Fitting in between in Lamu
Lamu is too small to be called a town, but too active (and interesting) to feel like a village. It’s not part of Kenya’s steel-and-concrete economic ambition, but nor does it show any stereotypical financial lassitude. Minarets are propped above the skyline, but (despite Al Shabaab occasionally operating in the vicinity) the mosques bring only a sense of calm quotidian faith, with nothing of the more violent zeitgeists of extremism playing out in Islam recently.
Out on the edges of Africa and the Middle East, settled somewhere between marquee tourist destination and Kenyan secret, Lamu exists in the calm zone of the in-between. And I loved it immediately.
A small stretch of shoreside promenade is big enough for the couple cars in town, but everything else is pathways just large enough for two people to pass each other. When my local guide gestured at one narrow alley and called it “our main street” my first response was to chuckle politely at his odd joke. I realized just in time. With their arm-span width and the way they curve gently and jounce from block to block, it reminded me of the smallest nooks of Venice. Though the inhabitants are very different…
In the narrower alleys I would stand aside for the local women in their hijabs, chadars, or niqabs, but that was mostly courtesy. The ones who rather demanded the space were the most famous residents of Lamu: donkeys.
You’d see them everywhere, loaded up with building materials, supporting children, tolerating adults, or just standing in the sun like smelly sages, gurus who have learned something from centuries of Indian Ocean breezes but know you’ll never understand. That’s not to say they’re flatline creatures, as proven by the boisterous pack of adolescent asses that came boiling over a hilltop and avalanched down at me with impressive speed. I had enough time to start my mental recorder to witness my pulverization, but they parted around me, passing within inches on either side like a goofy bullfight.
Lamu’s food was a blend of Swahili spices, Indian subcontinental sauces, and African substance, all bowing before the reality of living in an isolated settlement with access to the sea. The fish had eyes. So did the eels. And if you wanted a break from seafood, there was probably goat in the stew pot.
Three nights per place is my habit, +/- 1 if there’s more/less to do, but Lamu had a pretty short list of activities. If it was on a tour, it would probably be one full day. So how long should I stay?
I already loved Kenya but felt no adrenaline urgency to see more right away. The vestiges of my Mombasa food poisoning lingered, but wasn’t preventing one of my favorite moments of each day, when my neighbors would fill a sheet of newspaper with fried things for a few shillings. I was still too restless to go home, but fully unpacking my bag felt luxuriously correct. I was in my own in-between moment, on the fringe of my travel habits and health, and Lamu was just the right place to be. I stayed a week.