Travel Tales

G. Tony Jacobs/GNU

Travel Tale: Mombasa, Kenya

September 09, 2008
by Chris James
As I stepped off an airplane at Moi International Airport in Mombasa, Kenya, I immediately felt the African breeze and the distinct feeling of stepping into another world. After traveling for over 24 hours across three continents, I eagerly anticipated the adventures that lay ahead, and took a moment to take in the fact that I was on the other side of the earth.

Mombasa At a Glance

Mombasa is the second largest city in Kenya with a population of over 750,000. Situated on the Indian Ocean, it is the major tourist destination on the coast. Mombasa is also key to Kenya’s economy because it’s the country’s main seaport. A wide variety of goods are shipped to the port, then loaded onto trucks and dispersed around Kenya and throughout East Africa. The main town center of Mombasa is located on an island, which also boasts popular tourist destinations like the historic Old Town and Fort Jesus. Most tourists stay at hotels on the north coast, which is connected to the town center by the Nyali Bridge.

Living at the Tamarind

We spent three weeks in an apartment at the Tamarind Village, located directly on the harbor, just off of the physical island of Mombasa in the Nyali neighborhood—a perfect place to unwind after a long day of work. There were two beautiful infinity pools, a fitness center, and a spa that offered massages and other enticing amenities. The onsite Tamarind Restaurant is listed by Frommer’s as being one of Kenya’s eight best restaurants. A fun nighttime activity is a trip on one of the Tamarind Dhows, which sail around the Mombasa harbor while an entertaining live band plays. We feasted on a delicious five-course dinner and festive drinks. Happily, there were no seasick passengers, which made for a perfect night.

Volunteering at the Clinic

My visit was made possible because my mother travels to Mombasa for business several times a year. As an HIV/AIDS research nurse at NYU Medical Center, her team coordinates the clinic at Bomu Medical Center. I worked in the clinic along with my brother, and three other U.S. volunteers. Working at the clinic gave us a glimpse into the real lives of ordinary Kenyan citizens. 

Every Saturday, young members of the clinic’s Post-Test Club travel to slums and extremely poor neighborhoods to educate people about the importance of safe sex and getting tested for diseases such as HIV. The informative dialogue consists of entertaining skits and performances designed to engage the audience and shed the misconceptions and stigmas associated with HIV/AIDS. Although the skits were performed entirely in the country’s national language, Kiswahili, I could see the audience’s positive reaction. This outreach trip was also a wake-up call to the sheer poverty in which millions of Kenyans live.

Kenya has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to UNICEF, an estimated 1.3 million people live with the deadly pandemic, which comprises approximately 6 percent of the entire Kenyan population.

Trip to the Masai Mara

A trip to Kenya is incomplete without a safari trip on the Masai Mara reserve. We boarded a small jet plane to go from Mombasa to the Mara, where we landed on a dirt runway. As we landed, elephants, zebras and giraffes greeted our arrival. After a long drive from the airstrip, we finally got to our destination: the Fig Tree camp. Under a huge wooden sign that says “Karibu!” (the Kiswahili word for “welcome”) is a wooden suspension footbridge, where you can often spot hippos swimming underneath. The camp had a restaurant, pool and breathtaking “tree-top” viewing area. Each of the camp’s visitors stay in exclusive tents that are more like high-class hotel rooms.

The highlight of the experience was going out on the safari drives. We went on six excursions during our three-day stay, where we got to see exotic animals up close in ways I could have never imagined. Some of the more memorable sights included: a pride of over ten lions playing and interacting with each other, three cheetahs lounging in the tall grasses after their morning hunt, a family of elephants walking across the dirt path we were driving on, and a leopard perched in a tall tree devouring the carcass of a gazelle.

Fort Jesus Museum

The Fort Jesus is a must-see destination for someone visiting Mombasa. It is one of the city’s oldest and most important museums, overlooking the Indian Ocean. Fort Jesus was built in 1593 to secure the safety of Portuguese living in East Africa. Since then, it has endured attacks and sieges by hostile groups wanting control of the structure. It is now one of the National Museums of Kenya, and it remains one of the most popular destinations among tourists. Be aware that outside of the museum, in the Old Town neighborhood, dozens of ambitious tour guides will approach you to give a personal, guided tour of the fort. We decided against a tour guide, instead walking around the museum at our own pace. In retrospect, it might have been a good idea to have a knowledgeable guide who could offer a wealth of random facts, but it was still a pleasant solo experience.

Visiting Kilifi

Our final adventure in Kenya occurred when we traveled north to Kilifi.  Located on the coast between Mombasa and Malindi, Kilifi has the feel of a sleepy beach town. As a beach aficionado, I can honestly say that Kilifi Beach was one of the best I have ever visited (confirmed by, which calls the beach in Kilifi one of the “best in Kenya.”) On the beach, artists approached us to sell woodcarvings and various other kinds of African art. But I love taking long swims in the ocean, and this beach was ideal—I spent about two hours in the salty water, reflecting on my amazing trip.

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