September 12, 2004

Nairobi, Kenya
Beware the Leopard

After a day recovering from our safari, Andy and I took the overnight train to Nairobi to explore its many wonders. We requested separate adjoining rooms instead of a single compartment. I knew this was possible from taking the train down to Mombasa, and that the Monday train was unlikely to be full. So for a combined expenditure of about $54, we had one quarter of an entire train car.

The next morning, we checked into the same Catholic mission I’d stumbled into on my last visit. We spent the afternoon fruitlessly trying to make our way to the giraffe sanctuary outside of town.

On the subjest of Kenyan public transit: the country is held together by thousands of old, beaten-up vans called matatus. They carry a maximum of 14 people, or 28 if you count the small child sitting on every passenger’s lap. There’s always a young guy hanging out the door – let’s call him the conductor – who shouts out destinations and takes your money when you get in. Prices start at about $0.25.

Most matatus have a general route, but they pretty much just go wherever the passengers want to go. There’s a strange alchemy to how the driver chooses his route, somehow processing all the various drop-offs into a path of greatest efficiency. There is little discussion between the driver and the conductor, and the first few times I assumed I was never going to reach my destination, but experience has shown they know exactly what they’re doing. So matatus are great, except they’re made for people half the size of the average Kenyan, and the indigenous body odor can literally knock you out.

Another feature of matatus is their pop-art decoration. Van owners seem fascinated with painting random English phrases and obscure movie titles on the fronts and backs of their vehicles. So aside from conventional messages like “Jesus Saves” and “Britney Spears”, you might also see the title of the Tim Roth, Tupac Shakur buddy picture, “Gridlock’d,” or the mid-period Steve Martin comedy, “L.A. Story.”

Evidently, Steve Martin has more Kenyan street credibility than we’ve all been led to assume.

The giraffe sanctuary was in a suburb called Karen, named after novelist Karen Blixen, who wrote “Out of Africa” after living here for many years. This of course suggests that, had I been a distinguished colonist of many decades past, there would now be a Nairobi suburb called Matt.

The Nairobi matatu system is a little more regimented than the rest of the country; it actually has route numbers. Unfortunately, there are no route maps posted anywhere. You just have to know. So after spending the day reading the sides of passing matatus, we gave up and went to the grocery store to stock up for our hike the next day.

And here begins our tale: the day hike up Longonot Crater, conceived by Andy and I as a dry run for Kilimanjaro next week, and a test of our preparedness.

We woke up at the buttcrack of dawn, had a woefully insufficient breakfast at the mission’s dining hall, then walked into the city hoping to quickly find our way to the mountain. We had resolved, from the previous day’s failure, that trying to find a matatu out of Nairobi was a bad idea, but we could use them to get back since all matatus outside of Nairobi are invariably leading back to Nairobi.

We began taking quotes from taxi drivers and the initial responses were grim. For the 57 kilometer ride, one driver asked for 20,000 shillings – about $250, or maybe half the value of the car he was driving. This led us back to the matatu option, specifically the dense cluster of long-range matatus packed into the northeast corner of the city. This region is said to be the most dangerous part of the most crime-ridden city in Africa.

There were matatus heading to every town in the country, many of them farther along on the same road to Longonot and costing less than 1/100th the price we’d been quoted by the cab driver. But invariably, when we asked to be dropped off at Longonot, we were pointed to some other matatu.

This went on for a long while, and was made more difficult by several street kids with somewhat terrifying facial scars literally hanging from our arms and grabbing at our bags. In frustration, I tried one last cab driver and discovered the miracle solution: find a guy who speaks little English and has no idea where we want him to take us but would very much like us in his cab. I said “Longonot Mountain” to him five times and watched him nod obliviously. Then I showed him a map and pointed clearly to our destination. This elicited more nodding. He named his price at a very reasonable 2000 shillings and we were on our way – to where was yet unclear, but we were just glad to be getting out of that area.

He took us to a town called Maginat – or something like that, I can’t remember. It was about 40 minutes in the right general direction, but still very far from the mountain. Suspecting from the start that something was wrong, Andy paid close attention to the signs and tried to keep us on track. It was, however, hopeless. And anyway, I was kind of lazily resigned to the likelihood that he would take us to the wrong place and we’d sort it out once we got there. Sitting in the car, we finally managed to communicate where we wanted to go and he replied that we would have to pay him more money to get there. Andy didn’t like this at all. Pounding our fingers on the map, we pointed out that we had been clear about our destination and he had messed it up. I knew this wasn’t going to get us very far, so I offered to buy him 500 shillings worth of gas if he would take us there for the same price. He agreed.

He asked directions from a couple people and we started down a very steep, winding road into the rift valley. We passed increasingly alarming road signs: first warning of curves ahead, then suggesting we test our brakes before going any further, and finally just a skull and crossbones.

The taxi clanked and rattled its way to the bottom, the brakes gushing a stink that said they could take no more.

The remoteness of our location made Andy very uneasy. When our driver stopped to pee, Andy was pretty sure he was going to pull out a gun. A fair enough concern, I suppose, but I felt confident that if he intended to rob us, he would have done it a long time ago. The thing that did make me tense was a few minutes later when we passed a group of guys with a bonfire behind some bushes. They had everything but a neon sign saying “Bandits!” They gave us a friendly wave and we kept going.

I hate feeling like the nervous muzungu who thinks everyone is going to rob him. From my direct experience, Kenyans have been almost entirely warm and friendly. Back in Lamu, my bag spilled open and everything poured out onto the deck of the dhow I’d rented. I was away at the time walking on the beach. The guy watching the boat put everything back in, including my wallet and all its contents, and ran over to tell me about it.

There’s a balance that has to be struck between trusting in the fundamental decency of people and avoiding situations of heightened vulnerability.

Actually, forget fundamental decency, it’s a matter of circumstance. Thieves and conmen generally make their own opportunities; they don’t sit around waiting for tourists to approach them. So I’ve got vastly better chances with the cab driver I picked out than with the guy who comes up to me. It’s highly unlikely he was sitting in his car, sharpening his knife and hoping I’d say hello.

But of course there’s no entirely reliable way of avoiding trouble. We’re all just playing the odds.

It took us another half hour to finally find the entrance to Longonot. We agreed to pay the driver another 500 shillings for his trouble, so the whole ride cost us about $30 – which is probably a lot less than he would have asked had he known where he was going.

It was 11:00am by this point, which I’d figured to be the latest we could possibly get underway if we were going to get back to Nairobi by sundown – when the vampires rise from their coffins and storm the city.

Before we could start up the mountain, we had an hour long walk down a rural dirt road to the entrance. We paid the fees at the gate and found out we would be the only two in the park that day. The ranger told us which way to go (up), then presumably went back to sleep.

I should mention here that the guide book suggested we hire a ranger to escort us up for safety reasons. This didn’t seem to be an option at the ranger station, although truthfully, we forgot to ask.


Andy was taking the pictures here. I’m still without a camera. So get used to a lot of shots of my ass.

The first hour was rough but uneventful except for a surprise giraffe spotting that caught me way off guard. It is a fundamental truth in life that there are places where you expect to see giraffes – like say zoos, safaris, and the Neverland ranch – and everywhere else you don’t. I suppose it shouldn’t have been too shocking under the circumstances, but it still caused a slight mental hiccup and the realization that we were still very much in the wild, which would later become even more apparent.

Reaching the top caused an even greater “Holy shit” moment. As I mentioned, Longonot is a crater. More to the point, it’s a dormant volcano. When you get to the top of most mountains, you get the thrill of looking over the other side and generally just taking a break for a while before heading back down. But when you get to the top of a volcano, you get to look inside.


The crater interior is impossibly deep and lush beyond reason. Standing on the rim , you’re a badly executed sneeze away from free-falling into an ecologically isolated forest that belongs nowhere other than Middle Earth. We stood slack-jawed for a few minutes, then started on our way to the real peak on the far side of the rim, which from our vantage point appeared twice as high as the peak we’d already climbed to.


In the foreground there you can see what the foliage looks like close-up. Nature’s toothpicks. They’ve adapted to discourage large mammals from eating them, and they’re very sharp. This makes the already precarious trail that much more fun.


Another hour in and the path got extremely steep. We were walking on sand and pebbles, so each step up was half a step down. I brought my heart monitor with me for the sake of curiosity, but it proved to be a pretty useful tool for knowing when to take a break. A few minutes around 180 and it’s time to sit down and breathe. At altitude, I hit that pretty quickly.

The absolute summit of Longonot is 2777 meters, less than half of Kilimanjaro, and even at that I was feeling the effects of reduced oxygen intake. The peripheral vision in my right eye had shrunk and I started getting a dull headache. We decided to press on with the understanding that I’d speak up the moment it got worse. I’m pretty worried about this with Kilimanjaro. I’ve got altitude sickness pills and lots of ibuprofen. We’ll see what happens.

So we reached the top.

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It was hard. I was tired.

We had the option of going back the way we came, which would have been shorter, or doing the full loop of the rim. The full loop was made a little trickier by the raging brush fire we could see in the distance. It was unclear whether the fire blocked the path, and it was after 2pm by that point. But we are rugged individuals of a manly sort and we pressed on.

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So it turned out the brush fire got pretty goddam close to the path. I mean like pretty much on it.

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It was loud. We could feel the heat on our faces. At one point, while Andy stopped to take a picture, a large bush caught fire and burst in front of him. He seemed less phased by it than I was. We held our breath during the smokier bits and ran through it unscathed.

The next trial came almost immediately after we cleared the smoke. Andy stopped short, looking down at the path.

“Oh God.”
“Have you noticed this?”


Yes folks, fresh paw prints from a very large cat. And they were pointed in the same direction we were going. Consider for a moment the exotic horror of walking on leopard tracks in prime hunting hour with thick bushes all around you. It definitely puts career concerns on the backburner.

Andy wondered aloud whether it was safer to walk in front or in the back, which was really not an issue I wanted to consider. The whole situation put me in a very un-talkative mood.

For every big, dangerous animal, there’s some thing you’re supposed to do if you ever have to confront one. In those tense moments, a jumble of conflicting suggestions swished around in my head. Each one seemed to have some validity. Which would you go with?

1. Show no fear, stand straight and extend your limbs to look bigger and more threatening.
2. Back away slowly, don’t make eye contact but never look away.
3. Run for your life.
4. Curl into a fetal position, protecting face, chest, and stomach.
5. Climb a tree.
6. Stand completely still, wet pants.

Really, any discussion on this is purely academic. Unless you’re Steve Irwin, number 6 is what will happen in any event. I’ve heard both 1 and 2 recommended for big cats. 3 is the kind of thing that probably seems like a good idea at the time but is sure to get you killed. 4 is for bears, but seems like a reasonable reaction to almost any situation. 5 is preposterous unless there happens to be a sturdy oak nearby with low branches. But 6 definitely works best for me.

As it happened, we were not pounced on, though I later found out there are indeed eight leopards living and hunting on Longonot crater (thanks for the heads-up Mr. Park Ranger). We were told they don’t generally attack humans – at least not in daylight, or some non-reassuring qualifier like that – I wasn’t entirely clear.

To be honest, a tiny part of me got a kick out of the suddenly very rational fear of being eaten. Most of me didn’t.

As my altitude issues went away, Andy’s knee problems began. He was a champ about it, but it was obvious that every big step down the mountain was causing him serious pain. This will be another obstacle for Kilimanjaro. Anyway, we made it down alive.


We collapsed in the ranger’s office, drank bottled sugar-water and took pictures to commemorate how truly awful we looked.

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So the dry run for Kilimanjaro was a success, tempered with some serious concerns. We defeated and humiliated the mountain, but it’s small potatoes compared to what’s ahead.

We hobbled for an hour back to town and, as we’d hoped, immediately caught a matatu back to Nairobi. The sun had just set when we reached the city, so we had to slog our way through a few early bird vampires to reach our hotel.

The next day we took a cab to the giraffe sanctuary. It was neat.

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The entertainment factor of feeding giraffes lasted about ten minutes.

That evening, Andy took off back to Mombasa to visit with Sangeeta and David some more. I’m meeting him there in two days and then we’re off to Tanzania. I stayed in Nairobi in theory so I could go to Lake Nakuru and see rhinos and flamingos, but I read a little about the place and decided it was a lot of work to get there, very expensive, and as I’ve said before I’m kinda done with the whole safari thing. I’ll have to settle for rhinos and flamingos at the Seattle zoo.

I’m still at the Catholic mission in the same tiny room with the crucifix and the Virgin Mary portrait. Instead of chasing flamingos, I’ve been eating really bland food in the dining hall and catching up on my journal entries, but more often just procrastinating about it.

I got a chance to visit the former site of the US Embassy in Kenya that was blown up by Al Qaeda in 1998. It’s a small park now in the center of the city, near the train station. They charge $0.25 for entry to keep it from becoming…well, like everywhere else in Nairobi. I showed up after closing time, but they let me in – I guess cause I’m American.

They’ve got a plaque in a courtyard with the names of everyone who died in the blast. 224 people, every one but two or three are Kenyan names. They bore our tragedy and we hardly even noticed.

I got accosted today on the street by some guy. When I said I was American, he got excited and told me he was going to study in Philadelphia. He said I seemed considerate and unprejudiced and could he pull me aside and talk to me about my country and blah blah blah. When I asked when he was starting school, he said September, which is interesting considering today’s date. It was also interesting that he was balding and couldn’t have been under 30.

When his initial story started crumbling, he transitioned into being a Sudanese refugee who had walked for 49 days to cross the border, surviving only on berries and watching many of his friends eaten by lions. He was involved in some kind of protest movement against the United Nations and would be shot on sight if the police knew he was in the city.

From there, he segued into getting visas for his family so he could take them to Tanzania, where he would be welcomed and at last find sanctuary. The one little monkey wrench in that plan was that the visas cost 12,000 shillings, and could I please help him out.

That’s when I started walking. I knew where he was going with the whole speech, but courtesy and curiosity prevented me from bolting sooner. The way the scam works, I’ve been warned, is the guy says whatever he needs to say to get money out of your pocket. Once he’s got something, anything, fake police appear out of nowhere, surround you, accuse you of helping a known fugitive, and shake you down for everything else you’ve got.

When I walked, the guy got very angry. He said I was pre-judging him and I must have been told something that is wrong. Then he started yelling that I was a racist, which is a weird thing to be called in a place like Nairobi.

Lovely, charming Nairobi.

A recent survey says 37% of residents have been mugged in the last year.

We’re all playing the odds – they’re just a lot worse here.

September 02, 2004

Lamu, Kenya
Searching for My Happy Place

I love trains. I can’t entirely explain why, but there’s definitely a genetic component. My dad is a train lunatic. I spent a great deal of my childhood listening to lengthy explanations of how trains get over steep gradients. For me, the passion isn’t as faceted. I don’t need to know how they work. I just really like riding on them.

And by this point, I guess I’ve ridden on a lot. I’ve taken trains in Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, India, Vietnam, Japan, Mongolia, Russia, England, and the United States. I took the longest train route in the world, through Siberia for six days, and loved every minute of it. And lemme tell you, in every country, without exception, it’s always the most pleasant and fun way to get around.

The Kenya Railway is great. It’s not only great, it’s historically great. It is THE East African Railway, built by the British in the 19th century to tame this wild continent. Conservatively, hundreds died building it – many of them eaten. I guess I shouldn’t use that as testament to its greatness, but it’s at least interesting. Another dubious factoid: Teddy Roosevelt used to pass time onboard by sitting above the cowcatcher shooting at game.

These days, it’s lost most of its thunder. The remaining imperialist charms are just echoes – habits they’ve yet to break for one reason or another. The dining car is like something out of Harry Potter. A guy runs through the 1st class hallways banging a triangle to let you know it’s supper time. When you get there, the white-suited waiters almost outnumber the passengers as they weave back and forth serving each course. It’s a preposterous cluster of frantic yet elegant activity. A few pieces of old cutlery remain; solid silver with Kenya Railways engraved on them. The new pieces are metal junk.

Even the cars date back to pre-independence, and they don’t look like they’ve seen much maintenance since. The power rarely works in any of the passenger cars, and it’s only intermittent in the dining room. This may or may not have something to do with the nests of exposed, severed wires dangling everywhere. They pass out flashlights to each cabin before departure.

While he was unrolling my bed sheets, I asked the porter if the power problem was going to be fixed any time soon.

“Yes. Very soon Kenya Railways weell be sold.”
“Sold? To who?”
“Eenternational company.”
“Really? And they’ll make repairs?”
“Of course. Eet ees the wet man.”
“I’m sorry?”
“The wet man ees the wet man.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You have seen Kenya, yes?”
“A little bit.”
“Then you know, we Africans, we do not take care of our things. The wet man, he knows how to keep his belongings een good condition.”

Each first class car has a Christian toilet on one end and a Muslim toilet on the other. The Muslim toilet is fun if you’re a guy, cause if you aim just right you can direct the stream all the way down the tube and onto the tracks below without hitting any surface. Most girls don’t know this: aiming pee is one of the best things about being a guy.

The train used to run from Mombasa on the coast all the way into Uganda. The British liked Uganda, I’m told, because Ugandans had kingdoms instead of tribes, hence they were easier to relate to. These days, the only route still running is from Mombasa to Nairobi and back. It’s an overnight leaving at 7pm every other day and arriving…well, whenever.

When I bought the ticket, the agent said to expect the train to arrive at 8:25am. “Maybe 8:30,” he said.

I got to Mombasa shortly after noon. There was a minor delay during the night caused by an “obstruction” on the track. Some guy fell asleep on it or something.

Sangeeta and Andy picked me up at the station, and Andy had his camera in tow.


I hope I don’t seem arrogant by posting pictures of myself. I’ve been told I don’t do it enough and people forget what I look like.

Andy and I hadn’t seen each other in a year and a half and hadn’t spoken on the phone once in that time. Our entire trip planning was done through daily emails. So it was a pretty cool reunion.

Andy quit his job and has been traveling the world since August, a la a certain acquaintance of his. His itinerary planning has been far more deft than mine, however – he’s been living on the cheap by utilizing his vast network of international college buddies. It’s getting him through a dozen or so countries with hardly a hotel room betwixt.

To further clarify who this guy is for those who don’t know: Andy is my old boss from Pandemic Studios. I worked with him in Los Angeles and he hired me to come down when they opened the office in Brisbane. He is an Australian, which means he talks funny and thinks there are two ‘i’s in ‘aluminum’. He is also smarter than you and me combined.


That’s him on the right, and his friend Sangeeta on the left. Sangeeta is a marine biologist living with her marine biologist boyfriend, David, in Mombasa. She’s working on her PhD in equatorial coral reproduction. She is smarter than you, me, and Andy combined.


That’s David. David runs a marine preservation and research foundation. He is smarter than you and me combined, squared, and rotated about the circumference of a sphere.

You can read about Sangeeta and David in the pages of National Geographic. No kidding.


This is David peeing. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

David and Sangeeta live in a truly fabulous house on the beach just north of town. Seriously, you wouldn’t believe it. You just can’t imagine.

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Best not to even talk about it. Keep whittling away at your credit card debt and try not to think about how far your money would go out here.


On my first day in Mombasa, after a bit of geeking out with Andy, I got the history thing out of my system by going to Fort Jesus and Old Town. Old Town is the part of the city close to the water built by Arab traders in the Mrmphrmfff century. Their primary business was exporting ivory and black people. I was glommed onto by a guide named Omar, which actually turned out to be a good thing as he was knowledgeable, helpful, friendly, and above all, cheap. He showed me the main slave platform where they’d haul out the merchandise and prep it for display. It was pretty chilling stuff, but also fascinating.

The East African slave trade had nothing to do with slavery in the United States. We stole our people from the West African tribes. Those purchased in Mombasa went to places like Oman, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq – or at least that’s what the places are called now. Swahili culture grew out of this intermingling between the two very different peoples of Africa and Arabia.

A third faction in this ugly affair was the Portuguese, who showed up late in the game but tried repeatedly to run the show. They’d land their ships in Mombasa, take control, then leave a small garrison to manage operations while the fleet sailed onwards. This invariably resulted in the garrison getting slaughtered and the Arabs taking over again. In frustration, the Portuguese built Fort Jesus; a massive and extremely well fortified edifice that was, nevertheless, sacked time and time again as soon as the fleet set sail.

It boggles my mind that any attacking army was able to penetrate Fort Jesus. There’s only one way in and it’s surrounded by inward-facing rifle turrets, each about an inch wide so as to be nearly impossible to fire back at. There were many successful sieges, though, and eventually someone realized it was a lot easier to starve them out instead of bothering to break in.

After a couple centuries of this, the Portuguese finally gave up on the place. The slave trade continued under Omani control until the British persuaded/forced them to cut it out in the 1870’s, around the same time it was becoming extremely unpopular back home.

The story of how Mombasa got its name would be hard to believe if it weren't so common in so many places around the world. It goes something like this: The town used to be called Invitay (that's phoenetic, I don't know the spelling). A British journalist was writing an article on the town and he asked a local what it was called. The local couldn't understand and replied, "Wambase?" which means something along the lines of "what the hell are you talking about?" Undiscouraged, the reporter asked again, and again he was told, "Wambase?" He jotted down his interpretation of the word, which was Mombasa, and that's what went down on all the maps forever after.

Enough history. These days, Old Town Mombasa is populated by a mixture of Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. Omar went to great lengths pointing out how well the three faiths get along. It was nice to see and all, but I would’ve liked to show him New York so he could see it isn’t the only place where folks put up with each other’s differences.

I had a couple incidents walking through the streets. The nastiest was when two guys walked into me and pinned me up against a wall. They said nothing and kept on walking. They absolutely reeked of pot. Fortunately, Omar was nearby, which made it less scary. He explained that ganja is rampant in Old Town because it’s tolerated in the Muslim religion. This would be, I’m assuming, the slightly modified Swahili version of Islam. Anyway, the reasoning is that you can’t pray to Allah when you’re drunk, but you can pray to him when you’re stoned, so it’s okay. The political rationale is that it’s locally grown, so as long as no foreigners are profiting from it, no one’s gonna make a fuss.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Al Qaeda has been active in Mombasa as recently as November, 2002, when they blew up an Israeli-owned hotel and simultaneously fired a missile at a departing El Al jet. The attack was specifically targeted, so locals don't seem to worry much unless they happen to be Jewish. Nevertheless, it's likely that there still exists an Al Qaeda cell hiding inside the city, which I do find pretty disconcerting.

Okay, onto the spider thing. Yes, there are huge spiders in Kenya, and yes I’ve seen them. Andy and I walked under an enormous web that spanned across an entire street. His camera doesn’t have a zoom lens, so he couldn’t photograph the spiders, and he seemed more interested in my reaction anyway.


I wasn’t actually entirely terrified by them. Strictly speaking, they’ve gotta be hairy to get my pants a’wetting. These guys were hand-sized, but spindly, which is almost tolerable at a distance.

I don’t know if they were Golden Starbust Baboon Spiders, and to be honest, I’m not sure if such a species actually exists at this point. I’ve searched my guide book a half dozen times without finding the reference, and I’m beginning to think I might’ve only dreamt I read it. The name Golden Starburst Baboon Spider is suspiciously fanciful, after all. It sounds like a Pokemon villain. Anyway, I’m not about to go looking up reference photos.

After a couple days in Mombasa, we were faced with a problem; Andy was sick. Andy has the immune system of Rock Hudson. When he gets a cold, it lasts a very long time and gets very snotty. He was out of commission and would continue to be so for at least a few days, so we decided I’d head north on my own up the coast to the island of Lamu, then come back towards the end of the week and hope he was feeling better.

I left by bus the next morning. I was only able to find a bus to Malindi, the one major town between Mombasa and Lamu. Excitement was provided en route by a random police inspection. The bus was forced to stop by a steel bar laid across the traffic lane with huge nails jutting out of it. Everyone started fiddling around with their seats as we were slowing, and I understood why when the woman next to me reached across my lap and clicked my seatbelt together. The police inspector came onto the bus, checked the licenses, checked the first aid kit, walked the length making sure all our seat belts were on properly, then yelled at everyone on the bus in Swahili. Whatever he said didn’t go over well, cause everyone started yelling back at him. They weren’t having any of it. Some passengers stood up and became threatening. He soon got off and we were back on our way.

We were inspected two more times on the three hour ride.

I got to Malindi by noon and found a bus heading to Lamu, but it was full. I sat on a Coca-Cola crate and watched four men argue about me for several minutes before coming to the conclusion that there was no way they could fit me onboard. I’m confident that if there was an open gap in the overhead compartment, they would’ve tried to stick me in there. So I bought a ticket on the next day’s bus and started looking for a place to stay for the night.

Curiosity soon led me off the sealed road and onto a winding dirt path through a sort of ad hoc flea market in a field. On the far end, the path ended at a group of men hunched together in a tight circle. Experience has taught me that whenever a bunch of men are huddled together in a tight circle, I don’t want anything to do with it. I started turning around when I was targeted by a boy named Jumu.

Jumu is 18. He likes Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. He wants to go to America because there is lots of sex. He likes the “mari-jew-wanna” and wants to join the army. He has no brothers and sisters, and when I ask about his parents I get a vague answer having something to do with Mombasa. Basically, he’s a street kid.

Jumu and I talked for a while as he led me through town. I liked having someone to walk with cause it kept other opportunists at bay and I was fine with giving him something once I figured out where I wanted to go. We talked about the Olympics (good), the war in Iraq (bad), and American rap music (very good). We eventually stumbled onto the Italian tourist beach. I gave Jumu 100 shillings, or a little over $1, which he seemed more than happy with, and I felt entitled to also give him a very short lecture about “mari-jew-wanna” being bad for his head. It was really cool that he never once asked me for money.

I took a room at the first place on the strip: The Oasis Village Resort – a bit of a splurge at $30, but I didn’t feel like looking around. My room was enormous though somewhat illogical in design, with one bed and two full bathrooms. I would have gladly traded one bathroom for a toilet seat.

I went downstairs to the lounge area and quickly discovered that I’d stumbled into a combination resort/brothel for old vacationing Italian whoremongers. They were scattered around the tables chatting up local women as a couple of pimps did the rounds making arrangements. Everyone smiled at each other and laughed a lot.

I eventually got marked by a group of three women at a nearby table. They inquired about me with the waiter, then one came over and asked if I’d like to buy her an ice cream cone. I said no.

“It is only one cone.”
“No it isn’t.”
“50 shillings.”
“Uh huh. No.”

They left me alone after that, and I continued to marvel at the spectacle in front of me. I thought about the statistic I read that 85% of Kenyan sex workers are HIV positive. That means that of the three women at the table across from me, the odds are 99.7% that one of them had HIV. And yet there were at least a half dozen Italian men vigorously indulging themselves.

People are amazing.

Sitting in the restaurant, it wasn’t long before I realized I’d done something very stupid. Initially, I felt relatively at ease within the boundaries of the resort, so I’d taken my laptop down with me. The restaurant was clearly visible from the street, and as I sat there writing and surveying the room, a group of young men was congregating across the street about thirty yards away. They weren’t staring at me; they were all quite openly staring at my laptop. One of them even mustered the gumption to duck under the security gate for a closer look and orbit around me inside the restaurant. It was so absurdly blatant that I had to stand up and stare back at him. He waved and left.

I’d made an enormous target out of myself. And worse, the door to my room was visible from the street. They all watched me go back inside. I felt like I was in one of those Loony Tunes where Daffy is starving and he sees me as a giant roast chicken. I locked all my things to the pipe under the bathroom sink. As I was doing so, a fight broke out between a pimp and one of the customers in another room. The pimp was threatening to kill the guy. Back at the lounge, everyone thought that was hilarious.

I didn’t get robbed and I probably didn’t have anything to worry about. More than likely, the guys were just curious because they’d never seen a laptop before. But it was an awful circumstance and I felt like an idiot.

Done with Malindi, I caught the bus to Lamu the following morning.

It is apparent to me now that there are class levels to the buses. There’s no clear indication of what class a bus is – if you ask, they’ll always tell you it’s wonderful – but you can kind of get a sense of what you’re getting yourself into by the amount you’re paying. If the fare is less than $1 for each hour of the ride: be thy warned, all those who enter.

The trip to Lamu was the second worst bus ride of my entire life.

It started out at only pretty bad. There was no room for my legs and the two seats next to me had a family of four packed into it. Then the kid behind me started playing with his toy cell phone that emitted a five second loop of grating Bollywood music ad nauseum. He literally stood on his mother’s lap, leaned against my seat, and held the phone to my ear for several minutes. At one point he dropped it between the seat and my back. I picked it up, and against every fiber of my being I handed the thing back to him. When he started playing it against my ear again, I finally turned around and asked his mother to put it away. She did.

Next, one of the kids asleep on the floor started kicking my leg. She wasn’t kicking so much as just fidgeting. Adults can sit still for long periods, kids can’t. They wriggle around and this kid was wriggling against my shin. In my weakened mental state, I kicked her back, which worked for a few minutes, then she’d start wriggling some more, and I’d have to kick her into her corner again.

I wasn’t able to fit my bag in the cargo hold because it was already packed full with sacks of rice, grain, and – I’m not kidding – hundreds of live chickens. Instead, I had to drop my bag in the front of the bus, where passengers stood on top of it the whole way.

A word on the odor in the bus: bad.

There were 66 seats. I counted them. They were more than filled at the start, and at intervals we would pull over in the middle of the desert and allow a dozen more wandering nomads to get on. They packed into the aisles until there were about 110 people onboard. There were six seated in my row, plus one lying on the floor, and three people standing in the aisle. I had sweaty ass crack pressed against my face.

I should mention here that we did see some hippos on the side of the road, so it wasn’t all bad.

It’s common for young Kenyan men to wear sports jerseys of U.S. basketball teams that display the names of cities like Chicago and New York. From where I was sitting, those words were like Neverland and Oz – more ideas than places. The difference in living standards is so vast it’s hard to fathom, and this experience was one of the closest I’ve come to really grasping the divide.

The patriarch of the muslim family scrunched next to me leaned over a good way into the journey to complain that the trip used to be a lot shorter because the driver would keep the accelerator floored the entire time. This of course caused many gruesome accidents, so the government has put devices in all buses that cap their speed at 80 kph. It added significantly to what is now almost a six hour drive. I am ambivalent about this law.

We stopped at a military outpost and a soldier stepped on wielding a huge machine gun and looking generally battle-ready. I wasn’t sure at the time whether he was providing security or just getting a free ride. I have since learned that the stretch he accompanied us through was major bandit country. What happens is they force the bus off the road, shepherd everyone out, make them strip off their clothes and throw all their belongings in a huge pile, then send them on their way. An incident happened earlier this year in which the driver refused to stop, so the bandits shot him and the bus flipped over.

This did not happen to my bus.

In the mid-afternoon, as I was draining the last of my mental reserves and trying very hard to find my happy place, we pulled into the closest thing to a town that we’d seen in quite some time. I was devastated when my new friend in the seat next to me said it wasn’t Lamu. He said we were almost there, though. I asked how long. He had no idea.

This is a thing I’ve learned. Kenyans don’t have much use for measurements of time or distance. If you ask how long something will take or how far it is, you’re likely to get a figure that’s off by several orders of magnitude if you get one at all.

There was a Dutch couple in the back of the bus – the only other muzungus aboard. As awful of a time as I had, there’s must have been even worse, because the back just kept getting compressed as the bus filled up. One of them got off to use the bathroom, and as she was getting back on, she saw me and smiled. She said, “Just act like you’re having fun, yeah?” I smiled back, but I couldn’t follow her suggestion. I just couldn’t. I’d had it.

I got up and started squeezing my way out. The muslim guy grabbed me.

“Where are you going?”
“I’m getting off this bus.”
“No. You can’t leave here. This is a bad place.”
“I’m sure there’s a taxi, right? I can find some other way to get to Lamu.”
“There is no other way. We are almost there. You must sit down.”

So I snapped and then I unsnapped. I sat down and continued looking for my happy place. My friend kept patting me on the leg and telling me it wasn’t much further and we were almost there. And yes, eventually, we were.

We pulled up to a jetty. All the passengers from the bus unloaded and went straight onto a large open boat for the last part of the journey. This took half an hour and was downright pleasant compared to what I’d just been through. There was one interesting part that I never quite figured out. We passed a boat going the other way that seemed to be dead in the water. After some very sloppy docking maneuvers, they threw some lines across and we pulled up alongside them. A bunch of people stood up on both boats and flooded back and forth, then we kept going. Andy loaned me his camera for the trip (I lost mine to a whale shark, you may recall), so I took a picture.


I have no idea why this happened.

Anyway, after all this, Lamu had to be pretty goddam fantastic to have been worth the misery – and praise be to Allah, it was.

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Lamu is an old Swahili trading village that got lost in time during the 19th century and somehow managed to carry on as it was until being resurrected in the 70s as an exotic destination for hippies. It is strongly muslim, but they somewhat tolerate our flesh-baring females and toilet-paper-using bathroom habits for the money we pour in.

The thing to do on Lamu – other than absolutely nothing – is to rent one of the fishing boats, called dhows, and have them take you to the local beaches and ruins. I met up with a Bolivian girl named Marielle and we hired a boat called the Marijuana.


We had a crew of three, led by a guy who called himself Captain Rasta Baby.

The conversation on the Marijuana revolved, not surprisingly, around marijuana, with occasional forays into the subject of reggae music. At one point, the crew got themselves so worked up on the subject, they had to take immediate action. They became upset. We made an abrupt turn to the shore and one of the crew ran over to a nearby dhow. He came back, relieved, having borrowed a lighter and lit his joint. We sailed on to Manda beach with an entirely baked crew.

The first thing to do once we reached Manda was find bait so we could fish for lunch. The bait is crab, which the crew chases across the beach with their bare hands until they catch one. Next we fish in a small tidal pool. It was okay if we didn’t catch anything, because, as the captain explained, “we already went fishing at the market.” This was good, cause we didn’t catch anything.

I really didn’t care either way, cause I wasn’t eating anything. The first thing I did when I hit Lamu was eat an enormous meal of Swahili food, and somewhere in that meal I ingested a vicious microbe of some sort. After that, my stomach was a rocky place where nothing could stay for very long, so my body mercifully flicked off the hunger switch for the rest of my stay in Lamu. I lost 8 pounds in three days.

Marielle and I went swimming and looked across the channel back at Lamu. We debated how far away it was, and somehow it turned into a discussion of whether or not we could swim across. We asked one of the locals if there were any sharks in the water and he said no. Impromptu and without bothering to inform our crew, we took off across the channel. This was rather stupid.

I should mention that I’m not a very good swimmer at all.

About 30 minutes later we were maybe a little past halfway across and we’d drifted sideways with the current farther than we’d swum. Without showing the slightest bit of irritation, Captain Rasta Baby came to our rescue. “Hakuna matata,” he said. It means “no worries,” like in Lion King. They say that a lot in Kenya, and A LOT a lot on Lamu. We held onto the boat for a while, then decided we could make it the rest of the way. And eventually, we did.

Some time later, Marielle asked if I thought there was any chance we could’ve been attacked by sharks. Five things occurred to me:

1. Bull sharks are common in East African coastal waters.
2. There are more incidents of bull shark attacks than any other species of shark.
3. Bull sharks mainly attack humans in rivers and estuaries that lead out into the ocean.
4. Bull sharks mainly attack humans in murky water, when they can’t see what they’re biting.
5. We had been swimming in a murky, East African river that led out into the ocean.

Like I said, this was rather stupid. But the guy told us there were no sharks, and we survived.

Hakuna matata.

Captain Rasta Baby picked us up on the far side and sailed us back to Manda beach, where everyone else had lunch and I stared at a plate of rice.

We ate with another traveler to Lamu named Muhammad. Muhammad is a Shiite Muslim of Indian descent who runs several businesses in Mombasa and loves to travel. He had spent time in Iraq visiting the holy sites, and we discussed the situation in Najaf. He impressed the hell out of me with his clarity of insight into the Iraqi situation. I won’t get into it here, but it was the first time I’ve spoken to someone from the Muslim world who’d spent time in Iraq and it was fascinating listening to what he had to say.

I took a lot of pictures of kids on Lamu.

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I know I’ve made my case for taking pictures of kids several times in previous posts, but it always proves true and I’ll state it again:

1. Kids are cute.
2. Kids aren’t trying to sell you anything.
3. Kids haven’t learned to despise white people yet.

The kids here love saying “jambo” to passing tourists. “Jambo” means “hello”. They do this thing I call jambo-sniping, where I’ll hear it shouted from far away and I have to stop, track down where it came from, and say “jambo” back, lest I be considered rude. The paths through town are winding and maze-like, so it can be a real challenge when the jambos are coming fast and furious from every direction.

One pack of kids couldn’t get enough of it. We got stuck in a feedback loop in which all of us were shouting “JAMBO JAMBO JAMBO JAMBO!” as fast as we could. I finally managed to break it up by yelling “jambo infinity times!” which left them stumped and silent.

Here’s a random thing I thought was amusing.


There are no cars on Lamu. Aside from the occasional cart, pretty much everything that gets transported is moved by donkey.


They roam freely through the town in packs, and it’s one of Lamu’s main charms. The donkeys are generally in very good health. This apparently has a lot to do with the donkey sanctuary some British philanthropist opened on the island to teach proper grooming and maintenance. When I think back to the cows roaming around Delhi with their massive growths, open sores, and spasmodic limbs, I am grateful to the deranged Englishman who decided to spend his excess cash on such an unlikely endeavor as Kenyan donkey health.

The day after my trip to Manda beach, I watched a dhow dock with the jetty and a small mob carry a veiled corpse off the boat and through the town. I asked one of the locals what had happened. He said the man died from a snake bite. I asked where the guy was when he was bitten. "Manda", I was told. "The snakes on Manda are not very poisonous, but there is no hospital for a long way, so he died."

There have been many instances over the last few days in which I didn't die. I am very appreciative of that. There are probably some people reading this who would like me to reduce the frequency with which death must be avoided. I will try to do that.

I just cracked 5,000 words, so I'm going to cut this short. I spent three days loafing around on Lamu and I’m heading back down tomorrow to see if Andy is feeling better. But there’s no way in hell I’m taking the bus.

August 26, 2004

Nairobi, Kenya
The Land of the Smutty Coconut

My day started on Mahe with a mile long walk uphill to the bus stop carrying 55 pounds of luggage in the rain. A taxi to the airport would have cost $30 and the constant price gouging on this island has worn me down to penny-pinching mode, so I opted for the $1 alternative.

The flight out of Mahe was uneventful, aside from a dumbfoundingly slow check-in line. But that seems positively expeditious now that I’m in Kenya.

Stories about hassles and bureaucracy aren’t very interesting. I’ve learned not to share them with other travelers, cause I end up having to listen to theirs and I don’t need that extra dose of pain and frustration in my life. But in this forum I don’t have to worry about hearing your stories, and I desperately need to vent, so please enjoy the following Kafka-escapade:

There are three foreign immigration lines at Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi. One is ambiguously labeled “Visa” and the other two are even more ambiguously labeled “Other Passports.” Not having a visa, and indeed having what I consider to be an “other” passport, I chose the shorter of the latter two lines. I waited at the front of that line for 20 minutes while the same two people stood at the counter in front of me, talking casually to the immigration agent in Swahili. Finally the agent looked past his two buddies and told me that he was going to take a long time and I should wait in a different line. By this point, the other “other” line was 30 people long, and it got even longer when everyone behind me rushed to the new line before I could get there.

So I started waiting in this new line when it occurred to me that the “Visa” line might be for people applying to GET visas, rather than those who already have them. I took a risk and switched lines again. After 5 minutes in this third line, a free-roaming immigration agent came by and asked if I already had a visa. I answered no, and he told me I had to get back in the “Other Passports” line.

Going back to this second line, it took a good 30 minutes to get to the front, where I was told – and it pains me even in writing this – that I was in the wrong line. Since I’m applying for a visa, I should naturally be in the line labeled “Visa.” I explained very clearly that I had just been told the opposite by a guy on the floor. The agent expressed pity and suggested the man was either uninformed, or perhaps some rogue troublemaker. It seems not impossible to me that there are people in this country who get their kicks like that.

So back into the “Visa” line again. By this point, my entire flight has been processed, so the lines are slimming. The guy takes my visa application and everything is going fine. He says it will cost $50. I ask if they take credit card. Of course, they don’t. He tells me to go to one of the banks outside baggage claim, get the $50, and come back. He sends me off, passport in hand, fully stamped and processed. I don’t know why I came back with the money, but I did.

Getting the money from the bank teller was a hoot. I asked for $100 and the teller gave me a $50 and a $5. When I showed him his mistake, he looked at me like I was trying to swindle him. A little bit of shouting cleared that up – either by convincing him I was honest or scaring him out of his “commission.”

But the real fun didn’t start until I was out of the terminal – a white guy, traveling by myself, exposed zippers everywhere, with the letters U.S.A. tattooed in fluorescent colors across my forehead. I had a caravan of people behind me as I walked shouting anything they could think of to get my attention. Bangkok all over again.

I knew I was looking for the Metro bus into the city, but there’s no one you can ask for directions because every single person has an angle. “Oh, the bus is very dangerous. You come with me.” “Oh, the roads are no good this time of day. You must take a taxi.” “Yes, I can sell you a bus ticket right here. You pay in US dollars?”

Any piece of information you share spreads through the group in seconds and they’re all trying to figure a way to make it work for them. The only thing to do is get out of there on foot and get some breathing room. I did that, and soon after I managed to find the bus and get into the city.

The next curveball came at the train station, where I was told there was no train running today. It used to be a daily train, but with the sharp drop in tourism following the embassy bombings in 1998, and then another drop when some planes crashed into some buildings in 2001, and then another drop when Al Qaeda blew up a hotel in Mombasa in 2002…now the train runs every other day.

There is one fundamental rule about Nairobi. I’ve read it and been told it at least a dozen times. It is that you must absolutely never under any circumstances or for any length of time be out after dark. I don’t know what happens at night here, but there is definitely no kidding around about that rule. And there I was at the train station at 6pm and I just found out I’m stuck for the night.

Fortunately, I was standing next to a group of young Italian aid workers. They were planning to go to Mombasa too and had run into the same problem. They offered to give me a ride in their van back to the hostel they were staying at. They seemed a little dodgy, but the situation around me was a whole lot dodgier.

Going with the Italians turned out to be a really really good idea. They took me to what I discovered is a Catholic mission on the outskirts of the city. It’s gated and secured on all sides like a military compound, only with crosses instead of guns. They got me a room in one of the cottages for $14 a night with three buffet meals included.

I had dinner tonight with two Sudanese priests. They’re here getting trained to deal with trauma victims in their country – which I am sure there is no shortage of. We had a fascinating conversation in which they explained the history of the Sudanese conflict. They had very thick accents and I could only understand about half of what they said, but it was a lot more than I knew before.

The thing that surprised me most was learning how pleased they are with the war in Iraq. It turns out the Iraqi government had been supporting the Arab leadership in Khartoum, providing weapons and money for their war against the Christians in the south. With Iraq crippled, the Sudanese government has lost their supplier and are suddenly scrambling. According to these priests, the current peace negotiations are the direct result of the Iraq war. Otherwise the Arabs wouldn’t even be at the table.

From their point of view, the Bush administration has been a liberating force for southern Sudan. They were thrilled when we defied the UN. They understand the messy circumstances of the war and that many people are very angry, but they are in a desperate situation and global politics are not important to them.

Three hours in Kenya and I’m having this conversation.

It’s been an interesting day. This place is alive in a way I don’t often experience. There are life and death struggles everywhere you look. The dire is commonplace. Chaos is the norm. It’s upsetting and it’s tragic, but it’s something else too that I can’t quite articulate and I don’t want to risk trying.

There’s a lot to say about my time on land in the Seychelles and if I agonize over it the way I usually do, I’ll never get around to posting this. So instead here are some semi-stream-of-consciousness ramblings:

The Seychellois are a mixture of Arab, Indian, Chinese, and European heritage, but they are predominantly a nation of freed African slaves. The islands were uninhabited before their discovery by Europeans in the 17th century, and continued to be uninhabited for quite a while after that.

The tiny bits of real estate that poke out above the Indian Ocean are summit points of the mostly sunken continent of Gondwanaland. The 800-some meter peak on the main island of Mahe is the Everest of a lost, prehistoric region we’re unlikely to ever know much about.


I dig that.

I had three days on the island after my dive trip, and as a daily constitutional, I hiked from one end of the island as high up towards the summit as the roads would go, then down to the other side of the island and back. I’ve still got a mountain climb to prepare for and can’t be slacking off.

The government is – or was until very recently – nominally communist. But like so many other places, its professed ‘ism’ is a thin cover for hysterical greed and self-interest. It was taken by force in the late 70s by some guy with the very sinister-sounding name of Rene, who has since become one of the richest men in the world. I won’t pretend to know how a guy with a country as small as this one could end up as rich as he has, but I suspect it has something to do with the incredible number of banks in the country’s one very small town center. Aside from some DVD rental shops and a casino, banks are about the only thing going in Victoria. I think I smell an international tax haven.


The combined population of the islands is somewhere around 100,000. It’s small enough that even though the people are thoroughly screwed over and poor, no one is actually starving. Tourist dollars likely have something to do with that too.

The prices in the Seychelles are crazy. I’ve never paid so much for so little. $110 isn’t outrageous for a hotel room in the states, but for a hard bed, intermittent cold, brown water, and a tiny TV with one channel in French, it’s a lot. Fortunately, I only booked one night at that rate before arriving. Once on the island, I was able to get my remaining nights for $70 – still 5 times what I’m paying in Kenya for the same thing.

I paid $12 for a nuked frozen burger patty and a bottle of water.

Most interesting menu item I saw: giant fruit bat curry. That was on the island of La Digue, where I got let off for an afternoon during the dive trip.

I rented a bike to get around. The owner identified me as American – a rare thing on an island of mostly French tourists.

“I love Americans. They are very strong. And very rich. If anyone tries to steal your bike, you will shoot them, yes?’
“No problem. I’ve got a handgun in my bag.”
“Yes. I thought so.”

La Digue is home to L’Union, one of the finest beaches in the world. Walking on L’Union is like invading a collective dreamspace – where we all go in our minds when we don’t want to be where we are. It doesn’t entirely feel like a real place.

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I stole these pictures from Carlo’s camera and they’re not the ones I would’ve taken. What makes L’Union special is the large, smooth, curvaceous slabs of granite that partition the beach into a series of perfect little alcoves.

Also, there are a lot of naked French boobs on display.

Speaking of things salacious, one of the things the Seychelles was famous for among whalers and merchants back in the day was the coco d’mer. It’s a type of coconut, found only on one island, whose shape reminded lonely sailors of…well, you figure it out.


They sell them now for hundreds of dollars, which strikes me as a lot to pay for a pornographic coconut.

The islands have a strange history of international espionage. There were, during the cold war, secret spy satellite control stations on opposite sides of Mahe – one owned by the U.S., the other by the Soviets. They both paid huge sums of cash to the local government for use of the land, and managed a tense coexistence for several decades. The islands were also a haven for mercenaries and assassins, which I imagine would’ve made for some interesting night life.

The primary language is Creole, a bastardized version of French, but everyone speaks English as well.

This is the only place I’ve ever been where the locals seem to be having more fun than the tourists. The main beaches are often packed with kids playing soccer, music, and practicing the Brazilian dance/martial art of kapuera (I’m very curious how that got here).

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By contrast, the French tourists sit around a lot, get sunburned, and occasionally take walks.

There is one movie theater in the country, the Indian owned and run Deepham Cinema. They have imported their homeland’s love of rigidly enforced, arbitrary rules designed to make customers suffer.

The start time of their early screening is 6:47pm. Patrons are not allowed into the building before this time. They’re forced to wait out in the street until a repurposed fire alarm goes off, signaling to enter. Everyone has to run inside and scramble for a seat as soon as the bell sounds, because the movie has already started.

There are two doors leading into the theater. They are both wide open. Customers are only allowed through one of the doors. There is no sign indicating that this is the case. If the other door is attempted, the guy in the ticket booth starts screaming and bangs his shoe against the glass.

If you ever find yourself in the Deepham Cinema on Mahe island, DO NOT rest your leg on the seat in front of you.

At the time of my visit, they were screening Spiderman 2 and had somehow acquired a massive, 20 foot plastic cut-out of Spiderman hanging upside-down on a web above their marquee. It covered the entire front of the building. I don’t know where it came from or how in the world it got there.

Ah, yes. Spiders. Palm spiders are real, they are very large, and they are all over the island.