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We pray anyway.

Monday, October 10.

It takes an hour for us to negotiate the cross-town traffic to Jomo Kenyatta International. Other commuters – determined to thwart the rush-hour congestion – take to bicycles or, in even more cases, their own two feet. An incredible amount of Nairobians are walking: swinging briefcases, carrying infants, holding Bibles or schoolbooks, negotiating their way across rock-strewn fields and weed-filled lots. There are no sidewalks, no rules of the road. Pedestrians crowd the ragged medians, where the occasional matatu careens and sends everyone scattering with a burst of nervous laughter.

I am already dressed for the coast, but it’s a cold, wet morning. At the domestic departures terminal, it’s just we foreigners parading around in shorts and t-shirts and beach-ready flip-flops. The Kenyans are bundled under heavy sweaters and rain coats, huddled together like refugees. Lamu can’t get here soon enough. I’m planning to spend 10 days on the island – time enough, I hope, to file a story on the recent abductions for Conde Nast Traveler, gorge on seafood and fresh fruit shakes, and even out my ridiculous tan. Memories of Lamu from my last visit, more than four years ago: the old men in kikoys reclined on stone barazas, their thin ribs showing; the sounds of sandals scuffing the pavement; the almond slits of a veiled woman’s eyes in a doorway; dhows gliding across the channel, their sails like fins. Travel clichés, of the “magic” and “spell” variety, muddle my thoughts. I am thinking of coral walls and frangipani trees and donkey shit. Short cups of sweet, spiced coffee. The early morning call to prayer.

We’re just a few minutes behind schedule leaving Nairobi, and a few minutes more as we descend into Malindi. The coast has been getting hit by heavy rains all week, and there’s an inauspicious cast to the sky as we wait in the terminal for refueling. A light rain is falling. The sky is like pewter. The passengers are all looking hopefully at one another. Boarding again, settling into our seats and in-flight reading material, we are buoyed by the miraculous thought that the skies, at least, will be clear over Lamu. The pilot steers a course over the ocean. Little scrims of white seafoam, fishing boats leaving trails in their wake. The plane disappears into a bank of clouds; we lose sight of the sea below. After some nervous, bumpy minutes, the pilot’s voice comes over the PA system: the visibility is too poor; there’s no way to land. He’s turning the plane around and taking us back to Malindi.

Groans from around the cabin. The pretty stewardess beside me sighs: her long day has just gotten longer. She had gotten up at 4am and arrived at Kenyatta International for fly540’s 6:30 flight to Mombasa. She has already logged more than a thousand air-miles today.

Half an hour later we touch down on the ragged Malindi airstrip. A few men in bright vests steer us toward the low concrete terminal, a cheerless room where passengers wait for onward transit. Small groups of British and Italian tourists give us weary smiles. Travel banalities are exchanged. The day, I can tell, will soon be sliding toward something farcical. A man, some lower cog in the fly540 corporate machinery, makes some ambiguous promises that the situation will be resolved as soon as possible, that fly540 would never even dream of leaving its valued guests with anything but the fondest and most cherished memories of our time together, etc. He’s sort of backpedaling toward his office, like a cartoon villain. The Nairobi-bound tourists offer some hopeful words before stepping bravely onto the tarmac, their faces lit with there-but-for-the-grace-of-God relief. The propellers whir, the engines roar, and off they go into the gray expanses. We settle into our seats, watching a low-rent Nollywood flick on the wall-mounted TV. A woman with tired eyes slumps over a glass display case full of Pringles, cashew nuts, and an impressive range of chocolate bars. We make resigned little faces at one another.

I have developed, if nothing else, a sharply honed sense of irony when it comes to the black humor of African transport. Should the rain continue to break against us and we get stranded in Malindi for the night, then flying from Nairobi to Lamu will have actually taken longer than my original, boot-straps, roughshod plan to travel by rail to Mombasa and bus to Lamu. The swiftness and efficacy of First World travel, despite my best intentions, simply refuses to apply itself to my life. There is, perhaps, a lesson to be learned in all of this. But I refuse to get suckered into cosmic generalities. Eventually, the clouds will clear.

And so we brace ourselves for the afternoon, fortified with the aforementioned Pringles and cashews and impressively ranged chocolate bars, fiddling with our iPods. The sky is still gray, tumbling with clouds. Weariness, after a long night, begins to set in. The peace doesn’t last long. A young German girl has apparently decided not to stand for these indignities foisted upon us by Mother Nature. She takes on a grim, battle-ready expression, as if about to storm the Bastille, and knocks on the manager’s door. Unpleasant words are exchanged. Legal threats are brandished. Certain things are deemed “unacceptable” (a sure sign that this young Teuton has never traveled in the southern hemisphere, where all manner of discomfiting things prove to be entirely acceptable). Before long she is making demands, as if negotiating a hostage crisis: bottled water for all of the passengers; transport to a local restaurant where “fresh vegetables” are served (ibid.). The fly540 staff, beleaguered enough already, working whatever back channels to figure out how this increasingly aggrieved crowd of high-income tourists can get to where they’re going, exchange wry expressions and concede. Water is passed out with great fanfare, like the loaves and fish of Christian myth. The blonde is assuaged.

It is an article of faith of mine that certain people are just genetically and temperamentally predisposed to northern latitudes. They are an affront, I think, to the way things are done in the southern hemisphere. I am wishing malarial bug bites and severe stomach ailments on this grim alpha blonde, who, I should point out, has the hard body and steely demeanor of a distance runner. At some point, a certain travel writer may or may not have publicly aired a desire to see her “go the fuck back where she came from.” A wary calm settles over the terminal. A school group circles our plane on the tarmac, a field trip, I learn, for a geography class at a local high school. Their uniforms are the deep blue of the sky before dawn. The rain has stopped. Slowly, patches of blue start to reveal themselves behind the cloud cover.

After a four-hour delay we’re again boarding the plane, and for the second time today we’re in the air over Malindi, a green belt of palms and bush thrust against the hard gray of the sea. Flying in and out of clouds, we can see the small distant figures of fishing boats below, a tanker ship moving glacially toward foreign ports. It is a short flight, and though the sky is still gray over Lamu, the weather has improved. We trace a gentle arc over the islands below us, patches of bush and sand dunes, the eight-mile stretch of Shella beach, which seems to go on forever. The plane banks for the approach to the Manda airstrip, bringing us low over the mangroves. A single, brave dhow glides across the water. Across Manda channel, the lights of Lamu town have begun to glow.

Four years ago, I made this trip the hard way. It was a long, bumpy bus ride up the coast from Malindi; wary of the bandits who prowl the lawless lands of the northeast, the Kenyan army provided an armed guard to escort us. (I remember him dozing happily with his assault rifle tucked between his knees.) The bus was packed, sweaty, riotous: heavy-set women in colorful headscarves and kangas, loud taarab music crackling over the speakers. We arrived at a dusty jetty; an old ferry taxied us to the mainland. The buildings of Lamu town, white-washed, styled after the houses of the coast’s Arab forebearers, slowly came into view, like a broadening grin.

It is hard to make out the buildings now, at twilight, standing at the prow of the motorboat that carries me across the channel. A light rain pelts my face and dimples the water. My hair and arms are slick. Behind us the knotted mangroves of Manda recede. I try to make out familiar landmarks along the Lamu waterfront: Lamu Palace Hotel, Casuarina – the backpackers where I spent a memorable month – the turrets of the old fort. The skyline is a jumble of palm trees and thatched makuti roofs. Two police boats bob conspicuously offshore.

When we arrive in Shella, the small village at the island’s eastern tip, the full staff of the Stopover Guest House seems to be on-hand to welcome me. This is more than just Swahili hospitality: on this night, as on most of the ones preceding it in recent weeks, I am the only guest. The recent kidnappings of foreigners – first, near the remote island of Kiwayu in early September; then, just across the channel on Manda last weekend – have rocked the local tourism industry. While business in Lamu is typically slow in October – a lull between the high seasons of the European summer and the Christmas holidays – even that modest trickle has now dried up. The groundfloor restaurant of the Stopover is empty; the only noise in the hotel is the sound of our bare, wet feet kissing the stone stairs as Patrick, a hotel employee, leads me to my room. It is beautifully furnished with two Lamu-style, four-poster beds and a Swahili day bed and washed stone walls. Leading me back downstairs, Patrick reminds me to lock the door on my way out. “Because of the security situation,” he says. “But also we have too many donkeys here.”

The moon is in its last quarter; the beach is dimly lit, so that I can just barely pick out a path around the donkey shit. In the distance the soft cocoon light of the Peponi Hotel beckons. This is Shella’s famous watering hole, the place where bohemian expats kick back their bare feet and share island gossip. Tonight, I am not disappointed. There is a convivial buzz on the terrace, the musical clinking of glasses and laughter ringing like coins. As I get closer, though, the sounds resolve into anxious voices. A group of locals are discussing the security situation, and the repercussions it will have on island life. The accents are a mix of American and British and upper-crust Kenyan, the intrigues like something out of a John Le Carré novel. The government’s response to the kidnappings gets dragged through the mud: clearly the navy was no match for the Somali pirates who made off with the Frenchwoman last week. “You need equipment, and you need skill,” a man complains. “They don’t have equipment, and they don’t have the skill.” (Fuzz Dyer, co-owner of the luxurious Manda Bay beach resort, blasted the government’s bungled rescue effort. Dyer had spent the day flying his private plane over the kidnappers, coordinating with the Kenyan navy. “We had a visual on the lady from 6:45am until half past six at night. We had the whole day to get her back,” he told the Financial Times. “We could have brought in a private force and collected her. It’s almost like they didn’t want to get her back.”) Security is being beefed up around the island: by the government, by hotel owners. But the locals are afraid that they might go too far, that Lamu might turn into some fortified compound of navy patrols and soldiers guarding the beach. “It would be the death of the tourism industry, to have armed guards everywhere,” says an older woman. Ultimately, everyone seems to agree, the only way to safeguard Lamu is to cut off the problem at its root. “You need to stop them out there, not here,” says an American woman. But how to tame the lawlessness of Somalia? How to recover the peacefulness that reigned here just a few weeks ago?

On the way back to the Stopover, I stop to chat with the staff at the restaurant of the Bahari Hotel. Already they’re stacking the chairs on the table: there has been no business tonight, as on recent nights, and the manager is sending the waiters home.

“Normally these tables are full,” he says, shaking his head.

“We pray anyway.”

For some people, it’s molestation. Maybe for other kids, it’s fun.

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.

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.

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.

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.