Unfurl Your Sails

In the morning we walk to Lamu Town. The wind has stilled somewhat, and the sea seems momentarily calm. A soothing breeze still comes up off the water, for which we are grateful. Otherwise there is only our own sweat, pooled in armpits and crevices, and the taste of salt in our dusty mouths. Past the Masai and their rainbow wares. They nod nonchalantly; they're not interested in us, we don't look likely to buy anything, or perhaps its just that the late-morning heat has steeped us all in its lethargic juices, and they cannot be bothered to hassle us, just as we cannot be bothered to approach their stalls. We slip into the town, buy water and matches from a funny little shop that smells of donkey piss. While the proprietress goes to find change for us (every transaction here is multiplied, like a ripple through the town--you buy something from one shop and invariably involve half the street), a small boy stands, his head just above the counter, holding a large clear plastic bag full of weed.

We go into the square and sit like the locals do, on benches next to donkeys. Our shoulders touch. He lights a cigarette; I flick flies from my (scandalously) bare arms. My wrist has begun to peel, a little. Beside us, a man is sewing up a hole in his flat white hat. He wears an identical one, sun-stained and intricately embroidered. The men shout across the square to each other; we're caught in the crossfire. Sometimes it's Swahili, sometimes Arabic, sometimes an incomprehensible mixture of both. A boy pushes a wooden cart labeled MEAT through the crowd. Wrinkled elderly gentleman lounge in deep plastic chairs outside their shops, as if by sheer age they've earned the right to sit on what amounts to the finest real estate in the square. They nod and smoke and though they barely move, their eyes are quick as hares, and whatever we see, I'm sure they're seeing more.

We pop from shop to shop, making deals with smiley shopkeepers who shrug a lot and, with weary resignation (resenting, no doubt, the advice in all the guidebooks to bargain hard), lower their prices a token amount, to make us feel better about our feeble efforts. One man tells us about his brother, who had gone to rehab after a brutal drug addiction and now, two months too early, is coming home. That is why I seem distracted, he tells us, painstakingly counting out our change.

The walk back to the hotel is long and hot. We see boats in various states of decay and disarray. Wood rots, sinks into sand and sea. A cantering donkey passes us. I pick up a shell; I carry my sandals in my hand; he holds my fingers with his own sweaty set, and we push through the afternoon haze, through all the smells and the roar of the motorboats and the low-tide emptiness. And out at sea, as always, men are unfurling their sails.

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