“Another swimmer washed on our shores?” Rohini, sitting in the shade of the beach house stitching a long stretch of fabric, greeted me alongside another girl, Fabienne.
“Yeah, it was a long swim,” I bantered, introducing myself.
My guide, Dario, led me up the outside stairs to show me around the beach house, about twenty-steps from the waters of the Indian Ocean (50 steps at low tide).
“This is the living space, that’s the kitchen, shower and here is the balcony,” he pointed out.
The day started with patches of blue-sky peaking through London-grey clouds, some hanging low as I set out on an 8-K hike through Mombasa to reach Kilifi Bay, just off the B8 highway. Drizzles of rain escorted me as I tripped along the broken footpaths, almost breaking the record for long-distance face-plant as I collided with the tip of a rock of the genus pinkietoe stubberous.
I professionally regained my balance and continued to navigate my way around puddles of mud that seem deep enough to house hippos. Gazelle-jumping over the larger ones to escape trucks too large to be barreling down a too-small-of-a-road, covering split-making distances, my packs building an alliance with gravity as – mid-air – I wave off the tuk-tuk drivers zipping up to see if I’d hire them. Rightfully assuming, as I had clearly demonstrated that I haven’t quite mastered the walk.
About 2 K’s in, a yellow tuk-tuk sidled up to me and after explaining my ways to Denis, the driver, he laughed and said my three favourite words,
“OK, let’s go.”
“Serious? No money?”
“Yes, I’ll help you.”
I hopped in, grateful to be off my left knee that seemed to be daring me to test it to the limit.
Put some more weight on me, why don’tchya. See what’ll happen cause if I don’t go, pal, nobody goes!
“You take ganja?” Denis asked as he zipped skilfully through and around Mombasa’s heavy traffic.
I laughed, grinning. “Yeah, when it’s offered.”
“You want to go somewhere? I take one for you?” he offered.
For the first time in a long time I politely declined. Even though Kilifi Bay was just an hour away, I just wanted to arrive and set myself up with the crew of Musafir (from the Arabic meaning traveller), a community-based boat-building project that I had found through Distant Relatives Eco Lodge.
As I watched the scenery go by I began to scout for potential hitching areas. Like a speed hump. I’ve found that speed humps are the best. In Africa they’re in that exclusive club of man-made objects visible from space. Even the wildlife slows down to climb over these concrete masses.
Hiking a few hundred meters from where Denis dropped me off, taking me for what must have been at least 20 K’s through Mombasa to its outskirts, I set up just past the off-ramp of a service station where a speed hump brought traffic to a crawl.
Eying the passing vehicles as they slowed down, I stuck my arm out to flag them down. Within half an hour a small hatchback with three guys pulled over.
“Where are you going?” asked me Passenger Side.
“Kilifi,” I said. “Where are you going?”
“We are going to Kilifi.”
“Can I come with you?”
“Of course. Put your things in the back.”
“I don’t have money,” I added, explaining my travel method and philosophy.
“No problem,” the passenger said. I loaded up and sat in the back with Salim. “He fixes fridges and air conditioners,” explained Junior, twisting in the front seat to introduce himself.
The driver presented himself as, “King George.”
“Where in Kilifi do you need?” Junior asked.
“A place called Distant Relatives,” I said, explaining about the eco lodge on the beach of the creek that leads out to the Indian Ocean. On its beach, the crew of Musafir reside. In exchange for food and board I’d be helping out on various building projects on the 70-foot traditionally-built jahazee (Swahili sailing boat).
“I think the plan is to help out coastal communities around the world,” I did my best to explain what I had gathered about the project through their website, musafir.org. “But maybe come down on Friday, I might be playing at the lodge.”
Passing a large prison by the road side, Junior turned in his seat and said, “You know, god provides. There is a reason why he chose us to collect you.”
I was in no mood to discuss religion so, slightly twisting the words to avoid a lengthy debate on theology, I said, “I believe in Karma, you know, do good things and good things happen to you.”
“Yes, because of god,” he preached.
Sure. “There’s always a reason why you meet the people you meet in your life,” I philosophised. “Whatever the reason, you are fated to encounter that person whether it’s for a single minute out of your entire lifetime or making a life-long friend.”
“Yes, it is the power of god,” Junior grinned as King George nodded to his sermon. “This is all farm land,” he pointed at the sisal plantations, stretching as far as a good eye could see. The aloe vera-shaped plant is used to make material from its fibers.
Glad for the change of subject I asked Junior about his project.
“I’m looking at buying a plot of land,” he said. “This is why we are going to Kilifi. We need to make a short stop at the offices of the Ministry of Land, if you don’t mind.”
“Hakuna matata,” I said, settling back into the backseat. “Pole-pole,” Slowly-slowly. “Take your time” (which is dangerous to offer as five African minutes equal to three rest-of-the-world hours).
An hour later we chilled in the shade of a large tree in the garden of the Ministry of Land before Junior was done and the boys took me directly to the lodge.
I was referred to Distant Relatives Eco Lodge by Irish Dave who I shared a grassy lawn back in August, 2014, at Grubby’s Grotto in Livingstone, Zambia. A few other travellers whose paths I’ve interacted with have also suggested the place, saying how it was a great space but they never mentioned the welcoming, homely vibe that lures you in through its well-maintained gardens. Stepping on soft, mulch pathways leading to the main building situated by the beach volleyball section and the outdoor stage.
In the communal area, where the bar was located by the swimming pool, I found Steve, the bar tender who phoned one of Musafir’s crew to start heading up to collect me. Junior and company were exploring the lodge, completely in awe by the beauty of the place.
“Thanks so much, guys,” I shook their hands before hiking down. “Hope to see you on Friday.”
I hiked over the used tire stairs, down past the cobbled path running alongside the chicken coup, through the beach gate and down the dirt track until I encountered Goddie – of the Maasai tribe – and Dario – of a Sicilian tribe.
“Karibu,” they welcomed me.
Exchanging the usual pleasantries I trailed off as the sight of the beach-side mangroves, shading the white-sanded beaches, a low concrete wall separating the small section of grass from the water caught my eye. Musafir floated proudly, its bow thrust out with a proud chest.
“This is the house where we stay,” explained Dario, leading me past Rohini and Fabienne working on the stitching.
I had arrived, as my good-timing happened to be, just as lunch was served by Mzee Baraka, the old man that had adopted the Musafir crew. I met Paolo, project instigator along with Ivan, Juma, Mohammed and Rasta Man, the local fundies (workers) working on the boat.
“Karibu,” they greeted me, welcoming me to join the circle of food.
I sat around the large silver platters of rice and vegetables, each of us engaging on a patch of rice real estate, digging in with our fingers.
There’s something universally unifying about sharing food together from the same plate using your hands as utensils. There’s a ‘Welcome to the Tribe’ vibe to it.
Following a shot of percolated coffee, Paolo took me out to see the boat, about 50 meters off the beach. At low tide you can almost walk to the vessel which was complete on the outside. Paolo mapped out his vision that had begun as a dream in 2011.
“The cabins will be there,” he pointed at the empty space. “The galley over there, a cargo bay here and the navigation desk there.” He spoke seeing the finished outcome in his head as we stood on the small ledges, balancing so as not to fall into the pit of the empty hull.
“You can do some sanding if you want,” Paolo suggested, pointing at the side planks below us.
“Happy to,” I grinned.
It’d been a while since I’ve partaken in any physical labour and I was looking forward to getting back into physical activities that don’t always involve hiking for kilometres on end along the roadside.
That night we celebrated Fabienne‘s birthday along with my two-year celebration of non-stop travel with a beach party bonfire.
“Tonight’s my New Year’s Eve,” I explained to the crew as I whipped out Ol’ Red and jammed some tunes.
Ivan, another Italian, took a turn on the six-string, singing in a sultry Italian voice, of the kind that when you search through radio stations and you hear a song that seduces you to linger and eventually stay to listen.
The Milky Way was out in the clear sky above while the bio-luminescence glowed a neon-green in the water of which I entered knee-deep and splashed around, activating the tiny plankton, making psychedelic shapes in the water, jaw-dropping aweness, like a scene in a Dali painting. I looked around at the outline of Musafir on the gently-lapping waters, the hills and mangroves daring it to go in deeper in this naturally protected lagoon. I took in a deep breath of fresh, salty air.
I climbed to the balcony of the beach house on the outside stairs, missing the top fourth step on the first landing (part of the initiation). Limping the second case I strung up my hammock between the pillar and the security metal screen on the window, delicately testing my knotting skills I lay in it, feeling the light breeze play through the mosquito net. The girls, Fabienne and Rohini, also lay out their mattresses under mosquito nets.
Not long after we said, ‘Lala salama,’ meaning goodnight, Ivan lulled us to sleep playing an Italian lullaby on the guitar, the sounds softly floating up on the gentle breeze from the bonfire. He continued to play softly as he climbed up the stairs, ending the song on a sleep-inducing note with his husky voice and disappeared into the night.
I sucked in another lungful of fresh, salty air as I slapped at the mosquitoes that had snuck into my net. I cracked open an eye to take in the Milky Way creeping between the branches of the large baobab tree in front of the house, a row of kayaks and boats on the beach, safe from the incoming tide.
Yeah, I figured, good energy here.