The hotel spa is booked for the day, so Carlston (the receptionist) works out another option for my massage. It’s somewhere in town, so we get a Tuktuk. His colleague asks to hitch a ride and my first surprise is that the backseat is comfortable enough for all three of us.
Carlston says we’re not going too far. He mentions one of the big hotels in the area and I imagine a fancy spa like the one at ours. But when the Tuktuk stops a few minutes later, we’re smack in the middle of the road.
We bid our hitchiker goodbye and a woman joins us. They’re speaking in Swahili so I can’t follow. I suspect the conversation has something to do with my massage, but she doesn’t introduce herself, and I don’t ask.
Eventually, Carlston comes over to say we have to walk into the settlement. I don’t see any spas or hotels around, but okay!
The area reminds me of my family house in Ipaja, but from like a decade ago when we first moved. There’s a litter of quaint bungalows, half-completed storey buildings, a few villas with very high walls, but mostly it’s open, green and brown.
At first I think we’ll end up in one of the nice houses with decorated gates, but as we walk past villa after villa, it becomes more apparent what’s (not) happening here. Through all of this – by the way, no one is saying anything.
After walking some distance in silence, I break the ice. I make a joke about how disappointing it‘d be to have to walk back so far after getting a relaxing massage. In the same tone, I ask “how do you even get customers here”? We all laugh.
We arrive at our destination, and it’s someone’s house!
I count three buildings, two of them completed below the decking. The compound is littered with small trees and fallen leaves, and a playful puppy (Lula) sprints at me.
Christine finally introduces herself and explains: we’re supposed to be at a spa, but she’s having problems with them and no longer has access to the space. So the massage is going to happen here, in her home.
There’s a massage chair in the compound and I suspect I’m about to get my service in the open! It’s so surreal (and unsanitary), but I’m down. We settle on a back massage.
On our way to Christine’s, I notice a small hut with a cooking station at the entrance to an establishment. There’s a bungalow to one side, but most of it is an open field with small trees and handmade furniture. Two men and a woman are seated outside.
Seeing food makes me hungry, so I ask Carlston if we can go eat there. He mentions that we can get drinks too since it’s a local pub, and we agree to meet up after my massage. As soon as Christine’s done, I head back and he introduces me to the group.
I learn that we’re in Carlston’s area and he grew up with the trio. The men — Simba and Tarzan — have long, matted dreads. The lady — Rose — is the owner of the pub. At first I think they’ve given me fake names, but by the end of the night I realise otherwise.
Simba’s the most enthusiastic, and he quickly declares himself a “crypto knight”. He talks about a lot of things: wanting to make his own cryptocurrency, wanting to build schools and hospitals, wanting to buy land in Kenya and Nigeria, Italians owning a bulk of the hospitality industry in Watamu, paying too much for a hotel after taking up a stranded traveller, etc. Tarzan and Rose are welcoming and participative but also cautiously quiet. The bar is co-run by Nas, Tarzan’s older brother, and they speak of him with a lot of respect.
First I ask for some palm wine, and then some food.
I try not to assume everyone with dreads smokes weed, so you can imagine my relief when Simba asks. Palm wine, grilled fish, and now a blunt? Sitting the middle of trees, a gentle breeze, gist? Yes please!
A man called Uncle joins the table. He seems quiet and thoughtful, and only speaks in Swahili. He rolls the first joint while Tarzan clears the dishes. By this time, the group is a lot warmer and we’re all talking and sharing stories. I decide to stay longer.
The pub was a forest/dumpsite until Rose got permission to use it and rallied her friends to clear it. They made furniture out of the cut-down trees and hung coloured lights over the rest. Now it’s a community pub, and she’s hoping to grow the business and attract tourists.
By evening, a dozen more people join us and cluster in groups. I stay until dark to see the lights come on, and Rose and I take pictures for a website. At the end of the night, Carlston and I get on a bike and he gives me a tour of the town.
Of today’s surprises, my favorite is when Rose asks “If this was your place, what would you name it?” Her story of what it used to look like before she intervened stuck with me.
“Forest”, I say. I’d call it Forest.