Saturday, July 5, 2008

Dork on a Dhow

I should have known better!

Arrived in Mombasa yesterday. After Nairobi's smog and grit, this is a very agreeable city. The "Swahili Coast" elements are all there -- New Orleans style covered porches, elaborately carved wooden doors, and an Indian Ocean mashup of people all going about their business.

Some colleagues of mine at Reuters in Nairobi told me that THE thing to do in Mombasa is a dinner cruise on a "dhow" -- one of the old wooden sailing ships (refitted of course) which still sail up and down the East African coast and on to the Arabian Peninsula.

Dinner can be a problem when you are traveling alone. I can take the rest of it -- in fact I sort of prefer being a free agent during the day -- but at night you pay the price.

After a quick look at my hotel restaurant, I thought what the hell, at least it will give me something to do/look at during dinner, and it is THE thing to do in Mombasa.

So, even though the ticket cost almost twice as much as my hotel room, I splurged -- envisioning a sort of jolly putt-putt swing around the bay, a big sloppy buffet with crowds of noisy tourists, and a quick tourguide version of Mombasa history.

When I arrived at the jetty, I began having second thoughts.

There sat a splendid dhow, hung with lanterns. On its decks, however, were only about seven tables -- each kitted out in full "luxury dining" mode with a panoply of plates, glasses, silverware etc. While most were ready for groups of four or six, or romantic Honeymoon outings of two, one table was set majestically for one -- me.

A helpful waiter informed me that the cruise would take 4-1/2 hours.

So, under a fingernail moon, off we steamed. The point of this cruise was clearly the dinner and not the sightseeing. There was no guide, and within about 20 minutes night had fallen and it was hard to make out what was on the shore aside from a few twinkling lights.

I kept looking anyway, if only to avoid eye contact with my fellow passengers. Sometimes a single traveler can feel dangerous in groups of others -- a warning beacon.

Of course the other diners probably didn't give me a second thought. But the fact that my table was under the same spotlight as the band and the lady chanteuse decided to direct some of her more warbly numbers ("Midnight at the Oasis" -- oh yes) directly at me left me feeling kind of exposed!

On the upside, the food WAS delicious -- barbecued king prawns. And the 4-1/2 hours did pass. And I've now done THE thing to do in Mombasa.

Today I'm headed up the coast to Kilifi, where the malaria vaccine researchers are working, so I hope we'll get back to health-related stuff soon.

Right now, I'm going to go out and see if I can find Mombasa's most famous landmark -- giant metal tusks erected in arches over the main drag to commemorate a 1950's visit by Princess Margaret.

P.S. One of Nairobi's most popular (or at least most advertised) funeral parlors is gloriously dubbed "Montezuma and Monalisa Funerals". Aztec Renaissance?