It’s been one busy year for our family. We’ve had ups and we’ve had downs. And learning how to navigate life as a family of three in a “new” place only magnified each of those events. Please, don’t confuse me for complaining here- we’ve loved this last year for so, so many reasons. But it’s not all been sunshine and roses- there have been some hard moments mixed in with all of the amazing.
I have to tell you- I have grown to love and appreciate my hard working husband more than I thought possible over this last year. The passion, dedication, and hard work he puts into Tin Roof Society is nothing short of inspiring and impressive. When you live with someone, you see everything. And what the rest of our family and friends didn’t get to witness for a good portion of 2015 and into 2016 was how sick Shawn spent most of it. He’s no martyr, that one. He pushed right through a “mysterious illness” which, after five doctor’s, six months and 35 lbs. of weight lost later, we finally discovered was advanced typhoid. That diagnosis caused us a sudden trip back to the USA last January to make sure his intestines were all in tact… (sounds fun, right?) My point? This guy goes hard y’all! Through all of that, he barely slowed down (despite my efforts!).
I am incredibly happy and immensely thankful to say that his health has improved greatly over the last eight months. But, I’d be lying if I said that everything didn’t eventually catch up to us. We realized around the end of May that we were getting dangerously close to burnout. And as much as we enjoy our day-to-day here, we needed a break. We really wanted to escape from city life for a few days, reconnect as a family, and just catch our breath. We needed somewhere where we could just “be”.
We had talked about visiting Lamu Island for a long time, and since it was considered “low season”, we found round trip tickets for just $80 per person via Jambo Jet. Then, we found a house on Air B&B for just $50 a night. Tourism has been really down in Lamu ever since a tourist was kidnapped by a terrorist group back in 2011. We asked a lot of people and travel guides if they thought it was safe for us to visit. After hearing over and over again how peaceful the area has been the last five years, we decided to go for it! We threw a few swimsuits, dresses, a couple pairs of shorts and flip flops into a duffle bag, and in less than an hour, we had traded cold and wet Nairobi for sunny and magical Lamu.
When we arrived in Lamu, we were walked to a jetty where boat taxis were lined up and waiting. Our Air BnB host was there to greet us and show us to our accommodation. In the distance, I could see the outline of Lamu Town. As the boat carried us further away from the airport, I could literally feel the stress from the last few months melting away. The sun was beaming. It was something we hadn’t felt in weeks since it was the middle of the rainy season back in Nairobi.
As our captain pulled up to the dock, we saw fishermen getting their dhows ready for work. Children were running up and down the small beach. Women dressed in burkas were chatting with each other in the shade of a mango tree. People called out friendly greetings and welcomes.
I’ve tried to put into words what makes Lamu so unique. We have never been anywhere like it, and it’s hard to think of a place to compare it to. Lamu is the oldest known continually inhabited Swahili settlement in Kenya, as well as the best preserved (the earliest recorded date says it’s been inhabited since 1370, but most people will tell you that there were people living here long before that). It’s also one of six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kenya. For centuries, Lamu was a significant trading post along the coast of Kenya. Leopard skins, ivory, gold, rhino horn, and probably the biggest source of profit, slave trading, were their biggest exports to the Arabs and Far East. There is a lot of folklore and superstition woven into the culture of the island. (For example,we had one woman tell us about her encounter with mermaids… and yes, she was completely, one hundred percent serious!)
This ancient town is living history. It truly feels like time has stood still here. There are no vehicles on the island. Acceptable forms of transportation include: walking, riding a donkey, or hiring a boat taxi. And watch your step! There are an estimated 2,200 donkeys on the island. They are used for everything from carrying building materials, tourist’s luggage and yes, people.
Another interesting thing about Lamu is the importance of Islam. The large majority of the people who live in Lamu are practicing Muslims. In fact, there are over twenty mosques on this one small island! A little tip that I wish we would have thought about before planning our trip… don’t visit during Ramadan. Once the sun set, it seemed as if every mosque was praying at the same time, all night long. And since they each have their own sound systems and speakers… we heard all. of. it. At moments, it felt like we were witnessing a competition for who could pray the loudest. It was really hard to sleep at night, especially with a toddler!
As part of my research beforehand, I had posted on a travel group on Facebook asking some questions about where to stay, where to eat, etc… I had a few people comment or private message me that the old, historic part of Lamu Town (where our B&B was located) was filthy and the people were not friendly to outsiders. I was told that if we stayed in Lamu Town, we would most likely not have a good experience. Thankfully, we have learned over the years that it’s not fair to make judgements or come to opinions about a people or place before meeting them or experiencing it personally. Since we couldn’t afford the luxurious recommendations other people were suggesting on the other end of the island, we decided to go with our hearts, stick to our budget, and listen to the more positive reviews and comments we had come across on other websites. But I’ll be honest- deep down, I was more than a little nervous about what we were going to find once we got to Lamu…
Within five minutes of arriving, we were looking at each other saying, “What…!?!” We couldn’t have experienced anything further from the opposite of what we had been “warned” of! The people of Lamu are, without question, some of the friendliest and most hospitable we have ever come across in Kenya. The Swahili culture is so accommodating, family focused and laid back… If others did not experience the same kindness and hospitality we did, I can only assume it was because they were not dressed in a modest and respectful way, or were unapproachable in the how they carried themselves personally.
Speaking of dressing respectfully, if you are a woman visiting Lamu, it’s best to wear long, flowy dresses or loose fitting pants. Try to cover your shoulders when you are out and about in town. This is a sign of respect to the Muslim community, and it will go a long way in how people treat you. For men, shorts and t-shirts are fine. The children all dressed comfortably, but I made sure to keep Shiloh in casual sundresses when we were walking around town- partly to be respectful, but also because it was so hot and humid!
A good plan might be to pack one or two dresses, and then buy a few when you arrive. Not only will you go home with your own customized piece of Lamu, but you’ll be supporting some local business as well. We stopped by a tailor shop and had a dress made for Shiloh. It was one of the most adorable things watching her get fitted- she took it so seriously! A friend had given me a caftan a few days before our trip, so I fit right in. If I have one regret, it was not buying a few more while we were there- they are so comfortable!
For the majority of our long weekend, we relaxed at the beach, by the pool or on the open air rooftop of Samaki House.
We discovered that for just a few bucks, you can hire a water taxi to take you across the Indian Ocean to Manda Island. Shiloh loved these short boat rides almost as much as Shawn did… 🙂
There are several high end resorts and boutique hotels on Manda Island, including The Majils. This place is the definition of luxury. It was so peaceful. Some of the staff told us that it’s a favorite hideaway for many celebrities. And because it was low season, the manager welcomed us to spend the day swimming and laying out on the hotel’s private beach.
I’m going to share more about The Majils in a separate post because it was just that incredible!
We spent part of each day exploring Lamu Town. We left our house with no agenda, just strolling down the narrow streets and making friends with locals as went along. That wasn’t hard to do since we have an incredibly friendly three year old who greeted everyone we came across! At one point, I saw several women standing together whispering and heard one say, “It’s Shiloh!”. She saw me turn my head when I heard my child’s name, and came over to greet us. She told me that Shiloh had played with her little girl the previous night while we were waiting for our dinner at a restaurant. (Shiloh had made several new friends who were playing on the street in front of where we were eating). The little girl went home and told her mom all about her new friend, a little white girl named Shiloh. Her mother introduced herself as Fatima, and offered to do henna on Shiloh and myself. I really enjoyed spending a few minutes to get to know her a little better and to hear about what life is like for a woman in Lamu. And my henna turned out so beautiful!
The artist who made this did it in less than a day! I was so impressed. If you visit Lamu, I’d recommend asking around for a place where you can get some custom work done and then ordering it at the beginning of your trip, just to make sure it’s finished by the time you have to leave.
Another cool find was a jewelry shop that’s come up with a really creative souvenir that you can wear. Sometimes, ancient pottery washes up on the beach from long lost shipwrecks, buried under the ocean. The broken pieces are collected and then made into rings, pendants and earrings that you can buy. I got this pendant for around $6, which I personally thought was a steal for something so unique and with such a story behind it!
When it came to meals, breakfast was provided for us at our B&B. For the rest of our meals, we pretty much ate seafood as much as possible! Our favorite lunches were at The Majils. The food was delicious, the portions fair, presentation lovely and the prices were great! We ate at some of the restaurants in Lamu Town, but because it was the low season and also the start of Ramadan, our options were a little slim. We did find a great little spot for fresh juice, which was the perfect refreshment in the afternoon.
Situated about a 45 min walk west of Lamu Town is Shela Village. We didn’t explore Shela much because most of the tourist spots were closed as well. I would love to go back and spend a few days in Shela though. It’s got a very “European” feel. All of the beauty of Lamu but much more refined. The legendary Peponi Hotel is a “must see” spot. Everyone told us to visit for dinner and sundowners. Sadly, it was closed when we were there, but I look forward to our next visit.
I think it’s fair to say that we fell in love with Lamu, plain and simple. Is Lamu for everyone? Well, it’s hard to say if you would enjoy it as much as we did… Obviously, there were some who found it “filthy” and the people “rude”. I think it comes down to what type of person you are. If you’re a culture geek, you love going off the beaten path, you don’t mind going without wifi or cell phone service and you enjoy new experiences, it’s safe to say that Lamu is your place.
I am so thankful that our family had the opportunity to enjoy each other and create new memories on Lamu Island. It was just the medicine we needed! No doubt about it, I will cherish the stories we wrote together on Lamu Island for a lifetime.