Saturday, December 30, 2006

Back to the 17th Century

After all our safaris, we headed for Lamu which is an island off the eastern coast of Kenya, on the Indian Ocean. Our plan was comfort and relaxation in a very laid back atmosphere. Once again, we hopscotched our way across the Maasai Mara. After a few flights on the safari shuttle we knew that punctuality was a pipe dream. However, we weren't worried since our reservations had ample time between the flights from Nairobi to Lamu.
Little did we know that the safari company had changed our connection to an earlier flight. Upon arriving in Nairobi, the airlines told us that we had missed our flight and there would be another flight just for us within a few minutes. We were a bit dubious but sure enough, within an hour, a 4 seater Cessna 310 whipped around in front of the terminal. We looked at each other, shrugged and picked up our backpacks. By this time we figured we had taken most every form of transportation imagineable. Rick and Carol loved it, but Edith's stomach was roiling after the storm ridden trip. It was only afterwards that Rick said he was a bit alarmed and concerned when the pilot had no choice but to fly us straight through a hail storm. Considering that we took 22 flights with all their numerous connections, amazingly this flight and the 'bird in the engine' flight from Nairobi to Rwanda were the only snafus we encountered on the entire world trip.

What a change Lamu was! After landing on the teeny tiny airstrip at Lamu, we walked straight to a dock and boarded a dhow (wooden sailboat of ancient Lamu design) which had been sent by the Hotel Peponi to pick us up . We did feel special, but actually it was the only option. Lamu is accessible only by boat and once you get there, the only means of transportation is by dhow, donkey or on foot. There are no cars. The islanders use donkeys to transport goods around the island and you have to wait until low tide to walk to town or the length of the island.

The islanders are largely Islamic and little has changed since it was settled 500 years ago by the Swahili, Turks and Arabs as a port of call. In the 14th century, Lamu was established as a Swahili trading post and became an important landmark on the Northern sea trade route, exporting timber, ivory, amber, spices and slaves. Originating from the intermarriage of Arab and African people, the new culture, Swahili, came from the Arabic word sahil for coast. Lamu is considered one of the great centers of Swahili culture. The traditional Islamic dress in Lamu is the kanzu (robe) and kofia (embroidered hat) for men and full length bui bui for women, both ideal for staying cool in the heat.

If not in traditional Islamic clothes, men and women wear skirts called kikoys and khangas which are beautiful square cloths tied around the waist, though the print on the men's kikoys are stripes or plaids and the women's have more varieties. The kikoy is a bright, usually striped, cloth with knotted tassles along each hem. The khanga is larger, more elaborately patterned and traditionally emblazoned with a Swahili proverb offering a pearl of conventional wisdom.. They also secure them differently. Of course, we bought some and were shown how to wear them - now if only we can remember when we get back.

The architecture of the old Lamu town is very beautiful with buildings made out of coral stone (dug from the earth, not the ocean) and mangrove timber. The doors and windows are elaborately carved wood with ancient designs and inside are courtyards and rooms with exquisite plaster niches of various shapes. The streets are very small, many have only enough room for two donkeys to pass. In fact Rick said this is a town where you can never look up because you are on constant watch not to step in donkey doo. In town there are still two daily markets - vegetables and meat and the town closes down from 12-4 for lunch and siesta so you need to get your shopping in early. One can definitely get lost among the labyrinth of stone streets so we hired a guide for our first day in Lamu and did the town before walking back to the hotel. Everyone on the island is quite friendly and easy going.

On our first evening in Lamu, we met James Christian and Kerry Glen, a couple who conducts private tours and safaris in Africa. They were leading a great group of Harvard classmates on a tour through Kenya and had just finished a 4 day sail on a dhow. It was quite interesting talking to them as we learned a little about their life in Kenya and their company. James grew up in Boston, but his mother is from Kenya. He and his wife Kerry have settled outside of Nairobi. They told us the story of how they helped one of their employees get a cow so that he could get married. Subsequently they were asked to attend the circumcision ceremony - both male and female. Of course only males can attend a male circumcision and vice versa. James and Kerry tried to stay at the back of the room, but as guests, they were asked to come to the front. No pain numbing medication is used and the child can show no emotion or their family is ostracized and must move from the village. As someone who is from 12 to 15 years of age, can you imagine?! See their website at It might be an interesting way to go on safari by camel or cruise the Kenyan coast on a dhow.

The heat in Lamu was unbelievable. Since there is hardly any electricity (everything runs off of small diesel generators), there is no air conditioning so we were either taking showers about 3 times a day or enjoying frequent dips in the pool. The mosquitos were quite bad at night since there was no glass in the windows. Nets were provided on the beds and we used them. We now understand the thinking behind the kikoy - it is much cooler than a pair of pants. The Peponi is a lovely hotel in Shela, about a forty minute walk from Old Town. It sits right on the Indian Ocean and seems to be the local night spot on the island. Everyone knows everyone else there, and it is peaceful and crime-free because they are all one extended family - or about 10 families. Everywhere we went the locals wlecomed us and offered to take us on tour or boat rides - in fact, they would often join us on our walks and show us the shortest way around the island or even sit with us at dinner if we showed the slightest encouragement. Many of the young men were quite taken with Carol and would call for her outside her room asking her to go windsailing or on a sunset cruise.

One afternoon, Carol met two great guys from Sidney, Australia. It turned out that Trent and Tony had rented a home from Princess Caroline - yes, we said Princess Caroline, the Princess Caroline. We ended up taking a tour of the house Trent and Tony were staying in and two other houses that belonged to Princess Caroline. They were all elegantly simple, quite beautiful and particularly reasonably priced during the off season. So if you are thinking of going to Lamu - it's a great option.

One evening we took a dhow to see the sunset. Carol had met Ahmed and he offered to take us on a cruise on his boat. He had bought his boat about 2 years ago and was working very hard with his brother to help support his mother and siblings. The sunset was quite beautiful and peaceful. Carol even steered the boat as we went around the end of the island. A great way to start the evening and to cool off as the breezes picked up on the ocean.

Food on Lamu was great. We thoroughly enjoyed the meals at the Peponi, especially all the fresh seafood. One evening we tried something different - we had a Swahili dinner on a rooftop in the open air sitting on mats. It was quite romantic and primitive with all the stars and black night and the Swahili food was absolutely delicious.

We also had a great time shopping. Edith found some necklaces made of old trade beads and Carol bought several beaded necklaces and some wonderful earrings. We also bought the cutest beaded sandals. Gallery Baraka was our favorite place!

Also we called Jony Waite to ask her to have lunch with us, but alas she was on holiday in Nairobe. Edith would have really loved meeting her especially since reading about her loves and life being that Edith is half Japanese and Jony has such an affinity with Japan - kindred spirits. Next time!

After our wonderful respite in Lamu (highly recommended for those who love laid back vacations in an exotic place), we headed back to Nairobi before departing to South Africa. We spent one day exploring Nairobi. Here we did some last minute shopping and got a few tourist stops. Carol was dying to go to the Karen Blixen house - you know, the author of "Out of Africa". The story is based largely on her life where she married a cousin who was a baron and moved to Nairobi to start a coffee plantation. She was largely unsuccessful as the environment was not suited for coffee trees, but ended up falling in love with a pilot. Her husband was unfaithful from the start since it was a marriage of convenience and she divorced him. Of course, like the book, her love dies in an airplane crash. However in real life, Blixen did a lot to help the Kenyan people with medicine and schools and is highly revered in Nairobi. She wrote 9 novels under various pen names such as Isak Denisen and was quite an independent woman of her time.

Also we visited the Rothchild Giraffe Center where we saw the endangered Rothchild giraffes. This center rescues the giraffes and returns them to the wild when possible. First we had our pictures taken with Charlie, the warthog. Carol and Edith were quite taken with warthogs on our safari. They kneel on the ground when feeding, are so cute as babies and run through the grasslands mostly hidden except for their tails which stick straight up when they are running. It is quite funny to see this lone tail moving across the tall grass plains. However, the one thing about Charlie is that all the females reject him because he is too fat and heavy to mate with them. So much for good living and getting all the treats from the tourists. The giraffes were quite funny. Six year old Bettye was rescued from Uganda after Idi Amin issued orders to his troops to use giraffes as target practice. Bettye shows no signs of trauma and is quite the ham. We fed Bettye and Kelly and were even kissed by them. What a way to end our trip in Nairobi!