Mombasa in smells

Posted August 6, 2010 in Africa, Kenya, Travel

Stand in the middle of one downtown Mombasa street and look north at the rickshaw distributing black fumes. Close your left eye, and your right will treat you to neat piles of sharp-red tomatoes on the sidewalk, hawked by friendly vendors.

But the smell of fresh vegetables won't make it to your nose. Open your left eye to see why: mounds of garbage 800,000 people high leak dark juices that seep down the street, fly through the air and buffet into both nostrils.

Cross the petrol-scented bridge from the city core to Kenya's mainland, head east past the mosaic of market scents and walk along the golf-course road, lined with grassicured lawns. Stop and lift your nose: even this far, a ten-minute walk from the beach, you'll smell the salt and breeze of the Indian ocean.

I didn't expect that smell. In Dar es Salaam, ocean breeze mutates to stagnant smog before even hitting land. But here in Mombasa, it's as though the wind has been showering since it left India and it'll be damned if it's going to let a few hundred metres' worth of kite surfers and holiday resorts mess up its hair.

The freshnest doesn't penetrate far inland, of course. Piles of melted plastic bags and black ashes send veins of burnt-plastic scent into the air which are, along with car fumes, pumped through the heart of the city. And though these tourist resort streets have few passersby, the odd cigarette plays its polluting part—there aren't many cigarettes, but there are more here than in Dar es Salaam.

My favourite scent came in my first matatu (Kenyan minibus) ride. I rode to the downtown market and spotted a vendor who may have been responsible. I don't know how many times I've wished for this godsend, but I had always assumed there's no nostril god to pray to with this particular issue, however unbelievable one's need may be in the heat of a sweaty, traffic-prolonged crisis.

Clearly a nostril god exists: the conductor was wearing cologne.