Tag Archives: “kenyan beach”

Budget blues.

Having squared myself with Islam and eaten more prawn curry than my waistline can bear, it’s time to finally leave Lamu behind. It’s an emotional scene on the terrace at Casuarina, watching the wind shake the trees and the tortoises mount each other like sex-charged stallions for the last time. Downstairs I say my goodbyes to the staff, sharing a sad parting with the Prince of Peace. He’s a sweet, smiling, self-conscious kid who, for the past month, endeared himself to all the guests with oddball flourishes like his baroque handshakes and, well, his habit of introducing himself as the “Prince of Peace.” At times he was moody, and would grow suddenly sullen; he was at his best when there was a crowd around to keep him company. On the rooftop one night, playing DJ as he scrawled through the songs on my laptop, he pumped his fist energetically and called out, “Uh! Uh! Yeah! Yeah!” He might’ve been working the crowd at a New York superclub, instead of playing to a handful of barefoot backpackers from my computer’s struggling speakers. When the rest of us left to go to the bar he grew quiet and withdrawn, and he wouldn’t cheer up until we promised to bring back a couple of beers to share with him on the terrace.

I give his shoulder a playful squeeze and note that I haven’t seen him all week. He says quietly that he hasn’t been around; he’d gone back to his up-country home for the week. His mother died after a long, painful battle with “stomach problems,” and he went home to attend the burial. In the span of the next few breaths, he tells me that his father died just four months ago – leaving him, the eldest son, in charge of the care of his three siblings. His face is tremulous, his mild eyes filling with tears.

“I want to cry, but I can’t cry,” he says. “I know I have to be strong. I have to. I have to.”

Already I’d heard about the staff’s misfortunes; one of the guests explained to me that they’re paid Ksh40 – about 65 American cents – for a half-day’s work. The Prince of Peace puts in six 12-hour shifts a week – a terrific burden, even if he didn’t now have a family to look after. Watching him fight back tears under the hostel’s awning, his bony shoulders trembling inside an oversized t-shirt, I feel a cold, hard knot in my stomach. You meet so many desperate souls around this country, people whose lives are a steady string of misfortunes, and you try to make sense of their persistence: how anyone could build a life around such heartbreaks and sorrows. A man in Nairobi once told me that the only thing he knows with certainty is that each new day is a little bit worse than the one before it. There are lots of prayers for better fortunes in a place like Kenya, but this is a place that’s long on faith and short on miracles.

Before I leave I give the Prince of Peace Ksh1,000 – about fifteen bucks: a small fortune under normal circumstances that feels sad and futile today. He thanks me and hugs me and struggles to keep himself from losing it. Upstairs on the terrace, I shed enough tears for the both of us. Then I heave my bags onto my shoulders and trudge through the rain to the jetty, where the ferry is thrumming and full and ready to take us to the mainland.

After six weeks on the coast, I’m ready to make a hasty retreat to Nairobi. It’s a wet, bumpy drive south from Lamu; curtains of rain are draped along the coast, and it’s with relief that I check into my hotel in Malindi, knowing that I won’t be around for long enough to unpack my bags. That night I have dinner with Basilio – the sports agent I’d met all those months ago in Nairobi. Over grilled fish we talk about the difficult year he’s had – a messy divorce; a long legal battle for custody of his kids – and he says with a grateful sigh that he’s finally turned a corner. Things are looking up. We talk about the upcoming elections, and he shares some of his own political designs for the future. He already has an eye toward the elections in 2012, when he hopes to represent his district in Nairobi. There’s too little time to make a serious run in December, but he’s been busily making his rounds – not just in Malindi itself, but in small villages in the bush.

“The other candidates do not go deep into the bush,” he says. “But I want to make sure they know me in all the villages. I want them to know I will help build them schools and new dispensaries.”

In a country where long-term vision always seems to be compromised for the sake of quick-fix solutions and empty promises, his plan sounds like a revelation. Partly because of the personal hardships he’s endured, I suspect, Basilio has deep reservoirs of patience. Things take time – for people, for countries. And as he talks about more ambitious plans for ten or twenty years down the line – to become a minister, to maybe make it as far as the president’s cabinet – I feel a surge of hope that’s unfamiliar after all this time in Kenya. Just this morning, in Lamu, I was desperate about the country’s state. Now I’ve managed, however briefly, to find someone and something worth believing in. It’s a strange, unexpected feeling to grab hold of. And it’s reminded me that most of us can never fully understand what a bold and hopeful thing it can be in a place like this, just to get out of bed and face the new day.

The night in Malindi ends on a high note, but it doesn’t take long for things to take a turn for the oh-shit. It’s not like I have anyone but myself to blame. I’ve lived it up for the past few days, treating Basilio to a nice dinner in Malindi – then treating myself to the same in Mombasa. At Tamarind, in an elegant Moorish building with whitewashed walls and soaring archways, I gorge on red snapper and spicy prawns harissa while the city lights twinkle over Mombasa’s old harbor. Though I’m not the type to bemoan a bit of fine dining, I probably picked the wrong time to splurge on an $80 dinner. With my latest paycheck held up by the inscrutable whims of the banking Fates, I wake up to find 52 cents in my bank account – a development that will send me scurrying for a lifeline these next few days.

In a strange way, the last week in Lamu’s prepared me for the trials ahead. During the long, hungry days of Ramadan – culminating in my day of fasting – I’d discovered just how much my body can endure. Now, with that same asceticism being thrust upon me, I again channel my inner Muslim. Having paid for my hotel in advance, I’m left with Ksh800 – about twelve US bucks – to hold me over until my check clears. For three excruciating days, I get by on samosas – Ksh5 – and greasy potato katlisses – Ksh10 – and five-shilling bags of peanuts. Each morning I check my bank balance; each morning, my stomach grumbles as I realize I’ll have to wait another day. By the time the money’s cleared I’ve shed a few pounds in the sweltering heat, and I throw all thoughts of frugality to the side as I book the first flight to Nairobi, ready for the city’s cool heights and a long-overdue dinner at Annie Oakley’s.

Tasting a huge chunk of paradise.

In the morning I’m up with the first rays of dawn, and Shahari’s friend, Mahmoud – a room steward at Mike’s Camp – is waiting at the foot of the sand dune. We cross to the other side of the island and walk down a long, wide beach with crabs scuttling at our feet and disappearing into the sand. There’s a thin line of trash that forms a refuse reef at the foot of the dunes – styrofoam cups, old flip-flops, orange and red and blue plastic bags. As we trudge through the sand, Mahmoud frowns and presses a hand to the side of his head.

“I have a very bad headache,” he says. “I think it is malaria.”

I ask if he’s taking any medication, but he says he’s waiting for sundown, because of Ramadan. I suggest that this might be one of the exceptions to the strict Koranic rules, but he only offers a noncommittal shrug. By the time we reach Mike’s Camp a light rain is falling, and Mahmoud slouches into a chair and slumps forward, cradling his head in his hands.

Mike’s is a friendly, low-key place that – at $200-plus per night – only feels a few steps removed from my own $5 campsite. There are seven thatched bandas crowning the dunes, each with $200-a-night views, but sparsely furnished rooms and rustic showers that are little more than a spigot attached to an overhead bucket. Even the toilet tanks have to be manually refilled – a bit more work, I suspect, than I’d be willing to do, given the prices. Still, the place is homey, and Mike himself – ruddy, fit, looking like he’s just done a couple of laps around the island – is happy to help me out in getting to Kiwayu Safari Village.

We sit in the lounge and have coffee while the staff wipe down the bar and rearrange the sea shells and coconut ash trays on the tables. Mike tells me about all the time and money he’s put into the island. When I mention the unseemly strip of trash on the beach, he grimaces and says, “You should’ve seen it before I got here.” He points to the bar, where a bunch of painted fish and birds are dangling overhead: recycled flip-flops he’s salvaged from the shore. The locals carve and decorate them, selling them to tourists at Mike’s Camp and KSV. I mention a review I read about the two places in The Times, in which the writer – who had glowing things to say about both – had clearly warmed to Mike’s Camp. Mike taps on a mammoth, cloth-bound guestbook, as if to suggest the reviews speak for themselves. I flip through the first few pages.

“A big thank you…for helping Mel and I taste a huge chunk of paradise,” said one happy Mike’s-Camper.

“Gosh, where to start?!” gushed another.

We finish our coffees and he tells one of the guys to get the boat ready. I thank him as he sits down to his Weetabix, and soon I’m on my way down the sand-sculpted stairs to the rickety jetty. The sky has cleared, and it’s a warm, sunny morning; I skim my fingertips over the water’s surface as the engine grumbles to life. Hardly a minute after we shove off, we putter to a stop at another jetty nearby. Women in colorful, brightly patterned dresses clamber aboard; little girls in hijabs and bare-chested boys jockey for a seat close to me. We ferry them across the channel – a small favor that, I suspect, the driver performs whenever the opportunity presents itself. Then he throws the engine into full gear and blasts us to KSV, a five-minute ride that’s probably saved me a couple of hours of slogging through the sand.

When we get there, two guys in bright white uniforms are waiting to greet me. It’s the off-season, and the place is virtually empty. They show me to a long, breezy dining room and bring me a pot of coffee, and a few minutes later I’m joined by the manager – a pretty young Brit who, with her boyfriend, just took over the reins at KSV a week ago. We talk about the transition from her past job – she was a hostess at a popular restaurant in Nairobi – and how fortunate she’s been to arrive in the shoulder season. Afterward she shows me to a spacious banda – a great, airy room dominated by a four-poster bed with a mosquito net billowing on the sides. The furniture was hand-made in Lamu; the cushions are decked out in cheery pastels. She points out the safe box and says she advises all guests to hide their shiny objects, which attract the family of mischievous monkeys prowling the premises. Lately they’ve been having problems with monkeys pouncing on the solar panels out back. It seems that even paradise doesn’t come without a cost.

She looks at her watch and apologizes: she’s expecting a party of four for lunch. Having heard of the resort’s famous seafood and Italian-inspired cuisine, they’re flying in from Nairobi for the afternoon – a fit of extravagance that leaves us both a little awestruck. She leaves me to explore on my own, and I wander along the beach – a long, powdery crescent that, this time of year, is fringed with black strands of seaweed. I bump into the only other guests, two pale, pink pensioners from England who look mildly shellshocked in the sunlight. The husband, it turns out, is also a writer, though he modestly deflects my interest when I gesture to his laptop bag and ask what he’s working on. His wife chuckles and says something about us comparing notes later, and then they plod off in their socks and sandals, holding hands and looking sweetly in love.

I hike to the top of the dune and realize that KSV is actually on a peninsula, sandwiched between two curving bays. With the resort’s seventeen bandas facing sunrise views to the east, the bay behind them feels even more secluded (though both are, admittedly, a long way from anywhere). I strip down and splash around in the warm green waves, then lay back in the sand and watch the shadows of the clouds rippling over the dunes. It’s a very good day.

Afterward I walk along the length of the beach, past KSV and the bandas of the Kenya Wildlife Service, until I reach Kokoni, a ramshackle village of thatched huts shaded by towering palm trees. The sight of a mzungu causes no small commotion, and I’m soon surrounded by excitable kids and curious old-timers and a few young guys in baggy track pants and soccer jerseys trying their best to look cool and aloof. We sit in front of a shop that seems to be the village’s focal point – a town square where the elders can sit in the shade, talking politics and lazily swatting at the flies. More kids gather, close to twenty in ill-fitting t-shirts and dirty communion dresses. One of the boys, a beaming eight-year-old, holds a crab tied to the end of a string. A few young girls sit in the shade of a house nearby, squealing in fits and doubling over.

The kids take me to their schoolhouse on the edge of town, a derelict concrete building with crumbling walls and a makuti roof. Inside they clamber over the desks and hurl chalky erasers at each other and scribble their names on the blackboard. The day’s lesson is written to the side.

Exercise
1.) Which animals give us milk?
- cows
- goats
- camels

On the far wall, a sign observes:

THINGS DONE IN THE SCHOOL:
A. LEARNING
B. PLAYING
C. KEEPING THE SCHOOL CLEAN

The kids chase each other in circles, thrilled by the illicit pleasure of being in school after hours, while a village elder stands by the door, keeping a wary vigil. They show me their desks, pulling out pencils and notebooks and language primers with words carefully etched in Swahili and English.

“How are you?” they ask.

“I am fine, thank you,” they reply.

The elder makes a few rumbling noises buried deep in his throat, and the kids suddenly put away their pencils and notebooks and language primers and scurry for the door. Outside a bunch of older boys are playing volleyball in the schoolyard. It’s late in the day, and the sun is slowly setting. I head back to the general store, where the owner is tallying up his sales. He’s closing up the shop to break the fast with his family – he’ll open again at midnight – and he invites me into his home next door to join them.

The house is long and narrow and lit by bright fluorescent bulbs. There’s the man and his wife and two sons and four daughters – the youngest, barely two, scurrying around on chubby legs. When they see me enter, the women start fussing with their hijabs. The man gives me a seat at the kitchen table; he speaks almost no English. He leans over the table and puffs a cigarette, now and then getting up to greet someone who’s just walked in. The eldest daughter brings us samosas and bhajias and a pitcher of tamarind juice. Then she brings us fish stew and chapati. I lean back and pat my stomach when I’m through, and there are smiles of approval all around. I smother them with shukrans and asanti sanas, their faces shining with gratitude. A few of the neighbors pass by and poke their heads in the door; it’s impossible to tell who’s doing who the greater honor here. I shake hands with all the men as I leave. The night is mild and calm, the wind barely stirring. Fires burn in the houses, paraffin lamps glow in the windows, and the moon has just come up, sitting fatly on the fronds of the coconut palms.

In the morning I’m up at half-past four, ready to catch the five o’clock ferry back to Lamu. The moon is still shining pale, silver coins flickering over the water. We crowd into the boat, sleepy, rubbing our eyes, huddling our knees close to our chests. The captain is a sharp silhouette standing regal and tall in the rear, the rudder poised between his legs. We’re quiet as the ship carves the dark waves. After close to two hours the sun rises in streaks, and again I watch the endless lines of mangroves scrolling by.

It’s a long, hot trip. I’m hungry and thirsty and haven’t had a bite since I nibbled on a few cookies under the moonlight before leaving. There’s some food and a bottle of water in my bag, but with the other passengers fasting, I can’t help but feel like a little snack would be rubbing it in. So I sit and wait, the sun browning my arms, the hours and the mangroves both passing in dull repetition. It’s close to noon when we finally reach Lamu, and by that point, I’ve gotten the idea in my head to carry this day of fasting all the way through. I head back to Casuarina, hot and parched and baked by a day in the sun. I lay in bed and watch the ceiling fan turn. The afternoon call to prayer rattles the windows. I go out and walk along the waterfront, then duck into the narrow back alleys, sticking to the shade. The old men are sitting beneath the baobab in the town square, staring abstractedly at the patches of sunlight on the pavement, waiting for dusk to come.

More than the hunger, it’s the thirst that gets to you. By late in the day I can feel my throat constricting, a dry, cottony build-up on my tongue. I’ve made an art of swallowing, letting the saliva collect into satisfying mouthfuls. I’m not entirely sure what I’m trying to prove, but it’s past the point where giving up would feel like anything other than a catastrophic defeat.

And it’s a strange, gratifying feeling all the same, to prove I’m not just a slave to the impulses of a rumbling stomach. In an odd way, I feel somehow stronger, bolder; I convince myself, in the heat of inspiration, that I’m capable of brave, good things. And while fasting to appease my vanity probably isn’t what the Prophet had in mind, I can almost understand, by whatever imaginative leaps, how this sort of self-sacrifice could bring a man closer to his God – closer to the airy limitlessness of a pure spiritual place.

At dusk I gather with the other men lining the stalls on Harambee Avenue. We’ve bought our bundles of food and wait, almost trembling, to hear the call to prayer. A young guy nearby makes eye contact and smiles and shakes my hand. He asks if I’m fasting, and I say I am. He touches his chest lightly.

“Thank you,” he says. “It means a lot to us.”

We sit on a bench and watch the others milling, fidgeting, passing the interminable minutes. A man ladles tamarind juice into old Fanta bottles, and I buy a round for me and my newfound friends. We’re already holding the bottles to our lips when the words Allahu akbar blast through the streets. We drink greedily, wiping our mouths against our sleeves and asking for refills; then we unfold our greasy bundles and stuff our faces. After the holy rigors of the day, it’s a sloppy catharsis. But I’m grateful for the experience all the same – and more grateful for the big, greasy breakfast I plan on waking up to in the morning.

The ferry to Faza and mad, mad Mohammed.

All week I’ve been trying to cut corners, looking for a way to get to far-flung Kiwayu – and the luxe Kiwayu Safari Village – on the cheap. The hour-long speedboat ride would set me back Ksh15,000 each way – a round trip total of four hundred-plus US bucks – so instead I’ve prowled the waterfront and hung around the jetty, grilling local captains on cheaper options. In the end, I hatch a scheme that shows off a certain African flair for low-budget improvisation. By way of the Ksh400 ferry I’ll arrive on Paté Island, and from there, I’ll attempt to arrange a speedboat to neighboring Kiwayu. I’m trying hard to ignore the sheer lunacy of a round-trip expedition that will involve twelve hours at sea. And I’m trying equally hard to ignore the possibility that I’ll get to Faza – a scruffy town hidden among the mangroves – without a single speedboat in sight.

On the morning of my departure the ferry idles by the jetty. It’s a magnificent old dhow with a rumbling engine and a train of barefoot men loading cargo into its belly: boxes of Sportsman cigarettes and Safari “Fine Quality Kenya Tea”; bags from Fayaz Bakers & Confectioners, Mombasa; cases of biscuits with names – “Hadija Mqee, Shamu” – scrawled across the side. They’ve been piling the boxes in since early morning; now, approaching noon, the captain finally squints his eyes and steps onboard and makes a few gruff little gestures with his hands. Then the passengers pile in: women in hijabs and bui-buis festooned with sequins; young girls with long lashes batting behind black veils; men in colorful, swishing kikoys and embroidered white kufi caps that look like wedding cakes resting on their heads. I wedge myself between a few stacks of boxes and gather my knees close to my chest. A heavy blue tarp is unfurled above us, offering protection from the sun. Then there are a few last calls of encouragement from the jetty, and the boat groans and turns and churns its way out to sea.

It’s a long, slow slog to Paté. I read and scribble a few notes in my notebook and do my best to dodge the duffel bags swinging from a pole by my head. The women are laughing and braiding hair in the front of the boat; in the rear, the men bicker and stare out to sea, now and then scooting to the edge and shifting their kikoys before relieving themselves into the water. For four hours we putter past endless lines of mangroves, stopping at a few ramshackle towns to unload boxes and pick up passengers. Then Faza itself comes into view: a bunch of thatched huts leaning together in the mud, piles of trash and old foam mattresses scattered in the shade of the coconut palms. There’s some commotion on the waterfront as I hitch up my shorts and wade to shore. Wide-eyed kids creep close and reach out to touch my leg hair. A few locals have already materialized, asking if I need a place to stay.

I find a friendly man who, not coincidentally, owns one of the two lodges in town. I explain my plight, and he assures me getting to Kiwayu won’t be a problem. He looks up at the sky and suggests that if I leave now, at half-past three, I can be there and back by midnight – time enough to reach the hotel, chat with the manager, poke around scribbling notes, and ride the tide back to Faza. There’s a brief negotiation with a couple of guys who own a dhow, neither of whom – in an ominous touch – seem to speak a word of English. Unrattled, I agree on a price, then follow the man to his guesthouse, a poured-concrete building surrounded by wild growth on the fringes of town. He shows me to a dank, dusty little room and says I can have it for Ksh300 a night. He says to give a rap on his door when we get back, and even suggests his wife can leave a little bit of dinner on for me. Almost on cue, a man materializes with a bag of calamari, and he pursues me around town for the next twenty minutes, still waving his bag as I clamber aboard a dhow and push off from shore.

The wind is listless as we drift from Faza. The locals are still gathered onshore, laughing, smiling quizzically, no doubt assured of their assumption that white people will do the strangest things, often for extravagant fees. For an hour we coast through a wide channel of mangroves; then the ocean itself appears on one side, a broad expanse of sea and sky, a limitlessness that suggests the awesome brush strokes of infinity. The waves have gathered strength, rolling toward us in massive swells, and we pitch and toss atop their choppy crests. I’m beginning to feel sick, holding onto my stomach as we rock precariously from side to side. The guys lay a beam across the prow for balance; one of them scoots far out to its tip, his bare heels dipping into the water, his face sternly fixed on the horizon. Behind me his partner works the rudder, his lanky frame cocooned in a puffy red ski parka, as if he were coasting down the slopes of Chamonix instead of sailing along two degrees from the equator. Now and then there’s a short, tense exchange between them. I look from one face to the other, then back again, then ahead to the thin green strip that augurs Kiwayu on the horizon. It’s slowly begun to dawn on me that they have no fucking clue where we’re going, and that we’re all of us praying that when we reach Kiwayu – an elliptical island that measures a full twelve miles from tip to tip – the way to KSV will be well signposted, like an IHOP on I-95.

After more than two hours at sea, we’re close enough to Kiwayu to make out some figures on shore. There’s a small crescent of beach framed by palm trees, a few thatched huts set back on the sand dune. Two men are watching us curiously as we drift near, giving little indication that a luxury resort is lurking anywhere past the palms. I ask the way to KSV, and one of the men – a slight, light-skinned guy in a loose button-down shirt and white kufi cap – stares grimly up the channel. The Kiwayu Safari Village, it seems, is not – contrary to common sense – located on Kiwayu island, but on the mainland across from it, a few miles from our beachhead. With neither the wind nor the tide in our favor, it would take hours to slowly tack our way there. I blink dumbly at the beach, then at the water, then at the captain who’s trying to sort out the confusion with the man onshore.

“You can perhaps walk instead,” the man, Shahari, offers helpfully. He squints toward the mangroves fringing the coast on the mainland and says, “It is only two hours from here.”

This is the part in the pleasant African tale where the white guy loses his shit. I have a few angry words for the captain, who, I suggest, could’ve sorted out certain minor details before leaving Faza. He tries to place the blame on me instead – he’d gotten me to Kiwayu, after all, even if the Safari Village is nowhere to be found – and a heated exchange ensues. In the end, about the only thing we can agree on is that if he wants to get the full Ksh2,500 fare out of me, he’ll have to pry it from my cold, lifeless hands.

I’m standing knee-deep in the water, trying to weigh what are admittedly limited options. Eager to get back to Faza before nightfall, the captain’s already starting to hoist anchor, and I decide that the only thing that would make this improbable odyssey even more ridiculous would be to head back to Faza with him, only to try again in the morning. I pay him Ksh1,500 and send him on his way. Shahari, soft-spoken and gentle, tries to placate me with reassuring words. It’s only now, with the sun’s golden light flooding the mangroves, that the bigger picture comes into view. If you’re going to get stranded anywhere for the night, after all, there are certainly worse places to do it.

Shahari, as it turns out, runs a small campsite on the beach. He shows me a long, open-front banda with a single foam mattress facing the sea; then he points to a tree house nearby, touting its superior views. We clamber up the stairs, one of which crumbles beneath my foot. A long, bloody wound opens up on my shin, to which Shahari looks with dismay and smiles meekly and shakes his head, saying “Sorry. Sorry.” The tree house is, indeed, lovely, though not necessarily worth five times the price of the banda on the beach. I hand him Ksh300 and change into my swimsuit and spend the last few minutes of daylight splashing around in the water. Then I wrap myself in a towel and dab at my bloody leg with a few gauze pads. Another man has arrived – a wiry guy with unruly dreads – and we watch the sun dip toward the mangroves, chatting about nothing in particular. Later he invites me for dinner aboard his boat – a small pleasure ship bobbing about fifty yards offshore. When he’s gone and I’ve changed my clothes, Shahari offers to show me around the village nearby. He gestures to the boat with his head and says,

“That man, he is very crazy. Once they tied him to a tree for many hours.”

“Um,” I say.

The boat, it turns out, isn’t his: it belongs to a wealthy Frenchman who spends part of his year in Kiwayu. He’d offered Mohammed a few thousand shillings to look after it for the month – far less, Shahari observes, than he could’ve made with even a low-paying job. No one in the village understands why Mohammed accepted, though a few suspect he’s up to no good. Shahari alludes to some petty theft he was involved in a few years ago; I want to know more about the time they tied him to a tree. Was he tied up, I ask, because he’d committed a crime, or simply because he was nuts?

“Yes,” Shahari says vaguely, then turns and stomps up the sand dune. He stops to introduce me to the camp’s askari, a hobbled old man carrying a paraffin lamp who speaks exactly no words of English. I look from the askari to the madman’s boat and then back to the askari. Shahari smiles, as meek as an Easter lamb, showing no signs that bloodshed and carnage – both my own – could be just hours away.

We walk through the village, where a small commotion follows in my wake. Old men approach to press my hand, shrill kids circle and shout and dance excitedly in the sand. Shahari wants me to come back to his home, to meet his family and break the Ramadan fast. Darkness has fallen, a full moon casting the silhouettes of the palms in sharp relief. I buy a few samosas from a little boy sitting outside a mud hut; he takes them from a pink washbasin and puts them in a plastic bag and twirls the bag shut. Shahari leads me through a maze of winding lanes, small fires burning in most of the homes, until we reach his modest house, where a young, curious girl peaks out from the door and cranes her neck to receive her father’s affections.

We sit on a woven mat in the courtyard, while his wife – tall and shy, greeting me demurely from the hall – works in the shadows of the kitchen. His daughter – a precocious four-year-old – brings out plates of bhajias and stewed goat, which Shahari scoops with pieces of chapati and brings to her tiny mouth. Along with his duties at the campsite – which is owned by his uncle – Shahari teaches in the village schoolhouse. He tells me about his petitions to local officials for new supplies, about his plans to expand the school so it can provide for twice as many students. Eventually, he wants to introduce computers into the classroom. He’s taking correspondence classes from a school in Kisumu, and he plans to go there to study for six weeks during the summer. We sit cross-legged for twenty minutes, sharing our bhajias and samosas, along with our modest hopes for the future. The light from the cooking fire flickers inside the darkened house; the wind rattles through the palms. After a long silence Shahari rises and goes inside, returning with a washbasin full of lukewarm water. We rinse our hands and shake the drops off onto the mat. Then he offers to walk me back to the beach.

On the way he arranges an escort for me to go to Mike’s Camp in the morning. Mike’s is the other upmarket option in Kiwayu, and Shahari suspects that the owner, Mike Connelly – a boisterous, fourth-generation Kenyan – would be willing to take me to KSV in his speedboat. It is, at the end of this endless day, a sliver of hope I’m happy to carry to bed with me. He leaves me at the campsite, where the askari is keeping a quiet vigil by lamplight, and the Frenchman’s boat bobs offshore, the lights out and not a soul stirring.

For some people, it’s molestation. Maybe for other kids, it’s fun.

Things have taken an interesting twist here in Lamu. I’d been set to leave a week ago, working my way back down the coast en route to Nairobi and, eventually, Uganda. But an opportunity’s come my way to update the Kenya guide for a slick, high-end travel website – leaving me in the not-too-unenviable position of having to dodder around Lamu for another week, popping in on the area’s swank resorts. Inspiration comes easily around the bar of the Peponi, where cute young Europeans pad around on bare feet, looking taut and tan and full of fiscal vigor. I eat crab salad and stare dreamily at the surf outside, while the waiters circle and offer my scruffy, taped-up backpack what seems like an undue amount of scrutiny.

With luxe resorts peppering the coast – as well as neighboring islands like Manda and far-flung Kiwayu – I’ve got plenty of work ahead of me. But I’ve already been braced for the rigors of luxury life. With the arrival of Ramadan squeezing me out of my usual budget comfort spots, I’ve been an up-market fixture around town, frequenting the same high-end haunts in search of sustenance. At the top of the list is Whispers, a Western-style café on Harambee Avenue, which shares real estate with the lavishly overpriced Baraka Gallery next door. In the shady backyard garden, surrounded by coral walls and coconut palms, I drink cappuccino and eat sugary desserts, flipping through the pages of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. That I’m reverting to my previous state of aspiring New York sophisticate doesn’t alarm me in the least. Ogling Patek Philippe watches and Dolce & Gabbana shirts and lithe Brazilian models cavorting in Cavalli swimsuits is, after all – in its own small way – research to prepare me for the job ahead.

For my first week in Lamu, Whispers – with its Ksh120 cappuccinos – was something of a guilty pleasure – a leafy sanctuary I’d retreat to every few days, when the fat black flies and Nescafes of the local eateries had overrun my sanity. Now I wake up in a state of disarray, anxious for the frothy pleasures I’ve become so accustomed to: just another caffeine junkie jonesing for the fix only Whispers can provide. Not coincidentally, it’s also the place where I’ve rekindled an embarrassing addiction to the VF society pages – those glossy stomping grounds of American socialites, Greek shipping tycoons and the ever-dapper Dominick Dunne, who photographs like he’s just been shot full of horse tranquilizers and formaldehyde and can’t quite make up his mind if he likes the buzz.

It’s here that I’m reacquainted with the fall-out surrounding the Brooke Astor home care scandal, and the divorce saga of designer Tori Burch, and the ill-advised emails that were the undoing of Republican Representative Mark Foley. Over a couple of blush-worthy paragraphs, all the elicit details of his IMs to young pages are aired for the world to see.

Maf54 (7:54:31 PM): where do you unload it
Xxxxxxxx (7:54:36 PM): towel
Maf54 (7:54:43 PM): really
Maf54 (7:55:02 PM): completely naked?
Xxxxxxxx (7:55:12 PM): well ya
Maf54 (7:55:21 PM): very nice
Xxxxxxxx (7:55:24 PM): lol
Maf54 (7:55:51 PM): cute butt bouncing in the air

Meanwhile, a childhood friend – recalling Foley’s abuse at the hands of a local priest – notes that the former Congressman seemed less than traumatized by all those after-hours sessions in the sacristy.

“For some people, it’s molestation,” he observes. “Maybe for other kids, it’s fun.”

I might turn up my nose at low-brow tabloids or the tasteless rumor-mongering of the American cable-news circuit, but give me some well-crafted, high-end smut and I’m just another gossip whore, turning tricks over $2 cappuccinos.

The task of researching remote resorts for the new gig, though, has posed its share of problems. The dirty little secret of travel writing is that you can get luxury rooms at a fraction of the price – making that $500-a-night hideaway a steal for under a hundred bucks. But without the similarly complementary transfer from Lamu town, just reaching these places will be an ordeal that requires either manic fits of ingenuity or buckets of disposable cash (as the $200 boat ride to Kiwayu Safari Village makes clear). Turning to my resourcefulness – and utter disregard for personal comfort and safety – I’ve decided to do these places on the cheap, taking my cue from the crusty old sea dogs who once sailed these same waters for weeks on end, guided by the stars, battered by the sun, and utterly desperate for a place to take a crap.

I commandeer a boat one afternoon, a puttering little ferry that will take me to the Manda Bay Resort and back for Ksh2,000 – about thirty bucks. The captain waits for me by the jetty, an overpowering stench of diesel piping up from the water. He starts us forward with a lurch, the engine roaring to life, and soon we’re bumping over the choppy sea toward the mangroves of Manda Island. The sky is overcast; a light rain begins to fall, silver drops that pelt the water and spread a white sheet over the waves. Before long the storm begins to gather strength: broad curtains of rain draped across the mangroves as we steer toward a narrow channel. The captain works the rudder and wipes the rain from his face; beside him his young son grins bashfully and dangles a bare foot over the side, a little yellow rooster crowing on the breast of his knock-off soccer jersey. We pass a dhow rocking from side to side, the crew battling with the wind-battered sail. The smell of woodsmoke pumps from the mangroves. The rain slows, and a school of fish leap from the water – a flash of silver, like a handful of coins scattered across the sea.

After close to an hour the resort comes into view, its thatched-roof bandas discreetly tucked among the coconut palms. A couple of pleasure boats bob just off-shore, while my own ferry – the paint flaking from its flanks – makes its inglorious way toward the beach. There’s a man in olive pants and a fitted polo shirt watching gravely from the shore; he’s holding a walkie-talkie and regarding us with scarcely concealed contempt. I wave cheerily, though he does not – it’s worth noting – wave back. The captain drops anchor, forcing me to hitch up my shorts and wade fifty feet to shore, where the guy with the walkie-talkie gives me a look that all but says, “I think you’ve got the wrong beach, white boy.”

Fuzz and Bimbi, the resort’s owners, are standing barefoot in the sand, looking tan and salubrious and pleased as punch to be Fuzz and Bimbi. They’re busy sending off an older British couple as I splash my way to shore, holding my flip-flops and notebook up high and looking exactly like someone who’s washed up with the seaweed. Bimbi’s still waggling her long, slender fingers as their boat clears the mangroves. Then she turns my way, looking from my drenched shorts to my idling, beat-up boat and back, and all but wondering out loud whether I was just dredged up from the reef and whether I can’t be tossed back.

Once I’ve explained myself, though, she quickly warms. I’m ushered to the lunch table, where a garrulous group of Brits are comparing notes on neighboring resorts and smacking their lips over the vanilla pudding. We make small-talk about Lamu, and they pepper me with questions about the town I’ve called home for these past few weeks. How are the locals? What have I been eating? Do I feel safe after dark? I’m more than a bit surprised when I hear they’re on their fifth trip to the archipelago; just from how they say the word Lamu – practically holding it at arm’s length – you get the feeling they just came across it for the first time, flipping through a glossy brochure.

Later Bimbi takes me aside to answer my questions about the resort. I hunch over my notebook and bluff my way through scrupulous notes, glancing up now and then to sneak a peek at her marvelous, surgically enhanced breasts. She veers off on tangents, gossiping about other resorts or certain indiscretions among her guests following a particularly Bacchanalian night. Suddenly she stands up and chirps, “Oh look, it’s my little pied wag-tail,” making tweet-tweet noises as a tiny bird hops onto a nearby couch. I scribble the words “pied wag-tail” in the margin of my pad. Afterward she shows to a sea-front banda that’s big and breezy and just dying to have a certain travel writer doing cartwheels across the veranda. We stand outside and admire the view, with the late-day sunlight washing the mangroves and the waves lapping at the sea wall. Then she leads me back to the dining room, waves of blond hair cascading down to her sun-browned shoulders, her firm rear swaying in a bright-patterned skirt.

I think I’m going to get awfully used to the high life.

The 20-minute Muslim.

As the days pass in a drowsy blur of donkeys and bui buis, Ramadan blows in like a whirlwind of spiritual whoop-ass. Islam’s holiest month arrives with the new moon, on a festive night where the sky is cluttered with stars and the locals are boisterously out in the streets. There’s an odd ceremony by the waterfront at dusk, where a group of men are standing at attention. They dip their heads and wring their hands and shuffle a bit from side to side – perhaps anticipating, with the pure, holy anguish of faith, the trials of the month ahead. I wait for some sort of signal to mark the start of Ramadan: a thunderous call to prayer from the mosques, or a harsh siren wail, like the one that rings in shabat every Friday in Jerusalem. Instead I notice a soldier gravely lowering the Kenyan flag from a pole in front of the District Commissioner’s Office – a solemn daily rite that I’ve somehow managed to miss for the past two weeks. All along the waterfront, and around the nearby square, the locals respectfully wait for the soldier to perform his duty. Then they start up again, laughing and talking politics, while little kids whirl by with toy cars made from empty milk cartons and bottle caps.

By day the men sit hunched in the shade, listlessly staring at the waves or furrowing their faces over the Koran. You can practically hear the hunger pangs rumbling in their stomachs and chasing me down the street. It’s a curious time for me to be surrounded by such asceticism. For the past month, working my way up the coast, I’ve enjoyed my best dining in Kenya. Gourmet pizzas in Watamu, fresh grilled fish in Malindi. Along the waterfront in Lamu, where the restaurants Bush Gardens and Hapa Hapa compete for tourist traffic, I’ve gorged on prawn curry and barracuda kebab and garlic kingfish for under five bucks. So while Ramadan will hardly be a test of my faith, it’s sure to be a trial for my unruly appetite. Most of the restaurants around town are closed till sunset, prompting the humble recognition of just how grumpy I can be without a nice sit-down lunch and my afternoon banana-coconut milkshake.

So I’ve made the acquaintance of the few upmarket places in town: the New Lamu Palace; the Swahili-styled boutique hotel, Lamu World; the trendy Whispers Café, which shares real estate with the overpriced schlock at the Baraka Gallery next door. A week ago, when cheap eats were abundant around town, a cappuccino at Whispers or a frutti di mare pizza at the Palace was the stuff of the occasional splurge. But now, with the local haunts shuttered from dawn to dusk, I’ve been forced to play my white-man’s trump card: a bashful acknowledgment that, if the occasion demands, I can eat a $12 lunch with the best of ‘em.

That’s not to say I can do it with a clear conscience. For the first few holy days I navigate the busy streets with my head hung low, avoiding eye contact and fidgeting with my fingernails and briskly ducking into the first place that’s willing to feed me. I eat with the guilty relish of someone who’s enjoying a hearty meal in spite of the hungry faces on the other side of the windowpane. Afterward I hustle out the door and turn the first corner I find, anxious to dodge any disapproving stares: afraid that my dirty, sated little secret will give me away with a content gurgle of the stomach.

It’s not until late in the afternoon, as the sun begins to dip beneath the minarets, sending long shadows down the street, that Lamu’s collective appetite really begins to stir. The locals set up food stalls in the narrow alleys: men selling grilled meat skewers and fried, doughy bhajias and meat-filled potato katlisses. Boys sit Indian-style in the dirt and hack at piles of coconuts. The streets are filled with smoky aromas. Fathers buy great bundles of food wrapped in newspaper, bringing their booty home to break the fast when the sun sets.

I stock up, too, carrying my greasy pages from the morning’s Nation in the crook of my arm. Even as dusk approaches, even as lunch lurches and settles in my stomach, those plump packages are urging me toward all sorts of indiscretions. In just a few minutes the call to prayer will blast through the streets; the faithful men of Lamu, lean and sun-battered and wilting after another long day, will tear into their samosas and chapati and guzzle tamarind juice with a youthful recklessness. But those few minutes are more temptation than I can stand. I slip into an open doorway, creep up a flight of stairs, and turn a few corners until I’m hidden from eyeshot. And like the fat kid who buries his head in the fridge after midnight, hoping no one will miss a few extra drumsticks, I prove to myself what a horrible Muslim I would be.

For two months in Kenya, I’ve done my best to blend with the locals: sleeping in a smoky cow-dung hut with a Maasai family; bumping along a rocky road for fifteen hours in the back of a lorry truck; braving the grim, monotonous cuisine of ugali and nyama choma – the grilled meat that has, in your average Kenyan chop-shop, all the taste and texture of an 18-inch Pirelli. Certain cultural gaps between us can never be bridged; but in whatever small ways, inching closer till I can dimly see the far shore, I’ve tried to see for myself what it is to live in a Kenyan’s shoes. And so it is during this, my first full-fledged Ramadan. I’ve exchanged salamu leikums with the men on the street, woken to the call to prayer blasting from the mosque outside my window. How hard can a day of fasting be?

I wake to a bright Ramadan morning, the birds twittering in the casuarina trees and the donkeys braying and clopping by the waterfront, intent on making a statement – if only to myself. I sit with my laptop on the terrace, a warm breeze rattling the makuti thatch. It’s a few minutes shy of nine. The tortoises are prowling under the tables, nipping at my toes and making their gross, lusty overtures toward each other. It’s just past nine. Already I’ve lost my focus, my eyelids are heavy. I don’t know how I’ll make it through the day. Hardly twenty minutes after I’d woken with steely resolve, I order a cup of Nescafe and a Spanish omelette. I’m a long way from salvation, I’ll be the first to admit, but even I’m disappointed by such a sorry showing. I’m sheepish again as I walk through the streets, the men following me with hungry, drowsy eyes, thinking pious thoughts and dreaming of Paradise.

What’s the plan?

Though it’s miles – literally, figuratively – from the clamor of Mombasa and the teeth-gnashing nuisances of Malindi, Lamu’s proving to be just as slippery when it comes to peace and quiet. Along the waterfront I’m accosted by young guys in Bob Marley t-shirts, colorful kikoys wrapped around their slender waists. They come up to me, arms outstretched, as if they’re just catching up with old friends.

“Brother, what’s the plan?” they’ll ask, clasping my hand and clapping my back and flashing broad, dazzling shit-eaters.

These are the dhow captains of Lamu, the town’s equivalent of the beach boys who busy themselves around other coastal towns with wearying persistence. They have names like Captain Sunshine or Captain Happy or Captain Coconut (and, fittingly, his sidekick Captain Rice). They point to boats bobbing on the murky water and offer day-trips to one of the neighboring islands. Most push the same package: a morning of fishing, an afternoon lunch on a quiet strip of beach. Their pitches are long on good intentions, if a bit short on imagination. Invariably there’s a boatful of girls (wink, wink) that’s set to depart the following morning, Dutch duos or Finnish foursomes or a solitary Swede who looks (wink, wink) like she could use a little company. All they need is one last guy to fill an opening, if you will. And if you’re willing to pay a small deposit, you can just arrange to meet them by the jetty in the morning.

With time to spare – I expect to be in Lamu for a full two weeks – I’m in no particular hurry to make my down-payment. Unfortunately, that means a dozen captains have come to cultivate tenuous friendships with me, grasping my hand as I stroll along the seafront, making token enquiries about my health, then asking, “So what’s the plan? I have three Canadian girls going out tomorrow,” and so on.

With all the side-steps and polite put-downs and earnest offers to mull things over, I’ve managed to watch a week slip by. And despite the hassles of the waterfront, it’s been a largely somnolent seven days. Shuffling through the heat, dodging donkeys in the town’s narrow backstreets, sitting in the shade of the giant baobab in front of the old Portuguese fort – a favorite gathering place for the town elders, who gossip and grumble and debate politics in hoarse, cracking voices. On the hostel’s rooftop terrace I bang away on my laptop and listen to the commotion by the jetty. All day long there are boats arriving, boats departing, men rushing up to unload cargo or hustle newcomers to guesthouses that will pay them a modest commission. There are fresh-faced backpackers showing up daily: groups of gap-year Brits, or NGO volunteers who arrive with the life washed from their pale, overworked cheeks.

It’s taken me a full week to hit the beach – a fact that owes as much to the brutal mid-day sun as it does to my crippling inertia. Lamu’s nicest stretch of sand is on Shella Beach, a 30-minute walk away on the southern side of the island. I head there one afternoon with Karol and Dave, two garrulous Irish guys who have arrived from Dublin on a quick East-African tour. We’ve been sharing morning coffees on Casuarina’s breezy terrace, me groggily waking to my Nescafe while their sharp, curious minds hypothesize on Kenyan macroeconomics and medulla oblongatas and the etymology of words with obscure, Latinate roots. I’m hardly up to the task, even as I work my way through a second cup, though it’s a charming test of endurance. On our way to the beach we trudge through the heat, working sunscreen onto our necks and noses, until an inauspicious curtain of clouds blows in. We duck for cover while a sudden downpour bursts through the treetops, though the sky clears as quickly as it had darkened, making way for a bright, ferocious sun.

When the guys had hiked to Shella earlier in the week, taking the long, paved road along the coast, the tide was coming in, and they had to hitch their shorts up and plod through thigh-high water. So we decide to take an inland detour, navigating the nettle of sandy trails that wind through the island’s villages. We pass an old Muslim cemetery, overgrown with grass and weeds, with plastic bags and paper scraps blowing across the tombstones; we pass a run-down schoolhouse, with the letters of the alphabet painted in haphazard order – Dd Ll Aa Gg Yy Ee – along the wall. We pass tiny villages, thatched-roof huts framed by towering palms, where half-naked kids come hurtling from the doorways, shrieking, “Jambo! Jambo!” and wagging their little hands.

We’ve steered further inland, planning to take a short-cut that, as it turns out, sends us a good half-mile off-course. There’s sand and more sand, prickly acacia bushes, solitary palm trees that wave like a tropical up-yours. The sun is intense, and it’s as we’re sweating profusely that we realize the liter of water in my backpack is the only water we have. The afternoon is shaping up to be a tragic headline waiting to be written. The sand is scorching, burning my soles as I plod on in my flip-flops. Twice I’ve pricked my toes on acacia thorns and stumbled to my knees. I’m a hot, bloody, cranky mess, and the distant sound of waves pounding the shore is a cruel reminder of why I never should’ve left my bed this morning.

We trudge to the top of a dune, only to see another dune rolling away in the distance. For twenty minutes we repeat this sorry routine, until we finally see the ocean crashing along the beach. We quickly strip down and make a mad dash for the water, splashing and laughing and carrying on like a pack of six-year-olds. We get out and brown ourselves on the sand, then dip in for another swim. The beach is eight miles long and there’s not a single soul in sight. It’s turning out to be a beautiful day.

On our way back to Lamu we stop for beers at the Peponi Hotel, a watering hole for the wealthy ex-pats who have been flocking to Shella for four decades. We drink overpriced Tuskers and watch the clouds move across the water; a handsome, linen-clad couple pads out to a speedboat moored in front, jetting off into the distance. Soon a young beach boy approaches, pointing to a dhow that’s on its way back to Lamu. He says there are two French girls making the trip, and sure enough, two heads of long, wavy hair bob beneath the mast. We finish our drinks and scurry along to join them. There’s brief, polite conversation that quickly trails off. The late-day sun is dipping toward the mangroves on Manda Island, and all of Lamu looks dipped in gold as we breeze toward the jetty.