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