Removing our shoes, we tie them around our necks to walk along the stone walls of the closed estates. High tide: the ocean waves quietly lapping against stone steps up to carved and ornamental double doors. The chalky white of dried salt on dark wood. We pass a boat yard with a rusted crain a launching ramp. The strong fish smell that tourists wrinkle their noses at; that locals know means work, money, food.
There are streams of pundas. The donkeys trot by with woven reed sacks draped over them, laden with concrete or thick rectangular cut coral stone, bags of flour or cans of water. Their thin brown fur is marked by a black stripe that runs the length of their back and down – like an arrow – the center of each leg. Like the donkey has grown from this central black line; it’s essential form: four legs, a body and head.
The largest road in Lamu town runs along the water. The shallow timber ribbed long boats with their patched and faded sails lined up in rows alongside. Balconies are a relief: sitting above the casual sight lines of the hawkers and dhow captains who greet with the unctuous tones of desperate salesmen. Above you are free to look, to touch with your eyes the things and people that it would be too much trouble to admit you notice when at play below.
The menu is Arabic or Bantu or something in between. Computers made in Japan and resold in India, pirated software from Morocco and a keyboard from Dubai: the Third World Computer. The sub-standard combined parts of the western world’s discarded office. Keyboards and thus menus where every “O” is an “Ω” and every “T” a “+.”
Back down into the narrow streets and cracked white walls; away from the open brilliance of the water. The streets stand at 90 degree angles. The intersections appearing without warning like a choice circumstances force on you unsuspecting. In front of a low, tumble-down building of faded concrete girls in head scarves and long dresses run barefoot with boys in brown shirts and smoky blue shirts: a recess game of tag prior to rules or authority. No one – and everyone – is “it”; they dart from one end of the yard to the other like flies around a street lamp in the dim light of dusk.
The crowded alleys and walkways bring everything closer: the sudden whiff of shit or roasting meat like walking into a wall. Smoke from fires and pipes. Trails of smeared donkey manure pressed into cracks in worn cobblestones by bare brown feet under full length white caftans topped with thick beards and embroidered kofias. Dark doorways into dim shops hung with brilliant colors or dusty shelves with monotonous brown paper packaging. A shop with no lights that we explore with kerosene lanterns like cavers in an ancient crypt; the dim golden light casting long deep shadows that dignify and age the brick-a-brack of tourist trade.
The charm, the disgust, the curiosity flow from the immediacy, the inescapable closeness and intensity of the claustrophobic labyrinth of crooked streets. There is no safe and comfortable tour behind tinted glass and cool climate conditioned air. The charm of these Swahili streets - like the fish and food markets whose narrow aisles fill with foreigners untouched by hunger or household – is their inescapable intimacy. It’s an earnest feeling engendered by a bankrupt mechanism.
The closer we come – the more detail this closeness forces upon us – the more disruptive our presence must be. Our proximity betrays the honesty of the experience in which we aspire to envelope ourselves. The longer we stay - the easier our passage - the more we bring with us the same things we hope to escape in coming.