happy kwanzaa! just kidding. not that you shouldn't have a happy kwanzaa if you celebrate that sort of holiday, but for me, personally, i don't believe in kwanzaa. is that politically incorrect to say? is it possible not to believe in something intangible that only really exists in people's customs and traditions anyway (world religions notwithstanding)? whatever the case may be, i choose abstinence from recognizing the existence of any holiday called kwanzaa. sue me. i've reached this absolutist stance by way of exhaustive research on the subject (read: i read some web page somewhere), after which i'm convinced that a small minority of black people in the US created the holiday in the 80's to rage against the white machine that is christmas and hannukah. in the past i had believed that kwanzaa was a traditional african holiday, adopted by the "african"-american community and celebrated in all of its historic and customary festivity. instead, it's a made-up celebration held around the same time as the 'first harvest' (kwanza is swahili for 'first') somewhere in africa. i have yet to meet an african who has ever heard of kwanzaa.
but then, if kwanzaa sits in my cardboard box of rejected holidays, how could christmas escape a similar judgement? sure, maybe it began as a celebration of the birth of the savior of the world (a legitimate reason to celebrate if i've ever heard one), yet what is it today but a farcical orgy of advertising and unrepentant materialism? besides, i've read some literature (read: not online this time) that dates jesus's birth to sometime in october.
so where does that leave me? i like christmas - and its free market festivities - too much to reject it. if christmas is granted legitimacy on such whimsical grounds, then i guess kwanzaa should be allowed to sit at the adult table of holidays as well. karibu, kwanzaa. help yourself to some mashed potatoes.
christmas for me was a busy time of year. not that i had any actual work to do, but rather i had a lot of places to go. while brian and i were playing hooky in the week after thanksgiving, we met a sailor in mombasa who claimed he could take us to swim with whale sharks. whale sharks, for those of you that may be unaware, are the world's largest non-mammal, and the warm waters of east africa during the hot season are a great place to see them. i had also met a local hotelier on the same trip who lived on tiny wasini island and who invited me out to stay another time with him. so, while brian was going home to LA for christmas, i organized a group of about a dozen peace corps volunteers to hunt down the huge fish with me and to camp out on the little island in the indian ocean.
well, for being the size of a mack truck, whale sharks turned out to be quite elusive beasts. not only did we not get to swim with them, but none of the fishermen we encountered had seen or heard one during the day we went out. my disappointment was tempered by the knowledge that whale sharks can be quite dangerous, if oblivious, creatures. they sweep krill and plankton into their giant mouths so indiscriminately that unsuspecting divers and snorkelers have been dragged to their deaths by the ignorant fish.
my disappointment was also relieved a bit by the schools of dolphins that seemed to have adopted our boat for the day, swimming around and under us at several points. i jumped in the water to swim with them, but they shied away, apparently unaware how much fun we could have had if they had let me stand on their backs and hold their fins while they did somersaults out of the water.
we camped on wasini island and had fabulous meals of grilled fish and coconut rice and fresh fruit, and toured their dry coral gardens - a boardwalk snaked through the mangrove forest growing up out of the coral, long-deserted by the ocean waters, and was maintained by a local women's group, who charged 20 shillings for its enjoyment. it was a relaxing place, and groups of youth would come occasionally to beat on the weathered picnic tables in rhythm and chant to the beat. the island is an infinitely picturesque atmosphere, surrounded by sparkling turquoise waters which recede during low tide, abandoning the mangrove trees whose roots sink deep and twisting into the mud. mangrove trees actually have a sophisticated desalination process built into them, able to receive nourishment from the saltiest of waters, something that us omniscient humans have yet to duplicate.
we left wasini and traveled up the coast by bus, through malindi and onwards to the northerly island of lamu, where we were meeting the 30-odd other volunteers who were converging on the small muslim town for the most un-muslim of holidays. the road running between malindi and lamu is not a very pleasant one, especially when you're stranded on it for hours at a time. our first delay came at a police check-point, where we were informed that bandits had been attacking lorries on this road for the last several days, and we were not allowed to proceed without a security escort. an hour later a policeman stumbles from the barracks and boards our bus with his bulky AK-47, and we're allowed to move on.
the unusually long rainy season had flooded much of the low-lying coastal land, and forced the inhabiting tribes to abandon their thatch-roofed homes. clustered settlements of refugees lined the elevated highway in makeshift shacks made of government-issued heat blankets and corrugated tin sheets, apparently determined to wait out the floods and return to their huts once the waters receded.
the rains had also managed to stir up about two feet of muck and mud in one stretch of (unpaved) road, where we reached our second and final delay, which would last until well after dark and all of our patience was gone. buses and tractor-trailors and suv's alike were all swamped, unable to move in the mire, and the passengers were left bemused and hopeless as every effort to unearth the vehicles failed. as darkness set in people began to get more frantic and more audacious in their plans of escape - some boda-boda drivers (bicycle taxis) offered to take us and our luggage the supposed 10km to the nearest town, where a resident PCV was waiting to take us in for the night. some of us, impatient with the indecisiveness of the group, decided to take their offer and went to recover our luggage from the roof of our bus. as luck would have it, we returned to find an empty bus had arrived to ferry the stranded passengers the rest of the distance, which turned out to be much more than 10km. had we actually gone through with our boda-boda plan, i doubt we would have survived. we were, after all, in bandit country without an escort.
we finally made it to lamu, after spending a night with mindy in her village near the ferry, and invaded the house she had arranged for us to rent for the week. as a "local," she got us a good deal, at $50 per person for the week in a 25-bed house near the heart of lamu town. the rooms were all equipped with ceiling fans and mini-fridges, which both turned out to be inconsequential, since the electricity was off for 75% of our time there. the week was a blur, filled with fishing and snorkeling trips on traditional swahili dhows, jumping off of the main pier in town with a crowd of lamu-ian onlookers, all of the guys buying swahili man-skirts (which, let me tell you, are breezily comfortable), drinking fresh mango, passion fruit, pineapple juice, and feasting on a christmas dinner of lobster, crab, fish, and prawns. the island is described by many people as a smaller, more relaxed version of zanzibar, full of swahili culture and dominated by a heavy muslim influence. the food was incredible, the people colorful, and the island on the whole a very, very charming place.