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.