Things have taken an interesting twist here in Lamu. I’d been set to leave a week ago, working my way back down the coast en route to Nairobi and, eventually, Uganda. But an opportunity’s come my way to update the Kenya guide for a slick, high-end travel website – leaving me in the not-too-unenviable position of having to dodder around Lamu for another week, popping in on the area’s swank resorts. Inspiration comes easily around the bar of the Peponi, where cute young Europeans pad around on bare feet, looking taut and tan and full of fiscal vigor. I eat crab salad and stare dreamily at the surf outside, while the waiters circle and offer my scruffy, taped-up backpack what seems like an undue amount of scrutiny.
With luxe resorts peppering the coast – as well as neighboring islands like Manda and far-flung Kiwayu – I’ve got plenty of work ahead of me. But I’ve already been braced for the rigors of luxury life. With the arrival of Ramadan squeezing me out of my usual budget comfort spots, I’ve been an up-market fixture around town, frequenting the same high-end haunts in search of sustenance. At the top of the list is Whispers, a Western-style café on Harambee Avenue, which shares real estate with the lavishly overpriced Baraka Gallery next door. In the shady backyard garden, surrounded by coral walls and coconut palms, I drink cappuccino and eat sugary desserts, flipping through the pages of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. That I’m reverting to my previous state of aspiring New York sophisticate doesn’t alarm me in the least. Ogling Patek Philippe watches and Dolce & Gabbana shirts and lithe Brazilian models cavorting in Cavalli swimsuits is, after all – in its own small way – research to prepare me for the job ahead.
For my first week in Lamu, Whispers – with its Ksh120 cappuccinos – was something of a guilty pleasure – a leafy sanctuary I’d retreat to every few days, when the fat black flies and Nescafes of the local eateries had overrun my sanity. Now I wake up in a state of disarray, anxious for the frothy pleasures I’ve become so accustomed to: just another caffeine junkie jonesing for the fix only Whispers can provide. Not coincidentally, it’s also the place where I’ve rekindled an embarrassing addiction to the VF society pages – those glossy stomping grounds of American socialites, Greek shipping tycoons and the ever-dapper Dominick Dunne, who photographs like he’s just been shot full of horse tranquilizers and formaldehyde and can’t quite make up his mind if he likes the buzz.
It’s here that I’m reacquainted with the fall-out surrounding the Brooke Astor home care scandal, and the divorce saga of designer Tori Burch, and the ill-advised emails that were the undoing of Republican Representative Mark Foley. Over a couple of blush-worthy paragraphs, all the elicit details of his IMs to young pages are aired for the world to see.
Maf54 (7:54:31 PM): where do you unload it
Xxxxxxxx (7:54:36 PM): towel
Maf54 (7:54:43 PM): really
Maf54 (7:55:02 PM): completely naked?
Xxxxxxxx (7:55:12 PM): well ya
Maf54 (7:55:21 PM): very nice
Xxxxxxxx (7:55:24 PM): lol
Maf54 (7:55:51 PM): cute butt bouncing in the air
Meanwhile, a childhood friend – recalling Foley’s abuse at the hands of a local priest – notes that the former Congressman seemed less than traumatized by all those after-hours sessions in the sacristy.
“For some people, it’s molestation,” he observes. “Maybe for other kids, it’s fun.”
I might turn up my nose at low-brow tabloids or the tasteless rumor-mongering of the American cable-news circuit, but give me some well-crafted, high-end smut and I’m just another gossip whore, turning tricks over $2 cappuccinos.
The task of researching remote resorts for the new gig, though, has posed its share of problems. The dirty little secret of travel writing is that you can get luxury rooms at a fraction of the price – making that $500-a-night hideaway a steal for under a hundred bucks. But without the similarly complementary transfer from Lamu town, just reaching these places will be an ordeal that requires either manic fits of ingenuity or buckets of disposable cash (as the $200 boat ride to Kiwayu Safari Village makes clear). Turning to my resourcefulness – and utter disregard for personal comfort and safety – I’ve decided to do these places on the cheap, taking my cue from the crusty old sea dogs who once sailed these same waters for weeks on end, guided by the stars, battered by the sun, and utterly desperate for a place to take a crap.
I commandeer a boat one afternoon, a puttering little ferry that will take me to the Manda Bay Resort and back for Ksh2,000 – about thirty bucks. The captain waits for me by the jetty, an overpowering stench of diesel piping up from the water. He starts us forward with a lurch, the engine roaring to life, and soon we’re bumping over the choppy sea toward the mangroves of Manda Island. The sky is overcast; a light rain begins to fall, silver drops that pelt the water and spread a white sheet over the waves. Before long the storm begins to gather strength: broad curtains of rain draped across the mangroves as we steer toward a narrow channel. The captain works the rudder and wipes the rain from his face; beside him his young son grins bashfully and dangles a bare foot over the side, a little yellow rooster crowing on the breast of his knock-off soccer jersey. We pass a dhow rocking from side to side, the crew battling with the wind-battered sail. The smell of woodsmoke pumps from the mangroves. The rain slows, and a school of fish leap from the water – a flash of silver, like a handful of coins scattered across the sea.
After close to an hour the resort comes into view, its thatched-roof bandas discreetly tucked among the coconut palms. A couple of pleasure boats bob just off-shore, while my own ferry – the paint flaking from its flanks – makes its inglorious way toward the beach. There’s a man in olive pants and a fitted polo shirt watching gravely from the shore; he’s holding a walkie-talkie and regarding us with scarcely concealed contempt. I wave cheerily, though he does not – it’s worth noting – wave back. The captain drops anchor, forcing me to hitch up my shorts and wade fifty feet to shore, where the guy with the walkie-talkie gives me a look that all but says, “I think you’ve got the wrong beach, white boy.”
Fuzz and Bimbi, the resort’s owners, are standing barefoot in the sand, looking tan and salubrious and pleased as punch to be Fuzz and Bimbi. They’re busy sending off an older British couple as I splash my way to shore, holding my flip-flops and notebook up high and looking exactly like someone who’s washed up with the seaweed. Bimbi’s still waggling her long, slender fingers as their boat clears the mangroves. Then she turns my way, looking from my drenched shorts to my idling, beat-up boat and back, and all but wondering out loud whether I was just dredged up from the reef and whether I can’t be tossed back.
Once I’ve explained myself, though, she quickly warms. I’m ushered to the lunch table, where a garrulous group of Brits are comparing notes on neighboring resorts and smacking their lips over the vanilla pudding. We make small-talk about Lamu, and they pepper me with questions about the town I’ve called home for these past few weeks. How are the locals? What have I been eating? Do I feel safe after dark? I’m more than a bit surprised when I hear they’re on their fifth trip to the archipelago; just from how they say the word Lamu – practically holding it at arm’s length – you get the feeling they just came across it for the first time, flipping through a glossy brochure.
Later Bimbi takes me aside to answer my questions about the resort. I hunch over my notebook and bluff my way through scrupulous notes, glancing up now and then to sneak a peek at her marvelous, surgically enhanced breasts. She veers off on tangents, gossiping about other resorts or certain indiscretions among her guests following a particularly Bacchanalian night. Suddenly she stands up and chirps, “Oh look, it’s my little pied wag-tail,” making tweet-tweet noises as a tiny bird hops onto a nearby couch. I scribble the words “pied wag-tail” in the margin of my pad. Afterward she shows to a sea-front banda that’s big and breezy and just dying to have a certain travel writer doing cartwheels across the veranda. We stand outside and admire the view, with the late-day sunlight washing the mangroves and the waves lapping at the sea wall. Then she leads me back to the dining room, waves of blond hair cascading down to her sun-browned shoulders, her firm rear swaying in a bright-patterned skirt.
I think I’m going to get awfully used to the high life.