Saturday, November 5, 2011

In defense of Lamu, 2011

Lamu still on my mind
Dhows for hire.
My favourite paradise isle has been taking a beating in the western media of late with regards to Somali pirates and kidnappings off the northeast coast of Kenya near Lamu. It’s a real pity because I have so many lovely memories of the island. The biggest fear one would ever think of in venturing to Lamu was not succumbing to Somali pirates but rather to malaria—funny but how times have changed?

In the past, any trip I made to Africa and Kenya would not be complete without visiting this fabled island. Over time, Lamu has become something of a second home to me and second nature. Its unique Swahili architecture, people and Islamic customs have always been a magnet for me and many others who made the sojourn up the quiet Kenyan coast. Many travellers have enjoyed its crystal clear waters for swimming, endless white sand dunes, funky laid-back atmosphere and authentic Swahili cuisine, and during the 1980s and 1990s; it was referred to as the “Kathmandu of Africa”. Despite the recent bad press, I will try to romance you with a pleasant state of mind which I like to refer to as “Lamu on my mind”. Now before I get too involved in the story telling, I should tell you that I have been to Lamu many times dating back to its halcyon days of the 1980s. I am constantly reminded of my times there and those images are forever etched on my mind.
Getting there
To get to Lamu entails a longish, bumpy bus ride from Malindi or a shorter flight into the small airport on the mainland. Only a few hardy travellers or locals take the coastal bus these days—most others fly into Lamu. There are daily flights that service Lamu, either from Mombasa, Malindi or Nairobi. Sometimes, if you book online, there may be a package deal that involves flight and accommodation. Either way, each trip ends at Makowe on the mainland and your trip has not ended as you still have to take a dhow to get to Lamutown. Normally this would not be such a big smelly deal but going to Lamu in the 1980s was a big deal. This was the zenith of travelling on the cheap in Africa and everybody and their brother was doing it—even my brother! Whether you fly to the small airport or take the bus, you still are required to arrive in Lamu the traditional way—by sea-going dhow. These dhows are not your standard little wind-blown dhows for beating around mangrove swamps or going fishing in, these are the big assed jifrazi coastal dhows with diesel engines that can accommodate between 20-30 people.

Entering Lamu
Quite often, the tide is down upon arrival and this precipitates a mad scramble to get your gear down the slippery brine and coral encrusted concrete steps and onto the awaiting dhow. At times, it’s a bit like walking a tightrope to get from the slippery stairs of the pier to the equally slippery wooden frame of the dhow and then drop down onto an already wet seat. If there is no wind, then the dhows use their noisy diesel engine to ferry you to the enchanted isle of Lamu. As you travel across the short strait, vast tracts of mangrove swamps surround you and one could easily envision an evil crocodile lurking in the shadows, waiting to feast on our sunburnt bones. We braced for the lurching ride and tasted the salty brine that showered us whenever we crested a wave. It was about a twenty minute ride and then like a mirage, the bleached skyline of Lamutown came into view. There is something quite romantic about arriving at a small coastal town in Africa on a dhow and over the years, I have never grown weary from this small journey. Over the years, it has become a rite of passage of sorts—part of the “African experience”. On the distant horizon, the outline of coral rag buildings rise up out of the hazy water and look like bleached bones topped with darker makuti roofing alongside palm trees swaying gently from the on-shore breeze.

Upon disembarking, the arrival scene at Lamu’s main dock probably has not changed over the centuries and it is truly memorable. There is the usual hugger mugger of well-wishers, touts and other neer-do-wells who were waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting souls as soon as they alighted.
There was the usual pitter patter of the “dhow boys” and hotel touts:
Habari ako?
Main dock Lamu.
Welcome to Lamu.”
Where do you stay?
Hi, my name is Ali Hippy.”
Do you want to try traditional Swahili meal?
Let me take your bags, I am Livingstone Rasta—you need guide?
Mzee, where are you from?
Karibu sana!”
I have cheap hotel for you.
My friend…” and so on
“The Kathmandu of Africa”
Since the 1980s, Lamu has experienced the many ebbs and lows of tourism. At its height in 1982, there were really only three options of where to say in Lamu: either the ultra-expensive Petley’s Inn for the well-heeled, or further along near the famous white sand dunes you would find the very posh Peponi’s for the beautiful people or the only ‘traveler’s’ hotel—New Mahru’s Hotel. In the old, pre-internet days we would spend time catching up on our journals or post card writing while waiting for our breakie to arrive. I’m sure nowadays, most people will have their laptops or typing out text messages on their Blackberry’s. Times change but the atmosphere doesn’t. According to the Lonely Planet series, Lamu has been called “the Kathmandu of Africa”, owing to the fabulous seafood fare, and other traditional Swahili fare that became legendary amongst overland travellers during the 80s and 90s. The appeal of Lamu came from the mouth watering Swahili dishes that ranged from fiery Indian-inspired curries, coconut rice and freshly caught seafood that Kenya’s east coast was known for. Local legend maintains that the famous American writer, Hemingway hung out for drinks in Lamu at the Olympic Restaurant in between hunting trips to Kilimanjaro. If it’s African fare that you seek then the Red Star Café is the place for you. Since the 1980s, it’s been the groovy place where all the beautiful people hung out drinking chai or Nescafe coffee whilst smoking their filter cigarettes, eating ugali or chewing the narcotic weed miraa with the locals. Over the years, guesthouses and restaurants have come and gone: New Mahrus, Pole Pole, Kilimanjaro, Rainbow Lodge, Kenya Lodging, Olympic Restaurant, Pancake House, Kenya Cold Drinks, The Equator and Mr. Ghai’s Curry House.

Whisper's Cafe
However, I am glad to see that some of the eateries still remain: New Star Restaurant, Olympic Restaurant, Bush Gardens, Whisper’s Café, Petley’s Inn, Stone House Restaurant and Hapa Hapa Restaurant. If you sit at the back of the “Dhow Restaurant” next to the long bar, you might just catch a piece of history as the sign for “The Equator” restaurant has been incorporated into the back wall. In 2000, Whisper’s Café was a recent addition to Lamu’s sumptuous cuisine and it can be found on Harambee Street. It has the latest Italian Espresso maker and excellent selection of dessert bars, fruit sorbets and a nice menu featuring traditional Swahili dishes. It has a pleasantly cooled tiled patio out back, bordered by huge lime coral walls, sheltering palms, false banana plants and ferns. Whisper’s is a pleasant place to write postcards or your next travel book. Many people complain about the slow service in most of the restaurants and cafes in Lamu but it’s pole pole (slowly slowly) and after all it’s “African time”.

In the past, one of the perks of travelling to Lamu was that you were never sure if you could get accommodation or if the place you stayed in the year before was still operating or if your favourite café or milkshake shop was still running. The advent of the Internet booking has taken the mystery out of finding accommodation in Lamu and there is plenty to choose from now. All toll, I’ve stayed in shared rooms with a/c, shared dorms without a/c, or on rooftops in mosquito net. On one occasion during busier times, I shared the ground floor of a traditional Swahili House called Tamasha Lodge with a German traveller and later, a large group of us shared a sprawling, two stories, 7-room Swahili home complete with garden and turtle with six other travellers. In recent trips, I went upscale and opted for the newly refurbished Stone House as they had a rooftop restaurant that had a view you would die for—the vista stretching out to distant Manda Island.
Stone House Hotel

Stone Tower arches.
Stone House rooftop restaurant

On recent trips to Lamu, I usually stay at the Stone House Hotel in the old town. It’s a traditional
Swahili house that has been refurbished. The rooms on the top floor are more airy and this keeps the
mosquitoes at bay. I’ve stayed in the larger “honeymoon suite” and it is quite romantic with wooden
shutters, which open to an unending scene of swinging palm trees, and baying donkeys. You can lie in
the larger bed and gaze out through the mosquito net towards Manda Island, which glimmers in the
distant haze of another torpid Lamu day. Most rooms are equipped with a huge en suite bathroom with
bracing shower, antique Swahili chests and drawers; tastefully hand-woven rugs grace the floor. The
hand-carved, wooden Swahili beds are a sight to behold with delicately carved wooden footboard and
larger headboard with glass tiles incorporated into the design. The top floor of Stone House has two
larger rooms separated by an Islamic arch. The larger room was adjoined to ours and there was another
ornately carved queen sized Swahili bed with soft pillows to catch the afternoon light and a place to read a book or gaze out the window.
Stone House, top floor sitting area.
I have often ordered aromatic afternoon coffee or tasty Kenyan masala chai while sitting here catching up on diaries or writing postcards from this enchanting isle. The star attraction of Stone House is its rooftop restaurant. It has a palm roof, with stucco arches that allow a constant flow of sea breeze to cool you down and affords lovely views of nearby rooftops. It’s a good place to cool your heels and either sip on a fruit shake or partake of their excellent Swahili fare. Even though I have stayed away from Lamu for long periods—it always feels good to be back in my Lamu.

Bajuni friend

Old Lamu Friends
Quite often whilst walking along the promenade that hugs theLamu waterfront, it’s not difficult to run into some of my oldLamu friends. Near the main dock, I often hear the unmistakable lilting high-pitched voice of an old Lamuan friend—Ali Hippy. He is really only a couple years older than me but he has the physique of a mini sumo wrestler. His retort now is—“Ali Yummy, good for tummy” and apparently good for his tummy too! He has rounded out now, needs a cane and can be found corralling his usual band of victims for his famous ‘Swahili dinners’. From the looks of Ali, he hasn’t missed too many of his meals either? Further along, there was a familiar face with a huge toothy grin standing beside Ali Hippy. It was an old friend who I haven’t seen since the 1980s. He’s a Bajuni friend who has lost just about all of his former curly Afro locks but still has his trademark warm smile and toothy grin. We exchanged stories and I mentioned to him that I had last seen him in 1988 when he ran the Rainbow Lodge. In subsequent talks, he told me in sad tones that the lodge has since closed down and he now works for the Olympic Restaurant. When I saw him a year later, the Lamu economy had worsened and the little money he made came from carrying huge 100 pound bags of cement from the dock to a building site. I felt sorry for him and the tough times that Lamu and Lamuans have had to endure over the years--it has not been easy with the decline in recent tourism.  
Street Life in Lamu
One cannot talk about Lamu without mentioning the street life, as there are no cars so one has to walk everywhere—it’s part of the allure of Lamu. On these narrow high-walled streets, there is barely enough room to squeeze by fat tourists let along a donkey cart piled high with cement bags or fruit for sale down the coast. The donkeys seem to have free range of the streets and one can often see them leaning up against a coral rag wall, sleeping out of the hot rays of the equatorial sun. One has to be careful of these open sewers especially at night when there is no power and you have to guide yourself by flashlight down the narrow streets. Local men shuffle by in their white kanzus or brightly covered kikois or kangas, with a Swahili cap atop and patchy shirts. The Lamu women who are Muslim are usually fully covered with a black abaya and are called Bui Bui. All manner of commerce takes place on the crowded streets as well as gawking by tourists. When the sun isn’t too strong, it was easy to saunter off up the narrow streets, past the main dock en route to the sandy beach road to get to the sand dunes and famous white, sandy beach just past Shela. Once there, we might stop at the very expensive, exclusive Peponi’s Hotel for a mid-day Schweppes’s Bitter Lemon under an umbrella to get out of the fierce sun. Peponi’s is just opposite Manda Island Beach Resort and the area that has received so much attention in the media lately for kidnappings and shootings. I find it all of this bad news slightly unbelievable in that Lamu has been a respite for peace and tranquility amongst the hurly burly of Africa for many years. In recent times, the Somalis have made their presence felt from the Gulf of Aden around the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean. Of late, their terrorism has stretched down the coast and into Kenyan waters and sovereignty. Somalia has become a haven of mayhem. Somalis have been responsible for the recent spate of bar bombings both in Uganda and Kenya. The streets of Kenya are awash with “dirty pirate money” from Somalia. It’s a true international crime when the Al-Shabab or whoever this rag-tag army from Somalia owes their allegiance to have incurred in bringing their ‘kidnapping games’ to this idyllic part of Kenya. Let’s hope that the Kenyan army and security forces can soon put an end to this reign of terrorism and return Lamu back to its rightful claim of “Paradise Isle”.
Near Takwa ruins, Manda Island.

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