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Published: August 25th 2007
The Swahili are a people and culture found on the coast of East Africa, mainly the coastal regions and the islands of Kenya and Tanzania, parts of Uganda and north Mozambique. The name Swahili is derived from the Arabic word "Sawahil", which means "coastal dwellers".
The Swahili Coast, along the Kenyan and Tanzanian coastline, had been the site of cultural and commercial exchanges between East Africa and the outside world - particularly the Middle East, Asia, and Europe... and even though the trade had stopped a long long time ago, the Swahili coast stayed a very unique part of this world, a cultural mix of Arabian, African, Asian and European influences... all left their mark. - Lamu -
People say that "Lamu is a place like no other in Kenya", and it is indeed... a peaceful tropical island where life is lived at it’s own relaxed rhythm, a place whose history is as mysterious and fascinating as the winding streets of it’s medieval stone town. As Kenya's oldest living town it has retained all the charm and character built up over centuries. Lamu’s narrow streets seem to be remain unchanged, and in the markets and squares around the
I like his hat
fort life moves at the same pace as it always has. There are no vehicles on this island, and the donkey and the dhow (sailing boat) remain the dominant form of transport. Children play in the narrow streets, Muslim men chat on street corners and women in their black buibui eils busy themselves through doorways.
The island itself is a beautiful place of rolling dunes and endless beaches, where tiny villages nestle among coconut and mango plantations and lateen sailed dhows ply the waters.
The town of Lamu began life as a 14th century Swahili settlement, but the island has seen many visitors and influences, including Portuguese explorers, Turkish traders and the Omani Arabs. All left their mark, but Lamu developed its own particular culture, which has ultimately endured. The people of Lamu are great believers in tradition and custom, and this is a strong society built on a respect for the past.
As a traveller, Lamu was an exotic experience, made even more enjoyable by the relaxed and welcoming attitudes of the locals. Visiting Lamu after a big and busy African city like Mombasa was like to enter another world, and I found myself becoming a
Cute boys in purple
part of this world, much quicker than I expected as life slowed down as soon you set your feet on this island's soil, so long days were spent strolling along the waterfront, on dhow trips, nice islands or by exploring the town or relaxing, eating and drinking at the waterfront restaurants and bars.
But let me start from the beginning... and continue where I stopped in my last entry.
After I checked into my guesthouse, I ventured into the old city with its narrow streets and vivid life. Now and then covered women in their black buibui passed by like shadows and all I could see and remember from such an encounter were their eyes. Some had beautiful eyes, in a way mysterious and seducing... as it made me curious about how the covered face looked like. I think men are easily attracted by the forbidden, the untouchable and do like to see what they not suppose to.
On the main square next to the fort was a music festival finding place, it was interesting to see lifely African people in their colourful dresses on the one side singing and dancing and performing on stage and on
the other side covered, reserved Arabian women in black sitting quitely and apparently emotionless aside. It's like a crash of two totally different cultures but without resulting into a "Big Bang" but just a peaceful togetherness instead.
I was watching the performance of an African dancing group when a Canadian girl came up and talked to me. After a chat we decided to have dinner together. Her name was Rachel and she brought me to one of the restaurants at the waterfront and told me a bit about her trip in Kenya.
While we were waiting for our dinner, several people came up to us and tried to sell us traditional board games and some others asked me if I would like to have a dhow trip the next day. I wasn't really sure as I haven't spent a thought about my plans in Lamu and what to do at all. That's actually very strange as I usually have a rough plan on what to do and what to see when I travel to a place, but on this trip I somehow just didn't spend my thoughts on planning and making up my mind - maybe it was
Covered women and advertisement for a boutique
Africa that makes you behave differently and with no hurry like if you have all the time of the world.
At the end I agreed to join one of the numerous captains on his dhow trip the following morning. "There are already 3 British guys coming with me" he said. The next morning I should find out that none of the other people were British and later I found out that he always says something like "there are already 3 British guys coming"... but I never met any of them. It was probably just one of the patterns they use over and over... to convince people that it's a good deal and some other people already agreed and paid more money than I would pay, but "please don't tell them if they'll ask how much you paid!". Whenever I hear the latter sentence, I know that in most cases, the other people paid less than I do... or if not at least I know that he ripped off one of us anyway. But that's fine. That's business. Live and let live.
A bit later I met Grace, a girl from sunny California, who would be on the dhow
Luxury of watching TV
People at a window trying to have a glimpse
trip the following morning. She was a solo female traveller and joined Rachel and me for dinner, we ended up having some drinks and a chat at one of the only 2 bars in town with alcohol until 2:30AM before calling it a night.
The next morning I went with Grace to the waterfront where we met the rest of the group, Massimo from Italy and Ethan & Harsha from the States. The Dhow trip took us beyond Lamu into the surrounding archipelago, where isolated villages, ancient ruins and a few luxurious and exclusive resorts lie hidden among the islands of Manda, Siyu, Pate and Kiwayu.
We were lucky that the weather was perfect for the trip, no rain, not too sunny and rather a kind of cloudy so that we didn't have to worry about to be grilled alive by the bright African sun. In addition we had a good wind so that the sailing was easy, sailing is always something unpredictable, if the wind is low nothing goes and you stand still, waiting for hours and hours, no matter if you're in the Baltic Sea or in Africa.
We anchored our boat next to the
Dhow Sailing Boat
View from the balcony
mangroves in calm water and were told by our captain Ali or "Vasco de Gama" to fish for lunch by using a string and hook. In the movie "A river runs through" with Brat Pitt and Robert Redford, fishing looks so cool and how they swing their fishing rods through the air, but reality bites... as we all turned out to be total loosers in fishing as none of us managed to catch a single fish at all - but then some of us had the theory that it was just because of Grace who probably scared away the fishes with her Californian voice by keep talking. I think that there must be a reason why there are no fisherwomen and only fishermen and why men never take women with them on the sea. And in fact, it was Grace who got our boat stucked in mud after Ali gave her the task of steering the rutter for a second or two. So, boys if you ever go fishing... leave ya girls at home or send them to the next mall!
Fortunately and despite of Grace, Ali managed to catch 4 fishes and bought some more from a fisherman
A beach just for ourselves
so that our lunch was safed. We sailed on to Manda island and Ali and his second captain prepared lunch for us while we were enjoying the pristine beach, which we had just for ourselves - a pure luxury.
On the way back we bought some fresh crabs from a fisher and gave them to a local restaurant for preparing them for dinner a few hours later. It was ok. The five of us enjoyed our dinner and Grace, Massimo and I finished the day by having some beer on one of the breezy rooftop bars.
I spent a few more days in Lamu with Grace & Massimo and found myself becoming a part of this slow island-world, so long days were spent strolling along the waterfront, exploring the town or relaxing, eating and drinking at the restaurants and bars.
A day in Lamu looked like this: Waking up around 8-9 AM, meeting up with Massimo for breakfast as "morning grouch" Grace would sleep until at least noon, then Massimo and I would leave for a walk or some other activity, making sure that we have gone before Grace shows up with her "bad morning mood" and
Girls in Lamu
her "2hour breakfast" for waking up properly, then we would return to check if Grace had finally "woken up" and "among the living" and then go for another walk with (or without) her. As Grace is a mighty glutton and therefore always hungry, we would have to find some food and fresh juice for her in a 2hours interval before she gets into a bad mood and making sure that she will get something good for dinner as soon the sun had set and the moon starts to rise, otherwise we feared that she would turn into a dragon and burns down the entire Kenyan East Coast.
So I ended up staying in Lamu longer than I planned, not that I actually had a plan. But I had the choice between having a very ambitious trip like travelling to 3-4 destinations within a week or to relax and to chill and just let myself go. Lazy me chose the latter option.
But then I can't stay at one place for more than a couple of days, so I felt like to move on - at least a bit. I wasnt sure where to go. Tanzania? Uganda? Both countries?
Kids in the small alleys of the old city
Or staying in Kenya for a safari? But as I had just like a week left and as I wasn't to travel ambitious, I had to skip something.
Before my trip I was very into "Zanzibar", alone the name "Zanzibar" sounds like oriental magic to my ears, you know the stories of "1001 nights" or "Sindbad"? All that I connect with a place called "Zanzibar", an island right off shore of Tanzania. But then, Lamu was actually a smaller version of Zanzibar, untouched by big tourism and some people even say that Lamu is the better and more genuine destination as the famous big and spoiled Zanzibar. So the first destination I skipped was "Zanzibar" because I had to get all the way down to Tanzania, pay for a visa 50USD and the ferry to Zanzibar (80USD return) just to be there for a day or two. It wasn't really worth all the effort, time and money. I'll go there another day.
The next question I had to ask myself was whether or not I wanted to go on safari? Actually, being in Kenya I had to go on a safari, but then I am not really into
Kids in the small alleys of the old city
animals and wildlife, well not that I am not interested in all that at all, but if I have to chose between animals and people, I always prefer people to animals. Indeed, I have little interest in game parks and find the whole concept of safaris a kind of too touristy as I've never met someone African who went on a safari - but then I am a tourist myself and a part of the game, and just to set things straight: The main reason why 99% of the Kenyans don't go on safari is simply because most of them can't afford it and not because it's something only tourists do. Anyway, at the end I decided to safe my money - a safari costs approx. 100USD+ a day - and skipped the safari.
Then there was one more thing that I actually wanted to see: Maasai !!! But Grace told me about her experience and encounter with the Maasai in the Maasai Mara national park in one of the artifical Maasai villages and how it kind of sucked, and I said to myself that can live without such an encounter. I will definitely go and meet Maasais one
day when I have the chance, but hopefully with some more time and if somehow possible by myself and not on an organized tour to an artifical Maasai village.
So I decided to go to Uganda for the source of the Nile and for some wildwater rafting there. Some people say that it's the best place for wildwater rafting in the world. Well, not that I have done any waterrafting before and not that I would notice the difference to other waterrafting spots, but well if they say so, why not give it a try. But then the main reason for my decision to go there all the way from Lamu was that I remembered that Kumiko told me that Kamapala and Ugandan people are nice and that I should go there by chance. Especially as I had only seen the Coastal region of East Africa yet, the Swahili coast with its Indian and Arabic influences and as I still had to see the so called "Black Africa" or African Africa! And as I would take the Mombasa-Nairobi train which passes though the Tsavo National Park, I would have a bit of safari feeling for free. So yipeee, I
Good Morning Kenya
View from the balcony
finally had a plan!
The last evening in Lamu, Massimo had the idea of hiring a group of local musicans together to perform for us in his hostel and asked me if I am interested and if I would share the costs with him? As he negotiated a reasonable price (approx. 15USD for the whole band) I agreed. The band (5people) came and played some traditional Swahili music at dusk, and Massimo, I, Grace and two more Americans had a wonderful evening while sipping our tea, smoking our cigarettes and listening to the melancholical music of the Swahili, a perfect ending to my time in Lamu indeed.
On the following morning I left Lamu with Grace towards the mainland and it was the beginning of a 62hours journey to Kampala, the capital of Uganda. To be continued… next - Kenya - The long Road to Kampala and a real Safari...
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