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Kenya: Poli-Poli on the Indian Ocean, 1975

June 18, 2010

I had a lot of time kill in Mombasa while waiting for the departure date of the freighter that was to take me across the sea to India.  The city had about two days worth of attractions before the heat and humidity, along with its noise and pollution, clashed with my nerves.

Somehow I heard through the grapevine about a house in the bush.  Evidently it was located on the coast, near the main road between Mombasa and Malindi to the north.  The thought of life on a beach sounded great to me.  I’d been traveling the hinterlands of Kenya for over a month, visiting the hot, dusty game parks.  I was ready for the ocean.

The preferred way to get to the house, named Poli-Poli (a Swahili word that translates as slowly-slowly), was to ride a cheap public van along the route toward Malindi and asked to be dropped at the correct spot.  These vehicles were plentiful, rickety, and overcrowded but left Mombasa for the north frequently during the day.

From the drop-off point I had to walk through the bush about four miles to the coast.  The countryside was flat and covered with both low trees and unbelievably tall coconut palms, a veritable treat for the senses.  One small village, whose name I no longer remember, stood between the the road and the coast. Dirt tracks, some passable to vehicles and others not, made up the public access.

I remember trudging endlessly through stands of fruit trees, thorns, and other interesting flora. The equatorial sun beat down unmercifully.  Finally we arrived at the house, a blend of new and old construction styles.  Its walls were whitewashed and gleaming; the roof was thatch.  Windows gave good ventilation on all sides.  Inside I found a separate kitchen, common area, and several bedrooms.  The living room overlooked the vastness of the Indian Ocean.

In the rear a trail led to the edge of a sheer bluff.  A staircase descended to the beach, a narrow strip of sand that nearly disappeared at high tide.  Far out into the sea waves crashed on an outer reef.  For several hundred yards between there and the land the water was shallow and very warm.

Other than the nearby village, we had no neighbors and none of the inconveniences of modern life. Here at the edge of East Africa, a community of travelers had established a communal life free from the entrapments of civilization.

Almost perfect, in other words.

I met the other residents.  Most were older than me but friendly.  I’d say around eight or ten people stayed in the house at any one time.  The person I remember the most was Patrice, a French expatriate who had been in Kenya forever.  He was a gentle soul and had thrown away his old life for that of a nomad.

1) Patrice at Poli-Poli: Photo by New Zealand Tony

He always cautioned against fast travel, something I was frequently guilty of.

While we spent a lot of time at Poli-Poli lounging and really accomplishing nothing, from time to time we experienced adventure.

One fine day Patrice and I decided to walk north along the thin beach and see the lay of the land.  We set off from the house at low tide and strolled for several hours.  The bluff followed along the beach interminably and finally we guessed it would be a good time to turn around. The day was a scorcher – nothing unusual – and we stopped many times to cool off in the ocean.

Without warning a group of feral dogs rounded a corner of the cliff base.  We stopped.  They eyed us for a moment and drew nearer.  Patrice and I said nothing but looked at each other, wondering what to do.  The dogs came closer. There were four of them, malnourished, disease-ridden, and mangy beyond description.  Wild dogs were a scourge around Africa, both in the countryside and in the cities.  They knew little fear of humans and foraged for any food they could find.

We realized we were in trouble.  Normally a person could pick up a rock and throw it at any offending dog.  That would cause their buddies to at least take pause until refuge was found. But here we were – on one side was  a twenty-foot cliff and on the other only shallow water. And we were on a beach.  No rocks here.  I thought the dogs, if they were hungry enough, would think nothing of coming after us if we tried to get away.

As the canines, their heads bent low, snarled again and advanced, Patrice noticed something lying in the sand.  He crouched a picked up a long crowbar or piece of rebar.  God only knew how it happened to have ended up on this beach.  Patrice rose to his maximum height and swung the metal rod at the closest dog.  At the same time I gave a great shout of defiance.  The dog yelped with pain and scittered away, its mates close on it heels.  We were safe.

But the day was not finished with us.  As we continued toward home, the tide rose, barely perceptible but nonetheless a constant force. The beach was covered and at last we were forced to walk in the water beside the cliff.  This was a bad idea for a number of reasons. So we understood we would have to climb the cliff.  Dressed only in our bathing suits, we walked until we found a good spot and ascended the short but sheer wall, grasping for handholds in the crumbling rock.

So from here we only had to walk through the bush to get to the house, about two miles away. The whole area crawled with snakes – locals told us someone died every six months, on average, from snakebite – and we made as much noise as possible, talking loudly and pounding our feet.  We heard them slithering away every few minutes.

This part of Kenya was home to all manner of venomous reptiles.  On another occasion, a Green mamba got into our kitchen and wrapped itself around one of the rafters that supported the roof.  I stumbled unaware underneath the critter and made a quick retreat and sounded the alarm. A couple of helpful Kenyans came around and taped a knife to the end of a long pole and killed it.

Rumor had it that once in a while a huge naked man would enter the house in the middle of the night, armed with a panga, or long machete-like knife, and look around before silently padding away.  I never saw him.

But the night I remember most fondly happened when we were invited to a village bonfire.  A huge container of palm wine was produced and we all drank it through bamboo straws wrapped in cheesecloth.  This served to filter the bugs and other vermin out of the concoction.  We danced the night away around the fire, playing African flutes and drums with the locals, who danced as fervently as they knew how.  Under the stars, far from the evils of the world, it felt like we had returned to a more vital and meaningful world.  At the end of the night we walked home in the dark, the snakes retreating from our path.  They gathered all around but left us alone.

Eventually the owner of the house stopped by.  He navigated a new Cadillac convertible through the bush, with a busty young woman at his side.  Turned out he was the brother of the Foreign Minister of Kenya or something.  Upon arrival at Poli-Poli he produced a bottle of pharmaceutical cocaine and slashed the bottom of the plastic container with a knife, dumping it on the kitchen table for the residents to enjoy.  I picked up the bottle; “Made in Germany” it said.

I finally departed Poli-Poli, of course, leaving a bit of myself beside the ocean, but taking many fond memories further in my travels.

2) Sunrise on the Indian Ocean, photographed in back of Poli-Poli

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