We were told that Mombasa literally means cocktail, and it's easy to see why. To be honest, neither Lauren nor I had done much research on Mombasa and, arriving at the Castle Royale Hotel we weren't even 100% sure we had a place to stay (Lauren had reserved online but they had never sent a confirmation email). So, despite hearing bits and pieces along the way about 'crazy' Mombasa, we were pleasantly surprised with the level of activity. Our hotel (we did in fact have a reservation) was a colonial-style oasis from the bustling main street on which it sat, offering a no frills room with air conditioning that was more than adequate.
After taking a few minutes to gather our thoughts and put valuables in the room safe, we decided to venture down to Mombasa's two main tourist attractions: Ft. Jesus and the adjacent old city.
Most places you would imagine name Ft. Jesus would be either shaped like a traditional coastal fort i.e. the shape of the cliff or like a cross. This one, built by the Portuguese in the era of Vasco de Gama, was shaped like Jesus. Literally. Unfortunately for the Portuguese, this strategic location at the mouth of a river leading into the Indian Ocean came under immediate attack and would ultimately fall to the Sultan of Oman. Before all this the Chinese had come to Mombasa to trade and after the Omanis came the Brits; hence the cultural cocktail. Each conqueror seems to have left a mark, but the most obvious one still vibrant today was left by the Omanis: Islam. Scarved women and the 5-times daily Sunni call to prayer were unavoidable reminders of Mombasa's predominate religious affiliation.
No, no, we don't need a guide, I insisted when approached by a tall, awkward man with a coin in his right ear.
"It's ok my friend. It's my job. Hakuna matata!"
Alright fine. You win. No worries indeed, I thought to myself as I resigned to accept his offer making sure I had some cash in my pocket. Turns out this reluctant decision was one of the best of the trip. Our guide, who's name I didn't catch, spoke a quirky English and insisted on asking, then answering, his own questions.
"You know what this hole for? I tell you what it for. Natural air conditioning while you go," he told us several times when pointing out holes in the wall that were apparently used as toilets. Ft. Jesus was built to protect the port, he told us, because Mombasa has for centuries been the main sea gateway to Eastern Africa. He showed us the beautiful Arabic doors, the wonderful view, and other quintessential fort buildings (barracks, etc.). But the tour really started right when we thought it was about to end.
"You want to see the old port? Of course you want to see the old port."
Okedoke. Hakuna matata.
The old port, and adjacent old city, was not a very big place. Narrow streets were lined by decorative wooden balconies jutting out from two story buildings. Some of the buildings definitely needed some love so I was glad to hear that UNESCO and the Aga Khan Foundation were going to restore some of these historic buildings in the coming years. More on our friend the Aga Khan later.
"This is a Shia mosque," our guide said with thinly veiled disdain. "Fanatics."
I thought about, then decided against, pointing out that al Qaeda and the extreme Wahabis of Sauda Arabia were Sunni.
"This," he went on with more pride pointing at an old yet quaint white building with blue trim," is the oldest mosque in East Africa. Is it still running? Yes, good question. It is still running although not many members. It's too small." I guessed from his enthusiasm that it was a Sunni mosque.
We weren't interested in shopping having already bought gifts on the safari, so with a small hint from me he mercifully brushed us past the shop vendors stopping only to point out the oldest 'apartment' in Africa.
Thus the tour continued. Lauren and I struggled to keep up as our guide weaved us through main streets and back streets, occasionally pointing out something of interest. Yet strangely it didn't feel rushed at all. What was most interesting about the walk were the juxtapositioned cultures inhabiting tiny neighborhoods sometimes only one street apart. Colorful clothes hung next to black abayas across the street between houses and shirtless children played tag at the knees of fruit vendors. Covered women bartered for nuts while young girls in tribal outfits sat on stoops watching the day go by. Boys in white robes and traditional fez-like hats scurried to Islamic madrassas where they learned the teachings of the Q'uran on Saturday and Sunday - the off days of their Christian weekday schools. Almost like a multi-colored jigsaw puzzle, everything seemed to fit together in a peaceful and symbiotic universe dominated by one religion but accepting of others.
He took us to the old slave market consisting of two separate buildings - one for men and one for women - that today was a vibrant market for just about anything except slaves. Rounding one final corner, we were informed that our tour had come to an abrupt end and that our hotel was just a few hundred meters down the road. After giving our guide a hefty tip and not regretting a single pence, we thanked him and went our separate ways.
If you ever find yourself at Ft. Jesus in Mombasa, look for the guy with the coin in his ear. You won't be disappointed.
That night we took a mega-touristy but surprisingly enjoyable dhow dinner cruise that offered great food, a nighttime tour of the river, and interesting conversations with a South African couple and two British security risk specialists. It had been a long day that started on safari and ended on a dhow, so not long after returning to the hotel we were lost in dreams of where we would be the next day... Zanzibar.