Lamutown redux, 2018
Back into this fabled town again.
We somehow managed to stumble down the barnacle-ridden concrete steps into the public dhow that will ferry us across to the Island of Lamu from the last mainland port of Mokowe.
Despite all my previous visits to Lamu, remarkably, this is my first time entering Lamu at nightfall, and I missed the glistening white washed skyline outline during the daytime at this UNESCO World Heritage site—Lamu’s stonetown. Instead the steady drone of the aged diesel engine on our boat and twinkling lights on the black horizon would welcome us.
There is something about arriving at or departing from a place by boat.
This is quite a leisurely way of getting somewhere especially after the pounding of a bus or enclosed environment of a plane. The boat ride seems unreal and fantastical until you hit another boat’s wave and that brings you back to reality.
The taste of the salty spray heightens the drama too.
About 30 of us were huddled in the diesel run dhow, all issued mandatory life jackets because of a recent spate of boats capsizing and a large population not adept at swimming.
This is one trip I never get tired of and I think erstwhile traveller and kayak enthusiast, Paul Theroux, would approve of this entrance.
After a 25 minute bounce due to the ferocious winds that were kicking up white caps, we eventually landed at Lamu’s main concrete dock. Gracie and the kids had all disembarked and it was up to me to scramble as best I could up the slippery stairs and at the top of the gangplank I bumped into that familiar face in the crowd—our old houseboy from two summers ago—Edward.
In a way, I felt sorry for him and Lamu as it has become the sad sack sister for Zanzibar. At any rate, I was the only mzungu getting off the dhow. In the glory days of the 80s, there would be a couple of boatloads of backpackers; verbose Aussie and Kiwis, noisy Germans and other Euros getting off. Most well-heeled nowadays head for the southern sister of Zanzibar. However, according to my later acquaintance, Derek at Lamu House, almost 30% of ex-pats have left Tanzania owing to the new president who has led Tanzania once back to the dark days of ujumaa.
Maybe too many fingers in the pot in Tanzania, so as a result, western involvement and financing are pulling out of natural gas projects in the south and other mining prospects in Tanzania.
Derek used to run a tapas bar in Stone Town, but he said Zanzibar is now overrun with hotel and cafes with huge resort projects underway and gated communities in the north of the island with Gulf Arab or Chinese finance.
He said I was lucky to see the island when it was “untouched” back in 1984. Back then you were just lucky to get on and off the island let alone find any accommodation.
Our accommodation this time in Lamu, and perhaps for many other trips to come, was a new flat my wife has rented.
A stevedore had loaded our bags onto his cart and wheeled it away at great haste. Gracie and the kids followed quickly behind and I lagged after that because of my bum knees. It was dark by the time we had reached Lamu and so off everyone went in the growing shadows.
Gracie and the kids were ahead in the dark as some of the corniche’s lights weren’t working. She left Jessica behind to guide me from the Stopover Hotel building.
We soon caught up and followed them past a hovel to an open area beside a fetid latrine and a whitewashed house.
The iron door for our flat was immense and unlocking it was a bit tricky so as to prevent anyone from bolt cutting the lock. It was the kid of unyielding door you’d find at a castle keep.
Up some uneven stairs, carved out by elves, was a two BDR with living room and a small kitchen and bathroom.
I was told the toilet was a Turkish squat toilet, but the seat for this one was six inches, if that, off the floor. It was more a sit down affair, like shitting on the floor—a bit of a contortionist act for me. I told Gracie the next time I would come, I will bring a booster seat!
Two overhead fans that would keep the mossies and flies at bay. This would be our place for the next two weeks.
Because the normal mode of transport in Lamu for the past millennium has been donkeys or asses, the jackasses are everywhere–mostly trying to bum a meal. Not a problem except at night when they start hee-hawing for some unknown reason. It would not be such a problem, but owing to the closeness of buildings, the damn beast of burden sounds like it is in the bedroom right next to you. The way they start, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking someone was being murdered–it’s very disconcerting especially when you are full-on sleeping–I was stirred from a deep sleep a number of times.
That, along with the feline’s caterwauling outside our second floor window. When you poke your nose out the window, often they are just fighting over some piece of food, but there is surely enough for every cat, but they are so tribal at times. Hell, they are all related, but judging from their carrying on, you would think not.
Owing to the time of year, at the seafront, a gale was blowing from 8am till way past midnight only dying down for the briefest of moments just before sunrise. The effect was that you felt, to some degree, sandblasted. Once out of our flat and through a winding alleyway, you were greeted by a mighty blast as soon as you entered the corniche.
I tried wearing a baseball cap, but it could easily get blown off, and I don’t know how the Swahili guys kept their kofias or Swahili caps on. The wind blew like hell all day. So much so, that the water currents were quite strong out by our favourite beach in Shela. A bit of a rip tide.
When we finally went for a swim there, it felt like you were swimming up a river; against the current. Later, I saw two older women go in, the one was content to stay where she was and her friend swam out deeper, and the last I saw of her, she had drifted about half a mile away.
Our days consisted of getting up early and running, or in my case, stumbling to Shela beach which was over an hour away. I usually took off on a 45 minute head start.
Depending on the tides, we could either take the concrete promenade to the Kuwaiti hospital, or then either run along the hard sandy shore to Shela, or at Dudu’s Villas, head up to the deep sand road that ran parallel to the coast and on to Shela.
I always opted for the shoreline, but that meant removing my sandals and going barefoot from where the pavement ended at Dudu’s Villas.
This seemed a good deal that is until my last day of walking when the high tide came in. Now my route was more like an obstacle course having to shimmy along concrete wall sections at a 45 degree angle or try walking gingerly over sharp coral sections that were near the shore. In the end, I said, what the hell, and just went into the shallow water and waded to sandier sections of the shoreline to Shela to meet up with the family.
One of the oddest sights in Lamu and Shela is the preponderance of Masaai tribesmen. Okay so this is Kenya, but these Nilotic folk are from up country. They are at home with their cattle, fresh water streams, thorn bush kraals, wide open plains and the Masaai steppe–which includes Masaai Mara Park. Not to mention being surrounded by the Big 5: lions, buffalo, elephants, giraffes, and leopards. Here in Lamu, there is just sand, salt water, fish (which they might have a taboo against) but no game or cattle.
Primarily, Masaai carry around gourds that are filled with a milk/blood concoction which they claim gives them energy to walk for miles. So speak about a fish out of water and that is what you have with these Masaai who walk to Shela every day with their tire sandals to set up makeshift tables to sell their unique beadwork in belts, necklaces, bracelets and other knick-knacks to the well-heeled tourists.