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.

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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.

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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.


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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.



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Deconstructing the Maasai

The traditional Maasai jumping dance

We sat in a big queue, waiting to enter Maasai Mara national park, a line of pop-top matatu minibusses, and like rats in a trap, we were deluged by Maasai ladies, elegantly beaded with their earlobes swaying delicately just above their shoulders, trying to sell us “traditional” Maasai beaded jewelry.

I was at first sour that the plain beaded bracelets were not as exciting as their own jewelry, but, on further thought, I wondered: how did Maasai people get plastic seed beads?

The Maasai are a one of the most famous “tribal people” of Kenya, and, in fact, when most people think of “Africans” they’ve probably cobbled together some mental image of a Maasai warrior with a character from The Gods Must be Crazy. 

I found this quotation easily on the internet:

“The Maasai have come to represent Africa at its most primal, a fiercely independent tribe of legendary courage who sternly shun the modern world in favour of traditional rites and customs. The Maasai are undoubtedly one of the most famous traditional cultures on earth. “

You can just hear this caption from afar: AFFFRRIIICAA

What is the culture that we’re really ascribing to the Maasai, though?

Asking most people – even people who live in Kenya – what is “Maasai” and they’ll come back to you with lore and aesthetics: beads, clothes, long earlobes, and “lion killing.” Some people know about cattle herding too, and about the drinking of some mixture of blood and milk.

These things are considered to be tribal, primitive , and a representation of “THE REAL KENYA”.  But are they really?

Really nice beadwork, with really colorful plastic seed beads

The pictures are beautiful – the beadwork is often extraordinary. Beadworking, done by women, has a long history among the Maasai, who articulate their identity and position in society through body ornaments and body painting. But before contact with Europeans, beads were produced mostly from local raw materials.

White beads were made from clay, shells, ivory, or bone. Black and blue beads were made from iron, charcoal, seeds, clay, or horn. Red beads came from seeds, woods, gourds, bone, ivory, copper, or brass. It was only when, late in the nineteenth century, great quantities of brightly colored European glass beads arrived in East Africa, that beadworkers replaced the older beads with the new materials and began to use more elaborate color schemes.

So that’s that. “Traditional” Maasai beads have really only been around 100 years.


Next stop: Kenyan haggis to go with these tartans

What about their tartan plaid blanket-outfits? The shuka look like blankets, and are often used and sold as such to white people. In fact, there’s been a REVOLUTION of Maasai shuka fabric being used in extremely high end fashion collections, so much so that a lot of Kenyans feel like “their heritage” is being stolen.

But who’d ever think that red plaid fabric is a Kenyan heritage?

Well, it’s not. Traditionally, Maasai shepherds wore capes made from calf hides, and women wore capes of sheepskin. The Maasai decorated these capes with glass beads.

In the 1960s, the Maasai began to replace animal-skin with commercial cotton cloth. Women tied lengths of this cloth around their shoulders as capes or around the waist as a skirt.

Fake ochre gingers


Why red? One theory has it that the tradition started with the dyeing of clothes with the red ochre pigment obtained from Mt. Kilimanjaro earth, which used to spew out red volcanic dust. Yet another says that because red signals danger to animals, bulls, buffaloes, and lions will attack any color except red.

A fascinating hypothesis suggests that the Maasai – warriors and soldiers by instinct – are the descendants of a lost Roman legion that either deserted or became lost in the southern fringes of the Roman Empire. The red color of the traditional Maasai shuka is similar to what is believed to have been the uniform of the soldiers who were fighting for the Roman Empire.

The tradition of rubbing red ochre on the skin falls in line with the love of red, and, once, Maasai hides were made red with ochre as well, becoming a sort of camouflage with the red dirt of this part of Africa.

Thakoon’s models – herding sheep

Shocked yet? Most of the Maasai shuka for sale in every tourist curio shop in Africa are not even made in Africa. Huge quantities of them are acrylic, and mass produced in China. There’s been a push in recent years to bring manufacturing back to Africa; companies like Shuka Duka who are trying to discourage the sale of “Faux Maasai Culture” (har har).  There are actually a number of local Kenyan producers of Maasai shuka, even though most of these companies don’t really seem to know the history of the shuka at all. From one of their websites:

the shuka has been the traditional piece of clothing for the Maasai tribe for hundreds of years

And this is where wording trickery comes in. The definition of  shuka has changed for the Maasai in the last 50 years alone, so sure, the shuka is traditional, but hundreds of years ago there weren’t Maasai running around in Scottish plaid. (Buy some anyway! buy some anyway!)

A mixing of cultures

If anything, it’s not the unchanging nature of the Maasai that’s made them successful, but their mutability.  The Maasai have cleverly adapted to increasing globalization. They charge a fee for any photographs taken of them, using Western curiosity about traditional African cultures to their advantage. It was precisely a Maasai willingness to adapt that allowed them to integrate the tartans they traded for and the beads they traded for into a new conception of what it meant to be kimaasai.

The Maasai no longer wear cowhide sandals, but buy plastic flip-flops or make shoes out of old tires. The process of earlobe stretching has been altered by Westernization, too. Where previously the earlobe holes were gradually enlarged by inserting rolls of leaves or balls made of wood or mud,  plastic film canisters now may serve this purpose.

White safari

When I visited a Maasai village in 2002 (somewhat by force), the chief had just come back from university in Europe. He wore a shuka over a pair of pants (extremely unusual for Maasai) and had a shiny wristwatch. He told us, inadvertently, about some of the Western influences on his village: a European-built clinic, primary and secondary schools, and of course his own attendance at university in Europe. But as he spoke, ladies continued to come by and parade their children in front of me, begging me for money and offering to let me take pictures. Because Maasai bring their cows, sheep, and goats inside the village wall at night, like you do when you live near lions in Kenya, the ground and walls and air and your nostrils are just filled with poop. And with poop comes flies, and when you’re standing there in your Westernness and some lady wants you to take a photograph of her child or to buy her necklaces and there are flies in your eyes and her eyes and her child’s eyes – it is not fun. Does it feel like the Maasai know exactly what they’re doing?  Absolutely.

Some tourists lament what they perceive as a tide of modernity in East Africa. They’re vacationing from the Western World in order to see cultures that they think are ancient, and uncompromisingly “traditional”.

The Maasai are, even more than people think, a reflection of Kenya in that they were because they are a perfect example of how colonialism has fundamentally changed Africa while everyone pretends that everything is the same.

Will the Maasai culture continue to change? Almost certainly. Cattle herding is limited now that land is restricted, and Maasai aren’t really nomadic anymore either.

So who cares if Maasai culture is a loose definition of “tradition”?  We forget in the USA anyway that most “landmark” buildings are less than 100 years old. Is “culture” really meant to be static, or isn’t its very definition an echo of learning and changing? How many quotation and question marks can I use in this post?

The important takeaway is – the Maasai mythos really means one thing – money

Try visiting

So the next time someone tries to tell you to celebrate something that’s unchanging, by paying money to see a Maasai village and the “real Africa”, take a minute, examine it closely, realize that nothing ever stays the same and pay attention to the fact that when you’re a tourist, everyone is trying to sell you something.

…Even the idea of the STOIC unchanging Maasai.



***I should mention as an addendum that, while researching this post, it was almost impossible to find information that wasn’t just “ Colorful bead necklaces and plaid cloth are a longstanding tradition of the Maasai”. It behooves people to maintain the myth. It looks good on a brochure, and Maasai crafts are big business for Kenya.

Things You Hope Not to See on an African Safari

While I’m working up my post on the events of the last 2 weeks, I figured you might want to see some shots of things I wasn’t expecting to see in Masai Mara.


A “massage parlor” in our discount budget tented camp





A crudely painted leopard giving me the stink eye



A hilarious beaded “Kenyan flag” tie



Tourists taking photos with iPads


Bathtime Sandals


The “Dallas Pub”


A toilet stall full of tires?




A traffic jam









Puds warnings?

Handicap Mockery

Handicap Mockery

Crazy Bunny Pants

Crazy Bunny Pants




IDLYING…in Idlywild?