One thing I hate about travelling

Anyone who travels a lot will come across a certain kind of people, who are both a curse and a blessing. They call themselves guides and fixers, and they claim to exist to help tourists and visitors find their ways around a place. Or know more about a site. True, some tourists cannot do without them. But if you are a backpacker, the last thing you want to do is share your little money with a hustler who will give you information that you can anyway get off the internet, or off some guide book.
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I know, they are just trying to make ends meet, but because it’s an easy job (you do not need qualifications, nor do you have to invest any money to be a ‘guide’, you only have to idle at a popular tourist spot like a vulture in a death zone), there’s often ten of them for every tourist. That makes them a big pain. They are not the official guides with the registered tour companies, though those can also be so irksome – remember when you switched off your TV because every channel you tuned to had a Coke commercial? Well, these guides are like a million boring commercials waiting for you when you go out to relax, enjoy a photo shoot, admire the ruined architecture, where you go to have fun.
 
I first encountered one at Bashantapur Durbar Sqaure, inKathmandu. He could not take no for an answer. First, he wanted to sell us pictures of the Kumari, the child goddess who lives in one of the houses in the square. We told him we are Christians, and he retorted with a ‘What are you then doing in a Hindu temple?’
 
It’s totally free and unrestricted to enter the Kumari’s courtyard, but the first thing this guy tells me is this, ‘Today is a special festival. I can take you in to see her.’ I almost fell for it. Yet, I did not see any police or guard standing at the doorway. So we shrugged him off and went in, where we found a group waiting for the Kumari to show her face. After about thirty minutes, she showed in one of the windows for a few seconds. We could not take photos because it is prohibited. Strangely, there were thousands of her photos being sold all over the square.
 
Entrance to the Kumari’s courtyard.
The ‘guides’ who will hustle you idle about.
The Kumari’s courtyard
When we got out, the gentleman was waiting for us. We still said no. And the harassment started. He insisted that we use his services, because we were in the square and needed a guide. We just wanted to take photos and we could find our way around. He followed us wherever we went, chanting “I’m a guide I’m really cheap” over and over again like a toy robot. Then, he started to offer us information on whatever we were seeing – “They used to decapitate people on this stone.” – But that is when it turned into an argument. A quarrel. I called him a liar and that made him very angry.
 
Maybe what he said is true, but there was a guide pamphlet about the square, and I did not remember seeing that kind of information. I know these fellows will cook up anything to get your attention. When we were in Fort Jesus, Mombasa, one scared us into hiring him.
 
Fort Jesus, Mombasa, with it’s irritating hustlers and guides lurking at the entrance.
We wanted to walk around the Old Town (it was not worth it, it is not even an old town. Do not bother to walk around it. There is no wow factor) but we did not know this. We trusted what the stupid guide books said. So we thought it would be an interesting thing to do. We tried to ask for directions, but even that was for sale. None of them could show you the way to the toilet unless he offered to ‘guide’ you there, for a fee. This guy, he called himself Muhammad Ali, scared us with talk of muggers who would rob us if we had no guide, so we let him ‘guide’ us.
 
But he was only after the money, and getting over the tour so quickly. He walked at such a fast pace that we fought to keep up with him, and even now I cannot imagine why we did not ditch him immediately. He frequently took us to craft shops which he obviously had connections to, and tried to talk us into buying stuff from there. The walk around Old Town might have been nicer without him. We should have taken a map of some kind with us. It seemed perfectly safe to walk about without a guide.
 
When we got to Fort Jesus, another hustler tried to take us around. He tried to lead us away from the official ticket booth – I figured they have a scam going, where you can get in without paying the official entry fee, and that is why this guy did not want us to go straight to the ticket office. We ignored him. But once inside, he kept on our tails, very much like the Nepali man in Bashantapur. He was so insistent that he got angry when we ignored him. Only after I used foul language did he bugger off.
 
The one thing that made Nyali beach not as interesting as it might have been were the beach boys. Like the guides at the historical sites we went to, they try to make a living from the hundreds of visitors who come to have fun by the waterside. But in their quest for money, they turn into a nuisance. Even while we were swimming (or in my case trying to swim) they would walk into the water and try to get us interested in buying their stuff (sea shells, sea foods, etc) or to get us to go snorkeling with them, or to make for us crafts with our names on it. We could hardly enjoy the water in peace. There was one, however, who seemed like a nice fellow. He was called Julius, and I will write about him later.
 
Julius, the beach boy of Nyali
So when we got to Bofa beach in Kilifi, and found it totally isolated, not a soul in site, we were thrilled. At least we would have some fun. Unfortunately, the tide was so high and the water so rough for amateur swimmers like us to go into it. It would have been nice for surfing though. So we sat on the sand and enjoyed the music of water crashing onto the shore. Just when we thought we would get away with making love there, two young boys appeared. They were about eleven years old. And they were selling shells. I guess someone had spied us coming in and so word went round that there were two visitors down in the beach waiting to be hustled.
 
The boys of Bofa beach, Kilifi
Still, these little boys were not aggressive like the folk at Nyali beach. They were shy, and gave us privacy when we told them we were not interested in their shells. This surprised me so much that I decided to buy a few shells from them.
 
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How to enjoy a five day holiday in Mombasa with only $200

This weekend, I returned from Mombasa, where I spent nearly two weeks on holiday with the girlfriend. Ooops – fiancée. We had planned for it for a long time, and she did not know I was planning to pop the question in style during this holiday. Upon returning, a friend called and said I must have spent millions. I laughed, because we each hardly spent 300 dollars for the entire trip! We would have spent less if had avoided first class on the train!

I know, you are skeptical. But let me give you a few tips. You can have a five day holiday in Mombasa for only five hundred thousand shillings. That is the kind of money some Ugandans blow in the fake beaches around Lake Victoria. Some even blow it in bars. But next time you want to take out your girlfriend, try Mombasa. It’s cheap, if you follow these simple tips I’m going to give you.
 
I like to travel, to see the world, to experience new cultures and new adventures. I’ve thus figured out the cheapest ways to enjoy the most exotic spots in the world as though I’m a rich person.
 
Needlessly to say, take the bus, not a plane. And certainly avoid first class on the train! The bigger and more comfortable buses no longer make the Kampala-Mombasa trip. They only go up to Nairobi. There is only one company that we found has buses going all the way to the coat. This was Mash Poa, a pretty cool and comfy bus. Still, you’ll have to take a bus to Nairobi, and then change to another one that goes to Mombasa.
 
Luxury busses like Queens Coach cost about 70,000 (30 USD) and 12-14 hours from Kampala to Nairobi. It was very comfortable. They gave us free snacks. The only problem was there was no toilet break between Busia and Nakuru! You can get to Nairobi for less than 70k, however. Take a taxi to Busia or Malaba, it costs only 15,000. Cross the border. Take a bus from the Kenyan side to Nairobi and you’ll pay between 1,000 KES (about 30,000, or 12 USD) and 1,350 KES (about 40,000, or about 16 USD).
It’s common to see game along the highways of Kenya
 I am not sure about this, but I think there are buses that go from Busia/Malaba to Mombasa for about 1,500-2,000 KES. We saw these buses and those rates while in Mombasa, but we already had other plans for the return trip.
 
The one advantage travelling by bus has over flying is not just because you save lots of money. The highways pass through game parks, and so instead of paying hundreds of dollars on safaris, just take a bus. Sooner or later, you’ll see game. Lots of game. Zebras. Giraffes. Buffalos. Elephants – Reiza was so thrilled to see the red elephants of Tsavo that she squealed and screamed at me to take the photos – The experience was better on the train.
 
Do not spend the night or a lot of time in Nairobi. It will only eat into your budget. There are many buses that go to Mombasa and it is possible to get one every hour. The cheapest will cost you only 1,000 KES (about 30,000, or 12 USD). It takes about seven hours. But be sure to time your trip so you do not arrive in Mombasa during the evening rush hour. It was the worst jam I ever experienced. We were stuck in it for about two hours. And it was made much worse because we had been traveling for nearly 24hours, we had not had a toilet break in nearly 3hours and my bladder was bursting.
 
The train leaves Nairobi for Mombasa on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. You can take this as well, and if you avoid first class and take economy class, which goes for only about 600 KES (about 18,000 Ugandan, or about 11 USD), you’ll see that you save almost 20,000. And you’ll see more animals because the train passes deeper into the parks than the buses do.
 
Once in Mombasa, you will worry about where to sleep. You of course do not want to go to a hotel or guest house where you will be robbed. The seedy kind that adulterers prefer. But good accommodation can be very expensive. And those closes to the beaches are beyond your reach. Unless you find a backpacker’s place. You can stay right on the beach, in a dorm, for as little as 800 KES a night. (That’s about 10 US dollars or 25,000 UGX). 
A resident of Backpacker’s Nirvana

We stayed at Backpackers Nirvana, which is right on Nyali beach, and it was worth the price because we were allowed to cook food for ourselves. If you are a budget traveler, then cooking facilities come in very handy because you won’t have to spend a lot of money eating in restaurants. At Backpackers Nirvana, you can get a private room for about 3,000 KES a night. These rooms can host up to three people because the beds are really huge, so if you are traveling in a group and do not want to share a dorm with strangers, this might be the cheap option.

Even cheaper and free, is Couch surfing. There is this website http://www.couchsurfing.org/  where you can find someone to host you for free in Mombasa. We put out a request and we got a lot of people offering us free accommodation in their homes. But we chose to stay at Nirvana because of it’s proximity to the beach. We wanted to be able to go to the ocean at any time of the day. It was worth it. We spent a few dawns taking a swim in the ocean as the sun rose out of the waters. Absolutely marvelous!

 Now, if you make the calculations, you realize you need about 180,000 UGX (70 USD) for transport alone, and about 125,000 for bedding (50 USD). That leaves you with 195,000 (80 USD) for food, entry tickets to the popular tourist sites and fun. I’d suggest you avoid the tourist sites that are not unique to Mombasa – that you can find elsewhere, even here in Uganda. The entry fees are very expensive and will eat deep into your pocket. The only two places I would recommend are Fort Jesus, and the Marine park where you can snorkel and see the bottom of the sea. Do not go to Haller park – though it is a nice place and offers a very exciting and fulfilling experience. It is a very expensive zoo in a reclaimed quarry, and yet it doesn’t even have that many animals. You can always see those same animals along the highways.
 
Fort Jesus charges foreigners an entry fee of 800 KES (about 10 USD), and 400 KES for Kenyans. I paid the Kenyan rate, because I speak fluent Swahili. They do not ask for IDs, so as long as you know Kiswahili, you’ll get away with the deception. And when you go to the Marine Park, you’ll see how much you can save if you passed off as a Kenyan. Foreigners pay 1,300 (about 15 US dollars) while Kenyans pay on 100 KES! It makes me wonder if foreigners are supposed to have bigger eyes than Kenyans and so have to pay more for seeing the same crappy animals that the Kenyans will see. For the marine park, you’ll need to cough about 1,000 KES for a boat to sail in. The rate is the same, whether you want the boat for the whole day, or for just a few minutes. There are two kinds of boats, the glass boat with engines, and the angalawa (sic), which I preferred for it is indigenous and gives you a more exotic and romantic experience, especially if you take Wagna’s boat. You can find him through Backpacker’s Nirvana. I thought the boat was called a dhow, but Wagna said it is called angalawa, I hope that is the correct spelling. It sounded like that.
 
 

So if I am limiting you to only Fort Jesus (one day) and the Marine Park plus snorkeling (one day) what will you do for the other three days? Seeing that you have only slightly over 100,000 left for you to spend? Go to the beach!

 There’s lots of fun you can have at the beach. Play soccer. Swim. Float. Just ogle. If you are the clubbing and partying type, go to Mtwapa, the sin city of Kenya, and you could dance right by the water’s edge. Or you could easily pick a girl – or a man – for the night!
 
Mombasa has many beaches that you can play in all day. There’s Nyali beach, which is closest to Backpackers Nirvana, and probably the best of those near Mombasa. But there are also beaches in Mtwapa and in Kilifi. I especially loved Bofa beach in Kilifi because we had it all to ourselves. It was so isolated that it gave me enough courage to perform a little “Will you marry me” drama right by the seaside without onlookers spoiling it with their bewildered eyes.
 
Kilifi is about an hour away from Mombasa by matatu, which cost us about 150 KES. While in Mombasa on a budget, avoid the tuktuks and the taxis. They will drain your pocket. Mombasa’s matatu service is very friendly, and it’s easy to get to wherever you want to go because all matatus are labeled with their routes. In our hotel, there were two girls who stayed in the dorm, paying only 10 USD for accommodation. But they were spending about 40 USD daily on tuktuks and taxis. It did not make sense to me. They might have spent less than 5 US dollars daily if they learned how to use the matutus, or walked.
Captain Wagna leads a client to his boat
 
Then, you need to eat sea foods. Avoid the restaurants. They will overcharge you. I was surprised, for I thought that being by the ocean, sea foods would be a lot cheaper in Mombasa. But the prices were murder. We thought we would not taste anything until one of these beach boys, Julius, promised to get us anything we wanted. He got us all kinds of fish and crab and lobster, at give away prices, for he knew some fishermen, and we cooked it ourselves and enjoyed the meals for a tenth of the prices we would have paid in Golden Sticks. We later realized we might have gone to one of the fish markets and bought the sea foods ourselves.
 

Well, so there it is. Your five day holiday in Mombasa for only five hundred thousand shillings. It’s doable. Better start saving. The best way to have fun is not by buying stupidly expensive tickets to watch drunk musicians in Lugogo. Nor is it by going to Kabira country club or to Steak Out and getting drunk. Jump on the bus, leave the country and you’ll discover a whole new world that you hitherto thought was reserved for the rich!

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