Sunday, June 28, 2009

An Island - Half a World Away

A Manchester type rain pours down and I am sitting of one of maybe ten covered, cushion-filled patios of Jasmine House on Lamu Island, Kenya. I’m told that the end of June brings the end of the rains – timing is everything.

A mid morning flight out of Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi brought us, via Malindi, to a red dirt landing strip, Manda Airport. We disembarked in the rain to a warm, muggy enveloping humidity, sloshed through the mud to the palm covered ‘waiting room’. Perhaps it was tongue in cheek, a touch of tropical humor - an adjoining thatched area was marked “Duty Free” - I could see cans of Red Bull.

Bags came out of the hold, loaded onto handcarts and trundled down to the jetty. Reassuring to note that it was rebuilt and opened in March of this year. We clambered into an open wooden boat for the twenty-minute ride over to Lamu Island on Kenya’s coast. Rain and spray soaked us – memo to self flashed through my mind to forget the carefully cultivated straight bob of the past two years – my hair was going to revert back to curls big time!

Lamu Village on the island is a Unesco World Heritage Site – through the rain we could make out the distinctive architecture. The island, an important trading post for at least 600 years, retains the culture and structure of what was once a thriving Swahili trading community along the Indian Ocean. The Moslem faith dominates. I awoke this morning to the call to prayer from the mosque. There is a distinctive Moorish feel to the buildings, and mediaeval tangle of narrow alleys. Rain abating somewhat we motored on down the coast to Shela Village. If anything, Shela, has a more time capsule feel to it than Lamu. With its jumble of alleys; multi storied buildings some white plastered others raw grey and brown coral blocks, all crammed in at odd angles into narrow spaces it’s a step back in time and history. Houses are faceless from the outside but hiding wondrous courtyards within. Newly constructed houses for Europeans jostle for space with Swahili owned homes built close to 200 years ago. Ornate carved lintels over equally beautifully carved doors look as though they come from the pages of the latest design magazines.

Disembarking was testimony to several years of strength and agility training not so elegantly hopping from rocking boat to an unstable rowboat used as a gangway to step onto the beach. Thank you Gene at the JCC in Tucson for forcing me to do all those balance exercises with my eyes closed.

Winding our way through narrow alleys (and I’ll concede that I’m not about to go shoeless as the locals appear too, definitely in Africa in terms of garbage etc.) we come to Jasmine House, nothing on the outside to excite, just a white wall with an ornately carved door. Inside the door was a fantasy from Arabian Nights. We stepped into the first of two courtyards, this one focused on an elaborate “dipping” pool, cushioned patio and bar area. Another wooden door brought us to the main courtyard, at the entry a shelf for shoes and foot washing sink low to the ground. Barefoot is the rule within the compound. This inner courtyard houses covered dining and living rooms, ceilings supported by black Mangrove beams, the walls hand-plastered and polished, wide open to the elements on two sides. The house shows some wear and is not luxurious in the five star resort picture perfect sense but it is gorgeous and it is in Africa. All that is incredibly chic in the US – polished, foot-worn concrete floors, plastered walls, hand-smoothed concrete bathroom sinks and wide-open showers is here only nothing is contrived. The teak furniture, massive carved doors, rough yokes used as coat hangers and punched tin light fixtures, reminds me of the imports found in Colonial Frontiers in the Lost Barrio district of Tucson. Here they are in their natural setting and the effect is stunning.

My bedroom is across the courtyard and up perhaps twenty steps on the second floor. A large open patio with built-in cushioned bancos is at the top. Jasmine and red bougainvilleas cover the walls. I can lean out and pick a papaya, and defying gravity, lean even further and reach a coconut.

A low, carved dark wood door invites you to stoop into the bedroom. Romantic, net draped teak four-poster bed, small corner table, nothing elaborate but the simplicity, the view from the glassless windows over thatched roof tops to the Indian Ocean make me wonder what I’m doing here alone. This place is made for a tryst!

The master bedroom equivalent here takes up the entire third floor of one wing. It is totally open to the elements. White curtains can be pulled around the exterior walls; two swinging beds invite afternoon naps; a huge four-poster offers views of the night sky. There is some debate about who will have this space – tempting, as it is, caution suggests since this is a malaria area and my newly pregnant daughter-in-law cannot take prophylactics, it might not be a wise choice for them. They opt to trust in Deet and mosquito netting but by morning decide to move down to one of the more contained rooms rather than battle mosquitoes.

Breakfast this morning, Richard, the house cook, presented platters of papaya, mango, bananas and poached eggs on toast. Coffee and passion fruit juice rounded out a perfect beginning to the day. The system here is to give Richard money for shopping and to discuss meal preferences with him. We are told that he is the best cook on the island. Later this morning, friends of my son and daughter-in-law arrive with their two young children – perhaps a minimal shattering of peace is in the offing.

The contrast between here on the Indian Ocean and the Masai Mara that we left Thursday could not be more dramatic. I like Kenya! I like Lamu Island. I like the donkeys (even though they brayed throughout the night sounding at times like a demented woman – thoughts of Wuthering Heights came to mind) - there is a British funded sanctuary for the donkeys on the island, they are the transportation, and free vet care is provided. I like the well fed cats that hang around where the fishing boats land and the eclectic mix of people we have met so far. Cool Dude, a fourth generation native, speaks perfect English and works seasonally as a wind surf instructor and all round facilitator of “things to do and get things done”. Yesterday being Friday, he was wearing a long white collarless shirt indicating he told us “that I’ve been to the mosque”. Today he dropped in at breakfast time in shorts and T-shirt, very much a hip young thing leaving us with what I think was the Swahili equivalent of a casual, “Ciao baby” and a snap of his fingers. Betty, who will come to the house to give massages, manicures and pedicures. Monika, native-born Dutch who has lived on the island for 12 years now and has a guesthouse and yoga studio – all make me revive early dreams of opting out of the real world in search of my own paradise.

We booked Jasmine House through ~ $200 a day includes cook and housekeeping. Airkenya and 540 (billed as Africa’s Budget Airline) both fly into Manda Airstrip on the mainland. Lamu itself is only accessible by boat. There are no cars on the island.
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