letters from nairobi

Moments in Mombasa
March 13, 2012, 15:08
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

At low tide, the Indian Ocean recedes from the shore, shyly revealing a moonscape of gentle hills and valleys. Under the full moon, holding tattered sandals in my fingers, I step cautiously through the salty puddles, peering around in vain for sea urchins hiding among the craggy undulations of sea and sand. The water is bathtub-warm on my feet, darkened by strands of black seaweed that wrap around my ankles in a whisper. In front of me, N. is silhouetted against the midnight sky, standing on the edge where the waters become silent and deep, beckoning me over. Behind me, the tinny rhythms of salsa music float over the warm sea as sunburned tourists dance under flashing lights. I stop walking, caught halfway between shore and horizon, and begin dancing alone in the moonlight. The air is kiwi-sweet; the water velvet-soft. A moment in Mombasa.


Mama Ngina is crowded. The backdrop of the promenade is teal sea, massive cargo ships sailing towards India, circling crows. The foreground is a horizontal line of vendors, repeated endlessly in a cartoon-strip sequence: pyramid of coconuts, sizzling oil drums, plastic popsicle carts, mountains of cassava. Rinse and repeat. The sea breeze climbs through holes in the coral cliffs and wraps itself around the branches of towering baobab trees that provide a place for rest without shelter. The sun, impossibly bright, scalds the air and sends children scurrying towards the sea, ripping off clothing and leaping off of cliffs into shark-infested waters. It is hot, it is shining and burning and melting in the steam of cassava frying in golden oils. A moment in Mombasa.


Walk away from the sea, up the serpentine street that leads to the Old City, and don’t look back. Feel time slow, stop, and reverse as the sounds of modernity, of belching car engines and beeping cell phones and bleating benga music, fade away, silenced by imposing ancient walls. The air feels different here; the sun and shadows move outside of time, painting ornate balconies and cracked plaster stoops like watercolor. A group of women, clad head-to-toe in the flowing black robes of the niqab, round the corner, speaking in low tones and gliding like swans through the twisting city streets. The only skin they reveal is the outline of dark eyes with long lashes and painted toes. Underneath the sheath of fabric, you know they are wrapped in rainbows and jewels – but this is not for you to see. They disappear behind you and are swallowed by the Cheshire cat of the labyrinth city that still echoes with the memories of slave auctions and bejeweled sultans. Somewhere, distantly, a bell tolls. A moment in Mombasa.


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