Lamu, Kenya: The Land of Donkeys and Charm
The day is Tuesday, and I am a bit idle. I remember suddenly that a friend had invited me to Lamu Island, on the east coast of Kenya, seven months ago when I was still working a nine to five job. I never went because I could hardly get away for more than three days. Things have changed now. I left my fulltime job and so I could make do with some Lamu. I call my friend and excitedly tell him I will finally be visiting. Can he make time to show me around? Unfortunately, he is in Greece, he says. However, he gives me contacts for people who will fill in his shoes. Okay! I am on my way! I book a flight and set off in three days.
As soon as I land on the other side, the beauty of the ocean overwhelms me. There is something about the ocean that never ceases to calm me down. I also unintentionally start grinning from ear to ear – I can never help myself! Ocean therapy, I guess. Well, the excitement lasts for as long as I am on the speedboat headed to paradise. As soon as I see the seafront, my smile disappears. This is not the Lamu I was so excited to see. You see, Lamu Island itself does not grab you with its beauty. Rather, what meets you is a dull seafront lined with fishing boats and some floating litter. I learn that some of the town’s sewage empties into the ocean at night and it saddens me. Good thing the County Government is working on that.
After checking into my hotel, I go downstairs where I am greeted with the warmest of smiles and the coldest freshly squeezed orange juice. Forget the dull seafront for a second. This ice-cold juice is life! My friend had already warned me about the donkeys on the ‘streets’– they are the standard mode of transportation – and so I know to expect them. After lunch, I venture out in search of adventure. The town only needs half an hour to get round.
Lamu, a 10-kilometer stretch is home to about 2,000 people. It is marked by old charming buildings, friendly people – who will gladly stop what they are doing to show you where to buy the tastiest mahamri – several donkeys, and sweet cinnamon tea. And then there is Shela, an extensive, sparsely populated beach with the clearest blue water where you can skinny-dip without a care in the world.
On the evening of Day One, my companion took me to the Floating Bar. It’s exactly that: a small establishment set up in the ocean where you can fish or feed fish as you wait for your meal. The music played will depend on the time of day. At sunset, R&B to bid the sun goodbye and lively African music after the sun goes down so that you can shake your troubles away. Seafood is the deal here, and the waves rock the structure to give the impression of being inside a sea vessel. The music is soothing, and the sunset is breathtaking.
Day Two and I’m off to Takwa Ruins on Manda Island, which is 30 minutes away from Lamu by boat. The 15th and 16th century Swahili trading town is still well preserved and the guide was so knowledgeable that I am transported back several years to my history class. The ocean is vicious from this side, with waves so strong, but still so beautiful that I wish I could stay and watch how crazy it gets at night. Later, we go fishing – I catch nothing – watch as the sun goes down from our boat, and then we go back to Lamu Island.
The evenings are always special on this island. And then there is Petley’s, the only – or loudest – club in the island. We go there and dance the better part of the night away with strangers who become my besties for the evening.
I spent the rest of the days –three more – exploring Shela and Manda, both islands within Lamu, as well as the small food joints hidden within the town. Fair to say I gained seven pounds, thanks to the mahamris, spiced uji, and all the Swahili dishes I ate in the five days I was in there.
I said at the beginning that the island does not appeal that much at first glance, but the charm is in the spirit of the people and the pristine waters. My last day in Lamu was the saddest and I couldn’t imagine ending my day without the uninhibited view of the setting sun. Oh, and I got to ride a donkey for all of three minutes. I leave the island, kicking and screaming in my head. Lamu, I will be back.