The Dhows, Doors, and Disorder of Zanzibar
I secretly enjoy a touch of rugged disorder- the type of disregard for time and direction that you often find around the world. Notoriously impatient, it always forces me to be more observant and in less of a hurry. When we walked across the tarmac in Zanzibar and to the dilapidated terminal, it was nothing short of chaotic. Before we could even enter the terminal an agent guarded the door and checked that we had the yellow fever card that granted one access to the entire island. The terminal itself was little more than an entrance and exit on opposite ends with money exchanges, customs, and a luggage pickup location crammed in between. One had to navigate the maze of tourists to get to paradise on the other side of the exit.
When Laila, Marie, and I finally burst through the doors of the exit, the humidity was momentarily stifling. Our hotel, the Mnarani Beach Cottages, had sent a van to pick us up and whisk us to Nungwi Beach, an hour away from the airport on the northern coast of Zanzibar. Zanzibar sped by us as palm trees, cows, school children, shacks, and hijabi women negotiated for space on one side of the road and the Indian Ocean glistened on the other. When we arrived at the hotel, we could scarcely take our eyes off the clear blue of the Indian Ocean. It didn’t take long for me to change into a bikini and I lay swinging in one of the many hammocks on the deck outside the rooms. The hotel compensated for a mistake they’d made on our rooms by giving us a comfortable 3-bedroom loft and we were content to laze around for the rest of the afternoon.
Later that evening, I went to dinner at The Rock with Rukaya, a fellow member of the Nomadness Travel Tribe. The water was low enough that we could simply walk across what would eventually be ocean again to the restaurant perched atop a rock. We were greeted warmly upon entering the restaurant and escorted to the back patio to sip fruity cocktails and await our dinner.
The Indian Ocean painted a picturesque backdrop that required deep reflection and heartfelt laughter. As the sun set and the stars came out, the restaurant became illuminated by the glow of candles. Before our food even came out, I was convinced this place was meant for falling in love! Rukaya and I were escorted to our table for our meals of lobster and vanilla flavored gnocchi, respectively. While Kenya had provided only a few outstanding gastronomical experiences ( Thai Chi and Palanka), that first meal in Zanzibar was exceptional!
As we awaited dessert, I went out to the front of the restaurant to catch the last pinks and oranges of the setting sun behind the palm trees and watch children squeal exuberantly as a game of soccer at dusk took shape. Outside were 2 Masai vendors selling Masai craft. They were as curious about me as I was about them and I soon struck up a conversation with the one who spoke English the best. Abroad, I typically avoid resting of the laurels of English, but I found Swahili to be so unfamiliar to my ears that I couldn’t pick up enough for even a basic conversation in the short period of time we were in East Africa. Nevertheless, he told me that they worked in Zanzibar seasonally to save money to send back to their families in Kilimanjaro. He asked about where I was from which launched a discussion about home and what had seemingly become a sideshow of elections in Haiti, the U.S., and Tanzania alike! By the time we left The Rock, the tide had risen high enough so that we needed to board a boat blanketed by the stars in the night sky and ride the short distance to the shore.
The next morning, Laila, Marie, and I were late for our next adventure- snorkeling with Safari Blue. After the 1.5 hour ride, we’d manage to just miss the boat when our driver pulled up to the shore. A crew helped us on board one of their motorboats and we sped off to the mangroves to join the rest of the snorkelers on the large dhow.
When I hear “mangroves”, I think of the deep-rooted trees off the coast of Florida. Instead, we pulled up to sparsely covered rock formations that stood like floating barriers in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Except for us, all the other snorkelers on the beautifully crafted mahogany dhow with hand-woven cotton sails were friendly European couples and families. The dhow had stopped in the center of one of these rock formations where the water was no more that 5-6 ft deep so that we all had a chance to revel in the warmth of the clear water and get comfortable with our snorkeling gear.
Afterwards, we were off to the main event- snorkeling! The dhoul took us farther into the Indian Ocean where other dhouls had anchored around a coral reef. Even though I can swim in pools, I quickly realized that the ocean was another beast entirely. A crew-member volunteered to be my guide around the coral and reef. He hopped into the water, held my hand, and took me deeper into the ocean and farther into the coral with ease (meanwhile Laila was swimming like a mermaid and Marie encased herself in an tube and a floaties while another crewmember tried to coax her to the reef).
The calm surface of the water belied the colorful and busy world below as schools of fish I can scarcely named darted in and out of the reef. Some swam close enough to peer lazily at me before darting away when I tried to reach out and touch them. Once we were done snorkeling, we boarded the boat where an array of exotic fruit was passed around on our way to a sandbank of soft white sand lying just above the ocean before it would eventually be over taken by that very ocean.
We’d certainly worked up an appetite by the time it was time for lunch! The dhows anchored a few feet from a nearby island and we climbed out and walked amongst the receding tide to the shore. What can only be described as a feast of seafood and fresh fruit awaited us onshore- shrimp, lobster, fish, chicken, rice, jackfruit, starfruit, mango, pineapple, etc. After I was full, I found a beach chair to lounge on under a tree as a group of local singers played instruments, sang, and danced. By the time we left that island and made our way back to Zanzibar ate that afternoon, the tide was so low, it gave the impression that we were walking on water.
On our third day, we went on a spice tour in the morning with Eco & Culture Tours. I’d assumed that the spice tour would take us into a spice market, instead we found ourselves deep in one of Zanzibar’s protected forests learning about the different plants and trees that brought us everything from Vicks to Chanel no. 5. Unfortunately, my allergies did not appreciate the lesson as much as I would have like to- I was a sniffling, sneezing, red-eyed mess by the time we left the forest. Our guide then took us to an ancient hammam built by one of Zanzibar's first sultans before stopping by a local woman’s home for a delicious traditional meal of rice, fish, and sides. We had seconds. #Noshame
Finally, we made our to the historical Stone Town. Here we could see the Arab influence in Zanzibar in both the people and the architecture. The tour started with the church that now stood above the site of one of East Africa’s most notorious slave trades. Unlike in most of the world, the Christ Church Cathedral in Zanzibar had been pivotal not in justifying the slave trade, but in bringing it to an end. Yet even after it was abolished the Arab slave trade continued underground. Yesterday's seemingly majestic dhows now took on a more sinister meaning as we learned that they'd been used to take enslaved men, women, and children from all over East Africa to the Middle East from Zanzibar.
The horrors of the Arab Slave trade are so glossed over that I can still remember being casually referred to as “abd” (slave) on the streets of Cairo and a prominent Egyptian paper referring to President Obama as the same. The shackles left below ground at the site where those enslaved people awaited their fate before crossing the sea was a vivid reminder of just how much the history of the African diaspora is still one of incessant loss, forced separation, and forgotten indignities.
Afterwards, we walked through Stone Town taking in the sites and history of the narrow winding streets where Arab and African architecture blended seamlessly to create a stone city hiding behind mahogany doors. I lost sense of time and direction with each turn around a corner. As I do in every place I visit, before we left Stone Town, I purchased a painting to remind me of Zanzibar: a team of mysterious dhows sailing into the setting sun of the Indian Ocean. No telling what cargo they carried aboard them.