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Brian Oh: {food, travel, photo}

Africa (vi): Biking Mombasa

This time around in Nairobi I was mostly busy with work, but I did get to go to Mombasa my one free weekend before I left. Mombasa is Kenya's second largest city and a major beach town. Being the offseason though, the beach town was pretty deserted. I arrived late Friday night after a delay in NBO, so didn't do much that evening. I hadn't had much of a chance to do any research for what to do since the preceding week was really hectic, but Saturday morning I set out to find somewhere to rent a bike for the day. I had planned to just ride up and down the beach at my leisure, but when I arrived at what my hotel concierge told me was a bike shop (it was essentially a shipping container), I met my companion for the day, Benson.

Benson ran a little bike rental service. He told me that there wasn't likely to be anyone else coming by that day so he offered to take me on a tour of the countryside along the coast of Mombasa. This was at about 8:30am and what followed was a roughly 20 mile bike ride over rolling hills, through fields of maize, mangos, and bananas, and a series of traditional villages. 

As we rode through the villages,  children ran out to greet me with choruses of "Jambo, muzungu!" (muzungu basically means "white person" in Swahili) In one particular village, a group of villagers were gathered to chop firewood for a funeral pyre for the following day. Women adorned in brightly patterned cloth swung axes repeatedly into logs between their feet. As I approached, they loudly clamored for me to try and thrust one of the well worn axe handles into my hands. As I straddled one of the logs, I raised the axe high over my head, did my best to bury the head into wood, but ended up hitting the earth just inches from my foot. They all laughed at me. I tried a few more times and managed to chip off a few chunks of wood, but was no where near as effective as these women were. All in the technique, I suppose.

As we rode on, we passed through lush forests and verdant fields of crops. The going was exhausting. I hadn't ridden a bike that vigorously in many years. I realize now that I don't have nearly as many pictures from this ride as I would have liked, since I was too busy trying to keep up with Benson to pull out my camera. At one point, what I thought was a leaf fluttered down from a tree onto my shirt. When I went to brush it off, I discovered that it was not, in fact, a leaf, but a giant grasshopper the size of my hand. I struggled to shoo it away and nearly fell off my bike into a ditch.

Atop one of the highest hills overlooking the countryside and the dry Mtwapa Creek, I saw a small hut by the river bed a good distance away. Even from there, the children living there immediately recognized me as a muzungu and began screaming "How are you?!" and waving emphatically. 

In the early afternoon, Benson and I came to another small village where he arranged a lunch be prepared for us. We situated ourselves outside the wood and clay hut of what appeared to be a sort of matriarch for the village. "Mama Poa" -poa meaning nice or good-began the process of preparing a meal of chicken, greens, steamed potatoes and bananas, and ugali

While the meal was being prepared, a number of other villagers gathered under the small awning outside the hut. One of them, named Abdul, seemed like something of a patriarch. Abdul introduced me to mnazi, a traditional palm wine made from the fermented sap of palm leaves. It's a milky, white substance that's drunk through a filtered reed to remove any particulate matter. It's bitter and sour, but leaves an almost sickly sweet residue. They appeared to go through multiple bottles of the stuff while I was there. Who knows how many they drink a day. It's made on a daily basis and there are steps carved into palm trees to facilitate the harvest of the leaves.

I watched as Abdul brought around a live chicken and taunt some of the onlooking children with it. He then proceeded to slit its throat as I and a crowd of children watched on. Some of them even held the wings down as I was busy taking pictures. The women then cleaned and gutted the bird in preparation for cooking. It was cooked in a small pot over a tiny charcoal stove with a little bit of cooking oil from a small baggy and store bought curry powder. The rest of the meal consisted of greens cooked with onions, tomatoes, and a little oil called sukuma wiki, steamed potatoes and bananas, and ugali. Ugali is a Kenyan staple that is little more than boiled cornmeal that's stirred until it achieves a dense doughy consistency. It accompanies most meals and acts as something of a bread substitute.

It was fascinating to watch the meal come together as the trio of village women worked for about 1.5 hours. Overall, like most Kenyan food, the food was not very flavor rich, for lack of much seasoning, but was enjoyable and edifying. With a compressed fistful of ugali in one hand and potatoes or chicken in the other, the meal was an experience unlike anything I've ever really had. Which is interesting by virtue of the fact that this it was likely utterly mundane for Benson and those villagers. I felt a little like I was slumming, in the Dickensian sense. It would serve as a stark contrast for the meals I was soon to have in Paris.

As Benson and I finished, we set off on the last leg of the ride back to my hotel. I returned at around 5pm, by which time I was supremely exhausted and my legs were barely able to support my weight. I collapsed in my hotel room until 9pm. I got up to grab dinner and a beer by the beach before going back to sleep.

It was a memorable Saturday.