“Do you know about diarrhea?”
Suleiman, lightly bearded and wearing a kaniki sarong around his thick waist, stoops to mime a sudden bout of the digestive malady. I nod that I do know about it.
“This will help.”
We’re in the Kaya Kinondo, a sacred forest, or kaya, of the Digo people a couple of miles from Kenya’s coast. And Suleiman, my guide, is walking me through the 75-acre coral rag forest that’s home to some 200 plants, including most of the country’s endangered ones. Some of them, like the leaves he’s handing me for a stomach ailment I don’t suffer from, supply the natural pharmacy his tribe has used for centuries.
I’d never heard of a coral rag forest before. The tree roots here can’t break through the forest floor of hard ancient coral, so instead snake and curl across our footpath.
To visit Kaya Kinondo is like visiting a mosque or temple. Suleiman, who frequently closes his eyes and waves his hands when making points on our 90-minute tour, asks me to put on a kaniki out of respect. We enter a hut, which resembles a conical haystack with a tiny door, to thank a tribesman who had performed an animal sacrifice to reverse an old spell, allowing outsiders like me to enter the forest—without going blind.
Soon, Suleiman stops to demonstrate how to communicate with the “high skies” by giving a tree a long hug. I try it myself. Pressing my forehead against the bark, I wrap my arms halfway around the towering trunk and close my eyes.
It feels good, after four safaris in a row, to spend a few days on the southern tail of Kenya’s 333-mile coastline that stretches between Somalia to the north and Tanzania below. As far as the eye can see, white-sand shores greet the turquoise Indian Ocean.
I begin near Kaya Kinondo at Diani Beach, a tourist-driven town an hour’s drive south of Mombasa filled with fancy villa resorts and backpacker guesthouses. I split the difference, going with the mid-range ($130 a night) bungalow at the Water Lovers Resort.
After dropping my bags in my room, I step onto the soft sand. Camels cross my path, silhouetted against the water. A man approaches to ask if I want to ride one, another man is hawking crafts. But both graciously accept that I have something else in mind.
I wade into the water. With tourism to much of Kenya’s coast still depressed, it almost feels as if I have the sea to myself.
After a lazy day of reveling in the surf, I find a taxi to take me farther down the coast to Funzi Island. The drive takes me past mosques, tin-roofed “tyre shops,” thatched cafes, and tiny roadside stands selling local cabbage. About an hour later, we reach a simple pier made of driftwood, where a boat takes me on a gentle ride through the mangroves to the Funzi Keys Resort.
It’s quite a place. My open-air abode has a vaulted straw roof, coffee table made from an old dug-out canoe, and a Jacuzzi facing the beach, which is a mere six feet away. A mile offshore, two sand bars—islands, really—appear when the tides allow.
A handful of people, kitesurfers, are using the bigger one as a home base. I ask a boat captain to take me out to the smaller strip. When we arrive, he pulls out a cooler of beer and I sit under an awning made from dried mangrove sticks. A couple of hours later, back at my villa, I look out and see the tide has taken my island back. It’s gone.
The next morning, Hassan—who grew up in the area—takes me on a tour of the nearby village.
“You’re American?” he asks. I say that I am. “Thought so. You speak so clearly. I understand Bob Marley when he sings, but not when he speaks. And I can’t understand anything a British person says.”
We begin our slow walk through the village. Hassan calls female elders “Mama” and pauses to pick up a snack of spiced cassava root from a young woman wearing a headscarf in the shade of a giant baobab tree.
At a small shop, I buy some pencils and notebooks, then pop into a Muslim school and ask the teacher to hand them out to students studying Arabic. Afterward, when one of the thongs on my $1.50 flip-flops pops out, a man named Mohammed comes up and snaps it back into place.
Hassan laughs. “He’s a shoemaker. You picked a good place to break them.”
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Farther south, and reachable (across water) on a long day trip from Funzi, is Kisite-Mpunguti Marine National Park, known as the best spot in Kenya for snorkeling and diving. My timing’s a bit off, as slightly rougher waters dominate at this time of year. So Hassan and I take a boat out to look for crocodiles in a freshwater river an hour’s ride away.
Funzi Keys is the sort of place you could imagine holing up at for a week. On my last afternoon at the resort, I have the option to swim, sail, snorkel, kite surf, kayak. But I’d like to return to my sand bar, which has, as if by magic, reappeared.
When we arrive, Hassan takes off in the boat, leaving me by my lonesome. I find my spot, crack open a Tusker beer, and just sit.
I’m thankful for this little bit of paradise. And that I don’t have diarrhea.