Thursday, February 28, 2019

Gap Year – Lamu

After a ten-minute stopover in Malindi, our miniature plane flies on to the miniature airport that serves Lamu. From there, we are ferried across the water to the sleepy village of Shela where various hawkers, porters and incongruous Masai jewellery sellers line the dock.

Apart from boats, the only transport on Lamu – famously – is donkeys but I never see them actually carrying anything. They stand around ruminating on street corners, heads down, or are seen ambling off on secret missions but a definite nope to anything approaching “beast of burden” and resolutely oblivious to their human neighbours.

I’m staying at Fatuma’s Tower, a guesthouse I chose after extensive research on the internet only to discover that it’s owned by Frankie’s uncle. The streets through town are sandy, winding and labrynthine. I’m confused after the first three turns and never fully master the route. As we weave our way up through the tiny alleyway, I try to log landmarks – a hopeless strategy – one donkey or straggly chicken looks much like any other.

Shela is gorgeous and one of the things I like most is that every time I get lost, which is all the time, someone is immediately right beside me, offering to help. Six-year-olds speaking immaculate English grab my elbow and gently push me in the right direction, or weave through the streets ahead of me, looking back from time to time to check I’m keeping up. They clearly think I’m an idiot but do their best not to let it show.

Fatuma’s Tower itself is a lovely jumble of one, two and three-storey buildings set in a delightful garden. The place looks like it’s been there for centuries but nearly all of it has all been created from scratch, in traditional style, by Gilles and his wife Fiametta over the last 20 years. The garden is full of beautiful trees, shrubs, a plunge pool, tons of birdlife and a monkey that nicks my bananas.


My days on Lamu pass in a sublime blur. One night I join my fellow Fatuma guests for a dhow sunset cruise, a much-lauded highlight of any visit to Lamu. Anne and Florian from France have just climbed Mount Kenya on their own, with no guide or porters. Nick and Megan are from the UK and have just got engaged. We steer out into the still waters between Lamu and Manda islands, drinking and chatting and watching the sun sink slowly behind the sand dunes. It’s idyllic. 




Daytimes I juggle between living it up at the luxurious Majlis Resort with its romantic swimming pools and sumptuous sun-loungers, or hanging out at Diamond Village, a chilled-out beach bar with full-on pizza oven.


It’s very hot and I’ve gone right off culture but nevertheless I force myself to take a morning off doing fuck-all to head into Lamu Town. The whole place is a Unesco World Heritage site and, like Zanzibar, is famed for its very beautiful ornately-carved wooden doors. I make cultural headway at Lamu Museum which is mainly about doors but also has a small section on indigenous tribes and a potted history of Lamu’s golden era when it was a hub for trading spices, slaves and Oriental knick-knacks. Ali and Hafswa, a Muslim couple from Mombasa, join me for the guided tour. Hafswa is draped head to ankle in floaty black chiffon but I can still see her soulful eyes, delicate hands and glamorous sequinned sandals. She barely speaks but we have a significant bonding moment playing ethnic drums together on the second floor.


One of the highlights of my Lamu sojourn is copping off with a former Marine who now works as a pilot at the US military base on Manda Island. I’ve never met a Marine, or a mercenary, or anyone at all who has served in Iraq or Afghanistan and I’m keen to know more about these lovely tourist destinations. X tells me he can’t tell me anything about his work and then tells me all about it. He flies night-time surveillance/recon missions over Somalia looking for terrorists. He also spends a lot of time flying around Nigeria looking for Boko Haram. Obviously I can't reveal any intel here but I can post up the hilarious Afghanistan drone video he gave me (watch right to the end).

After extracting a ton of classified intel, I drag X off to the “cinema”, a Friday night film club at Diamond Beach. We share the boat over with Phoebe and Ali, star-crossed lovers who met at a conference for gifted students. They come from wildly different backgrounds. Ali is a local boy, which means he grew up surrounded by sand, donkeys and chickens while Phoebe grew up in Nairobi but they’re making a go of a long-distance relationship. As we neck mojitos and fight off mercenary-grade mosquitos, Phoebe tells us a great story about Putin’s mum and the siege of Leningrad. Then it’s time for the film: The Wife with Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce. What a perfect evening. Next stop: Watamu

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Gap Year – en route to Lamu – Meryl Streep interlude

For my overnight stay in Nairobi, I’m lucky enough to get an invite from my new mate Sally to come stay with her. I have only met Sally once before – for about an hour on Gatwick drone attack day when we were both trying to get to Venice for a friend’s 50th. In January, Sally whatsapps me and invites me to stay. As I have a hotel booked, I’m hesitant but Andrea says: “Cancel your hotel immediately; Sally is great and her house is amazing.” It’s all true. Sally is fab, fun and a talented artist (check out her site here) and her house is the Ngong Dairy – which stood in for Karen Blixen’s home in “Out of Africa”. This would already qualify it as a pretty extraordinary place to stay but what really does it for me is Sally’s fabulous art collection – a cornucopia of African art, English watercolours, photographs, a dazzling, wall-sized painting of an ostrich and a staggering collection of kimono-style battle dresses in illuminated glass cases.

When I arrive, Sally has set up lunch on a linen-covered table in the middle of a huge lawn. It’s glorious and almost more Streepy than I can cope with. Sally then heads to the gym and I spend the afternoon wafting around and thinking about Robert Redford. On Sally’s return, we settle down to an evening of gossiping, story-swapping and getting to know each other. It’s a brief but blissful interlude which I thoroughly enjoy.

The next day we drop in to Sally’s gallery before I catch an Uber (yay, Uber!!!!) to Wilson Airport. My driver Martin is chatty and we have a fun ride. Martin wants to be in my blog so here he is:

 At Wilson Airport, I meet Edwins, the owner of Kenya Buses. This might be a useful contact if I was the slightest bit interested in ever using public transport in Nairobi. I introduce him to my other new friend, Priscilla, the engineering head of the Malindi water board. We start talking about bendy buses - not a subject I thought would come up during my visit to Africa. Edwins is planning to introduce them in Nairobi but Priscilla and I are sceptical. I reference Boris and Priscilla says they won't work in Kenya unless you reduce capacity. I am not sure whether we convince Edwins or not.

I ask Priscilla if there are ever any problems with the water supply in Malindi. No, she says, the service is excellent. But after we board the plane, I find myself sitting next to Katoi Wa Tabaka, a jazz musician, hip hop artist and rising star on the Kenya music scene.  He looks like a rock star and is exactly the kind of person I was hoping to meet on my travels.

Katoi Wa Tabaka - are you a rock star?
As he's from Malindi, I ask him if he ever has water problems. Yes, he says, we were cut off the whole of last week actually. Ooh, Priscilla was telling porky pies! She buries her head in her laptop. Oops.

At Malindi, Katoi disembarks but promises to keep in touch; he is as good as his word and although we don't manage to meet up again, he does put me in touch with a great friend of his in Watamu where I'm heading after Lamu. Thanks Katoi!! (ps Katoi's music is great and you can find him on YouTube, Ethnocloud and SoundCloud. This is my favourite track: Kunani - it's great.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Gap Year – en route to Lamu – Gujerati interlude

It’s January 28, midnight, and I am finally setting off for Africa and the island of Lamu off the coast of northern Kenya. Mysteriously my flight from Colombo to Nairobi only costs £220 which makes it super-tempting to make this journey every year. Thanks, AirArabia!

The Colombo-Sharjah leg is dull and cramped and I’m stacked next to a Brugelesque couple who are shaped and dressed exactly like Russian dolls. The next leg – Sharjah to Nairobi – is much more promising. It’s peak wedding season in Gujerat right now and my flight is full of people coming back from exhausting festivities in the mother country. Lovely Chandni Patel is kind enough to tell me all about her own wedding and shows me lots of pics.

Chandni’s marriage was arranged but it morphed into a love match after an intense six months wooing via the usual channels -  ie facebook and WhatsApp. Now I love parties but I'm not sure I could handle a Gujerati wedding. They're are in a class of their own: hard-core endurance tests that involve a full six days of eating, drinking, dancing and performing elaborate marriage rituals. No wonder everyone on my flight looks absolutely knackered.

Here’s the schedule:
Day 1 – Meet and Greet
Day 2 – Disco
Day 3 – Gujerati dances
Day 4 – eight hours of putting on henna
Day 5 – resting (phew)

On Day 6 everyone pulls an all-nighter and the bridal couple engage in a series of elaborate and complicated rituals. These include a photo shoot, dancing round a fire and making vows, the bride’s parents washing the groom’s legs, looking for wedding rings in a bowl of milk and (my personal favourite) a game in which the groom’s parents tie the couple’s hands together with thread and then the couple have to unravel it one-handed.

There is also the all-important covering-yourself-in-turmeric ritual without which no Gujerati wedding is complete. Literally so, because if you miss out on turmeric daubing, you’re not even technically married. There is no alcohol, no kissing until Day 7 and the bride wears a different outfit every day; the whole thing costs hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Chandni says it’s a shame she can’t wear her dress again. I suggest she adapts it as it’s pretty nice – no, she says, she has to be buried in it. Cheerful thought.