Sunday, June 15, 2008

African Adventure: Lamu Part 1: Meeting a friend, 16th century ruins,and a beach boy who couldn't tell the truth. (May 8-10)

Current Location: Lamu Island, Kenya. Highlights: Bumping into a friend we met in Malawi, visiting ancient Arabic ruins on Manda Island, exploring the fascinating Old Town of Lamu and trying to arrange a three day voyage on a sailing to explore the Lamu archipelago.
Upcoming: Part 2: A three day sailing voyage, exploring Lamu, Flamingos on L. Bogoria, and a week in the bush with Masai worriers (hopefully).

Although we only spent about a week on Lamu, it was such a diverse
experience and so much happened, so I'm going to split it into three
parts. Part one is about our first few days exploring the town, trying to arrange a sailing trip and visiting some ancient ruins. Part 2 will be all about our three day sailing voyage on a wooden sailing dhow that have been used on these waters for centuries to visit other Islands, and Part 3 is about our donkey ride on Lamus laziest donkeys, experiencing a traditional Swahili meal cooked using traditional methods, and will conclude our brush with the very dishonest beach-boy . So fasten your seat belts, relax, open
your mind, and try to let your imagination drift backwards in time and conjure up visions of an ancient Muslim settlement with roots that date back to the 14th century...

Lamu is one island in an archipelago just off Kenya's northern coast, not far from the border with Somalia. Most of the islands have been inhabited for varying periods since the 14th century when they were discovered by Arabs from the middle east. The Swahili Muslim culture is still very traditional and you can clearly see the blend of interior African with Arabic cultures in the look of the people, the buildings, and their way of life. This time of year is the low season as its the time of rain, so there are not too many white visitors on Lamu.

As soon as our ferry arrived on Lamu everyone scurried off onto the pier on the waterfront of the Old Town whose first buildings were started in the 16th century. Made form coral "rag" which consists of blocks of old coral dug from the ground which was once below sea level, and mangrove poles cut from the extensive mangrove forest that border the islands, the architecture is Arabic and a Portuguese influence. The streets are narrow designed for donkeys and people and carts, not motor vehicles (there is one car and one tractor on Lamu which drive the waterfront road only). As the only white people on the boat we stood out among the women dressed in their black robes (called a bui-bui I think) with only their eyes showing,
and men wearing the Muslim caps and wraps that look like a skirt, and where immediately a target for the beach boys. Now beach-boys is a term used to refer to a younger generation of westernized men who make their living off of tourists. They will lead you to a hotel and collect a commission from the hotel owner, or arrange a trip such a ride on a sailing dhow or donkeys again for a commission. A beach-boy called Jamba (which is in fact Swahili for "fart") was the first beach-boy to get to us. We were tired and it was raining and we just wanted to find a cheap hotel room to dump our heavy bags and have something to eat and not really in the mood for pushy beach-boys. But we followed him to a close by hotel through the maze of narrow streets. The hotel manger showed us a double room and we negotiated the price to 500 KSH (about US$7 between us), down
from 700 KSH, but he said we needed to stay in a different room to the one he showed us. We went through our usual security check of the room checking locks, windows, and bars to make sure it was secure, but found that the door lock was useless and could be opened by any key. We told the manager and he said that he would ask for someone to fix it. We politely declined this solution and asked for a different room but were then quoted ridiculously high prices even for single rooms, so we left. I got the feeling that we were being given this room as a set up so we could be robbed after we left our room alone.

We went back to the seafront and again were pestered by beach-boys which we just ignored, but then we heard a voice call after us and say "hey, you guys with the Land Rover". How could anyone know we had a Land Rover? It turned out to be a guy called Jamile who we had met in Malawi, a really nice guy who had spent the past three years building a resort in Malawi and had just now returned home to Lamu. It was nice to see a familiar face among the annoying beach-boys, so we sat down in a cafe and caught up on news. We then found a hotel called Pole Pole (which means slowly slowly) and dropped off our bags in a room we could lock using our own pad locks. Jamile gave us a quick tour of the Old Town and we had an early night after a long day.

Before I continue, let me just digress and fill you in a little bit on the beach-boys. They are usually very polite and will always come up to you with a smile and say "Jambo" (= hello), "how are you my friend" and extend their hand for a handshake. They then strike up a conversation and ask where you are from and how you are enjoying your visit so far, and often adopt names like Stingray, Vampire, Passion... Then they will start the sales pitch, "so my friend, would you like to join us for a sailing trip tomorrow", or a donkey ride, or a tour of the town, or see my craft stall, or go fishing etc. In fact anything they think to make some money from you. They will almost invariably claim to own their own dhows and be the
captain, or to make the crafts they show you, or that one of their
relatives owns the restaurant they lead you towards. This is almost always untrue as they usually seldom have money for dinner that night, let alone enough to buy a dhow. In the low season, the white person (mzungu), is a rare commodity so you are pestered considerably by the beach-boys, probably every 15 mins on the seafront and it can really get you down as your privacy is completely ignored, they have no problem interrupting your
conversations, and generally its just a drain on your energy as they are so persistent. We generally ignore anyone who calls "Jambo my friend" and just walk past, but when you are sitting down, they just flock around you almost like mosquitoes you can't swat!

We spent the next day looking around the town of Lamu guided by Jamile and settling in to get a feel for this remarkable town. In the evening we searched the "main" street for cheap food which was in abundance: meat cooked on little charcoal grills, falafel like treats, fried cassava and potatoes, and delicious varieties of tea and lots more besides. Nothing was over 10 KSH (15 cents). It is a very safe place and we walked the narrow dark street at night with cameras. It was actually quite exciting to walk the dark streets at night so see someone come charging down on a donkey, or to see the mysteries silhouette of a woman fully dressed in black emerge from a doorway and disappear down a narrow side street. Just about everyone on Lamu referred to the women who were dressed in black to cover themselves as "ninjas". At first I thought this was derogatory and
didn't use the term, but as one woman said to me when I questioned her if this was derogatory "no, because we are ninjas". So I will refer to the women dressed in black as ninjas just as the people the Lamu do.

The next morning we got up and wanted to try and arrange a sailing dhow trip to visit the other islands. We couldn't find Jamile, but ran into a guy called Ali who was full of chat and said he was a captain, owned his own dhow, and had a license to do business with tourists. He even showed us a boat he said was his and took us back to his house to met his wife.

(But you must remember one thing, once you have read the paragraph above on the beach-boys, you are in fact wiser than we were at this point in some respects as we had to learn about beach-boys the hard way through experience.) So we arranged to meet Ali at 7 am the next morning on the beach front to start our trip. We were going to sail north to the island of Kiwayu, then further north to a town on the mainland at the border with Somalia, then to come south back to Lamu via the Island of Pate. En route we would go fishing, snorkeling, and hang out on deserted beaches. Sounds pretty nice eh? We gave Ali a deposit of 800 KSH to buy food and told him we would see him the next morning. We spent the rest of the day in different cafes drinking mango milkshakes and sampling the local food as it was raining hard, and in the evening met up with Jamile.

Early the next morning we woke up, packed, and went down to the sea front to meet Ali. He showed up about 10 mins late and said there was a problem. He explained that his crew member was sick and that he would need to cancel the trip until tomorrow. We were obviously disappointed and somewhat irritated as we now had a day of down-time, but Ali promised everything would fine tomorrow. We then bumped into two women from Ireland who had just been stood up by a dhow captain they had arranged to visit the Takwa Ruins on neighboring Manda Island, so we all decided to search for another captain who could take us over to the ruins and came across
Captain Swali on the dhow Peaceful Villa. We agreed on a price of 250 KSH each (US$3.50) and set off. Sailing on the dhows is great fun. These incredible boats are build from only 5 things: wood (mangroves and mahogany), large nails, rope, a cotton sail, and cotton fibbers stuffed between the wood to seal the holes, and that's it. They must have been built this way for centuries and have sailed these waters since the 14th century if not earlier. We spent the morning at the Takwa Ruins, an ancient Swahili settlement built in the 16th century and abandoned in the late 17th century as the freshwater supply turned salty and because of endless fighting from the people on Pate Island. Our guide was actually terrible and probably only spoke about 5 sentences in poor English before
leaving us which was a shame as we were all keen to learn more of the history. After the ruins we sailed round to a beach and went swimming in the warm water where I got stung twice by jellyfish, and then we headed back to Lamu as Captain Swali and his crew of 2 sung Swahili songs.

The next morning we packed our bags again and waited for Ali as agreed. He showed up half an hour late and started to tell us that there was problem with his crew again. He said that his crew member decided to go on strike as he was not making enough money so he would have to postpone the trip again. I was getting fed up with this, so asked for our money back. Ali said that he only had 700 KSH of the 800 KSH we gave him, but would give us the other 100 KSH back later. I really didn't trust him now as the previous day we heard that he didn't own his own boat, that he had been asking other captains if they could take us, and even offered to take a
couple from Norway on a trip. I demanded all of our money back within 30 mins or I would go to the Police. While Ali ran off to get our money, we discussed options. This would mean other day of down-time and money spent staying on Lamu and we really wanted to go on a dhow trip! When Ali got back, he said that he had found a captain who would take us, but it would be more expensive than the price he gave us. Although reluctant to have any further interaction with Ali, we decided to go with the other captain on a small dhow called "Jamilla". Ali said that he was going along with us
as crew, we paid some more money, and he scurried off to buy food. When the dhow was ready and the food aboard, we walked out in shallow water and got on with our bags. Just then another guy showed up and Ali quickly said that he couldn't go, but that we would be fine with the captain and this new crew member and he left as we pushed off. It turns out that these two guys, although very nice, hardly spoke English and communication would prove to be very difficult, especially as Ali completely lied to everyone!

In Part 2 find out how we did three days on the open sea where we battled high waves, cooked on an open fire right in the boat, and slept in a tree house.

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