Monday, August 3, 2015


At 4:45 pm, Girish and I left the hostel and walked to the seafront to meet Akram and Ali for an evening sail.  We had previously been on a Mozambique-style dhow, which has one huge sail and a pointed front and back, but this time, we wanted to try out the Lamu-style dhow, that only operates on this small portion of sea on the eastern coast of Kenya, about halfway between Mombasa and Somalia.  This dhow has a pointed front and a flat back, one huge sail, and a balance beam that fits underneath the railing of one side of the boat and diagonally rises out about eight feet away from the dhow over the water on the other side of the boat.  The beam is about two inches thick and five inches wide and a crew member counteracts the strong gusts of wind that hit the sail by scooting their own body weight along this beam, either away from or toward the boat.  As we jumped into the dhow from the seafront wall outside Lamu Town, I learned that this scooting crew member was to be me.

I didn’t hesitate when Ali grabbed my hand and led me across the small dhow to the beam that was protruding from the side of the boat.  He demonstrated how to hold on to a small rope about the width of a pencil that was attached to the top of the mast and how to dangle one leg over the water while using your other foot to find the small blocks nailed into the beam for extra traction to push yourself up.  I climbed on the beam next to him and let him lead as he pushed and pulled my arm, telling me to scoot further out or further in from the boat based on the wind.  He then stood up on the beam and stepped over me to climb back inside the dhow.  He kept his eyes on the waves as I kept my eyes on him.  When he knew a gust was coming he would say, “Sistah, more out, more out.”  When I didn’t scoot back in quickly enough, the dhow would tip in favor of my body weight and the waves of the Indian Ocean would wash over me as the beam dipped lower and lower toward the water.  This left the wood slick and I fumbled a few times as my foot searched for some blocks that were missing from their spots indicated by a darker rectangle of wood that the sun hadn’t yet bleached.

Along with his seemingly unwavering faith, Ali had two rules for me: “be strong” and “don’t be a brain-fish”.  When he could see a strong gust coming up, he would gently say, “Be strong, sistah,” and I knew I would have to scoot my body to the very edge of the beam as the sail filled and powered the rocking of the boat that left me suspended in the air anywhere from a few feet to a few yards above the ocean.  One gust was so strong that it tipped the dhow completely on its side, barely letting some seawater over the opposite railing.  Clinging to the rope and the edge of the beam, I was now directly up in the air where the sail normally stood.  Thank goodness for adrenaline; I didn’t think about the consequences of falling until the next day.  A broken leg would have been the least of my worries if I had lost my grip and landed in the boat from that height.

It took a few seconds for the boat to right itself again, and both Ali and Akram filled the space with loud encouragements.  “Ah ha!  Be very strong, sistah!!” in their thick Swahili accents that rise and fall like laughter.  When I finally got permission to crawl, shaking back into the dhow, Akram said confidently, “You are not brain-fish, you are brain-crab!” and did a quick pantomime of me scooting over the beam and strongly gripping the rope for stability.  I’ll take that; my primary objective was not to fall in the water, so as far as all of us were concerned, the endeavor was a success.

I thought my job was over, but we had just stalled to switch the sail to the other side.  I paused to rest and breathe, but when the beam was moved to the other side, Ali looked at me and pointed at the beam and made a face like, “What are you waiting for?  Get up there!”  I scrambled up onto the beam and was surprised to find that Ali had joined me lower down on the beam closer to the dhow.  Then I realized that we needed the weight of two people this time because we were heading out towards open ocean water where the wind was stronger.  There wasn’t much time to think before the three-foot swells threw me completely off balance.  It took every muscle fiber and every once of concentration to stay on that beam and scoot up and down, in and out.  I didn’t know where to look, the waves were tossing everything in sight.  The sail was billowing in and out, the waves were rising and falling, and I couldn’t seem to find a rhythm to the way my body rose and fell with them.  I forced myself to concentrate on keeping my butt on the beam.  Don’t be a brain-fish.  Be strong, little crab claw.  Stay strong.

When we made it to the beach on Manda Island, the sunset was in full glory above the sand dunes of Lamu Island.  I climbed back into the dhow and looked at Girish to mouth “OH MY GOD!!!”.  My pants were soaking wet, my hair was a wild mess from the wind, and I cradled my right hand in my left.  My fingers were stuck clenched in a fist around the space where the rope had been.  The entire inside of my hand was bright red and my short fingernails had left four perfect white crescent indentations in the center of my palm.  My right arm and shoulder screamed with relief as I forced them back into their correct positions.

Everyone grew silent and contemplative as we grilled fish on the beach under the full moon and ate it greedily with our hands.  After dinner, I ran off for a short moonlight walk alone along the receding tide, feeling the sand sink underneath my feet and watching the glint of the waves as they toiled against the push of the moon.  I could see the dark shape of Ali as he came running to move the anchored dhow farther out to sea as the tide gave way and released more and more sand to the coastline (although I have to admit I would have been perfectly content if the dhow were stuck and we had to spend the night on the beach).  He was carrying the head of the grilled fish, about the size of my hand, sucking and slurping every last piece of meat out of it.  He mentioned that the eye of the fish was good, so I said I’d try it.  He tore out the socket and popped it in my mouth.  He pantomimed that I should just chew it and then spit it out to get the taste of everything, and that it was only for “strong” people to eat.  As he explained this, my teeth made their way through the tender fish meat to the hard mass of the eyeball.  The moment my tongue felt the circular cartilage that held the eye in place, I opened my mouth and coughed and sent the eye flying toward the sea.  I conquered the balance beam today, maybe I’ll save the fish eye for another day.

On the journey back to Lamu Town, Akram sat with me at the back of the dhow and showed me how to steer using the rudder.  Thank goodness the night hid my red and sweating face as I again struggled to push my body weight against the water and the wind.  The encouragements masked as jeers changed from "Sistah" to "Captain!" as we glided across the black water enjoying the cool breeze.  I was exhausted, but content and ready to greet the sea again the next morning.

I think this month in Lamu is going to be a good one.