Lamu, 3 pm

December 26, 2009


This was the emptiest Yours Truly had seen the Lamu jetty on this trip. Typically, it would be the fulcrum of town’s frenetic water-bound activity almost around the clock: well past midnight, fishermen dhows would pull in to it with their daily catch; by five in the morning, it would already be thronged with workers commuting, also by dhows and an occasional speedboat, to the Shella Beach hotels and Manda Island’s airstrip and construction sites; and during the day, all through the afternoon, when direct sun’s dull razor drove even the most stubborn of street vendors and perambulating burkaed beauties and itinerant philosophers into the shade of grimy stone arcades in town’s innumerous blind alleys,  young boys of all ages still dove off of it in droves, ceaselessly, shouting at the top of their lungs. It was pleasant to watch them, those untiring seaworthy creatures, imagining the coolness of water and thinking various unburdensome thoughts about the cruel swiftness of life’s passage.

This afternoon, however, on the first day after Christmas, the boys were nowhere to be seen. Perhaps their parents had told them, in passing yet with a stern tone, that it might not be the greatest of ideas, on this day of a heightened degree of holiness for the large masses of world’s non-Muslims, to submerge themselves in water,  as though in mocking imitation of the important infidel ceremony called baptism. Or perhaps this is but YT’s habitual retroactive, ratiocinative projection of plausible fictional scenarios onto the simple real-life circumstances whose logical underpinning is unknown to him and may not exist, or need to exist or be accounted for, in the first place…

So then, it was the first day after Christmas, three o’clock in the afternoon, the sweltering equatorial sun as blindingly ferocious as it is every afternoon of the year on the island, and the jetty was void of people, save for one brightly-clad young woman leaning forth against the porous, mollusk-ridden basalt parapet and gazing off into the near distance of the narrow channel that separates Lamu from its more compact, and largely unpopulated, satellite of Manda. Her solitary, somewhat dolorous presence accentuated the placid vista’s certain existential lonesomeness. (In order to be complete, emptiness must be incomplete. Likewise, the total absence of sound does not constitute perfect silence. For a slice of life’s reality, rendered in writing, to strike the reader as credible, it must first be leavened with a dose of artifice… What else can one say in that regard? Imagination is the best and most reliable source of recollections.)  What was she thinking about, in the momentary stillness of her sun-dazed reverie? Ah, who knows, you know. Something or other, no doubt. Nothing of any major consequence to our lives, one would imagine.

With no program-organized activities scheduled for much of the afternoon, the four of us SLS-running people were taking it easy up on the third-floor of Petley’s Inn — the oldest lodging establishment in East Africa — in by far the largest and best-stocked bar in town. (Lamu, of course, has an overwhelmingly Muslim population, so the number of places where one can purchase alcohol can be counted on the fingers of one hand.) At this interim hour, we were the only people up there, besides the somnolent middle-aged bartender and his occasional substitute and night-shift backup, the all-purpose man about town, now probably in his mid-forties and looking pretty rough, going by the theologically neutral nickname of Satan: Yours Truly’s good acquaintance from some ten years earlier, when Satan worked at the Hapa Hapa seafood restaurant next door, was the handsomest guy on the waterfront and constantly radiated an almost preternatural happiness.

Come nightfall, the enormous, cathedral-like space of the Petley’s bar would be packed to capacity, throbbing with suppressed frenzied energy. But at this hour, it was empty.

Slouched over the bar counter, Satan was immersed in some thick, dog-eared paperback, with the word murder splashed in crimson-red across the cover. He nodded without raising his eyes from the book as the four of us filed in. “Hello, Satan,” I said.

Seated at a long table in the far corner, sprawled luxuriantly on the cushioned, harem-style sofas pushed close against the wall-sized aperture that gave onto the waterfront (there are no glassed-in windows anywhere on the island), we were sipping on our Tusker beers (“Very baridi!” the bartender assured us; and indeed, the sweat-covered bottles were ice-cold) and weak white wine from South Africa (wine spitzer, the bartender called it), when YT, glancing outside, took notice of that brightly-clad young woman below, standing alone on the jetty, her back to him. Right away he thought it would be cool (just as cool as Lamu’s weather invariably is hot) to have that arresting image preserved unto posterity, in a medium more reliable than the flimsy matrix of his memory; to have it frozen in time, if you will.

Lamu girl, frozen.  This would be an example of what is known as an oxymoron. Hardly any of the island’s permanent residents have ever seen snow, or ice, other than in photographs and on television. One of the people there had told me that the most distinct image of Russia she had in her mind was that of Omar Sharif and Julie Christie riding along in a troika, amid the boundless expanse of pristine snow, with Lara’s Theme (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XC2Bk8f8plU&feature=fvw) swelling in the background.

A moment to remember other, less distinctly chrystallized moments by. Human memory is discrete, rather than continuous, in nature, and its landscape unfolds after the manner of a night train ride across the Russian countryside (this, of course, is YT-specific frame of reference; feel free to conjure a journey through some other geographic terrain), with its lengthy spells of pitch-darkness interspersed at rare intervals with remote flashes of light: some nameless village of a few decrepit izbas or a small town with an instantly forgettable name, partly obscured by the unseen slanted copses of anemic birch trees; a smattering of disconnected, faintly luminous dots…

That’s all there is to it, really. YT then asked the SLS Programs’ Coordinator, Mike Spry, who had his new digital camera sitting on the table in front of him, to take a picture of the woman — no particular reason, man, I just think there’s something, you know, about her, this whole view, something that really captures this moment, this place’s, like, atmosphere, if you know what I mean — and Mike shrugged his shoulders but obliged, putting down his Tusker and reaching for the camera. “It’s not going to be the greatest picture ever,” he warned YT. “The angle’s not the best. Plus the sun’s kinda…”

YT thinks the picture turned out just fine. 

That’s all there is to it. No more there there.  This is not a story, after all, to have a story beyond the story; rather, this is just a long caption to a photograph. This is just what it is: a moment in time. Something by which to remeber some small part of everything else.


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