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zanzibar

Africa

I Might Really Miss This Place

A rainbow came out especially for my “picture-taking day.”

As I prepare to leave Zanzibar (Nungwi, more specifically; East Africa, more broadly), the place that has begun to feel like home, I find myself struck by surprising waves of nostalgia…

With one foot over the proverbial threshold, I observe this place with the forgiving nostalgia of things already past.

Mambo poa? Poa, vipi? Poa poa. Za asubui? Salaama, na wei wei? Mzuri sana. Mzima. Mzima.

The daily greetings—long and impossible to translate (in all honesty, I don’t know the meanings so much as the sense)—through which I finally navigate with ease after months in the region.

For Travellers: Next door to my home, Kipangani Villa.
The familiarity of Hafizi, the vegetable guy, Chef, the owner of “Chef’s Baking Shop,” and several other business owners and neighbors who, day by day, have slowly accepted my presence in their world—though I will never “fit in” here. To a few, I am not anonymous—more than a transient foreign face—and that means something.

Chef’s Baking Shop (and Restaurant).

Hafizi, the vegetable (and fruit) guy.

My hard-won comfort—with the basics of Ki-Swahili; with the daily trials of moving through an unfamiliar cultural and physical landscape; with all the tiny frustrations that sometimes build… and sometimes fade into irrelevance.

The neighborhood cow.

Road to my house.

The herds of cows on uneven dirt tracks, which I pass through on my borrowed bicycle with its one brake and working bell on my way to work; the brief but regular power outages and occasional mysterious absence of water in the taps; the proliferation of rambutan spiders, mangos and goats and the scarcity of apples, cheese pets and pavement; the trash cart hitched to a skinny cow, the call to prayer at sundown and the rocks that bite holes in my sandals.

Nungwi Village.

All of it—tiny details insignificant to some, inconveniences to others—to me, these minutiae are the source of my nostalgia. They are symbols, signifying that I am “there”: someplace far far older than I, but new to me. Not “here” in the familiar, alike, easy—“elsewhere,” and thriving in it.

Second-to-last sunset.

And then there are the sunsets over the ocean, the orange-gold breeze as I teach yoga, the palm trees and the beach; the sumptuous Arabic-style décor of restaurants that charge less than MacDonald’s for a feast, the silhouette of dhow sails on the horizon—the part from guidebooks and travel adverts is also here, though far more complicated than the brochures would have you believe.

Of course, a hundred moments of frustration, anger, discomfort, exasperation and rage punctuate that seeping, honeyed nostalgia, reminding me why I am leaving—why I am ready to go.

Nonetheless, I think I might really miss this place.
As I write this, I am sipping my last cappuccino at the Zanzibar Coffee House (my favorite place in Stone Town) and uploading the handful of pictures I managed to take in my last days on the island. I will go to the airport this evening and travel about 40 hours for a brief visit with my family in Vermont.

Next stop: Sicily.

I hover in the place of in-between’s as I figure out what is next—uncertainty looms as always in shades of vibrant expectation and somber apprehension. I am reminded, again, that home is a thing that fits in a cupboard in my mind… the trick is remembering where I left the keys.

***

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Africa

The Joker

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

His eyebrows are raised at the center in a perpetual arc of surprise.

A cap typical of observant Muslim men in Zanzibar perches over his round, childlike face, but he resides squarely in middle age. He wears a blue t-shirt and blue jeans, and in his arms he holds a little girl dressed in powder blue satin.

She is not his daughter.

Throughout the bus journey from Nungwi to Stone Town, each time a child arrives at the back of the open-air bus, the man immediately reaches down to lift it on board. Sometimes he returns it to the parent, sometimes he holds it on his lap.

The children are unfazed, far more concerned with staring at me through kohl-rimmed eyes. He is normal; I am not.

At one point, the man holds two children on his lap. He is a joker—comical expressions etched on his face. He loves children, he says. It becomes a joke: the women around him laugh each time he jealously pulls a child into the bus and onto his lap. No one thinks it odd, and no one at all questions his motives, as would surely happen in the U.S.

He loves children, he says, and it is his great luck that there are so many aboard today.

Maybe he has no family of his own. Maybe he is unable to have children. I don’t know, nor would I ask; nor could I understand the answer had I wanted to.

Watching the man before me—the joker in the blue shirt and blue jeans, little doll baby dressed in blue satin on his lap—I can’t help but smile along with the other women.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This is one of the things I love about Zanzibar, and places like it: When it comes to minding children, everyone helps everyone. Neighbor helps neighbor; kin help kin; strangers help strangers.

When a mother and her child approach a bus (more of an open-air, low-back truck), ten pairs of hands instantly reach to lift the child into the vehicle and hold it steady.

You won’t see that in the U.S. or most of Europe (although, to be fair, getting on the bus in the U.S. is not quite the same ordeal). There, if a man went to hold a child he didn’t know, he would probably be screamed off the bus.

I love the trust and community underlying the scene before me.

That said, my appreciation is hardly romantic. This is one context… Where is that community when it comes to the “every man for himself” mentality of Nungwi businesses? I want to know. Where is that trust and support when business owners attempt to navigate the cloudy waters of the tourism industry, stepping on one another to keep from drowning? I don’t see it.

Still, the man with the round, surprised face makes me smile today. I consider—not for the first time—that I will really miss this place.

***
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paradise, zanzibar
Africa, Poetry & Fiction

In Zanzibar. Paradise has Cracks. (Poem)

In Zanzibar
Fruit falls from trees–
Like shimmering coins–
And is trampled underfoot.

No one wants to sell it
When tourist dollars
Taste so much sweeter.

In Zanzibar
Living is cheap
But being a peacock
Is free.

Proud muscles;
Proud feathers…
Looks the same to me.

In Zanzibar
The clock starts
At 6 o’clock–
It’s rarely on time.

The sunset is melted caramel
On heaving tides,
But no one wakes for sunrise.

In Zanzibar
If you read between the lines
Hakuna matata doesn’t really mean
No worries.

In Zanzibar
Glittering veils drape
Over hair piled high,
But eyes are dull.

In Zanzibar
Alcohol is haram
But Konyagi is cheap–
The rules change at night.

In Zanzibar
The sky is heavy
And God is white.

In Zanzibar
Pole pole’ is a slogan
Crafted from handicap.

In Zanzibar.
The rain is sudden.

In Zanzibar.
The colors are hard.

In Zanzibar.
Life is white and black.

In Zanzibar.
Paradise has cracks.

In Zanzibar… In Zanzibar… In Zanzibar.

In Zanzibar
Fruit falls from trees,
And I want to pick it up.

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Africa

Cows on the Beach (Photos)

There is something delightful about seeing herds of cows wandering along the beach.

Sure, when I stop to think about how much manure is probably swept up during high tide, it’s suddenly much less delightful. But still, they’re adorable and particularly photogenic, so I’ve found myself taking a (uselessly) large quantity of pictures of cows on the beach.

Lest they be wasted, I am sharing the best ones here.

Don’t worry—more are surely on the way. I will update this post with more cows on the beach as I see them!
***
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Africa

The Invisibility Wish


Living here, I find I cycle between feeling very comfortable and, dare I say it, assimilated (as much as such a thing is possible), and feeling totally out-of-place and exhausted with sticking out. This is a stream of consciousness on the latter:

Sometimes, I wish I could be invisible here.

A foreign feeling for me, who always wanted so much to stand out;
Now here, hard as I may try, I could not hope to blend in,
And though it is freeing at times and instructive at others,
Sometimes, I would like to be invisible.

Anonymity—a luxury I never appreciated—suddenly seems so very appealing:

To spend a day where no cars screech to a stop to watch me pass, and no strangers want to talk to me simply because I am white (or foreign, or tourist, or moneyed or different… it’s all the same. And it is because I am white and foreign; I watch the women walking here, and no one wants to talk to them)…

To spend a day anonymous; to slip under the water of hyper-conscious observation and simply watch for a change; to sit on the bus in silence—what a day that would be.

Sometimes, when every day is a crowded audience for which I perform my life, I wouldn’t mind stepping into the shadows and only watching for a while.

But I can’t.

You can’t watch without being watched. You can’t be an observer without creating ripples through the world you observe. I think physics taught us that.

You can’t be a white woman in Africa without recognizing the remnants of colonialism. (Irrelevant that at my ancestors were far removed at the time, living their lives in Eastern Europe at the time. I am still a white woman in Africa, here.) You can’t be a tourist without accepting that your money talks and it’s saying, “come talk to me.” You can’t be a foreigner without relinquishing your right to anonymity.

Or maybe you can, but I haven’t figured out the secret. I will have to do without invisible days and unobserved observation, as I do without good cheese and potable tap water. Luckily, I have a vivid imagination—sometimes I pretend laughing cow is really a luscious Camembert, and sometimes I pretend the shouts and stares are all imaginary, and the beach is really a calm and peaceful oasis.

It’s all perspective, anyway.

*** 
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Africa, Culture

Nuns and Princesses

I never knew there were so many ways of wearing a head scarf, but after more than a month in Zanzibar–people watching on dala dalas (public buses), at the beach and in Stone Town–I think I may have seen all of them.

There is nothing birdlike about the women I see walking along the beach, jewel-bright against the stark white sand. Though their scarves flutter prettily in the wind, their arms are strong, supporting baskets on their heads, and their steps are deliberate–heavy, even.

Some women wrap their heads in lengths of pattered fabric, leaving their faces and necks bare. Others dress in heavy black coverings that melt seamlessly into the fabric of their dresses. Some layer a heavy white and all-concealing cloth beneath a lighter outer piece.  Still others throw on a scarf as an afterthought, tossing one end over their shoulders as they usher their children outside or duck into the dukha (store) on the corner. For those particularly fashionable, and presumably wealthy, women, the scarf is a statement of personal style, wrapped asymmetrically or held with studied carelessness just below the hairline.

Girls in their school uniforms, heads covered with long, plain pieces of white or gray fabric, walk in flocks of three to ten through the narrow stone alleys of their neighborhoods. Their rounded heads, demurely framed faces and tented apparel appear, to my mind, unmistakably reminiscent of the nuns I have seen in the streets of Rome.

In Italy, however, those nuns are occasional (and for me, always remarkable) apparitions; whereas here, hundreds of such girls travel to and from school each day. Commonplace they may be, but something about them always strikes a chord in my imagination.

Then there are the women who drape brightly colored, patterned scarves over hair piled high atop their heads. While sitting on the bus, I often find my attention fixed by a large, jeweled pin holding the entire construction in place for a woman beside me. Some tie a black piece of fabric over these scarves and across their faces, leaving only a narrow opening for their eyes. Tall and slender, jeweled and wrapped in silk, these women sharply remind me of the princesses of old storybooks.

The impression is hard to shake. There is an old-world glamour made modern–to my eyes, at least. Coming from a place where head scarves are extremely rare (except for in my hardback copy of One Thousand and One Nights) I see shadows of a fabled past.

In reality, though, I have simply entered a different paradigm–one where my uncovered head is the only anomaly, and where my limited knowledge of foreign fashions is baldly apparent.

There is a stunning amount of diversity contained in this small, religiously homogeneous island. I hope my record of variety might serve to reveal the gaps in others’ understanding, as it has revealed mine.

***
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Africa, Nature

Other Words for Turquoise

Over the last week, I have been struggling to find other words for what has always been one of my favorite colors: turquoise.
As I help to write new website content for a Zanzibari hotel, and as I research other accommodations in the industry, I am struck by the dearth of alternatives. Hundreds of hotels, lodges, hostels and villas, and all any of us can come up with is, “the warm, turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean.”
Really? I mean, I love turquoise—the color, the word, the evocative sound of it—but there must be more creative ways to describe this coast.
The following words are officially out, for overuse: stunning; warm; turquoise; aquamarine; tropical blue; island blue; exquisite.
Not to say the Indian Ocean isn’t all of those things… only, words begin to seem trite when used in such limited permutations.
The ocean here is truly a bevy of hues, none of them simply blue. When the tide is out, there is a short stretch of water a few shades lighter than teal, then a wide bay of deep and surprising periwinkle, tapering into indigo at the meeting point with the sky—azure fading to white. Throughout this vocabulary test of colors emerge hints of sea green (a color none can replicate, it is mined from the ocean depths to fill a gap between green and blue). And at the border between every pair lie colors without names, achingly beautiful blues never seen before that moment and never to appear again.
Everything changes with the sun, of course. In the rain, add a few shades of grey to every hue. In full sun, the color at the horizon brightens to sparkling sapphire. The faraway depths become a cobalt seasoned by saltwater. The shallows at high tide almost insist upon the label of “turquoise,” yet if you look very closely you will find each and every shade from the imperfect white of the surf to the navy-black of the shadows. And in-between, a spectrum of blues, named and unnamed, which, lacking more and better words, we call turquoise.
Are there other words for turquoise? Undoubtedly. Can any one of them truly describe the explosion of color that laps at these shores? Unlikely.

And so, I am back where I began, watching the warm, turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean recede with the tide. Any other words I chose would be equally insufficient.
Bonus: Massive double rainbow spotted last week!
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Africa

Where the Tourist Things Are

There is a road in Stone Town, Zanzibar. It is a big road, compared to most of the others, and on that road there are many big hotels.
This road marks the edge of the most touristy part of an increasingly touristy town, cross it, and prices triple—or quadruple—loitering groups of young men disperse and much of the decay and jumbled details that lend the rest of Stown Town much of its charm is conspicuously absent.
This is where the tourist things are.
Not that you won’t find tourist things elsewhere. You will.
The same painted bowls and beaded bracelets, colorful print shirts and cleverly packaged spices, are quite nearly everywhere. But not in this concentration.
This is where the human tourist things are, too.
Faced with so many wazungu (foreigners) in such high concentrations I find myself at a loss. Next to my quiet neighborhood interspersed with local cafes and dukas (small food shops), such foreignness is jarring.
Yes, I know, I am a tourist thing too, and no one would let me forget it. But the groups of backpacked, sneakered oddities nonetheless throw me off. They happily pay two dollars for a mango or fifteen for a kikoi (sarong), making it all the more difficult for me to obtain fair prices. They meander in groups of five or six, shoulders bear or covered heads incongruously juxtaposed with short shorts, and no matter how I dress or walk or talk, I am just like them.
And yet, I am comfortable where the tourist things are. No one looks at me as they would an alien invader. One of many, I do not attract the same attention I do in residential neighborhoods.
Here, on this side of the big road, surrounded by other white faces who will never blend in, no matter what, I fit somebody’s paradigm, if not my own.
Oh yes, I could stay where the tourist things are, surrounded by other tourist things “like” me, but I don’t want to. I will go back to my room at the edge of this quickly changing, quickly gentrifying center and cook maharagwe on a kerosene burner. I will take off the extra layers of clothing I don in a futile attempt to deflect attention. I will finish writing for the day, and I will live the life of my making, uniquely between the tourist things I don’t want and the local things I could never be.
That is where you will find me.
(Update: Irony of ironies, you will in fact find me ‘where the tourist things are’ beginning late May. Earl and I will be working at a boutique hotel in Michamvi, on the southeast coast of Zanzibar, for the next 6 months! More to come on this soon.)

(Stay tuned for pictures. The rainy season does not lend itself to photography.)

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Africa

Zanzibar! (Part II)

View out my bedroom window in Zanzibar.

Months ago, I wrote of Zanzibar, land of rare consonants, expecting to be there within the month.
Things rarely happen as we expect.
After more than four months in Kenya, we have finally continued on to Tanzania and on a whim have taken a Zanzibari apartment for the next month.
Zanzibar of spices and Z’s. Zanzibar, epicenter of trade. Zanzibar, home for the moment.
I think I could live in a place like this one day… for longer than a month, I mean.
Cuisines and clothing styles from several corners of the world meet here and intertwine, as do architecture, faces and language. In one hour I might pass a Hindu temple, a Jain temple and a mosque. I could find every spice I know—and many I don’t—on one dusty market shelf. Children smile with faces as diverse as the nations who once (and still) found cause to trade here.
Each time I step outside my door I discover a new road, a new food or a new detail.
One moment, I look up to a shock of blue and green glass window panes. The next, I look down at a mosaic of yellow, terracotta and blue tiles.
I might find a café or shop one day, only to wander helplessly in search of it the next, winding in circles through every lane but the one I seek. If I buy a particularly tasty samosa from a restaurant’s display case one morning, chances are their doors will be closed when I wish to buy another.
I think I could happily live in a place like this, that delights in changing its clothes behind my back, covering one face with a veil while revealing another, opening one artfully carved door to another secret detail, only to close it when I wish to return.

Stone Town is the trickster in city form. It keeps you guessing, turning around and tripping over your own heels, and always, always it holds another jewel in its sleeve to surprise and inspire.

Or so it seems to me, at least.
No place is perfect, and I will delve into other sides of Zanzibar another day, but for now let me leave you with these images of streets that disappear and reappear at will, doors that open at random, exotic fruits with no English names, and shifting veils of revelation.

These are the images that best align with the hopes I had of a place called Zanzibar. Reality has many more facets, but the city herself lives up to her name.

Greetings from Zanzibar—Spice Island; enigmatic destination of ancient traders and modern tourists; home for the moment.

If nothing else, it would all be worth it simply for letting me write “Zanzibar” so many times. Of course, there is plenty else, too…

***
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Africa

Zanzibar!

Have you ever written a sonnet?*

A sonnet’s beauty and difficulty both lie in the restraints placed around its form. Fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, and a rhyme scheme of a-b-a-b;c-d-c-d;e-f-e-f;g-g, the sonnet is no quick jaunt on a summer day. It is hard work to fit depth of thought and poetic sentiment within its narrow frame. But when it works, it’s magic: the sonnet emerges as just reward for the poet’s pains.

This trip I have just begun (arriving in Paris on November 17th, and checking in now from Barcelona) is a bit like writing a sonnet.

Why?

Have I mentioned that I am traveling with my partner? And have I mentioned that said partner is traveling on a Ghanaian passport– a document that grants today’s international traveler few privileges?

Well, I am, and he is.

We arrived in Europe knowing that we would have to leave within 30 days– the length of his visa. Yesterday, we returned from the Moroccan Consulate in Barcelona giddy with disbelief. We would not continue on to Morocco by ferry as we had expected.

Why?

Because one week prior the Consulate had received instruction to grant Moroccan visas only to residents of the Barcelona area. We would have to return to the U.S. or Ghana now to apply.

And so we are back to square one. The fourteen lines, iambic pentameter and strict rhyme scheme of travel sonnets and bureaucratic poetry close in ever tighter.

The following two maps represent our respective “green zones” for international travel. Green and yellow mean we can obtain visas on arrival or do not need them. Gray typically entails a lengthy visa application process, and often the necessity of returning to the U.S. to undertake it.

Were you to lay one map on top of the other, the world would be mostly gray.

Add to that the places we do not wish to travel, for various safety concerns, and the gray spreads farther still.

Yet even as borders tighten and possibilities shrink before my eyes, I feel an odd sense of freedom then, faced by our obstacles. When our plans shatter and we are forced to return with all haste to the drawing board, we have to opportunity to create a sonnet of exceptional spontaneity.

Where will we go now?

To Zanzibar! (You may have guessed it.) City of rare consonants that beckons my imagination to wander. To East Africa. Nairobi, Kenya first, in fact– though its lack of Z’s renders it a less tempting contender for title line– then on to Botswana and Tanzania and maybe South Africa.

I hope the sonnet that emerges is worth all the trouble.

~

*[The credit for this analogy goes to a friend– he managed to express perfectly the nature of this trip.]

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