Tag Archives: lamu

Queer eye for the Kenyan guy.

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.

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What’s the plan?

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.

They’re very busy. Like Chinese.

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.