Day 222: Die clings to paradise in wake of sunk deal
A giant hand was built on the beach near Distant Relatives as part of the New Year Eve's party preparation. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
WITH the 125cc Houndi between my legs and the Kenyan landscape singing by, for a brief moment I am just riding. The anxiety about my quickly evaporating coffers; the ever-growing crack on my laptop; my compulsive flirting; my sudden addiction to Tinder; the weighing up of how serious I am about trying to find my ex-girlfriend Julia when I finish this project – I know how I feel, but I also know that I'm chasing adoration anywhere I can find it and am particularly prone to infatuation – and even thoughts about the promising meeting with Kibo have all disappeared.
At least for a moment.
I group of kids standing in the shade of a tree wave to me.
“Jumbo!” they call out.
In Ghana, they would have yelled “Obruni”, which means white person. Here, they are simply saying hello.
This feels good, this is what I want from the Africa leg of the Dice Travels trip. I don't want to remain in these lovely, yet bizarre sanctuaries built for expats and tourists inside, yet apart, from the country. I want to be in the country. And if that means nothing particularly interesting happens, so be it.
My rental motorcycle, one of the millions of cheap Chinese-made bikes flooding the market here, and I are headed up to Arabuko National Park. The forest is the last remaining coastal forest of its type in East Africa.
I rented a motorbike for a few dasy while I wait to hear back from Kibo about the sponsorship. Photo: Isaac Stone SImonelli
The Die was given a number of options: 1-2 explore Kilifi area by motorbike, 3-4 go to Boda Beach, 5 head up to the forest and 6 join Alix, a friend of a friend, and her family for lunch somewhere 40 minutes away. Though Alix's been wonderful in pointing me the right direction in Nairobi and even suggesting I come to Kilifi, I feel as if I'm getting added to plans at the last minute, which is fine. However, while living in Phuket, developed issues with such situations; I constantly felt as if I was imposing, even when I wasn't.
The Die sends us up to the forest.
Ian, a white Kenyan who is doing some work at Distant Relatives in preparation for the New Year's Eve party, told me he had a hook up for a motorbike rental for 500 Bob. He'd called the man, leaving me a name and phone number.
The Houndi is wrapped up in this awful-looking red and blue pleather to protect the machine's re-sell value. Joma, they guy renting me the bike, says he'll give it a quick tune-up and then have it ready for me by 10am.
“So the cost is 1,500,” he says.
We bargain for a bit, me leaning on the fact that Ian had already said it was 500 Bob.
“Okay, I'll talk to Ian,” he says.
It turns out that it's actually Ian's bike. He explains the cost breakdown to me, saying that 700 Shilling is a fair price, but if word gets out about it, Joma could get in trouble with the other motorcycle guys, as they are supposed to be set prices between 1,000 and 1,500 Shilling.
It's 300 Bob for Joma's employer, which might actually be Ian, 100 Bob for wear and tear on the bike and then 300 Bob for Joma, which all seems fair to me.
I've got the bike by 11am.
It's got low, cruiser-style handle bars and a fat seat, completely the opposite of the Kibo.
I can't start the bike.
Apparently part of the tuning-up process was draining the bike of nearly all of its gas. Joma's gone, but a local guy standing next to me as I attempt to start the bike helps me fiddle with the choke and the reserve tank, even laying the bike down on its side in an attempt to get gas to the engine.
Joma returns on his bicycle and is somehow able to get the bike running.
“Go,” he says.
The bike and I make it over the three hills on the wide dirt road between Distant Relatives and the main road before it dies again. A tuk-tuk driver with dreads stops to help me get the bike going again.
Ian, on his way back to the hostel, also stops.
“He leave you with no gas?” he asks.
With the lever for the reserve tank flipped up, we're able to get the bike going again and I make it to a nearby gas station, where I put 500 Bob into the tank, then flip the switch so I'm no longer burning fuel in the reserve tank.
Baobob trees, also known as Monkey Pod trees, dot the landscape as we gallop down the two lane highway, passing through mud hut villages.
It's in this moment wearing only flip-flops and a brain scooper helmet clipped to my bag that everything I'm carrying within me disappears. But like a moment of meditation, an awareness of it, brings reality crushing back down around me.
A broad-shouldered man in a blue uniform waves me to the side of the road with his baton.
“Where's your helmet?” he asks.
My left foot is clicking back and forth on the shifter like an autistic kid tapping his fingers; I can't find neutral. I should be looking up at this police officer and answering him, but I can't find neutral.
“Helmet? Where's your helmet?” the officer says, getting more agitated as I keep messing with the shifter.
I turn the bike off.
“It's here,” I show him the helmet strapped to my bag.
“Why aren't you wearing it?” He asks.
Before I have a chance to explain that it keeps blowing off in the wind, he jumps in with another question.
“Do you have a driver's license?”
“Yes,” I reach for my wallet.
“It's okay. Just go.”
The Die only said I had to head toward the forest, which was worded by design to let me skip entering it today if I so choose, as it's late and the 16 dollar entrance fee seems a bit steep for a couple hours of poking around a forest.
At Gedi Town, a few minutes up the road from the forest the die seats me in Uprising Cafe. The so-called cafe is a mud hut with off-white plaster smeared across the walls. Inside, rugged wooden tables and benches stand on a a dirt floor.
For 50 Bob, the server puts down a plate of beans and two chapati. They were the only things he listed that I was able to indicate wanting. Across the street, I buy a bottle of water instead of drinking what they have in a pitcher on the table.
Farther down the road, before I had looped back for Uprising, there was a sign for Gede National Monument and Snake Farm.
After lunch, I explore; down the undeveloped road, we end up at the Gedi Ruins.
A tour guide in light blue thawb that pulls up shy of sweeping the ground by his feet greets me. Politely introducing himself, shaking my hand, he suggests that I let him guide me through the ruins and then the museum. If I want to wander around alone afterward, I can.
Unprepared and unsure what the site is like and how developed it is, I explain that I'd prefer to do it the opposite way. I check with the Die. All it has to say is I can't go to the museum.
Before the entrance – a small dusty building with an empty wooden chair for the person who is supposed be collecting tickets – an enormous Tamarind tree holds up a single wall of the Great Mosque. It's corded trunk splits the wall, creating a wooden archway, as if welcoming you into a magical wonderland. At it's base is French Archaeologist Stephan Pardine's excavation site.
The Gede ruins were strewn among the forest. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Of the mosque, situated beyond the outside wall of the medieval Swahili-Arab coastal town, only the one wall stands high, the rest of the ruins comprise knee-high coral rubble walls dating back to the 14th century. Beneath these ruins Pardine found two more mosques – a sacred place does not stop being sacred because the walls marking it have crumbled to the ground. The oldest of the two, dates back to the 12th century, a major discovery because it pushed back the date of the Islamisation of this part of the coast.
Leaving the tangled web of branches stretching high into the sky, far above the wall, I work my way into the site: a sprawling remains of a city where everything was built from coral rag, rubly limestone composed of ancient coral reef.
The site is dominated by forest. The tiny leaflets from the double-compounded leafs of tamarind trees paint the sandy soil a light brown. Under brush and small trees have been cleared from many parts of the 45 acre site, while bare-branched Boabobs dominate the sky.
A large, rounded tombstone is crumbling at one corner. Though it looks like nothing special to the untrained eye, archaeologists were able to discover part of an epitaph cut into the plaster. Much of what was written is lost. However, a section is legible enough for them to date the site to AH802 – setting a fixed date around which the rest of the site's story can be established.
The grid work of low walls, marking where so-called palaces, homes of important officials, mosques and wells paint the forest floor, reminiscent of Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park in Thailand or perhaps even Angkor Wat. Though these historical sites were built from red quarried rhyolite, the porous nature of the coral rag and the rough cut of the blocks is reminiscent. These blocks of coral litter the road from Mombasa to Kilifit, as they are still used for modern homes. At the end of Bofa Road, beyond the well-known beach, men continue to toil away in the tropical heat, using diamond tipped saws to cut coral rag blocks from along the coastline.
Out of all the majesty of the ancient site – the trees consuming sections of buildings, the grid layout of the well-thought out city, – it is the giant holes that leave me starstruck. It seem so impossible for men without modern tools to bore wells so wide and so deep. More than three meters wide, one of the larges wells plunges dozens of meters down into the Earth's darkness. Its walls are lined with stones.
Though the wells remain, the water is long gone.
Though the presence of the Portuguese is a primary factor in the about-3,000 residence abandoning the city, a drop in the water table is thought to be a contributing factor, as well as a Wazimba raid along the coast and Galla migrations and raiders from Somalia.
Away from the Great Palace, which had a separate court yards for men and women, two wells and six lavatories, a trail leads into the forest. Dry leaves litter the ground, various types of trees provide several layers of forest.
Something scampers away, rustling dry leaves as it goes, probably a monkey.
There's another one. Definitely not a monkey, but too big to be a rabbit, despite moving with a familiar hop. It's stopped a dozen meters into the bush. Low branches crisscross my field of vision as I use the zoom lens on the camera, which has a full SD card, to better see it. Huddled in the leaves, it's back to me, the animal has thick, fuzzy red-brown fur and is about the size of large raccoon. Definintely not a monkey.
Two steps off the path, I frighten the animal off. Walking alone in the forest, following medieval walls and ruins, I spot some arches and walls covered by vines, part of the site yet to be excavated. It's perfect. Perhaps more perfect when I my phone runs out of battery and I stop chatting on Facebook, turning my full attention to the world around me.
Another small creature, this one hopping along like a baby wallaby scrambles across the path and into the forest. So many wild animals in Africa, and I'm not even on a safari.
On the way back to Distant Relatives, I pop into the Arabuko National Park to check the box for the Die.
It's getting late, and I told a beautiful German hippy living on this communal boat off the beach I'd meet up with her to slackline at three.
Before getting to the police check point, I strap my red bucket helmet on.
Officer stroll up to me. Behind them is a man in camouflage fatigue who's carrying a AK47 assault rifle.
“Do you have a driver's license? How am I to know this is for a motorcycle?” He asks once I hand him my Thai driver's license. I thought I'd brought my international driver's license with me, but it's back in Nairobi.
“Right, here,” I say pointing at the top, right-hand corner of the card.
“Temporary motorcycle,” he reads. “Where is this from? This is Kenya. You need Kenya dirver's license.”
Smiling, I explain that I have an international driver's license back at the hostel
“What about insurance? Where is your insurance?” he asks, flustering about.
“Hold on, I'll call,” I say.
“No need to call. Do you have it?”
“I'm borrowing the bike from a friend, I'm sure he does. I'll just call,” I say, standing up to dig my phone out of my pocket.
“No, it's okay. I know you're an honest person,” he says, eyeing my wallet.
I'm off the hook; I can feel it.
“Maybe you give us a little something so we can buy a soda?” he asks, but too late for it to have any power for extortion.
“Is there somewhere we can get beer?” I ask.
Though I'm not about to hand over cash, the idea of taking these guys out for a beer sounds like fun.
However, there isn't.
“Give us a little something for after work?” the soldier with the gun quietly says.
“Thank you guys so much,” I say, ignoring the final request and firing up the motorcycle.
They've already made it clear that I'm free to go. However, if I come back up here as planed, I should bring a couple beers or a small bottle of whiskey for them, just in case.
Back at Distant Relatives, I've been roped into spending 200 Bob to watch the sunset form the Musafir a communal boat run by a young Italian man.
Back in the room, changing into swim trunks, I check my email.
There's a message from Alvin from Kibo.
Hope all is well.
Apologies for getting back with you.
As promised, I consulted with the leadership on the possibility of letting you use the KIBO for your E. Africa team.
As much as it’s a great opportunity for you to ride the KIBO and help us establish the brand in E. Africa, we feel that at this particular time, the risks outweigh the benefits.
Having no established repair network in those countries you will be visiting has put us in a very tight spot. The timing is not right as per now.
So we will not be lending you the KIBO bike at the moment.
Please let us stay in touch and hope that we will have a chance to work together in the near future,
Thanks and may you have a great one.
My heart sinks.
I knew that the stellar meeting was no guarantee, because Alvin wasn't making the final decision, but it had gone so well that it was hard not to get my hopes up... the Hippo and I were going to make an extraordinary team.
It's not only missing the opportunity to use the bike. It's so much more. It's the opportunity to build out my drone portfolio, the opportunity to work with a company in this capacity so I could further develop feature projects, maybe going to Honda, KTM or BMW with a proposal next time – Honda has recently re-released the African Twin model. Further more, partnering with Kibo was going to leave me with a motorcycle ready for an adventure: panniers, spare parts and all the necessary paperwork to make border crossings.
I'm back to the beginning, but now I'm wasting money hiding at Distant Relatives instead of greasing the wheels of an adventure.
I messed up in the meeting. Alvin repeatedly aired his concerns about servicing of the bike. I should have fully explained how much work I've done on bikes. Or even straight up lied about it – the number of times I've talked to people in amazing positions who started out by totally bullshitting their way there is incredible. I'm positive I could have quickly picked up on how to service the bike.
I don't want to be here at Distant Relatives.
Hell, I don't want to be in Africa.
A tidal wave hits me and I roll over like a hapless log, ready to soak up sadness and sink to the bottom of the ocean. I really don't want to go out on this boat. I just want to put on the television series Westworld and hide from the real world.
I don't even want to hide; I want to not exist. Not forever, but for a week or so. I want to cease to deal with everything, rather anything.
Standing under the tree at the center of the dorm room in Distant Relatives, I roll the die. Evens, I get to stay in and hide from the world; odds, I have to join this sunset “cruise” – though the boat doesn't go anywhere – it's the kind of cruise that's only on paper: a stationary cruise.
It's a three.
Fine, I'll go.
I know I shouldn't snap reply to Alvin's email, but Christmas Eve is tomorrow, so it's not like I can email him in a day or two. I don't want to wait four days to email him; I don't want to give up.
I hate when I door is slammed shut, instead of gently closed. It's more pleasant when it's gentle and hesitant, presenting at least some options. Here, there are no options. However, I go for a further long shot. Why not throw a Hail Mary when all you have left are prayers?
No worries at all about the delay, I realize there was a number of aspects to teaming up that needed to be taken into account by management.
I'm disappointed to hear that the servicing aspect of the trip ended up putting the nail in the coffin. I feel like perhaps I didn't fully explain that I do know plenty of the basics for bike repair, but have never fully serviced a vehicle. (I can tighten chains, change oil, fix flats, replace brake pads and so on...) I am very confident that I'd be able to quickly learn the Kibo system.
Is there anything I can do I on my side to move the plan forward, as I very much like the bike, as well as Kibo as a company.
If not, I'll of course stay in touch with the hope of us getting to work together sometime in the future.
Isaac Stone Simonelli
Surrendering to the Will of the Die, I walk down a sandy, wooded trail to the beach. A few large mangrove trees stand along the shore. A single towering hand stretches up into the sky from the water, its fingers yet to be fully formed as builders prepare for the Kilifi New Year's Eve music festival. With Burning Man type flare, the 20-meter tall hand reaching out like it is about to pluck the setting sun from the fading blue sky, will burst into flames and burn into the night when the ball drops for 2017.
The Musafir is anchored 100 meters from the low-tide mark. She's a wide-hulled, double-masted pirate ship. At least she looks like a pirate ship, though she's actually traditional dhow occupied by a commune of loving hippy folks. The crew and the boat seem to be a tribute to Neverland, somehow latching on to the romance of childhood as the sun begins its descent on another day, and we all grow a little older.
A small contingency of the group clambers into a row boat to be ferried to the Musafir, while the rest of us peel off unnecessary garments and wade into the water to swim the distance. Up the wooden steps, I move from the open lower deck to the upper deck, where the warmth of the fading sun has been absorbed by the wooden boards.
The boat is floating in what everyone keeps referring to as “the creek”, which is not a creek at all. It's a massive inlet from the Indian Ocean stretching well into the mainland. The far shore is a fading into a gray blue. It's the first sunset I've stopped to watch in Africa since I was studying in Accra, Ghana.
I look up as someone's fingers go through my hair, it's Christine, the office manager and birthday girl for the occasions. She has the most beautiful charcoal black skin, a girlish body and a shaved head. She smiles and says hi, pulling me into a nearby conversation.
As the tangerine ball we call the sun approaches the horizon, it falls away faster and faster until there is nothing left. Jupiter is shimmering bright in the light sky, but the stars don't have what it takes to battle it out with what light the sun is casting from behind the horizon.
The water bursts with it's own galaxy of stars as swimmer's hands through it, activating bioluminescence. Like fairy dust sprinkled from the tips of ones fingers, the green light drifts away and then fades. Each kick in the water, each paddle with a hand lights up the water around us as we swim back to shore from the Musafir. Standing knee deep, along side the enormous hand of kindling, my fingers dance through the water. They slow down so my eyes can follow each spec of light before it collapses on itself like a tired, old star. I orchestrate the construction and destruction of countless galaxies before wading up to the hard mud beyond the low-tide mark and onto the shore's soft sand.
Back at Distant Relatives, the water pours down out of a shower head hanging from a piece of bamboo tubing in an open-air shower tucked into a thick bamboo grove. The stalks rise up into the night sky, blocking all stars as they groan, creak and moan in the gentle wind. The water is cold and the stone floor slick.
Walking the mulch path, limed with green wine bottles re-purposed as outdoor lamp shades, there is a soft rustling. Caught in the light of my phone, a wild hedge hog roots through mulch and dead leaves. The slow moving creature freezes, its tiny wet nose quivers. Leaning in close, all I want to do is pick it up.
Instead, I find a small stick and give it a gentle poke.
The poor fella curls up into a tight ball, in his mind, for a moment, ceasing to exist, much like I had wanted to before the Die sent me to the Musafir of regain my footing.