Lamu

My pending trip to South Africa has me remembering my last trip in 1979.  I have previously written in this blog about the lions, and the girl in Nairobi.  My time in Kenya was magical, many stories and indelible memories.  Unfortunately I lost the journal I kept on the trip, and fortunately, I have forgotten how much of a bastard I was at 30 – an egotistical liar and the worst kind of seductive.  I am with Gurdjieff: people are shit.  So if you see a glimmer of something that is not shit, you can feel good.  Those who think people are basically good are in for a life of disappointment.

Someone just told me about their recent trip to Lamu – how they could not go out at night for fear of being attacked, how the hotel compounds were walled in – so I will never go back, for here’s how it remember it in ’79:

First, feel the heat. The road is long and straight through the mangrove swamps and desert of the upper coast of Kenya, near poor Somalia.  The bus is an oven.  It’s a short ferry ride over to the island of Lamu and its Arabian town, once fueled by the slave trade, all white rounded buildings with dark carved doors, fretted with cool little alleyways and stinking open sewers.

All the people friendly, that handsome mix of Arab and Kikuyu, all garbed in swirling kikois (wraps) and round pillbox hats or skullcaps, all loping along with slow-swinging hips.  All, that is, but the intensely thin kat chewing boys in the town square, sitting in a circle desperately peeling this superbly bitter rhubarb-colored amphetamine grass to stuff it in their mouth so they could peel some more, their jaws working the tight circle of their lives like camels.  Of course I tried it, but it held no attraction – good for soldiers, I would have thought, but not for the laid-back.  I was more with the old men and their ancient game of ndawa (‘kings’, I think), somewhere between checkers and chess, played slowly with pauses for tea and contemplation.

The local crab in the verrrrry slow restaurant – too expensive for hippies on a budget – was the very best seafood I have ever had, before or since, much better than the more prized ‘lobster’, really langouste – even more tender and succulent than our Maine lobster, an’ that’s goin’ some.  The few travelers – mostly German, honesly, they’re everywhere and they’ve always been there first – would gather on the roofs of the hotels at night – the rooms were too hot – talking trash about where they’d been and sharing a smoke as we overlooked the harbor.

The whole front of the island was a beach, so you just walked out to where you wanted to be – alone or with people.  No one bothered you, not even the beach hustlers if you went a bit away from the town.  Walk out farther – got your hat? – and around the corner of the island and you came to Peponi’s, where if you had brought enough clothes to look decent you could drop in for a Pimm’s with the snobby British ex-pats in their khakis.  I think Peponi’s might have had a generator, and maybe they had one in town, but it was all lamps and candles, no electric lights – so quiet, so dark.  It’s so hard to find that now.

Best, though, was to rent a dhow.  On a walk to the back side of the island, in the mangroves, I came across a crew of five building a large dhow, about 40′ long.  They had five tools: a knife, a bowstring hand drill, a short saw, an adze, and a hammer.  They said it would take them 5 years to build this boat, and then their fortune would be made hauling cargo, and at their pace and with only those tools, I believed them.  It was well away from the water (easier to work in the shade), and I wondered how they would move it when it was finished.

The smaller dhows had lateen sails, so that to come about you had the throw the sprit, the sail, and the sheet around the short mast, but for all that it was an efficient sailing rig.  Pack up some drinks and food, and the boy we used – about 20, I think, named Mbele, little English, but hand gestures, my pidgen Swahili (Jambo, kwaheri, mzuri sana, karibu) and the color of 100 shillings did the trick – would catch a fish along the way, cook it on the shore of any of a number of small local islands, and then discreetly withdraw for a nap so that you and your companion could have some time alone on the beach before the desultory trip back to port.

The trick, as I remember, was to find some fresh water for a shower to get the sand and salt off before the night heat.  Somehow the day heat, though metallic, was easier to handle than the stuffy wet blanket of the night.The end of the road, the end of the world at the time, but now, like so many places, ruined beyond return.

The next generation, Misty’s generation, inherits a world the poorer for our lack of discipline. As the financial world unravels and it’s clear the party of the last 25 years or so is over and the piper must be paid, will places like Lamu revert to their old calm and easy lifestyle, or will such places continue to degrade into 21st century wastelands?

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