The Heaven of Lamu, Kenya

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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

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Author: Tin Wornom

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11 Comments

  1. You are a western woman traveling alone? How did you get there, meaning to what city did you fly and how did you travel from there?

    Thanks for any info.

    Aysha

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    • hi there! yes, i’m an american woman traveling alone. i flew into nairobi, kenya and out of dar es salaam, tanzania and i spent 2 months kicking around east africa. i found that it was really safe for women. i actually met more women traveling alone than men! getting around is easy, busses run all the time but some of the roads are bad (ok, most of the roads are bad). to get to lamu from nairobi you can take a bus or train to mombasa. by bus it takes about 8-9 hours. from mombasa take a bus up the coast to lamu (there’s loads of them) and that takes about 5-6 hours. then at the lamu station, you take a ferry to lamu, about 45 minutes. or you can just fly to lamu from nairobi! but if you want to see the countryside the bus is totally worth it! if you want more info, just ask me! you should go, it’s gooorgeous!

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      • Hi!
        I’m thinking of doing a trip to Lamu, and if I do, I wonder how the bustrip was, and if there are some buscompanies you will recommend? (Mombasa-Lamu). Do you have some guesthouses in Lamu you can recommend as well?

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  2. i really like your descriptive type of telling things, humorous but still informative. “thoughts swimming in Swahili sauce” made me try to find out how to make that coconut tamarind concoction! Sounds good!!

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  3. Wow! We sure have different perspectives of Lamu, however I do agree with you about the temperature. I don’t think I’ve ever run for shade faster than on the island of Lamu. I found the city itself stiffling and dirty but agree with you about the people—lovely. Maybe I should have stayed the night to get a better take on the city.

    We toured Lamu after we ‘safaried’ with Bill Winters Safari in Kenya.

    Shawn Underwood

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    • yeah, it was HOT! next time stay a bit longer in lamu. i was there for 6 nights and it gets better with every passing day. the boat boys stop hassling you and you get to know the locals more. and you get to try more restaurants! i ate my way around that place! as for the dirt factor, it’s a bit dirty there but once you get used to dodging donkey poo it’s no filthier than most towns i’ve been to. hope you can get back there one day! and to zanzibar!

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  4. Does it ever look hot, in that photo of the market it looks like the humidity has it steaming!

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  5. Four years ago my Wife Anne and I visited Lamu for a day and yes it is as hot as hell’s fire there, but don;t let that put anyone off. It as a place not to be missed. Visit the donkey hospital which is run by a charity from Devon.
    Our visit was arranged from a two night stay at the Kipini safari Lodge in the north of Kenya. The safari really was something different. We travelled up the Tana river which is the second longest river in Kenya. It was a fabulous journey, especially for the birds, not to mention the tribesmen who watched us go by from the adjacent forest and appeared very friendly and waved to us as we went by. This trip culminated with a most marvelous meal on the river bank with hippos watching us from nearby but not posing any more danger than the tribesmen herders who were distantly friendly until we wanted to take photos of them to which they non aggressively objected. If anyone wishes to know more then my email is: tedshoeness@hotmail.net.

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  6. Hey Tin, how many countries have you visited? I am formulating a similar goal to travel to a) all the continents. I have Antartica & Australia left but thought about trying for the country one as well. That is a bit tougher to do! Any suggestions?

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    • hey reggie! i have been to 82 out of 319 countries and territories. i like the traveler century club list as i feel it’s more comprehensive than just the straight up country list. you have to work harder for it! it’s hard but so rewarding. i try to go to a different continent or region each trip i make so i’m always switching it up. there are some which will be challenging but really, it’s all just a matter of timing. 15 years ago i couldn’t have gone to rwanda, now it’s safe as houses. right now afghanistan is out of the question, in 15 years, who knows? it’s timing. you should definitely do the country list! it’s an extravagant goal but it’s sooo much fun trying! and if i don’t make it to all the countries, so what. it’s amazing just to have the goal and to try to accomplish it! i also organize it but expensive countries and cheap countries. i’ll go to one expensive place a year (like tonga or africa) and balance it out with cheaper places (colombia, thailand, guatemala). that makes it easier to budget for trips too! hope this helps with your aspirations! happy travels to you!
      tin

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