I have found a heaven on earth. The water is lovely and refreshing, the people kind, and the food delicious. The only drawback is that it’s hotter than hell. I’m in Lamu, an island off the northern coast of Kenya near to the Somali border. Established in the late 1300′s it was a trading port with it’s heyday being in the 1500′s and 1600′s and has large Islamic community.
For me, walking around the town is like stepping back in time. It seems the only things that have changed are the shop signs and the men’s modern, if aged, clothes. The women are resplendent in their black flowing robes with faces covered, only their eyes peering out, unreadable. They could be smiling or sneering, I really can’t tell at all. All I can think of is that they must be seriously hot under all those clothes. However, the glee in which the children greet me, the muzungu ["white person" in Bantu], is patently obvious. They squeal and scream, “Jambo!” [hello] and alternately run away laughing or grab my hand like I’m their best friend. One boy in particular has taken quite a liking to me and grabs my hand and looks up to me as if saying, “So where to now?”
Where to? Walking the alleyways and corridors of Lamu is like walking a labyrinth. The lanes twist, the gutters are on one side of the path now, then cross over to follow along the other side. Buildings are white and made of stone or coral and built close together. It can feel slightly claustrophobic but it smartly shields the pedestrian from the harsh sun as Lamu is close to the equator. Passageways are sometimes covered and when night falls navigation is challenging to say the least. The women in black robes flit through the alleys like shadows and disappear into the night no sooner than they have passed me. The men are kind here and even the sternest old men will greet me with a “Jambo” and a smile whenever I pass.
Crime is almost unheard of as it’s a very small town and the thief could rest assured that someone knows his mother and she will surely kill him for any disgrace he brings on the family. Lamu is a fantastically safe place for a traveler and one only has to be concerned about the boat boys who try to sell dhow rides. It seems that everyone is a captain here and they can be persistent. However, it is no more than any other beach town and they back down quickly, more interested in hanging out with each other and watching the day pass than making me uncomfortable with inquiries — but the interactions can make me hungry.
Fortunately, the food in Lamu is divine! Fresh fish, monster crab, lobster, massive prawns, all of this is available for around $10. When it’s covered in coconut tamarind Swahili sauce I found myself wooing the seafood before eating it. Talking to it, thanking the fish for it’s sacrifice, maybe even giving it a little kiss before it goes into my mouth. It’s just that good — and so are the drinks. The juices are fantastic! Since alcohol is a no-no, Muslims go nuts with their juices. Every morning I woke up thinking of which restaurants I wanted to try that day and went to bed with my thoughts swimming in juice and Swahili sauce.
In the morning, the call to prayer wakes me. It echoes throughout the day bouncing back and forth off the buildings and it seems the imams duel for their flock’s attention as one imam starts a bit early and one starts a bit late. It’s a nice soundtrack to the day and evening and soon the morning call doesn’t wake me at all — I don’t quite know how I manage this as I’m staying right next to a mosque. Thank Allah for the Zzzz’s, I haven’t slept this well in years.
Tin Wornom is an avid traveler and funds her adventures by dressing people and shopping for clothes for commercials. She enjoys markets, exotic food, and kicking butt (she’s a krav maga enthusiast). She’s a backpacker but also enjoys the finer things (but only if they accept credit cards). Her goal is to go to every country and territory in the world, conquering one place at a time.
Photos by MysteryBee and Tin Wornom