Having traveled to stunning beaches around the world, it was difficult to believe that the Lamu archipelago of eastern Kenya , a loop of islands in the Indian Sea -- would be the "magic paradise" that outdoes them all, as many guidebooks intimate.
Yet, once the boat man motored me from the airstrip between the grassy islands to the more remote Shela beach, and I walked along the narrow stone-walled lanes, past children skipping with hoops, women in black bui-buis and more than a few braying donkeys among the purple bougainvillea, I understood why it was that Princess Caroline and husband Ernst had not only bought five homes on the island, but came regularly to hang out with the locals at the only bar, the beachfront Pepino Hotel.
I chose to stay at Banana House myself, a family hotel set among a tropical garden and pool. The hotel features only seven rooms, each with high wooden beamed ceilings, large bathrooms and huge firm beds, and I had the luck of being given the penthouse: a room with its own veranda stretching out towards the sea, with swinging beds and lounge chairs under a wide thatched roof, and, for my meals, a long wooden table large enough for a family of ten. During the day, the servants would bring me thermoses of coffee and fresh mango juice as I worked on a chaise overlooking the palms or on a hammock (I had my pick), the twittering of birds (and terribly noisy donkeys) the only sound. At night, they would carry up (on silver trays) South African wine and lobster netted that day by local fisherman Marya.
I had a massage with local staff-member, Marcy, whose story -- told to me after a series of pressure-pointed movements in my neck -- seemed steeped in the Lamu mystique.
"Here I am at home," she said calmly, her eyes gentle in the candlelight, when we finished on the terrace, in the warm evening breeze, her strong hands folded in her lap. I am from the Kikuyu tribe, in Nairobi , and after eight years in London , I came back to Kenya -- here to this island -- among the Swahili tribe and here I have found my home."
"They are lovely, these people of this tribe. So good -- such good people. Yes, they are Muslim, and I am Christian. At first, when I came alone -- with my sister -- I was afraid when the beach boys would say, hello Miss, can we help you? But then I felt so good that they pay attention to you, care about who you are, and always have a real smile. In London , it took me weeks to even meet someone for coffee, and in the mornings, I would cry depressed inside, and think why is my life like this?"
"Here it is beautiful and the people are good. I am happy."
In the morning, I walked along the beach to Lamu town itself, or tried to -- as I got lost in white sweeping dunes in the midday sun, and hailed down a boat instead. Lamu town is a UNESCO world heritage site known for its preserved sense of ancient Swahili culture: the thin stone streets, the donkeys (no cars allowed), the carved wooden doors, the children in their red-checked school uniforms, and the women in black bui-bui, walking alone, with a graceful stroll, the veil up to their eyes.
It is also known for its former wealth as a slavery and ivory port, the traders having once come from the Arabian peninsula -- which is why the Kenyan coast in Muslim.
It is at nightfall, however, that the town becomes magical, as shop-owners light up their counters with candles or lanterns, and people bustle about the lanes or sit in the dark chatting in chairs, the men wearing white Muslim caps, the children skipping past. One Lamu man laughingly sewed a piece of black leather on my pink wallet (to keep it shut), as the sun set, and I sat on a coke crate watching him grin in his wooden shack, inventing ways to sew and glue.
"You're from America !" he said. "Obama land! It is amazing that your country -- the greatest country in the world -- has been so kind as to invite an African to lead it."
It was a sentiment almost every Kenyan I met expressed, with a joyous smile.
To get back to Shela, I opted for a donkey ride in the night, holding the waist of a young man who directed Lola (our donkey) with a pair of reins and a "tsk tsk tsk", along the path of a moon-bright sea, through a forest, and then into the quiet maze of the sleeping village. The donkey's hooves, kicking up the sand, made a peculiar thunking echo in the narrow streets.
The highlight of the Lamu archipelago -- for some -- is the wide open sea on Manda island, and there I went for my last evening, opting to skip the 500 year old ruins of an Arab civilization (requiring a motor-boat) and taking a traditional dhow instead, manned by a man named DUDE, with his jolly crew-member who trapezed the stick (i.e. scrambled up and down a slanted balancing beam), to keep us from not tilting completely into the water.
"See those are pieces of wind," Dude pointed out, at the black streaks in the water, under a burgeoning moon. We were the only boat on the channel, and I enjoyed the rough wooden look of the boat -- Dude had made it himself -- and the way the sail would suddenly take the wind and we would tilt perpendicular and rush forth.
When we got to Manda, an island absolutely still, with no restaurants or stores or villages -- just a few empty foreigner's villas on a wide spread of sand -- I stopped at the beach-front home of my new friends Claudio and his childhood buddy Nello and his gorgeous girlfriend/business-partner Andrea.
Claudio had told me to visit when we bonded on a small aircraft flying in from Malindi. "Everyone knows where to find me," he had said.
There he was in his villa-tent, where he has lived for 31 years, a far cry from his native Switzerland .
Here the only neighbors were the fish, and the setting sun across the way in Lamu.
We shared white wine on his portico, under the tent-canvas, and listened to the Rolling Stones from a cell-phone speaker.
It was quite an equipped tent: stone shell sink and generator for the laptops and four-poster bed -- everything needed to keep up their business designing homes for foreigners.
Dude waited on the beach, sitting on a log while the sky turned dark. He helped me up a plank back to the dhow, and suggested we sail off to Oman , as in the days of old.
"Benissimo," he said. He spoke four languages, had learned all by ear, from the tourists.
We drifted with the wind into Shela.
One not to be overlooked advantage to going to Lamu is that when flying out from the airstrip on Manda island, one has much more to do while waiting for the flight than shop duty-free. After I went through the "security" gate on the sand, which curiously did not consider my sheathed panga bought from a Massai warrior as a sharp or dangerous item, the check-in man kindly allowed me to prance out again, through the palms, back over to the sandy dock, for a last swim (after changing behind a coca cola shed) until the plane arrived.
My boatman kindly offered to wait on the dock, to make sure I could get out of the current, as I swam and swam in the warmest freshest water, under the wide Kenyan sky, between islands as green and lush as the water was blue, somersaulting and crawling and back-floating and diving until the boatman pointed at the sky -- and hair dripping, I took my seat.