Tuesday, December 18, 2007

La Paradise in Lamu

I failed to mention that most of this African experience is taking place on an overland truck tour with a group of other travelers. Though the company is nice, so is stretching the legs out on your own.

So taking advantage of a week long break at the end of stage one, I booked airline tickets to Lamu - small island off the coast of Kenya.

A recognized World Heritage Site, Lamu is the last undiluted outpost of true Swahili culture. Swahili was never a pure group of people, nor language. It grew over centuries through a mixture of the traditional African coastal tribes with Arab, Persian and Indian influences arriving from sea. I never appreciated this before.

My destination was the town of Lamu, the largest town on Lamu Island, which in turn is a part of the Lamu Archipelago. The island population is made up of about 20,000 people and 6,000 donkeys, with the only motorized vehicle traffic being the Island Commissioner's Land Rover and two ambulances - one for people and one for the donkeys. However, they should probably have a third ambulance devoted to tourists who die of heat stroke the second they step off the plane. When the doors opened on my Air Kenya prop, I said to the person next to me, "I think my underwear just melted!"

But that was the only thing to complain about for the next week.

The town itself is a tightly packed outpost of 14th to 19th century buildings that hug the coastline and feature Arab style windows, thatched roofs, rooftop views, and stunning wood carvings that demonstrate all of the island's myriad influences. As for the time spent there, it was nothing but leisure.

The food is picked straight from a tree or pulled from the sea, and my meal of choice was fresh snapper served with a glorious mug of fresh squeezed lime juice, which ran about $5 total. I spent most of the rest of my time making the 50 minute walk to a nearly deserted expanse of tropical sand called Shela beach for sun tanning and swimming.

There was also a day trip in a traditional Swahili sailing dhow to catch lunch from the sea for a traditional swahili meal of fresh fired fish, coconut rice and mangoes cooked on the beach. I should say that my boat mates caught the fish, and our guide did the cooking. I'm alright at negotiating the variables of African travel, but I a fisherman I'm not.

After 5 days of tropical living I've rarely felt healthier. Life remains slow on the island despite the modern world lying just across the sea. To date, islanders have resisted all attempts at rapid modernization or any firm connections to the mainland. From the airstrip at nearby Manda Island the only way to reach Lamu town is by boat. My own motorized dhow featured a diesel engine that used a cooking oil container for a fuel tank, a water bottle for oil, and made about 1/2 a knot at 800 decibels.

Developers have tabled plans to connect Lamu Island to the mainland via road and to build an airstrip, but so far to no avail. With luck it will stay that way. The European travelers who are snapping up land on the island appear anxious to bring in more western amenities and tourist wealth. The islanders could care less. Though poor by any monetary standards, they are rich in health and natural beauty. They have all they need for food and shelter and nobody seems to desire anything other than to carry on as they have for centuries.

I hope the rest of the world gets the hint.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

... get the hint? Um, that we should be living in the stone age? Is that the hint you wanted us to get?

No thanks, I'll take modern industrialization. Times have changed for a reason.

Odiyya said...

right....and you would be a tax paying resident of Lamu? Or perhaps you've recently visited there and can offer some first hand opinions of the local citizens?....I thought not.

The "hint" friend, is that YOU can live in any age you desire, be it one of stone or steel. Afterwards you can kindly butt out of others lives and allow them to do the same according to their own wishes.

Was that "hint" unsubtle enough for you? Or do you want to make another pass at demonstrating your own ignorance?

brian said...

Lamu is a unique culture and a turely unique place, which needs essentially time to understand it and understand to its advances, opportunities and threats - no one can hope to comment on its complexity as a tourist to this Island, I've visited it 8 times and still feel I've just scratched the surface.