Permanent Vacation: Musings on Mombasa, Redux, Jarmusch, Sampsell, Sex, Tides, Unferth, Fish, Hermit Cowries, Monkeys, Kenani, "home" and Finding Beauty in Being Pretty, Pretty Vacant

I guess you could say I've been on "vacation" for one month now. Though saying you are in vacation in Nairobi is like saying you are on Holiday in Cambodia. Vacation is defined as:

1. an extended period of recreation, especially one spent away from home or in traveling. 2. the action of leaving something one previously occupied.

The second definition is especially interesting. Right before we left for Kenya, we saw Jarmusch's Permanent Vacation, which is a brilliant name. The movie lives up to it. The location for the protagonist's permanent vacation in Jarmusch's film is New York City. He wanders around aimlessly, room to room, concluding that it's a different room, same story. Sometimes I feel that way, here, or anywhere I am. Not that we spend a lot of time in rooms here, everything is outdoors. And not that I feel like I could be in NYC here. Though LA is not a stretch. We have always rented and have never had a "home". Renting an apartment is not that much different than staying in a hotel. A long-term or permanent hotel. Especially here, in a furnished guest house with funny artwork on the wall that is not ours. So if going on vacation means to vacate your home or vacate your job, neither applies to me really. So what is this existence? Serendipitously, right before we saw Permanent Vacation, we also went out to Roosevelt Island and saw the VACANT smallpox hospital, one of the destinations of his wanderings, and ours.



Jess Elmhurst

You might think Jess was on safari ("safari," btw, means to journey in kiswahili), if it wasn't for the abandoned smallpox hospital and the Tri-boro bridge in the background. More than me, Jess needed a true "vacation" this weekend, so we flew to Mombasa. Why not, it's only a 45 minute flight. We wanted to get away and not do anything. We always say that, but most of the time we go "on vacation," we are not vacating ourselves, but trying to fill ourselves with experience.

The night before we left, we watched Apocalypse Now! (Redux) for who knows the how-manyeth time. Though the number of times I've seen the redux version I could probably count on one or two hands (and better than both versions is the making of it, the inspiration really, the fodder for my own Marsupial pouch). The additional redux scenes still surprise me. The movie still engrosses me. An interesting note about the redux, is that without the added scenes, none of them ever get laid. Apocalypse Now! is not about a vacation (unless you are talking about the Holiday in Cambodia type). It is the quintessential journey film (although as the chef says, "don't get out of the boat!"). There is no hero cycle or monomyth in a vacation. A vacation is just about vacating, leaving something previously occupied. Ours started in a terminal.

Kenyatta Airport

Kenyatta Airport


Sampsell Creamy Bullets

On the plane, and actually before we even got off the ground, I started reading Kevin Sampsell's Creamy Bullets. It's got some hot male water skiers on the front that reminded me of the cover of the Go-Go's Vacation (or the anti-thesis of), maybe why I thought to bring Sampsell's with me. It was a good read for being on vacation, and like Permanent Vacation, Creamy Bullets is a great name for a book, and worth buying just for the name and the cover, if not for the 254 pages packed full of Sampsell's original brand of smutty lit-trash. I mean that as a compliment. I had more to say about his previous Beautiful Blemishes before.

Go Go's Vacation

Sampsell lives up to being a self-described sex addict. A maraschino cherry would be a good description of Kevin Sampsell. Or a tacky tropical drink. Here's one of many that I indulged in, and the aftermath thereof of the empty, or vacant, glass.

Poolside    after

There's a piece in the book about a handjob on an airplane. There's a funny piece about a benefit concert to raise money for a water buffalo for poor people in some place like where we live. There's another funny piece about a talking cat that I read while some cat was rubbing against my lawn chair. There's small pieces, medium pieces and large pieces, and the book is even divided as such in case size matters to you. There's a piece named Krystal, which involves a girl named Krystal, while doing crystal meth, and then her mother. There's a piece called Fur Coat about some bums that jack each other off and then inject it back in their veins. You get the idea. The same things that people look for on vacation you'll find in Sampsell's book. Some people anyway, the kind that go to Bangkok or Vegas looking for sex or perverse pleasures or general debauchery. There was some evidence of that in Mombasa, older white ladies frolicking in the surf with young black boys. Or older ugly white guys with younger pretty black women. Maybe they were true couples, but I suspected there was more going on. We are old farts oblivious to such things. I don't look for sex in a vacation. Even when I was single and younger, that didn't interest me much. That complicates travel. I guess what it is more than anything that I'm looking for when on vacation, or traveling, is looking for beauty. To find beauty in whatever. It doesn't have to be flowers or butterflies or a pristine beach. It can be janky or decrepit or something washed up on the shore and I'm still looking for beauty in it. It only has to be different than what's at home. Sampsell finds beauty in janky thinks, but typically they are people, and typically it's of a sexual nature.

For some reason, the Sex Pistols are firing creamy bullets into my head:

There's no point in asking, you'll get no reply
Just remember, I don't decide
I got no reason, it's too all much
You'll always find us... out to lunch

We're so pretty, pretty vay-cunt

We spent our vacation at the Serena. Not sure what serena means in swahili, but in Spanish it sounds like a mermaid. Mostly we lazed about and watched the tides, which were pretty extreme, 3+ meters.

low tide

Low Tide


high tide

High Tide

We attempted to be adventurous, but the second we'd set foot on the beach we were attacked by swarms of "beach boys." They were like mobs of mosquitoes or buzzing gnats. They'd swarm out of the water and seaweed and woodworks and try to lure you on their boats or sell you crappy souvenirs or "bob marley cigarettes." They were relentless and would not take no for an answer. They would just follow you, and if you were just strolling and looking in tidepools or staring at the sea, they'd want you to pay them money for them showing you things in tidepools. I mean, what's the point then? You'd switch directions and they'd switch directions and follow you and hound you, trying to find some way to make money off you.

We did succumb to the requisite snorkeling trip. Oh, I should mention that this was my first time touching the Indian Ocean. Unless Indonesia or the west coast of Malaysia counts? I think that pretty much completes the seven seas (modern) circuit for me, except maybe the Arctic Ocean. I was in the Arctic circle once but everything was frozen so not sure that counts? It's all connected though, I don't see what the big deal is. The snorkeling out on the reef was actually pretty good. It's funny how you see a lot of the same stuff wherever you go, in the Caribbean or the South Pacific, and now the Indian Ocean. Plenty of wrasses, angel fish, puffer fish, parrot fish, coral, starfish, etc. Saw quite a few Moorish Idols and Lion Fish, which are rarer in other places. Unfortunately we didn't have an underwater camera. Though the boat was glass-bottomed. Here's a funny video of me feeding some fish right out of my mouth.

feeding fish from my mouth

We also saw a turtle, though couldn't get a very good picture of it.

Sea Turtle

The turtle is swimming over a bed of bone coral, which was cool and something I'd never seen. Here's another picture of the bone coral and the moldy rim from the glass bottom boat. I've been looking for mold pictures for Blake Butler's book, but I'm not sure this would work. Maybe?

moldy glass bottom

After snorkeling we walked around up on the reef, which was cool. The reef is like a mile offshore. We saw all sorts of urchins and starfish and fish and anemone's, an octopus even, but alas no camera. You'll have to take our word. Just being out on the boat was cool.

captain using the anchor for a pillow

anchor pillow


sea star  (not a fish!)

sea star

When I got back I wandered around some more near shore, fending off the beach boys, and got these pictures and video.

carpet anemone eating snail






moray eel



Mombasa ray

Oh, the coolest thing out I found on the reef was the mother of all cowry shells, my favorite.  This thing is literally life-size.



Deb Unferth Vacation After that we lazed about more. I embarked on Deb Unferth's Vacation. I just happened to be reading it on Aug. 31, one day before it's official release day. I got it in the mail a few months ago. When I asked Deb about it, she said she had nothing to do with it, so I must have a friend at McSweeney's that sent it to me (thanks!). Maybe it's because I sort of reviewed her last book. I've been holding onto it, sent it ahead to Kenya even, waiting for an appropriate time to read it, and well, now seemed an appropriate enough time.

In the book, this guy follows his wife and discovers she's following some other guy. The guy leaves town and this guy follows him on some wild goose chase. It reminded me a lot of Paul Auster's New York Trilogy, sort of sleuthy and film-noirey, piques your curiosity but literary at the same time. There were quite a few internet cafes and email exchanges in the book. Blake Butler's novella that I'm editing also contains references to emailing and such things. I'm not sure I'm ready for such references, being placed in a time period. Call me old fashioned. In ten years such references may be dated. Though evidently, Butler managed to squeeze some "titties" into it.

Here's a passage from Unferth's book, the wife's confession on page 133:

I got on a greyhound bus and rode out of the city. I had an idea of what I hoped to find. Outside the urban limits, over the bridge and beyond, I expected to see the forests and the rivers and the animals of our country. I had a vision of myself starting someplace new, being someone new, someone real, no more mistakes, I'd get it right this time. I was desperate but hopeful. I thought about who I could be and whom I could be with. I imagined myself healthier, in a green place, everything getting greener all around me. Instead I saw flat fallow fields, toll booths, beige strips of earth, a toxic highway, punctured houses in the distance, a cellophane horizon, apocalyptic gloom. Gasoline signs hung in the sky. I got down off the bus in a town of grid streets. I walked for miles, turning left at every corner, marking off the territory over and over. I ate my sandwiches  and looked at trees drained of leaves, the blue of mailboxes on corners, fossil-logos pressed into the sidewalks, people the shade of cement. A feeling of isolation and doom descended on me. I had no idea what I was doing, I had no plan. Where was I supposed to go? When I'd walked all I could, I went to the Greyhound station and got on the bus heading back to the city because I'd seen there was nowhere to go, nothing out there for me to run to, only straight roads leading to points.

Stalking is a form of travel, where instead of going to a strange place, you try to get in the head of a strange person. That's what this was, I felt I was stalking Unferth. You should feel that way about any book. There should be enough going on that you are curious to follow the person, and live vicariously through them.

Once I was finished, there were plenty of other distractions and curiosities at the hotel to keep us busy. There was some parrot that whistled the song from The Bridge Over River Kwai. I tried to get him to say, "Charlie Don't Surf," but he wouldn't go for it. He just stared at me a lot, like this.

African Gray

I tried to teach him how to meow, but he already knew how, but only when he saw one of the numerous cats wandering the compound. There were also these rather pesky vervet monkeys. At first we thought they were cute, the way they would sneak into the restaurant or into people's rooms to snatch things. Until they tried to attack us. Unferth had a list of associations with typical vacations that she listed. Monkey bites didn't make the list. Neither did glass-bottom snorkeling trips or sandy feet or the smell of a wet bathing suit you've been farting in in the hot sun.

Here's a video of the vervet monkeys. At the end of it, one of them lunges at me and almost bites me.

monkeying around in Mombasa

Not sure what else we did. We kind of just wandered about or monkeyed around.

monkeying around

Or we just chilled out.

monkey chilling

Jess got a massage at the spa at one point. I went into the sauna and steam bath. Filled my lungs with fragrant hot steam. I decided I like steam baths and am going to make a point of taking one every day at the UN gym. There was a gym at the hotel where we worked out. Oh, and some guy showed us this butterfly garden that was pretty cool.






Another one of the gardeners, noticing our curiosity, knocked down a baobab fruit for us to try. It was quite tasty, chalky and bitter with a hint of tamarind.


We also found this mold and ant-covered dead hedge hog (I think that's what it is).

dead hedge hog

The grounds smelled of frangipani, which holds a dear place in my heart for saving my life once when I stepped on a stonefish.


But that's another story from a different time and place that I have yet to write. Jess posted a lot more pictures, more relevant ones. Here's a picture of a monkey I like that she took but didn't post.

monkey jumping

After vegetating for three days and two nights, we sadly went back to the airport. Here's some of what we saw along the way in Mombasa in case you're wondering what that's about. It's a busy port city, predominantly muslim and more laid back than Nairobi.

couch surfing in Mombasa

couch surfing in mombasa


mombasa chaos


mombasa roadside


goat rodeo

The last photo belongs on goat rodeo really. I had run out of books, so on the plane I read a short story by Stanley Onjezani Kenani. It was short-listed for this year's Caine Prize and Kenya Airways magazine was reprinting it or something. It was about a couple that couldn't have a baby, so they secretly hire a guy to impregnate his wife (a practice called "fisi" that is evidently commonplace in Malawi). It was good for a predictable story-telling type of story. I won't give away the end if you can't guess, but let's just say in the time of high-HIV rates, this practice of fisi smells a bit fishy.

This was our first time arriving back "home" in Nairobi. Unless you count a short stint coming and going last November, when we were truly on vacation, or on safari as they say. If it feels like home when you come back is the true test. Much as I learned to hate New York City, I have to admit it always felt good to return to it, especially after being in some backwardass place between coasts. It felt like home. In all honesty it still didn't feel like a homecoming coming back home to Nairobi for Jess or I, though it has more to do with our current living situation. I imagine I'll have more to say about that in the next installment (the tentative title of which will be "The Year of Living Dangerously"). In typical fashion, I imagine Derek and Jess will be forever searching for greener pastures more suitable for goats. Stay tuned as we vacate one home for another. Why not, right? Speaking of which, as I'm writing this, I'm smelling something funny and just noticed that a hermit crab was making himself at home in the above cowry shell I brought home. I'm sad. I checked to see if anyone was living in there, shook it around, and didn't see this guy. I'm sad that he didn't vacate himself before we got on the plane to come home from our vacation.

(c) 2008 Derek White