Chillax in Malindi

2012-01-27 14:39

We often complain that the world hears only bad news about our country.

The violent nature of crime instead of the beaming intensity of the smiles here hog headlines abroad. Kenya, the tourism jewel of East Africa, knows this story of bad press too.

When my friend Mandy and I wanted a tropical beach holiday and decided on Malindi in Kenya (Bali was crazy expensive), Google churned out hundreds of hits about war in Somalia, Kenya’s 2008 election violence and piracy. Not music piracy, alas, but gun-toting Somali heavies in speed boats who target the East African coast.

As recently as October Somali pirates kidnapped a disabled French woman in the resort town of Lamu, and in September they shot dead a British man. Now even though dodgy destinations often do it for me nothing ruins a tropical beach holiday faster than a hostage drama that ends in Mogadishu instead of Mouille Point, where I’ve been living since June last year.

A quick check on Google maps revealed, however, that Malindi, our chosen destination, was 240km from the Somali border so the odds of being taken violently by pirates seemed distant enough.

With boundless holiday cheer we headed for check-in at OR Tambo, where Kenya Airways insisted there wasn’t a pair of adjacent seats available – a full three hours before departure. We tried everything, and briefly considered posing as a honeymoon couple to blend in, but that was unnecessary, it turned out.

Kenya Airways baptised Mandy Mrs Pelser without even asking. She’s a great girl but asked me to mention here that she’s single and no, we’re not together. A friendly Kenyan man came to the rescue by giving up his seat.

One of the first of many advantages of a Kenyan holiday is that you don’t need a visa. The second is that Kenya Airways, with all its faults (my seat would not recline), flies almost everywhere in Kenya safely, including to Mombasa, an hour from Nairobi, from where a hotel shuttle took us to Malindi. The third, fourth, fifth and sixth advantage is that Kenya is friendly, beautiful, interesting and delicious. Just to be clear, the people are friendly, the beaches are beautiful, the stories interesting and the food and beer great.

Delicious, all of it: the seafood soup and the prawns at The Old Man And The Sea, arguably the town’s most famous restaurant and named after the 1952 Hemingway novel; the platters of fresh fruit at our hotel, the Malindi Beach Club, where we could eat and drink as much as nature allowed us; the cold Tusker beer served everywhere; and the Italian ice cream and pizza at Oasis, a dark and dingy but otherwise pleasant hangout where the owner speaks not a word of English.

Only Italian. In Kenya. That’s like being served in Spanish in Soweto.

Malindi is often called Little Italy because of the thousands of Italians who live there. At the hotel, menus were in Italian and English; in town, “appartementos” were being sold instead of apartments; young Italian couples frolicked gaily on the beaches.

A shop owner told me that Italians owned most of the hotels in Malindi and Kenya Airways flies directly to Rome.

Italians also run the scuba diving centre in Malindi, and my first-ever diving experience was well worth the €100 bill (about R1?000). For the bluest, clearest waters we went to Watamu, south of Malindi, which looks like pictures I’ve seen of Thailand. If I spoke Italian I would have moved there immediately. Under water I discovered sea cucumbers, for which the Italians have an unprintable word, and many brightly coloured tropical fish, including one the Italians insisted was Nemo from the movie (a Clownfish). It was great fun.

These anecdotes hide the fact that the best thing to do in Malindi is nothing, or as close to nothing as possible. Like sleeping endlessly on the day beds outside our room at the hotel while lizards dart up the palm trees, and down. Or lying on the private beach for hours, reading and drinking enough fresh lime and soda to deplete the entire region’s stock.

On the Friday at lunch a smartly dressed man, well into his 70s, parked a director’s chair next to the pool while we lunched and played lazy tunes on the saxophone for an hour.

Lunch was always a big affair, but so was breakfast and dinner. Fresh fish, French soups or Kenyan sweet potatoes in coconut milk served by Martin, one of the world’s kindest waiters (I’d wager money) who happens to closely resemble the country’s Prime Minister, Raila Odinga (Martin denies they are brothers). Next door to our hotel the Dream Spa offered massage.

Would we go back? In a heartbeat. Back for the breeze that gently breaks the tropical heat in the afternoon. Back for the silence, broken only by birdsong or the stuttering engine of the three- wheeled Tuk-Tuks that carry locals and tourists alike across town. Back for the genuinely warm hospitality of our Kenyan hosts.

» Pelser is the editor of NewsNow, Media 24’s magazine

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