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Published: March 3rd 2011
I'm not sure whether I should write about Lamu in my blog. It seems to be unheard of outside Kenya - hidden behind the plains of the Masai Mara, the beaches of Mombasa, and the peak of Mt. Kenya, doesn't appear on package tours or safaris - and therefore seems to have remained under the radar of most mainstream tourism. And thankfully so, for here, just off the northern Kenyan coast, just 40 miles from Somalia, is a little piece of car-free paradise that the world is yet to discover. I'd be lying if I said it's not touristy - the number of smart hotels and restaurants on the sea front prove that it is - and it is the talk of the town in the backpacker hostels in Nairobi, but it's managed to keep it's charm, hasn't yet lost it's soul, and has avoided the excesses of Malindi and Zanzibar.
To take the tone down, I was slightly disappointed when I went to Stone Town in Zanzibar - the Arabic, African, and Swahili influences seemed to be getting smaller as each tourist steps of the boat, the 'atmospheric alleyways' weren't that atmospheric, and it seemed predominantly inhabited by tourists
and beach boys. Maybe it was my high expectations. Maybe I didn't spent long enough there, But it just didn't seem to have all that it was billed to have.
But Lamu, for me that's another story. Maybe because it was juxtaposed against the harsh northern desert, and the chaos of Nairobi, but at times, it really did feel like paradise. The journey to get there was long and arduous consisting of two buses, one matatu, one tuk-tuk, and after 20hours, one glorious ferry - a wooden vessel seemingly held together by the prayers of everyone aboard, with the engine open in the middle of the deck, chugging away and filling the air with smoke, as we slowly bob our from the mainland to the island.
To be honest, apart from the fantastic arrival, first impressions weren't great. In fact, for a few hours I hated it. At first glance, the waterfront was tatty and worn down (it's rustic charm grows on you as you inhale the sea air), and the hassle from the touts, including one who kept interrupting the football, was relentless on the first evening. It felt like it was going to go the same
way as I felt Zanzibar had. But then, slowly (everything on the island happens slowly) I started to fall for the place - the elegant three storey Swahili houses, white washed, with arched balconies, and huge carved wooden doors, fishermen bringing in the morning's catch aboard their sail powered dhows, the djellaba clothed elderly men sat around the main square putting the world to rights, boats rocking up and down as the waves gently lap the sea wall, their colourful paint pealing in the sea water, stalls selling roasted cassava and corn, alleyways just 3 feet wide with three donkeys walking astride and heading towards you, with a man riding a fourth just behind, forcing you to jump into the nearest doorway for safety, barbers blaring out Swahili music with the ubiquitous Manchester United and Arsenal posters next to one of Craig David and Will Smith, an internet cafe built into the walls of the historic fort, and all overlaid by the Calls to Prayer that come from the rooftops and echo through the narrow alleyways as you wander around lost in the maze. And once you start to get used to this, Shela just 3 km down the coast,
with it's golden beaches, shaded by huge palm trees, with boys playing football in the sand and dhows silently sail past, is just picture perfect.
I was only going to stay for two days , in the end this became six, and even then I wanted to stay for longer still. A Swiss man I met came from Mombasa for the weekend, and is still here three months later. I can see how it happens, and if I had a laptop I could set up a design studio, overlooking the deep blue sea dotted by the triangular sails of the shows, freelancing for people under the grey London skies. It wouldn't be too bad a life. It's got charm, incredibly friendly locals, good food, and the sea. What more could you want? It doesn't try to hard to impress you, but then, it doesn't have to, and it's one of the highlights of the trip so far...
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