Pate Island in Lamu: Proof That Lobster Soup Is A Vitality Booster

Some friends referred me to a travel agent, but I was hesitant. How do I trust an agent with zero presence on social media? He’s old school, they said.

I visited his office, in the Nairobi CBD. He seemed quite elderly, but with the infectious enthusiasm of a young man nursing the first strands of his beard.

At first glance, you’d dismiss him as a mere hustler riding bareback on a reputation straddling ‘Three Decades of Experience‘. He didn’t even have a secretary, after all.

Boy, wasn’t I wrong.

A speed boat in Lamu – mostly used for excursions around the island (file image)

A few minutes in, I realized the reputation is solid.  Three decades worth of experience in the travel industry meant he probably had every back road, thicket and Baobab tree etched somewhere in his mind.

I’d mention a random destination in Kenya; the old man would start rattling off facts. Think of Wikipedia in a pinstriped suit and orange bow tie. I said I’ve always wanted to visit Lamu.

Aaaah, Lamu.

The old man paused, leaned back in his seat. He swiveled a little.

It’s not a young people thing – even elderly men in swivel seats like to swivel. Its clear Lamu is one of his favorites. But, I didn’t want him to start rattling off facts.

I’d been saving heavily, spending weekends indoors – agonizingly broke with nothing to do but read about Lamu. I wanted to lead this pitch.

“I want to visit Lamu, sir, but I’m an equinophobe”. I said.

“A what?”

The old man leaned forward, elbows on his desk. If he had glasses – it’s at this point that he’d take them off and absently rub them with a soft cloth. He didn’t. Suddenly his hands didn’t have a thing to do.

In three decades, no one had him in a tight intellectual corner.

“I don’t know what that is…”. He’s wise, better to admit than fumble through.

“I fear donkeys – and, I’ve heard Lamu is literally Donkey Island.”

He smiles warmly. He’s back in the picture. Like he never left.

“No! No! There are people in Lamu, too!” He says, bursting in laughter.

I wasn’t kidding. When I was little, I saw a donkey kick the lights out of a man at the market. Since, I’ve had recurrent nightmares.

Plus donkeys pack a nasty bite if you play idiotic games with them. Or, near them. Donkeys don’t like idiots.

As it is, Lamu Town is known for her ridiculously narrow streets – perhaps, four or five feet wide – with high walls on either side. The streets are always in shadow, and cool.

In every ten pedestrians on these streets, seven are donkeys. Or, on donkeys.

There are no vehicles on the island, which I think is surreally romantic – till I learnt that all transport is via donkeys and donkey carts.

“If you meet a donkey in the narrow streets, just flatten yourself against a wall. It won’t hurt.”

“What if he bites?”

“He won’t bite if you don’t. Don’t carry a carrot in your hand”. The old man was teasing.

I felt small. A grown African man living in fear of donkeys; while other men keep pythons as pets. I had to face this. To kill the teasing, I ask him what else makes Lamu tick.

Aaaah, Lamu. Again.

Old man re-schools me on Lamu. Ignore the little that comes up online.

Lamu town is the headquarters of Lamu District – inscribed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2001 for her unique Swahili traditional architectural vibes.

Lamu is Lamu – but, there’s more.

There’s Lamu Archipelago – a small group of Island situated on Kenya´s Northen Coast line. This is made up of Lamu, Manda, Pate and Kiwayu islands.

If you don’t like donkeys, my old friend says – can catch a boat and explore the islands.

An image of the beautiful Lamu Beachfront (file image)

It’s enticing – imagine a conversation with an 80-yr-old who’s spent their entire life on an island – no cars, no electricity or WiFi.

I can use a day skimming across the Must See’s: Lamu Museum, Lamu Fort, German Post Office and Siyu Fort. Then, I can try the islands – especially Pate.

Pate Island is a lobster stronghold. If you didn’t know, lobster is best known as a vitality booster. Now you know.

More luck, is that Lamu holds lots of cultural festivals. The biggest is the Maulidi Festival, thronged by Muslims from around East Africa.

It’s iconic, with entertaining events such as dhow races, a donkey race, bao games, henna painting, kofia making, swimming competitions and a football match organized by the locals.

A donkey race? Yaani, people risk bites and kicks to race donkeys! I need to travel, and see Lamu.

I’ve been saving for a vacation at the end of the year, but something rare caught my eye and changed plans.

I bumped into an amazing off-season travel deal between Magical Kenya, Jambojet and Hotels across the Kenyan Coast, Rift Valley and Lakeside region.

This is a vacation deal covering flight and accommodation costs. It takes advantage of low off-season traffic to offer a soft financial landing for travel enthusiasts.

P.S: I’ll be walking around Lamu with nothing on. Ok, just a Kikoi wrapper. Just about time, I hate jeans!

Story of Koko: The Illiterate Beach Boy Fluent in Six Foreign Languages

I feel the grit of warm, fine sand in the soft spots between my toes. Curiously, a blurred image of the planet’s diced cross-section in elementary Geography crops up.

It shows the strata – from the layer of white sand massaging my toes to the red hot core. There’s an almost tangible sense of connection with nature.

A blast of wet, salty wind hits full on the face. It breaks my reverie.

Koko regains my attention. Koko has a tiny sharp knife in his right hand, curving away with short practiced strokes at a green coconut. He’s mid-20’s, quite lanky with a couple of thick, brown locks on his head.

School kids frolicking in the white, sandy beaches in Malindi, Kenya (file images)

Koko dons a stained pair of combat shorts with hemline miles above visibly-scarred knees. At his feet, there’s a bunch of green coconuts – he sells Madafu – the overrated coconut water drink. He’s a career beach boy. He sells Madafu in the low season.

I point to his feet. He’s barefoot.

“Koko, unavaa kiatu number ngapi?”

I ask, with a relaxed familiarity seemingly built over a long period of friendship. Wrong. I’ve known him inside the half an hour I’ve been on the beach. He ain’t offended, like it certainly would to a large swab of upcountry people.

Watu wa bara. Sic.

“I don’t know. Sijawahi vaa kiatu, kaka brazza.” Koko says, good naturedly.

I wait for the rejoinder. Most people quickly follow a joke on themselves with a redeeming rejoinder. Koko has none.

I take my eyes off a bare-chested man walking perhaps a quarter mile in the ocean – its low tide – and, look at Koko. A straight face – like you’d have on a recitation of the Apostle’s Creed

I survived a shoeless phase in our rural primary school days, but – striding through three decades of life without a shoe? Hard to take that in.

Koko’s feet – like most local lads stomping by – were heavily webbed. Yes, like a duck’s.

See how your favorite (ugly) Crocs are web-shaped? They were meant for the beach. Not for the mall, and certainly not with socks.

Here, it’s not entirely useless. Career beach boys literally swim better than ducks.

I ask for a second Madafu. Koko is interesting. It beats staring at an empty seabed. Low tide is underwhelming. The banter comes easily.

To be honest, I hate the drink. For taste, Madafu is neither here nor there – a quite bleak affair. It’s not sweet, or sour – oh, wait – it tastes like a yucky version of ORS.

That oddly-tasting salt and sugar mixture used to treat diarrhoea. No (yes) offense, Coasterians.

Like you’d offer a whiskey shot to a benevolent bartender in a new town, I offer Koko a drink of his own. He settles down flat on the sand.

Koko is native Digo – one of the nine constituent Mijikenda sub tribes. He was born and bred in Likoni. Storytelling comes naturally to this tribe. Perhaps, the trait that makes Coastal Kenya so appealing and homely.

Koko vividly narrates of his early life, starting school. He’d drop out in sixth class, and not for lack of want.

His father was a fairly successful fisherman, and schooling was inexpensive. He just says – ‘the beach called’ – and, ever since Koko has been on Shelly Beach. Its barely a mile from Likoni Ferry.

Koko is super fluent in English and Swahili, but he doesn’t know, or get to write.

On the Swahili adage ‘Mugala muue na haki umpe’,  he’s double fluent in German, French, Italian and a bit of Swiss. But, if humanity depended on it – Koko cannot read or write any of their syllables!

Of paradoxes in life – Less is more, You are damned if you do and damned if you don’t – I bumped into the biggest paradox of my life.

How does a man speak six of the biggest global languages and lack the basic skill to write his own name?

I’m now on my third Madafu. The taste kind of grows on you – I guess taste buds just slump out, resigned to their fate.

“How did you learn all these languages?” I ask Koko.

“Hapa tu kwa beach na tourists. Miaka kumi na tano kwa beach sio mchezo.” Koko says, and shrugs.

There’s a faraway look in his eyes. The tide is coming in.

Koko is happily married to an age mate, a beautiful Digo lady.

Aside, in conspiratory tones – Koko lets slip that he’s been thrice married before, as he says ‘in my younger years’.

To a German, a French and lastly to a Swiss lady – before ‘cruel pandemic’ had cut short the romance. They’d been prepared to travel to Switzerland, but Covid 19 happened.

Koko digs out a dog eared pamphlet wrapped in a polythen paper from his side pocket. It’s his passport.

Dear Lord, its colorful – end to end stamped with arrivals and departures in cities across the world. If you have a travel bucket list, Koko has most probably ticked off three-quarters of it.

A group of youth in an exercise run at a beach in Mombasa, Kenya (file image)

Wait, barefoot.

Well, fancy a nonchalant stride through cobbled streets in Munich – barefoot, and webbed.

Suddenly, my world felt so small. Not unlike a translucent lizard on the wall in my servant quarter rental house. I’ve always felt like a snobbish brag when I say I live in Karen, up-market Nairobi.

A beach boy hawking bland-tasting Madafu on Shelly Beach has been there, and certainly done that.

I’ll have to travel more. I’ve started baby steps.

This year, I couldn’t resist incredible off-season travel plans in a deal between Magical Kenya, Jambojet and Hotels across the Kenyan Coast, Rift Valley and Lakeside region.

I didn’t see dolphins, learn surfing or attempt drowning with a snorkel on my two-day stay-cation. But, I did meet Koko – who served an unapologetic juxtaposition to personal ideals about life.

See you soon, Koko.


Facing off with Sharks: The Fearless Art of Spear Fishing on Wasini Island

For enthusiasts ticking off destinations on their travel bucket list in Kenya, there are two must-visit places in Kenya. The first spot is Iten – famous as the ‘Land of Champions’ for the plethora of global marathon legends with roots here. It’s often packed, and easy to find.

The other spot is Wasini Island. This is a serene, exotic island a few miles to the Kenya-Tanzania border. That’s the furthest end of South Coast, Kenya, but – certainly the most interesting.

A young boy learning spearfishing skills in Wasini, Kenya. (file images)

Iten and Wasini Island are on opposite ends of the country, but have exhibited a similar phenomenon. There’s an interesting fusion of man and nature in a naturalization sequence that has brought out extreme, extraordinary abilities for the natives.

In Iten, the natives are natural athletes. It’s a high altitude zone. As the visitors often run short of breath at the slightest incline in their path, natives are effortlessly cresting hills. Observing a measured, even stride uphill – you’d be forgiven to assume packing an extra pair of lungs.

Wasini Island by virtue of being on the border, hosts an interesting mix of Swahili and Arabic culture. The language, the complexion of the residents is neither Arabic, nor Swahili. They, however exhibit an overly-friendly disposition akin to Lamu Swahili culture. They have a natural gift: their affinity to the ocean.

Spear Fishermen of Wasini Island.

Spear fishing is interesting, and an extremely dangerous vocation. Oh, wait – spear fishing is a form of fishing where the fisherman is swimming in the water with a spear gun. This is a contraption used underwater with the basic bow-and-arrow concept but the arrow or spear has a thread attached.

The fisherman dons a pair of swimming goggles, grabs his spear gun and gets into the water. The trick is to swim as quietly and as close as possible to the fish – then spear them. Once a fish is hit, it’s threaded along the line. The fisherman has to ready the gun’s trigger system rigged with a strong rubber band that launches the spear.

It’s all good, except – all this is done – while still doing your best not to drown!

If you sit on the beach at Shimoni – the gateway to Wasini Island, you’ll notice bright colored buoys moving through the water. That buoy marks the spear fisherman underneath the water, for boats and dhows on the surface.

Shortly, you’ll behold a man emerging from the water. He’s armed with nothing fancy in diving equipment, just a pair of goggles and a snorkel.

Spearfishing off Nuakata Island.

As the athletes in Iten break world records in distance running, spear fishermen are facing off sharks, shallow water blackout, heavy seas, strong currents, jelly fish, and risk drowning as a result of line tangles. Spear fishing by its very nature is an extreme sport and few activities can rival the excitement and thrill of landing a quality fish.

Both of these skills are innate, shaped by locality and honed by practice.

It’s an eerie feeling watching a man wade and disappear into the ocean. Then, watch him resurface with a stringed-up bunch of fish.

Travelling exposes one to experiences beyond their regular circle.

Lately, it’s become easier to reach most vacation spots across the country, thanks to an incredible off-season deal between Magical Kenya, Jambojet and Hotels across the country. The deal covers exotic vacation spots on the length of the Kenyan Coast, to Rift Valley and Lakeside region.

The package covers return flight tickets and accommodation costs in affordable off-season rates. It’s not limited to hanging out with athletes or snacking on roast fish on a beach with spear fishermen. There’s much more.

It’s time to create new memories and experiences. The Jambojet-Magical Kenya deal has more to offer, even to other parts of the scenic country.

Click here, to sample endless amazing offers.

If you are #NowTravelReady, here is your chance to #TembeaKenya!