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.