The Artist Voyager's First Day on Lamu

In the morning, another strong wind shifts the clouds. Everywhere you go here, all the time, you can hear indistinct voices. Even in the toilet having a pee you can hear the children shouting from the classroom behind our hotel room. Often they speak English and once I get a lesson in my 6 times-tables. "6 times 7 is what?" "42!"

The water is integral here. Even when you cannot see it you can hear it, or smell it or, at least, at night in your room with the shutters drawn, taste it. You wake up with salt on your lips. Men make their livings, and their homes, from the water. They look more at ease slouched against the mast of the dhow, balancing on a narrow wooden beam, than they do on land. They're adrift on the shore, unbalanced after hours, after centuries, of rocking back and forth on the Indian Ocean.

It's a strange landscape, half paradise, half wasteland. As we walk along the beach to Lamu Town we pass a power station, a rubbish heap, a hospital, a mosque. All the practicalities. And in the background, this dreamy dark blue world of sea and sky and golden-sailed dhows. It is hot and windy. The winds this year have come late, just like the short rains did. They mask the heat of the sun; we are all burnt. My body has never been this close to the equator. Geography means something different, something physical, here.

There are schools and schoolchildren everywhere. One pair of tiny girls clad in pink cotton become enraptured by my gold sandals. They point repeatedly, saying, "Jambo!" and flashing quick little smiles, follow us for some distance until they lose us in the coil of backstreets.

On the walk back, on a barren stretch of beach, two Masai in purple robes pass us. They smile at our footwear, which we hold in our hands as we mince barefoot through the sand.

"No good," they say. They point at their own rugged sandals, made of tire treads. "You should do as the Masai do," they say.

In the evening, the pink of pre-sunset, we have spicy, milky tea on a rooftop, seated amongst red pillows like sun-drenched kings and queens. We watch a couple on a nearby rooftop having sex until the sun goes down. We descend the stairs; the courtyard is empty except for a waiter in flowing white cotton who moves silently, a ghost in our consciousness.

The sea turns a gold-flecked blue, like it is Midas' ocean. The dhows are all out on their sunset sails. We sit on an overturned boat on the beach in the new darkness, drinking beer. The stars emerge from behind their milky daylight veil, the masts stand proud near the violet shore, and on the horizon, the mangroves fade against the sky, the islands slip into the sea, the donkeys blend into the sand, and then, in the cave of night, we are suddenly aware of a thousand little sounds. The water slapping against dhows and speedboats, the wind in trees, in our ears, sliding across the sand. The pant and bellow of donkeys, the voices in greeting, the water going up and down on the shore. The muezzin's call to prayer, and later, the children in the training centre laughingly practicing the same call in tiny voices. Our own voices, our own breath, the movements of our limbs. The story here is in the details.

Details like this:

In the hotel room. Our bodies are lobster-red in places, our skin hot to the touch. The fans hum. Nothing occurs to me, really. Everything is too visceral, too still. I think briefly of what John Fowles said about Greece, how too much time there was poison to the writer--"one has to be a very complete artist," he'd written, "to create good work among the purest and most balanced landscapes on the planet…the Greece of the Islands is Circe still; no place for the artist-voyager to linger long, if he cares for his soul."

But then I think that's wrong, it must be, or partly wrong. At least I want him to be wrong; something else tells me he's got a point, something tells me it would be too easy to be sung to sleep each night here, to lose the creative impetus, to feel the futility of any endeavor as it paled to nothing beside the vibrancy of a sunset or the careful architecture of a dhow.

But then I think: anyway, here we are, and that's what we have, and there's plenty of poetry in the thought of that. And when all else fails, we still have the place names, the other language, the words to stumble over, the lure of the distant, foreign ports.

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