Like many families this month, Katrina Ole-MoiYoi heads down to explore the tastes, sights and sounds of the stunning island that is Lamu with her husband and two kids.
There are two types of travellers: those who go on holiday with young children, and those who know better. I recently joined the ranks of the former. My charges include an opinionated three-year old and a one-year old who weighs as much as the three-year old. Not ideal in hot, humid Lamu, which is where we found ourselves recently.
Reasonable travellers with children often gravitate towards all-inclusive beach resorts. Resorts with powerful AC, buffets overflowing with recycled (but kid-friendly) food, and swimming pools with sufficiently high concentrations of chlorine to make “swim diapers” seem socially acceptable. Given my new role as a young mother, I really should book these kinds of vacations. But I simply cannot succumb. “I am sophisticated,” I tell myself. Next thing I know, I’ve booked us into a Swahili villa in Lamu, built in the late 18th Century for the Caliph (Kisimani House). We buy plane tickets, stuff three suitcases with kid-related possessions that we will surely need on this remote island, and off we go!
It is at this point in the story that you enter the picture, you being the second kind of traveller who wisely vacations sans little people. Our eyes lock in the stylishly simple bar of the Peponi Hotel. You are on a barstool, enjoying your sundowner. Your linen pantsuit is barely crumpled. Your colorful scarf is knotted just-so around your elegantly aging neck; and in I tromp, with a crying baby and a whiny daughter insisting she needs juice (“With a straaaw, Mama!”). With one hand, I struggle to push a lumbering stroller holding numerous stinky diapers. Behind me trails my husband, pretending to be unaffiliated. Oh lord. If only I could be you…not forever, just long enough to peacefully sip that alcoholic beverage that clinks with ice cubes, mint leaves and handful of muddled limes.
Our visit coincided with the annual Lamu Cultural Festival. What is the Festival all about, you ask? Well, for starters, there is a donkey race that makes the “Running of the Bulls” in Pamplona seem like child’s play. We arrive, and there are hundreds of people standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the narrow walkway. Suddenly, there is a cacophony of screams, and the crowd around us scrambles away in terror as a donkey bursts through. The rider – whose eyes seem to pulsate with adrenalin – clings to the donkey’s back as it runs at gut-terrifying speed. I miraculously manage to gather up the children and stumble out of the way. But others are less lucky. Riders fall. There is blood. But at the end, the winner is carried victoriously through the cheering crowd on the shoulders of his peers. Next year, you can be sure that more young men will voluntarily sign up for this mayhem. So book your plane tickets now, and bear witness to an event that anywhere else in the world would cease to exist due to a general consensus around avoidable head trauma.
After the race, I suggest we escape the heat. We find a little oasis of a restaurant inside Lamu House Hotel and collapse onto linen white sofas. The children fall asleep. I order freshly squeezed passion fruit juice. It is, quite simply, marvelous. After guiltlessly tucking into a large portion of coconut curry with snapper (highly recommended), I feel like myself again. I leave my companions and venture outside. The restaurant opens onto the sea, and as I turn, I can’t help but gasp in awe. Less than a stone’s throw away, dozens of silent brown and white behemoths quietly race towards me. This is the annual dhow race, and it is one of the most beautiful sites I have ever witnessed.
Another meal highlight is at the rooftop restaurant of Msafini Hotel, which is located deep within the walkways of Shela. We ascend a humid five stories to the restaurant, lugging strollers and tired children. I however quickly check my self-pity as I watch the light-footed waiters run up and down the same stairwell balancing heavy trays. The restaurant commands perhaps the most spectacular view on the Island, and the food is terrific- I highly recommend the catch-of-the-day with coconut rice.
Throughout the rest of the weekend, I discover that one of the best cooks on the island must be chef Fred Kahindi of Kisimani House where we are staying. I lounge on the back of a dhow sipping bourbon with friends while watching the sunset, returning to Peponi Hotel to attend a dinner for my friends’ 10th wedding anniversary. We sit a table full of twinkling hurricane lanterns while devouring Peponi’s sumptuous mangrove crab entrée. Already I can hear you saying, “Goodness, doesn’t she have any self-restraint?” The answer is no. I definitely put on a kilo or three. But honestly, who cares? The food in Lamu may well be the best in Kenya and therefore well worth the additional chub.
I eat my own weight in fish samosas bought from a roaming beach vendor who sells them out of a slightly-melty black plastic bag( note to self: stuffing 20 such samosas into a suitcase to bring back to Nairobi is not the smartest idea). Finally, I can’t help but return to the balcony of Peponi Hotel one last time to read a book and slowly sip a glass of chilled white wine while nibbling on the delicious salt and pepper calamari. Yes, my husband generously decided to step up and watch the children.
Eventually, it is time to leave. I cram untouched heaps of children’s toys back into our suitcases and generously tip the kind soul who lugs them to the boat. We arrive at the airport and board the plane. As I thumb through dozens of photos on the flight back, I find myself thinking: our kids are so lucky to grow up in Kenya and visit a place like Lamu, and I hope the memories last because next time they are staying home.