At Home in Lamu
Lamu is one of those places that have seduced travelers for years. Its name evokes images of an idyllic island trapped in another century, where time moves to ancient rhythms. Lamu has many faces, however, which is something I realized only with time.
The bus ride from Mombasa was hot and crowded, in line with African mentality – where you can fit twenty, you can fit forty – and then we had to board a ferry to reach the island. As we got closer I stepped over people to get to the edge of the boat, where I could see the wide waterfront street lined with tourist shops and restaurants and people absorbed in their daily dramas. White houses with roofs of dried palm leaves baked under the sun, with flowering vines creeping up the walls showing off their scandalous colors. In contrast to the matatus on Mombasa’s Digo Road, it looked like this town was moving in slow motion. I meant to stay a week. A month later I was working and couldn’t imagine leaving; I knew where to buy the cheapest goat meat and which place made the best Swahili pizza.
Waking up every morning in Lamu was like reaching a high. It is a magical place, charged with mysterious energy. Dawn arrived swiftly, with light filling the sky over the sea, lending everything a dusty gray-blue film until the sun rose and sharpened all the corners.
By eight a.m., hours after the town had awoken, I would be sweating under my mosquito net. The narrow streets were full of sounds that wafted up to me through my open windows. There are no glass windows in Lamu, nothing to keep the outside from intruding up the bougainvillea into the cooler interiors of the houses. Cats’ meowing and donkeys’ braying became the unconscious background to which I fell asleep and woke up.
The waterfront was always alive with activity. Sweating men filled and emptied dhows, those beautiful Arab sailing boats, carried sacks of cement, pulled at ropes, shouting and joking and fighting with each other in their colorful Swahili. Donkeys congregated outside the post office, their owner’s initials branded into their necks. They were never tied up; they knew their way home, although the rebel ones, I was told, would disappear for weeks at a time in the coconut fields in the center of the island.
The waterfront was also where the illiterate “beach boys,” or touts, made their rounds, lying in wait for the tourists and disconcerting them by greeting them in foreign languages until they hit the right one: “Jambo sista! Ciao bella! Where you coming from? Italiana? Quï¿½ tal? Muy bien. Bonjour! Lamu paradise! Hakuna matata! What about dhow ride today? Good price for you because you’re my friend.” They always had something to sell – hotels, trips to the islands, bogus tours, donkey rides, handicrafts. They somehow managed to be completely lethargic and money-driven at the same time.
Being a mzungu – a white foreigner – in Lamu meant getting bothered and unwillingly accompanied by beach boys at some time or another. I made a point early on to ignore the more insistent ones, and I had become such a familiar face around town, even though they didn’t know what I was doing there, that they left me alone, although some found it irresistible to greet me in Japanese. Walking along the waterfront or the main street that ran parallel to it, children would stare at me and say “Mchina!” and the beach boys would launch into their favorite Japanese greetings: “Konnichiwa!” “Yokoso!” I only found much later “Ohayou!” meant “Good Afternoon” in Japanese, and wasn’t their way of guessing where I was from in the States.
The main street wound its way from one side of town to the other, and everyone walked through it several times a day, sometimes single file to give donkeys the right of way, as their owners clicked and whistled instructions to them. There were cheap places to eat and have a fruit shake: Coconut Juice Garden, New Star Restaurant, Bosnia Cafï¿½, and that dark nameless hole-in-the-wall whose owner used scraps of newspaper to add up what you had consumed. Guesthouses hung their signs from the two sides of the street, the local crazies wandered around half-naked and toothless, and dealers peddled their miraa, Kenya’s national drug.
The main street opened into the square, the heart of Lamu, where two huge trees circled by cement benches provided respite for old and young. Here people bumped into to each other and stopped to talk, children ran around in the shade, and men pushed wheelbarrows in every direction.