Kenya Housesit

Mtwapa Creek

We arrived at the house and called the owner to open the electronic gate. We drove down a long winding driveway, spotting the large swimming pool in front of the house, where Ingrid greeted us. She was a very pleasant German lady who was eager to show us the house and instruct Marcel on the pool maintenance, the workings of the house and routine of gardeners, security checks and several other items that would need our attention during her absence. She was off to Germany to deal with the paperwork and sale of an apartment since her father had passed away earlier in the year.

The house was huge! In the past it had been the accommodation side of a deep sea fishing business. Ingrid’s husband had conducted the fishing trips and guests would stay in the house with Ingrid hosting and cooking. The house stood on the edge of the Mtwapa creek, just about a mile from the Indian Ocean. The creek was a beautiful milky blue-green and the pink and orange bougainvillea dazzled in contrast, with the palm trees swaying languidly in the heavy, humid breeze. There was a stone staircase down to the jetty where the boat would have docked with the guests’ catch and we would eventually spend some early evenings there, sipping our cocktails and dipping our toes in the water. There were five bedrooms, each with bathrooms, a large games room upstairs with a balcony surrounding it with lovely views of the creek. Most of the rooms were now unused, so were quite bare and locked up. We would have access to them, but we didn’t need to use them, just required to sweep them out occasionally. A large kitchen was equipped with everything we needed! Plenty of cutlery and crockery and yes, we had running water…. pure luxury. This was well water, so we still had to be very conservative with it, the rainy season not yet arrived. There was a laundry room and a washing machine! I was ecstatic. We had AC in the bedroom, a shower, still no hot water, but we had given up on that a long time ago. There was a large veranda off the kitchen which overlooked the creek and we would spend many mornings here watching the fishermen come and go with the tide, casting their nets and collecting their catch later in the day. Much of the house needed some maintenance. It had not been a business in over twelve years, so the lack of use was evident. Once again we would sit and observe and imagine what we would do with it if it were ours. It really was an amazing place, and would have been luxurious and full of life and laughter in its heyday. There was a covered patio area just off the swimming pool and we would sit here most evenings, taking advantage of the cool breeze that eventually came, sipping our G&Ts and watching as the Vervet monkeys would swing from the trees and bushes, grooming each other and taking care of their tiny babies that clutched their underbellies. We had visits from Genet cats at night which would munch on the fruit and coconuts that we left out for them. Every morning we would hear the calls of the Hornbills, and of course the ever present cockerels, with the Hornbills returning in the evening to roost in the palms after their hectic day flying awkwardly up and down the creek. There were two stray cats that came by every afternoon, mewing loudly, asking to be fed. Ingrid would feed them, so we continued to do so and while they were happy to eat, they didn’t stay around for too long afterwards,preferring to wander the night time streets for yet more scraps no doubt.

Ingrid left after a couple of days and we settled ourselves in, doing some well needed laundry and gradually relaxed into a daily routine of  morning coffee, catching up on news and messages, then yoga stretches on the patio followed by a swim in the pool. We decided that as we were unable to do any serious walking, we would swim each day. We started with 30 lengths, gradually increasing to 40, 50 and then 60 lengths of the pool. We eventually swam 100-120 lengths every day, about one hour of swimming, and felt so much better for it. Marcel would then check the pool, sweeping, vacuuming, backwashing and testing as needed. I’d do laundry, some chores and then breakfast on the veranda. We filled our days with writing, reading, me studying Spanish, and our almost daily walk into the town to buy provisions, mostly vegetables from the local stalls. Since we had left the farm, we had not eaten meat. This was not a conscious decision; we just never found any meat that we desired. There were plenty of butchers as the Kenyan diet is mainly ‘choma’ barbequed meats, and ugali, a type of maize paste, similar to polenta, but most of the meat was still on the carcass, hung in the windows and while most of them looked clean and fresh, we never really felt compelled to buy it and gradually lost the taste for meat. The supermarkets had some pre-cut meat, but quite honestly, the veggies were always so fresh, tasty and in abundance, we bought and ate so many and made up some really filling and tasty meals. We enjoyed the seafood whenever we went to a restaurant and there were a few seafood stalls we could choose from. Some of the fish was unknown to us, so we mainly ate vegetarian at home, and seafood and fish whenever we went out to a restaurant.

The town was always busy, being on the main road from Mombasa north to Somalia and to all the coastal resort towns such as Watamu and Malindi. We became familiar with many of the vendors, ones that had the best tomatoes, others the best potatoes and others whose mangoes were the sweetest fruit ever! We found the ‘egg lady’ who counted out 18 eggs for less than two dollars and there was a small supermarket where we could get everything we might need from toiletries to tonic water. Once a week we would take a tuk tuk to the Carrefour supermarket or another more local large one called Naivas, and then have lunch at the French café. This was a treat, always good coffee and good bread and fresh salads and sandwiches on offer. We enjoyed taking the 20 minutes by tuk tuk, even though it could be hair raising at times. One time we hailed a tuk tuk and were a little concerned to see the front wheel wobbling with a few dents and broken pieces hanging off the back. We were skeptical but once committed we stepped in and set off. The noise of the engine sounded a little rough and the steering seemed very loose, so we were glad to see the bridge crossing the creek, knowing we were almost home. Unfortunately, we had just crossed the bridge when the tuk tuk sputtered to a stop. The driver jumped out and used a piece of rope to wind it up again, but as he showed us a wet oiled hand he advised that something was wrong. He offered to hail us another tuk tuk for the last few minutes of the journey, but we declined and walked the rest of the way. After that, we were a little more choosey with our tuk tuks. One very annoying habit of these drivers was that they would agree to a price, 350 or 400 KES which was very little money to us, but there was a ‘going rate’ which we came to expect, as did they. However, some of them on arriving at the destination would not have any change for a 500 shilling note, so most of the time we ended up paying the 500 KES. That’s still very little money, but annoying that they did not carry any small notes. Many of the drivers were young Kenyans, some very proud of their vehicles and some who were very polite and happy to take you to the ATM and wait, some others interesting to hear why we were in Kenya, others offering information on the area, so the extra dollar or so was worth it and more useful in their pockets than ours.

The town was full of liquor stores and bars and we learned that this was a ‘party town’ in normal times, with the city dwellers of Nairobi flying down to their coastal retreats. Now that the curfew was in place most places closed at 9pm and according to Ingrid this was very much welcomed by the local expats, who were enjoying a peaceful year without the loud music usually played at every bar along the street. We visited several restaurants along the creek. One was on a floating deck and we bought some handmade Maasai sandals and sarongs there from a tall, dark Maasai and his mother, Margaret. We went back several times to pick up some more Kikoys and sarongs and she was very impressed that I remembered her name. We would have to go early to the restaurant at lunchtime on Saturdays, as at 3pm the Karaoke started. We could hear this from the veranda at the house, as the restaurant was only half a mile along the creek – a shame Ingrid didn’t have a kayak! The various singers seemed to come back each Saturday and we lived in hope that their voices would improve! There were two other restaurants within walking distance which were very pleasant, with decent food and good service right on the creek and both marinas. Our favorite restaurant on the beach was Monsoons, which we had visited while in Nyali, (see our previous story). We went back to celebrate Marcel’s birthday, two weeks belated, and enjoyed a huge seafood platter, freshly caught that day and washed it down with a delicious bottle of wine. Almost every weekend we would watch as party boats cruised up and down the creek with partygoers dancing to the loud music and laughing and drinking. As well as the music, we would hear the now familiar calls to prayer in the distance, and on Sundays many local churches would be full of parishioners singing their hearts out celebrating Jesus and wailing and screeching at the tops of their voices.

On Wednesdays and Saturdays Ronald would arrive to pick up the fallen palm fronds, sweep the leaves and petals blown off by the wind. When we first arrived the weather was hot, humid and still but by the end of March the wind had turned, coming from the south west and blew with gusto every day, ripping dead palm fronds from their trunks, loosening the coconuts which we would hear thud against the ground once they lost their hold. Ronald would also sweep the pool if needed, empty the trash and clear any debris that had flown into the large yard on the strong southerly wind. We loved that breeze! It was cooling and refreshing, although it blew in all the dust from the parched ground into the kitchen, so we were constantly wiping red dust off the counters, and sweeping the floors. An elderly gentleman, David, would arrive on occasion to take the coconuts that had fallen from the palm trees. He would cut a couple for us and so we enjoyed fresh coconut water and the meat from the nut on a daily basis. He would collect the dry dead palm fronds to use in his roofing business and he would stack these, along with the sack full of coconuts, onto the back of his motorbike. Somehow he managed to keep balanced with the fronds piled at least 3 feet high, with the sack strapped on the top, and empty water bottles hanging like fairy lights all over his motorbike. How he could stay on his bike on the uneven roads was mind boggling. Also on Saturdays we would have the local security company come by and check the ‘panic buttons’. There were two switches, one in the kitchen and one in the bedroom by the bed, plus another in Ingrid’s room, which we did not have access to. They would come by in their uniforms, call the office and then we would have to press both switches that sent a signal to the office and they would verify that it was working. We hoped we would never have to use either of these switches, as the house was behind locked electronic gates so if there was an  ‘incident’ we would have to find the opener and walk halfway up the drive to let the security guys in, by which time we would have encountered the intruder ourselves! During the first couple of weeks the power went out on several occasions and we were concerned that this was a regular event. Eventually, they found the problem and the power stayed on for most of the time.

All in all, our days were busy but relaxed and we enjoyed the location, the fresh food and the swimming regimen that we had in place. Then we had news that the President was putting further COVID restrictions in place and five counties were going to be in lockdown until further notice… one being Nairobi where we had our three other bags; where our flight home originated and where we had planned to spend a few days before leaving Kenya. So now we could not get to Nairobi to do any of that, although we had another four weeks before we had to leave and hoped that the lockdowns would be reviewed before then. The county would be locked down as of noon on Monday and we were currently Friday at 2pm. We considered going to Nairobi by train the next day, collecting our bags, staying overnight and returning by train the following day. After sleeping on it we decided that might be too risky, should we get stuck in Nairobi…things tended to be a little unpredictable. We had a friend in Nairobi who was in the travel business and sought her advice and thoughts on the situation. She advised that she knew a driver who had ‘government clearance’ and if necessary he could drive down to us and collect us and take us to Nairobi to get our flights in May if the lockdown was still in place, we would just have to grease the palms of the policeman at the county border, which was only 66 kilometers from the airport. We had already booked a train ticket to travel back to  Nairobi after our house sit had finished and so we kept that in place in case the lockdown was lifted, and we agreed to call David the driver, if it wasn’t. It would be an extra $350 and a nine hour drive but we were happy to do that and I quite looked forward to the experience.

As the days went on, we continued to go through the different scenarios of what might, or might not happen and decided that even though we were still planning to go to Nairobi, it might be prudent to have all our bags with us in one place; one less thing to worry about. So we messaged James, who had been our driver around the city and who had our bags stored at his home and advised that we would need them couriering to Mombasa. Buni gave us a recommendation for a courier service and we arranged to have the bags shipped to their office in Mombasa. I was a little skeptical about them arriving intact, and thought they would take a week or two to arrive. Also, Geoffrey, our safari guide had gifts for us and Marcel had promised to give him his camera so he also had the gifts shipped to us and we returned the camera to him via the same service. I was amazed at how efficient both these services were. There was a great deal of order and organization behind all the chaos we saw on a daily basis. Within a couple of days both items arrived and we headed into Mombasa to collect the bags. The office was a small warehouse in a very busy street and a beautiful Kenyan lady dressed in long flowing garments greeted Marcel by name and immediately had three burly guys carry our bags to the waiting car. The service was fast, efficient and served with big Kenyan smiles, all for less than $10! We had to collect our gifts from another courier service in Mtwapa and were equally impressed with their organization, especially when we took the well-packed camera and sent it off to Geoffrey. He received it on the day promised and was a happy man.

Now that we had our possessions with us, we felt less stressed…until we heard that the UK had put Kenya on the ‘Red’ list. This meant that if we set foot in the UK we would have to quarantine for 10 days in a hotel for a fee of 1750 pounds each! We had already decided that we would not be staying in the UK and had booked an onward flight to the USA. However, we found instruction that we were not even allowed to transit through the UK from Kenya. Apparently, Kenya’s president didn’t like the idea either and promptly banned all flights in and out of the UK. A few days later BA cancelled all flights out of Kenya until 8 May, two days after we were supposed to leave. After much going backward and forward on what to do, what our options might be, and how much money it was going to cost us to leave, we decided that there was no point going to Nairobi, now that our bags were here; no need to spend money on a journey that didn’t need to happen and no need to stay in a hotel for a week. We were disappointed not to be able to travel across the country and see more of the wildlife and scenery, but the COVID situation seemed to be worsening in Nairobi. We would forfeit our train ticket and we would not need to risk driving across the country and being turned back at the county line, if our grease wasn’t slippery enough!

We spent a couple of days  looking at flights out of Mombasa, and debated whether to go via the Middle East, Tanzania or Ethiopia. The best route turned out to be from Mombasa to Addis Ababa, on to Frankfurt and then directly to the USA. A long journey, but we were eager to get a plan of action in place. Luckily, BA gave us a credit for our two flights that we had already booked, and even though we were having to dish out another $2000 that we had not expected, at least we would have return flights to the UK available to us for next year. Flights booked, bags with us, camera sent, we felt more at ease and continued our daily routine, now counting down the days before leaving. I was disappointed that we wouldn’t be traveling from Mombasa to Nairobi by train. I was looking forward to the experience and seeing more of the country’s landscape, and passing by Mount Kilimanjaro. Maybe another time!

The days moved along quickly. We would take a tuk tuk to the supermarket on a weekly basis; we went to Haller park for a good walk and visited our favorite restaurants on the beach. We walked to a restaurant on the creek several times to have cocktails and appetizers and met Florian, Buni’s friend, who we had met at the farm. It was his ‘local’ and he kindly gave us his number, should we need anything. We ventured around the town regularly, finding a good fish shop, a new small supermarket that had everything we needed and went back to our favorite restaurant at the Juma ruins. We bought produce and alcohol from various vendors, trying to give everyone a little business. The children were off school for their break and one day, while Marcel was checking the mailbox at the post office, I waited outside. There were two small girls playing in the sandy street, sitting with sticks and pieces of broken pottery, using their imagination to play a game that enthralled them. The eldest one, probably about 6 years old, looked up at me and smiled. I smiled back and she got up and walked over to me and said in very good English “Excuse me, are you looking for someone? Can I help you?” I was blown away. Here I was, a total stranger, she had nothing on her feet and only trash to play with, but she was concerned enough at 6 years old to ask me if I needed help! I wanted to give her a hug and bring her home! I told her thank you, but I was just waiting for my husband who was checking the mail. At that point, Marcel came around the corner and I said ‘Here he is, this skinny man!” She laughed so hard…Marcel said hello and she responded “Hello, skinny man” laughing and giggling as she went back to playing with her sister. I was really taken with her politeness and caring and I hoped that someone would afford her the same if she was ever lucky enough to visit the USA or UK. 

The weather cooled a little and we continued to enjoy the strong southerly breeze and the rain which came every night while we were sleeping, giving the thirsty plants a long awaited drink. We decided not to venture too far; COVID seemed to be worsening in the more populated areas, and with only a couple of weeks to go we did not want to risk catching anything, so we relaxed, started planning our next trip and enjoyed the breezy days on the veranda.

Soon we were down to our final few days, and the time of ‘the lasts’ came. The last trip to the supermarket, the last visit to our favorite restaurant, the final purchase from the veggie stalls, the last ride in a tuk tuk. We cleaned and prepared the house ready for Ingrid’s return and Marcel took a USB to the cyber café to print off all our documentation that we would need for our journey home. We had to get a COVID test and found a lab close by in Nyali. We called to ask if we needed to make an appointment and were told that no appointment was necessary, but that we should go on Friday if we were flying on Sunday, to ensure that we received the results in time to board the plane. We then looked at the requirements for transiting through Addis Ababa, Frankfurt and entry into the USA. A negative test was required for Ethiopia and our testing time frame fit with that, but for transiting through Frankfurt our test had to be within 48 hours of landing. This proved to be almost impossible. It would mean we would have to have our test on Saturday morning, but that would not guarantee the test results in time for us to board the plane on Sunday. It was just within the time frame to enter the USA. We decided that we had to do it Friday, and then we would edit the date on one copy in order to get through Frankfurt, if needed. We duly had our test taken on Friday at noon, and spent the rest of the day and Saturday packing and cleaning and waiting for the results of the tests so we could print hard copies and edit one of them, just in case. No results arrived on Saturday and still nothing by 11 am on Sunday. We were leaving for the airport at 1.30pm, checking in by 3pm and flying at 5.30pm. We then saw that the lab we had visited for the test was closed as of 1pm on Sunday. Marcel contacted them and at 12.30pm we received an email with the negative test results. It was too late to print anything off and we also learned the cyber cafe was closed on Sundays anyway.  We were thankful for the results, and sighed in relief as our uber arrived to take us to the airport. We loaded the bags, took one last look at the creek and drove off through the town, realizing that this would be our last bumpy drive through here. We headed to the airport playing ‘chicken’ as usual along the main road, bumping over rubble when the road was under construction and we received another email regarding our tests. This was the certificate with the TT number that would be required by the airlines. We made sure we had them on our phones, ready to flash in front of any face that required it. The line at the airport was long, and we were anxious that we had the right information. Two guys looked at passports and papers, and when our turn came we handed them our phones. They were quick and efficient, although all the information they recorded was done so in a ledger book! Not a computer in sight!

We checked in, our bags were booked through to Miami and I wondered if we would ever see them again, three countries, three flights and what looked like chaos. We boarded the plane, and the first two-hour flight went by quickly, except the aborted landing caused me to hyperventilate for a few minutes, wondering if we had had a near miss, or we were being hijacked! Luckily it was only due to wet weather and the next attempt was successful. As we walked through the terminal to the next gate, not one person asked us for any test results or paperwork. We sat and had a great cup of coffee and then relaxed in the bar. The airport was really well serviced, busy and very COVID compliant.

Our next leg was to Frankfurt and six hours of flying. Again on Ethiopian Airways, but this time the plane was newer and we had a comfortable ride, a few precious moments of sleep and some nice airplane food for a change. We landed in Frankfurt and prepared ourselves for a possible interrogation regarding our ‘non-compliant’ test time. The German government website, and the Lufthansa website were very adamant that no-one would be allowed in if they were not in compliance! We were stopped by two German policemen, who looked at our passports and waved us on…. and all of a sudden, we were inside the terminal and heading for the gate - no one asked for papers, or questioned us about a COVID test! After a cup of coffee and a huge sandwich, we settled down to wait for four hours before our flight to Miami.

The flight was uneventful. Another nice plane, good food and some movie watching along with a few hours of sleep and soon we were landing in Miami. I looked out the window as we descended and noticed the contrast of the grey, grid- lined, paved roads of the USA to the sandy, rubbled tracks that make up the roads in Kenya; the organized layout of the buildings, golf courses and shopping malls, compared to the half finished buildings and haphazard huts and shacks that dotted the Kenyan landscape. We were now back in the sanitized, convenient west and I couldn’t help but think that even in the bright sunshine of Florida the world seemed a little less vibrant, a little more predictable, and a little less challenging, after spending the last five months conscious of the need to ensure, on a daily basis, the most basic of needs, food, water and power and dealing with the  chaotic, and seemingly unorganized life in Kenya.

We arrived at the gate and passed through immigration and through the terminal to collect our bags, not once being asked for paperwork for COVID! Our anxious days prior to leaving Kenya were all for nothing!

At belt 4 we waited in anticipation for our bags to arrive. We waited and watched as other passengers collected their suitcases, some of whom really had to look several times to see if that suitcase was in fact theirs, something I find quite amusing. I certainly know my suitcase or bag, as well as I would know my kids and I wondered if they had children and looked at them the same way, when they were waiting for them outside the school gate. Finally, we saw one of our bags climbing the ramp and rolling down to the belt, and then another and then all of them, one after the other! We were happy and grateful for all those behind the scenes who made sure our bags were in the right place at the right time - happy to be home, happy to have met so many lovely people and privileged to have created so many amazing memories.

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