Lamu, Kenya Searching for My Happy Place

I love trains. I can’t entirely explain why, but there’s definitely a genetic component. My dad is a train lunatic. I spent a great deal of my childhood listening to lengthy explanations of how trains get over steep gradients. For me, the passion isn’t as faceted. I don’t need to know how they work. I just really like riding on them.

And by this point, I guess I’ve ridden on a lot. I’ve taken trains in Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, India, Vietnam, Japan, Mongolia, Russia, England, and the United States. I took the longest train route in the world, through Siberia for six days, and loved every minute of it. And lemme tell you, in every country, without exception, it’s always the most pleasant and fun way to get around.

The Kenya Railway is great. It’s not only great, it’s historically great. It is THE East African Railway, built by the British in the 19th century to tame this wild continent. Conservatively, hundreds died building it – many of them eaten. I guess I shouldn’t use that as testament to its greatness, but it’s at least interesting. Another dubious factoid: Teddy Roosevelt used to pass time onboard by sitting above the cowcatcher shooting at game.

These days, it’s lost most of its thunder. The remaining imperialist charms are just echoes – habits they’ve yet to break for one reason or another. The dining car is like something out of Harry Potter. A guy runs through the 1st class hallways banging a triangle to let you know it’s supper time. When you get there, the white-suited waiters almost outnumber the passengers as they weave back and forth serving each course. It’s a preposterous cluster of frantic yet elegant activity. A few pieces of old cutlery remain; solid silver with Kenya Railways engraved on them. The new pieces are metal junk.

Even the cars date back to pre-independence, and they don’t look like they’ve seen much maintenance since. The power rarely works in any of the passenger cars, and it’s only intermittent in the dining room. This may or may not have something to do with the nests of exposed, severed wires dangling everywhere. They pass out flashlights to each cabin before departure.

While he was unrolling my bed sheets, I asked the porter if the power problem was going to be fixed any time soon.

“Yes. Very soon Kenya Railways weell be sold.”
“Sold? To who?”
“Eenternational company.”
“Really? And they’ll make repairs?”
“Of course. Eet ees the wet man.”
“I’m sorry?”
“The wet man ees the wet man.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You have seen Kenya, yes?”
“A little bit.”
“Then you know, we Africans, we do not take care of our things. The wet man, he knows how to keep his belongings een good condition.”

Each first class car has a Christian toilet on one end and a Muslim toilet on the other. The Muslim toilet is fun if you’re a guy, cause if you aim just right you can direct the stream all the way down the tube and onto the tracks below without hitting any surface. Most girls don’t know this: aiming pee is one of the best things about being a guy.

The train used to run from Mombasa on the coast all the way into Uganda. The British liked Uganda, I’m told, because Ugandans had kingdoms instead of tribes, hence they were easier to relate to. These days, the only route still running is from Mombasa to Nairobi and back. It’s an overnight leaving at 7pm every other day and arriving…well, whenever.

When I bought the ticket, the agent said to expect the train to arrive at 8:25am. “Maybe 8:30,” he said.

I got to Mombasa shortly after noon. There was a minor delay during the night caused by an “obstruction” on the track. Some guy fell asleep on it or something.

Sangeeta and Andy picked me up at the station, and Andy had his camera in tow.


I hope I don’t seem arrogant by posting pictures of myself. I’ve been told I don’t do it enough and people forget what I look like.

Andy and I hadn’t seen each other in a year and a half and hadn’t spoken on the phone once in that time. Our entire trip planning was done through daily emails. So it was a pretty cool reunion.

Andy quit his job and has been traveling the world since August, a la a certain acquaintance of his. His itinerary planning has been far more deft than mine, however – he’s been living on the cheap by utilizing his vast network of international college buddies. It’s getting him through a dozen or so countries with hardly a hotel room betwixt.

To further clarify who this guy is for those who don’t know: Andy is my old boss from Pandemic Studios. I worked with him in Los Angeles and he hired me to come down when they opened the office in Brisbane. He is an Australian, which means he talks funny and thinks there are two ‘i’s in ‘aluminum’. He is also smarter than you and me combined.


That’s him on the right, and his friend Sangeeta on the left. Sangeeta is a marine biologist living with her marine biologist boyfriend, David, in Mombasa. She’s working on her PhD in equatorial coral reproduction. She is smarter than you, me, and Andy combined.


That’s David. David runs a marine preservation and research foundation. He is smarter than you and me combined, squared, and rotated about the circumference of a sphere.

You can read about Sangeeta and David in the pages of National Geographic. No kidding.


This is David peeing. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

David and Sangeeta live in a truly fabulous house on the beach just north of town. Seriously, you wouldn’t believe it. You just can’t imagine.

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Best not to even talk about it. Keep whittling away at your credit card debt and try not to think about how far your money would go out here.


On my first day in Mombasa, after a bit of geeking out with Andy, I got the history thing out of my system by going to Fort Jesus and Old Town. Old Town is the part of the city close to the water built by Arab traders in the Mrmphrmfff century. Their primary business was exporting ivory and black people. I was glommed onto by a guide named Omar, which actually turned out to be a good thing as he was knowledgeable, helpful, friendly, and above all, cheap. He showed me the main slave platform where they’d haul out the merchandise and prep it for display. It was pretty chilling stuff, but also fascinating.

The East African slave trade had nothing to do with slavery in the United States. We stole our people from the West African tribes. Those purchased in Mombasa went to places like Oman, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq – or at least that’s what the places are called now. Swahili culture grew out of this intermingling between the two very different peoples of Africa and Arabia.

A third faction in this ugly affair was the Portuguese, who showed up late in the game but tried repeatedly to run the show. They’d land their ships in Mombasa, take control, then leave a small garrison to manage operations while the fleet sailed onwards. This invariably resulted in the garrison getting slaughtered and the Arabs taking over again. In frustration, the Portuguese built Fort Jesus; a massive and extremely well fortified edifice that was, nevertheless, sacked time and time again as soon as the fleet set sail.

It boggles my mind that any attacking army was able to penetrate Fort Jesus. There’s only one way in and it’s surrounded by inward-facing rifle turrets, each about an inch wide so as to be nearly impossible to fire back at. There were many successful sieges, though, and eventually someone realized it was a lot easier to starve them out instead of bothering to break in.

After a couple centuries of this, the Portuguese finally gave up on the place. The slave trade continued under Omani control until the British persuaded/forced them to cut it out in the 1870’s, around the same time it was becoming extremely unpopular back home.

The story of how Mombasa got its name would be hard to believe if it weren’t so common in so many places around the world. It goes something like this: The town used to be called Invitay (that’s phoenetic, I don’t know the spelling). A British journalist was writing an article on the town and he asked a local what it was called. The local couldn’t understand and replied, "Wambase?" which means something along the lines of "what the hell are you talking about?" Undiscouraged, the reporter asked again, and again he was told, "Wambase?" He jotted down his interpretation of the word, which was Mombasa, and that’s what went down on all the maps forever after.

Enough history. These days, Old Town Mombasa is populated by a mixture of Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. Omar went to great lengths pointing out how well the three faiths get along. It was nice to see and all, but I would’ve liked to show him New York so he could see it isn’t the only place where folks put up with each other’s differences.

I had a couple incidents walking through the streets. The nastiest was when two guys walked into me and pinned me up against a wall. They said nothing and kept on walking. They absolutely reeked of pot. Fortunately, Omar was nearby, which made it less scary. He explained that ganja is rampant in Old Town because it’s tolerated in the Muslim religion. This would be, I’m assuming, the slightly modified Swahili version of Islam. Anyway, the reasoning is that you can’t pray to Allah when you’re drunk, but you can pray to him when you’re stoned, so it’s okay. The political rationale is that it’s locally grown, so as long as no foreigners are profiting from it, no one’s gonna make a fuss.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Al Qaeda has been active in Mombasa as recently as November, 2002, when they blew up an Israeli-owned hotel and simultaneously fired a missile at a departing El Al jet. The attack was specifically targeted, so locals don’t seem to worry much unless they happen to be Jewish. Nevertheless, it’s likely that there still exists an Al Qaeda cell hiding inside the city, which I do find pretty disconcerting.

Okay, onto the spider thing. Yes, there are huge spiders in Kenya, and yes I’ve seen them. Andy and I walked under an enormous web that spanned across an entire street. His camera doesn’t have a zoom lens, so he couldn’t photograph the spiders, and he seemed more interested in my reaction anyway.


I wasn’t actually entirely terrified by them. Strictly speaking, they’ve gotta be hairy to get my pants a’wetting. These guys were hand-sized, but spindly, which is almost tolerable at a distance.

I don’t know if they were Golden Starbust Baboon Spiders, and to be honest, I’m not sure if such a species actually exists at this point. I’ve searched my guide book a half dozen times without finding the reference, and I’m beginning to think I might’ve only dreamt I read it. The name Golden Starburst Baboon Spider is suspiciously fanciful, after all. It sounds like a Pokemon villain. Anyway, I’m not about to go looking up reference photos.

After a couple days in Mombasa, we were faced with a problem; Andy was sick. Andy has the immune system of Rock Hudson. When he gets a cold, it lasts a very long time and gets very snotty. He was out of commission and would continue to be so for at least a few days, so we decided I’d head north on my own up the coast to the island of Lamu, then come back towards the end of the week and hope he was feeling better.

I left by bus the next morning. I was only able to find a bus to Malindi, the one major town between Mombasa and Lamu. Excitement was provided en route by a random police inspection. The bus was forced to stop by a steel bar laid across the traffic lane with huge nails jutting out of it. Everyone started fiddling around with their seats as we were slowing, and I understood why when the woman next to me reached across my lap and clicked my seatbelt together. The police inspector came onto the bus, checked the licenses, checked the first aid kit, walked the length making sure all our seat belts were on properly, then yelled at everyone on the bus in Swahili. Whatever he said didn’t go over well, cause everyone started yelling back at him. They weren’t having any of it. Some passengers stood up and became threatening. He soon got off and we were back on our way.

We were inspected two more times on the three hour ride.

I got to Malindi by noon and found a bus heading to Lamu, but it was full. I sat on a Coca-Cola crate and watched four men argue about me for several minutes before coming to the conclusion that there was no way they could fit me onboard. I’m confident that if there was an open ga
p in the overhead
compartment, they would’ve tried to stick me in there. So I bought a ticket on the next day’s bus and started looking for a place to stay for the night.

Curiosity soon led me off the sealed road and onto a winding dirt path through a sort of ad hoc flea market in a field. On the far end, the path ended at a group of men hunched together in a tight circle. Experience has taught me that whenever a bunch of men are huddled together in a tight circle, I don’t want anything to do with it. I started turning around when I was targeted by a boy named Jumu.

Jumu is 18. He likes Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. He wants to go to America because there is lots of sex. He likes the “mari-jew-wanna” and wants to join the army. He has no brothers and sisters, and when I ask about his parents I get a vague answer having something to do with Mombasa. Basically, he’s a street kid.

Jumu and I talked for a while as he led me through town. I liked having someone to walk with cause it kept other opportunists at bay and I was fine with giving him something once I figured out where I wanted to go. We talked about the Olympics (good), the war in Iraq (bad), and American rap music (very good). We eventually stumbled onto the Italian tourist beach. I gave Jumu 100 shillings, or a little over $1, which he seemed more than happy with, and I felt entitled to also give him a very short lecture about “mari-jew-wanna” being bad for his head. It was really cool that he never once asked me for money.

I took a room at the first place on the strip: The Oasis Village Resort – a bit of a splurge at $30, but I didn’t feel like looking around. My room was enormous though somewhat illogical in design, with one bed and two full bathrooms. I would have gladly traded one bathroom for a toilet seat.

I went downstairs to the lounge area and quickly discovered that I’d stumbled into a combination resort/brothel for old vacationing Italian whoremongers. They were scattered around the tables chatting up local women as a couple of pimps did the rounds making arrangements. Everyone smiled at each other and laughed a lot.

I eventually got marked by a group of three women at a nearby table. They inquired about me with the waiter, then one came over and asked if I’d like to buy her an ice cream cone. I said no.

“It is only one cone.”
“No it isn’t.”
“50 shillings.”
“Uh huh. No.”

They left me alone after that, and I continued to marvel at the spectacle in front of me. I thought about the statistic I read that 85% of Kenyan sex workers are HIV positive. That means that of the three women at the table across from me, the odds are 99.7% that one of them had HIV. And yet there were at least a half dozen Italian men vigorously indulging themselves.

People are amazing.

Sitting in the restaurant, it wasn’t long before I realized I’d done something very stupid. Initially, I felt relatively at ease within the boundaries of the resort, so I’d taken my laptop down with me. The restaurant was clearly visible from the street, and as I sat there writing and surveying the room, a group of young men was congregating across the street about thirty yards away. They weren’t staring at me; they were all quite openly staring at my laptop. One of them even mustered the gumption to duck under the security gate for a closer look and orbit around me inside the restaurant. It was so absurdly blatant that I had to stand up and stare back at him. He waved and left.

I’d made an enormous target out of myself. And worse, the door to my room was visible from the street. They all watched me go back inside. I felt like I was in one of those Loony Tunes where Daffy is starving and he sees me as a giant roast chicken. I locked all my things to the pipe under the bathroom sink. As I was doing so, a fight broke out between a pimp and one of the customers in another room. The pimp was threatening to kill the guy. Back at the lounge, everyone thought that was hilarious.

I didn’t get robbed and I probably didn’t have anything to worry about. More than likely, the guys were just curious because they’d never seen a laptop before. But it was an awful circumstance and I felt like an idiot.

Done with Malindi, I caught the bus to Lamu the following morning.

It is apparent to me now that there are class levels to the buses. There’s no clear indication of what class a bus is – if you ask, they’ll always tell you it’s wonderful – but you can kind of get a sense of what you’re getting yourself into by the amount you’re paying. If the fare is less than $1 for each hour of the ride: be thy warned, all those who enter.

The trip to Lamu was the second worst bus ride of my entire life.

It started out at only pretty bad. There was no room for my legs and the two seats next to me had a family of four packed into it. Then the kid behind me started playing with his toy cell phone that emitted a five second loop of grating Bollywood music ad nauseum. He literally stood on his mother’s lap, leaned against my seat, and held the phone to my ear for several minutes. At one point he dropped it between the seat and my back. I picked it up, and against every fiber of my being I handed the thing back to him. When he started playing it against my ear again, I finally turned around and asked his mother to put it away. She did.

Next, one of the kids asleep on the floor started kicking my leg. She wasn’t kicking so much as just fidgeting. Adults can sit still for long periods, kids can’t. They wriggle around and this kid was wriggling against my shin. In my weakened mental state, I kicked her back, which worked for a few minutes, then she’d start wriggling some more, and I’d have to kick her into her corner again.

I wasn’t able to fit my bag in the cargo hold because it was already packed full with sacks of rice, grain, and – I’m not kidding – hundreds of live chickens. Instead, I had to drop my bag in the front of the bus, where passengers stood on top of it the whole way.

A word on the odor in the bus: bad.

There were 66 seats. I counted them. They were more than filled at the start, and at intervals we would pull over in the middle of the desert and allow a dozen more wandering nomads to get on. They packed into the aisles until there were about 110 people onboard. There were six seated in my row, plus one lying on the floor, and three people standing in the aisle. I had sweaty ass crack pressed against my face.

I should mention here that we did see some hippos on the side of the road, so it wasn’t all bad.

It’s common for young Kenyan men to wear sports jerseys of U.S. basketball teams that display the names of cities like Chicago and New York. From where I was sitting, those words were like Neverland and Oz – more ideas than places. The difference in living standards is so vast it’s hard to fathom, and this experience was one of the closest I’ve come to really grasping the divide.

The patriarch of the muslim family scrunched next to me leaned over a good way into the journey to complain that the trip used to be a lot shorter because the driver would keep the accelerator floored the entire time. This of course caused many gruesome accidents, so the government has put devices in all buses that cap their speed at 80 kph. It added significantly to what is now almost a six hour drive. I am ambivalent about this law.

We stopped at a military outpost and a soldier stepped on wielding a huge machine gun and looking generally battle-ready. I wasn’t sure at the time whether he was providing security or just getting a free ride. I have since learned that the stretch he accompanied us through was major bandit country. What happens is they force the bus off the road, shepherd everyone out, make them strip off their clothes and throw all their belongings in a huge pile, then send them on their way. An incident happened earlier this year in which the driver refused to stop, so t

he bandits shot him and the bus flipped over.

This did not happen to my bus.

In the mid-afternoon, as I was draining the last of my mental reserves and trying very hard to find my happy place, we pulled into the closest thing to a town that we’d seen in quite some time. I was devastated when my new friend in the seat next to me said it wasn’t Lamu. He said we were almost there, though. I asked how long. He had no idea.

This is a thing I’ve learned. Kenyans don’t have much use for measurements of time or distance. If you ask how long something will take or how far it is, you’re likely to get a figure that’s off by several orders of magnitude if you get one at all.

There was a Dutch couple in the back of the bus – the only other muzungus aboard. As awful of a time as I had, there’s must have been even worse, because the back just kept getting compressed as the bus filled up. One of them got off to use the bathroom, and as she was getting back on, she saw me and smiled. She said, “Just act like you’re having fun, yeah?” I smiled back, but I couldn’t follow her suggestion. I just couldn’t. I’d had it.

I got up and started squeezing my way out. The muslim guy grabbed me.

“Where are you going?”
“I’m getting off this bus.”
“No. You can’t leave here. This is a bad place.”
“I’m sure there’s a taxi, right? I can find some other way to get to Lamu.”
“There is no other way. We are almost there. You must sit down.”

So I snapped and then I unsnapped. I sat down and continued looking for my happy place. My friend kept patting me on the leg and telling me it wasn’t much further and we were almost there. And yes, eventually, we were.

We pulled up to a jetty. All the passengers from the bus unloaded and went straight onto a large open boat for the last part of the journey. This took half an hour and was downright pleasant compared to what I’d just been through. There was one interesting part that I never quite figured out. We passed a boat going the other way that seemed to be dead in the water. After some very sloppy docking maneuvers, they threw some lines across and we pulled up alongside them. A bunch of people stood up on both boats and flooded back and forth, then we kept going. Andy loaned me his camera for the trip (I lost mine to a whale shark, you may recall), so I took a picture.


I have no idea why this happened.

Anyway, after all this, Lamu had to be pretty goddam fantastic to have been worth the misery – and praise be to Allah, it was.

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Lamu is an old Swahili trading village that got lost in time during the 19th century and somehow managed to carry on as it was until being resurrected in the 70s as an exotic destination for hippies. It is strongly muslim, but they somewhat tolerate our flesh-baring females and toilet-paper-using bathroom habits for the money we pour in.

The thing to do on Lamu – other than absolutely nothing – is to rent one of the fishing boats, called dhows, and have them take you to the local beaches and ruins. I met up with a Bolivian girl named Marielle and we hired a boat called the Marijuana.


We had a crew of three, led by a guy who called himself Captain Rasta Baby.

The conversation on the Marijuana revolved, not surprisingly, around marijuana, with occasional forays into the subject of reggae music. At one point, the crew got themselves so worked up on the subject, they had to take immediate action. They became upset. We made an abrupt turn to the shore and one of the crew ran over to a nearby dhow. He came back, relieved, having borrowed a lighter and lit his joint. We sailed on to Manda beach with an entirely baked crew.

The first thing to do once we reached Manda was find bait so we could fish for lunch. The bait is crab, which the crew chases across the beach with their bare hands until they catch one. Next we fish in a small tidal pool. It was okay if we didn’t catch anything, because, as the captain explained, “we already went fishing at the market.” This was good, cause we didn’t catch anything.

I really didn’t care either way, cause I wasn’t eating anything. The first thing I did when I hit Lamu was eat an enormous meal of Swahili food, and somewhere in that meal I ingested a vicious microbe of some sort. After that, my stomach was a rocky place where nothing could stay for very long, so my body mercifully flicked off the hunger switch for the rest of my stay in Lamu. I lost 8 pounds in three days.

Marielle and I went swimming and looked across the channel back at Lamu. We debated how far away it was, and somehow it turned into a discussion of whether or not we could swim across. We asked one of the locals if there were any sharks in the water and he said no. Impromptu and without bothering to inform our crew, we took off across the channel. This was rather stupid.

I should mention that I’m not a very good swimmer at all.

About 30 minutes later we were maybe a little past halfway across and we’d drifted sideways with the current farther than we’d swum. Without showing the slightest bit of irritation, Captain Rasta Baby came to our rescue. “Hakuna matata,” he said. It means “no worries,” like in Lion King. They say that a lot in Kenya, and A LOT a lot on Lamu. We held onto the boat for a while, then decided we could make it the rest of the way. And eventually, we did.

Some time later, Marielle asked if I thought there was any chance we could’ve been attacked by sharks. Five things occurred to me:

1. Bull sharks are common in East African coastal waters.
2. There are more incidents of bull shark attacks than any other species of shark.
3. Bull sharks mainly attack humans in rivers and estuaries that lead out into the ocean.
4. Bull sharks mainly attack humans in murky water, when they can’t see what they’re biting.
5. We had been swimming in a murky, East African river that led out into the ocean.

Like I said, this was rather stupid. But the guy told us there were no sharks, and we survived.

Hakuna matata.

Captain Rasta Baby picked us up on the far side and sailed us back to Manda beach, where everyone else had lunch and I stared at a plate of rice.

We ate with another traveler to Lamu named Muhammad. Muhammad is a Shiite Muslim of Indian descent who runs several
businesses in M
ombasa and loves to travel. He had spent time in Iraq visiting the holy sites, and we discussed the situation in Najaf. He impressed the hell out of me with his clarity of insight into the Iraqi situation. I won’t get into it here, but it was the first time I’ve spoken to someone from the Muslim world who’d spent time in Iraq and it was fascinating listening to what he had to say.

I took a lot of pictures of kids on Lamu.

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I know I’ve made my case for taking pictures of kids several times in previous posts, but it always proves true and I’ll state it again:

1. Kids are cute.
2. Kids aren’t trying to sell you anything.
3. Kids haven’t learned to despise white people yet.

The kids here love saying “jambo” to passing tourists. “Jambo” means “hello”. They do this thing I call jambo-sniping, where I’ll hear it shouted from far away and I have to stop, track down where it came from, and say “jambo” back, lest I be considered rude. The paths through town are winding and maze-like, so it can be a real challenge when the jambos are coming fast and furious from every direction.

One pack of kids couldn’t get enough of it. We got stuck in a feedback loop in which all of us were shouting “JAMBO JAMBO JAMBO JAMBO!” as fast as we could. I finally managed to break it up by yelling “jambo infinity times!” which left them stumped and silent.

Here’s a random thing I thought was amusing.


There are no cars on Lamu. Aside from the occasional cart, pretty much everything that gets transported is moved by donkey.


They roam freely through the town in packs, and it’s one of Lamu’s main charms. The donkeys are generally in very good health. This apparently has a lot to do with the donkey sanctuary some British philanthropist opened on the island to teach proper grooming and maintenance. When I think back to the cows roaming around Delhi with their massive growths, open sores, and spasmodic limbs, I am grateful to the deranged Englishman who decided to spend his excess cash on such an unlikely endeavor as Kenyan donkey health.

The day after my trip to Manda beach, I watched a dhow dock with the jetty and a small mob carry a veiled corpse off the boat and through the town. I asked one of the locals what had happened. He said the man died from a snake bite. I asked where the guy was when he was bitten. "Manda", I was told. "The snakes on Manda are not very poisonous, but there is no hospital for a long way, so he died."

There have been many instances over the last few days in which I didn’t die. I am very appreciative of that. There are probably some people reading this who would like me to reduce the frequency with which death must be avoided. I will try to do that.

I just cracked 5,000 words, so I’m going to cut this short. I spent three days loafing around on Lamu and I’m heading back down tomorrow to see if Andy is feeling better. But there’s no way in hell I’m taking the bus.