Detached

We take a dhow to have tea at a hotel on Manda Toto. It's a two hour journey, alongside Lamu, past the town, then north. The mainland looks close enough to touch. We snake through mangroves, then emerge suddenly into open ocean, bobbing like an empty glass bottle in a grass-coloured sea. We arrive at the island windswept and soaked. We sit watching a deserted beach, sipping the much-anticipated tea and eating fruitcake. The cake is vile, but the fresh saltwater air has inspired an unusual appetite in us. A group of sun-browned schoolkids sit behind us, sharing photos of each other kite surfing and flying little biplanes. They wear towels and swimsuits, their hair tinted gold, matted by sand and wind. Their parents own this hotel, and the land on it, and they look so at ease in the rugged, empty landscape. As if they are the natural inhabitants of this uninhabitable land. One of the owners tells us she can't even keep her books on the shelves; the heat, the humidity, the wind, the moisture when the rains come--it's always something, she says, something always ruins them prematurely. So they're tucked away in her air-conditioned office. I have the sense of being somewhere very beautiful and very fragile. As if the illusion of civilization--the swimming pool, the teacups and their tiny saucers, the bottles of liquor behind the bar--are like a Buddhist sand painting, and the slightest breeze, or else the ebb and flow of the tide, will wash it all away in an instant.

We sail back towards the sunset. The wind is softer and the sea smoother, and we make good time, sipping beers while the hairs on our arms stand up in almost-cold for the first time since we've arrived here. We pass the mangroves again, where baboons sometimes dwell, as well as eel, who live in the coral; we glide through a channel once passable only at high tide, until they dredged it, just 10 or 20 years ago; we pass the place where they make limestone, turning it into powder bricks to transport to the island, and a farm where they grow coconuts and mangoes. We pass a stretch of sparse beach near Lamu Town which used to be uninhabited. Then a group of American troops came in and used it as a base; just two years ago they vacated the area, and the previously empty land is being settled by locals. We pass what used to be a cotton-cleaning plant, still labeled as such (Lamu Ginners Company), but which now acts as the holiday home for an Indian businessman based in Mombasa. We pass a warm, well-lit house owned by a wealthy German. It seems everywhere has a story here, if you look hard enough.

Our dhow captain tells us that he himself lives with his mother; he can't afford a house of his own, because prices for property have increased so much in the last few decades. Once it was very cheap, he says. Not any longer. But he doesn't seem angry about it. He points out another rich man's mansion. He tells us that the walk from Shela to Lamu Town, just a few kilometres of sandy beachfront, has become very dangerous at night, that men often hide in the bushes, preying on would-be evening strollers. He becomes suddenly protective of the tourists; if we catch these robbers, he says, we'll kill them. I'm not sure if he means it literally, but his voice sounds sincere enough, his tone detached, but then in the next breath he asks if we've ever been sailing at night before, says in some ways he prefers it to sailing in the day, and we gaze at the black space between Shela and Lamu Town and I suddenly think it must be a very lonely life, for that Mombasa businessman, or that wealthy German, and that I don't think I'd like to own their expensive properties.

Phonebox Graveyard, Lamu Town