Trip Report: Lamu, The Pearl of the Kenyan Coast

My first thought upon arriving in Lamu, the pearl of the Kenyan coast, was where have I taken my 7-year-old kid? Dusty, dirty and it smelled, horribly.

Lamu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its cultural significance, is steeped in the Swahili culture that once dominated the East African coast from Somalia to Mozambique. And despite my first impression, it doesn’t take long for this backwater town to get under your skin.

Narrow streets, storied buildings, and elaborately carved wooden doors set the backdrop. Donkeys, the town’s sole means of transports, provide local charm. But what sets Lamu apart from the beach resorts further south are the people: courteous, welcoming and warm. While one should be aware of small tricks, as of yet, there are few ‘beach boys’ here.

We spent the first afternoon wandering the settlement’s bustling streets, stopping each time something intrigued. Watching locals play Mancala, a board game, was fascinating; their skill only wholly appreciated after we had our first go at Count and Capture, as the game is often referred to in the West. Shopping also proved hard to resist. Kikoi, the striped and plaid fabric worn by men, line shops throughout the ‘old town’. And while you may be able to buy the material and get a beach cover made for less than the EUR5 we paid, negotiating for change may leave you feeling more guilty than satisfied.

Our full-day excursion on a dhow, the age-old Arab vessels that grace the Archipelago’s shores, was about more than learning to fish with a line tied to block of wood. No pole. No reel. The journey from Lamu to Manda Beach, only a few kilometers as the crow flies, was a lesson in navigating a channel at low tide. Our lunch – fish, vegetables and rice cooked on an open fire – was a reminder that simple means can result in delicious fare. The mangrove, home to the large crabs on offer at restaurants up and down Kenya’s coast, is teeming with bird life and provoked many a whisper, “Mom, look, over there.”

On our last day in Lamu, we arranged a donkey ride through a local boy. For my daughter, riding a donkey with a burlap bag for a saddle was one of the highlights of our family trip. But the adventure will just as surely be remembered by the exchange that took place when my daughter’s newfound friend appeared at our hotel bearing a gift, ice cream. While my daughter happily shared the bag of cookies she had saved for the flight home, she decided that old baseball caps and t-shirts would make a better trade and should be packed on all future trips.

While the initial impact of Lamu may be strong, scratch the surface and pour on. You can’t judge a book by its cover, you know.

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