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.”