is customary to reciprocate a gift from a friend with something of equal value here. Only he wasn't my friend, and the bangles he gave me for my mom might have cost a shilling or two. But that's how people take advantage of a lack of or partial cultural understanding.

I really do like Mombassa. I love walking around in all the markets, with people selling wares from veggies and food to clothes, pirated CDs, and sandals made from old tires. I love seeing people from all over Africa and the world here, this place has an identity that can't be found anywhere in the US. It smells bad, it's loud, there are people everywhere, it's really great. So, you have to realize people here are out to survive. They can't depend on their government for support--it can't even keep up the roads or manage trash pick-up. You may not like to see people who have to steal to survive, but you can't blame them, they didn't create the environment that causes them to do so. It's survival here. There is no welfare.

I think that I've been blessed here in Kenya. I arrived to find a network of people already in place to help me. They've protected me from much of the dangers in Kenya. They've allowed me to become accustomed to life here, otherwise I would have had quite a little shock on arrival. From my host here in Mombasa to the daktari in Kokotoni, I have been supported, and even sheltered, at least at first when it was all so fresh. My trip here would have been much different had I just arrived and tried to get around by myself. So Jess and I were quite fortunate; I can't speak for her, but I'd say she had nearly a perfect trip, and certainly for myself the same.

So, as a traveler in Kenya, you just have to watch your back. Like my dad always told me before heading off somewhere, just know what is around you at all times. That is key advice for travelers in Africa. 


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