33 hours after leaving Kampala we arrived in Lamu cranky, exhausted and rattled to the bone. Fortunately we had a nice place to stay courtesy of Nikki’s professor, and dropping our bags in his kitchen we felt an instant wave of relief.
On the northern coast of Kenya, Lamu embodies traditional swahili culture, and stepping onto the island is almost like stepping into a different world. Donkey’s bray, men call out to each other in Kiswahili, Arabic and English, trading and inviting you into their shop with a genuine smile and a welcoming hello. Traditional Swahili homes covered in coral, stone and white plaster form two story walls that shelter passersby in the shade and bathe them in geometric patterns of sunlight. We had never been to Lamu before, but we felt comfortable, like we were at home.
Immediately having felt so welcomed, we weren’t surprised when we were approached by Ali Hippy, an infamous presence to tourists on the island. As he always notes, he is listed in that dreaded guidebook- lonely planet. Inviting us to his home for a traditional swahili meal, for a price of course, and some entertainment, we hesitantly agreed and forked over our cash for a meal the next evening. Sure enough, he took us to the “coconut beach” where his family lived and where we found a multi-course seafood buffet prepared. Small dishes of lobster, prawns and chapati, tuna and coconut rice delighted our tastebuds. As the meal wound down and Ali Hippy started to sing, the neighborhood children wandered in to join. Full of music and the scent of swahili food, the evening was a delight and we walked home that night with fully bellies and happy hearts.
Enchanted by the atmosphere and the island around us we spent our time in Lamu wandering the maze of streets, exploring the beaches and getting to know our neighbors. The silversmith who lived next door made jewelry out of old pottery that often washes up on shore, leaving us with an empty wallet and a jewelry box full of beautiful pieces. We shared fruit with our neighbors and curious about the food we had eaten at Ali Hippy’s wrote down recipes from the home’s care taker. With him we shared delicious red snapper, happy conversation and many laughs. Every time Danny would return from the market the care taker would ask how much Danny had paid for whatever item. Inevitably this became a joke, with Danny consistently paying nearly double the local price, until one afternoon when Danny produced what he thought was a bag of peanuts. To his chagrin the rest of us immediately recognized a bag of beans, not peanuts. Laughing, Danny asked how much the bag of beans should cost. To his surprise, we were told 40 shillings. Danny had only paid 35. It was a victory, if his only one.
Lamu and its surrounding islands were important trading posts on the Indian Ocean trade route, giving rise a few centuries ago to a Swahili trading empire along the coast of present day Kenya and Tanzania. Trading ivory, mangrove wood, and slaves, Lamu flourished as a trading center in19th century drawing Arab, Indian and even East Asian traders to its shores. Surviving from the height of its prominence in the 19th century are intricately carved doors and furniture,the patterns of which are still replicated today in jewelry boxes, door frames, furniture, and even board games. We were in awe of the beautiful wood carvings, so much so that we had a special boa board crafted for us by a neighborhood carpenter.
Like Zanzibar, Lamu’s mix of cultures survives today, giving the place an air of exoticness. Sailing through mangroves towards Swahili ruins on a nearby island, I felt like we were in a secret world. Completely alone at the Takwa ruins, not a single other tourist in sight, we explored the ancient coral structures and sat for a long time on the beach watching pink crabs scurry about. It was practically perfect, a blissful place removed from the chaos of our world.
It is hard to top off a visit like ours to Lamu. For our last evening in Lamu, we were invited to the home of Nikki’s professors friend, a local born and raised in Lamu. Having spent a fun afternoon with his wife and two small children at the Takwa ruins, we were looking forward to an evening with the whole family. Over a delicious spread of stews, prawns, rices, cakes, beans and tamarine juice (a new favorite!) we discussed ideas, politics and the world. Sharing our ideas, perspectives and experiences was a wonderful cultural experience, which further reinforced that we are all the same, same, but different. It is a memory we will always treasure from a place it will be hard to forget.