Monkey-ball weekend: Diani beach

I know what you guys are thinking. “We get it. Nairobi has a bad reputation. There is abundant wildlife in the region. Do you have any other material?”

We do! A little bit! For instance, one June weekend we went with about 15 other people on a trip to Diani, a beach town south of Mombasa, on Kenya’s Swahili coast. We all rented a lovely house right on the beach and played a lot of cards and ate too much and went swimming and got sand in our suits.

To get to the coast we took an overnight train, second-class, from Nairobi to Mombasa. Apparently around a third of the time the train breaks down in Tsavo National Park — of “Man-Easting Lions of Tsavo” fame — and passengers just sit and swelter for hours. This did not happen to us, and other minor inconveniences like sadistic dining-car staff and having to use a squat toilet on a moving train really paled in comparison to the central triumph of our on-time arrival. The train stops frequently in the pitch-dark nowhere along the way, and the dare is to get off when the train is stopped and run around in the possibly man-eating darkness, before running to re-board the train once it starts slowly chugging on again. For some reason I actually did this. Stupid, even before I fell on the tracks and cut my hand (that tetanus booster is really pulling its weight on this trip), but the Milky Way view was amazing: cloudy and intricate and spectacular.


Blood on the tracks.

Diani has the powderiest white sand I’ve ever encountered. I am still finding it in my clothes, numerous washes later. The Indian Ocean was warm and clear, and the beach was strewn with seaweed and studded with coral and livened up by the occasional camel (sadly, not pictured).


Whatever I had expected the beaches of east Africa to look like, it somehow wasn’t this. Though I don’t know what I had been expecting. Bongo drums?

Still, a beach weekend is a beach weekend is a beach weekend. A few further distinguishing characteristics of this one:

  • The realities of the tourist economy are such that you can’t walk fifteen feet on the beach without being approached by someone hoping to sell you something. Mainly carved wooden keychains, bangles and drugs (including the perplexingly named “white crack”). The beach entrepreneurs were persistent and numerous. Even understanding that people have to make a living, being so doggedly pursued was stressful and irritating. (Buying stuff didn’t seem to help matters. Maybe if we’d bought something from everyone, but who needs that many keychains.) We joked darkly that we should try to turn the tables and attempt to sell them something, just to mix it up a bit. “Want some palm fronds? Only 100 Shillings…”
  • The realities of the tourist economy — or the something economy — also are such that our van driver got pulled over by enterprising cops and shaken down for bribes both leaving and returning to Mombasa.
  • We sustained an exciting monkey invasion! Heading out for a run one morning, our friend Danae opened her bedroom door to find several vervet monkeys hanging out in the hallway. The rest of us slept through the ensuing territorial skirmish, in which the monkeys raced around the house leaving poo and matoke (plantain) chips in their wake and came back through the windows as soon as they’d been hustled out the doors. They came in again the next day and took a container of dates and sat in a tree, solemnly eating while watching us. We were all very entertained by their delicate date-pitting and electric-blue testicles.
  • We came back from a walk one day and the lovely household staff had picked us each a fresh coconut to drink and eat. Full-service, or what?
  • We did not tempt fate by making the return journey to Nairobi by train; instead, we flew. The small, open-air Mombasa airport had a couple of low-key restaurant options. One of them was a kind of cafeteria, whose menu options inexplicably included lobster thermidor, advertised for the bargain price of 6000 Kenyan Shillings (or around 60 bucks). Kevin tried to order it as a joke, and the woman at the counter said they were out. He asked if anyone had ever ordered it; she just laughed.
  • The matatu we took from Diani to the airport was kind of a disco matatu, and it played music videos the whole way. Except actually it just repeated one extremely low-budget music video that featured a bunch of guys sitting around looking bored at a party, mixed with sequences of three heavyset ladies standing with their legs apart doing very vigorous butt-clenching.

Bunch of goofy pictures of us and other travelers cavorting around — plus a cameo of Young Jeezy — here! Not pictured: Me sitting more or less on the lap of a matatu conductor on the way from Mombasa to Diani; Kevin losing his contact lenses in the ocean; my Kindle breaking; me spending half the night trying to kill mosquitoes inside our mosquito net; a big group of us passing an afternoon speaking in funny accents; Kevin mislaying one of his cochlear-implant batteries at the airport and then, miraculously, finding it; monkey testicles.

Applying World Understanding to Ko Phi Phi

First: my wife is good at this.

Second: One time when I’d had a few drinks and was out for Page’s birthday, I tipsily drew a line between people who appreciate the finer things about other cultures and those who don’t, and called it “World Understanding.” About ten seconds later, I realized it was the most pretentious thing I have ever said. So, to be clear, in this post (and in all future posts) I am the Supreme World Understander.

Third: what to say about Ko Phi Phi? After five days, no one thing stands out. It is tremendously beautiful. It feels fairly remote, though in truth there’s a fair amount of facilities. The central town area on the other side of the island (a orange-skinned, white-dreadlocked hell of desperate pheromones ice-blended with acute capitalism) is maybe six blocks in total size, and presumably has most things you need. But the town feels far away.

It is an island, and in the old sense: there’s no cars, no roads, and everything is via water taxi. In the area we were in, a more remote northern section of the island that’s unconnected to the rest, our stretch of beach had perhaps five little hotels, and maybe three or four shack-like local businesses, including a small outdoor restaurant and bar. The feeling is sea shanty, and in a nice way: casual, friendly, away from things. It reminded me of Isla Holbox.

The water (as Page has mentioned) is a bathtub.

It’s hot. I mean, really hot. The hottest I’ve ever experienced. And I’ve been in Hong Kong on what I was told was the hottest day of the year, and I grew up in a place that regularly hit 110 degrees F. It was so hot that if you stay in the shade on the beach, and you thoughtfully get in the water to cool down every 30 minutes, by 1 or 2 PM you still seriously consider, then wisely decide to go inside for an afternoon siesta / internet research sojourn. With all that said, though, I still enjoyed the heat. It was just mildly uncomfortable enough to make me constantly appreciate the fact that I was on vacation.

But all of this probably doesn’t do justice to how beautiful the area is. The water, sky, and horizon switch between light azure and emerald as the day goes on. The cedar smell of the teak longtail boats, with colorful flower garlands on the prow, pointing between top-heavy, surreal limestone karsts. It is nice, man.

Perhaps my favorite part of Ko Phi Phi was the remote beach of La Na Bay. Our helpful hotel-non-Thai-person-who-pointedly-makes-friends-with-you-because-this-is-a-high-service-sort-of-place told us there was a hidden cinderblock path along the ridge of the island, cutting through the jungle, that would let us walk to a beautiful secluded beach. The next day, we packed a day-satchel and dutifully checked it out. When we finally got there, we emerged on a huge, crescent bay, and there was not a soul there. The water was even stiller, even more bathtub-like than the other side of the island (how is this possible?), and we had a whole bay the size of a small city completely to ourselves. I floated in the middle of the water for a long time, my eyes fixed on the horizon between the two arms of the bay’s crescent, the water flat as a pale blue sheet. That was the first time on the trip that I felt madd relaxed.