MOMBASAPublished July 25, 2019
Mombasa. I dreamt of Mombasa again last night.
Mombasa, just saying the name makes me remember the salty smell of the ocean. .Mombasa watching the blue green Indian Ocean that stretches as far as the eye can see all the way to India. Mombasa meant swimming in the Indian Ocean at high tide, holding hands and jumping the big waves, being part of the blue green ocean; feeling the cool, salty water flow all over us as we jump the waves yet again. Mombasa.
We went to Mombasa every April for a two week holiday. The trip I remember best is the one we took in 1972, when I was ten. Dad loaded the station wagon with Mum, Ma, Julie and us three kids. Our pishi would come by bus. The back was crammed with suitcases, food, toys etc. We stopped at the Sikh Gurudwaar at Makindu for chai and maybe a chapatti or two with mung dahl, we paid our respects at the temple and then we were packed back into the car.
Later we stopped by the side of the road to see the monkeys. Hindu families believed that monkeys were a representation of the God Hanuman, so they stopped to feed them bananas and fruit. We got out of the car to see them, but you had to be careful as the monkeys could be aggressive and snatch food from you. Ma carefully fed them some fruit.
We drove through Tsavo National Park. The landscape was an endless green savannah dotted with thorn trees. We saw giraffes eating the leaves of the acacias. There would be a herd or two of zebras; elephants would roam in the distance. We kept our eyes peeled hoping to see a lion.
The next stop would be a petrol station, a couple of hours away. we sat at the picnic tables and ate our home-made roast chicken sandwiches and drank milky coffee from a thermos. Dad would fill up the tank and have the oil and water checked. Tazmin and I were soon sleeping on Julie’s lap having run out of songs to sing.
Rasul, Shelina and Gulzar,
Finally after Voi, we saw glimpses of the Indian Ocean and the air smelled of salt. By now were driving downhill, seeing small green shambas planted with papaya and banana trees. On the outskirts of Mombasa, Daddy stopped the car at a small roadside hut selling madaaf. Mum haggled over the price and chose small, young green sweet coconuts that had the sweetest taste and not much white coconut meat. Madaafu were one shilling each. We all had one madaaf each and then it was back into the car.
Excited, we drove through Mombasa and to Bamburi beach where we stayed at the Monshah cottages. I ran straight into the Indian Ocean wading in till my knees into the warm, salty water. The days fell into an easy routine.
We children went swimming in the mornings and played on the endless white sandy beach, building sand castles. Dad would find out the exact time of the high tide. Then at roughly five p.m. when the tide was at its highest, we would go into the ocean together. We waded into the water until it was waist high. Then we would wait for a big wave.
“Jump, it’s coming, jump…” Dad said, as we held hands as we jumped.
Ma wouldn’t swim but sat in a chair and an old dress in the shallow water letting the warm, salty waves soothe her arthritic legs. Afterwards I swam as far out as I could. She watched me and shouted,
“Pilu, Chokri duub ivine. Duub ivine.”; “Pilu the girl will drown, she’ll drown. “ They scolded me and told me not to swim so far the next day. I agreed to be good but then the blue-green waters would call out to me and I would go far out into the ocean.
Mum in her natural element, the ocean.
Ma bargained for fresh king fish from the Swahili fishermen on the beach. Then she and the cook prepared a delicious dinner of fried masala fish and rice. After dinner we played cards in the living room for cowrie shells. It took us years to figure out that Ma and Julie Aunty were helping Tazmin cheat. She was the worse player and yet she always had a big pile of cowrie shells.
“She is cheating. That’s not fair,” Rasul and I protested. Mum and Dad laughed and it turned out that all the adults were in on the scam.
“She is so small. We can’t let her keep losing…she’s your baby sister. You have to let her win sometimes.”
“No, she’s not so small anymore. She’s five, she’s old enough to play properly.” I argued back.
We kept playing but Tazmin’s pile of shells stayed big. Either they had learned a better way of cheating or she had improved her card playing skills. I never did figure out the truth.
At night we walked on the sandy, white beach while Dad lit the way with his torch. Dozens of crabs would scramble out of the way and run off in either direction.
One night we went to the old Swahili town, Membeni for dinner. Membeni was full of small alleys too narrow for cars to enter and stone buildings with carved wooden doorways. We walked into the town glimpsing Swahili women, their colourful dresses casually covered with black bui buis. After many twists and turns only Dad seemed to know, we found the “restaurant”. It was a shack in a clearing, wooden benches set near charcoal grills. Swahili men in long robes and white caps sat drinking kahawa. They would eat later at home.
“They have the best mushkaki in Mombasa,” Dad said we sat down on the rickety benches.
He ordered a string of foods and the pishis grilled goat meat and skewers over the charcoal. After a long wait, plate after plate were delivered to the small table. The meat was spicy and tender. We dug into mayai chapatti, a multi layered flaky break filled with eggs, cilantro and ground meat. Salad, tamarind chutney and icy sodas rounded out the meal.
The next stop was Blue Room for ice cream and paan. The blue painted restaurant sold the most delicious bhajias but we were there for the mango and pistachio ice creams.
The last time we went to Mombasa with Ma was in April 1972. She died in December that year. After she died, we stopped hiring a cottage and taking the cook. We still went in April but now Dad would choose a beach hotel. He liked to stay in Bamburi so we never went to the South coast. A favourite hotel was White Sands where we stayed in April 1973.
On the second day, Daddy drove into town and took us to the biggest bookstore Mombasa had to offer. We children could choose one book each; sometimes even two to read on the holiday. Books were expensive in Kenya so I was wracked by indecision, I loved Agatha Christies but they were so slim they would be finished quickly…A thicker book, a Penguin classic would give more reading time. But the Christies were so exciting and maybe Rasul would buy a thicker book I could borrow. Finally after much thinking and skimming of books we took our choices in the front to Daddy.
After the book buying expedition, we went to the market where Mum bought a basket of mangoes. Mombasa had the best mangoes. She would get a not so ripe basket we could take back home. Then they bargained for fresh cashew nuts. Kilifi, a town further north on the coast had cashew plantations that were sent to the Mombasa market. Totally worn out and hot and dusty by now, we drove to Bella Vista.
The Bella Vista was a posh restaurant owned by Mum’s aunt and uncle. Nabad Kakee made us welcome and we sank into our chairs in the air -conditioned cool gratefully. The restaurant was big with a beautiful view, hence the name. Tazmin and I liked ordering oysters Rockefeller, which made us feel sophisticated. Then after steaks and chips, we had Peach Melba ice creams.
White Sands had a big swimming pool where we spent hours swimming and jumping in and out of the water. The meals were served three times a day, breakfast, lunch and then a set dinner. The food was fresh and plentiful with a heavy emphasis on English cooking. Daddy liked making fun of the German tourists who were always first in line for lunch.
At night the hotel had open air discos once a week where we would sit and watch the dancing. Mum and Dad liked to dance together.
One year in 1977, we went to Malindi, a town further up the coast. Daddy passed the Eden Roc Hotel where Indians were not allowed to stay before Independence. He said, his brother Amir dapperly dressed as always had pretended to be white and had lunch there one day. He wanted to see if he could.
Malindi was smaller but there was a lot to explore. One day Daddy arranged for us to go out in a small skiff along the coast rowed by a Swahili boatman. We sat in the tiny boat and went all along the coastline seeing the hotels and little houses from the ocean.
One afternoon, we went for kahawa or strong black coffee in tiny cups at a Swahili coffee house in the old city. We passed a small jamaat khana, an Ismaili mosque but it was locked up now as there were too few Ismailis to keep it open. Dad bought sticky, orange halva that was sewed into a small straw package to take home. I thought it was too sweet but it was a local delicacy so Dad bought it.
On the Malindi holiday, Mum’s leg was in a big white cast. She had broken her ankle three or four times. This time, Dr Suleiman her orthopedist had warned her not to walk much and to keep the cast dry. He was supposed to take of the plaster cast off when we went back home.
“Pilu, I really want to swim,” she told Dad as she watched longingly, tortured by her love of the water as Tazmin and I jumped in and out of the pool.
“Gulzar you can’t. You have to keep the cast on. “
“I am fine now.”
“No, no you must wait.”
So on the fourth day, while Dad was napping in the afternoon heat, she disappeared into the hotel kitchen.
“Can you lend this kitchen saw?” she told the head chef who was stirring a pot in his white uniform and chef’s hat, discreetly handing him a neatly folded twenty shilling note. The saw was a stainless-steel monstrosity used for carving big cuts of meat.
“For what mama?”
“To cut off the cast!”
“We can’t do that, mama. We could hurt you, “the chef refused.
“Give it to me,” she ordered. She sat down on a chair and hacked at the cast with all her energy. Seeing how determined she was, the chef helped her finish off the job. She stood up triumphantly and walked shakily outside leaving plaster chunks on the floor.
At tea time she happily showed off her leg and later she swam with us. Tazmin and I couldn’t stop laughing.
“Gulzar, you shouldn’t have done this, your ankle could break”, Dad said shaking his head. But it was too late…
“I’ll be careful Pilu,” Mum said slowly climbing into the pool. Mum had a wonderful time swimming in the ocean and the pool but didn’t walk too much.
When she went back to Nairobi, Mum went to town to see Dr. Suleiman. Nervous, she took me along for moral support. He was used to her antics but a patient sawing off their plaster with a kitchen saw was too much for him.
“Mrs. Shariff, Gulzar, how could you do such a thing. The plaster was there to help you heal. Let me examine the ankle,” he said shaking his head over and over.
She sat on the examining table and he ran his hands over the ankle.
“What Doctor? Is my ankle okay?” she said as we both held our breaths.
“I’m not sure” he said as he probed the bones. “Well it would have been much better to keep the plaster on but your ankle seems fine.”
“Maybe the salt water helped,” I chimed in. He ignored me and finished his examination.
“No more swimming for four more weeks and don’t ever, eve do anything like this again, Mrs. Shariff,” Dr. Suleiman said wagging his finger sternly at her.
“No, no, of course not Doctor. Thank you so much.”
We were both relieved. But Mum turned to me in the car,
“You keep your big mouth shut next time. Why did you have to tell him I went swimming twice a day? “
“Sorry Mummy, sorry.”
“Ha, sorry! Sorry! What good is sorry? Just keep quiet now. “
I was quiet as a mouse but after a while we both started laughing.
“Oh, his face, Dr Suleiman was so shocked,” I said.
“Yes he was. And you, big mouth don’t tell Daddy everything. I’ll tell him myself.” Then she drove to Westlands Supermarket to buy us mango ice cream to celebrate the doctor’s verdict.