one and asked what it was. “It is a kebab,” said the shopkeeper. “Will you take one or two?”
I bought two, and they were delicious. I told the others, but although they were hungry, they passed. I got two more, and Knud ordered some. He
enjoyed them very much.We had arrived without any set plans, so at dawn our first task was to find a place to spend the night. Inquiring in town, we
came to understand that hotel rates were quite a bit higher here than they were up-country. They were much higher than we had imagined, and
definitely outside our price range.
We briefly considered packing the whole lot of us into one or two rooms at a moderately priced hotel, but even that turned out to be too costly.
There were affordable hotels, we were told, but we were universally warned not to stay in any of them. Several people we talked to said they were
just plain unsafe. So now we were in a bind, and the idea of turning right back crossed our minds.
Agatha, however, had heard that at Hindu temples it was considered a blessing to assist travelers in need. “Temples may be willing to take people
in who are on the road,” she said. We were very dubious about this, but no one had any better ideas.
Most of the streets in Mombasa were a lot narrower than in Nairobi or Nakuru. I thought this must be because they were centuries older. The
buildings also generally looked much older. They were taller, and there were lots of shops. The layout of the city seemed less planned than that of
Nakuru or Nairobi, but as elsewhere in Kenya there was an abundance of flowers.
We passed under a local landmark -– two giant, crossed, metal elephant tusks -- and found a large Hindu temple complex nearby encircled by a
tall, white wall. To the side there was a park, and nearby there was a school. The temple had a large asphalt parking lot. From behind the wall
there rose a bright, white, monolithic structure reaching to the sky. It looked something like a steeple, but was wide in the middle and narrow at the
top. People who were hungry waited outside for the priests to distribute food, which they did every day. There were sayings in an Indian language
written all along the top of the long wall.
We walked through an entrance and found ourselves in a Hindu town. It was completely different from the rest of Mombasa. There were gods
everywhere, and many beautiful stone structures and columns that looked Roman to me. There was a Banyan tree with string wrapped around it,
and a large, covered, white marble floor where men were seated on pillows chanting as they recited from a book. Other men interrupted them, and
corrected them frequently.
There were some African men inside the complex too, apparently employees. We motioned to one of these men and asked him to come over.
“Uh,” Agatha ventured, “we’re travelers — on the road. We’re coming from up-country, and are hoping to stay here tonight.”
The man looked stunned. He then glared at Agatha as if to suggest she must be joking, but she persisted. “Ummm, who do you think we should
speak to about it?” she asked.
“Yeah, well, ‘UMMM,’,” he said, “I don’t think you’ll have any success with this. But if you insist on speaking to someone, there are two main priests in
charge. The highest priest is there.” He pointed to the base of the monolithic structure we had seen from outside. A priest was seated there amidst
flowers, oil lamps, food, and money, meditating. “He doesn’t speak to anyone except the other priest,” the man said. “It’s the other priest you would
need to see. I don’t think he can help you. He probably won’t even see you. There are a lot of other people he has to meet with today, as you see.
But I’ll inquire if you insist.”
Agatha insisted, and the man disappeared. He returned after a few minutes and said, “Look, he’s very busy right now. He may not be able to see
you today. If he can, he will come at some point. So you are free to wait -- right here -- in the meantime.”
“Do you have any idea how long he will be?” Agatha slipped in as he turned to walk away.
“No,” he said, facing the other way. “A while. Maybe today, maybe not.”
So we stood there feeling very uncomfortable. We hoped Agatha was right about this tradition of welcoming travelers. As the minutes ticked by, we
almost lost our nerve a few times and left. Each time, though, we remembered that we had nowhere else to go but back home. So we stood there.
About forty-five minutes later, the other priest came to the entrance, dressed in a white, flowing outfit.
“Yes?” he asked after dealing with a few other visitors who were waiting to see him. “What can I do for you?”
Agatha suddenly looked extremely uncomfortable. “Uh . . . well,” she said. “We are travelers — on the road - and we are in need of your hospitality
and wish to stay here at the temple.”
The priest looked just as stunned as the first man had. There was a long, embarrassing silence as he just stared, motionless. Agatha looked back at
him and lifted her eyebrows and shoulders slightly.
“I just don’t understand!” he finally said. “Why don’t you get a hotel?”
“Okay, yes,” Agatha replied, trying to explain. “We thought we would be able to afford one — and that was our original idea. But then we got here,
and realized we don’t have enough money. It seems the hotels here are a lot more expensive than they are up-country.”
“So they are,” the priest admitted.
“And, well . . . the fact is we don’t have another place to stay.”
The priest nodded.
“Oh, well, now I understand,” he said. “I will need to get permission for you. Just a moment.”
He went over and interrupted the other priest’s meditation. That priest looked up, listened briefly, and nodded without a word, then went right back
to meditating. The first priest returned.
“You may stay. I’ll have someone show you to your rooms. You’ll have one for the men, and one for the women.”
We were relieved, and very grateful. We were also intrigued. Staying at a temple was sure to be very different from staying in any hotel we might
have found. This was something most of us had not expected to do when we decided to come to Mombasa.
We were led into what the priest said was the largest Hindu temple complex in Africa, and one of the largest in the world. There were numerous
paintings of prominent deities, such as Krishna, in blue, and Ganesha, who had the head of an elephant. The large assembly floor was elevated
and seemed to be all polished marble. People had to remove their shoes before stepping upon it. There were bells hanging overhead. All of the
women inside were wearing saris and some of them were circling the Banyan tree, wrapping string around it. The temple fed pigeons, and there
was an enormous flock on the roof above the second floor rooms where we were going to be staying. Whenever they were spooked they made a
massive fluttering sound before settling down again.
The rooms were large and quite comfortable and each contained several beds. There was a shower down the hall. There were more of us than
there were beds, so we moved some of the beds together and several people shared a single connected line of beds. The rooms had powerful
ceiling fans that were effective at cooling us down, day or night, even here in Mombasa.
We thought we would be permitted to stay only one night and resolved to deal again with the housing issue the following morning, but the priest was
very welcoming. Now that we were there, he seemed pleased with our presence. He never suggested or indicated in any way that he expected us
So we stayed for nearly two weeks.
- Glenn Anaiscourt
The silhouettes of delicate palms appeared against the
moon, and at three in the morning we crossed the bridge into
Mombasa and passed through its narrow streets into a bus
station. The air, fed by the ocean, the heat of the sun, the rich
foliage, and the dark local soil, was sweet and delicious and felt
like it could be picked up and cut with a knife.
We were parked near a tiny shop lit by a lone bulb, the only open shop in
the area. We were free to sleep on the bus or to step out and reenter at
our leisure until sunrise. We entered the shop in search of tea.
Behind a glass counter there were snacks which we did not recognize. I pointed to
What First Got Me
Interested in Sanskrit ...