ZANZIBAR: THE BEACH
The sheets at Baby Blue Lodge are white crisp, thin, and mold perfectly to the grooves and lines of my body. I’m sharing a king sized bed with Catie and Suzi and even with the three of us, I slept between the comfort of our sheets and the blue-lined mosquito net without any problem. I woke to the sounds of the ocean and Africa mixed together—seagulls crying desperately in sync with chickens calling for their loved ones on the ground. My feet touched the sandy colored dirt hollow floor and I smiled. We are here. We made it to Zanzibar.
Before we met the Indian Ocean, far before I could relax with a Safari Lager (a Tanzanian brew), and pre-bathing suit, we started our journey from the Peace Corps office in Kigali. I had come in on a Monday afternoon after I was able to submit my final grades for my students in the second term. I came into town dismayed to find that the burrito place is closed for some reason on Mondays, but no matter, we continued to set about for our departure—arriving for our 5:10am bus at 4:00am at the Nybagogo bus park. I decided to forgo sleeping the night before and so I was rather loony (more so than usual) as we boarded our green “pimped out” Taqua bus. We all got assigned seats together and moved slowly as we prepared our home for the next two-ish days. The bus wasn’t all that bad actually. I mean, would I choose it for a dream home? Heck no. But it was a neat experience to drive (especially for only 50 bucks) across the entire country of Tanzania; we cruised by rural villages—desolate, dry, and full of secluded mud huts with small pockets of people. The densely populated greenery of Rwanda felt like another world.
We had one major stop in Dodoma (at an African version of a rest stop) of about 4 hours so the drivers could have an extended rest. Dimly lit shops offered meat, eggs, chips (fried potatoes, French fries if you will), tea, and bread among other things. In the pitch black of darkness, Sara and I shared a delicious ginger infused East African Tea, with some doughnuts. We passed the hours talking to a lovely and kind Tanzanian woman, Hilda, and using whatever light we could find to read our respective books (I was reading Running the Rift, an incredibly written story of fiction based on the history of Rwanda—a young Olympic hopeful runner has to navigate his dreams as the Genocide becomes more of a reality in the mid-90’s in Rwanda). After sunlight broke through in early morning and the sky settled into its morning routine, we arrived in Dar es Salaam—the next point in getting closer to Zanzibar, a large island off the coast.
We found our way to the ferry with bags underneath our eyes and arms, bought our second class tickets (we are PCVs after all) and braved the crowded cluster of people: tourists, Zanzibarians, workers, and everyone in between (crowds were extra high—of course it’s sweet summer time, but also because a lot of Tanzanians like to go to Zanzibar during Ramadan). I didn’t think twice about our safety on our catalina-esque boat. I had expected something of a huge barge—like the one you take to Staten Island in New York, and instead we got the Kilimanjaro III, a big speedboat machine. Classy. Sara and I joked about hitting a ‘sandburg’ as if we were on an African version of the Titanic or something, but this joke was silenced and shamed when people next to us on the top deck began to freak out. Rapid pointing and rushed voices made us suspicious. Dolphins? No. Try a sinking ferry. My glasses were buried beneath an assortment of fruit, books, and notebooks in my bag so I didn’t get a direct look as the ship went under. But, when we docked in Stonetown (the main town of Zanzibar), the staff all but threw us off the boat—our ferry was becoming the rescue boat to try and save what we heard was over 200 people on a ferry that was just 200 feet away from us.
Later, when we nuzzled on indescribably comfortable couches and pillows, we processed what happened out there. Peace Corps called checking in. BBC highlighted the news. Wow. What a close call. Life sure is weird.
After the ferry craziness, we met Stonetown, Zanzibar, embracing the old washed over buildings, the fishing boats tumbling over the water, and a hellish amount of money hungry taxi drivers. We spent the first hour or two in what felt like a time portal where we lost time doing nothing. We hired a taxi who drove us in circles to an ATM and then switched us into a mini-van like you would find back in the Burbs. Whatever, I thought. Let’s just get on our way. In efforts to save money (no surprise, our visas were double what they thought they would be and the price of the ferry was a big chunk of change) I had a mixed salad for dinner. It was extraordinarily underwhelming (as a mix of cabbage, peppers, and carrots could be) but our free breakfast every day (mango, passion fruit, chapatti, nutella, egg, and watermelon) redeemed the food question in full. Plus, Baby Bush Lodge left tea and coffee out all day. FOR FREE. Heaven? Yes. We’re barefoot. And I’m a tourist…which is pretty awesome. Never thought I would be so happy about that.
It would be only a couple of days later when I received the news about the shooting at the movie theatre in my hometown, Aurora, Colorado. Relieved that my family was unharmed but deeply disturbed by the pain that many community members were dealing with, I felt adrift, sad, and somehow, in world of paradise, homesick.
Pure light surrounded me—above, below, between. The white pearlish sand snug tight in the crevices of my sneakers, the sun baiting on my pasty white skin lined with sweat and sunscreen. Low tide. The water—green, blue, navy, and teal—watched us run by waiting for wind to bring it to shore. Catie, a Boulder granola crunching athlete ran yards ahead of me. Seaweed squished beneath me with every other step. For months, I’ve ran on the dusty village roads. Here, it was me, the sand, the water, and light. Tears brimmed my eyes. The weight of worry, anxiety, and looming decisions bounced off my heart like a toddler on a trampoline. Music from Relient K strung along and everything lifted with the light. No matter what happens, I’m okay.
I’ve slept about 8 hours over the last couple of days. Typically, vacations are for sleep and relaxation. But, we travel a bit differently I suppose. After a few serene days at the beach, we altered out travel plans just a bit (turns out later, this would cause all kinds of disruptions and changes in our trip) so that we could stay a night in Stonetown. We tasted Stonetown one of the nights we were exploring outside of our beach area, and we loved it. Stonetown has this lively, delicious, yummy (did I mention DELCIOUS!) night market. On the menu at a variety of stands to choose from, you can have Zanzibar Pizza (including one with banana and nutella), a sugarcane juice drink, falafel, and meat kabobs. Rwanda doesn’t have street food (its bad culture to eat in public) so this was like the mecca of food for us. We were beyond excited.
Our night peaked well before the night market though, as we walked around exploring, and stumbled upon a place with happy hour. Not only did they have happy hour, but hello, mojitos and daiquiris were on the menu. Moreover, the place that hosted this delightful happy hour was on the rooftop of a hotel/restaurant that made you feel like you could have been in the Caribbean, in Morocco, or in an old European city all at once. We referred to this place as heaven. Believe me, it’s about as close as you could get.
We laughed over drinks about our nights on the beach with the Masai people (a pastoral group of Africans in Northern Tanzania and Kenya—look them up, they are pretty cool), about our ridiculous Peace Corps lives, and just how cool of a place Stonetown was. We also spent a majority of our night looking for a place to stay. Our situation…well it was somehow complicated. We had managed to book lodging, but with our numbers and shortage of money…that option fell through. So, I’ll just say we made it work. We managed to find a hotel room for an affordable price…and well here’s a little akabanga (secret). We had to leave the room at 5am (per the hotel manager; it was a part of our little bargain) and so we stumbled weakily (we were half way asleep) onto the beach right off of Stonetown and slept for 2 hours until daybreak came. That’s right, I can cross that little goal off the bucket list: to sleep on a beach. Done and done.
DAR ES SALAAM
Subway was once a fast food sandwich stop that was frequently the food of choice for our hockey team along the stretch of highways throughout Arkansas, Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee to name a few. Ellie, our coach, would reluctantly trudge down the narrow aisle of our coach bus, taking stock of our Disney themed blankets (growing up is so overrated) and would ask, “what about Subway?” Our choices were often limited mind you, and as college hockey players, a Big Mac before an 80 minute match wasn’t a sensible option. So, I don’t blame her. But for the past 5 years, well, I have cringed a little at the sound of a Subway foot long. Trust me, I ate a lot of those. Once, even a foot long and a Big Mac in the same day—but that’s another story, first date material, I’m sure.
Yesterday, after a rocky ride into Dar es Salaam on the ferry we found lodging (The Rainbow Hotel—no messing around with lodging this part of the trip!) and perused the vertical and horizontal blocks of the city. Indeed, a city it was! A local said Dar (the capital of the East African Community) is home to 4 million people. There are tall and large buildings everywhere, smog, people moving all over the place, and lots and lots of cars! Kigali too is a city, but this one is on a much larger scale, a little more worn in, and on top of everything else, it sits right on the ocean. We found a shopping center complete with jewelry shops, a supermarket, a pizza place…and a Subway! We opened the door to the extraordinarily small version of America’s popular chain and the fresh bread got me so excited that I jumped up and down. I got as close to a version Ali and I always go back on road trips (chipotle chicken) and my tummy was pretty happy as Southwest ranch dribbled all over my face. I do love Rwandan food and African food at large, but sometimes there’s nothing like eating something familiar to your taste buds—even if it is Subway.
It would be fun to say that our stay in Dar was full of intrigue, crazy nights, and spontaneity. But, truth be told, our exhaustion had set in, so following our shopping trip and Subway afternoon delight, we went back to our hotel room with cable and watched TV. And you know what? We had a marvelous time. Though I wanted to keep the channel on the field hockey sports channel (the hotel was Indian owned, and thus a lot of channels about popular Indian sports, like cricket and field hockey) I compromised and we spent a great deal of the night watching the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. We’re cool, we know. We tried to catch some sleep as well, because our next leg of the journey—on to Moshi (close to Mt. Kilimanjaro—would begin with yet another bus ride (this one would be about 8 hours) at 6:00am sharp. Traveling nomads? You bet.
MOSHI, ARUSHA, & HOME
Sweat, heat, frustration and exhaustion wraps itself around my body. It’s 1:00am. There’s screaming outside from men leaving the bar and their never-ending billiards game. Mosquitos and flies filter in and out of our holey white mosquito net. All five of us are sharing one queen sized bed. The end of our travels has brought us here. Stacked against each other, I have to move. I reposition myself at the end of the bed, curl up, and hope for sleep. We are leaving for Rwanda in the morning (from a place a couple hours from the border, called Kahama)—two days later—and sleeping on a bus with bumpy dirt roads at times proves fruitless.
A few days ago—was it three? Two? I’m not really sure anymore—we spent a couple of days in Moshi, Tanzania. Moshi, the greenest town in Tanzania, reminded me of an African version of Boulder, Colorado. It was much cleaner than other parts of Tanzania, the people were incredibly friendly (our customer service at the Twiga Hotel was some of the best I’ve ever received), and as a base to Mt. Kilimanjaro, it’s beautiful! We spent the majority of our time in Moshi (I just also love saying that name—reminds me of Yoshi from Mario Cart) outside exploring (we got to see rice fields, a forest, and a waterfall), at our hotel eating (the grilled cheeses were too good to be true, and they were showing Olympic replays from Beijing before London 2012 began), and at a local coffee shop that was just about the best place you could ever get coffee, smoothies, or delicious food from. The Coffee Shop (that’s what it’s called) is located in the middle of town and has the coolest vibe going for it. You can sit out back, among trees and the patio, and order everything from espresso, to a mango smoothie, to coffee cake, to waffles, to quiche. Inside, it has a huge board full of houses available to rent, yoga groups, cooperatives in Moshi for women, and travel trips to climb, hike, or camp in the mountainous areas. Like I said, it was a cool place. As a group, we loved Moshi, and I am definitely pushing for a reunion there in a few years. Only next time, we can actually climb the mountain (it’s expensive; thus our choice to do activities near the base of the mountain only)!
Because we wanted yet another extra day in Moshi (we loved it that much; and hey, why not extend our epic vacation?) and we realized we could not get transport from Moshi to Kigali, we had to wait another day and catch a bus to Arusha (about an hour away) and organize transport there. Arusha was less than impressive, in my opinion. It was somehow a big city, with a lot of things happening (and I noticed a heck of a lot of shoes for sell) but I wasn’t really sure how to navigate myself around there. I suppose I was just disoriented. That can definitely happen in African towns. We managed to buy overpriced tickets to Kigali (we would later find out that direct tickets wasn’t exactly true; the tickets took us to Kahama, about 2 hours from the border, but we would have to wait an extra day to continue the trip), get another shared room at a lovely establishment called 7-11 (I’m not kidding) and find some food for the evening. We went to a hole-in-the-wall place for some traditional dishes (I opted for some doughnuts and tea—actually quite satisfying) and to finish our meal, we bought corn on the cob with lime juice and salt. Quite tasty! After exploring Arusha as much as we really could (and felt up to doing) we finished our night together with a screening of Twilight on Catie’s laptop. Vacation rocks.
Like I said, our tickets didn’t take us home in one day like they were arranged on the front part of our vacation. So, we had one more day close to the border before we could finally get moving in the direction of crossing the border back into Rwanda. We had to keep Peace Corps informed on our whereabouts, and because we had no money, and also had no way to buy phone credit (we have a different company than Tanzania offers) our security officer sent us credit to get in touch with people in Rwanda to inform them about arriving late. We crossed into Rwanda about 10 days after we had started, and it sure was nice to speak Kinyarwanda again, to see those good ole banana trees, and just to feel at home.
Traveling is one of the best life experiences, but it’s also great because you always get to go back to where you started. I felt strangely exhausted and refreshed at the same time. I had a bit of everything while in Tanzania—we had beaches, we had the Obama Bar, we hung out with Masai men, we had cities, we had American and Tanzanian food, we had bus rides, boat rides, long walks, laughter, stress, heat, coldness, and we had one hell of a time. I got to do all of this with some great friends and it’s such a great opportunity to get to know Africa just a bit better. Africa has to be one of the coolest continents in the world. What a few weeks it has been: I went from all of this in Tanzania, to GLOW Camp, and now, finally, finally, I get to be home. It’s fun to tell my neighbors, students, and friends, all about my journeys. Sometimes, I can’t really even believe it myself.