I met Satan in a roof-top bar overlooking the Indian Ocean just past midnight. He had a bottle of Tusker and a Safari cigarette balanced in one hand, while stroking ceaselessly at his goatee with the other. If you’ve come across Satan you’ll know he’s easy with his shillings. He offered to buy me a drink. As we sipped our beers, he told me how to spend my days in Lamu, concluding with: “Most of all just relax man, Lamu is Paradise.”
[quote]All I could hear was the lantern’s hissing, the sea and the faint hum of insects. Nobody spoke. Nobody felt they had to.[/quote]
The Lamu Archipelago is situated off the coast of North-East Kenya and consists of three large islands: Lamu, Pate and Manda. There are several smaller islands scattered between the three. It’s accessible by air and bus from the main cities such as Nairobi, Mombasa and Malindi. The buses are well priced however their quality varies; some double up as livestock transportation and others are so rundown it’s a surprise they move at all. Either way, be prepared for a bumpy ride, especially during the last stretch. Thankfully, the chance of your bus being hijacked by Somalis seems to have decreased considerably in recent years.
I’d found a place to stay above the Wildebeest Art Gallery in Lamu Old Town the night before. It was a maze of steep, twisting staircases which weren’t so welcoming after an evening out. The room itself was simple and open on one side. Lying in bed, I could see the mainland across the ocean. Although I’d recommend staying here, accommodation in Lamu is plentiful and reasonably priced; for those willing to try, it’s also negotiable. It’s worth taking a look around.
Being woken up at five a.m. isn’t ideal. Fortunately, the haunting resonance of the call to prayer lurches you into the day. Some children were playing in the garden next door and took great joy in practicing their English with me. They were good singers too but their rendition of ‘Old McDonald’ needed work and their high-pitched voices weren’t so agreeable first thing in the morning.
Within an hour, I was walking the streets. Already the locals were busy with their various crafts and trades. Despite this, it remains almost silent. There are only two vehicles on the island and one’s an ambulance. Donkeys are the preferred mode of transport and most Lamusians seems to own a few. The lack of honking horns comes as a welcome break from the mainland and, if you’ve come from one of the major cities, the smell of donkey dung is surprisingly pleasant after the collected pollution of heavy traffic.
I walked into the main square. Men were huddled under the shade of trees drinking coffee and sharing bread. You get the impression that this is the way life has gone for hundreds of years. Aging Fort overlooks the square. Since its construction in the early 19th century it has served various purposes such as acting as a prison from 1910 to 1984. Its appearance shows its age. Currently it’s a museum with an emphasis on environmental conservation and, it appears, a general area for the locals to socialize. I spent some time here drinking too much espresso and deciding how to go about my day.
On the town promenade, there are countless captains eager to sail you to the beaches for a small fee. Additionally, they’ve even given themselves amusing English pseudonyms; Captain Chuck Norris and Captain I’ll-be-Back being among my favorites. I walked to Shella Beach. It’s worth taking the time to stroll the coastal route. Every turn opens onto a picturesque scene of retired boats resting in the sand. Donkeys shelter from the sun behind them. Every now and then, a fisherman will throw you a friendly smile and, as I walked past one who was repainting his boat, his telephone rang and he answered: “Habari, Chief of Police.” Obviously the emergency services aren’t overworked here.
A great proportion of the men on the island appear to spend the day fixing their boats, sailing their boats and then contemplating their boats in the evening – thinking about what to repair the next morning. Later, they go out sailing again. Not the most stressful way to pass the time. Just as I reached Shella Beach, I met some Masai men in their traditional colours, carrying spears. It’s odd to see Masai on an island after visiting their villages in the heart of Kenya’s national parks. They seem out of place but, then again, so do their gold wristwatches and mobile phones.
Shella Beach’s beauty is unquestionable. Behind the vast stretch of sand and a steep incline, empty dunes drift for miles. At the peaks there are views of the archipelago’s islands lost in the expanse of the Indian Ocean. It’s the best place on Lamu to swim. It was here that I met Captain Carlos and his crew when they approached me on the beach. Not the most common of Kenyan names, I thought to myself. However, I later learned that his ‘first-mate’ had given himself the title of Paper-bag, which by comparison made Carlos seem as regular as the braying of donkeys.
In the late afternoon, I met Carlos back in Lamu Town. Before long we were sailing out into the Indian Ocean on a long-winded, scenic route to Manda. Their dhow had a Spanish flag fluttering from the back; I didn’t ask any questions though I figured it might have something to do with Carlos. The dexterity and skill involved in his crew’s handling of their boat was impressive; in turn they’d leap from one section to another in a scramble to keep it balanced. They moved as if the sea wasn’t there at all. We talked and passed cigarettes around. Like all Kenyans, they were eager to hear my views on Barrack Obama: “He’s from here you know,” said Paper-bag. I nodded and pretended to be interested as they told the tale of his Grandmother’s house in the north. I’d heard it too many times.
We drifted down the mangrove channel near Manda Island and fished, our lines gliding through the still water. Only Carlos caught one, declared it poison and then threw it back in the ocean. “That’s how it goes sometimes,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. Once on the island, we made our way to a hut not far from the shore. Carlos told me some friends of his owned it. As I settled into the sofa, an elderly man with a smile as big as his mustache put a warm cup of chai in my hand. I had no idea where he came from. I thanked him in Swahili and he left through a gap in the palm leaf wall which I could barely even see. Paper-bag lit a lantern and placed it on the table. All I could hear was the lantern’s hissing, the sea and the faint hum of insects. Nobody spoke. Nobody felt they had to.
[quote]I’ve met people who have learned various English accents…but meeting a man who spoke with perfect surfer slang was bizarre.[/quote]
About an hour later, mystery chai man came back through the ‘door’ and gestured for us to follow him. It was pitch black and I used the sound of the crew’s footsteps as a guide. I steadied myself with tree-trunks, something sharp sticking into my hand on one occasion. Eventually, the path opened up onto a clearing where there was a fire lit and empty oil-barrels scattered around for seating. The old man was there tending the fire, accompanied by his wife, his daughters and some young children. Fish cooked on an open flame. A dog bathed in the heat, sprawled out across the sand. Captain Carlos introduced me and the family appeared more than happy to have an additional member.
Dinner was served in the traditional Swahili fashion: in courses and plentiful. Coconut is a primary part of the ‘island diet’ and, along with fresh fish, is one of the main differences between coastal and mainland food. Everything is in a coconut sauce: fish, rice, potatoes (these are cooked with chilli and other spices). For desert, a young girl bought out a tray brimming with with oranges, passion fruit, bananas and mango. It’s considered polite to gorge yourself until you’re on the brink of implosion and to join the locals in eating with your hands. Both are a hardly chores.
Captain Carlos and crew were not only masters of the water, but creditable musicians. The art of ‘making use of what you’ve got’ is essential to this part of the world. Oil-barrels are also a percussion instrument and varying the levels of sand they contain affects the sound they produce. Each member had his own unique tone and their vocal harmonies were almost flawless. They played until their hands were sore and everyone joined in with the singing. I practiced my oil-barrel skills.
It was around eleven when we returned to the dhow and set sail for our journey back to Lamu. The family walked to the shore and waved us off. Carlos and crew were still lively in their battle against the wind. Out in the ocean is a great place to view the stars. With my head resting on my rucksack, I gazed up into the night sky. They came right down to the horizons, unobstructed by clouds or city light. The conversation had stopped and, regardless of how many times they must have made the trip, I could tell they were still taken by the exhibition.
I said goodbye to them all safe in the knowledge that I’d surely see them around in the next couple of days. I walked back to the promenade. Captains were still out in search of potential customers for the following day. Also on the prowl was Ali Hippie, an eccentric fez-headed man who claims to have learnt English from the ‘hippied-out’ travellers who visited Lamu Island in the 1970s. On my travels, I’ve met people who have learned various English accents – especially those of Birmingham and London (probably from television or radio stations) – but meeting a man in his sixties who spoke with perfect surfer slang was bizarre. I arranged to go to his house the next night for dinner, music and to listen to his son’s comedy routine – “he’s the only comedian in Lamu,” Ali was quick to tell me. Unfortunately, he wasn’t funny; it can’t all be perfect.
As the island is predominantly Muslim, there aren’t many places to drink: two, in fact. But it had been too fine a day to end it there. I walked further down the promenade to Petley’s Bar. I climbed the flights of stairs, past the pool and up to the rooftop bar. Once I’d ordered a Safari Rum and Coke and lit up a cigarette, I scanned the place for a familiar face. Who was staring back but Satan himself with two outstretched arms and a bottle of Tusker. It was nearly midnight.
Only in Lamu and bad science-fiction novels are you likely to find characters as diverse as Satan, Ali Hippie, Carlos the Afro-Spaniard, first-mate Paper-bag and Captain I’ll-be-back. After the beauty of Lamu and the surreal encounters you’ll have there, it’s difficult to adjust back to the real world.