I had never been to a place where there was a legitimate threat of being kidnapped by pirates. The island of Lamu on the coast of Kenya near Somalia was basically shutdown for tourism last year because after a few cases of Somali pirates capturing foreigners governments banned their citizens from traveling there. Last year governments declared Lamu a safe place for tourists and since we had heard such wonderful things about the place my friends and I decided to take the risk.
All week I had been asking David if I was going to get kidnapped and he laughed, but assured me I wasn’t. He finally told me that I shouldn’t go if I was going to worry about it this much and not enjoy the trip (clearly David was still learning that I had to get out my pre-trip worrying and then would be fine). On the day of departure he told me he was going to pick me up three hours in advance of my flight even though the airport was twenty minutes away. I think he did not want to deal with me panicking in the back in case we hit traffic. As we pulled up to the airport the panic really set in. The airport feels like a business complex with each airline having its own little building. There were small planes all over the place. In one last ditch effort to figure out if I am doing something risky I ask David if it is safe. He assures me in true David style saying I will be okay followed by a chuckle. I wonder if someone as angsty as me is an anomaly for calm David. Maybe this is a true cultural exchange.
Waiting at the airport for my friends to arrive is a struggle without my usual distraction of trashy celebrity magazines. The informality of the airport was something I had to laugh about. The tickets we received were thick laminated reusable passes, with no seats or names on them. There was no taking off your shoes or taking out your liquids in security. When they were ready to board to see who was there they simply asked us to raise our hand if we were on the flight to Lamu. I am not usually a nervous flyer, which is something I pride myself on, as I am nervous about most other things. This flying experience was something different. The plane cannot be described as anything other than teeny. There was no bathroom and no one else from the airline except the captains on the flight, who were not at all blocked off from passengers. The only relief I felt was when they handed us a brown paper bag with snacks when we boarded. The entire two-hour ride I was uncomfortable, but tried to keep my composure.
It was all worth it as soon as I stepped off the plane. Lamu felt like a different country than Nairobi. A man from our hotel greeted us outside the teeny airport and led us down a long dock. I knew we would get on a boat to Lamu, but for some reason I expected a small ferry. Instead, we climbed on a teeny motorboat with all of our belongings. The driver of this boat was very keen to tell us all about Lamu. I tuned him out a little bit and just stared as we approached the beautiful island. He did catch my attention when he said, “The people in Lamu are very famous.” I turned back to stare and my travel buddy E said, “Do you mean friendly?” He didn’t quite correct himself, but nodded. He continued to point out sites in the distance and it all looked so picturesque. The architecture appeared to be what I picture the Greek Islands to look like (never visited), yet with a Middle Eastern influence.
We climbed off the boat onto the beach and spotted our first donkey. Donkeys are the main form of transportation in Lamu and Shela (the island that is part of Lamu where we stayed) and they are constantly roaming around. Another man from our hotel greeted us at the beach and led us up narrow pathways to our hotel. Our budget guesthouse blew us away. We were escorted three flights up into this historic looking building to our room. We entered through our huge private balcony with the most stylish and comfortable outdoor furniture and a table with chairs. It felt like us three girls were on our honeymoon together. The beds had bright red flowers on top of the singular white sheet and a white mosquito net canopy. Our view was across the rooftops of Shela and out to the beach. Before we left the man at the hotel suggested we order our breakfast, which was included in the price of our hotel. Usually when breakfast is included I expect a stale muffin, but at this hotel we got to choose what we wanted, in fact we needed to choose an item from four columns. The first was our main course (different eggs, omelets, or pancakes), coffee or tea, fruit choice, and a choice of juice. Lamu is known for its fresh juice. It was only 4pm, but I was already looking forward to breakfast.
Our plans for the next day were to take a Dhow ride, which are the sail/motor boats that are common in Lamu. A friend recommended I reach out to someone named Captain Dolphin. We were sold on the name alone. I called Captain Dolphin and he thought we should meet and he could take us on a tour of Lamu town. We weren’t sure if this was necessary since we heard the town was small and walkable, but since we needed a boat ride there we figured this would work. We were all so glad we had a guide to navigate the winding streets, which looked more like back alleys. Touring Lamu was an overwhelming experience. The streets are so narrow and I was constantly avoiding walking into something or someone. I was trying to take it all in and just follow Dolphin’s lead. Lamu smells like a mix of the ocean, donkey poop, and people cooking food on the streets. Everybody we walked by said hello, the little kids especially enjoyed yelling “Jambo,” and waving. Dolphin said that Lamu town was emptier than usual because it was Ramadan and most people were in the Mosques praying. People were out preparing foods on the street so as not to fill the house with scents of food while the family was fasting during the day. We saw children baking mini chapatti, their version of an easy bake oven. Everyone knows everyone in Lamu so many people yelled out to Dolphin as we walked past.
That night we had the first of many seafood meals. Dolphin told me the restaurant could bring in beer from outside, despite Ramadan, so I asked and then felt like an ignorant drunk tourist when they said they didn’t do that anymore. After dinner we took Dolphin to the one bar in Lamu, despite finding out that he doesn’t drink. The bar was deserted but we got our Tuskers and found out the origins of Dolphin’s name. It was not some name he created for his Dhow business, but was a name he was called as a baby. His mother gave birth to him on a boat on the way to the mainland and there were dolphins all around them. Ever since that he has been called Dolphin. Dolphin took us home on a little motorboat that night and I don’t think I have traveled by boat in complete darkness like that. If there was a point we were vulnerable to pirates this was it. At the same time I felt I had to implicitly trust Dolphin and just accept where I was. Perhaps pirates celebrated Ramadan as well. The weather that day and night was perfect, it was never too hot or too cold, and the stars were beautiful. That night we read on our porch. Even if my mind occasionally wandered to fears about pirates, I felt so at peace and content in Lamu. I fell asleep to the sounds of the wind blowing against our colorful curtains, donkey noises, and awoke to the Islamic prayers at sunrise.
The breakfast was everything I anticipated and throughout my time in Lamu I had the best fruit juice and mango I have ever had. We continued to eat fruit all day during our boat trip. I don’t think I have ever consumed that much fresh delicious fruit in my life.
We began the day by lounging on the boat and I was so incredibly relaxed. The sun was shining, the weather was perfect, and we just sailed along looking at the different boats and little islands along the way. We then began the fishing process and it was decided there would be a competition between Kenyans, Americans, and our one Mexican. People catch snappers, octopus, and crabs around Lamu. We were aiming for snappers. After several hours and several spots we had caught two fish – one snapper and one beautiful bright blue fish (1 point for the Kenyan team, 1 point for the Mexican team, several points for effort from U.S. team). As we fished Dolphin and his crew prepared our lunch. They had a contraption for every step of the meal. A coconut shredder, a way to get the milk out of the coconut meat, a mini stove, and tons of spices. We arrived to a little beach and they told us we could go to the one hotel there to use the bathroom and get a drink if we wanted before lunch was ready. We had a Tusker at this hotel and were intrigued by the American woman who seemed to own it. When we returned to the ship either our fish had mated or something fishy was going on (excuse my cheesiness but it was too easy). Dolphin told us to eat and not worry about it. I ate a white snapper and it was delicious. The spices they put on it were incredible. We also had coconut rice and vegetable curry (all made on a little boat). The food was so fresh and we were saving some for Dolphin and his crew when we realized they were fasting because of Ramadan! We couldn’t believe the whole time they prepare this delicious meal for us they were probably starving. Dolphin assured us that since they had been fasting since they were young they were used to it. Dolphin confessed after lunch that they had had a back-up plan the whole time and bought fish from another boat. I still felt relatively accomplished in our fishing. The rest of the day was overcast and we spent it walking around gathering shells and relaxing on the boat. Dolphin and his crew, as well as crew from a neighboring boat decided to put on an impromptu concert. It was interesting that the people in the Dhow industry seem to have almost a Rastafarian Muslim culture. The concert involved singing, banging on plastic buckets, and using other kitchen utensils as instruments. They sang Bob Marley, La Bamba, as well as some classics that they invented their own lyrics to, which included Old McDonald and Frere Jacques.
After our amazing day with Dolphin and crew we decided to explore Shela town for dinner. We went to Lonely Planet’s top choice despite my experience that you cannot always trust Lonely Planet. I wasn’t sure if I could handle more seafood, but there weren’t very many options on the menu. That day we saw a man who had hunted an octopus so I decided that calamari could be be what I was craving, especially if it was fried. The man told me it was fried, but when the meal arrived it looked like an octopus cut up that had been put in a pan for a few minutes. I tried to kindly explained to them that this was not what fried meant and they said there was nothing they could do. The manager explained if I wanted it fried instead of asking for it fried I should have asked for it crispy and they would have put it in the deep fryer. I am not sure how that is not the same thing as fried, but as I am the foreigner in their culture I shouldn’t be too picky. I pride myself on being a good order so I was pretty bummed about this mishap. I was also hungry as I only ate one bite of my “fried calamari” and a lot of Swahili mashed potatoes (basically normal mashed potatoes). In need of a pick me up we decided to walk to the fancy hotel and restaurant for drinks and desserts. The path there was pitch black and appeared to be straight through the ocean. This was a moment where I thought we could be making a bad choice navigating this pitch-black path that may or may not involve swimming. We asked someone how to get there at the one nearby restaurant and he insisted that he would take us there and it was very simple. We followed him blindly along a narrow path beside the ocean (not quite in it). It was entirely worth it. At the hotel we had refreshing summer drinks and delicious desserts. It made our night and we did not want to leave the cushy hotel, especially because we were afraid of the walk home. I asked our waiter if we could borrow a candle to take on our walk and he also offered to walk us to our hotel (although he took a more cautious path through the narrow streets not next to the ocean). People really were famous or friendly in Lamu.
Our final day in Lamu was our beach day and it was my first trip into the Indian Ocean. The water was not warm, but not as cold as oceans usually are. The beach was almost deserted except for a few people going on walks. It was so windy that I was crunching sand in my mouth all day, but it was still perfect. It was peaceful and the weather was sunny, but not too hot. When I went for a solo dip in the Indian Ocean I tried my best to take everything in and commit that joy and peacefulness to memory.
I wonder if Lamu will become a more popular destination as years pass, but it felt like our own discovery with not too many tourists to overwhelm the place. The culture, people, old architecture, and idyllic views made it a spectacular last weekend trip in Kenya. Even with the smell of donkey poop, the stray cats, teeny plane, and potential for being kidnapped by pirates, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. I am not the type of traveler that longs to go back to places I have already been, usually I would prefer to try new places. Lamu might just be special enough for me to change my ways and return one day with someone I love.