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The Kenya Diaries - The brainsquad of Lamu and eating alone

Saturday, 28 April 2012
That's Whispers Cafe, and a woman
carrying a baby AND a box on her head.

As predicted, I got hopelessly lost trying to find Lamu Fort, which is also the centre point of the town. Instead, I meandered back past palm trees until I was walking through an eerily empty patch of wasteland. I was soon met by hoards of kids, all calling

"Jambo! Jambo!"

To which I replied -

"Jambo! Jambo!"

It wasn't my finest conversational hour. I also couldn't help feeling a little too like a stereotypical vision of a Western girl, surrounded by little children and exclaiming how wonderful they all were. It's the same reason I didn't take any pictures, and it's something I grappled with throughout my trip.

But I was a bit of a stereotype, and that's OK.

I end up finding my way to the fort, and a bookshop, which always marks a good day. I was in dire need of a new book at this point, so I was happy to pick something up. Although not so happy to lose 400 kes in the process.

I got chatting to the owner, Baji, who tried to teach me the Baob board game. I'm hopeless at board games, or Bored Games, as I rather hilariously call them. Unless it's clear that I'm going to win, and win quickly, I'd rather be doing something else. And to tell you the truth, I'm still not sure how that game worked. I just moved seed pods around until I was allowed to go.

Baji is also a Dhow captain, and was trying to sell me a boat trip until it transpired that I was already booked on it through the Jambo Hostel. So I left him to his baob, and went to find a cafe.

Whispers Cafe is a guilty traveller's secret. It's the kind of place you know you probably shouldn't be, but can't resist. It has muffins! Coffee! MAGAZINES! You know you should be around the corner, eating some goat and playing the baob game, but all you want to do is read Vogue and drink a latte. You hate yourself a little, but you're happy. And everyone needs that once in a while when they're travelling a foreign land. Don't believe anyone you tells you otherwise.

I sat out in the courtyard with some passionfruit juice and was soon joined by a group of 10. I offered them my table as space was limited, but they invited me to join them instead.

It was like meeting a brainsquad. Anthropologists (one who discovered Lucy in Ethiopia, whoever she may be), photographers, writers, designers... one woman leant over to me and whispered

"There are some very important people here. Very important indeed..."

Which gave me the great sensation of being a child allowed to sit at the grown ups table. They were fascinating, lovely people, who were renting a big fancy house up in Shella, the beach part of the island.

They were doling out the wine and I was suddenly aware that I only had 200kes (about £2) left on me. I'm sure if I'd have said this,  they wouldn't have minded footing the bill, but I couldn't join in the merriment without paying my way. So I sipped my juice and enjoyed their company, looking longingly at the wine every so often. There was a great moment when I poured some of my bottled water into my empty glass - exposing myself as the pauper that I was. Everyone did a great job of pretending they didn't see.

I ate alone in the evening, and felt my usual pang of awkwardness. While I officially don't mind eating alone (and believe that everyone should from time to time) I don't think anyone, hand on heart, prefers it to company.

That said, of the four tables that were occupied in the Seafront Cafe, 3 of those were utterly, painfully silent. One young couple with a young child talked only to her and not each other, one table with a couple and clearly furious relative, and myself. The sole talkative table was made up of an American couple and an English man. I know this, of course, because it was the only conversation taking place.

I say conversation, but it was really one voice, one loud English voice, stating an opinion on pretty much everything that has ever happened, ever. The poor Yanks weren't getting much of a look in. And boy, did this man have a lot of opinions.

So this dining situation made me wonder - who was worse off? Who to feel sorry for? Was it the couple, eating with their beautiful daughter, but with not a word to say to each other? Was it the stifled family affair, with tensions bubbling under the surface, accumulating in heavy silence? Or was it me, the shiny faced girl with a bumbling grin, greeting every man, woman, child and cat that passed in the absence of human company? Or was it the couple who probably had plenty of loving, caring, humorous and dirty things to say to each other, but instead were stuck listening to Mr Opinion?

As I sat eating my disappointing meal (the fish was cold and overcooked), I honestly couldn't say.

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