23.12.2006 - 23.12.2006
19th - 23rd December 2006
Jenn and I decided to ‘take the day off’ and recuperate from the two energy-sapping bus journeys we had endured.
Kenyan roads are some of the worst in Africa. Asphalt (tar) roads are all well and good, but not when the axle-breaking potholes are big enough to swallow small domestic animals (like those goats who inevitably escape from their roadside verges in search of something green). The plan was to spend five days on the captivating island that is Lamu, soaking up the culture, getting lost in stone town and savouring the abundance of fresh seafood.
While walking on the beach, I was offered two of the biggest crabs I’ve ever seen, their claws (pincers) holding more meat than the average crayfish (lobster) tail! I didn’t have any cash on me, so I improvised and took a picture of the crab seller which I showed to the boy who was looking after us at the guest house. I later told him what to do if the man in the picture delivered the crabs, “tell him you are paying for it, so we can get a normal price”. We had access to a kitchen, and splurged at the local supermarket on peanut butter, jam, processed cheese and other expensive imported goods.
As a Muslim town, Lamu caters very poorly for drinkers, and there are only two plush establishments where one can sink a cold beer or three.
Lamu, like most other East African coastal towns, is filled with ‘beach boys’. These are usually wannabee Rastafarians in search of a quick fuck from naive young girls who actually believe these boys are sincere. I met a few who had proudly accomplished their mission: to get married to a Mzungu girl who would whisk them away to the land of milk and honey. Guide books warn woman who are travelling alone to ‘run for cover’.
For everyone else (tourists in general) the primary nuisance are the beach boys who pursue you everywhere, offering dhow trips, marijuana and other ‘services’. Their favourite ploy is to offer you a snorkeling trip with food, equipment and fishing. They arrange it for the following day and insist on a payment (essentially half of their quoted price) to purchase supplies, a list of which they scribble on a scrap of cardboard. Once you’ve parted with your money, that’s the last you’ll see of them! I almost fell for this scam and saved a few other tourists from being caught out.
In 2001 Lamu was added to Unesco’s list of World Heritage Sites. The winding streets, carved wooden doors and traditional houses surrounding you are simply captivating. It’s a different world wandering around the narrow lanes immersed in the sights, aromas, sounds and energy of a bygone era that seems to have stood still.
The only motorized transport on the island is a white Land Rover, owned by the district commissioner, and two motorcycles used by the post office. The locals get around, using and abusing the 3,000 donkeys living on Lamu.
While drinking my spiced Chai (the Swahili word for Tea) on the waterfront, I met two Chinese businessmen. We exchanged cigarettes (we both enjoyed the taste of each others) after which they bid me farewell as they were going on a ‘quick boat ride to an island’. A beach boy and boat ‘captain’ came to collect them, and I smelled a rat, but was very excited when they agreed to let me join them.
Their quick boat ride turned into a five hour kidney-bruising adventure on rough seas, getting soaked by the spray and freak thunderstorms. I loved the whole experience, especially the look on the faces of the other passengers. Two of them were Nairobi businessman, who, like so many other Africans, couldn’t or wouldn’t swim for various reasons. They were terrified and sea sick and their drenched black suits were sticking to their shivering bodies.
The reason for the trip to Faza, the northern most town on Pate Island and some 200km from the Somalian border, was to do a feasibility study into upgrading the cell phone tower and telecoms infrastructure for Safaricom, Kenya’s primary mobile telecommunications operator. We encountered several Somali dhows on the way, and even docked next to one of them to pick up a passenger hanging off the side. The boats were packed to the brim, with dozens of refugees and their household belongings. I have to admit that I was pretty scared at the time, having all sorts of conspiracy theories as to the motives of our boat captain. Would the Chinese, British or South African governments care about three worthless citizens held hostage? I played out the scene in the back of mind, planning to swim ashore (it was only a few hundred metres) and hide from the bandits in the mangrove swamps which hugged the coastline. All I had with me was a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. I was calculating how I would hide under the water, breathing through a reed straw, waiting for the bandits to give up their search thinking I’d drowned. Images of Steve Irwin, the Australian ‘crocodile hunter’ who had recently been killed in a stingray attack, sort of blotted out that idea.
While the technicians took care of business, a young man volunteered to show me around Faza. Even though everyone I met in that village wanted something from me, he didn’t ask for anything in return. All I had was cigarettes and a lighter, and he wasn’t a smoker. I left him with my cell number, which was a big mistake. (He called me several times a day, every day, for the next three weeks. He didn’t have any credit, and the weak signal on the island would force him to climb up a hill and stand on a tower to make a call. He only let my phone ring once, before hanging up. It was very annoying, until one day I picked it up before he could end the call. This cost him money and eventually he gave up trying. Out of the hundred calls, I did speak to him three times, and he hinted that I owed him a great deal for his ‘hospitality’. In the future I tried to remember not to give my number to his type.
Jenn was stressed about how she was going to get off the island, as she wasn’t prepared to endure another mad max bus trip. I found her a (relatively) cheap flight to Nairobi. She was unhappy spending $170 but relieved to escape the bus.
It was an hour walk at low tide from Lamu, and the alternative dhow trip was too expensive, so we did the trek every day and became very proficient in fending of beach boys (either I’d ignore them completely, which rarely worked, or I would perform my ‘deaf and dumb freak out’ routine which always worked).
Sarah the American student arrived back from a trip to Mombassa. She and her friend Tom had just invested in a video camera, tripod, film and everything else required to take to a project in Uganda. They had raised the money themselves and were heading to Kampala to donate the camera and train the locals how to use it. Their aim was to create awareness of the poverty, as experienced by the sufferers, and thereby attract more aid.
I had my sandals repaired for the third time in as many countries, and I was thinking of making a story out of it. Katana (like the Suzuki motorbike model) was a dive instructor and I found him on one of Shella’s mazelike alleyways, mending all of the villagers’ sandals. This time he fixed my sandals properly, ensuring that I wouldn’t need to repair them again, ever. I paid him ten times what he was asking, took pictures and then left, a very happy camper, after he found some wire for me to fix my broken fins (flippers). I was exhausted, famished, parched and sun burnt, after spending the day snorkeling. I decided to do it on my own as the dhow captains were asking $50 dollars for a half-day excursion, and I could do the same thing for free. I swam across a channel that initially seemed to be only a few hundred metres wide, but actually turned out to be over a kilometer and with serious currents taking me out to see.
I learned very quickly to swim with mask and snorkel looking down, as my neck was aching after the first 10 minutes. It took 30 minutes to get across to the coral, which was well worth the effort. I was eager for more and walked the 3km to another channel, amongst the mangroves, to explore further. I ran into some fishermen who were on a windsurfer board. In my broken Swahili, I persuaded them to quit fishing and row back to Lamu. The deal was that they would row beside me, because they promised me the waters were infested with sharks. I couldn’t keep up and sneakily held on to the back of the board, kicking my fins like an outboard motor. This continued for almost an hour before we reached the other side!
On my last day, Claus, Katya and Lee arrived and I took them to the Talking Trees Campsite. We had the place to ourselves and slept under our mosquito nets on top of one of their incomplete villas. Claus was the Dane with seven toes that I had met in Zanzibar and again in Dar. Katya and Lee were American Dykes that jumped into Claus’ car in Zambia. For two months he couldn’t get rid of them and was too scared to try. Although they were paying their share of the petrol, they were complete female misogynist pigs! We had a seafood cookout of note, with giant crabs and lobster, which we slapped up with borrowed pots and pans, cooking in the dark. The food was orgasmic!
I woke up full of seafood, my body suggesting I urgently empty my bowels, which I did with the greatest of pleasure. I then filled the subsequent void with gigantic perfectly ripe avocados, pineapple and coconut, all local produce.
I packed up my belongings and rushed to the ferry, on foot, with all my gear firmly attached to my back, refusing offers of assistance from the beach boys. The free ferry operated by Tawakal, the bus company that promised to be much better than the Falcon experience. I jumped on the ferry as it was pulling away, pink and sweating like a pig. I really enjoyed that cigarette amongst the 50 people crammed on the boat, the diesel fumes permeating from below, and the old man constantly scooping out water from the hull to stop us from sinking.