Partially reprinted from an Article in the Travel Magazine Section of the Sunday New York Times, Sunday, March 4, 2001


Zanzibar

Zanzibar and its sister island, Lamu, share an easy pace, beaches of fine sand and the spice-scented breezes of the Indian Ocean By SUE MILLER


We're mostly tourists on the tiny plane flying southeast from Naroibi, though my son, Ben, occupies some intermediate ground: an American working in Nairobi, with good Swahili. He has made all the arrangements for this, my first trip to Africa. We've spent a few nights in town so I can see his apartment and meet some friends, but now we're off to visit two islands in the Indian Ocean, Lamu and Zanzibar.

Why islands, when there's a continent to look at? Because my time is limited, and islands are like short stories: compact, quickly taken in, but, if they're good, complete in themselves. And each of these places -- Lamu, part of Kenya, Zanzibar, off Tanzania -- is very, very good, my son tells me. Each contains a living, vibrant Swahili city with its own character, a city that has existed in something like its present form for centuries. Both have survived and absorbed layer upon layer of conquest and culture -- African, Indian, Asian, Arab (primarily Omani), Portuguese and British -- and this range and mix of ethnicities and histories are visible in their people, and palpable, too, in a kind of unsurprised curiosity and ease they seem to have with whatever comes along. Lamu was at the peak of its civilization from the 17th to the 19th century, Zanzibar slightly later, and both faded in wealth and power as the slave trade died. They are especially worth seeing now, Ben says, because they are fragile, their very physical being as well as their way of life threatened by age and growth and the pressures of increasing tourism.

Also, the islands are small -- and therein lies my hope: perhaps I can stay just four or five days on each one and still understand something about it.

The airport for Lamu is a sandy field in the green of palms and mangrove swamp on nearby Manda Island, with a few thatch-roofed pavilions and huts where we mill around waiting for our bags. There are about 20 of us, including the perpetual hustlers of one sort or another, trying to drum up business: take you to a particular hotel, arrange a boat ride to the ruins or a cruise by moonlight. Everywhere talk and negotiations are taking place. I am instantly grateful for Ben's Swahili and for his familiarity with the place -- already he's found someone he knows, Aweso, who will help us with the bags and arrange the excursions we want to take.

We all head down the path to the water and descend the crumbling steps of the dock to the old wooden ferry, clambering down to sit on fresh straw mats set on the benches along its curved outer walls. The ride across the channel takes perhaps 10 minutes, and Ben uses it to orient me. Here, straight ahead across the water, rising up the gentle hill behind the docks, is the little stone town also named Lamu. ("Lamu, Lamu," Ben says. "You know, like New York, New York.") To the left, down the channel and out of sight is the open ocean and Shela, the island's other major coastal town, smaller, quieter, with a magnificent beach we'll go to. Cruising the channel nearby are perhaps 15 or 20 dhows, the ancient wooden sailing vessels still used every day here, with their somehow deeply satisfying shape -- the one belling lateen sail turned this way or that to catch the wind.

We dock and climb the stairs to the wide, dirt, quayside street and instantly are surrounded by the life of Lamu. Open-air restaurants and terraces face the water, and people sit here and watch the ceaseless traffic: catches hauled ashore; travelers coming and going, sometimes carrying the odd live chicken or leading a goat; the mostly European tourists wandering around; the parade of pretty young women in their buibuis, the black robes Muslim women wear, of young men in dreadlocks and T-shirts, or white khanzus robes and kofia caps; the boat owners drumming up trade; and donkeys carrying building materials or produce for the shops -- there are no cars on Lamu.

Ben and I cut into a walkway leading away from the water, past the fenced-in donkey sanctuary, which you smell before you see. Here, in what seems like friendly donkey confusion, the halt and lame and just plain worn-out local beasts of burden live out their old age, financed by the International Donkey Protection Trust, based in Devon, England. The passageway we've turned into is so narrow we have to go single file, Aweso leading us with the bags balanced on his head. "Watch the donkey dung," Ben calls back. Needlessly. I have been. One does.

Gradually we weave our way up and back, across the wide, shady town square, crowded with people talking, through winding stone streets wild with life -- children chasing each other, shops with their doors flung open selling fabric or fruit, appliances or spices or freshly squeezed juices. Here and there, in front of a doorway, someone is grilling meat on a brazier, and the smoky rich odor briefly envelops you as you pass. Green water runs in the stone channels at the sides of the streets, and goats and donkeys, some loaded with goods, some with riders, some seemingly strolling by themselves for the sheer animal pleasure of it, cut casually in and out among the pedestrians. The houses we pass are tall and narrow and built with the density of medieval hilltop fortified villages in France and Italy.

It's overwhelming. I'm eager for a vantage, a perch from which to look over the maze we've walked through. I'm relieved when we arrive at "our" house, which fronts an empty lot where a donkey is tethered, munching on garbage.

Like many buildings in Lamu, like those in Zanzibar, too, the house is coral rag limestone. We have to lower our heads as we climb the little front stoop, a tree arches so low over it. The immense carved doors give way to a cool, dark interior. The floors are stone and they smell of fresh wax, and stone stairs lead up to the light and open air at the top of the building. On either side of the entrance as we step in are the built-in benches for guests -- baraza -- typical of this architecture. (This area is called "the smiling place," Ben tells me. "Ah, the place where you make nice," I say. Exactly.)

The ceilings on this first floor are high, the doorways huge, with beautiful carved wooden lintels above each one, and carving, too -- the designs are abstract -- cut into the plaster. We mount the stairs. On every floor -- and there are, I think, five of them, but I never can get an accurate count, since some are half-floors, and odd rooms are tucked away -- there are terraces open to the air. The stairs turn this way and that and crisscross each other more than once. I choose my room on the fourth floor because bougainvillea drapes itself outside the window opening, and because I can see through the flowers over the thatched roofs to the water. Ben goes up one flight, to the rooftop terrace under the thatching. We're home for a while.

A few hours later, we walk back down to the quayside for supper, taking a flashlight; the streets are black after dark. The food -- the freshest grilled fish I've ever eaten, garlic bread and coconut rice -- is simple and very good. No wine or beer -- because Lamu is Muslim, you have to go to a hotel bar for that -- but fruit juice, papaya juice so thick and rich it might be dessert. After dinner, we parade along with the crowd on the quay, stopping for a beer among the expatriates and tourists gathered at the smoky, slightly louche Lamu Palace Hotel. I would sit longer, eavesdropping, my favorite pastime, and imagining various Graham Greene scenarios for the people gathered around us, but Ben warns me we'll be wakened early with the call to prayer -- you adapt to life on Lamu, not the other way around -- so we make our way back through the dark streets, seemingly the only people out once we get away from the dock, the little circle of light from the flashlight dancing in front of our feet. The steward has left a lantern in the entry of the house for us, and as we climb the stone stairs with its soft light moving over the old, uneven walls, I have the sense of life having been exactly the same here for hundreds and hundreds of years.

And perhaps in most ways it has, but here's one clear difference: the call to prayer is amplified now. It's still dark when it comes. My heart thudding in shock, I lie and listen to the electric chanting, and then, as it falls silent and everything turns a paler and paler gray through the mosquito netting, ease gratefully back to sleep.

Over the days we stay there, we keep our routine in rhythm with Lamu life. For breakfast we rely on the very bourgeois Whispers Coffee Shop, with its pretty, quiet interior courtyard, where we can get excellent cappuccino. By day we walk and explore. We watch the woodcarvers in their open shops making traditional canopy beds or working on decorative panels. We look at the beautiful locally made batiks and stitched work in the Wildebeeste Gallery. We try the wide range of mostly quite inexpensive restaurants in town. We visit the ruins of Takwa, a 16th-century Swahili settlement on Manda Island, where what most impresses me are the endless, tortuous channel through the thick mangrove swamp our captain has to pole laboriously along and the huge baobab trees.

We do go to Shela one day, as Ben has promised, a 10-minute boat ride, and are the only people visible on the eight miles or so of glorious coral sand beach, the dunes green and wild behind us, the water clear and utterly refreshing in front of us. We have lunch that day on the soft sand terraces at the Peponi Hotel, under an arbor of twining bougainvillea as thick as my wrist. Afterward we walk the sand streets looking at the 17th- and 18th-century houses. There is a kind of rivalry between the smaller, more elegant Shela, and bustling, dirty Lamu, and several townspeople we talk to today ask us, "But, why are you staying in [shudder] . . . Lamu?"

Shela is beautiful, and it's clearly more upscale than Lamu: far less dense and emphatically quieter and cleaner. And as much as I love Lamu -- its laid-back, slightly derelict vibrancy -- I confess that on our last night there, we take a dhow ride back to Shela so we can splurge on dinner at Peponi's. It's dark when we set out, and climbing onto the boat in the dress I'm wearing is awkward. The ride down, against the wind, is wet and difficult, but the night is spectacular, with so many stars that it looks as if someone has spilled glowing talcum powder across the sky. We both get wet jumping out at Peponi's -- the captain can barely hold the boat against the dock for us -but we warm up in the pretty dining room, where the service is splendid, the squid ink risotto sublime, the apple samosas for dessert inspired and the wine list inspiring.

The trip back with the wind is quicker -- too quick. For the moon is out by now, gleaming ahead of our sail on the dark water, and we leave a trail of shimmering green phosphoresence behind us all the way home.

 

 

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