After Gede, Mahlon had to get back to his village and the three of us went on to Lamu. Lamu TownLamu is the largest island in the eponymous archipelago off the northern part of Kenya’s coast. It’s Kenya’s Zanzibar. (Man, Kenya has a Reno and a Zanzibar? How sweet is that?) It’s a very cool spot that’s well worth the hours spent driving over rutted roads on a dusty bus. Speaking of dust, the road dust on this particular trip was so insidiously adhesive that by the end of it I could feel this tacky film all over my body and in my hair. My hair was the worst, having been windblown for hours and then coated with this grime it was more tangled than Bush’s ties to the Saudis. For the first time I rode next to a chicken on a bus in Kenya! It had been riding in the overhead luggage rack, but the owner thought that it was getting hot or stressed or something. So she held it in her arms and it nibbled my shirtsleeve gently for a bit.

Lamu is a Swahili island with no cars, lots of fresh, tropical juice and the original, medieval town plan. DSC_0823That town plan means that you wander through these daedal, winding alleys, constantly running into houses jumbled elegantly upon one another with stairways or even rooms connecting them overhead and courtyards with weird corners and plants growwing lushlyLamu's main drag in the cracks and crevices. It’s a UNESCO World heritage site that was founded in the 14th century. Plus, we hit it up during their annual cultural festival. We missed the donkey races, but I was satisfied by my own mental pictures, but we caught some of the nearly incomprehensible and dull dhow races. There was music and traditional dances, as well.

To tell the truth, they weren’t that impressive. Picture two rows of men in white kanzus facing each other, singing, and raising their identical walking sticks at regular intervals, although not necessarily in unison. They are accompanied by a drum (and some other instrument?) that never varies. This goes on for twenty minutes or more until the men get tired and go grab a soda in the nearest cafe. We actually walked through a concert in the main square, where we stayed for a bit. Dalia noticed the strange fact that no one was moving in the crowd. Everyone is just standing stockDSC_0828 still listening to the music. It’s no too disconcerting, but it really changes the atmosphere.

We had a small room on the third floor of the Pole Pole Guest House. (Pole pole means “slow” or “slowly” in Swahili.) the room had a four poster bead with a mosquito net and a single bed packed in next to it. Oddly, the bathroom was larger than the room itself and had a bathtub (!) separate from the shower. Unfortunately they had issues with water, as in it came out places, like the toilet, that you didn’t want and refused to come out of places, like the showerhead, that you did want. They are known for their rooftop deck which, while the highest in Lamu town, is not that great. We moved after a couple of nights to the Sunshine guest house which was nicer in some ways.

The architecture here is just incredible, by the way. The buildings are known for these elaborated carved Swahili doors. DSC_0826Inside they have all sorts of variations on arabic architecture, from niches to carved wooden floor joists (visible in the room below). Moreover, the rooms and floors are arranged in a complex maze of haphazard connections. This is the visible accumulation of hundreds of years of human intentions. You find narrow stone staircases on the outside of rooms that themselves have been built on top of the roof, which is covered with a palm thatch makuti. The alleyways between the buildings have small sewerage canals running through them.

We met a nice artist from Mombasa who was running an exhibition at this incredible venue that had been a mosque and was now a cafe, store, garden complex that was soon to house a restaurant. He took us to the home of a friend of his where he stayed. I was very impressed. The guy had bought and renovated a large traditional house in the traditional way but with modern touches. Entering fromt he street you come into a courtyard half covered by the floors above. You can walk into the kitchen area, which has a wall of the original niches, and then on through there to the garden through open doorways. The garden is beautiful and lush with built-in benches along the walls nder the covered patio. Then you return to the open courtyard to climb the uncovered stairs to the next two levels where there are bedrooms and such. Except for the bedrooms and toilets there are no doors, you go from being “inside” to being “outside” seamlessly. The whole place is covered in this white plaster. The plaster is made from ground seashells and has this amazing softness to it that I just couldn’t get over. It’s hard and yet has a give to it that you can just barely feel. It feels so much nicer than just a stone surface as you walk on it or runs your hands over it. Seeing this house made me entertain notions of doing the exact same thing. These old houses are so beautiful, and should be preserved, and they’d make great homes to spend half the year in. So, consider this my proposal for funding, if you have the means.

Our first culinary experience on Lamu was at Cafe Nyumbani, run by Joe. He’s a friend of the last Peace Corps volunteer to be in stationed in Lamu. She helped him start this little restaurant after convincing him that his cooking was worth it. He was very nice, the curry fish that I had was delicious and the ambiance of the place was comfy and exotic at the same time. It reminded me of some of the cooler places I had been in Peru and Bolivia.

The next day we went out to the beach outside the town with a Spanish girl from Luarca that Dalia had met earlier. It was quite a coincidence to meet someone from one of the towns that we had walked through on the Camino! She was visiting her Maasai boyfriend who works in Zanzibar. They made a strange couple given that he spoke Italo-Spanish and she spoke no English and very little Swahili. This farther beach that we went to was hot and wide and almost deserted. There were no resorts or restaurants or anything of the sort. We turned back after a while to get some much needed joo-ees.

People will tell you to sample the juice on Lamu and those people are right. It is awesome. Any cafe will give you a menu with all of these fruits that you can combine in whatever variety you want. The menu, as it is in almost every restaurant in Kenya, is just a courteous gesture. You have to ask them what they have that day. But they did have a nice variety in most places – tamarind, guava, papaya, coconut, pineapple, orange, lime, mango, e.g. Then you get to play the very fun game of who can get the best juice combination. (This means that you get to taste everyone else’s drinks, too!)

Being a Muslim island, they don’t serve alcohol in most of the cafes and restaurants. There is one on the beachfront that caters to mzungus and charges accordingly. We mistakenly went there once for a “show,” ugh. Then, there is the policemen’s canteen which is located back and away from the main, touristy parts of town. (This place is permitted because the policemen, and other government workers, are fedderal employees. ) Dalia and I hiked up there and loved the place. It was exactly what you might expect to find on an island such as this, assuming it weren’t Muslim; a courtyard with tables under thatched makutis where the beer is cheap and plentiful. It’s not exactly cold, but two out of three ain’t bad. Best of all, no one there really bothered you. They must of had few mzungu visitors. The wary distance they kept was refreshing after being in an atmosphere where you feel regularly beset upon. We went back a few times.

We arranged with a captain to go out on his dhow because that was the one thing that we all really wanted to do while there. This guy was a bit of a sketchball and we haggled with him over the price on and off for a day and a half. He’d just show up some place we were eating. (It’s a small island) We finally agreed to go on a snorkeling trip with a couple that had just completed an overland trip from South Africa up to Kenya. It turned out not to be his dhow, though and the whole thing, up to and including the point where the spar holding the sail broke, was slightly “off.”

The snorkeling was good, with the tide low enough to see the reef easily from the surface. We had good visibility in the water, too. I saw some beautiful and some huge fish. The corals themselves were not so spectacular. This is also the part where I tasted the Indian Ocean. Naturally when one goes swimming in the ocean, one expects to get a little water in one’s mouth, but there was a bigger reason here. I was given a snorkel where the catch, the bottom part of the vertical tube next to the mouthpiece, had been fixed with a piece of wood (a bung? Can I call this a bung?) held in with tape. So, after two or three breaths, water would leak in and I would have to clear it (by forcefully blowing out). This got to be quite tiresome and if I forgot or messed up the rhythm I would suck up some water. Still, I ain’t complaining. It was a good time. We had a lunch of freshly-caught fish cooked on board and made our way back to the island. That was when the spar broke and we switched to the engine for the rest of the way back. The spar was two pieces of wood welded together in the first place, so our Captain took it all in stride.

That night we had arranged to have a BBQ on the beach prepared by our friend, Joe. It was my last night on the island. It was awesome. We had crab, shrimp and fish with vegetables and chapati on the beach looking out over the starlit ocean. The temperature was still tolerable and our little gang (it included some other invited guests) sat around the fire, content and food-drowsy.

The next day I left the hotel room early while Dalia and Krisy still slept for the long journey back to Nairobi. Along the way I stopped at the Jamii Bora branch in Malindi where I spent most of the day visiting clients and being shown around by the good folks there. Other than some riots that took place because some policemen had shot three suspects, not much happened that was unusual. I found that I couldn’t go scuba diving with one of the resorts since all the trips leave in the morning. I wasn’t too disappointed because of the snorkeling trip and overall it was a pleasant journey back. The unpleasant part was returning to work in the morning, unshowered and unkempt, after having slept on the bus.

It made me long to be back in Lamu, sipping joo-ees and watching the donkeys walk by.

Advertisements