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.