A tale of trains and treehouses

23 July 2012 § Leave a comment

23 July

I impart my notes from Mombasa, as promised.

On Monday morning, Dr. Mary, Erin, Kathryne, and I awoke and toiled toiled toiled til five o’clock, when we made our way with only a few obstacles to the train station to catch the seven o’clock.  Our compartment boasted a dim light and, across the narrow corridor, the window opened only an inch.  It was perfect: the bare sketch of existence left swaths of space for the imagination to paint rich details.

The train must have been, by a conservative guess, seventy years old.  Things rattled.  Windows stuck.  Corridors were too narrow for the average American.  Only joking—there was only one corridor.  We escaped death by riding in second, rather than third, class.  We hung out of the window and felt the cool air swoop in and swirl round us.  The stars were bright, and I managed to find the southern cross.  It’s the only constellation that I can find in the southern hemisphere.  We were all happy that we were not riding a night bus.  (Although a knight bus would have been acceptable.)  It proved that one must always heed the advice of Johnny Cash.  I thought of the trip to Boston and the death of a certain car and how that song ran in an infinite loop in my head.  Next time, friends, let’s take the train.  Did you know that he once started a forest fire?

We had just tea in the morning. It was so hot already, and, drinking tea, we nearly swooned from the heat and felt rather tropical

When we arrived in Mombasa at ten o’clock the next morning, we emerged from the train feeling much as though we had traversed the country.  One does not get the same sense from flying for an hour or two.  To travel physically over every inch of the land between Nairobi and Mombasa tinges a corner of one’s spirit.  We found a cab to the ferry—Mombasa is on an island—and boarded that after having watched a wildebeest migration: the horde of people streaming off the newly arrived ferry engulfed the mind and seemed at once formidable and comic.  Then, we stumbled upon a cab driver who agreed to take us to our tree house hostel for four hundred shillings (about five dollars), which we did not realise until afterwards that it should have been about five times that; he was only going back home and was kind enough to take us as friends.

I did not take this photograph, but this is one of the tree houses of our hostel

The hostel was a collection of tree houses and cottages scattered in a wood.  Little happened until, as Erin and I were sitting at the counter taking tea and reading, we heard a clatter and a shriek.  Turning around, we saw Kathryne jump up and a monkey scampering off, holding her jar of peanut butter, which was about half the size of the monkey.  He paused at the landing of the stairs and turned around, giving us an almost gleefully wicked cackle, and then ran down the stairs.  A few of the men who worked there appeared with sling shots and managed to make him drop the peanut butter as he was hopping from tree to tree.  Kathryne thus escaped despair.  (She eats about three peanut butter sandwiches a day.)

Laughing about the monkeys, we gathered a few things and traipsed to the seaside, where I finished reading Orthodoxy and then swam in the blue blue water.  So clear and iridescent it was.  The Indian Ocean is agreeably warm and felt delicious.  I went for a little run in the sand, which proved difficult in the quicksandish sand.

I stole this photograph from Kathryne. My camera batteries were dead again

That night, we ate dinner at the hostel and then slept for twelve hours.  The best sleep cycle I’ve discovered is natural or (train-)induced lack of sleep for several nights, followed by a quiet, unstructured morning that permits limitless sleep.  Somehow, real exhaustion and real rest present a pleasant alternative to neverending insomnia.  Yet perhaps I am mistaken.

Wednesday, then, began late and included a concentrated lack of activity.  Letter-writing and reading occupied me, interrupted by a brief interlude with a monkey.  That story deserves its own post.  I met a half-Belgian, half-Italian girl named Rilke, who grew up in Prague, went to university in London, studied in Mombasa, and now works there.  How refreshing it was to talk to someone in a hostel who said nothing of travel logistics or minor annoyances of the foreign country!  We talked for a few hours and went to the beach together.  There were many camels.

They looked natural in the sand but a little funny right beside the sea

Thursday was almost a dream.  I have always imagined an impossible day—ever glinting and shifting in my imagination—during which I shall be in a beautiful place and have nothing to do save write all of the letters that I have been meaning to write.  I hardly wrote all of the letters that I wanted to write, but I did write letters almost all day.  Letters . . . the ideal combination of solitude and companionship.

I was lounging on a chaise longue and blotting everywhere, it was far less civilised than this tidy scene

Erin and I discussed some of Lennox’s arguments in his book, which at this point seems principally a rebuttal of Dawkins’s philosophical claims that masquerade as statements of science.  Right before our departure, a few of the people sitting round the main tree house asked me what we were discussing, so I explained a bit, and a little debate began about the arguments mentioned.  We had to leave before we could really discuss much, and yet the conversation had clearly been headed toward the depressing realm of circular arguments and stubborn philosophical stances which preclude honest consideration of another’s view.

Those conversations (almost) crush my spirit.  I thought about France again—oh, the days when I pitied Camus and cried in class . . .


We caught a matatu, rode the ferry, and rode a tuk-tuk (a sort of motorised, glorified—or degraded, depending on your view—golf cart with room for three passengers in the back) to the train station.  A large automobile nearly crashed into our tuk-tuk on my side, but a fog and a contemplative distraction rested upon my mind still, so all I did was turn to my companions and say, “Near-death experiences, friends, near-death experiences.  Savour them while you may,” or some such silly thing.

He nearly tuk-tuk us to death. None of us photographed anything because the careening was simply too much

We managed to secure our same compartment with the dim light, and Erin and I struck out to search for food along the station after abandoning our things.  We found nothing but strawberry and cream lollipops (which of course I bought) and then had a strange encounter: an Asian boy asked if we could take a photograph of all of them.  Erin consented and began to take the camera from him, but he corrected her (in confused English), specifying that he and his four friends wanted the two of us to be in their photograph.  We had such a shock that we just stood there, befuddled, as he snapped away.  The only reason I can concoct for this occurrence is that it was a group of all boys.  They tend to do unreasonable and incomprehensible things.  Girls seem far more likely to speak irrationally and then act in perfect accordance with reason.

I prefer to speak and to act with equal amounts of insouciance concerning reason.  But how can one even make that statement?  Cf. Lennox.

Shall we run after truth?

We had no variety of experiences on the fifteen-hour trip back to Nairobi that we had had on the previous journey; mostly Erin and I hung out of a window in the cool air and talked of many things.  Shoes, ships, sealing wax—cabbages, kings—and a few others, as well.  The night was a tossy-turny, cold experience that I was happy to end in noting the appearance of the sun, and our return home felt wonderful.  Dr. Mary and Sara, the latter of whom had arrived minutes earlier from a few days of research in Nakuru, were here to greet us, and we breakfasted and chatted.



Sealing wax (can you tell whose seal it is?)


This one’s Charles I

Christine, the Adams’s house help, wanted to learn to make frosting, so I was charged with teaching her this delightful pastime.  We made lemon buttercream frosting and chocolate frosting and we also made the residents of this lofty abode—we’re on the fifth floor—happy.  In the afternoon, the four of us girls went to Village Market, the strangest place I’ve seen yet in Nairobi.  The abundance of white people and fancy shops boggled the mind, but we spent our time in the giant open-air Maasai market.  I bought a kikoy (a large piece of coloured material), thin trousers made of kikoy, and a basketish woven satchel that looks small but can hold many books.  I scarcely ever spend money, so I suppose this is a testament to my proclivity to collect beautiful material and miniature book bags.

A full report on the monkey business coming soon . . .

A carefree little rhesus macaque



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