Day 346: Enter the Charming Island of Donkeys
Even today there are only a few motorized vehicles on the island. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Daily Updates are not edited and function more as daily journal entries – so if the plot seems to be all over the place or missing entirely and the tenses changes faster than a kaleidoscope, well, that's just the way it is.
THE sinking of Dorsey II, my dear, 1,200-dollar drone, gives me wings. The last month of Dice Travels was hemmed in with drone engagements: a shoot in Kilifi, a shoot in Nairobi, and then squeezing in as much work as possible for Top Journey. The cash flow from Dorsey II was dictating the project.
Now, I can't do any of it, which means my priorities have been scratched – throwing everything back into that sweet 40-60 percent who-gives-a-fuck range that Dice Travels is all about.
I'd been afraid that the project would peter out, falling into the shadows of my future plans to establish a drone production company and the opportunity to put a little padding in my pocket before landing in New York. Now, that's simply not an option.
Dismounting the Musafir with a back flip, I splash into a deep channel and swim a few meters to the beach. Mini, the Spanish doctor on the boat who I've developed a crush on, has taken my waterproof bag to shore in the kayak – just in case.
A boardwalk, with a steep retaining wall, and a wide stretch of beach, at low tide, reaches out to the channel. On the far side, is a mangrove island, where juvenile fish take shelter and other marine animals breed, as well as where locals go to catch crabs and octopuses.
Barefoot, I saunter follow the warm stones toward Lamu Town, which is considered by Unesco as the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa. Though this is true, and impressively so, it's hard to think of Lamu as anything but the City of Donkeys.
In a time not so long ago, there wasn't a single land-based motor vehicle on the island. Now, there are a few motorbikes, but there are no roads for larger vehicles to comfortably use. The town is a maze of narrow alleyways and only two modest streets, including the boulevard. At the edge of town, near a stick fence that hems in someone's undeveloped property, a pair of donkeys are tied to the rusted remains of a tuk-tuk buried in the sand – some environments eat machines faster than animals.
I've never so much liked Donkey's as when I was in Lamu. And, I'm not the only one. There is a Donkey Sanctuary on the island where people can bring their beasts for free health care... Just saying America, there's free health care for Lamu donkeys. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Donkey shit and the dust of coral rag blocks paint the sidewalk. A line of three donkeys grimace as smiling men move coral rag blocks from a wooden sailboat to neat pile on the boulevard and then into woven saddle bags hanging on either side of the beasts of burden. Their ears lay flat, their eyes blankly stare ahead as they shoulder the weight of more and more blocks.
There's nothing kept up about the town. It has the charm of a tourist town that never knew it was a tourist town. Built of coral rag and mangrove timbers, the buildings on the edge of town are crumbling and decrepit, gaining structural soundness as they work their way toward the main pier and welcome arch marking Lamu Old Town as a Unesco World Heritage site. It's here, for a few hundred meters in all directions, that sweeping balconies and columns mark the colonial buildings.
I sidestep a herd donkeys, the boys riding the animals flicking their wooden switches as they go.
This late into the morning, there is no real bustle to the town, woman, wrapped in an abaya or chador, and men, in shorts and tank tops or dress shirts and taqiyah, press into the limited shadows of the city. Of course, there are those, such as the men loading blocks, who are unable to escape the mounting heat, their bodies glisten with sweat.
This city was built on coral rag and mangrove timbers. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The sun cuts through the blue sky, diving into the cool water of the channel and chasing shadows like a puppy after chickens.
I settle into Lamu Princess Hotel to work, after grabbing a quick lunch dictated the dice – despite not being hungry. An hour or so later, while I'm still nursing a coffee, I get a message from Chris.
Chris is the most politely dressed, deferential demeanored Canada I've ever come across. With a well-trimmed beard, side-parted hair, and a checkered dress shirt, he'd blend into any Brooklyn cafe. What you wouldn't expect is that he spends half the year in Africa and Southeast Asia as one of the founders of The Sentinel Project for Genocide Prevention, a project operating in Myanmar, Kenya, and a few other countries as a rumor management service.
He was subletting the extra bedroom in Liz and Lovince's place for a couple months and is now looking at how drones can be incorporated into his project.
Our schedules just happened to cross in Lamu.
I catch up with him and a Kenyan colleague for a juice and some chit-chat.
They're organizing a meeting for tomorrow and still need to hand deliver a couple invitations.
“Do you want to come along?” Chris asks me.
“Sure, I guess I have nothing else going on.”
They are reaching out to community leaders and media outlets on the island – not that there are many – to explain exactly how their SMS rumor management system works and to gain the local support necessary to add Lamu island to their coverage.
As best as I understand it, the project is about defusing situations where rumors snowball and lead to violence – often along tribe lines in Kenya. Though not a focal point for the organization, Lamu has a recent, disturbing history with regards to terrorism. In September 2011, Al Shabaab was responsible for a number of kidnappings in Lamu, making it a no-go zone for tourists. However, in April 2012, the US Department of State lifted its Lamu travel restriction. Two years a change later, two attacks in the region – which left 29 dead – were claimed by Al Shabaab.
Chris and his colleague have been to the radio station once before, but it's since moved. Diving deep into the town, away from the coastline, we enter a maze where the cobbled streets quickly give in to sandy paths and rubble lots are interspersed between unfinished coral rag homes with thatch roods and blue doors. Spray paint is scrawled across some of the historic buildings.
Supports spray paint walls ahead of elections. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
“Yeah, apparently, there's an election coming up. This is how they promote a candidate,” Chris explains.
“Really? I feel like this would stop me from wanting to vote for someone.”
“Agreed. However, that's not the case here I guess.”
Welcome to the back streets. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
After asking directions a couple of times, we pass under an enormous tamarind tree, and through an empty lot scattered with broken glass. Ahead of us is a tower-like three-story building with a radio antenna sticking out of the top.
“Do you want me to wait outside for you guys?” I ask.
“No reason to do that,” Chris says, unconcerned about have a guy doing a great beach-bummer impersonation trailing along.
We're warmly greeted in a room with blue vinyl flooring by a middle-aged man who remembers the last time Christ visited.
After some small talk about the increased range of the station now that it's on a hill, Chris cuts straight to the chase, presenting an official letter of invitation to the man as a representative of the Christian radio station. There's a bit more chatter and talk about the project, then a long awkward silence.
Chris and his colleague have come and done what they needed to do, yet both sides are waiting as if something further might happen.
“Well, we came to give you the invitation. So, you have that now,” Chris says, breaking the silence.
We all stand and shake hands.
I join Chris at the police station, where he talks to the police chief about the project. This time, I wait outside, contemplating an ancient safe sitting on the white-washed balcony of the station like it was recovered from a shipwreck and had yet to be cracked.
That was the last order of business of the day.
“Hey, want to grab a beer?” I ask Chris after is colleague wanders off to attend to something or the other.
He hesitates, then agrees to grab a drink along the waterfront with me.
It's not obvious at first where we can have a beer along the boardwalk. Eventually, we settle into seats at the Lamu Princess Hotel, which seems tired and worn out – yet fresher than any other establishment on long the natural canal.
The attacks in 2011 must have done lasting damage. Founded in 1370, Lamu mainly traded in humans until the abolition of the slave trade in 1907, when it was forced to rely more heavily on ivory, mangrove, turtle shells, and rhinoceros horns. A quick review of that list makes it pretty obvious that the island town has little to offer the outside world beyond tourism, for which kidnappings and the mention of well-known terrorist groups do little.
Unfortunately, even before the attacks, a 2010 report titled Saving Our Vanishing Heritage, Global Heritage Fund identified Lamu as one of 12 worldwide sites on the verge of irreparable loss and damage, citing insufficient management and development pressure as primary causes. Those same factors were also listed as concerns for Stone Town.
The similarities between the two island old towns are striking – as they should be – given that both are Swahili trading posts. The same types of ornate doors that are famous in Stone Town can be found nestled into the mangrove door frames in Lamu.
Chris and I settle into our chairs to reflect on life.
“We call it afro-cred. There are these experiences here that people back home simply can't fully understand,” Chris is explaining.
I know exactly what he's talking about. One time in Togo, making my way to Ghana by overnight bus, I yelled at an old woman after stealing her seat on the bus. Here's the thing, given the situation and the cultural context, my reaction was spot on – not that anyone is ever going to believe me.
We have a second beer as the sky starts to darken. Chris walks with me back to the Musafir. We shake hands before I wade into the bloated canal – the tide is in – and begin swimming out to the ship, waterproof pack floating in front of me.
The unreasonably fast current takes hold, quickly threatening to sweep me past the boat. It's not a long swim, but with the pack, I'm not going to be able to make it.
I grab a taut mooring rope running from the stern. Breathing hard, I make my way up to the rope and over the rail of the ship.
“Isaac, how do the dice work?” Cleo asks once I've toweled dry. Apparently, someone was telling her about Dice Travels.
“Yeah, it's everything in this 40-60 range,” I say, explaining the theory behind the project.
Her eyes sparkle with the idea. It's strange how it strikes a chord with some people and others are threatened by the concept – rarely do I encounter apathy.
“For example, if I roll an even number, I'll sleep upstairs tonight. If it's an odd number, I'll sleep on the deck,” I say.
It's an even number.
Upstairs, I find that I'm not alone. Willie, Dan, and a few other guys have a similar idea. A brisk, cool breeze rustles my sheets after our conversation dies down and we're left listening to the stars.
Smiling at the stars, I don't rush sleep. It's probably a little too cold to sleep up top, unprotected from the wind, which has gathered strength, but that's just the way it goes sometimes.