I said in my last post that we seem only to go to the seaside at Christmas. It was a habit begun when we lived in Kenya through the 1990s: December is the high holiday season, and heading for some Indian Ocean beach cottage was what all Aid-industry wazungu did. Coral beaches glistened. The sea was warm, and fresh fish, mangos, papaya, eggs and sun-baked tomatoes arrived daily at your cottage door courtesy of the local Digo traders.
We have of course been repatriated for many years, but somehow we still have not re-shaped ourselves for northern latitudes. Perhaps being blown inside out on a midwinter Welsh or Cornish beach only serves to burnish memories filled with clattering leaves of coconut palms, the roar of surf on reef, and the ‘ding-ding’ of the vegetable seller’s bicycle bell. Oh yes, and of a Christmas Dinner that only involves a barbecued lobster, salad, and a glass or two of Tusker beer.
Mostly we spent Christmas at Maweni, on the south Mombasa coast, joined there by UK friends and family, who still remember these as the best Christmases ever. One year, however, when we had no visitors, we took the Christmas Eve flight out of Nairobi’s Wilson Airport, and made for Lamu. We were booked in for four nights at the Island Hotel in the heart of Shela village.
Our Air Kenya plane was small, a couple of dozen passengers aboard, and our journey just over an hour. We took off over the city’s sprawling tin towns, banked over the grasslands of Nairobi National Park, then turned towards the sun, or would have done if it had been at all visible through the lowering cloud. Beneath us the bush country of Eastern Kenya looked comfortingly or uncomfortably close, depending on your inclination, though either way the unending view of brown scrub soon grew monotonous. Also the flight’s chosen altitude, which seemed neither quite up nor down, played havoc with my Eustachian tubes; I tried to spot elephants to distract myself from the accompanying earache, though had no luck on either front.
We touched down on Manda Island airfield in gathering storm clouds – inky black -and were ushered into dhow taxis at the airport jetty, quickly sorted by the Swahili boatmen according to destination: Shela village or Lamu town. Our baggage followed on our heels, piled up on push carts, and was just as swiftly stowed – all highly efficient.
By now the storm meant business. It was starting to rain. Our dhow rocked unsteadily at its moorings. The crew hoisted an awning to give us some shelter, and it was at this point it occurred to me – as I sat, unexpectedly shivering in the tropics, with the sky shut down to the sea, and rain like knives – that all the swift efficiency I was witnessing might also be seen as a general urgency. We had to cross the Strait before the storm grew any worse, a voyage of around twenty minutes. I remember thinking, as the engine sparked into life, it sounded all too puny for our purposes.
Finding ourselves crammed under the awning with several other travellers we could not see much, which was probably as well. When the sea is choppy, Lamu dhows sit alarmingly low in the water. This brought on another interlude of would-be distraction as I attempted to take a few photos. This shot of our boat captain is one of my favourite Lamu photographs. I’ve posted cropped versions of it in other posts. I like the way his kikoi sarong mimics a dhow sail.
In the end there was no real cause for anxiety (if one overlooked the lack of life belts), and we weren’t afloat long enough to feel too queasy. The storm came to nothing and by the time we put in at Shela harbour the rain had stopped. Within the sheltering arm of the bay there was no wind either. Now as we were handed ashore we began to melt in the sudden humidity. All seemed airless, sticky, sultry, otherworldly in the kind of vaguely luminous gloom that conjures the tropics’ tristesse of Somerset Maugham. It was hard to get one’s bearings. I felt myself slither into sheep-mode: please someone take me to where I need to go.
And being Kenya, where hospitality is always top of the list, someone did.
Our guide led us up winding pathways – past overgrown gardens and abandoned houses where the coral rag walls steamed darkly. The air was spiked with salt and jasmine. My ears were still troubling me and my footfalls echoed strangely on the sand covered alleyways. I was hearing the world as if through a long drain pipe. It did not help.
My heart sank too as we were led further into the maze of dark streets and tall village houses where the air became thicker and hotter. I had visions of four stifling, mosquito ridden nights. And then we were there – shown into a dark vestibule straight off the street. It could have been a merchant’s house in a Sinbad tale. And finally when we were shown to our room, four floors up, I knew I’d been given the best Christmas present possible.
They called it the penthouse suite. And roof-top it was – with a high makuti thatch, woven from palm leaves. But here any expectation of luxury ended, at least in western eyes. The room was certainly huge, but it housed only a bed – an antique Lamu contrivance that was too short for a tall man and too narrow for two people to sleep comfortably side by side. Sleeping in shifts would be called for then.
The Penthouse Suite
Leading off the main room was a little sitting area with deck chairs, and next door, a concrete cubicle wherein a cold-shower shower could be had. In fact there was only one complete wall that went from floor to ceiling, and seemingly made so in order to provide a place to hang the door. Otherwise the walls were mostly windows, or rather, they were large spaces open to the elements.
And here was the luxury. The breeze. It blew through the room, bringing not only coolness, but also seeing off the mosquitoes. It was like being at sea. Or having one’s own look-out post, for in three of the four quarters we could survey the intimacies of Shela village life.
One of our views took in a neighbour’s rooftop bedroom one floor down. Sometimes the bed would be occupied. At other times only a bright kikoi lay abandoned on the simple rope-strung frame. Under the eaves there was a store of big yellow pumpkins. It felt like a privilege to have one’s stranger-closeness deemed so acceptable by Shela folk. And indeed, over those four days we received nothing but smiling kindness from the people we met there.
You can read more on this at: Christmas on Lamu: Views of Swahili Community
For now here’s a rear window view – first as I took it, framed by the thatch and wall, and then cropped to within an inch of its life, using the house walls and roof as the frame. My camera was a little Olympus trip, and the time: before digital was invented.