Africa, Culture

Sometimes We Don’t Take Pictures: Camping on the Beach and Other Undocumented Adventures

Greetings from Tanzania!

In the week since I returned from the U.S., I have not taken a single photograph.
In that time, we have spent five days camping on the deserted Tiwi Beach south of Mombasa, two days exploring Mombasa—one of them very soggy–and one day on a very long bus ride to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.
At low tide in Tiwi, a treacherous trail through sea urchin mines and slippery pathways of rock led to two wide, deep tidal pools, called Africa Pool and Australia Pool respectively. Africa Pool had a shape remarkably reminiscent of the African continent… Australia Pool less so.
The pools receded into the overhanging cliffs, and in these dimly lit recesses I could float on my back staring up at a small patch of blue sky revealed by a hole in the stone ceiling. Roots and vines and glimpses of the greenery overhead trailed from the opening, and bright sun, too, at the right time of day.
One of these caves echoed with the calls of kingfishers and the steady sound of water dripping from pockets collected at high tide. Magic. With goggles, I could explore the meter-high seaweed at the edges of the pools and try to follow the paths of schools of fish—yellow and black striped, iridescent gray with a black line along the top—and observe the forbidding stillness of sea urchins.
The journey, though only 10 or 15 minutes from camp, felt like an enormous expedition due to the various perils along the way. The sandy beach by our tents (we had joined two friends already there) felt like home when I returned.
As I floated in the tidal pools watching the clouds pass and the water ripple, I couldn’t help but wish I had brought my camera with me—though how I would have managed it in the pools (water well above my head in places) is beyond me. What lovely pictures I could have taken and shared with all of you.
Mombasa, gray and narrow upon our rain-soaked arrival, looked far more appealing the following day in the sun. Old Town proffered windows into other eras: curio shops, mosques, cafes and old architecture nestled into every alleyway, a sea view always just minutes away by foot.
Again, I left my camera at the guest house—and perhaps even had I brought it could not have taken pictures for fear of theft or unwanted attention—and found myself observing picturesque doors and street-fronts longingly. If only I could capture this fascinating swirl of urban culture and take it home with me.
Finally, the 12-hour bus ride to Tanzania… I was probably awake for half of it. I alternately dozed and gazed out the window, watching the landscape change. As I daydreamt, the earth grew redder; the trees thicker, and the sea more distant and, finally, out of sight altogether. The women I watched on the side of the road when we stopped wore different styles of clothing—some shoulders bare, more and brighter colored fabrics, and somehow more “African” to my eyes.
Snacks available at rest stops—offered in baskets held up to the high bus windows—shifted too. Plantain chips appeared, mishkaki (skewers of barbecued meat) became more seasoned, and exchange rates grew by a factor of 20.
As we rocked and bounced and sped along the road to Dar Es Salaam, I felt the old, familiar feeling of excitement return to my gut. 
New country. New city. New adventure.
I would have loved to document this leg of our journey. The doorway to a new chapter. The doorway to Dar Es Salaam, House of Peace.
I did not, however, photograph any of it.
Typically, I take pictures on designated days during a long trip, opting to leave my camera at home the rest of the time. This choice results in some odd collections of photos—a hundred pictures of Angkor Wat, and none of Phnom Penh; fifty photos of Kilifi Beach, and none of Tiwi—but I prefer it to constantly watching the world through a viewfinder, which I find hugely alters my experience.
Sometimes, I don’t take pictures. 
Sometimes, I just travel. For a travel writer, that’s a hard choice to make. It limits how I can record and share my experiences with others. It limits how I can record my travels for myself, restricting me to journal writing, or worse, the incomplete caprice of memory.
Still, I think most who travel reach a certain point—once or twice, or on a regular basis—where a camera becomes an unwelcome companion.
We then can choose to bring it along anyways and bear the burden, or we can leave it behind for a day, a week or a month. We might regret the choice later on, when left with no means for capturing the most amazing view, most engaging face, most extraordinary sunset, or we might thank ourselves for creating this space to simply enjoy, imbibe, and, quite possibly, forget.
Sometimes we don’t take pictures, and we have “nothing” to show for our journey. No evidence. No documentation. No justification.
And you know what? It’s okay.
It’s okay if we forget the view from an epic bus ride, the sunset on a remote island, or the face of the old woman we bought vegetables from every day for a week. It’s okay, and it’s even natural, I’d argue. We don’t have to remember every detail, carefully wrapped and preserved in slideshow form.
I think experiences are most valuable not for the memories they bestow us, but for the subtle changes they initiate within our minds. These we cannot photograph, anyways.
And so sometimes I don’t take pictures, and all I have to offer are these words.
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The Paradise Mask

Diani Beach, South Coast, Kenya, 4.3222° S

“Everybody—everybody who is escaping from something ends up in Diani. Shady people, criminals, expats… everybody.”

Such was the prognosis of a Diani resident and regular at the South Coast Backpackers bar (where I have been working for the last three weeks), and I am inclined to believe he is right.
Though it doesn’t seem it outright—packed with tourist shopping centers and hotels as it is—Diani Beach is kind of a final frontier. A “la-la land” for expats and Kenyans alike escaping from their pasts—or simply fleeing the big cities (“Nairobbery,” I have learned, is actually a common nickname for Nairobi). A no-man’s land where many normal social conceits do not seem to reach.
What does that mean? Allow me to illustrate:
Here in Diani Beach you have the “beach boys,” the name by which everyone—and I mean everyone—calls the men who pass their time at the beach, either trying to sell something—coconuts, jewelry, boat trips, sunglasses, aloe leaves, safaris and anything else you can or can’t think of—or just loitering… or betting on a Roulette of foreign women. They almost always lose that bet… after all, only so many women will respond kindly to verbal assault: Hey! Beautiful-lady-how-are-you-Where-are-you-going? Why-you-don’t-want-to-talk-you-are-very-beautiful.
Local bars, however, are brimming with those who have won. Young Kenyan men and women share cocktails and seductive glances with much, much older foreign women and men. The Kenyan men wear their good fortune with a touch of arrogance, while the women adjust their skin-tight dresses and scan the room for something better.
Residents and long-term visitors prove a bottomless repository of stories—bar brawls, unsavory characters, intrigue—leading a new arrival to wonder how Diani manages to appear so… idyllic. The ever-swaying palm trees, smoldering white sand, jewel-toned water and algae, beachfront thatch-roofed restaurants and resorts, technicolor kites speckling the sky, two resident Diani Beach camels—it all belies a much less serene, much duskier palette of hidden shadows and secrets… Or so it would seem.
She who ventures out at night must not walk along the road for pickpockets; must be wary of piki pikis and taxis for drunk drivers; must avoid matatus for questionable passengers.
A guest in a five-star, gated compound on Diani Beach might easily—very easily; too easily—forget that Kenyan law allows for detention in jail up to one year on suspicion of terrorism; might refuse to acknowledge that police checkpoints on roads are no more than systematized bribery collection centers; might overlook the streets lined with garbage and the fact that most of the young local women at the bars are probably prostitutes.
Here is a carefully imagined idea of a paradisiac tropical hideaway spread like a semi-translucent shroud atop the reality of Kenya: corruption and a starving tourism industry. At times (most of the time, even), I have certainly overlooked it all, lulled into la-la land by the breeze and the sun and the sand and the coconuts.

But then again, Diani Beach is hardly unique in these regards. What earth-bound paradise is truly what it pretends to be?

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Africa, Poetry & Fiction

That Sand in your Toes Feeling

Today was a gorgeous day at Diani Beach. For the first time in a long time, I felt poetry pushing at my fingertips. I hope it will transport you to where I am, if just for a moment…


You know that feeling
of sand slipping between
your toes
like silk ribbons,
so soft and yielding
you could almost
sink your heels to the center
of the earth?
Take my hand,
and follow me there.
Kick off your shoes here—
Yes, here at the edge—
you won’t need them.
Squint a little
against the glare—
white white sand too bright
to look at.
Where the sand forms
miniature dunes
in the shifting wind.
Before the damp, packed
floor of high tide.
Just there—
Try on a pair of sand slippers
for size.
Material so fine
it will hug every millimeter
of your toenails
and soothe your soles
like nothing before.
Dig deeper,
and feel the cool gasp
of another layer,
untouched by the sun.
Drink the salt breeze
in your hair.
Stay as long as you like.
Watch the waves carry
blown glass jellyfish
and green sea tangle
In and away.
When you’re ready,
brush off your feet with
sandpaper fingers,
and put your shoes back on.
Shade your eyes
for one last look
at that sand between your toes feeling.
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Paradise in Pictures

A typical day on Koh Rong:

Wake up to this.
Run through the jungle…
To this, the “other side” of the island, also known as Long Beach.
Run back to this and paint these:


Spend the night bar-tending or enjoying an open no-mic night.

And a few shots from Angkor Wat…

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December 20, 2017

Escape to Paradise

The universe provides. Yes, she really does, and I will explain the recent series of events that have bolstered my belief in that statement.  Three days ago I woke up at the Golden Fisth Guesthouse in Siem Reap, the developing Cambodian town twelve kilometers from Angkor Wat.  The temple ruins were as spectacular as I had hoped, with the murmurs of history humming beneath every stone, and I had spent two days biking back and forth to visit them.  I had also spent an enjoyable couple of evenings at the Angkor What? Bar with some new friends. In short, now I was ready to leave.
I packed my bag (a process that has shortened from thirty minutes to ten), checked out, and spent a while deciding where I wanted to go next.  The boat to Battambang, a pretty colonial town a few hours downriver and one of my potential stops, had already left. Not wanting to waste a day, I bought a ticket to Sihanoukville instead and spent a decently comfortable night’s sleep on the ten hour bus to the coast.  In the interim, I began to hear rumors that Sihanoukville—praised for its pristine beaches and calm atmosphere—had been ruined by an excess of parties, neon paint, construction, loud music and loud tourists… exactly what I was not looking for.
I arrived at 7am and set out on foot for town, as per usual, stubbornly ignoring the tuk tuk drivers’ warnings that it was eight kilometers away. Eight means four, generally, which is manageable.  I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way, because after well over an hour I arrived not at the beach, but at the port.  It is a large, dirty collection of warehouses, smog, street food I don’t want any part in, construction, and minimal signage.  Frustrated and unwilling to retrace my steps, I formed a plan B.  Maybe I shouldn’t be stopping in Sihanoukville at all, I thought.  Maybe this means I should be continuing straight to the islands, said to be some of Southeast Asia’s finest.
I found my way to the passenger ferry area where a few tourists from the Czech Republic were waiting.
            “Where are you guys going?” I asked.
            “Koh Rong.”
            “Is it a nice place?
            “We hope so!” They laughed.
            “Alright, works for me!”  Tickets were twenty dollars and the boat left four hours later.  I bought my ticket, found breakfast (hunted down breakfast, really), and played cards and chatted until 2pm—departure time.  In the interim, I flipped through my friends’ Lonely Planet and realized the island was a bit beyond my budget.  Oops! Perfect timing for Dave to step on the scene. The dreadlocked Aussie appeared around 1pm wearing angry birds shorts and carrying bags of supplies to the docks.  I guessed that he must work on the island.  He owns two guesthouses, in fact, one about to open, and that is how by the end of the two hour boat ride I had work decorating the soon-to-be Vagabonds Bar in exchange for room and board.  And that is how, less than twenty-four hours after leaving Siem Reap I found myself behind the bar of Island Boys Guesthouse mixing drinks and drinking in my fully affordable  new island life.
So if you don’t hear from me over the next week, it is because I am temporarily lost in paradise with a lot to get done.  You can call it luck, fate or providence, but I am exactly where I was meant to end up, and I credit the universe.
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