November 5, 2015 by Pastor Ben McIntire
Zanzibar cruises in my imagination like the triangular sails of a fishing dhow following the white sand beach of the island. Cinnamon, cloves, saffron, and Sinbad the sailor spice the mental images I have of this exotic island.
It was on this easygoing island that Monica and I began to practice our extremely limited Swahili or Kiswahili kidogo. We began with the ubiquitous asante sana which we probably uttered fourteen thousand times over the course of our stay in Tanzania as we continually thanked our gracious hosts. We also learned such useful phrases as hakuna matata (which everyone who has seen Disney’s The Lion King knows means “no worries”) and pole pole (pronounced to rhyme with “guacamole”) which means slowing down to African time. My overall impression was of the Caribbean island life lived by none other than the descendants of Africans captured and forced into slavery on plantations throughout the West Indies.
In his memoir-travelogue, And Home Was Kariakoo, M.G. Vassanji describes his mother’s birthplace with a proverbial anecdote:
A fisherman lies stretched out on the beach, relaxing, when a tourist—a white man, to be precise—strolls by. “Relaxing?” asks the tourist.
“I caught my fish and sold it,” replies our local.
The tourist looks doubtful. “Really? No more fish in the sea?”
“I caught what I needed.”
Like many a foreigner who comes to these parts, the tourist wants to help, to advise. “If you caught more fish wouldn’t you earn more money?”
“Yes…and then?” asks the fisherman, looking confused.
“You could save money and put it in a bank. And then, after some time, with all your money saved in the bank you could buy a bigger boat and catch a whole lot of fish. Make a lot of money!”
Our man looks seriously doubtful. “And then what?”
“Why, you could let others do the work!”
“Aha! I see. And what would I do?”
“Why, you would relax!”
The Zanzibari says nothing and the tourist walks away.
On our first morning in Tanzania we were up before dawn to make the trek back to Julius Nyerere Airport, once again in the dark. Our friend Craig had an early flight to catch, and to save Frank Mwakatundu from having to make two trips from Dar es Salaam’s city centre to the airport, we rode along and spent a couple of hours at the air terminal for Tanzanian domestic flights.
I grew to be rather fond of that tiny terminal in our multiple visits there as we hopped from point-to-point on thirteen-passenger Cessna flights. But none of our aerial views compared to that vista which lay before us as our twenty minute flight to Zanzibar revealed the azure waters of the Indian Ocean and the white sand beaches along its coast. It was a thrill to be in such a small aircraft, with the pilot and his instrument panel only inches away, and the view out the windows, it was like riding in a flying car. Our landing was uneventful, which is exactly how you’d like your landings to be, and we passed through the tiny airport quickly, trying to avoid the mass of porters, drivers and hucksters. We finally found a driver who agreed to take us the forty miles to Nungwi, the town on the far northern tip of the island where we would be enjoying two days of beach-time relaxation. After a busy summer schedule at work for both of us, the twenty-four hours of travel and a brief night in Dar, this was just what we needed to prepare for our African adventure.
As we left the airport in our taxi, I tried desperately to soak in Zanzibar with all my senses. The warm breeze through my open window wafted the scent of the cookfires and smoke, grilling meat, onions, cinnamon, cloves, and other unknown spices, exotic flowers, diesel and exhaust fumes from motorcycles, and when the road ran near the coast the fresh salt smell of the sea. My head swam with trying to see everything as we passed village vendors selling everything imaginable: kangas, soccer jerseys, purses, and Western clothing, electronics, furniture, jewelry, toys, motorcycle and truck parts, and food. The color of the market stalls belonged to mangos, lychees, bananas, tomatoes, avocados, coconuts, seafood and spices of all kinds. The traffic consisted mainly of pedestrians leaping out of the way of tanker trucks, unbelievably overloaded vans, bicycles, motorcycles, and taxis. Every so often we would pass a child guiding a bony cow or goat down the street, sometimes pulling a rickety wooden cart with produce or grain. Palms and banana trees towered over it all, and I learned from our driver that the taller of the palm trees produced coconuts, while the shorter palm variety produced palm oil. We passed mosques, mainly whitewashed structures adorned with a minaret and crescent moon, schools where uniformed children gathered under trees to listen to their teachers’ lessons, and the Amaani Stadium where Zanzibar’s soccer team plays.
As we left Stonetown, the old part of the capital Zanzibar City, the largest on the island, the shops and vendors’ stalls were replaced by the huts and houses of subsistence farmers. Tiny mud-brick homes were surrounded by stands of corn, fruit trees, chickens, and the occasional goat or cow. Zanzibar is only about fifty miles long from north to south, so our ride to the hotel covered most of the western coast. For the most part, the road we traveled was paved, though with all the foot traffic, bicycles, carts, and trucks we were only going about thirty or forty miles per hour so it was easy to stare goggle-eyed at the fascinating African scenery.
After about ninety minutes in the taxi we arrived in Nungwi, bouncing through the potholes and ruts of the village’s dirt roads and alleyways. Several times I thought our taxi would get stuck, wedged between buildings, but the driver somehow maneuvered through into the sand driveway of Smiles Beach Hotel. We piled out and were greeted at the open air reception desk with warm smiles and passionfruit juice. It was noon and our room was not quite ready for us yet, so we went to eat lunch at the hotel’s restaurant, mere feet from the Indian Ocean.
Our waiter introduced himself as Mr. Smiley, a young guy, maybe twenty years old. He was funny and helpful, explaining the menu written in “English” with things like fish, sosej, chicken masala, biryani, pilau, lobster, and octopus. We opted for tuna steaks for the amazing price of 20,000 Tsh. which amounted to $10 per person. Being Zanzibar, it was some time before the food was ready, but we had plenty to occupy us, taking lots of pictures of the beach and ocean.
The tide was out and we watched local women walking the shallow water, searching for shells or shellfish in the tide pools. One group of women unfurled nets and began seining for small fish. With the warm sun beaming down, the light salt breeze off the ocean, and the smell of grilling fish, I was in paradise.
Lunch was delicious, and afterward we collected our luggage and went to drop it in our room. There we found clean and cool tropical beds, draped with mosquito nets (a novelty for us!)
Smiles Beach Hotel is a small resort, just sixteen guest rooms in four buildings, with a pool, restaurant, and a great stretch of beach with lounge chairs under grass thatched umbrellas. A few Maasai strolled along the beach selling jewelry and trinkets, chatting and laughing with tourists. Other locals, more pushy with their wares tried to sell us all kinds of things, from wooden carvings to snorkeling tours, to drugs. If you’re wondering, all these offers went rejected by us.
As luxurious as it is to relax on the beach, reading a book, listening to Jimmy Buffet songs, taking in the view of the turquoise waters and soaking up the sun, such narrative is more delighting to experience or imagine than read about. Suffice to say that it was a glorious and relaxing afternoon on the edge of the Indian Ocean.
Sunset comes quickly to places on or near the equator. The tide had been coming in all afternoon, and around five o’clock reached high tide. The waves rolling up the beach smashed against the sea wall, a ten foot tall structure built to keep the sand from washing out from under the hotels and restaurants along the beach. Lounging on the beach chairs, it was fun to watch the waves splash higher and higher, sometimes even spraying up and over the grass-thatched umbrellas under whose shade we lay. As sunset approached and the tide was high, the fishermen swam out to their fishing dhows, anchored in the shallows. Each dhow had a crew of five or six men, one always wading out with the boat motor held high overhead. Once the crew was on board and the marine engine mounted to the stern, they would weigh anchor and motor out to sea. Others, saving on the expensive fuel, would hoist the triangular sail and harness the power of the wind to sail out to their fishing grounds.
As the white triangles of the dhows grew small against the horizon, the sky began to take on the oranges and reds of sunset. We snapped off picture after picture until the sun sank below the horizon, all in a matter of minutes. Once the sun was down, dusk did not last long. The dark took over and lights and torches blazed at the hotels and cafes up and down the beach.
We showered off the salt and sand and dressed for dinner. Next door to Smiles was the Doubletree Hilton Resort. They were serving an Asian dinner buffett, which sounded good to us. As an American, Asian food usually means Chinese dishes, Japanese stir-fry or sushi, maybe even some Thai or Korean food. But this was Zanzibar. There were almost no recognizable dishes on the lavish buffett. That’s not to say it wasn’t delicious! There were Indonesian and Malaysian recipes, curries and seafood, and lots and lots of fruit. There was even a line out on the beach where you could scoop raw ingredients into a bowl and the chef would stir-fry it for you over an open fire on the sand. My favorite thing was an Indonesian dish that looked a lot like beef stew with potatoes, but had a powerful spicy kick. There we met a British couple who lived in Zimbabwe and were vacationing on Zanzibar. We had an interesting conversation about their adventures as expatriates in southern Africa, doing meaningful work in health services and education. They planned to retire and return to the UK in five or six years, but talked lovingly of their work, time, and friends in Africa.
We also met the hotel manager of the Doubletree, Sean, who was Australian and had managed hotels in Australia, Europe, South Africa, and now in Zanzibar. He was very gracious and welcoming, even though we were guests at the hotel next door. He gave us some good recommendations and tips for our exploring when we got back to Stonetown a couple of days later.
We returned to Smiles Beach Hotel by the flickering of tiki torches and the gleam of moonlight on the ocean, our bellies full of exotic food, our senses full of the beauty of Zanzibar, and our hearts full of the welcome and kindness of strangers.