Loving Lamu, If Not At First Sight

Friday, August 30, 2013 | Lamu, Kenya (map)

Catching a ride from Lamu, the island's main settlement that dates back to the early days of the Swahili coast's booming trade routes, to Shela town, a more modern expansion (pictured).
After four days of hopping through at least that many countries, I still wasn't quite in a vacation frame of mind when the lady friend and I left Burundi and flew to the Kenyan coast to visit the isle of Lamu. There I received a much-needed reminder for the nth time that "Travel is what you make of it."

Lamu is second only to Zanzibar among the most famous destinations along the Swahili coast, probably my favorite part of the world. So I arrived there excited, but still quite uptight after months of too much desk time and too little sunshine. It showed in those first few days, which we spent exploring the museums and restaurants of Lamu town and the shops and beaches of nearby Shela town.

The only motorized vehicles on Lamu are a police car and an ambulance; donkeys remain the preferred mode of transport, and their droppings are consequently scattered throughout Lamu's many alleyways. Naturally, being the grumpiest man on the island, I seemed to step unwittingly in
every pile of donkey shit I passed. Hustlers and touts ply Lamu's waterfront and back streets alike, hunting down tourists to sell boat rides or trinkets to. Naturally, I seemed to attract them in waves. Ditto the mosquitos. Perhaps most frustrating of all was the feeling that, having flown thousands of miles and spent thousands of dollars, I was right back where I had just come from—smack dab in the middle of Ramadan. Of course I had known that Lamu was predominantly Muslim, but some less rational part of me still chafed at the injustice of having to suffer a few more days of the holy month's inconveniences during my long-awaited vacation.

Rebecca, worn out herself after her first few challenging weeks of living in eastern Congo, wasn't having quite the vacation she had hoped for either.

But after a few days of fighting it, we finally began to relax and enjoy the absurdity of the place. We laughed it off with a few Scandinavian tourists when a supposed "day trip" on a dhow (a traditional Swahili sailboat) turned out to be just a quick skim over to the beach on Manda island, a nearly swimmable distance from Lamu. In a waterfront restaurant (whose owner had posted a sign that read "Management is not responsible for losses resulting from deals made on these premises"), we met an Irishman named Garrett and an American named Eric, who recounted how earlier that day, upon seeing him walk by, a local man had leapt out of his shower and come running from his house—"literally covered in water and soap suds"—to try to sell Eric a boat ride! As if on cue, a moment later the captain from our own dhow ride stuck his head in the restaurant's window, leaning over our table to try to sell us another trip.

Ultimately, we came to see the hustlers' zeal as more sad than annoying. The double impact of the worldwide recession and several attacks on tourists by Somali pirates near Lamu in the past two years have crippled the tourist industry.

Other inconveniences also faded away in time—even the stresses of Ramadan. The holy month in laid-back Lamu proved to be a wholly different affair than it was back in Algiers. For example, in a bar late one afternoon, I asked a friendly local guy with whom I'd been chatting if I could buy him a beer, and he replied in all seriousness, "No thanks, it's Ramadan. We take no beer in the daytime." (On the Swahili coast, this is but one man's relaxed interpretation of Islam. Others felt that religiosity was on the rise. A young hotel caretaker named Baji, a Christian who had moved to Lamu from the mainland as a child, told me, "When I came here, there were like 18 mosques but now there are like 50! I swear, when God comes back to Earth and brings the new new testament or whatever, he's going to do it in Lamu. One day I'll just be walking by the mosque on the corner and I'll see a huge crowd of people and ask what's happening and they'll just say 'God is here'!")

* * *

While a little patience and perspective eventually helped us to reach peace with Lamu's more pesky side, one aspect of our stay was consistently excellent from start to finish—our accommodation.

Zuhura House is a traditional open-courtyard home nested deep within the old city's narrow alleyways, and carefully restored with the plaster wall niches, hand-carved hardwood details, and brass hardware of classic Swahili architecture. The owner, a British expat, had moved to Kenya nearly a decade before and fixed the place up as a base from which to write novels and launch a historic renovation business. Now relocated to Nairobi, he rents the house to travelers; we had the run of the place for five nights, along with two staff on hand to cook and clean! The company of the house's sole other resident, Pepper the dog, was also part of the package.

* * *

Our final days on the island were the most enjoyable. With the hustlers' advances sliding easily off our backs, Rebecca and I spent our days sunning on the beach, perusing the curio shops, or reading from the house's large book collection. On our last night, caretakers Joshua and Dixon even treated us to a Swahili cooking lesson.

This, finally, was vacation.

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