Tag Archives: lamu

It cannot happen again. It cannot happen again. It cannot happen again.

Friday, October 14.

The rain this week has been endless. Since the clouds blew in Tuesday afternoon, we haven’t seen a scrap of blue above us. The channel is gray and choppy; the fishing boats toss and lurch and knock hulls, their sides christened with the mixed-up philosophies and word associations of life in modern-day Kenya. Uhuru. Respect. Manna. Beyoncé. The fishermen, wispy wraithlike figures wrapped in kikoys long faded by the sun, gather in the restaurant of the Stopover. They sit there at the empty tables, the day’s takings too meager to justify even a single hot mug of chai. Their talk is as relentless as the rain. Inshallah. Inshallah. There is always room for hope. Donkeys plod the long sand track toward Lamu town, their backs loaded with sacks of cement or blocks of coral stone. Children, bare foot, in djellabahs and bui-buis, their voices carrying like birdsong. From my balcony, I have a sultan’s-eye view of everything. The hotel staff bring me breakfast on the terrace: warm chapati, Spanish omelettes, big steins of coconut milk.

The weather’s cast an inauspicious cloud over the week. I’ve arrived to report on the recent kidnappings of foreigners by suspected Somali pirates for a well-known luxury travel magazine. This is a tremendous deal for me, and one that had already heightened my anxiety before the rains blew in. Tuesday night’s storm knocked out the only transformer in Shella; by 7pm, darkness drops on the village like a stone. While this probably hasn’t posed too many problems at the high-rolling Peponi Hotel, where the constant thrum of gas-powered generators is as steady and reliable as the tide, it’s complicated life at the thrifty Stopover. The cost of fuel on the island is high, and management has decided to fire up the generator for just a couple hours a night. Evenings bring an elaborate choreography of plugging and charging, trying to milk whatever feeble power is being pumped into my room before I’m left with nothing but moon- and candle-light to scribble my thoughts by.

It has lent a certain black comedy to the week. You would picture a luxury-travel writer being fed crab claws and caipirinhas and more or less getting fellated by Thai masseuses while he does his reporting; sadly, readers, this is not the case. I’ve been juggling laptop batteries and stocking up on spare SIMs, since a stray breeze will almost certainly knock out at least one of the major phone networks. (Not without good reason are dual-SIM phones pretty much de rigeur in Kenya.) There is the problem, too, that the kidnapping story – now two weeks old – has already been overreported. Local hotel owners, I quickly learn, have felt unfairly treated by the press. Some say they were blatantly misquoted; others that the general media consensus of a “panicky flight” from Lamu was grossly exaggerated. (Later in the week, I’ll pay a visit to the offices of the three airlines which operate flights to the island. Between the three, they report a grand total of two tourists who had come to them in the days after the kidnappings to take the aforementioned panicky flight.) As the area begins to gear up for the high season, there’s a sense among hoteliers and tour operators that the best press for Lamu right now would be no press at all.

Fortunately, my swank media credentials open up some doors, and many of the hotel owners around Shella are eager to at least set the record straight. Lars Korschen, at the Peponi – a de facto base for me, with its abundant outlets and prime Kenyan AA coffee – gestures to the empty dining room where I’ve come to meet him and says, “We’re down to next to nothing at the moment.” Korschen has a windswept, old-mariner’s air about him; you can almost picture his vocal chords just sitting there on the beach, getting bleached by the sun and mottled with salt and sand. He walks me through some of the beefed-up security around the hotel – extra watchmen, armed police at night, floodlights that can light up the beach like the 4th of July at a moment’s notice – and says he’s hopeful that the American and British governments will soon lift their travel advisories. The Kenyan security forces, he says, “were caught a little bit unaware” by the September kidnapping at KSV, but “the security has stepped up dramatically.” The police have announced increased patrols on land and sea of the border region, as well as round-the-clock aerial surveillance of the area and a greater presence on Lamu, Manda, and all area beaches. Plans are in place to create a regional command and control center, to coordinate the efforts of the different security branches. Still, says Korschen, it’s impossible to deny that the threat exists.

“It’s really hard for us to encourage people to come when that kind of thing’s going on,” he says. “I have to start off with saying, ‘I assume you know about the travel advisories, and that you’ve checked your insurance and that you feel okay about coming.’ And I tell them about the increased security, and it’s still beautiful here, and I’m still here, and they’ll probably enjoy themselves tremendously.” He sighs. His face lights up.

“It might not be as good a season as we expected, but we’re going to pull through,” he says.

The mood in Shella seems to swing between steely resolve and forlornness. At any time of day, gathered around the village’s small jetty, a dozen beach boys are limply plying their trade to the two or three tourists who pass by. No one is taking sunset cruises, no one is booking dhow tours of the mangroves or the old Swahili ruins on Manda island. While the kidnappings have hurt the hotel industry, they’ve been far more damaging to local villagers: according to official estimates, nearly 90 percent of income in Lamu is tourism-related. The fishermen braving the rough sea at night, the women squatting behind piles of fresh vegetables in the markets of Lamu town, rely on the hotels and restaurants for most of their business. Walking through Shella one afternoon, I find a man – Ousmane, or Osmond – shucking oysters on the small stoop outside his home. Beside him is a plastic bag full of mollusks. “I can give you a very good price,” he assures me.

The listlessness around Shella is as dampening as the weather. When I ask a group of fishermen about recent events, and the government’s response to the kidnappings, they grumble and shake their heads. “It is too late,” says one man, Mohamed. “The story has already happened.” Another, Hamdi, says that the problem lies with the country’s lax security forces. “Our people, they are cowards,” he says. There is a widely held view among islanders that the police are too lazy and corrupt to protect them. “They want the nice biscuits, the nice meat, good beer,” says Hamdi. He complains that most of the local police and military come from upcountry towns. Few know their way through the mangroves and channels of the archipelago; many don’t even know how to swim. (One beach boy, a wiry rasta with little coils of copper-colored dreads, suggests that the government give him a boat full of beer and marijuana and let him and his friends track down the pirates themselves.) The police have put on a good show of strength, says Hamdi, but who’s to say if a boat-load of attackers couldn’t slip through again? “It’s like having a guard, but he is asleep at your door,” he says.

The week drags on; the reporting is a slog. Government officials and security experts in Nairobi are impossible to reach by phone; when I finally manage to contact a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy, she offers a limp response to my questions about American support for and involvement in Kenya’s anti-piracy efforts. “The United States condemns this act of violence and offer our condolences to the family of the deceased,” she writes. “We call for immediate release of the kidnapped victim.” (In fairness, I don’t know exactly what I was expecting.) On a rainy afternoon, I take a boat across the channel to Manda’s Ras Kitau beach, where the swank, $1,800-a-night Majlis Hotel sits about 50 meters from the house where the Frenchwoman was kidnapped two weeks ago. The Majlis has a sumptuous, Arabian Nights air about it, with its ornate wall carvings and Oriental rugs. But while the Italian owners have defiantly decided to stay open (and have, in fact, praised the Kenyan police, who built a makeshift sentry box a couple hundred yards down the beach), the hotel is practically deserted. With a bulldozer plowing the sand out front, to help construction of a new seawall, the place feels like an excavation site of some ancient desert kingdom.

The Maasai watchman gestures toward the reception area with his knobkerry; a manager comes out to greet me. We’ve hardly gone through the preliminaries when he asks for my card. I’m slightly taken aback: I haven’t had the foresight to print any cards for my Kenya trip, and haven’t yet had one of the fortuitous encounters which, in Ouagadougou earlier this year, had me forking over ten bucks for a hundred business cards from a guy I met on the side of the road. The manager, whose slick-backed hair is, unlike mine, achieved with some deliberate effort, shakes his head and apologizes. “I’m very sorry,” he says, “but I can’t speak to you unless you have a card.” The Majlis’ owners, it seems, have grown as wary as the rest of the area’s hoteliers toward media requests; without some sort of visual proof of my professional affiliations, management has been told to stay mum.

It’s a dispiriting setback to the day; outside, on the beachfront, another indignity: I’d told my boat captain to come back for me in half an hour, imagining for myself a very busy and journalistic afternoon. Five minutes after he’d dropped me off, he’s nowhere to be seen. The rain has intensified. My shirt is stuck to my chest; my notebook feels like a bunch of wet leaves. A long history of professional disappointments is gathering in my mind like the storm clouds above. Suddenly, a man materializes from behind an acacia tree, like a djinn in some Arabian myth. He stands there beside me and stares wordlessly at the channel. We watch the distant figure of some boat – most probably mine – ferrying some tourists to Lamu town. Pleasantries are exchanged. The man has a dark, pitted face, patches of gray stubble on his chin; his eyes seem to have been dredged up from the murky depths of some untold sorrows. For a second, I wonder if this is the same Osmond, or Ousmane, who I’d met shucking oysters a few days ago. As it turns out, it’s his older brother; he’d come to Manda for the day to do some work. When I ask him what sort of work, he just looks at me. After some minutes we see a white boat puttering across the channel. The captain gives a cheery wave, as if it’s a fine day indeed to be standing on the beach. By the time I get back to the Stopover, I’m soaked through to the bone.

With the week dragging on, it feels like I’ve hardly made any progress on my story. Frustrated, feeling both physically and spiritually sopping wet, I take a boat to Lamu town one morning to get some comments from local officials. The rain is coming down in sheets, wind-blown, practically horizontal; the crude gutters that run through the town are brimming with gray rain water and unspeakable things. I track down the District Commissioner and the area’s tourism chief, filling my notebook with government-cleared assurances and platitudes. Waiting for Chief Jamal Fankupi, the principal chief of the entire coast region, the mud caked to my ankles, my shirt musty and fungal, I begin to wonder whether I should’ve made the trip at all.

It is a long wait. The principal chief is behind a closed door, entertaining the beseechers and supplicants. News clippings taped to the doorway sing his praises. “Kenya’s sole principal chief key in Faza,” reads one headline. A boy with a skull cap fusses with a beaded bracelet, the name “Abdul” worked into the design. Sitting on the bench beside me, a man in a kikoy takes a call; his ring tone chimes “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” Sandals scuff the floor, beat-up fishermen’s feet, women in bejeweled slippers with henna tattoos up to their ankles. The roof is a tin awning held up by rough wooden crossbeams; weather stains distress the walls, the thin layers of Crown paint no match for the tropical climate. We sit and wait. Overhead a tangle of wires and cords spills from an electrical box, as if a very large and complicated bird’s nest has been yanked apart by a strong hand. The sound of sandals clopping heavily up the concrete stairs. A boy in bluejeans, an umbrella tucked beneath his arm, carries a bucket of hard-boiled eggs, chopped tomatoes and onions. For ten cents he will crack and peel the shell; you sprinkle the piri-piri yourself.

The door opens, and the askari raises his eyebrows toward me. Chief Jamal is ready to see me. The paramount chief sits behind his desk – a tall tower of a man, seven feet plus – his face handsome, dignified, unabashedly skeptical. He has no idea who I am. I introduce myself and describe my assignment on the island, expressing my gratitude that he’s decided to receive me on such short notice. Chief Jamal Fankupi is perhaps the most powerful man in Lamu – the only paramount chief in Kenya, a man who presides over the full length of the coastal region, from the Somali border to Tanzania. Even before we’ve gotten past the preliminaries a man barges in, bent at the waist, making small supplicatory gestures. He has come a long way, he says, to greet the chief. Chief Jamal receives and dismisses him with a single nod, then inclines his head toward me.

I put a few questions to him about the kidnappings, and the government’s response to them. The voice that comes from his mouth is deep and methodical. He describes the increased security measures that have been put in place in Lamu, the commitment of government officials, the hosannahs of the locals who are, he assures me, completely satisfied with the efforts of their elected leaders. “They have seen it for themselves, what the government is doing,” he says. It is like speaking to a press release. We dance around thusly for a few minutes, me making little inscrutable journalistic scrawls in my notebook, the paramount chief making a tent out of his long, slender fingers, as if imploring me to get to the point. Finally, I ask him whether he’s concerned about reports pointing toward local involvement in the kidnappings. Is anything being done, I ask, to root out local sympathizers of Al Shabaab? The paramount chief gives me a look. “Since the investigation is still being carried on, we cannot tell that without the finish of the investigation,” he tells me. He rests his big hands on the desk: they look like they could crush walnuts, or reporters. Gathering my things, I ask if he thinks the island is safe.

“It cannot happen again,” he says. “It cannot happen again. It cannot happen again. And I repeat that. And it will never happen again.”

I stand and extend my hand across the desk.

Inshallah,” I say.

We pray anyway.

Monday, October 10.

It takes an hour for us to negotiate the cross-town traffic to Jomo Kenyatta International. Other commuters – determined to thwart the rush-hour congestion – take to bicycles or, in even more cases, their own two feet. An incredible amount of Nairobians are walking: swinging briefcases, carrying infants, holding Bibles or schoolbooks, negotiating their way across rock-strewn fields and weed-filled lots. There are no sidewalks, no rules of the road. Pedestrians crowd the ragged medians, where the occasional matatu careens and sends everyone scattering with a burst of nervous laughter.

I am already dressed for the coast, but it’s a cold, wet morning. At the domestic departures terminal, it’s just we foreigners parading around in shorts and t-shirts and beach-ready flip-flops. The Kenyans are bundled under heavy sweaters and rain coats, huddled together like refugees. Lamu can’t get here soon enough. I’m planning to spend 10 days on the island – time enough, I hope, to file a story on the recent abductions for Conde Nast Traveler, gorge on seafood and fresh fruit shakes, and even out my ridiculous tan. Memories of Lamu from my last visit, more than four years ago: the old men in kikoys reclined on stone barazas, their thin ribs showing; the sounds of sandals scuffing the pavement; the almond slits of a veiled woman’s eyes in a doorway; dhows gliding across the channel, their sails like fins. Travel clichés, of the “magic” and “spell” variety, muddle my thoughts. I am thinking of coral walls and frangipani trees and donkey shit. Short cups of sweet, spiced coffee. The early morning call to prayer.

We’re just a few minutes behind schedule leaving Nairobi, and a few minutes more as we descend into Malindi. The coast has been getting hit by heavy rains all week, and there’s an inauspicious cast to the sky as we wait in the terminal for refueling. A light rain is falling. The sky is like pewter. The passengers are all looking hopefully at one another. Boarding again, settling into our seats and in-flight reading material, we are buoyed by the miraculous thought that the skies, at least, will be clear over Lamu. The pilot steers a course over the ocean. Little scrims of white seafoam, fishing boats leaving trails in their wake. The plane disappears into a bank of clouds; we lose sight of the sea below. After some nervous, bumpy minutes, the pilot’s voice comes over the PA system: the visibility is too poor; there’s no way to land. He’s turning the plane around and taking us back to Malindi.

Groans from around the cabin. The pretty stewardess beside me sighs: her long day has just gotten longer. She had gotten up at 4am and arrived at Kenyatta International for fly540’s 6:30 flight to Mombasa. She has already logged more than a thousand air-miles today.

Half an hour later we touch down on the ragged Malindi airstrip. A few men in bright vests steer us toward the low concrete terminal, a cheerless room where passengers wait for onward transit. Small groups of British and Italian tourists give us weary smiles. Travel banalities are exchanged. The day, I can tell, will soon be sliding toward something farcical. A man, some lower cog in the fly540 corporate machinery, makes some ambiguous promises that the situation will be resolved as soon as possible, that fly540 would never even dream of leaving its valued guests with anything but the fondest and most cherished memories of our time together, etc. He’s sort of backpedaling toward his office, like a cartoon villain. The Nairobi-bound tourists offer some hopeful words before stepping bravely onto the tarmac, their faces lit with there-but-for-the-grace-of-God relief. The propellers whir, the engines roar, and off they go into the gray expanses. We settle into our seats, watching a low-rent Nollywood flick on the wall-mounted TV. A woman with tired eyes slumps over a glass display case full of Pringles, cashew nuts, and an impressive range of chocolate bars. We make resigned little faces at one another.

I have developed, if nothing else, a sharply honed sense of irony when it comes to the black humor of African transport. Should the rain continue to break against us and we get stranded in Malindi for the night, then flying from Nairobi to Lamu will have actually taken longer than my original, boot-straps, roughshod plan to travel by rail to Mombasa and bus to Lamu. The swiftness and efficacy of First World travel, despite my best intentions, simply refuses to apply itself to my life. There is, perhaps, a lesson to be learned in all of this. But I refuse to get suckered into cosmic generalities. Eventually, the clouds will clear.

And so we brace ourselves for the afternoon, fortified with the aforementioned Pringles and cashews and impressively ranged chocolate bars, fiddling with our iPods. The sky is still gray, tumbling with clouds. Weariness, after a long night, begins to set in. The peace doesn’t last long. A young German girl has apparently decided not to stand for these indignities foisted upon us by Mother Nature. She takes on a grim, battle-ready expression, as if about to storm the Bastille, and knocks on the manager’s door. Unpleasant words are exchanged. Legal threats are brandished. Certain things are deemed “unacceptable” (a sure sign that this young Teuton has never traveled in the southern hemisphere, where all manner of discomfiting things prove to be entirely acceptable). Before long she is making demands, as if negotiating a hostage crisis: bottled water for all of the passengers; transport to a local restaurant where “fresh vegetables” are served (ibid.). The fly540 staff, beleaguered enough already, working whatever back channels to figure out how this increasingly aggrieved crowd of high-income tourists can get to where they’re going, exchange wry expressions and concede. Water is passed out with great fanfare, like the loaves and fish of Christian myth. The blonde is assuaged.

It is an article of faith of mine that certain people are just genetically and temperamentally predisposed to northern latitudes. They are an affront, I think, to the way things are done in the southern hemisphere. I am wishing malarial bug bites and severe stomach ailments on this grim alpha blonde, who, I should point out, has the hard body and steely demeanor of a distance runner. At some point, a certain travel writer may or may not have publicly aired a desire to see her “go the fuck back where she came from.” A wary calm settles over the terminal. A school group circles our plane on the tarmac, a field trip, I learn, for a geography class at a local high school. Their uniforms are the deep blue of the sky before dawn. The rain has stopped. Slowly, patches of blue start to reveal themselves behind the cloud cover.

After a four-hour delay we’re again boarding the plane, and for the second time today we’re in the air over Malindi, a green belt of palms and bush thrust against the hard gray of the sea. Flying in and out of clouds, we can see the small distant figures of fishing boats below, a tanker ship moving glacially toward foreign ports. It is a short flight, and though the sky is still gray over Lamu, the weather has improved. We trace a gentle arc over the islands below us, patches of bush and sand dunes, the eight-mile stretch of Shella beach, which seems to go on forever. The plane banks for the approach to the Manda airstrip, bringing us low over the mangroves. A single, brave dhow glides across the water. Across Manda channel, the lights of Lamu town have begun to glow.

Four years ago, I made this trip the hard way. It was a long, bumpy bus ride up the coast from Malindi; wary of the bandits who prowl the lawless lands of the northeast, the Kenyan army provided an armed guard to escort us. (I remember him dozing happily with his assault rifle tucked between his knees.) The bus was packed, sweaty, riotous: heavy-set women in colorful headscarves and kangas, loud taarab music crackling over the speakers. We arrived at a dusty jetty; an old ferry taxied us to the mainland. The buildings of Lamu town, white-washed, styled after the houses of the coast’s Arab forebearers, slowly came into view, like a broadening grin.

It is hard to make out the buildings now, at twilight, standing at the prow of the motorboat that carries me across the channel. A light rain pelts my face and dimples the water. My hair and arms are slick. Behind us the knotted mangroves of Manda recede. I try to make out familiar landmarks along the Lamu waterfront: Lamu Palace Hotel, Casuarina – the backpackers where I spent a memorable month – the turrets of the old fort. The skyline is a jumble of palm trees and thatched makuti roofs. Two police boats bob conspicuously offshore.

When we arrive in Shella, the small village at the island’s eastern tip, the full staff of the Stopover Guest House seems to be on-hand to welcome me. This is more than just Swahili hospitality: on this night, as on most of the ones preceding it in recent weeks, I am the only guest. The recent kidnappings of foreigners – first, near the remote island of Kiwayu in early September; then, just across the channel on Manda last weekend – have rocked the local tourism industry. While business in Lamu is typically slow in October – a lull between the high seasons of the European summer and the Christmas holidays – even that modest trickle has now dried up. The groundfloor restaurant of the Stopover is empty; the only noise in the hotel is the sound of our bare, wet feet kissing the stone stairs as Patrick, a hotel employee, leads me to my room. It is beautifully furnished with two Lamu-style, four-poster beds and a Swahili day bed and washed stone walls. Leading me back downstairs, Patrick reminds me to lock the door on my way out. “Because of the security situation,” he says. “But also we have too many donkeys here.”

The moon is in its last quarter; the beach is dimly lit, so that I can just barely pick out a path around the donkey shit. In the distance the soft cocoon light of the Peponi Hotel beckons. This is Shella’s famous watering hole, the place where bohemian expats kick back their bare feet and share island gossip. Tonight, I am not disappointed. There is a convivial buzz on the terrace, the musical clinking of glasses and laughter ringing like coins. As I get closer, though, the sounds resolve into anxious voices. A group of locals are discussing the security situation, and the repercussions it will have on island life. The accents are a mix of American and British and upper-crust Kenyan, the intrigues like something out of a John Le Carré novel. The government’s response to the kidnappings gets dragged through the mud: clearly the navy was no match for the Somali pirates who made off with the Frenchwoman last week. “You need equipment, and you need skill,” a man complains. “They don’t have equipment, and they don’t have the skill.” (Fuzz Dyer, co-owner of the luxurious Manda Bay beach resort, blasted the government’s bungled rescue effort. Dyer had spent the day flying his private plane over the kidnappers, coordinating with the Kenyan navy. “We had a visual on the lady from 6:45am until half past six at night. We had the whole day to get her back,” he told the Financial Times. “We could have brought in a private force and collected her. It’s almost like they didn’t want to get her back.”) Security is being beefed up around the island: by the government, by hotel owners. But the locals are afraid that they might go too far, that Lamu might turn into some fortified compound of navy patrols and soldiers guarding the beach. “It would be the death of the tourism industry, to have armed guards everywhere,” says an older woman. Ultimately, everyone seems to agree, the only way to safeguard Lamu is to cut off the problem at its root. “You need to stop them out there, not here,” says an American woman. But how to tame the lawlessness of Somalia? How to recover the peacefulness that reigned here just a few weeks ago?

On the way back to the Stopover, I stop to chat with the staff at the restaurant of the Bahari Hotel. Already they’re stacking the chairs on the table: there has been no business tonight, as on recent nights, and the manager is sending the waiters home.

“Normally these tables are full,” he says, shaking his head.

“We pray anyway.”

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.

Queer eye for the Kenyan guy.

For the better part of two weeks I’ve used deft evasions and elusive side-steps to put off my inevitable dhow trip. Admittedly, it’s a bit odd that something most tourists look forward to – indeed, consider the highlight of their time in Lamu – should meet with so much teeth-gnashing. A pleasant morning of sailing and fishing, an afternoon dip on the beach: hardly the Bataan Death March, to be sure. But after more than a week of greeting captains along the waterfront, of exchanging small-talk and inquiring about the quality of their sleep (a subject of endless fascination for most Kenyans, as I learned in Watamu), I’ve found myself backed into a corner. Each morning, as I walk off my breakfast and make my way to the Internet café, a half-dozen sets of eager eyes follow me past the jetty. While I’ve given no promises, my casual, friendly banter and (let’s face it) winning smile have given something just as deadly: hope.

So I’ve had to alter my route, turning down narrow alleys and dodging heaps of donkey dung, going ten minutes out of my way just to avoid the bitter pills of rejection I’ll have to dole out like Pez. But in the end, the matter’s settled for me: two young Brits, Adrian and John, who I’ve shared a few laughs with on the terrace at Casuarina, have already negotiated a deal with Captain Alee – one of the friendlier touts I’ve met around town. Sparing myself the haggling and the heartache, I decide to tag along – a move that meets with no small number of hostile stares as I wade out to his dhow on a sunny, mild morning.

Captain Alee is a cheery, grinning guy in green Speedos and a yellow t-shirt with his own name emblazoned across the back. He squats and mans the rudder, tacking us lazily into the wind, criss-crossing the channel while puffing frantically on a pack of L&M’s. The sun is strong; I can already feel it burning my forehead and the back of my neck, and we happily tear off our shirts and sink into the waves when we get to Manda Beach. Afterward we take turns casting fishing lines into the water. I arrange the prawn on my hook with such delicacy, you’d think I was making seafood cocktail. John catches an ugly, pucker-faced thing that Alee eagerly grills up. We eat fish and rice and halves of passion fruit, then rub our stomachs and go for another swim. Nearby a group of guys are unloading bags of cement from a dhow and hauling them to shore, where a new hotel is being built. Their chalky faces look ghostly: grim apparitions with their backs straining and their muscles caked in cement and sweat, wading out into the water.

The Brits have made fast friends with Alee and his crew, and by the time we get back to Lamu, he’s invited us to join them later in the week, when the island’s dhows will be racing in a twice-yearly competition. It’s an odd turn of events, only slightly more improbable than the fact that I was racing camels just two months ago. On race day the crews work busily through the morning, mending sails and chipping at prows and making adjustments to the masts based on some inscrutable calculations. One by one they cast off for Manda Beach, where the crowds are already gathering around the starting line. We hoist the sail and puff out into the channel, the sun scattering brilliant spangles across the water’s surface. Onshore there are shouts and calls from the jetty: dusty, barefoot men unloading cargo boats; young guys in cheap sunglasses and knock-off soccer jerseys hustling for customers to ferry to Shella Beach.

We drift lazily toward a mangrove swamp, and Mohammed – manning the rudder in the red-and-black-striped kit of AC Milan – steers us in the general direction of Manda. We plow into a sandbar, just barely submerged beneath the gray-green waves. Half of the crew jumps overboard to push us free; it’s an inauspicious omen. By the time we’ve cast off again into a stiff breeze, two other dhows have given chase. One of the crews is giving us hell, taunting our guys in Swahili. John and Adrian look unflappable; Captain Alee looks grim; Abdul – a gruff, menacing kid with wild eyes – stares vaguely into the distance, plugging green stems of miraa into his mouth and working his jaws with manic intent.

We coast toward the mangroves and stop to tack; the crew works quickly to switch the sail’s direction, but a pulley breaks free from the top of the mast, whizzing down and plunking one of the kids on the head. He staggers to the side, blinking and wobbling boozily back and forth. There’s a flurry of action around him, as the sail ripples and flaps and the crew rushes to repair the damage. When we’ve righted our course there are some sympathetic words for the wounded, who rubs his head and looks seriously concussed. Then we resume our slow zigzag to Manda Beach, where most of the other crews have already alighted onshore.

There’s a festive air on the beach, with Ramadan just hours away and a local ex-pat – an eccentric old Brit – shelling out for the celebration. He’s sitting in the shade of a coconut palm, his legs propped up on a plush pillow. The soles of his feet are dusted with sand; beside them is a narrow vase filled with plastic flowers. He nods softly and blinks into the sunlight, his pink face like some wrinkled old petal faded with age. He offers us drinks, sending the barman back toward the house. A young Kenyan woman in tight white pants sits close to him, swishing a glass of white wine and cooing into his ear. Her hair is pulled back in merciless plaits – long, thick knots that look like they might be of great use to some salty old mariner. The Brit looks up, as if noticing us for the first time, and mumbles something. I lean closer.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

I smile and tip my head in appreciation and say, “I’m doing great. It’s a great day. Thanks for the party.”

He wrinkles his pale-pink face, twisting his lips and shaking his head. Gesturing for me to come closer, he slowly, carefully mouths the words again. “Are. You. Gay.”

I straighten and squint into the sun and take a sip from my gin and tonic. “Um,” I say. John and Adrian look uncomfortably into their drinks, then stare off toward the waves. Kids in tight white briefs splash in the water; little girls in party dresses scamper around while their mothers give chase. The Brit murmurs something over his shoulder, and two muscular men suddenly appear, lift him like a sack of cornmeal, and whisk him off toward the house. I finish my gin and tonic and lick my lips. Turning to John and Adrian, I admit that I have no fucking idea what’s going on here.

We walk along the beach, stopping to play soccer with some locals – bare-chested, nimble-footed guys kicking up clouds of sand. After a few sprints I’m huffing and hunched over, while Adrian and John string together a few neat passes and bodies fly every which way. Some of the guys are quick to show off their skill: corralling the ball with their chests, dribbling with their knees, sending powerful headers that sail into the waves. Afterward we sit in the shade and eat from a great platter of rice. We scoop up tender pieces of meat with our fingers, drinking fresh tamarind juice that tastes like orange Fanta and talking tactics for the race.

Alee calls us over to the boat, and before long the crew has pushed us out to the starting line. There’s a great jockeying of dhows, a flurry of confused instructions about which way the race is actually sailing. Already we’re at a disadvantage, packed into the rear of an unruly group of boats. Most begin to sail off before the signal’s given, and soon we’re all barreling forward, the wind at our backs and the water spraying up on either side. Some of the crews are singing and calling out to each other; Alee sternly fixes his eyes on the sails ahead of us, already plotting his strategy.

It’s a strategy that strangely involves hanging back and drifting away from the pack and looking forlornly at the shore, as if he’d rather be sipping some tamarind juice and ogling the girls in the water. We’re struggling to keep pace, and by the time the other dhows have rounded the buoy and begun the second leg, our chances have all but vanished. We reach the buoy and turn back, sailing into the wind; a cargo ship putters by, weighted with great bricks of coral rock and still managing to leave us in the distance. We tack too soon and take a poor line back toward Lamu, already conceding a huge advantage. The other dhows are far ahead, chasing each other in a neat line, like follow the leader. They’ve headed out to open sea, where they’ll loop around another buoy before heading back to Manda for the homestretch. Our sail flaps listlessly; the wind dies and leaves us rocking on a gentle swell. Alee looks at the crew with pluck and indomitable resolve and says flatly:

“I think we will give up.”

He shakes his head and pulls a cigarette from his breast pocket. We steer back toward shore, where a crowd’s gathered to greet the winners. There are some handshakes and words of encouragement for next year, then we pad down the beach toward our effete, pink-faced host, looking for gin and tonics.

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.

They’re very busy. Like Chinese.

We’ve stopped at a military checkpoint on the edge of some nameless coastal town when a young soldier gets onboard, brandishing an assault rifle and an attitude that suggests he knows how to use it. He squints by the door and gives the bus a long, careful once-over, his gaze lingering on a few faces that, to the untrained eye, look about as guilty as an Easter lamb. For years the road north of Malindi was plagued by banditry – much of the country further north, by the Somali border, is still a lawless no-man’s land – and the armed escort is meant to reassure us in a way that only a pubescent with a firearm can. Satisfied with whatever mental notes he’s scribbled, he takes a seat by the conductor, who gives him a few familiar jerks of the head. Now and then, as we bump and bounce along, he’ll turn and stare sharply at someone a few rows back, behaving in exactly the sort of way that ensures I’ll be holding my breath for the long, bumpy road to Lamu.

Along the way we stop in little dusty towns of wooden dukas and thatched-roof huts. Old men in kufi caps limp off and young women in colorful wraps clamber onboard, dragging a few teary-eyed tots behind them. Women surround the bus, balancing baskets of bananas on their heads, or selling milk in plastic water bottles. One holds up a pair of unripe mangos, a look of unflinching patience on her face, as if she might very well stand there holding them aloft until they ripen. Young boys are hawking peanuts. A guy gets onboard with a Tupperware container chock full of food, and he paces the aisle calling out “Samosa! Samosa!” fixing us with his eyes, as if it were a threat.

The road is rough and there’s loud Swahili music breaking up over the speakers. Boys crowd close to their mothers, their frail bodies wedged between muscular legs. It’s four bumpy hours north from Malindi, stopping at periodic checkpoints where soldiers get on and get off and exchange coarse jokes with the driver. At the ferry launch in Mokowe there’s a small melee. Guys have gathered around the bus or brazenly pushed their way onboard, offering to help with our bags. There’s a white girl struggling with her luggage – a tall, pretty brunette in tight athletic pants – and we exchange a few plaintive eye signals before bullying our way to the ferry.

It’s a smooth, 20-minute putter to Lamu, mangroves lining the way on either side of us, dhow sails gliding over the water like fins. Laurence, the leggy brunette, brushes wisps of hair from her face; her friend, Khadija – a Kisumu native studying with Laurence in Montreal – drapes her arm from the side of the boat and watches the shore. I make faces at little girls who giggle and bury their faces in a mother’s dress. When we reach Lamu the hotel touts bum-rush the boat, and Khadija deftly deflects them in Swahili as we power our way through the crowds on the jetty.

Lamu town was built by Arab traders in the 14th century, and as we wend our way through its labyrinth of narrow streets, my thoughts turn to the souqs of the Middle East. The alleys are winding and hemmed in by high coral walls that repel the sunlight, even at mid-day. Donkeys clop by, weighed down by bags of coconuts or sacks of concrete mix, while some mischievous youth rides side-saddle and thwacks its haunches with a switch. Old men wobble along, propped up by gnarled canes, their soiled white caftans rustling behind them. Women swish past in bui-bui robes – armies of them marching through the streets, their heads covered, their faces veiled, their hands and feet ornately decorated with dark henna designs. Young boys are playing barefoot in the streets, tugging on the toys – an empty milk carton on a string; a little race car made from sticks and soda caps – that fill your heart with all sorts of pathos. The call to prayer wails at mid-day, blowing through the streets like a stiff wind.

The girls are staying at Casuarina, a busy backpackers haunt on the waterfront; after a weekend in my own place across town – a five-minute stroll down Harambee – I pack up my bags and join them. There’s a breezy rooftop terrace, and with its bird’s-eye view of the water and a warm wind rustling through the makuti thatch, it seems like a logical place for me to plant my behind and laptop in the days ahead. I watch the men gathered at the end of the jetty, calling out to passing boats; donkeys swish their tails in the shade in front of the hostel. The sun dances over the water like spangles scattered across its crests, bright coins bobbing in the gray, silt-filled channel.

The hostel’s staff is young and chatty, and a steady stream of backpackers passes through each day, giving the place a lively buzz. There’s also a family of tortoises that prowls around the terrace, brazen little guys who nibble at my toes and muscle their way past the furniture. In just a few days they’ve made me rethink everything I thought I knew about tortoises. They’re a randy bunch, mounting each other with almost no provocation, making ugly tortoise love at every turn. One feisty guy unfolds his dried-up penis like a pocket knife and clambers atop anything in sight. He mounts a tortoise twice his size and crouches over her in bold conquest. For a few furious minutes he mashes his mouth and makes little panting faces. The chef and the porter sit at the table next to mine, watching with quiet astonishment. Then the chef laughs and says, “They’re very busy, like Chinese,” which I’m still trying to figure out. After some minutes a few squirts of fluid seep out onto the floor, and the spent fella dismounts with a look of weary triumph, crawling off to take a nap beneath the potted plants.

It’s a sex-charged scene that seems oddly appropriate around town. Despite the modest Muslim dress code and galloping call to prayer, most of the young guys in Lamu don’t appear all that constrained by the rigors of Islamic law. They smoke joints by the waterfront and chew miraa – a plant widely favored in East Africa for its narcotic properties. They booze in Petley’s – the town’s only late-night hang-out – and try to seduce everything in sight. When I show up one night with Laurence and Khadija, there’s a feeding frenzy on the dancefloor. Laurence – showing off a preternatural flair for moving her hips – makes friends with remarkable ease. During breaks in the dancing, breathless and flushed, she tells me about her ex-boyfriend – the Florida Marlins’ young superstar pitcher, Dontrelle Willis. They’d dated for three years before the turbulent Major League lifestyle came between them. Yet surprisingly, it was her own wild ways that were the deciding factor.

“He wanted a girl that would just stay at home and wait for him,” she says. “And that wasn’t me.”

Then she gets up, ties her hair in a pony-tail, and swishes her hips back to the dancefloor, keeping rhythmic time to the drums being beat in a wild frenzy.