An Adventure In Lamu, The African Island You’ve Never Heard Of


“Lamu’s not that far — it’s just a bit north of here,” I explained to Lori as if I knew what the hell I was talking about. Up until a month before, I’d never even heard of the secluded island once referred to as “the black hole of laidbackness” thanks to the hippies and artists who’d infiltrated the African hideaway back in the ‘60s.

“You can’t fly off on your own!” she yelled. “It’s too dangerous!”

“Sure I can,” I assured her. “Trust me. No one’ll even miss me.”

At the beginning of our three-week safari throughout Kenya and Tanzania, Lori and I were assigned together as roommates by the travel company on account of our being the youngest out of 30 travelers, not because we were BFFs. I hardly knew her. Jeez, by her reaction you’d have thought I’d renounced my citizenship to stay and live naked amongst baboons or something.

The year was 1987 — the decade of big hair and decadence. We’d been schlepping around en masse for weeks and, on that day, our group’s activity was to visit an open market then return to Mombasa for yet another buffet feast. Fruit-gazing just doesn’t do it for me, in Kenya, or anywhere else for that matter, so I had decided to break free and see what revelatory powers Lamu had to satisfy my 20-something curiosity. And besides, our strict itinerary reminded me of a Prix Fixe menu’s limitations — for one set price, you’ll eat what we’re serving, when we say so, or go hungry. I wanted to order something “off the menu” for a change.

“What should I tell Hans?” Lori whispered as if saying his name too loudly might conjure up bad spirits. “He’ll forbid you to go.”

Hans happened to be our stern, Danish tour guide who I’m pretty sure hoped I’d catch Dengue fever and die. Everyone on the tour couldn’t have been nicer, and I certainly meant no disrespect by my need to exclude myself at any opportunity, but I think Hans kind of hated me for being the “Anti-joiner.” I sensed his loathing after I’d snuck off during a bathroom break at the Chania Falls when the game drives first began. He’d glanced down at his watch, then back at me with real condemnation (probably because I’d smoked a cigarette and downed a Tusker beer before breakfast). After that incident, he’d “accidentally” omit me from the day’s rotating seat assignment. I’d often end up bouncing around in the back of the bus where the seat’s worn-out springs had sprung to epic recoil. It was nauseating. Lori nicknamed it “the trampoline.”

“Just tell him…whatever! Who knows? Maybe I’ll disappear,” I joked. “He’ll probably be thrilled.”

Lori shook her head seemingly displeased by my decision to a) ditch the group without clearing it with our leader and, b) jet off unaccompanied to a teeny, smidge of an island without cars. But, most baffling of all to her was probably why in the hell I was outfitted as a cast member from the award-winning film Out of Africa? I’ll admit the captivating flick not only inspired me to visit Isak Dinesen’s real home outside of Nairobi and dream of becoming a writer, but the movie’s period costumes must have prompted some sort of bullshit pretense in me to try and look the part of the author as well. So, yes, if you squinted hard enough, I might have passed as Baroness Blixen’s shoddy relation in a white muslin maxi dress I’d mail-ordered through Banana Republic back when the store’s garments were designed for off-the-beaten-path adventurers with its cool catalogue filled with treasure maps, steamer trunks, and an abundance of khaki and canvas. Upon my head sat a straw boater hat I’d recently purchased in London to complete the impersonation. My answer to the unflattering pith helmet, I guess.

The hotel concierge in Mombasa arranged for my flight and a private tour guide to escort me around Lamu on foot (as the only method of transportation there was either bicycle or beast). Also, included in the day trip was “a leisurely lunch at a seaside restaurant and an afternoon cruise on an authentic dhow.” I wasn’t really sure what that meant exactly, but didn’t really care as the low-key, do as I damn-well please excursion sounded like bliss on a stick.

I stared at the non-English-speaking pilot who motioned for me to sit beside him in a plane so tiny the instrument panel compared to that of a mid-size automobile’s interior. Seriously, it was like a Toyota with wings. Then, three male French backpackers arrived and tucked themselves in like folding chaises. The grungy trio did not take their seats (because there weren’t any) and instead crouched down on the cabin floor exposing their tanned legs plus the bonus visual aversion to sporting boxers or briefs underneath their shorts. Bonjour, Messieurs.

In no time, the plane touched down on the isle of Manda and soon we were directed onto a small boat made out of kindling. The lithe skipper huffed and puffed while steering his oars through jerky waters to the brink of an asthmatic attack. I’m not sure which was worse, the sight of the cutest dude’s failure to conceal his sea-sickness, or the amount of ass-splinters I accrued from the vessel’s fine attempt to capsize. In this case, it was literally a toss-up.

Once we finally reached Lamu, a bastardly breeze snatched that bonnet right off my head and I watched part of my new persona haul ass down a dirt road as if being chased by wild dogs. Deeply saddened over the loss (and now sporting major hat-hair), I followed about fifty yards behind the others when, out of the wistful air, an unusual voice called out.

“You must be my client because… I found your hat,” said a podgy man in baggy, black trousers that were about six-inches too long for him. He clutched the brim with childlike pride, shifting his weight from side to side, then sort of bowed before me with his arms extended.

“Oh, thank you!” I shouted. “Thank you so much.”

Jeez, Lamu seemed pretty psychedelic already, I thought.

“I am Mohammed,” he said with a thin smile. “Come. Please.”

I learned quickly that he was born “somewhere in the middle of nine children.” His eyes were as dark as espresso with weathered skin to match. What a pair we must have been, lily-white me towering at least a foot taller over him, shrouded in the hopeful disguise to be somebody else and him in what very well may have been another man’s clothes as well.

Mohammed led me to a majestic structure where scads of chanting men, each one kneeling and bowing like mad, crooned verses in a strange language. I’d never seen a mosque in person before, or ever visited a place where kicking one’s shoes off and pressing one’s forehead to the ground was the official way to pray. It felt kind of wrong to be penetrating their sacred space; forbidden. Kind of like the time in high school when all the cheerleaders inadvertently broke into the wrong house while we were “kidnapping” one of the football players who, unbeknownst to us, lived on the next street. It’s a wonder we weren’t jailed for breaking and entering, but it’s kind of nice to know if I ever need to jimmy a lock somewhere I totally have a knack for that shit.

Mohammed tapped me on the shoulder and shifted his eyes sideways as a signal to leave. We ducked out quietly with the hum of gratefulness lingering long after we’d gone.

After locating the desolate, narrow alleys surrounded by high stony walls of Lamu town, some chickens pecking at the same stupid pebbles blocked our path, but luckily a man leading a donkey with fruit piled at an insane tilt angered the birds into a scatter.

“Would you like to buy a khanga?” Mohammed inquired.

“Sure,” I replied thinking it might be some kind of illegal pet worth smuggling home.

“This way,” he said guiding me down a slanted passageway so slim, I could practically hold my arms out and touch both sides.

The stones’ hue shone like pink tourmaline even in the shade. There weren’t any written signs above, below, or in between the surrounding rock. I didn’t notice any numbered markings or addresses either. I thought maybe he had to tally his paces to find his way around, like a blind person does. Just in case, I remained super-quiet so he wouldn’t lose count.

Entering an open doorway, long tables housing stacks of fabrics in every color combination soon clarified that a “khanga” was in no way against the law, but actually a sarong wrap garment made of cotton worn mostly by ladies and even some men.

“They’re all so beautiful. Which one do you like?” I asked my trusty guide, but before he could answer, an ear-piercing “OH, MY GAWD!” startled us both. There she stood, the same loud, bushy-haired woman who’d complimented the Irish linen dress I’d had on (the one with the hooks and eyes down the front I’d recently bought at a boutique on King’s Road), as we strolled through the Heathrow Airport terminal to catch our respective flights at least a month before, with five or six pieces of cloth draped over each arm. Her frizzy do had been swept up with frayed raffia, but it totally worked on her. She reminded me of a rich, New York fashion designer who only parties on yachts and collects vintage sunglasses just for the hell of it.

“Oh, my Gaaaawd!! What are the chances!?” she kept saying over and over like a mantra. Yeah, what were the odds that I’d bump into someone familiar on a minuscule island off the coast of Kenya in a back room of an unmarked khanga shop that had taken a dinky plane, a rickety boat and a maze of masonry to reach, about eight-hundred billion to one? Lamu was kind of freaking me out.

I glanced over at Mohammed to see if he was as stunned as I by the mysterious fluke. Perhaps he didn’t get how molecularly random it was or he had arranged for it to happen as part of the deal because he didn’t really seem all that surprised.

I sorted through the vibrant materials in an effort to choose the best pattern, but the woman pushed in and said, “You should have this one,” and handed me an indigo and sea-green tinted design. “I’ll even get it for you.” And, before I could refuse, she paid the vendor and was out the door in a rush to meet her husband back at the Peponi Hotel (which I would later discover is a favorite retreat amongst British celebs, royals and the like).

Before long, Mohammed and I approached what looked like someone’s humble abode that faced the whitest beach with sand the color of crushed pearls. I thought maybe he’d brought me home to meet his family and any second his much-taller brother would burst out half-nude and demand Mohammed return his only pair of trousers.

As we drew closer, the smoky scent of grilled cuisine overtook me and, I discovered a kick-ass brawl was probably not going to happen.

“This is where I leave you,” he said. “I will be back in one and half hours.”

I watched him disappear down the lane and missed him as soon as he’d vanished.

I took a seat next to a 40ish woman dining alone (the only other patron), and she introduced herself as “Mmmonika the Mmmissionary” with inflated alliteration the way a schoolteacher does unwittingly. Her German accent was as thick as the thatched roof above the outdoor eating area. I’d never met a working nun before, or even seen one in plain clothes. It made me a little nervous to think how she’d judge me if I confessed to blowing off my tour group without telling the man in charge and had come here to Lamu on a “wild hair” (one of my mother’s sayings when I do stupid things), all because a guy named John that I liked back home said I simply HAD to check out Lamu no matter what. Maybe Monika would phone the authorities and turn me in? Or better yet, have my disobedient ass flogged right over there next to that snoozing fisherman. But, I said nothing.

She and I gazed out across Lamu Bay in quiet contemplation like two scholars set to observe a slide show presentation on “How to Properly Observe the World’s Beauty in Complete and Utter Silence.”

“How would you pronounce that color in English, please?” Monika asked pointing at the horizon.

“I’m not really sure,” I replied. “Cornflower?” But I knew that wasn’t right. It may have been closer to cerulean or somewhere in the dusky-powder family.

“I have never seen a sky so blue,” Monika said in awe.

“Neither have I,” I answered truthfully.

I swear if there’s an Admirals Lounge in the afterlife for Cosmic Travelers, I’ll bet its walls are painted that celestial shade of Lamu blue. I’ll have to remember to check it out when I get there.

While I pondered which was prettier, the actual sky or its reflection spread over the satiny sea, a giant plate of fresh-caught lobster and drawn butter was placed before me. I cracked open the shell and bit into the steaming white meat, golden liquid oozing down my wrists, as Monika shared the details of her virtuous life working with a foreign aid organization. Together we marveled over a few new shades of rose, violet and grey we swore had never been glimpsed either by anyone alive or dead.

In time, Mohammed reappeared so I bid farewell to my pious friend and followed him down a winding trail onto an empty cove where two African sailors with broad smiles welcomed me aboard their dhow. It looked like something the Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea in. Secured to the top of the mast were sprigs of bougainvillea sort of like the floral cherry atop a slivered sundae.

Once I climbed aboard, the men prepared to push off and, after several minutes of sitting calmly and waiting for enough wind to raise the triangular sail to carry us away, we were moving. Coasting at a dawdling speed, the lovely view of Lamu from that distance reminded me of a scene inside a snow globe. Its beauty protected beneath an invisible dome, peaceful and untouched, until something comes along, breaks it wide-open, and all of its contents spill out.

Was it the humidity of the July heat, the aroma of the town, or the scent of the tropics that made Lamu unique? Was it the brilliance of the midday sky crying out for a nap, or the glare of the white-washed stone houses, the strong winds blowing off the ocean rustling the makuti roofs that looked so enchanting? Or maybe it was the Portuguese cannons perfectly aligned on the waterfront, the absence of automobiles, or the narrowness of the streets, the romantic architecture of galleries and harem rooms of the Patrician Stone Houses that all came together in splendiferous precision. John was going to get so lucky when I got home.

One of the men began to sing aloud, his chaste voice wrestling against the whistling wind, but thankfully winning out for my private concert.

“What is that?” I asked. My God, the haunting tune brought tears to my eyes.

“It’s a love song from Zanzibar,” he said.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to remember the melody, and certainly none of the Swahili lyrics, but at that moment it became the song of my life, the song I’d travelled so far to hear. Its significance moved me. Man, no wonder hippies flocked here in droves.

Suddenly, my body lurched forward and ricocheted against the bottom with a thud. My satchel and precious khanga also went flying off the seat as the captain, clinging to the mast pole, turned and laughingly stated, “Please, do not worry. All will be well.”

The boat had stopped moving which seemed altogether surreal. I looked back and saw yards of rippling foam had left white skid marks behind us.

For the crew, this was business as usual, but for me, a freak sandbar incident was not funny or in any way part of the package. My plane was set to leave in less than an hour and the windless launch had already postponed the time-frame allotted for my cruise. We were far from shore, and the only other dhows we’d passed were long out of sight. This was not good.

Watching the guys for what seemed like days try and will the boat into freeing itself, I remembered this little game in elementary school I loved to play where I’d spin the globe on my teacher’s desk and stop the turning sphere abruptly with my index finger and declare, “THIS is where I am going to end up someday.” Of course nine out of ten times I’d land smack in the middle of the “blue part” and demand a do-over in hopes of landing on a cool “green part.” This was kind of like that, only there wasn’t a plastic orb handy for one more whirl. No, it was just me and a couple of African dudes in loin cloths stranded somewhere south of the equator — shipwrecked — alone on the Indian Ocean.

I reckoned this was some kind of payback for my bratty behavior. If only I’d told Hans where I was going then maybe I wouldn’t be in a situation where I was about to be “knocked upside the head” which is yet another one of my mother’s charming sayings.

The men jumped over the side and swam toward the islet. With all their might, they grabbed onto the outer hull whilst fighting the surf, and kicked their feet. Still, the craft would not budge.

“Can you help us?” the commander pleaded.

Just as I stood up, ready to jump ship and plunge fully-clothed into the depths of the ocean deep, the dhow released itself and began to drift backwards. Both men heaved their lean bodies up and over the side of the boat like trained seals.

By the time we reached Lamu, I spied poor Mohammed sitting by the docks awaiting my return. He’d arranged for me to take a different flight, but mentioned I’d arrive later than expected. What a relief, I thought, as the tour was leaving for Samburu the next morning and if I missed that, then I’d really be in trouble.

Now back on Manda, I signed the guestbook near the runway, a registry of written thoughts from people who’d visited Lamu Island over the years. I wrote something like “I hope to come back again someday with someone I love.” I kind of felt guilty for not sharing the day, especially with John, and found myself kind of missing Lori and her worrisome ways, the chatter of the ladies at dinner time, and even their lively discussions about teacher strikes, who did or didn’t get tenure, or really important issues like how rough the toilet paper had been on safari.

Once inside the larger airplane, I spotted Monika in the back left seat reading quietly, looking rather angelic. I settled in across from her, the only other seat onboard. This plane seemed wider; better. Maybe it was for the best I’d been delayed. No co-piloting duties for me this return.

A man hopped in and prepared the engines for takeoff. I was half-hoping to turn around and see those French boys sitting crossed-legged behind me, nuts and all, but it was just us three.

I regaled Monika with my tale aboard the stubborn dhow that wouldn’t move and then, after we’d reached cruising altitude, that hideous, undeniable symptom usually reserved for acute drunks or flu victims emerged. The unmistakable “Clear the decks, I’m going to puke-my-sandals-up-through-my-intestines” urge which hit me faster than that dhow had come to a halt. Oh, the salivating-sensation behind the molars that invades your mouth, like tarantulas on your tongue. My forehead suddenly felt hosed down with perspiration. I’m guessing my skin was as white as my dress because I was losing consciousness fast.

My stomach swished back and forth like it was trying to churn butter or something. Oh man, I’ll bet it was the BUTTER! That slick, yellow, mother effing bowl of butter I’d been served at lunch and used to sop up what seemed like a seven-pound crustacean as though it was my last meal — ever.

Then, for some reason, I pictured that infamous scene in the movie Stand By Me when Gordy tells his buddies a campfire story he’d written about a kid named Davey Hogan who drinks a bottle of castor oil before a pie-eating contest (a retribution plot for all the evil jerks who’d called him Lard-Ass for being overweight), and after gorging himself on blueberry pies during the festivities, a thunderous noise like a runaway log truck alerts the audience that some major shit is about to go down. Once he blows chunks, the smell overtakes the crowd and every single participant and spectator barfs, too, and soon all are covered in slimy, purple spewage for the ultimate revenge, or as Gordy puts it, “a complete and total Barf-O-Rama.”

What if after losing my lunch in here the pilot passes out from the stench? Who’ll fly the plane? I may kill us all! I was skating on thin tailspin-territory here.

I turned toward Monika and with one lethal glance she could tell what was about to happen. She quickly rummaged through her sack then whipped out a clear plastic baggie and gave it to me. It was a miracle only a wise woman of the cloth could perform so selflessly. But, have you ever had to carry a see-through bag of your own vomit for several minutes whilst airborne inside a turbulent plane? It ain’t easy.

Monika stared out the window in silence, hopefully praying for my absolution. I sort of lay there melded into the seat, dazed, still weak from the release, in emptied, gutted shock.

The pilot must have heard the guttural upchuck and turned back in time to catch me holding the bag like I’d won the prize goldfish at a school fair with bits of turgid flesh morbidly visible, still warm to the touch.

After what seemed like ten years had passed, finally we arrived at the Mombasa airstrip upon blessed, flat, land. I was just thankful a SWAT team with guns wasn’t there to arrest me (though I probably deserved to be shot).

Monika left the plane first. I couldn’t imagine what was going through her mind. How did she know to pack an airsick bag? What a frickin’ saint! The woman gets my vote for canonization.

As I stepped out onto the folding ladder, embarrassed, yet oddly-elegant in my Karen Blixen get-up, the pilot kindly took hold of my carry-on saggage, walked about fifty yards in front of the plane’s propeller, and tossed my leisurely lunch onto the tarmac.

I prepared myself for whatever penance Hans had in store for me. After that sickening flight, “the trampoline” would be a piece of cake. And, no sooner than I could adjust my hat to its rightful position, a flock of seagulls swooped down and began feasting on my “just desserts” as if they’d been expecting it.

Read more of Jill’s work in Life Is Like A Walking Safari, available now.

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