Life’s a Beach

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Past the clichés of Kenya’s game parks and the Maasai, Mitali Saran finds herself in the charming, anachronistic four-car town of Lamu

For most people Kenya equals big, low-hanging skies and wildlife safaris. We’ve just spent two and a half days in Amboseli National Park, the iconic elephant paradise at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, and been able to see three of the so-called Big Five animals: elephant, buffalo and lion (in a scrum of jeeps that collectively go ‘Oooooooo!’ every time the snoozing lioness stirs a paw). It is all that I imagined it to be—the cloud-veiled snowcap, crystal clear morning light, the giant flapping ears, herds of wildebeest and zebra and gazelle, the swamps of Amboseli teeming with animal life.

We’ve visited a Maasai manyatta, or village, within the park, and been agape at the splendour of a tall, beautiful people who today have cell phones and email addresses but still live traditionally in mud huts without light, protecting their cattle from lions, and walking across the Tanzanian border to get beads for their dazzling jewellery.

I really cannot imagine how a beach can possibly be interesting after this. But the Kenya Tourism Board (KTB), which organised this trip, knows better, and has put Lamu on the itinerary between Amboseli and Malindi. Kenya is not just wildlife and the Maasai, they say. There are other fascinating things to see. I’ve never heard of Lamu. I’m a bit grumpy about it all.

The pilot, in elegant horizontal cornrows, lines up her single-engine plane with the airstrip and puts us down softly on Manda Island. With the sun overhead, the aircraft door opens onto a wall of heat fanged with humidity and we step out onto a small archipelago off the north-eastern coast of Kenya. The Indian Ocean flows in broad channels between these little islands, looking for all the world like a river. The sheer unexpected beauty of it dispels my scepticism. It’s nothing like anything I’ve seen before. Lamu—who knew?

A motorboat sent by the luxury Majlis resort scoops us up and roars along past ancient dhows and sailboats, past blazing white houses and bursts of flowers on both shores, mangrove trees and acacias that say Africa like no other tree. Further up Manda’s coast we roll up our trousers, jump off the boat into the water, and walk up the beach to the restful white meditation that is the Majlis resort. My room is an ode to simplicity: glass, wood and white linen sprinkled with rose petals, looking out over fuzzy green acacias to the oddly riparian waterfront.

The likes of Angelina Jolie reportedly stay here. This is a place to relax, to sit and stare, to drink something cool in a hammock, to wallow in the ocean and wiggle your toes in the sand. It’s incredibly beautiful. But, like many other hotels in this area, the resort is mostly empty at the moment. We’re not far from the Somali border. Somali elements have twice attacked foreign nationals in this area in September and October, creating a panic among travellers and more or less killing the tourism industry—which was only just recovering from unrest following the 2007 elections. Kenya takes this 10 per cent chunk of its GDP seriously, as is clear from the fact that they’ve closed the border with Somalia, stepped up police patrols and their visibility, and sworn to ensure security. The KTB is determined to show us that Lamu is safe.

That may remain an open question, but it is certainly a ridiculously good-looking place. Tea is served in the cool white library-cum-lounge, and then I walk through the resort to the beach, past the beautifully woven shack that serves as a gym and spa, past the second jade green swimming pool, down a few broad, shallow steps, and right into the warm waveless water. I’m nose-to-nose with the sun as it turns into a golden puddle in the sea.

By 7 am the heat is already fierce, and it’s worse two hours later as we bump across the water to Lamu island. But cooled by salt spray, and gazing upon a vista that smacks of the Maghreb—of Morocco and Tunisia—I forget the heat. We clamber up the jetty into another world, one that began with Bantu settlers, evolved with Arab, European and Indian traders, went through a period of Omani protection, and one of British rule, and which in 2001 was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, Arab, Yemeni, Portuguese and Gujarati traders took mangrove, ivory, rhino horns, spices and wood carvings from Lamu, in exchange for dates, jewellery, silk, slaves and Egyptian cats whose descendents, narrow-faced, still prowl around with the local Lamu cats. Today’s settlement is bigger, but the core old town is a seductive anachronism.

Traditional boats line the waterfront, and I have to jump aside to avoid a donkey heading purposefully past me. There are no cars, just people and donkeys. Besides the boardwalk along the ocean, the streets are no wider than three or four feet. Old men lounge against a wall. Young men, including a sprinkling of blonde Rasta tresses and caps, strut around talking about young man things. The faces reflect Lamu’s cosmopolitan genes, blended over the centuries into something with echoes of everywhere. A second here seems quite long; a minute stretches endlessly. Nobody seems to be in any hurry.

Except the donkeys. They’re tied to posts in what I can only call donkey parking lots; they’re clip-clopping around carrying loads; they’re busy, they have work to do. Ali, our guide, tells us that the donkeys are so well trained that they make their way to their owners’ houses at a specific time and wait to be fed, stamping their feet to draw attention if the door isn’t opened promptly. They wait, he says, five minutes, and if the owner doesn’t have work for them and doesn’t open the door, they wander off and come back at the same time the next day. There are three thousand donkeys in Lamu, and on that four-legged tide rides the efficient commerce of the town.

Of the four cars in this whole town, one is a donkey ambulance. (As for the rest, one belongs to the District Commissioner, one is a garbage truck, and one is an ambulance).

We wander off into the labyrinth of winding, unmarked streets that constitute the old town. There’s no good way to take down directions; if you want to find someone’s house, your best bet is to ask someone, who will then escort you there. But if you’re just wandering in the relatively cool, quiet streets—past grimy puppies, large-eyed children and the ever-present donkeys—you can have a perfectly good time. We duck into shops showcasing fabulous jewellery and accessories, into an internet-enabled café called Bustani, into woodshops and beadworking shops, onto people’s porches.

The buildings are made of mangrove wood, limestone, shell and coral cut by the Luo tribe on Manda and transported to Lamu. The rough surfaces serve as decoration, keep the buildings cool, and deter grafitti artists. Public buildings like mosques, schools and restaurants have low windows into which people on the street can see; private buildings like houses have windows too high off the street for people to look in, but a raised floor inside so that the household can look down on the street. Many of the big old families buy adjoining houses and then create a bridge between the two on an upper floor, so that the street remains both free and shaded.

Lamu is famous for its beautiful wooden doors, made of African mahogany and intricately carved and polished in many busy workshops. One can cost upto 120,000 Kenyan shillings (Ksh), or upwards of $1,300. Iskandar, father of the woodworking industry here, has died two days before our visit at the age of 105, and tears well up in the eyes of Hassan, a woodcarver who points to his photograph on the wall. Iskandar carved the door of the Parliament building, and had 24 kids by six wives.

The beautiful door of a house is typically recessed into a little porch known as the baraza, which protects it from the elements. The porch is where both family and visitors can sit—male visitors with the man of the house while the ladies are indoors, or just the family once a week to catch up on good deeds and bad, administer bouquets and brickbats to the kids, and generally take stock. Anyone trying to get out of the sun or rain or stopping to rest is welcome to step off the street into one of these porches—including the donkeys. (Donkeys, it turns out, hate rain.) Similarly, a family member lying on the coral and limestone bench with his or her head on the rounded corner can keep an eye on the street.

Most of the population is Muslim, and most are conservative. Women are more or less fully veiled, and relatively absent on the streets. (“They come out after 3.30 pm,” explained one gentleman who heard my colleague complain about the lack of women.) By virtue of being the oldest continuously inhabited Swahili settlement in the region, and retaining its old school character both physically and culturally, Lamu has evolved into a centre for Islamic and Swahili studies. I wonder briefly whether they’ve ever wanted to broaden their streets, but Unesco wants Lamu to keep its character, and it’s that character that draws tourists from all over the world. There are 35 mosques on Lamu, and at least 35 guesthouses.

But over 50 foreigners also live here permanently, and another 50 live on neighbouring Shella island, which is younger (250 years old) and more upscale—the Prince of Monaco reportedly owns four houses there, and a Norwegian man owns the house with the only lift on all of Shella. I ask Ali, our guide, how they integrate. “It’s a small community, everyone knows everyone, and we simply ask people to respect each other. We find that foreigners are keen not to offend, they ask about dos and don’ts, and they try not to do anything wrong. We appreciate that.”

For all its conservatism, Lamu knows which side of its bread is buttered. “People are very upset by all the trouble that has happened,” says Ali, “But we see that the police is doing much more, and we feel safe.”

And so do I—wandering around Shella, investigating a bunch of beautiful little heritage hotels, finding a little girl threading flowers on a string, watching shipbuilders at work, painstakingly repairing dhows, I have tiny uplifting conversations that inevitably open with a smiling “Karibu (welcome)!” Three little brothers sitting by the shipbuilders confess to their perfectly normal dreams: the eldest wants to be a ship’s captain, the middle one a waiter, and the little one a footballer. They’re playing with beautiful little boats of wood and paper made for them by their father.

The people of Shella are descended from the people of Takwa, on Manda island, who abandoned their 16th century settlement after a century for lack of freshwater. It’s worth visiting the Takwa ruins by boat through winding mangrove waterways. A giant 900-year-old baobab tree presides over crumbling mosque walls, tombs, wells and cement-making tools.

And after that, there’s nothing for me but to have a drink at the floating bar in the middle of the channel. It’s made of thatch, and they don’t seem to have a whole lot of variety, but it’s charming, and the sunset makes very pretty fireworks in the sky. Nobody hustles, nobody hurries, and I stand there feeling the breeze, drinking my whisky, and staring out at the darkening ocean-river of Lamu. I can’t believe I’d never heard of it.