Sea story: Disappearing in Mombasa (1982).

Mombasa gleamed under a brilliant sun. As USS Coronado tied up to the pier, the officers and crew repaired to the wardroom, mess decks and berthing compartments, where they would watch a live broadcast of the port briefing by the ship chandler’s representative and then call in questions. The shipboard TV system was set up to broadcast from the wardroom. I was packed in the back of the room, looking over the dozens of officers who outranked me and rated seats.

The captain was introducing the ship chandler’s representative, an attractive, fit woman with the confident air of someone who had done this many times and knew her way around. Her name was Luciana, and I expected a marked Italian accent. To my surprise, her English was flawless and idiomatic, and her accent neither Italian, British, nor American. I recognized the same accent of most of my high school classmates. I also could tell that she was indeed Italian, from the cadence of her speech. Roman.

Back in the “peanut gallery”, the junior officers were nudging each other and sharing their admiration for her attributes, none of which had anything to do with what she was explaining. I had heard these briefings before, and I had already checked out maps and charts. I was ready to do my usual lone trip of discovery by bicycle. But I was fascinated to hear someone “speaking my language.” When I could tell that the briefing was nearing an end, I tried to get closer to the front table. The TV lights went out after she answered the last question, and the Captain thanked her.

The official party turned right, and headed for the door.

“Signora Basile!” I shouted, with my Roman accent in Italian. She stopped and turned. “Potrei incontrarLa più tardi?” [Could I meet you later?]

Certo,” she said, smiling. “Troviamoci sotto alle sette e trenta.” [Sure. Down on the pier at 7:30]

I gave her a thumbs up and watched them leave.

“What the hell was that, Hine?” my shipmates asked, as I turned back to the nearest door.

“I just got a date,” I said, and left them dumb-founded.

Luciana was good to her word, and came for me in her little Fiat that evening. We had dinner at the local club favored by the Europeans who had remained behind after independence and taken Kenyan citizenship. Over the next four days, I alternated between riding through the Arab and African neighborhoods by myself, and letting Luciana show me around with her friends. They were mostly Italians, or spoke Italian. Swahili is written and pronounced much like Italian, and I found myself picking up a surprising amount of the local language.

Today, the Mombasa Market Hall encloses the spice market, and the wares are in buckets rather than piled on tarps. But they are still bright and fresh.

Today, the Mombasa Market Hall encloses the spice market, and the wares are in buckets rather than piled on tarps. But they are still bright and fresh.

By myself, I discovered the spice market, an amazing sight that cannot be captured on film. It stretched on both sides and along the median of a wide boulevard, and consisted of brilliant piles of spices on what looked like tarps. The air was fragrant with odors that only fresh spices can give, and there were hundreds of them assaulting my senses. The piles provided a dazzling assortment of colors, and none had the dullness you see on spices that have dried out.

When a breeze would come up, the piles would magically disappear, as hundreds of spice merchants deftly grabbed the corners of the tarps and instantly bundled their wares out of sight. The choreography was reversed as soon as the wind died down, as if each dancer in the cast knew when to unfold his tarp.

Luciana had me over to her house and introduced me to berbere, an Abyssinian spice mix made from 28 different peppers, and used on everything, including pasta.

She was a native of East Africa, born and raised in Uganda, of Italian parents, and a graduate of Notre Dame International, a school in Uganda run by the same religious who ran the NDI from which I graduated, the Brothers of Holy Cross. She married an Italian engineer, and lost him and their two children in a crash off a mountain road.

Ambalal House, Mombasa's International Trade Centre. Luciana's firm was in here.

Ambalal House, Mombasa’s International Trade Centre. Luciana’s firm was in here.

She made her way to Mombasa and was running a secretarial and temporary services company in the business district. Not surprisingly, she was fluent in Italian, English, Amharic, French, Arabic, and Swahili. One tough survivor and a successful businesswoman in a man’s world.

Mobasa Arab Quarter

No competition from motor vehicles in the Arab Quarter.

On the fourth evening, we went out as a group with friends from her club: dinner at a local restaurant, walking around. At 02:00, we ended up in the Arab quarter, where we called on a man who operated a coffee shop out of a hole in the wall. Arabic was the lingua franca of commerce up and down the East African coast, and had been long before the English arrived.

The old man who ran the place was pleased that I could exchange the traditional courtesies in Arabic, as were my hosts. He brought out crude stools, so we could sit on the street. There was no traffic. We sipped the thick, Arab-style coffee and enjoyed the cool, pleasant air and the quiet night. From there, the party broke up. Luciana took me back to the ship. My roommates were asleep.

I had other adventures in Kenya, like the safari to Tsavo National Park, and riding out to the north end of the coast highway on my bike, but Luciana gave me the lasting gift of friendship. We exchanged Christmas cards for more than 30 years, and I regret that I was never able to return with my wife Carol to show her Mombasa.

My shipmates only remembered that I disappeared with the good-looking ship chandler’s representative. After Mogadiscio, Djibouti, and Karachi, they were probably used to it.

Thanks,

JT.

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