During my stay in Kenya, which was mostly in Diani Beach, I had great experiences but also had to face unexpected challenges. I had really mixed feelings about my experience but as you’ll see it had actually nothing to do with the place itself, but more to do with my own personal struggles. I didn’t see enough of Kenya, staying only on the coast, which means that I will have to return to have a go at the more ”traditional” Kenyan experience, including the safaris and hiking.
In order to get around Kenya, there are many transport options. Some short flights are available between the bigger cities and tourist destinations such as Diani, the Masai Mara and Lamu. They, however, don’t have the character and potential for a true adventure of the matatus, the shared minibuses used by the locals. In villages and cities, there’s also always the options of taxis, of tuk-tuks, the motorcycles which can seat up to three people in the back and the boda-boda, the motorcycle taxi.
One thing that can become quickly stressful and overwhelming is stepping out of a matatu since all tuk-tuk, boda-boda and taxi drivers all come around the door and try to convince you to keep travelling with them. Everyone is talking at the same time and some people are trying to grab your hand for attention and it’s just an overall chaos.
After being in Diani for way too long, I decided to go to Mombasa for a few days and after a few nights there, I decided to have a look at the Distant Relative Ecolodge in Kilifi. I was joined by two of the girls working at the Tulia hostel in Mombasa. In the morning we walked to the City Mall to get our first matatu to the destination.
Our first matatu ride to Mtwapa was uneventful, although a bit on the crowded side of things. It started raining when we arrived in Mtwapa just when we had to try to find our new matatu. Melissa found one going in the right direction but we had to wait until it was full to leave, which took a very long time of sweating in a not moving minibus. Eventually, it was full and we left. It was nice to finally have some fresh air going through the vehicle. The rain stopped and we kept going North, stopping regularly to pick up or drop off passengers.
At one point, for an unknown reason, our matatu left the main road and ended up going through a small village where most roads were blocked. The driver had to give some bribe money for the locals to move the tree trunks and other stuff that was in the way before allowing us through. It was already a bit weird but I thought it was a good opportunity for me to see some villages from up close. I was still enjoying the ride although it was now taking much longer as the driver didn’t seem to know how to get back to the main road. We kept going in circles for a while longer, trying out different dusty streets, handing out some more money. Eventually, he took one last turn and we were back on the main road.
Later on, we got to a hill and as it was descending we started to go quite fast. The driver was getting momentum for the relatively steep hill ahead. We were going up the hill when the engine stopped. A few minutes earlier when stopping to let someone off, the engine had stopped and some of the guys had had to go outside to jump start it.
This time around though, we were on a hill and it looked like the brakes had also stopped working. To be fair, I don’t know that the brakes were actually working to start with. The driver tried to pull to the side as soon as the engine stopped but because of the hill, we quickly started to go backwards.
Since the matatu was already halfway across the road, we were now reversing in the upcoming direction and straight into a small precipice. Fortunately, there was a railing and it was strong enough to stop the vehicle as we hadn’t picked up too much speed yet. Although the collision still managed to create a matatu shaped dent in the railing. When we were sure if was not going to go any further, everybody, looking super scared, got off the minibus. We all gathered around while some of the guys decided to push the matatu back onto the road, probably hoping to jump start it again and keep going.
I joined in to push, getting some very confused looks from some of the men, and we got the bus back on the road. As soon as it reached the middle of the street and was almost in the right lane, it started going backwards again into the upcoming traffic. So we stood there, watching the matatu make its way back down the hill with the driver trying to control it and move it away in a junction.
At that moment I was so very grateful that I had had the presence of mind to get my bags before getting out of the minibus otherwise, I would have had to go back down the hill to pick them up. A few other matatus had stopped to see what was going on and to help and when it was clear our matatu was not going to go any further, we all got in a new minibus and went on our way. Everybody on board looked a bit more tensed by then, and one of the ladies had a nervous breakdown, crying and praying loudly.
We were back to moving towards our destination when shortly after, a police officer waved us to the side. The driver went out, they had a quick chat and we were once again back on the road.
We were almost to Kilifi when we met yet another road block with military men stopping all traffic. We stopped briefly once again and eventually we were back on our way. We finally arrived in Kilifi after what was a much longer road trip than anticipated. We stopped at the local supermarket to buy some food supplies and have a short break before getting onto our next transport. We got on boda-bodas, the motorcycle taxis and arrived at the Distant Relatives backpackers without any more incident.
Don’t let that incident scare you from taking the public transport in Kenya though, while it is true that they can be far from your usual Western safety standards, it was the only accident I saw during two months of using matatus and other transports. While it is also true that accidents do happen, and people don’t seem to be following any road code, accidents still happen everywhere else too.
That being said, you can always pick a matatu that looks a bit more recent or well maintained and remember to never sit in the front seats. Although you get a much better view, in case of an accident they are considered to be the most dangerous seats. You don’t have to get in the first matatu that stops unless you are going to a very unusual destination, there will always be other matatus stopping shortly after. As usual, when travelling, you should always trust your instincts.
Adapting to the Kenyan life rhythm
Life in Kenya, or at least in Diani Beach, works at a very different pace than in Canada or Scotland. I don’t know if it’s because of the weather, but people are rarely in a rush to do anything. Especially in stores and restaurants. Rushing does get you sweaty quickly so it might be part of the reason but to me, this was a very big challenge. Learning to adapt to quiet times of doing simply nothing is not as easy as I would have thought. It was, however, a very good practice of being in the moment and learning to truly enjoy it.
In my life, I’ve never been that comfortable in not doing much. When there are quiet moments, I make myself busy. Whether by writing, reading or finding something else to do. Staying idle is not something I’ve ever really known how to do. Even sitting on a beach I usually find it impossibly challenging. I sit for a few minutes and then quickly get bored and start drawing in the sand, go for a swim, collect shells. Anything to keep my hands and mind busy.
During the skydiving boogie though, I barely had any time to myself. We were working hard and playing even harder. Every day. And this was much closer to the actual rhythm I like in my life. Work intensely for a while, then relax for a bit, and repeat.
Being taught how to dance the African way
One night in Diani, after a few drinks at our regular spot, 40 thieves, a lovely beach bar located way too conveniently right next door to the drop zone, we went out to Tandoori, another local bar where I met two new girlfriends. They made it their mission that night to teach me how to dance like an African woman. Kenyan sure know how to move, and they do manage to move their bodies in unexpected ways and let me tell you it is definitely not as easy as they make it look! I had a great time though with my two new friends, which may or may not have been prostitutes…
Monkeys in the kitchen
When I first arrived I would always tell everyone how cute the monkeys were. And I couldn’t really understand why people would call them fucking monkeys. But after a few times of them breaking into the house, stealing and eating all my food, it all started to make sense to me.
The first time they came in, we had left the kitchen window open but someone must have walked by the house because they left quickly without stealing much.
The second time, I was alone at home working on my laptop with my back to the kitchen. I heard some noise but didn’t think anything of it since I was sharing the house with a few people. Eventually, I did clue in though, that no one was actually home at that moment. I went to the kitchen and came face to face with a massive blue ball monkey. He was hanging onto the shelve and eating fistfulls of oats straight from the container. I opened the front door and tried to shoo him away. It didn’t work though as he decided to do the same thing, trying to shoo me away from his newly found stash of food. We had a bit of a staring contest and oddly enough used the same techniques to try to scare the other one off. I was stomping and moving my hands in all directions to make myself look a bit scarier. He got on his back legs and did pretty much the same thing, slightly moving towards me. Which worked and made him a lot scarier…
I ended up retreating to one of the bedrooms for a few seconds before realising I was certainly not going to let a monkey win and steal all my food! I grabbed a towel so I would have something else to shoo him away with and went back to the kitchen with my new found determination. He was back to the oats and when he saw me coming in, he locked eyes with me, extended his right hand, grabbed my bag of crisps and ran out of the door. To say that I was a bit upset would be an understatement. I don’t mind monkeys eating my oats, but my crisps are off limits!
They broke in the flat a couple more times, every time coming in through a different window and breaking the window screens. Eventually, we started to keep all the windows locked. On one of my last nights, I was coming back from the store with a couple of items thinking I was going to finish my pasta and that the food I had left at the house would be plenty to last me before my departure. Next thing I knew though, the monkeys had come in again, but this time not only stole my pasta, tomato paste, oats and raisins, but they had left a massive mess behind them, probably trying each and every package to see what it tasted like and then throwing away the stuff they didn’t like. For the remaining of that day, every time I would look out the window or go out, I would see one of the monkeys eating some of my uncooked spaghetti noodles. I kept thinking that surely the package would be somewhere around the house, but I couldn’t find it. The next morning though, the empty packaging was waiting for me when I opened the front door. I’m not sure if this was a message that they wanted more since their package was now empty, but I did not give them the chance to steal any more of my food; I left Diani the next day!
Night swim with stars in the sky and in the water
I found the Distant Relative backpackers in Kilifi to be a truly magical place. Not only it is an Ecolodge, which clearly would appeal to my hippie side, but when I went there, I managed to relax, and write. Something I had been struggling to do for a while. Every time I manage to get back to writing, it instantly makes me feel much better.
I was also now travelling on my own. I made it there with 2 newly met friends, but they were staying only for one night, so I had time to process some of my thoughts and feelings and reflect on my experience. Stepping back and being able to look at your situation from a different angle always makes it easier to see what the actual issues are.
I spent my days swimming in the pool, writing, and simply enjoying the moment and the surroundings. It was exactly what I needed at that point.
The Distant Relative Backpackers is located very close to a small beach on the Kilifi creek where I enjoyed sitting in a tree and listening to the small waves coming in. The beach boys were present of course, but not as insisting as in Diani Beach. Or maybe I was just lucky.
The true magic, however, happened at night. I was lucky that the sky was mostly clear on the nights I was there. And thanks to the lack of light pollution, the number of stars visible was simply incredible. But that was still not the best part. At night you could go for a swim in the ever warm waters and see the amazing bioluminescent plankton. The plankton light up briefly when they are disturbed. It is a phenomenon I had seen on the sailing vessel Infinity when I was at sea, but to be able to get in the water and see the water light up as I was moving was truly magical. It felt like stars were both in the sky and in the water. I spent a very long amount of time in the water, moving my hands and body slowly, making some ephemeral drawing with sparkling stars. A truly eerie experience.
Fully realising how fucking lucky I am
When you travel to poorer countries or meet people who struggle to make ends meet it’s a given, at one point you’ll realise that you’ve been rather blessed to have been born in Canada, the States, the UK or in Europe. Not only can most of us afford to live very comfortably, with way too many possessions, we are lucky enough to have access to decent education and jobs. We take all of this for granted, but when you get to other countries where it’s not always the case, it makes you become more conscious of how lucky we are.
Not that we have done anything more to deserve this treatment, we simply happen to be born in the right place at the right time.
Another thing that we rarely think about when coming from richer countries, is that we can move so freely. There are so many countries we can go to without needing to apply for visa. Or when we need visas, very often we can get them at the border or online before arriving. That is so easy. When you happen to come from Kenya and you want to go visit some friends for a few weeks in Europe, Canada, etc. You have to apply for visas. Visas that take ages to process. It’s almost like our governments really think that because they happen to be born on that piece of land, they need more screening before we can allow them in the country. Or as if they think that visitors will not want to leave and go back to their home country. This blatant racism and the colonialism that are still so very prevalent in Kenya really did shock me. You would think that we, as human, would know better by now. That we would have learned that skin color and nationality doesn’t mean shit. It doesn’t define you as a good or bad person. Or as someone who will abuse the systems or behave as a decent human being.
Another thing that shocked me is the number of people that are from deemed ”civilised” countries and come to poorer countries to do despicable shit. That is beyond me. How can we allow that to happen, yet while making sure to close or make our borders very inaccessible to people like you and me, people who just want to go say hello to their friends, see something else, discover new cultures and come back to the comfort of their homes? That is a question that I, unfortunately, do not have an answer to yet.
Losing myself in Kenya
After enjoying myself during the Skydiving boogie and partying a lot, I realised I had lost my focus. I was no longer doing my exercises in the morning since I had to work early and then became too lazy. I needed a break and some time to process reaching my final continent and accomplishing that life goal, but next thing I knew it had been a few weeks and I was still doing the same thing. I still hadn’t made a decision on what to do next. I kept sending emails and resumés but nothing worked. I was getting discouraged so I decided to distract myself with some more partying.
Diani has a great tourism potential. It’s relaxing, and it’s really easy to meet people to go out with every night. But it’s empty. It doesn’t bring much of the human connection I usually need or the longer and deeper conversations I want in my life. It all stays on the surface.
It’s fun for a while, don’t get me wrong, I really did enjoy it, but at one point I realised I was losing myself. And it can be really difficult to find yourself again once you’ve gone back to all your old bad habits.
I wanted to go away, but since I didn’t know where to go and I had friends to hang out with, it made my decision to leave more difficult. Eventually, though, I decided it was enough. I had had enough. I needed a break from that place.
I’m not sure what made it so difficult for me to leave Diani Beach. Sure I made new friends and I had fun, but I was clearly unhappy. Profoundly stressed out. Not knowing what I was going to do next, trying to get jobs in different areas and not getting any responses, all of that took a massive toll on my morale and it was easier to stay there, in my little comfortable bubble, and get my brain fucked up enough in the hopes that maybe I would stop thinking and worrying.
Obviously, it didn’t work. I never stop thinking about options and over analysing everything. So not only did I not come up with an answer, but I started gaining weight and could feel my decision to party every night was affecting my health and my motivation to do anything.
At one point people started to tell me that I looked stressed out and not like my normal smiling self. That hurt me because I knew it was true. I didn’t want to see it, but I was ruining myself. It’s hard to believe you might be truly unhappy when you live in a magical setting. You are at the beach, it’s sunny and warm all the time, you’ve made new friends (although for most of them you have absolutely nothing in common except the drinking and partying).
How can you possibly be unhappy?
As much as I struggled to learn to relax when I first arrived, I quickly became quite lazy. And that’s not something I am used to. I like being busy, exploring, writing, moving and being active. But the heat and the hangovers got the best of me. I lost that spark in me. Even the idea of going to explore somewhere around was not tempting at all. I barely explored anything around the drop zone and the beach. It felt like a magnet that was preventing me from making any decision and from remembering who I am and what I actually like.
I was lonely when I arrived in Diani and I was way too happy to find people to chat with. And to start creating a history together. A history of going out, getting wasted and hooking up, but a common background nonetheless.
I had been craving human connections and mistook this experience for genuine links between people. I did found new friends but the truth is, with most people I met there, I didn’t care any more about them than they did about me. I simply was lost, and while this doesn’t explain everything, it makes it a lot easier to understand why I felt unable to leave.
I felt like I was on a path of self-destruction, but I couldn’t stop myself. Sometimes we know we need to stop doing something, but we lack the will-power to actually take action.
In order to find a way to force myself to leave, I started telling people I would leave on the following Monday. I wanted to be there for one last weekend of partying. So on Sunday, I made sure to pack my bag. I would not leave myself any more excuses to further delay my departure. And on the Monday afternoon, after having breakfast at Stilts because the monkeys had stolen all my food again, I went to say goodbye to everyone and got on a matatu to Mombasa.
I felt relieved to leave, even though I did not go far, and I was still hanging out with some of the same people. I did, however, start to exercise again. And did not drink for a couple of days. So when my friend said he was going back to Diani for the following weekend, I knew I could not go back. Because if I did I would not only have lied when I told everyone that next time I would be there, I would be coming to skydive, but I knew it would be impossible for me to leave again. By telling people I wouldn’t come back before a boogie, I made sure that it would prevent me from returning since I hate going back on my words.
I don’t want this to sound like it was a bad experience. To be fair, I am the only person responsible for sticking to my routine, and not forgetting my priorities. It would be a lot easier to blame my discomfort on someone or something else, but I’m the one that allowed myself to get lost for a while because it felt good to go back to some old habits. When I realised this, it was up to me to change it.
I stayed at my friends for a week and on Saturday morning, I found a decent priced ticket from Mombasa to London. I didn’t think any longer about it and quickly bought the ticket. My flight was leaving the next night. As soon as I made the decision, I felt myself reverting back to my relaxed and happy self. A weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Although I still didn’t have any plans, London felt like a logical place to go back to, halfway between the places I had sent resumes to and filled with friends to catch up with.
As much as I had some internal struggles to deal with, I still very much enjoyed Kenya and I do feel like I haven’t seen much of what the country has to offer. That is why I know I will return one day, hopefully in a near future, and I’ll enjoy every minute of it, matatu rides included, but in the meantime, I’ll appreciate the much cooler weather of London!