Avaes Mohammad

Posts Tagged ‘Friends’

India: SALAAM BOMBAY 3 (250509)

In Uncategorized on June 20, 2009 at 1:27 pm

Salaam Bombay 3 


My first afternoon in Bombay.  After a wash and a change of clothes I’m ready for the city.  My first stop…Haji Ali.  A floating mausoleum of a Sufi Saint, built off the Bombay coast upon the Indian Ocean itself.  An elevated, crumbling path leads the way, which when the tide comes in is swallowed whole by the water, leaving only the mausoleum visible: an enchanted, floating palace.  As is the tradition with Sufi sites, it’s a sacred place for people of all castes and creed.  In 1990, when I was 12 years old, I made a wish here when I visited with my mother.  The wish came true.  I thought one of the first things I’d do on my first trip back is pop in.  Say hello, say thanks.  Maybe make another wish. 


I walk for two hours down the majestic city coast of Bombay, street kids competing to out-strut me as they walk past.  When I finally make it the place is heaving…like carnival.  The crowd pushes, dodges and swerves around itself in an effort to maintain forward progress on this narrow stretch.  The ocean glides itself all around us and we feel as though we’re gliding all over it.  The edges of this stretch hosts a whole industry maintained purely by the Saint’s mausloeum.  For visitors to adorn the tomb with, vendors sell flowers and elaborately decorated sheets of cloth with verses of the Qur’an sewn into them (Chadars). There’s also music, food, drinks and even a guy who’ll engrave your name onto a grain of rice.  I think it helps identify which grain goes where on the dinner table.  Where there are no vendors, there are beggars.  Of all age, affliction and gender they sit as manikins of meekness: filthy and with clothes torn in all the right places so as to show off amputated limbs and shocking skin conditions with full appropriateness.  It’s all part of the industry, feeding off the visitors desire to look good in front of the saint and God, they make good business. 


The tomb itself is mad crazy with a rush of people pushing, crashing and crushing against one another around the raised grave: desperate to approach and kiss one of the Chadars adorning it.  People arrive seeking blessings for newborn children, pleading for their deepest wishes and desires to be met, generally praying for a better life.  Directly outside the tomb, Qawwali singers sing songs of divine praises and after a private moment inside, I sit listening with five delicious samosas: my first Indian meal for 10 rupees only.   


As I walk back along the path on water there are less people…I see the beggars better.  One man sits topless and motionless displaying a shocking skin condition as though he were an exhibition piece (Turner Prize worthy?).  Five men, all rocking, lie on their sides, forming a well-structured circle: one singing praises to God, the rest providing a chorus, two of whom are frantically waving their handless arms in the air: a well choreographed piece all in all.  Just a little further on, one man simply sits alone, by the side of this path on the sea, gently waving his own handless arms.  My hand reaches into my pocket as I feel compelled to give a couple of coins, not entirely sure whether it’s charity or whether I’ve just paid for a freak show… Salaam Bombay.                     


The following Monday morning I run around all the banks I can find for some over the counter assistance.  None can help…none can give me money on either my bank card (the signature had faded) or my credit card (the signature didn’t match my passport).  One fella tells me there’s a Barclays in the Worli area of Bombay.  A one hour bus ride later and after frantic running around trying to find it, I finally spot the blue eagle. 


‘Sorry…we don’t have access to UK accounts…you’ll have to call your bank in England’






‘Can I at least use your phone…I’m not sure I have enough for the phonecall.’


‘Come with me.’



I’m brought sweet tea and cool water but after speaking to someone who confirmed my account had indeed been frozen, I was put on hold.  I remained on hold.  For fourty-five minutes.  It was Bank Holiday Monday in England.  Eventually I was asked to put down the phone.



‘Come back tomorrow though and I’ll help you out.’



At least I’d sorted free phonecalls to the bank.  So my 4 hundred and something rupees were all mine…to eat, drink and travel with.  I had a gorgeous and filling Indian Thali for 28 rupees only!  I bought a packet of cheap Indian beerees instead of cigarettes for eight rupees.  Tea for three rupees only.  I could live like a king!  My greatest expense was regular water for twelve rupees a bottle and one coca cola a day to ensure I didn’t feel like a complete tramp: twenty rupees.  I had everything I needed.


I bump into Raju the guide where I met him the first time.  He’s pleased to hear the cops helped out, said he was praying I’d be okay and took me for tea.  My half smoked beeree lies on the table for me later.  It rolls off…I’m about to pick it up.



[Following In Hindi]


‘Let it go manhey!look!…if you need anything…don’t be shy, just ask me!….money, food, charas, drink…if you wanna smoke a cigarette instead of these fuckin berees…if you wanna eat Non-Veg I’ll take you Bare Miya’s, the best Non-Veg place in Bombay…you just let me know…just make sure you don’t squash the heart my friend…you have to do what the heart says always …always do what the heart says!… here…have a cigarette.’






‘Thanks yaar…[I put my arm on his shoulder]


‘Mate, when I came to this city there were people who kept me upright.  I know what it’s like…I’ve seen those days and it’s not easy and I only came from the village…you’ve crossed waters to get here…no-one is anyone’s in this city…[Beat]  maybe if I have to go abroad one day, someone’ll help me out.’



As we walk, two men in their fifties sat on parked motorbikes call us over.  They’re friends of Raju and he tells my story.



‘The hotels here don’t want anything to do with Pakistan anymore.  The Taj has a fuckin sign at reception…’No Pakistanis!’.  It’s sister-fuckin right though…I’ll tell yer straight…if my nephews even came here from Karachi I’d tell ‘em fuck off…Mother’s Cunts!…they ain’t staying with me…fuck that!…Pakistanis…they’re the biggest fuckers on earth…I know coz I know them!



This is Musa.  A skinny, sweet looking guy.  ‘Man of the world!’  Nice smile, generally gentle, friendly and very funny.  He’s a Muslim with family in Pakistan.  Maybe that’s why he feels he has to make a show of condemnation.  Maybe he means it.



‘Oi brother in law! (i.e…I’m having your sister) Not all fingers on one hand are the same are they?…so not all Pakistani’s are like that lot either…some of ‘em are good….these were only a handful of  lads.’



This is Prem…’With love, people call me Prem Chopra’ (a famous Indian Film Villain of the 70s/80s)…a short, dark, funny fella with dark glasses…always smiling and always succeeds in making me laugh…He’s Hindu so maybe he feels like he has to make a show of understanding.  Maybe he means it. 



What the fuck you goin’ to Pakistan for anyway?’


‘Same reason I came to India.  I’m a writer.’




‘…He’s gonna write…’








‘You’re not going to meet with any terrorists are you?’



Paranoid that everyone in Colaba is listening for my response, and not unduly, I bow my head, put my palms together in front of Prem and shake my head from side to side.  We laugh.



‘So get your parents to send you some money man…through that Western Union there.  You got parents ain’t you?’


‘Yeah I got parents…but I’ve got my own money in the bank…I don’t wanna ask them if I’ve got my own money…if I can’t get it in a few days I might.’


‘Tension’s not to be taken!  This shit happens…you need anything…you let us know yeah…fuck tension though…don’t take that fucker!  Money, charas, drink, food…we’ll sort it for you…just say!  Pay us back later or don’t, makes no difference to us…we’ve seen it all man…every fucker in the world comes through Bombay…and when they do every fucker comes through Colaba…they got to…we stamp the passports nowadays Mothers Cunts!’



They all laugh like there’s an angle to the joke I’m missing.



‘There was this one white fella.  German I think.  Been robbed…took everything the bastards…didn’t have enough to eat even…I said come with me…took him Majestic…got him a thali…12 rupees back then…’Eat Thali!’ I said.  I gave him a whole tola of charas (1oz), cigarettes, papers, a few thousand rupees.  Got him a nice room too.  When that fucker’s money came in, you wouldn’t believe it…he gave me a thousand dollars sister fucker!  Thousand dollars!  Now…whenever he comes Bombay he looks us up…isn’t it Musa?’



Musa smiles and rocks his head agreeably from side to side.  They laugh.     



‘Then there was this other sister fucker…German I think…been robbed…I did the same yeah…sorted him proper…gave him a whole tola of charas, thousands of rupees…good room…looked after him…but this fucker legs it…he just did one…don’t even know where or how…never seen him again!…isn’t it Musa?’ 



Musa smiles and rocks his head agreeably from side to side.  They laugh.     



‘Makes no difference to us.  So…if you need anything, let us know yeah’


‘Thanks.  I will.  But I’ve got three, four hundred in my pocket still. I wanna make that last.  When it runs out and I need some, I’ll ask then.’


‘Yeah…Yeah…it’s important!  Look…for this day or two, eat thali’s, eat vada pau’s, instead of Marlboros for 100 rupees, buy beerees for eight.  Take buses…look…a person…a human…is that which can cope with any situation…who knows how to handle themselves with little money and also knows how to handle themselves with lots of money.  That’s a person!’



I got through to the fraud department the following afternoon and had access to my money within ten minutes of speaking to them.  Within the first half an hour of having my money back, I’d got a taxi back to Colaba, bought a glass of fresh pomegranate juice and a box of 20 Marlboro Lights.  Within half an hour I’d spent the equivalent of what I’d spent in the last two and a half days:  300 Rupees!  I sat laughing to myself, drinking juice and smoking a cigarette…Salaam Bombay, Salaam!                     


India: SALAAM BOMBAY 2 (250509)

In Uncategorized on June 20, 2009 at 1:12 pm

Salaam Bombay 2  


The cash machine in the Indian airport doesn’t want to be my friend either.  So I walk away and change my fourteen dollars into rupees.  Even the money exchanger looks disappointed at the amount I have.  Our hands cross and I’m left with just over five hundred rupees. 


I’ve been to Bombay once before: with my family in 1990.  We stayed on Mohammad Ali Rd, I remember as it’s named after my father’s favourite poet and my favourite boxer.  Okay…Mohammad Ali Rd.  With three bags and a drum I walk out of the airport towards the bus stop.  The airport is the same as any other airport.  Beautifully clean, polished and trolley-friendly flooring that provide a deceptive introduction to the city.   Beautifully moustached and dominating Armed Guards that don’t.  I make my way to the bus stop and after jumping on and then being thrown off a few buses, I finally figure out which bus I’m to get and board successfully. 



[Following in Hindhi]


Avaes:             I wanna go Mohammad Ali Rd 


Conductor:      10 rupees.


Passenger:      Give him twenty rupees day pass…you can go round all Bombay, all day with that!


Avaes:             Er..yeah…twenty rupees day pass please


Passenger:      [with a huge smile]  See…I just saved you money!



Mohammad Ali Rd is filthy but glistening.  Harsh but friendly.  Cut-throat but life affirming.  Very damn quickly I discover this is true for most of Bombay. 



[following in Hindhi]


‘Salaam.  Uhm…I’m from England!  I’ve been travelling across East Africa for a couple of months now and I arrived in Bombay this morning.  You see I have an English bank account but it’s been frozen. Now there’s no problem. I have money!  The ATM even showed my balance.  I reckon they just think it’s got stolen so all I have to do is call them.  Today’s Sunday though right, so I can’t today, but tomorrow.  Tomorrow I will and when they free my account I’ll have money again.  I can pay you then I promise.  Tomorrow or the day after.   But I can’t pay up front.  I can’t pay today.  500 rupees is all I have in my pocket and I’ll need it for food and the phonecall tomorrow.




…500 rupees. Pay up front only!


…Pay half up front!


…I’m sorry…we can’t help…No-one will.



One fella just purses his lips together, looks down as though reading an imaginary book and flicks his hand at me like he’s shooing a mosquito.  I tried all the guest houses in Mohammad Ali Rd, but Bombay demands you pay up front.  I even managed to get myself in and then out of a minor scuffle and so thought it best to leave this area full of merciless Indian Film Villains.  As I try to figure out my next move I walk past a guy with one eye sat by the side of the road who gave me directions to a guest house earlier. 



[Following in Hindi]


Did you find the guest house?


Yeah.  None of them’ll take me





I explain.



Oh.  But you have the money?


Yeah.  I do.  I reckon I’ll get it by tomorrow even but no-one here wants to know.  [Beat]  Maybe I’ll just have to stay out tonight.


Hey!…Look!!  Sleeping on Bombay streets is no easy thing.  The city’s teeming with street kids.  They’ll rob you of all your stuff and there’ll be nothing you can do about it!  Listen to me and get yourself inside somewhere!     






Where you from?




England!  You have a British Passport?


Yeah.  I was born there.


So you have a green card then?  You can work there?




Can I see?  Your passport?



He looks at me like a child wanting sweets and although I know it’s the stupidest thing to do, I still find myself taking my passport out of my pocket to present to a one-eyed stranger on the edge of a rat infested Bombay street.  He stretches his hand out.  I stretch my passport out.  Holding firmly.



I won’t run away with it.



And I choose to trust him.  Because trust is currency between strangers.  So I let my grip go and his eyes light up as he delicately caresses through the pages in my passport.  He returns it.



Look!  You need to stop carrying that around with you, d’you hear?!  Someone’ll run away with it and get 10, 000 rupees for it on the street. 



He gives me directions for Colaba, the area where most tourists stay.  Maybe the hotel owners there’ll be more understanding.



Take the 124 or the 125 from that bus stop opposite.  And if you need anything, I’m here.  My name’s Kader.  I’m here everyday, I look after this parking lot.



I arrive at Colaba and the sun has started to blare.  With all my luggage and not having eaten yet, I’m tired and desperate to find a place to put my stuff down in.  I search for a private agent I’ve been told can give me some money, provided I show him my bankcard.  Sounds dodge I know.  As I’m looking and asking for him, a hawker walks over to me. 



You okay?  Want hotel?…I’ll take!



I ask about this agent after explaining my situation.  He’s never heard of it, thinks it sounds dodge too but helps me find it nonetheless.  We don’t find it.  Luckily I think.  So he takes me to the local cheap hotels. 


This hawker:  He’s called Raju.  He’s 32, though he looks 25, married and with two kids.  The eldest is 15.  He’s skinnier than me even and lives in the slums nearby making his living as a guide for tourists.  Raju, is the informal version of the name Raja.  Raja means prince. 


Raju takes me to a hotel explaining my situation. 



[in Hindhi]  ‘He’s in trouble man…sort him out…he’ll pay you later for sure innit…do him a favour man.’



The lad at the counter says the manager’s asleep and he’s afraid to wake him in case he gets a beating.  We move on.  Raju’s helping me with my bags now.  He runs off ahead through a crowded narrow bazaar, with a bag that has my laptop, camera and documents in.  But I trust him.  As I turn around the corner he’s waiting for me, ushering me up a steep, dark stairway. 




[Following in Hindhi]


‘Help him out man.  He’s in trouble…he’ll pay you…when he gets the money he’ll pay you for sure but he has nowhere to stay for now…look he’s been running around all Bombay all morning man!…do him a favour.’


[The lad at reception stretches himself, thereby appearing as cool as possible]:

‘Go on then…what the fuck?…even if he eats a couple of thousand, what the fuck?!  I’ll pay for it out of my own pocket… the guy can stay.’



Fuck it!…Who’s seen what tomorrow looks like?…If I help you today, maybe someone’ll help me tomorrow…Life’s a bitch enough…No tension!:  This!  This is the spirit, the huge, throbbing, pulsating heart of India that I know.  That I love…Salaam Bombay!   


He shows me around a room.  It has my own bathroom, a working TV, AC and a fan. 



[Following in Hindhi]


Will it walk? 


It’ll run.



I drop my bags in and a security guard follows me.  He wants to check my bags. 



‘I’m sorry…we have to do this now.  Since you know…what happened.’



He’s talking about the 4 day siege last year in Bombay, where allegedly Pakistani terrorists had been implicated. 



Yeah course you do.  No problem man.  Look.



I help him through my stuff.






I walk back up to reception to sit with the lad at reception (also called Raju) and Raju the guide.  An Indian film is playing in a corner and traffic screams its eternal presence three floors below us.  As we’re sat, chatting, Raju the receptionist goes through my passport to record details in his book.  Suddenly, his face changes.  It’s all screwed up like a little boy just been slapped.  I hear a Duh! Duh! Duh! from somewhere: maybe the film on TV, maybe the film in my head.  He calls Raju the guide over and whispers stuff…I hear:  Take him and Pakistan



Is there a problem?


Just take him.


But what’s the problem?


I can’t do it…not now…just take him back…somewhere else…I want nothing to do with this.  Nothing!  I want fuck all to do with it.


What’s the problem man?!



Raju the receptionist takes my passport and flashes one of the visas at me…









And?  And what? 






Look its not as though I’ve been…check…there’re no entry or exit stamps…I’m gonna go to Pakistan after India!  It’s not like I’ve just come from there.


I want nothing to do with Pakistan or Pakistani’s…not after what happened.  Now it’s best if you just take your stuff and find someplace else.



I shrug my shoulders and take my passport back.  I have no desire to waste time upon bullshit prejudice.  ‘But then…where the fuck you gonna go fool?!’, a foul-mouthed voice in my head shouts out.  ‘Nobody else even wants to give you a room and that’s before they’ve seen your Pakistani Visa!’



I ain’t gonna do anything am I?…. 


Look man…he’s not even been to Pakistan…He’s British isn’ he? 


But his next trip’s Pakistan!  It’s got nothing to do with you doing anything…every night a copper comes here to check the passports and the books…if he sees anything to do with Pakistan he’ll rape my arse!  Fuck that!  It’s better you just go…I want fuck all to do with it!


Look…You’ve trusted me this far…so what’s wrong now? And what the fuck’s wrong with going to Pakistan anyway?  Indians go too.






Where do you think I can go from here anyway?






Look…The only way I can let you stay is if you get a letter of no objection from the Cops.  I don’t want my arse raped…Simple!  If you get that we can talk…But if there’s no letter, find some place else!



Raju the guide offers to walk me to the police station, so I pack my bags again and put them back on my shoulders.  As we walk to the station, only five minutes away, I recognise the streets suddenly.  I look to the left of me…I recognise that building, that red tiled dome…those small towers…that architecture…I’m in the shadow of the Taj Hotel!  That’s exactly where the gunmen were based last year, where they wreaked their bloody four day havoc from.  I walk on and that’s Leopold Café…another scene of murder and wreckage during the siege.  No wonder.  This is the centre of where it all actually happened!  Where the allegedly Pakistani gunmen were based and distributed death from.  No wonder they’re uptight. 


Raju won’t come into the station but wishes me luck.  From the films I’ve seen I walk in expecting to find torture scenes, coppers with their feet up drinking tea and power hungry mini-dictators.  But disappointingly there are no torture scenes and the copper I speak to is actually rather helpful.  Although cops sitting around drinking tea are to be expected globally I think.  I’m speaking to the big boss man…I don’t know his rank but he’s the only one with no uniform and walks like he own the place.  He was on TV during the siege too, I recognise him…he spoke no English then and he speaks no English now.  After explaining my situation and what happened at the hotel, I say the hotel staff are scared of the cops and what they might do if they let me stay.  He smiles from under a bushy moustache but says he can’t issue a letter of no objection as he knows nothing about me.  I badger him a bit more… ‘My only option might be the street for a night!’…



‘Oi!  Come here!!’



He beckons a cop away from his tea and orders him to personally escort me to the hotel and then assure the hotel staff into letting me stay.  No sooner has he given the order than he walks away abruptly, utterly confident in the power of his command. Suddenly I’ve gone from being a broke backpacking bum to having a personal Police Escort to handle mine very own affairs.  Rather!  The hotel staff make a point of saying they’re letting me stay purely on the Police’s instruction and then order tea for me and the Cop.  This, ladies and gentlemen, the tale of my first cup of sweet, sweet, Indian tea…Salaam Bombay.

Zanzibar: SKETCHES OF ZANZIBAR 2-4 (200509)

In Uncategorized on June 4, 2009 at 12:44 pm


Day 1

Papasi 1: Mambo! Mambo Raffiqui! Raffiqui!…Hey Raffiqui!!…Raffiqui!…Friend!…Hey Friend Mambo! Mambo Vipi!! How are you my friend? How are you?

Avaes: Poa.

Papasi 1: Cool…Poa! Nice!! Yeah man…that’s cool…you enjoy Zanzibar yeah? Cool…cool…hey Raffiqui, you want spice tour, stone town tour, cultural tour, island tour, prison island tour, slave tour, dolphin tour…

Avaes: Don’t want a tour.

Papasi 1: No tour? Not interested? What’s your interest Raffiqui, huh? What’s your interest?

[I shake my head slowly, avoiding eye contact as I walk.]

Papasi 1: Hash? Weed? Coke? [Beat] Heroin?

Avaes: Liquorice! Got any?

Papasi 1: … Acid?

Day 2

Papasi 2: Hey Mambo Raffiqui! Vipi man? Mambo Vipi man? Poa?

Avaes: Poa.

Papasi 2: Poa! Yeah man yeah man…listen Raffiqui…listen…I’ve got malaria friend…malaria man! Feel weak you know…see! See my hair’s falling out…can you see? Help me please brother…some help please Raffiqui…for the medicine…

Day 3

Papasi 1: Hey Raffiqui…Mambo Vipi man?

Avaes: Poa

Papasi 1: Kamaa Deezee?

Avaes: Kamaa Deezee!

Papasi 1: Cheezee!…hey Raffiqui…so what’s about today man? You wanna go spice tour, dolphin tour, prison island tour, cultural tour…

Avaes: Raffiqui…Listen! I ain’t here for none of that…I’ve had a stone town tour and that’s it for me…so look… next time you see me walking down here yeah, there’s no point asking me…I’m only sayin’ so you know right…so you don’t waste your own time or mine.

Papasi 1: Yeah…poa…[Beat]….Hakuna Matata!


Avaes: What was that?

Papasi 1: What? Hakuna matata man!

Avaes: Don’t say it to me like that… be straight… if you’ve got a problem then say it but don’t be telling me there’s no problem when there’s blatantly a problem in your voice…I’m straight with you right?…I ain’t gonna buy anything from you, I ain’t goin on no tours and I ain’t gonna give you money…you know that now…it’s just better we know, yeah?

Papasi 1: Yeah. Poa man.

Avaes: Poa!

Day 4

Papasi 1: Raffiqui!… hey,Vipi?

Avaes: Poa.

Papasi 1: Brother listen…my mother…she’s dyin’ man…she’s on her deathbed I promise…in that hospital over there…she’s on her deathbed…can you give me some help?


Stone Town, Zanzibar. A labyrinthe of Arab, Indian, Portugese and African architecture: wonderfully winding, narrow, jagged alleys, large open squares, tunnels. A pleasure to find yourself lost in, to weave through and be left with the feeling of having danced through time. A pleasure to steal glances through beautifully ornate balconies and windows, maybe to find your own Scheherzade, able to cure your ills with a thousand and one stories.

On the edge of Stone Town: The Night Market, all seafood imaginable freshly barbequed.

On the edge of the Night Market: Rocks, where my Alaskan fisherman friend Brad and I would spend most evenings together with chai.

In front of us: the night ocean. Dark, viscous and wild as it crashes like a crazed lover beneath our feet.

Above us…stars. So many stars: The North Star, The Great Bear, The Plough, The Scorpion, a whole band of stars so dense and plentiful, as though heavens’ chest has been torn open: her treasures laid bare for all to see.

[Prolonged Silence.

Brad sits up a little straighter.

I sit up a little straighter.

Prolonged Silence.

I look down.


I look up.


I look out.

Prolonged Silence.]

Avaes: This is fuckin awesome man.


Brad: It’s incredible!


[spoken through a laugh just about to erupt.]

This is fuckin incredible dude!

[Like madmen, we simultaneously break out into hysterical laughter, echoing the oceans’ own crazed tones.]


[A smart young schoolboy, no more than 10 years old, walking back to school after lunch in a well pressed, clean uniform. He charms me.]

Avaes: Jambo!

Schoolboy: Jambo!

[The boy fixes both his smile and his gaze in my direction]

Give me money!

Avaes: What?!

Schoolboy: Give me money!


Avaes: No!

[He follows me down the footpath. I walk off the footpath and onto the grass. He still follows.]

Avaes: Oi…kid! What d’you think yer doin’?

Schoolboy: Give me money!

Avaes: No. I’m not going to give you money. Now go to school!

[He walks away.]

Kenya: NAIROBI TO MOMBASA 2 (300409)

In Uncategorized on May 6, 2009 at 4:07 pm



I’m on this journey for the second time. It’s still as beautiful and wondrous as the first, except this time my head is full already with what it is I leave behind me. My second time in Nairobi I arrived with fever, said goodbye to my mother as she flew back to the UK, was nursed to health by practical strangers, put myself into a hostel, met local artists and cultural activists and spent at least some time everyday with a wonderful new friend, Nivi.

As I leave currently, I’m surprised at what’s occupying my thoughts. During my time at the backpackers hostel I met many new people. People who worked there that I developed new friendships with and also fellow travellers. Every evening ended with tables overburdened with empty beer bottles, songs and jokes around the fire and stories. Stories of our adventures across Africa shared with each other as though they were our war wounds; badges testifying to our presence here like lovers names carved into trees. My badges are relatively babyish. I can’t equal being chased by Lions, running over the head of a hippo only to run out of petrol 20 yards ahead of it, catching malaria, having insects laying eggs between my toes (inside!) or being invited to a wedding in Ethiopia to witness demons being exorcised from the bride. These evenings however, the people I met, the time and stories shared; with these I’ll begin my badge collection.

It’s strange, meeting travellers in hostels. There’s camaraderie from the onset. People who collectively relate to the same fears and hopes. People who share almost childish western frustrations, like ‘why do we have to bribe police officers and border officials?’ and people who can relate to hating Celine Dion but loving the new Kings of Leon album. More than this though, these strange encounters allow for something unexpectedly beautiful. Mainly because we’ll probably never see each other again, there’s amazing care and respect in these encounters. Sometimes love. As well as sharing badges, sometimes, we share far more personal tales. Sometimes, shockingly, we trust each other with intimate truths about ourselves. I’ve heard people say it’s easier to confide in strangers. I don’t think that’s the entire truth of this matter. As the early hours approach, as flames on the fire pacify themselves, and as riotous intoxications loosen their grip around some of us, it becomes startlingly clear that despite the various nationalities, accents and stereotypes sat around the fire together, we’re all surprisingly similar. We’ve all walked out to discover. At some point we’ve all stopped and thought…’Hmm. Life is short. And precious. I need to live it a bit more. The world is beautiful and giving. I need to see it, take a bit more. Soon I’ll be dead.’ In whichever way, we’ve all sought to be masters of our own destinies. Unshaven, undernourished, tired renegades sharing the same fears and hopes. But one more thing that becomes clear around the fire is that despite the adventures, the free-spirited travelling and the non-conformity, perhaps we’re all also running. The aid workers, the environmental scientists, the travellers, the entrepreneurs, the writers. Maybe we’re all just running from something. An unsaid truth sparkles like a silver, shimmering thread between us, like a fear. Running away might be becoming the habit of a lifetime. Maybe.

It’s safe to say whatever we want. To confide whatever we like. We won’t see each other again. We hug and wish each other well for the rest of our adventures. And I hope that sometime in the future I will meet South African Bob again, maybe by a South American roadside, or meet American Eddie in a Hungarian Hostel or Italian Valentina in an Indian Chai-wallas, so we can share new badges with each other. For now, I miss them.




she came onto me!

she came onto me!

I love travelling. I’ve been pretty much addicted to it for years now. Sometimes I feel like I’m cursed to a life on the road forever. Other times I wonder whether it is a curse. But of all the different means and methods by which I’ve travelled, my most favourite means and method is discovering a new city through the eyes and in the company of a new friend. Through this means, it becomes possible to see the character of a city, it becomes possible to smell, to talk to, to laugh with a city. To see the subtleties of that city’s character personified into one of it’s own. The humour, the cheek, the walk of a city lays herself open to you. Streetlight reflects in her jewellery and the city breeze gives chorus in her hair as she laughs open-heartedly in the same key as city traffic below. Seeing a city through one of its sons or daughters is a blessing and I was blessed in Nairobi with the encounter and friendship of Nivi. With instant laughter between us, we sought to spend time with each other practically everyday for almost a week. Nivi’s an immensely proud Nairobiite. She loves Nairobi as much as I love Manchester. More actually. She showed me around the haunts of Nairobi and together we visited Giraffe park where I snogged a Giraffe (she came onto me!). One evening she took me to sample crocodile meat. I heavily disapprove! I’d forsaken my golden rule of never eating anything that can eat me on this evening, only to become a stauncher advocate of it. I felt that one morsel’s every meandering move while it passed down my gullet. Only with great difficulty did that wrongness manage to stay down. I feel I’ve made an enemy somewhere on a riverbank in Kenya. Like the deceased crocodile’s Kung-Fu brother is venturing on a journey of vengeance as I write this. Never again will I eat anything that can eat me!

This evening too, like many evenings between Nivi and I concluded in childlike laughter and carefree song as we drove down Nairobi highways backlit by passing cars. Unavoidably, Nivi and Nairobi remain inseparable from one another in my memory and I leave Nairobi with images of mischevious, twinkling streetlight, screeching laughter and proud beauty.

One of my favourite things about travelling has to be meeting inspiring new people. Coupled to this though, is always a goodbye.

Nivi doing the Uhuru Park pose

Nivi doing the Uhuru Park pose


In Uncategorized on May 6, 2009 at 4:04 pm



The fire from last night is dead. Charred logs that’ll be lit again tonight. In the bar of my Nairobi hostel, Kenyan radio provides the background music as I write. It’s normally really good. Today however, a Kenyan Celine Dion pierces my peace.

On the evening of 23rd April I finally felt better enough to leave my ‘aunts’…well…my mum’s cousin’s. I’m really grateful that I was able to stay with them for as long as it took for…

…a mesmerising bird just landed on the baby palm tree in front of me.Not much bigger than a sparrow, but with a long, copper red tail and lower body and dark indigo blue everything else….

Okay…yeah I left my mum’s cousins home. I was there till I got better from the fever I had. And that was great. Ultimately though people, no matter how much ‘family love’ family members you haven’t met before show you, sometimes…it’s best taken with a pinch of sweet salt. The intention should always be enjoyed I reckon. And I do. The declarations of unbridled care and love just shouldn’t always be totally expected. And I don’t. I waited till the early evening on the 23rd before I left. I just wanted to wait for Suhayl, their 16 year old son to come back from school so I could say goodbye to him. A die-hard Manchester United fan (like everyone here), he was my guide and companion for the past two weeks and I’ve become really fond of him. He arrived and I picked up my bags. Suhayl walked me to the taxi, ensuring I got in okay and that the taxi driver miss-called him to let him know I arrived at the hostel. I want to get him a Manchester United shirt when I return to England but hate United…oh what to do, what to do!!

Suhayl on the look out for marauding Arabs at Fort Jesus, Mombasa.

Suhayl on the look out for marauding Arabs at Fort Jesus, Mombasa.


Hostel Afternoon

Hostel Afternoon

The hostel’s perfect. I have my own room… a wooden shack/hut thing with a double bed, mosquito net and a lamp. The showers and general facilities are all communal. A great outdoor restaurant/bar area where we party away the evenings with music, singing, jokes and hardy, possibly tall tales of crossing treacherous roads into Ethiopia, being chased by Lions in Mozambique, Aid projects that never see the money and travellers bribing their way through the continent. All evenings are like a United Nations youth convention. There are American travellers, A Canadian Aid worker, A Norwegian backpacker, An Afrikaans businessman who’s really just a drunk…a very pleasant drunk, A Peruvian Conflict Resolution worker, a stunningly beautiful Danish Environmental Scientist and Me. An Englishman. Maybe one day I’ll be able to say/write that without pausing. Maybe not. English, from around Manchester…Can’t stand United…Can’t stand English football full stop, thank you very much mate. And I’m here discovering my cultural heritage. I’m a writer. It’s quite the sexy persona I have. Nearly everyone I’ve met is a closet writer, dancer or musician and the fact I got this gig is giving me loads of Kudos…I may need a bigger backpack to carry it all in.

Anyway…now that I’ve developed this reputation it means I actually gotta write. Coz that’s what writers do apparently. And I’m behind…so before I go on about the time I’m having in Nairobi, I wanna go back a couple of weeks and talk about Mombasa.

I was there between the 8th and 15th of April. Seems a bit distant now but I wanna get it down before it’s gone. I travelled there on the bus with my mum in the seat in front of me and Suhayl right at the front of the bus. As we drove in I was enjoying watching the focused, sombre expressions on my Mum’s face. This evening was the first time she was entering the city again since leaving it 37 years ago when she was around 20 years old. It was only a few days ago in Nairobi that she disclosed the reason for her prolonged absence. In those 37 years countless family members and friends had revisited Mombasa from England, all coming back with stories of how the city had changed. The stories scared her. She remembers an idyllic Mombasa, laced with nostalgia and the type of magical charm which legends like Arabian Nights are made of. She remembers a warm, friendly, sophisticated people. She remembers being able to play by the sea. She remembers doors being left open. She remembers a love between people that race and religion always remained second to. She remembers handsome, well groomed, elderly gentlemen making their way elegantly to and from the mosques. Stopping to share stories over Kahawa (local coffee). I think most of all however, she remembers her father. Where he worked. Where his friends lived. Where he hung out. Where he stopped to share stories over Kahawa. Each of these memories, each of these streets are precious to her and she’d just rather not visit a Mombasa that to her, betrayed itself.

‘Where is this? Excuse me…where are we? Which area is this? Excuse me…’

Mombasa had grown while she’d been away. The suburbs that used to be a collection of shacks are now like small towns. She actually looks worried. Then we cross a bridge, go through a roundabout with a Shell petrol pump by it and she sits more comfortably. Glued to the window.

‘Is this Mombasa then Mum?’

‘Haa. We’re here’

‘Has it changed?’

‘No. No it hasn’t.’

She’s surprised at all the cars, but points out Gulshan Restaurant that stands where it always did. Still there. She points out the mosques. The shops. The cinemas. Still there. People dress the same way, mostly. Walk the same way. The streets are still clean. It’s all still there. The bus pulls into the stop. ‘This is the same bus stop we left Mombasa from in 1972’. Life’s poetic. It just is.

I get off the bus to get our luggage. After I finish battling with a crowd of hyper-keen taxi drivers and manage to pick up our bags, I turn around to see Mum walking towards a tuk-tuk (auto-rickshaw) behind a small framed elderly fella, dressed quite dapper for his age in a polo shirt and trousers and a well maintained full head of hair. That must be him. I’ve heard stories about him. His miserly reputation is famed all the way in England. Husseini Mama. My mothers uncle. My late Grandmothers’ baby brother. The closest member of my mother’s family still in Mombasa.

I climb into the tuk-tuk after his skinny arms rip my back-pack from me and load it onto the vehicle. We haven’t even said hello yet. In my family, the tradition is for me to kiss the hand of elders. But the moment seems gone now. So I sit uncomfortably with my rudeness.

‘This is Old Town’

We enter a latticed network of twisted alleys, with peering balconies and old tall buildings so close on either side that they almost kiss each other. The architecture could be Portugese, could be Arab, could be Indian. We stop outside a kiosk where an old man is sat watching the night. Husseini argues with the tuk-tuk driver about payment and we take our bags. He runs after us down the dark alley as Suhayl and I carry the bags. The old fella takes my Mum’s 20 tonne suitcase from me and starts carrying it up the two flights of stairs. After the first his tiredness outweighs his sense of duty and I take the bag.

‘Mum I’m gonna go for a walk with Suhayl. Just to chill for a bit’

‘I’m coming’

She’d just seen a rat in the flat and was on edge.

My quiet walk turns into no fewer than a party of ten out on an evening stroll. It’s like my mum hasn’t been away. She just strides into it. It’s all exactly where it all was. We walk past Island Dishes, up the hill and left towards Fort Jesus, built by the Portugese to guard their Mombasa from aspirations the Arabs had for it. The ocean is just the other side of the Fort. We’re about to walk down an alley but Mum won’t let us. Her Mother had an encounter down that same alley once. With a spirit that consequently never left her. For me it’s like history unfolding inside a picture. The stories I’ve heard growing up were being reuttered in their original locations. We take another route and walk under ornate balconies and beautifully detailed wooden Arab doors. Old Town is gorgeous.

In Old Town

In Old Town

The next few days in Mombasa are riotous. Non-stop full adrenaline! Walking the streets. Seeing towns outside Mombasa. Going to restaurants. Visting family members. Visting my grandfathers friends. Visting my grandfathers friends children. Visiting strangers. Visting towns outside Mombasa. Visiting the ocean. The beaches. The Sea air. Of all the visting, two trips stick in mind. Makinapir and one of My Mum’s old houses:

Makinapir. An hour back up the Nairobi-Mombasa highway. A Sufi shrine with a railway track running alongside the mausoleum. Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and local Africans of the various tribes attend this shrine. The mausoleum is built in typical South Asian style. It houses the body of a Sufi Saint who arrived in Kenya in the early twentieth century to build railways, alongside my ancestors on my Maternal Grandmothers side. The same railways that serve Kenya today. None of my family here have ever been on a train. Maybe they consider it sacrilege? The story of the saint at Makinapir, as narrated to me by the caretaker of the mausoleum is this…….. The British had all these Indians building railways in East Africa. This dude was one of them. He’d arrived from a part of India that today is in Pakistan. The guy was quite old. His job was carrying some stuff, rocks or something, in a basket on his head to the line. One hot afternoon, he was tired. So he sat. The British officer fella didn’t like this. ‘Get to work old man!’, he said. And so Old Man got to work. But as he walked, the basket hovered above his head. Almost like out of pity for him. Coz he was such a nice dude and so in touch with God and Creation and all that, that he developed a special relationship with everything around him. And the basket itself is like, ‘Dude! You’re tired man! I’ll lift myself thank you very much!’. The fellow workers saw this and having heard stories of holy types all their lives understood that Old Man was also a Holy Type. ‘Holy Type Dude!’ , they said. We’ll carry your rocks from now on. ‘Nah fellow dudes’. He said. ‘We’ll all do our own share’. And so they did. But the secret was out. He was special. So everyone started going to Old Man with their problems. The greatest of which was Lions. Some railway builders were being eaten by them. So one evening Old Man walks over to an approaching Lion and, well, talks to it. Face to face. Man to Lion. ‘Please stop eating us Lion dude!’. Or something like that. And it worked. The Lions stopped attacking the railway builders in that area. Before Old Man died, he asked to be buried wherever he died. A railway track sits directly alongside the mausoleum. I’m guessing he died working. His colleagues did bury him according to his request but also built him a mausoleum as is the custom for Holy Types. They say that after it was built and before there was an official caretaker, Lion footprints would be found around the mausoleum some mornings. Apparently, they’d come in the night and sweep up the place with their tails, you know, tidy the place up a bit. Then get off. They were fond of Holy Type Dude too you see.

I loved spending the afternoon at Makinapir. I loved this story. I loved how recent it was. I loved seeing the people who came to offer prayers and just take in the atmosphere. Literally people of all colours (even white) and all religions. I thought it was cute that a hot young woman arrived in her little hot pants and quickly whipped round a sarong before stepping inside the mausoleum. Few places in the world are as inclusive unfortunately. Thursday evenings they have prayers that are offered in song with drumming accompaniment. I’m really disappointed I never got to go on a Thursday evening. But it’s a special place and I hope to be back. Hopefully one Thursday evening.

Mum’s Old House.

Me Ma's Old 'ouse

Me Ma's Old 'ouse

One morning my mother’s uncle Husseini, his lovely wife Sakina, Suhayl, my Mother and I, walk through Old Town to visit the houses Mum used to live in. We walk through the alleys with people shouting as they sell fruit, coconuts, bhajiyas and spiced coffee (Kahawa). I filmed this morning. Like a proper tourist. Hair tied back, donning Ray Bans, and walking behind my mum with a camcorder as she paused. ‘The Halwa-wallah’s still here… Your aunt Baby (that’s what we call her) was born here…Your grandfather prayed in this mosque…We’d get sweets for free from here. My grandfather had told the owner to give us whatever we wanted whenever we liked.’

We walk past Yusra Clothes Shop on the right and I think of a friend in England.

‘See where that old man is sat. We used to live there.’

We walk in. It’s also a clothes shop now. My mother explains to the attendent that she used to live here about 40ish years ago.

Mum's old front room

Mum's old front room

‘Yes? So this is history!’

She cries. The shop was their front-room come bedroom. Twelve of them. Its not a big shop.

‘There used to be a small kitchen and bathroom at the back?’

‘Yes Yes! Still is, Still is’

Like a secret vault, he pulls at a panel that’s actually a door at the back of the shop. We walk through and she cries a bit more at seeing the small rooms that were her small kitchen and bathroom. She walks out. I’m still filming.

‘We were happy here.’

The Album Shot (outside another of my mum's old homes)

The Album Shot (outside another of me ma's old homes)




Before I leave this Mombasa section I’ve got to talk about my mothers uncle Husseini. I really like him. He’s such a contacurous old git. Just the same as that old git from The Royle Family. I like his contacurousness because it reminds me of my Nan. His sister. He thinks everyone in his family is against him, that no-one respects him and more importantly, he’s adamant in his belief that he knows best. His wife is blatantly the boss. He knows it and this really irks at him. He still works as an electrician. One evening we were all going for dinner and he refused to join. He said his wife didn’t want him to come.

Mum [to her aunt]: Are you coming for dinner?

Aunt: Yes. [to her husband] Are you coming?

Husseini: No.

Mum: Why?

Husseini: Because my wife doesn’t want me to come. Didn’t you just hear her? I’ll just have to eat here tonight I suppose. I’ll just eat what my wife has cooked.

Ridiculous. But funny. One evening we’re at another Uncles. Husseini doesn’t shut up. He can’t. He talks incessantly. Fortunately he’s good humoured enough to be confronted about it.

Sakina (wife): [in Kutchi] You talk too much

Husseini (husdband): [in Kutchi] No I don’t. [in English] I am know everything. I am know more than you!

It’s strange that I love his weird ways. These were the same weird ways I disliked in my Nan towards the end of her life and avoided her a little on account of them. And now that she’s dead, I’ve travelled to Mombasa to sit in the company of her brother just to be reminded of those very same weird ways.

The evening when Husseini doesn’t come for dinner, we discuss these ways. The conversation going round is that old men who feel they need to be in control can only be bitter. They’re old and can’t be in control anymore. They should accept that. Women control the home better. Men that fight this can only lose and so have no option but to become bitter. I agree and hope I remember this when I’m old.