Tag Archives: kiwayu

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.

1.) Which animals give us milk?
– cows
– goats
– camels

On the far wall, a sign observes:


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.