Monday, 20 May 2013

Mombasa

It was difficult to shake off the luxurious stupor that had steeped into us at the resort. The only stimuli we were responding to were food, more food and a lazy swim before crawling back to sink into the air conditioned bliss of our rooms. We were so close to Mombasa and yet, so far, in our somnambulant state, we had not made the slightest attempt to go across the strip of water separating us from this historical city. My husband had been there a few months ago but that was purely a business trip. Friends dissuaded us, saying there really wasn't much to see here. Others we met at the resort recounted waiting for a nightmarish two hours just to come across by the ferry to Diani, where we were holidaying. But I knew Mombasa had been the gateway to British dominance over East Africa, all those people of Indian origin who were brought here to work by the British had first set foot on this coast, as they stepped off their ships, before spreading inwards over this vast and magnificient continent. My own great grandfather, the erstwhile ruler of the princely state of Aundh in Maharashtra, along with my great grandmother, had visited Mombasa and Nairobi in 1950, where his son, my grand uncle, was the first Indian Commissioner of East and Central Africa. When all these distinguished people from our family had graced this city, how could I not?
So finally on our last day on the South Coast, we hired a car from the hotel and set off to explore Mombasa.A twenty minute drive brought us to the queue of cars, all waiting to board the ferry and go across to this busy port. As we joined the line, a young boy sold us fresh coconut water through the car window. A nice entrepreneurial opportunity, as on some days these queues are really endless and the weather is always hot, leading to many a parched throat! And what a refreshing change from the acidic and sugary soft drinks the children had been downing at the resort! Luckily for us, as it was a Sunday, we were on the ferry in less than half an hour and ten minutes later, we were in Mombasa.
The first 'attraction' here are the intersecting tusks on one of the main avenues. They were built to commemorate the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to this town in 1952, at a time when ivory was considered to be an exquisite commodity. They also spell the letter 'M' for Mombasa. Today, I thought, they are a sad reminder of man's greed and a testimony to his gruesome slaughter of innocent elephants.
Next on our touristy list was Fort Jesus, a stone's throw away from the man made tusks. We had, by now, hired a guide to take us through the Fort which had been built in 1593 by the Portuguese as a military base, to safeguard, of all things, their sea route to India! I am often amazed at how these European powers sliced Africa and Asia like pizza and shared us among themselves and then had the audacity to 'protect' what was not theirs to begin with!
The fort was designed by an Italian architect from India's own Goa (which was then under Portuguese dominance) and is in the shape of a man's torso, with each limb being a line of defence. The Portuguese and the Omanis fought it out amongst themselves with each occupying the Fort at some time or the other, before the British finally gained control over it towards the end of the 19th century. It had been named Fort Jesus as the Portuguese saw themselves as representatives of Christianity first and foremost.
We walked through the huge Fort, visited the museum housed in it and my son tested the weight of cannon balls of cannons made by the Portuguese, the Scottish and the British, each type being unique in their own way. The upper part of the Fort offers unparalled views of Mombasa's natural harbour. Today, as you breathe in the tang of salty air and gulp a cool drink, these spots are a tourist's delight, but in the era of no radio communication, views from all four corners of the Fort gave the first indications of an imminent attack by ships from the sea! My son was delighted to peep through all the holes and see if he could spot any pirates! On our way out, we saw the paintings which had been created on the walls of the area which housed prisoners. They are a delight to see and one can only marvel at the fact that men so far from home, with  no prospects of ever seeing their loved ones again and with no means of communicating with them ever, did not allow their creative spirit to die and amused themselves as best as they could.
Then it was time for a walk through the old Indian Quarter of the town. As we strolled through the small bylanes we could have been in the older parts of Mumbai or Pune in India. A Little India had been recreated here by people who had left their own land for good! The guide pointed out the first Indian dwelling constucted here sometime at the beginning of the last century, it's ornate balconey being exactly like the ones you can see in India even today! He also showed us the building where the old post office used to be housed. It is a heritage structure today. It was here that Indians used to queue up every month to send money to their families at home in India, for remember, the British had brought them to work on laying down the East African railway line. Mercifully they had not been brought as slaves, so they were paid salaries.
A walk through a typically Indian Bazaar and a 'subji mandi' ( vegetable market) brought us to the end of our tour, we thanked our guide, got into the car and were back to the ferry landing in a few minutes. Back again across the creek by ferry and then it was a pleasant drive back to the resort, accompanied by the dying rays of the sun and the memories of Mombasa fresh in our minds.
Next day, it was time to head back to Nairobi and as we boarded the tiny aircraft I automatically glanced at the pilots.Both of them were young girls! I had been terrified while flying in but now I buckled my seat belt with supreme confidence! I knew nothing could go wrong with not one but two women at the helm.What a kick in the face for all those perpetrators of female foeticide in India and for all those whose faces turn sour at the birth of a darling little baby girl! I could not have asked for a better ending to what had been a wonderful trip, even if I had been asked to write it myself!
                                           Dial M for Mombasa!
                                           Inside the Fort -Cannons ready to roll.
                                                Peep hole to spot pirates!
                                             Paintings by prisoners.
                                                 Old Indian bungalow.
                                               Old post office.
                       Mombasa harbour

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