Along the Swahili coast, it is not entirely strange to encounter a man bent over, repeatedly waging war with the white and gold sands against a back drop of a crystal blue-black evening ocean. Whip! Whack! Whip! Whack! His weapon; a three foot, eight tentacled octopus recently drawn from the ocean and soon to be dinner.
I had never been to Lamu before. In fact, up until then the town only existed in a vivid imagination drawn up from descriptions that dated an excess of eight years prior. I had also never cooked octopus, let alone eat a full one all by myself. But never say never.
I arrived in Mokowe in a convoy of buses and police escorts at five o’clock in the evening. Nowadays, getting to Lamu is no walk in the park. I am told that it once was. Before al-Shabaab, you could leave Mombasa or Malindi on a bus headed to Lamu at any time of the day. Now, all the buses are required to depart these towns at the same time every day and are escorted by administration police a few miles before Mpeketoni all the way to mainland Mokowe, a couple hundred kilometers from the Somali-Kenya border. The risk of al-Shabaab is omnipresent but life goes on. For the coastal people that ply these route, the extra security is appreciated but deemed unnecessary. I ignored numerous adverse counsel to refrain from visiting Lamu for security reasons. Counsel formulated solely on opinions gaining prevalence with regards to travel along the Kenyan coastline: Opinions driven by travel advisories.
As I stepped off the bus, my face was bent in a grimace inspired by a persistent stomach ache and the discomforts of a journey that lasted the better part of 8 hours hours. A journey punctuated with police road blocks, ID checks and a dirt road that squabbled with the bus. The whole trip, my body was rammed by the bus’s seat as I played nanny to a six month old child that belonged to a set of two.
He had been handed to me when his twin brother needed a diaper change. An affair that concluded in a soiled diaper being skillfully hurled outside the window right across my face leaving behind an eternal whiff of baby poop. My heart sunk to unimaginable depths at this heinous act of littering. Still, the responsibility of holding young Awadh was bestowed upon be me for the duration of the rest of the journey.
A welcoming brigade of starved tourist handlers and porters swarmed in to lay their claim at the jetty in Lamu town. In the midst of the shoving and jostling, in the midst of the frenzy, a hand penetrated the eager crowd vying for attention. A three foot octopus lazily dangled from the blacked hand.
“One hundred and fifty shillings!” Cried the hand. As I fingered the octopus, inspecting her slimy tentacles and body, I cried out. “One hundred! One hundred only!” The hand ushered me to the side where money changed hands. Shortly after, with a few onlookers, I was bent over a golden white sandy beach that bordered a blue-black ocean, vigorously whipping and whacking an octopus to a desired tenderness.
How hard could it be to cook octopus? The answer is that it is not hard at all. Getting the slimy thing clean is the hardest part. The rest is patience, a good boil and a sufficient amount of salt, spices and herbs to taste. A few hours after the darkness of the night had settled in, I sat atop sunshine hotel enjoying the sweet serenade of a muezzin, the glare of the full moon and an octopus dinner. I stared down at the narrow paved streets full of awe of the town’s history. I thought of the indefinable impressions of Swahili culture embedded in the people and their intercourse as they went about their ways below me. I reflected on the slice of heaven that is Lamu ; frozen in time but thawing ever so gently.
In the few days that I spent in Lamu, I rediscovered myself as an ass guy. I herded donkeys, enjoyed the unexpected glam of riding down the narrow corridors on their backs and hopscotched through the passageways scattered with dung.
A week later I was in Zanzibar where my affair with the octopus resumed.