Tag Archives: ramadan

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 20-minute Muslim.

As the days pass in a drowsy blur of donkeys and bui buis, Ramadan blows in like a whirlwind of spiritual whoop-ass. Islam’s holiest month arrives with the new moon, on a festive night where the sky is cluttered with stars and the locals are boisterously out in the streets. There’s an odd ceremony by the waterfront at dusk, where a group of men are standing at attention. They dip their heads and wring their hands and shuffle a bit from side to side – perhaps anticipating, with the pure, holy anguish of faith, the trials of the month ahead. I wait for some sort of signal to mark the start of Ramadan: a thunderous call to prayer from the mosques, or a harsh siren wail, like the one that rings in shabat every Friday in Jerusalem. Instead I notice a soldier gravely lowering the Kenyan flag from a pole in front of the District Commissioner’s Office – a solemn daily rite that I’ve somehow managed to miss for the past two weeks. All along the waterfront, and around the nearby square, the locals respectfully wait for the soldier to perform his duty. Then they start up again, laughing and talking politics, while little kids whirl by with toy cars made from empty milk cartons and bottle caps.

By day the men sit hunched in the shade, listlessly staring at the waves or furrowing their faces over the Koran. You can practically hear the hunger pangs rumbling in their stomachs and chasing me down the street. It’s a curious time for me to be surrounded by such asceticism. For the past month, working my way up the coast, I’ve enjoyed my best dining in Kenya. Gourmet pizzas in Watamu, fresh grilled fish in Malindi. Along the waterfront in Lamu, where the restaurants Bush Gardens and Hapa Hapa compete for tourist traffic, I’ve gorged on prawn curry and barracuda kebab and garlic kingfish for under five bucks. So while Ramadan will hardly be a test of my faith, it’s sure to be a trial for my unruly appetite. Most of the restaurants around town are closed till sunset, prompting the humble recognition of just how grumpy I can be without a nice sit-down lunch and my afternoon banana-coconut milkshake.

So I’ve made the acquaintance of the few upmarket places in town: the New Lamu Palace; the Swahili-styled boutique hotel, Lamu World; the trendy Whispers Café, which shares real estate with the overpriced schlock at the Baraka Gallery next door. A week ago, when cheap eats were abundant around town, a cappuccino at Whispers or a frutti di mare pizza at the Palace was the stuff of the occasional splurge. But now, with the local haunts shuttered from dawn to dusk, I’ve been forced to play my white-man’s trump card: a bashful acknowledgment that, if the occasion demands, I can eat a $12 lunch with the best of ‘em.

That’s not to say I can do it with a clear conscience. For the first few holy days I navigate the busy streets with my head hung low, avoiding eye contact and fidgeting with my fingernails and briskly ducking into the first place that’s willing to feed me. I eat with the guilty relish of someone who’s enjoying a hearty meal in spite of the hungry faces on the other side of the windowpane. Afterward I hustle out the door and turn the first corner I find, anxious to dodge any disapproving stares: afraid that my dirty, sated little secret will give me away with a content gurgle of the stomach.

It’s not until late in the afternoon, as the sun begins to dip beneath the minarets, sending long shadows down the street, that Lamu’s collective appetite really begins to stir. The locals set up food stalls in the narrow alleys: men selling grilled meat skewers and fried, doughy bhajias and meat-filled potato katlisses. Boys sit Indian-style in the dirt and hack at piles of coconuts. The streets are filled with smoky aromas. Fathers buy great bundles of food wrapped in newspaper, bringing their booty home to break the fast when the sun sets.

I stock up, too, carrying my greasy pages from the morning’s Nation in the crook of my arm. Even as dusk approaches, even as lunch lurches and settles in my stomach, those plump packages are urging me toward all sorts of indiscretions. In just a few minutes the call to prayer will blast through the streets; the faithful men of Lamu, lean and sun-battered and wilting after another long day, will tear into their samosas and chapati and guzzle tamarind juice with a youthful recklessness. But those few minutes are more temptation than I can stand. I slip into an open doorway, creep up a flight of stairs, and turn a few corners until I’m hidden from eyeshot. And like the fat kid who buries his head in the fridge after midnight, hoping no one will miss a few extra drumsticks, I prove to myself what a horrible Muslim I would be.

For two months in Kenya, I’ve done my best to blend with the locals: sleeping in a smoky cow-dung hut with a Maasai family; bumping along a rocky road for fifteen hours in the back of a lorry truck; braving the grim, monotonous cuisine of ugali and nyama choma – the grilled meat that has, in your average Kenyan chop-shop, all the taste and texture of an 18-inch Pirelli. Certain cultural gaps between us can never be bridged; but in whatever small ways, inching closer till I can dimly see the far shore, I’ve tried to see for myself what it is to live in a Kenyan’s shoes. And so it is during this, my first full-fledged Ramadan. I’ve exchanged salamu leikums with the men on the street, woken to the call to prayer blasting from the mosque outside my window. How hard can a day of fasting be?

I wake to a bright Ramadan morning, the birds twittering in the casuarina trees and the donkeys braying and clopping by the waterfront, intent on making a statement – if only to myself. I sit with my laptop on the terrace, a warm breeze rattling the makuti thatch. It’s a few minutes shy of nine. The tortoises are prowling under the tables, nipping at my toes and making their gross, lusty overtures toward each other. It’s just past nine. Already I’ve lost my focus, my eyelids are heavy. I don’t know how I’ll make it through the day. Hardly twenty minutes after I’d woken with steely resolve, I order a cup of Nescafe and a Spanish omelette. I’m a long way from salvation, I’ll be the first to admit, but even I’m disappointed by such a sorry showing. I’m sheepish again as I walk through the streets, the men following me with hungry, drowsy eyes, thinking pious thoughts and dreaming of Paradise.