I arrived in Nairobi dressed for Moscow. Literally. When I left the States the second time at 21 I had in my pocket an Around-the-World ticket which put me in Russia visiting the family of Eugene Ostashevsky, one of my closest friends, after a brief visit back to Europe. Kenya was the last stop of my journey after Russia where I intended to leave all my winter clothes. Before leaving Oakland, I had connected with a woman who had a print studio in Lamu, Kenya through a classified ad in an arts magazine so my plan was to set up camp in Kenya until the winds moved me elsewhere.
Russia never happened. Instead, this is what happened. I was in London hanging with a friend when I wandered into the Tate Gallery one cold and dreary day. Weaving my way through the galleries, I landed in front of Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. I gasped, startled out of my day-dreaming. I was floored. By the size, by the subject, by the color- blankets of red washed over me, punctuated by the Bacon cry. I decided to go directly to Kenya where I had a working studio waiting for me. I ran at breakneck speeds back to the flat, inspired and moved.
I chunneled back to Paris, collected my things, bought some cheese to offer as a gift (melted) and flew to Kenya wearing a hooded felt parka which my best friend, Jil Cappuccio, had ambitiously sewn for me when she was 20 years old to protect me from the harsh Russian winters and which must have weighed at least 100lbs. I looked like the French Lieutenant’s Woman sulking down the crowded hallways of Charles De Gaulle airport, cloaked in enough felt to wrap a Macy’s float.
A day later, I arrived in Nairobi armed with only the name of the building where I was to meet the person who would shepard me to the island of Lamu off the Kenyan coast. An emboldened and psychotic cab driver admitted he had no idea where the building was but was game for the search. After circling Nairobi for hours I saw the name of the building. I arrived, sweating, carrying my melted cheese and lugging my 100lb coat with me. I rang the bell. Before I could say hello, I was back in a car riding to the air field where I would board the small plane which would fly me to Lamu. My directions? Like a game of Clue, I was only given a name. This time, upon landing, I was told to ask for Joni.
I deboarded to a hoard of young boys each clamoring to take me and my things and sail us all off to Lamu, the neighboring island, on a dhow. I asked for Joni and of course they all knew Joni. Joni was the eccentric American who had lived in Lamu for most of her adult life.
I found Joni up a steep alley in a large stone house. My bags were dropped, I climbed under a mosquito net and I slept for two days. I woke up, Joni fed me, I fell back to sleep. After a week of this, Joni handed me a bill. I walked out the door. I knew I could find my own lodging for less than I paid at Chez Joni and I had very little money to begin with. Off I went, refusing to hire a guide, stirring up trouble as I sashayed through the alleys of Lamu. Friends and foes I made but I soon found myself the tenant of a haunted 3 story roofless stone house built around an open courtyard, tucked away behind massive wood doors, and right up the alley from the two little Somalian girls who would teach me Swahili.