Tuesday, February 23, 2010

This Week in Zanzibar

This week was indulgence week. Joel takes a break and goes to a(nother) tropical island paradise. A Swahili music festival's finale, swimming, fresh fish and octopus, street-side mangoes, and sugarcane juice with ginger and lime were all on the menu. I even got a few precious minutes with a piano, behind a 3rd floor balcony overlooking a gorgeous sunset view. Welcome to Zanzibar.

It's a strange place, truth be told. As you can probably tell, I had a pretty good time. But not all is perfect for all. Since around Christmas, electricity was cut off from the mainland. This doesn't mean there is no electricity, it just means that there are hundreds and hundreds of generators loudly growling and belching diesel into the 300 year old facades and intricately carved wooden doors of Stone Town, as well as every other settlement on the island. It's a real problem for the residents, many of whom have no running water without electric pumps. Those who could afford generators also needed to buy lots of diesel. A lot of Mzungus and other tourists shook their heads and said how the lack of solar power and presence of the fume belching generators just went to show how the local population only thinks in the short term. I think a lot of us forget how thinking in the long term costs more money than some of these people have.

It's something I've run up against in every tourist spot. It seems like a parallel world between the lives of locals struggling to get running water in town and the tourists sipping Evian in the restaurants. As a backpacker, you end up in some weird middle ground, eating with the locals because it's far cheaper, and then spending far more than they earn per month on things like scuba diving or a boat tour. It makes the two sides hard to ignore, even if you wanted to. Life on the edge of the bubble-- It's good to pop it when you can.

We spent time in three towns: Stone Town, the biggest and oldest settlement on the island, Jambiani, a south-eastern local shallow beach with a couple resorts lining the small village, and Nungwe, a better beach up north with a lot more tourists to show for it. To give you an idea, we were first persuaded to stay in Jambiani by the reaction of two Swiss guys we shared a taxi with from Stone Town. They took one look and said they were leaving to go back north to Nungwe because Jambiani looked boring.

"I mean," one of them said, "there are people reading here." I couldn't tell from his tone if he saw this as more comparable to scratching tally marks in the side of a prison cell or to eating babies, but we got the gist and decided parting ways would make everyone happier.

We did later join them at the party beach, for Friday night (good dance party-- turns out it's a lot easier to do the moonwalk when you're standing on loose sand. Who knew?) But before that, the rest of us got to sit back, play cards and eat free fish curry by candlelight while we swapped stories. Some of the most interesting came from a Zambian guy who had taken up adventure racing, dodging venomous snakes, strict fundamentalist christian schoolmasters, and other assorted wildlife. Then later I would be sitting around the fire, chatting with volunteer nurses and medical students while some of the guys living there played bogo and djembe drums, singing, and dancing. That's when I'd start to wonder, when did this kind of thing stop becoming an exotic cultural experience and start becoming my social life?

And what happens when I come home?

I still don't have an exact end date, but the range is narrowing. I'm sitting on a plane ticket from Johannesburg to Casablanca at the beginning of April. It's the first one that's unquestionably pointed homewards. I do want to spend some time in Morocco before heading up into Spain and Portugal, but after that, if all goes to plan, my next move is across the Atlantic. Another run through Europe, maybe the British Isles, is sorely tempting, but I have been multiple times, and if there's one set of countries I can come back to later in life, it's Ireland and the UK. So that leaves one of the very few regions I haven't seen since September of 2008: the one stamped on the cover of my passport.

But in the meantime, I've got a lot of ground to cover, After long drives across gorgeous Tanzanian countryside (including a lot of giraffes and zebras), a bit of ugali and xima, and me getting crushed at checkers (I was never any good when flying kings were legal), I'm writing this far from Zanzibar on a completely different beach. A small black kitten is curled up, purring between me and my computer as I type. She lives a pretty nice life here on the shores of Lake Malawi. The length spans a big chunk of the country and its full of fish. Dinner time is soon, perhaps I should do something about those facts.

PS. just want to tell people that I'm sorry I haven't been responding to comments as usual-- internet out here in Sub-Aaharan Africa is finicky at best. Thanks for leaving the messages, and know that even if I'm not responding to all of them, I am reading them all.

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. Hi Joel! Great post, as always. Are you hitting Cape Town before Jo-burg? It's the only place in Africa I've been and I'm completely in love with it. Be safe! :) Anneka

  2. There is always Canada. Have you been to the part of Newfoundland where the Vikings landed? Or you could try to get to Greenland.

    And you do have an awful lot of time left before you actually come back to the US - and even then, no one says you can't do fun things like hang out on the beach.

    But we do miss you back here. Be safe, as Anneka says.

  3. "...when did this type of thing stop becoming an exotic cultural experience and start becoming my social life?" haha, a great starting point for many a good story.

  4. on further thought, perhaps a good starting point for a full length non-fiction odyssey of the global adventures of a wandering half-Jew.

  5. Stone Town Zanzibar is a unique place.The intriguing history tells us about brave sea traders,explorers,Sultans and the fragrance of exotic spices.