Fort Jesus

Don't ask me, I don't know.

Holy moly

I remember the first time I heard of Fort Jesus, it was on the Kazuri Bead Factory tour with my mom here in Nairobi.

But it wasn’t until my most recent trip to the coast that I had a chance to visit this legendary fort. I laugh checking the Wikipedia page for Fort Jesus because, despite having been in this fort and having had a tour guide, my takeaway messages were…slightly off.

Like most things in Kenya, you’re not really doing it for cultural edification but for an experience, and that it was!

Fort Jesus was built by the Portuguese, and stands now as a remnant of colonialism by not only one group. From the rudimentary history lesson I got from my tour guide, it was sort of like Poland in the 20th century, constantly being invaded by one group of colonialists or another, which doesn’t really speak volumes for its ability to deter invaders, come to think of it.

Walk like a ...Portuguese?

Walk like a …Portuguese?

A key feature is that Fort Jesus is shaped like a person. And, if you take the photo literally and count the church structure at the bottom, it’s shaped like a dude. Our tour guide was really keen to point this out.

And, in the same theme, we also got a demonstration of many of the various Portuguese toilet facilities, built right into the fort!

Our guide was perhaps not the best informed, but he was incredibly enthusiastic.  “Come and see, come and see!” he kept insisting.  There was a lot to see!  The fort reminded me a lot of visiting the Tower of London, and it was fascinating to see the various eras of building as each conquest brought in a new collection of masons/needs.

The views were also incredibly beautiful, as Mombasa, a coastal down, is very lush and green and tropical.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Fort Jesus also has some heavily religious influences, as, despite its name, it has served as a bastion of both the Christian and Muslim faith. It’s something special to see in the details of things like door carvings especially.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

One of my favorite rooms was filled with drawings by the Portuguese.  I might have appreciated it not only for the coolness of these century-old sketches, but for the coolness of the room, as at 9:30am, the Fort was already about 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

And look! The Portuguese even wanted you to visit their Instagram account!

33-20140228_091428 The heat got so intense that we may have lingered in the museum despite the constant cries to “Come and see” other things.  The museum was pretty special, though. I’ve found after spending time in primarily-port cities like Dubai and Mombasa that places with long histories of trade end up keeping the best global histories. The museum was full of things from all over the world and a huge range of time periods.

After the hilarity of our tour guide, we were also glad to have plaques to read with potentially-more-accurate information on them.

Though some of his faux-pas were pretty hilarious. Dates he gave us were somewhat arbitrary and very clearly made up on the spot.  Not only did the British invade Fort Jesus “in 1898 to do slavery” but the 3 foot tall door on this cistern was clear indication that, to his mind, Portuguese explorers were hobbits.


Proof that the Portuguese were only 3 feet tall?

Proof that the Portuguese were only 3 feet tall?

It was, all in all, a really enjoyable 2 hours.  If you like history, or architecture, or hobbits, you’ll probably enjoy it too.23-20140228_084044 And if you have any suggestions on how to prevent corruption at Fort Jesus, please insert them into this very official-looking box.

Postscript: as a funny sidenote, my friend ran an RPG set in Mombasa and used Fort Jesus as a vampire nesting ground. When I mentioned this fact to friends in the taxi, the taxi driver may have misunderstood and is now anticipating a vampire invasion with fear and dread, if his questions are any indication.

Coastal Expeditions – Snorkeling in Watamu

One of the beauties of renting a house right on the Indian Ocean is that, when you mention that you’d like to see dolphins and go snorkeling, it turns out that your night guard runs a day business where a nice glass-bottomed boat will take you out on the ocean.

It cost about 2000 shillings per person (~$25) and we were out for what seemed like 2 hours but might have been less.



The ocean area around Watamu has a big reef, which means that people-eating things that may or may not exist outside of my imagination can’t really come close to the shore.  The water is a perfect light blue, but once you get outside the reef it suddenly feels like wild ocean.

Apparently most people who go looking for dolphins don’t see them, which I guess isn’t surprising considering that they are extremely hard to spot from far away. The movies taught me that dolphins will come right to your boat and talk to you and warn you about villains and things.

These dolphins were much more ambivalent, sadly, but they were still cute, swimming in a family pod that first looked maybe 4 dolphins big but turned out to be 15-20 dolphins all together. When backlit against the sky, they looked black, but on the opposite side of the boat they were clearly gray.06-DSCF5317

And so synchronized! And poof poof poofing from their blowholes. It was a very nice sound (though I’m sure in other contexts it would be less appreciated) and all the girls went giddy.

Also, we were the only boat there, and, like most safaris, the experience is heightened when you realize selfishly that it’s all yours.

Of course that feeling didn’t last long, and soon 2 more boats were speeding out to poach our dolphins (though thankfully not literally).  One boat clumsily ran right through the family, and they seemed to surface less once we were leaving. Either they didn’t like the boat intrusion, or they were scared of this big European dude in a tiny speedo perched on the top of his boat like some kind of hood ornament.



We couldn’t jump in with the dolphins however much we wanted to; they were wild and we were boat-bound.

It was only a short moment back inside the reef, however, that it was time to go swimming with fishes.

The boat driver threw bread into the water and AHHHHHHHH.



There were SO MANY FISHES.

It was sort of Hitchcockian, being surrounded by fish, and a bit discombobulating. One of these stripey zebra fish even BIT me!

28-DSCF5439We had the liberty of the ocean, and, armed with the digital camera, I was intent on photographing everyone in our party with fishes at least once each.

You never realize until you’ve got your face in the water fulltime that you have no idea where you’re going and maybe following that last fish to the bad side of town was a bad idea.

I got completely distracted by the beauty of the coral, too. Insert requisite Finding Nemo jokes here, because while I didn’t find Nemo, I saw several Dory fish.

The rippling of the surface, the light reflective on the labyrinthine surfaces of the coral, stunning and bewitching and magical.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And so many of the fishes were such AMAZING colors! Neons and iridescents!



Time flew by, and before we knew it, it was time to get back on the boat. A couple of us decided to jump off the top of the boat into some of the deeper sections, so I sorely hope I got to scare some of those fish who had menaced me in a West Side Story gang-like manner earlier.

I will confess that, in my Ginger-on-the-Equator manner, I got so wrapped up in snorkeling that I didn’t reapply sunscreen the entire time I was on my belly with my butt up in the air at the surface.

You can guess how this story ends, and now, a little over a week later, my burn still hasn’t peeled and just continues to itch furiously, so it’s fantastically professional to be scratching my bum at work.

This snorkeling experience has really inspired me to perhaps go and get my diving certification next time I’m on the coast so that I can go proper diving and have MORE fish-poking fun.




Coastal Expeditions – The Train from Nairobi to Mombasa

01-20131115_172058One of the benefits of living in Nairobi is its central positioning within Kenya, making it relatively easy to travel within country.

In fact, the coast is only an hour away by plane, whether you fly into the northern beaches or the southern ones.

How easy, right?

Well, we decided for this, the inaugural trip to the coast, that we didn’t want it easy. If there’s one thing I learned living and working in DRCongo, adversity and adventure usually go hand in hand.

07-20131115_180302With that in mind, four of us decided that we’d take the 14+ hour train ride from Nairobi to Mombasa. Hey, it can’t be called the Lunatic Express for nothing, right?

The railway was built around 1896, as part of Britain’s attempts to dominate the continent.

I’m not really sure that the railway has since been upgraded.

Visiting the station felt like a time machine. Hand-painted signs just echoed this very palpable faded glory within the “terminal” — an area that would harshly vacillate between painfully shabby and newly upgraded.

06-1384527104569 We managed to get cabins together, although the woman who’d been assigning them was apparently doing the whole allotment by hand, writing on top of carbon paper, and complained a lot before just moving one of our cabins next to the other. With whiteout.



It's a tough job, apparently.

It’s a tough job, apparently.

We’d booked 2 first class sleeper cabins for 2 each — the price doesn’t seem standardized if you go through a booking agency, because they apparently add on a fee for having collected your tickets; Julien paid ~$60. I paid $75.

08-20131115_190354The cabins were laughably small, but indeed connected! They came complete with two couch-like “mattresses” — a netting for the top bunk to keep you from tumbling in the night…hopefully.

I imagine that once, these cars were magnificent. They had in-room fans, drinking water apparati, a sink, a shelf…all leather interior…

Except that the fans that hadn’t been stolen didn’t work, nor did the drinking water nozzle, and the leather looked a little more than well-loved.


But we weren’t in the train for luxury…it was for adventure!
Apparently they think hanging out of the windows is super dangerous.

13-20131115_190911 Julien doesn’t read signs.










11-20131115_190541I contend that maybe he was too busy to read the sign because he was looking for toilet paper. Or Purell. Or salvation.

Oh, no worries you can just wash your hands extra well after a visit to this bathroom.





…or not. It didn’t really matter, because the bathroom sink didn’t work anyway.

Pillow soap

Pillow soap

Funnily, when they came to make our beds, where one would usually find a mint, there was instead a tiny bar of soap. Hint. hint hint hint.

There is a certain calming element, feeling the rocking motion of the train and the rhythmic clack clacking.

It makes you not really care about the long night or the tight space.

And boy was the space tight:

To obtain a special dialing wand, mash keyboard now.

To obtain a special dialing wand, mash keyboard now.

I will confess that the food was dreadful. We were thankfully 4 people so we didn’t have to share a tiny booth in the dining car with other patrons. As it was, we didn’t get to eat until the “second wave” so our dinner bell didn’t ring until nearly 9.

Dishwater puts this soup to shame

Had we been sitting with other passengers, we probably would have had to contain the bad faces we made upon seeing/eating the “mushroom soup” that was served to us. At least it was vegetarian for poor Lisa, whose other vegetarian options included boiled rice and fried potatoes.



We made ourselves gin & tonics shakily and collapsed into our awkward beds, lulled by the train sounds.

And when I woke up for the horror march to the shared toilet, what greeted me but the most extraordinary view of the sunrise across the Tsavo.

20131120-145749.jpg Was I filthy, smelling vaguely of the stale mildew odor of my bedding? Sure. Was I in desperate need of toilet paper and/or Purell? Absolutely.

But standing in the aisle and getting to see the sun crest over the horizon will be emblazoned in my brain forever.

The novelty of the train starts to wear after 12 hours, but because we’d encountered delays, by our anticipated arrival time of 10am we were still 100km away.



Coupled with sticky heat and a rapidly diminishing supply of electricity (of which there is none on the train for patrons), we played Cranky Uno. Much like regular Uno, but with more Spiteful Draw 4s.





We were halfway into Blade Runner on the iPad when the train came to a halt, and a man came by to let us know that the cargo train ahead of us on the tracks had derailed and that we would be stuck for “some hours.”


29-20131116_12071315km away from our destination, we pressed him for options. The train company refused to pay for a taxi for the rest of our journey, and instead offered us the price of the trip between our stopping point, Mazeras, and our original destination, Mombasa.


Which was a whopping 105 shillings. Approximately TWO WHOLE DOLLARS. There was a bit of maniacal joy in his face as he told us that in order to collect this vast sum, we would have to head to the Mombasa Railway Station customer service counter.  There are some battles you wage over money here, but clearly, this was not going to be one of them.


A town without cable -- 6 kids crowd around to watch a guy scrape shit from his shoe.

A town without cable — 6 kids crowd around to watch a guy scrape shit from his shoe.

So we piled off in this middle of nowhere town, the TOWN excitement of the year as we proceeded to be surrounded by 20-25 children and one random man who insisted on serenading us on his guitar happily, despite only knowing 3 songs, one of which was “Jambo Bwana,” which is  akin to a Swahili incarnation of <s>the devil</s> “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”

Our pals who’d smartly flown into Mombasa already had a taxi, so weren’t we glad that within 1 hour, they’d come to get us.

The train sat idle as we drove away. I wonder if it ever moved.

Even despite our foibles and mushroom soup, I’m so so glad that I rode the train, especially for the fact that I don’t need to do it again.



This slideshow requires JavaScript.




African IMAX





That’s right, Kenya is among the only FOUR African countries to boast an IMAX theatre. And to be fair, South Africa shouldn’t even count since their theatre closed down and isn’t scheduled to reopen until November 2013.

The CRADLE of civilization right here — humans and their ability to wear ridiculous glasses and squeal at the technology that is THREE DEE.


Still cool, right?

I’ve now attempted to see 3 films at Nairobi’s very own IMAX theatre, located near the City Centre, on Mama Ngina Street.  Like some of the theatres I’ve visited in Uganda, this theatre also has the issue of film reels not always arriving when they’re meant to.

This theatre also has the odd distinction of being a 24 HOUR theatre — which might sometimes be really awesome for drunk people at 3am who really need someplace to go and have a craving for popcorn.  It also means that films that might be really awesome in IMAX 3D but not as popular as big action events — take for example the current battle between GRAVITY and THOR — are relegated to really awful showtimes.


I envision hot dogs sticking out of a cup of coffee

What? You don’t want to go to the theatre at 7am to see Gravity?  I don’t blame you. But having “morning” films does mean that you get the unique opportunity to have BREAKFAST of coffee and hot dog while watching the film.


It is likely preferable to some of their other offerings, which most notably include FLAVORED POPCORN.

I know everyone is all gaga about bacon, but seriously?  Stop.




The strangeness doesn’t really stop there, either… the place itself is lit a bit like a nightclub.  Last night when we went to see Thor 2, there was a live band playing in the lobby of the theatre throughout the film.

wpid-20131113_222723.jpgYou also get the addition of INTERNATIONAL films… like BOLLYWOOD action movies! I have no idea what happened in DHOOM 1 or DHOOM 2, but with a name like DHOOM 3 I’m pretty sure that I need to go and see this film, even if it is in Hindi.

Action? Adventure? Explosions? …SINGING!? Sign me up!

I am told by someone very smart that “Bollywood action films make Crank look like a calm film.”



And, like any proper movie theatre, at the side of the main IMAX theatre is a smaller theatre that is apparently the site of rap videos from the 1990’s.

Seriously, when we left Pacific Rim via the side door, there were old Biggie and Tupac videos playing on the screen there, a bar replete with neon runner lights, weird levels full of couches, and ladies booty tooching.

Maybe it’s a cultural difference? In a lot of theatres across Kenya you have to stand for the national anthem, and it shows before the previews with a low-resolution video of an undulating flag.


Of course, there are some things in theatres that never change.




The hot dogs look 300 years old and inedible











IMG_7585 The stairs to get to your seats are steep and of awkward height.











it’s a super place to go with friends.








Bottom line, we’re really lucky to have an IMAX theatre here in Kenya.

I can’t wait to see The Hobbit in its full format glory — and it’ll be here in BECEMBER!




Crafts in Karura Forest – the Bizarre Bazaar

The Bizarre Bazaar – Twice Yearly in Karura Forest

I’d only just arrived in Nairobi, when my fabulous friend Mo said “Let’s go to Biz Baz”


BIZ BAZ? What kind of name is that?

It may have a crazy name, but it’s a wickedly good time, twice a year in the sports pitch of Karura Forest here in Nairobi.


IMG_6752There’s a small entrance fee — I believe 300 shillings — but inside the pitch are a huge number of tents, all filled with exciting crafts and doo-dads.  Sure, a lot of it is stuff you might see at Blue Rhino or the Masai Market, but a lot of it is from legitimate artisans from Kenya, Uganda, and beyond, coming to sell their wares.

In the center, there’s food and drink (alcohol too) and generally, it is fun even to hang out after you’ve finished your shopping.



Felted animal baby shoes

And there are legitimately clever, fabulous things for sale. Some great bargains on Sunday, too, if you’re a haggler.


Do remember to bring cash. There isn’t an ATM at the forest and 99% of the vendors don’t take credit card.


Seriously, so worth it. Great finds. I hope you check it out! It’s only twice a year and the next one won’t be until June. Not to be missed.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Thanks to Mo who introduced me to Biz Baz!

Me 'n' Mo

Me ‘n’ Mo

The Kazuri Bead Factory



Lots of people will bring you back treasures from Kenya, but the likelihood that they were MADE in Kenya is pretty small. Wooden salad tongs, carved with tiny impalas, and beaded sandals are typically imported from India.

It’s one of the reasons that I really appreciate local industry in Kenya, and, in particular, small projects that really help out Kenyans.

Kazuri Beads was originally started in 1975 by an expat born in West Africa to missionaries, who wanted to give some single mothers a job. It now employs 350 ladies, and some men, and it’s almost entirely local.

The clay comes from the base of Mount Kenya, it’s all processed in Kenya, shaped, fired…the only import is the paint!



The factory is on a part of the estate of Karen Blixen, who is famous for Out of AfricaAnd, while there are tons of places to buy Kazuri necklaces, mugs, earrings, and ornaments around Kenya, it’s really fun to see it all being made. I’m particularly fond of their collections of fat animals.

My mom had an absolute blast, marveling at all the incredible detail – teeny tiny polka dots, gentle golden lines – that the ladies put into each bead.

My mom is SUPER jazzed by the gift shop

My mom is SUPER jazzed by the gift shop

The best part of any tour is being routed into the gift shop at the end.  Like that elephant bead you saw being made?  BUY IT.

I even decided to get a full tea set for my friends to celebrate their wedding, since an exquisitely-made handmade gift from Africa is, I’ve found, to be the best kind of present.

We all walked away with extremely heavy bags, and big big smiles.

The Kazuri Bead Factory is in Karen (also named for Karen Blixen), about an hour from my house.

Another visit is definitely in the future — someone needs to come and visit me to give me a good excuse.