Sunday, 1 August 2010

Call to Relax

I just returned from an amazing weekend in Lamu Town. Lamu is part of the Lamu Archipelago, a small chain of islands off Kenya's coastline, quite near Somalia.

It was short trip: Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon. But even that short stay in and around Lamu was enough to fall in love with the place. I have to give Lamu the title for East Africa's most charming and romantic spot. The rich and famous have been fans of Lamu for a while; Bill Gates visits the area from time to time and Princess Caroline of Monaco has no fewer than four houses here, not to mention the scores of wealthy finance types with cash to burn. Fortunately, the islands remain accessible even to humbler elements like me.

Getting to Lamu from Nairobi involves traveling to minuscule airports and jumping on even smaller planes. The views of the flight as we got close to the coast were terrific:

Pretty much every aspect of the weekend was a huge hit. I traveled there with a great group of people -- four volunteer consultants working at TechnoServe (my employer last summer in Tanzania). For most of them, it was their first time in Lamu as well, so we had the chance to explore the island together.

Our accommodations were outrageously nice. Rather than staying at one of Lamu's fancy hotels, we rented a mansion for the weekend. The mansion was called Mnarani House, which means "the house at the minaret." And indeed there was a beautiful mosque right next door - nice for views, not so nice for sleep when the call to prayer blasts at 5 am, twenty feet from your head. Muezzins aside, the house itself had a charming Swahili open-plan layout. In general, I've always found Islamic architecture to produce some of the nicest homes - simple exteriors and elegant interiors centered around courtyards, sitting areas and gardens. This house followed that tradition: there were four floors, and each floor was divided up with low walls which created sitting areas, a coffee nook, the dining balcony, a reading area, etc. Instead of windows, the house had several balconies and open views of the town so that place was always kept cool by the sea breeze. The bedrooms were really beautiful, with en-suite bathrooms and unusually shaped windows that prevents those outside from seeing in allows a nice breeze to blow through at night.

We spent most of the time in the house eating in the open-air dining room or hanging out on the cushion-filled rooftop, which had great views of the mosque, the beach and the mansions nearby. This is the view of Mnarani House and mosque:

One of Lamu's biggest attractions is the seafood. The apartment that we rented came free with a chef and steward; we only had to pay for the ingredients. The seafood there was amazing: fried calamari on the first night; oysters, crabs and lobster on the second; a gigantic, grilled white snapper for our final lunch. Everything had been caught hours before we ate it. Even the side dishes were great: avocado-onion salads, coconut-cooked rice, dressings like ginger, lime, garlic and chili.

We hired a local guy to give us a tour of Lamu town on Saturday. The tour itself was somewhat half-hearted, more of a loop through tourist boutiques owned by our guide's friends than a history-focused trek through the island's points of interest. Nonetheless, we spent a few hours in Lamu's quiet streets filled with crumbling buildings, narrow alleyways and vegetable stalls. The photo opportunities were incredible, and I tried to do my best with my entry-level Canon. The quality of the footage was good enough that I told myself I would learn more about photography before the summer is over. Here are some of my favorites...

Lamu's transportation industry is donkey-based. The narrowness of the roads, the lack of bridges to the mainland and the small size of the town make cars totally impractical on the island. In other places where I've seen similar constraints (Utila, Honduras), people have used golf carts as a fill-in for cars, but not here. Human and cargo transport is done primarily with donkeys, who are everywhere. I saw donkeys working, donkeys standing around, a donkey being forcibly bathed in the ocean and donkeys recuperating in Lamu's donkey hospital/sanctuary. Here is a young donkey downtown.

The beach outside of Shella (where we stayed) was a 10-mile stretch of pristine, powdery sand with very few visitors. Definitely one of the nicest beaches I've seen in a long time. The near absence of tourists and total lack of hotels was refreshing (if surprising). I wonder how long the island has until the big hotels arrive. I spent quite a few hours swimming and lying on the beach.

The highlight was probably the sunset dhow cruise we took on Saturday. As in many parts of the Swahili coast, Lamu's fishermen use dhows (traditional wooden vessels with a single, spinnaker-like sail) for getting around. Two local guys took us out for a two-hour sail around the island just as the sun was going down. Here is me on the boat with Simon as we set out:

And Lamu town at sunset:

I was sad when it was finally time to leave for the airport. And by airport, I mean this:

PS. As I am posting this, I'm sitting in a hotel in Arusha. It's noon and the hotel lounge is blasting house music. Why, Tanzania, why?


  1. why were you back in arusha? this trip looks just awesome.

  2. i was there for work; the East African Community Secretariat is based there. but yeah, Arusha doesn't compare to Lamu!