When I was 5, someone told me about Zanzibar. I know it was a sensible adult and I know they were telling me a story about something incredible but I don’t remember the story. I don’t even remember the well meaning adult. But I never forgot the name.
Zanzibar was the place I used to circle on maps when I was looking for a place to run away to, it became the word I’d spit out in fury when people annoyed me (“Fine! Hell with you! I’m going to Zanzibar!”), it became the place I would cling to when everything else was horrible. It’s like wishing yourself into outerspace or getting lost in Mordor. For me, that was Zanzibar.
And it took me 38 years to set foot on the island.
I left Dar es Salaam on a cloudy, rainy afternoon aboard a fast ferry called the Kilimanjaro 2, economy class and I sat on the upper deck. My only hats off to tourism – I wanted to see the city melting in the distance. And melt it did, behind a wall of black clouds and a sheet of biting rain. But it’s warm rain – hurtling along the waves through an unfriendly sea and all I could feel was the warm rain soaking my shirt and a wind strong enough to slap the sense right out of my head.
|Somewhere out there, is Zanzibar|
I wasn’t travelling alone – I met a fellow Swiss in Dar es Salaam who was on his way to take on the rest of his life, as a guest house manager in Jambiani. He was sleeping with hat pulled down over his eyes, rain nonwithstanding.
|Out there, someplace, behind those clouds|
Do you remember your favourite Christmas? Or your best birthday? How about your happiest day? I am 43. I am too old to be hopping up and down and clapping my hands in public. But I did just that. Here it was, the island of Zanzibar, where the coconuts are the size of 18 pounder cannons and the air is heaving with the smell of spices.
We docked and disembarked – not much fuss here though I did expect a little more chaos.
At the dock there are customs formalities. You should have a yellow fever vaccine. I didn’t but it didn’t seem to upset anyone. The health official wanted to know where I had been to before Tanzania. I told him Switzerland. Twice. I guess he just didn’t have the energy to fight with me. Of course, please, you should be vaccinated. I had decided very spontaneously to travel to Tanzania. A vaccine that takes 10 days to be of any use is pointless when you only decided 8 days ago to actually go anywhere at all. I advocate vaccines for everyone. You are welcome to use me as an example of what not to do.
Then there are immigration formalities. My passport now has a stamp from Zanzibar.
Of course, the fun isn’t over yet.
It was now 4pm. The humidity has taken on a life of it’s own and is slowly ripping a hole in your sanity while the heat bellows at you at 36°. There are 200 people standing in a haphazard cue in front of you and they all want one thing – to get out. But the line is getting more and more narrow, elbows are starting to jab your sides, someone bull elephants’ past you, and you are left clutching your back pack and trying to fathom the meaning of life. Or at least trying to figure out how to get the hell out of here in one piece.
The cause of this confusion is customs. They want to see your bag. Possibly rummage in it and make off with your toothpaste. In front of me was a group of bewildered French tourists, vainly trying to open their combination locks in the semi darkness, their panicked faces revealing to all that it was possibly the most horrible moment of their collective lives – “Merde, when is Pierre’s birthday?” And Pierre is a million miles away and right now they hate him.
I followed my travel companion’s lead. He swung his backpack over the heads of the people in front of him, throwing it Olympic style at the nearest customs official, where it landed with resounded thud, making the French stumble backwards and some hapless man clutch his ear in obvious pain. I am not very strong nor very tall so I couldn’t really swing my bag manfully but I did a good impression of a human barricade and barrelled it out in front of me, until it found a spot in front of a well dressed customs woman. She smiled at me. I was expected the third degree and the loss of my toothpaste. All I got was a quick once over and huge chalk cross on my pack. Customs done.
Once out on the street, it’s not much different to any other place. Taxis, everyone is your friend and they all have a great price, a fantastic tour and they remember you from last year. We went to the market to buy some fruit and vegetables, and made our way by car to Jambiani.
Is this what I expected of Zanzibar? Well the five year old still wanted the scent of cinammon but I am the sensible adult and I know that you have to be quite close to cinammon to actually smell it. What I did get was an insulated world of chaos, of fruits piled impossibly on top of each other, of gasping fish on stone slabs, the smell of a thousand people and more noise than a Saturday football game. Pure joy.
It’s the tropics so by 6.30 it was dark. I didn’t see anything on the way to Jambiani .
The next morning.
I woke early to the sound of a very unhappy kid bleating behind the house, as if someone was forcing it into a cooking pot. It was 6.30am and I was in Zanzibar.
Now, I know you are expecting amazing descriptions of all the wonderful things I did and everything I experienced. Too bad. I told you, buy a guide book.
This is Jambiani as I saw it.
Why would I be anywhere else?
I spent four days walking on white sand, swimming in water as clear as glass in the most pristine part of the world I have ever seen. I felt the wind tearing through my hair and watching the sun go down behind quivering palm trees. This was my dream. Four perfect days I wouldn’t give to anyone. The salt clung to my skin and the sand whittled its way into my bathing suit and into my backpack, a ferocious sun burnt a line across the back of my unlotioned neck and when I walked across the tidal expanse, the horizon disappeared.
I bought nothing, I didn’t look thoughtfully at the slave market in Stone Town, I missed out on the spices and I didn’t pay to see any giant turtles. But I was in Zanzibar. I walked on glorious beach and watched the boys play football at sundown.
And no, Hassan did not kill me with his food.
But I wouldn’t have minded.