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Touring Kenya's Lamu Archipelago

On the southeastern shore of Lamu Island, two men ride donkeys along the dunes outside Shela Village.

Photo: Monika Hoefler and Jens Schwarz

In Old Town it’s possible to snack continuously rather than sit down in any one place for a meal. As the day faded, I grazed through darkened alleys where cooks set up glowing charcoal braziers to hawk roasted cashews, lentil-and-potato bhajias, lime-marinated beef skewers, and cassava chips dusted with chili powder. Blending fried potatoes into an omelette called chips mai yai, one vendor told me, “When you cook pole pole, then the food is good.” The monsoon breezes that carried ships laden with cloves and peppercorns to the East African coast also brought multiethnic cooks who eventually created the sophisticated cuisine of Lamu—biryanis and curries, couscous and pasta—which is far more nuanced than the frugal nomadic diet of the interior.

“What do you want to drink tonight?” Satan asked.

I never found out his real name, but he certainly looked the part: hooded eyes, sardonic mouth, a Che Guevara beret on knotted Rasta locks. Satan presided over the rooftop bar at Petley’s Inn, a waterfront joint where voyeurs mingled with quasi-piratical locals. He poured me a Tusker Lager and cordially revived our discourse on vegetarian cafés and chutney vendors. But when a sloppy tourist tried to interject, the Nairobi street tough emerged. Satan glared at the man. “What the hell do you know about Swahili food?” he snapped. The drunk left me alone after that.

Satan allowed some of the better-behaved beach boys—the ones with neatly combed hair, cell phones, and surf shorts—to mingle on sofas scattered by the windows above the promenade. Drinking sodas and trolling for customers who might make their dreams of a foreign visa come true, they reminded me of courtesans or geisha. Lamu would certainly be duller without their flirtatious banter. “Mama, I want to come, too!” one giggled as I said good night. It was unclear whether he wanted a ride in Hamden’s boat or a place in my bed. Like my bartender friend, I found these boys wickedly adorable.

Three miles south of Old Town is Shela Village, which Swahilis have nicknamed “Little Europe” for reasons that became obvious. It’s nearer to the beach, so wealthy expats and the Nairobi elite tend to favor this sedate settlement. Some of the neocolonialists are responsible for a recent building spree of villas imitating earlier Swahili architecture, sometimes side-by-side with less ambitious but equally attractive banda bungalows of coconut-palm matting and varnished mangrove poles. (Across the channel from Lamu, a row of them dominates the dunes on Manda Island.) Shela also has several lovely Swahili-style guesthouses—converted 18th-century traders’ villas—austerely decorated with antiques and ceiling fans; garden fountains and shaded courtyards keep travelers cool.

Compared to Lamu Old Town, insular Shela seemed deserted. Many of the grander villas belonging to overseas owners were shuttered for the low season. But a languorous day splashing in shallow water on the long wide beach fronting Lamu Bay was a salty restorative. Fishermen waded waist-deep with wide nets to catch shrimp in the current and dhows raised their triangular sails to skirt past the coral reef. After walking up and over sand hills back into the still village, I browsed the shelves at a little grocery store that sold hard sesame candies and striped Kenyan cotton kikoi: much cooler than jeans, and more versatile than beach tunics. I purchased far too many, under the misguided rationale that the tasseled lengths of fabric could always be turned into pillows.

Shela’s social hub is the Peponi Hotel. It has 24 guest rooms with mahogany beds and a gift shop displaying tempting gold jewelry by Nairobi designers. But expats gather here because the waterfront veranda bar is one of the better places on the coast to find a decent cocktail, and Charles, the smiling head bartender, pours with a generous hand. His specialty is an Old Pal made with vodka, lime, and bitters. The Peponi and Petley’s are worlds apart. Sipping South African Sauvignon Blanc on the low balustrade next to lapping waves, I behaved myself even when a sunburned Englishman in baby-pink slacks rudely barked at the patient Swahili waiter. The hotel’s co-owner Carol Korschen, a tall blonde in white linen, graciously checked on other guests who needed their sundowners refreshed and more plates of “bitings,” or appetizers. She urged me to sample salty seaweed and delicate cucumber pickles, specially made in a village on the other side of the island. And I fell in love with the grilled giant prawns in a searing piri-piri chili sauce best tempered with lime chutney, served on white linen in the hotel’s breezy dining room.

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