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Africa Days Thirteen through Fifty

Part Three: Zanzibar (part two)

(Friday January 28th, 2000)

After asking everyone that we ran in to what their New Year’s Eve plans were, we decided on Nungwi. It turns out the nothing was going to be happening in Stone Town because of Ramadan, so many of the Mzungu decided to head up North to party. Because of the high demand we were unable to book ahead, as you usually do to go to Nungwi, and instead had to just take the two hour ride up there and hope to get lucky. This time I think even Kim had some doubts as to our ability to find a place this time.

So, we woke up early the next morning and got on to a minibus for Nungwi. Nungwi is the northernmost tip of Zanzibar Island. It consists of beaches on the west side of the point, beaches on the north of the point, beaches on the east side of the point, and the village, where all the locals live, in the middle. To get to the ocean the villagers have to actually walk between resorts. All of the beaches are postcard perfect. The reefs are only a short distance from the beaches, so there are actually some at shore. So you can snorkel and body surf, kind of, at all the beaches. In this way Nungwi is set up to facilitate Mzungu hedonism, as the beaches are gorgeous, the tide doesn’t go out very far, and the local population is a good ten minutes away in Nungwi village.

The trip up to Nungwi was fantastic. There was even good tarmac most of the way. Part of the way we drove through jungle, part through mud hut village, part through tall grasslands. I don’t know tell you how pretty everything was throughout this entire trip without being repetitious: there are only so many synonyms for pretty, beautiful and gorgeous, and I’ve already used most of them.

On the way we had to stop at several police check points. These are common in Kenya and, I think, most of East Africa. They were certainly common on Zanzibar, since we went through about seven of them on a fairly short trip. The idea is that you are supposed to have some sort of license or permit to transport passengers. Really, the idea is that the police want to supplement their income with bribes. It became clear that we were being stopped at some check points but not others, because the drivers were either friends with them or they had already paid off the ones where we didn’t stop.

When we arrived at Nungwi we stopped at hotel after hotel after guest house. At each stop one of the driver assistants would get out run up to reception, and try to pull some strings. Each time they would come back without success. We ended up going through all of the hotels on the west side, going through the village and to the scattered hotels on the north. We found one place that had a room and checked in. It turns out that they were still finishing up construction on the hotel compound, there was no true reception desk, although one seemed to be in the process. The bungalows were finished, and they were almost exactly how you’d imagine them; grass thatch roof, white plaster walls, bare wood rafters and a little veranda for tea and breakfast. It was part Fantasy Island, part Gilligan’s Island. It appeared as if they had bought a section of the near-by sea turtle aquarium and converted it to a hotel. There was still a bit of the lagoon next to our bungalow and we could go out and look at the huge turtles swimming around the black coral pool.

What made the bungalow even nicer was the complete lack of nearby mosques! I looked forward to a night of uninterrupted sleep!

We unpacked, rented bikes from a couple of the guys that were working on the wall and reception area and went back to the east side. There were four or five restaurants along the beach and we made arrangements with the Flat Fish Bar for a “New Year’s Gourmet Banquet.” We had lunch, went swimming, and went back to our hotel for a much needed nap.

When we returned to the bar the place was packed. We found a seat and met a couple different groups of people, Australians, French-Canadians, South Africans, Germans and many more. One of the Americans told a story of a celebrity sighting that we really hope is true, and that I’ll tell you about later. They had a television at the bar and we had missed, by an hour or two, the excitement of the Australia passing in to the New Year. As we sat talking, the sun set, and being the last sunset of the millennium, everyone wanted a picture. It was pretty crowded, and I couldn’t get the woman in front of me to move her big head, but, nevertheless, here is the picture.

Dinner itself was a fairly drab affair. I’m not sure how you officially determine whether something is gourmet or not, if there is some sort of point system or panel of expert judges or what, but by any standard, this stuff didn’t cut it. After dinner we took a walk down the beach and had what was beginning of a long, and still running, argument about the impossible existence of the Big Dipper in the equatorial night sky. After coming to some agreement about the obvious existence of Orion, not coincidently the only constellation that I truly recognize, we headed back to the bar.

By this time the tables had been cleared, the D.J. had set up, and the party had gotten underway. There is a song by Adam Ant, if you can remember him, called, “Goody-Two Shoes”. It goes, “Don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t smoke. What do you do?” (I’m sure I’ll be corrected if I’m misquoting here.) It could have been written about me. I am a horrible and very self-conscious dancer. I know how to nod my head to the beat, and sort of wiggle my hips a little bit, but when it comes to moving my feet or hands and arms, forget it! I think that I would like dancing if I had the security of some sort of system of steps. I’m sure, given enough practice, I would do really well at Latin or Ballroom dancing. I’m not very good at the making it as you-go-along-type-dancing. It didn’t help that they played really lousy dance music. Think ABBA, Cher and Ricky Martin. That damn Vida Loca is everywhere. Try as you might, you cannot escape its evil grasp.

The hours ticked down and the party was in high gear. I went to the bathroom and when I came back there had been a fist fight, Kim had been hit on by four or five guys, and people were dancing on top of the bar. They had also gone through most of the D.J.’s CD’s and were on a second cycle of the same songs. We took a walk to cool off and checked out what was going on at the other bars. It turned out that only two of them were having parties, neither of which was as lively as the one where we had been, so we went back.

Kim started dancing and I sat by the D.J. and watched her dance some more (she’s pretty darn good at it). I wasn’t the only one watching I discovered. The D.J. was set up at the very end of the room and behind him, outside the bar was probably thirty local guys watching the mzungu shake their booties. They didn’t dance, drink or talk to anyone. They just stood and silently watched. It was like they were watching animals at the zoo, and considering the state of falling-down-drunk depravity some of the mzungu were exhibiting, it wasn’t far from an accurate analogy. Kim said that when the fight broke out, they all ran to see it better from the other side of the bar.

The hours turned in to minutes and we headed towards midnight. The D.J. was using some guy’s wristwatch for a countdown. I don’t think that he had much experience with New Year’s Eve parties. The first notification that he gave us that midnight was anywhere near was about a minute before. He started counting down, “twenty, eighteen, fifteen seconds to midnight!” and then the power went out. Y2K! We roared! We popped our corks. We Kissed. And started singing, “Auld Lange Syne.” (Kim actually knows the words). Outside there was a red flash and we rushed out to see that the boats that were anchored just offshore were shooting off all of their signal flares. Fireworks!!!

About six minutes after it went out, presumably due to a genuine Y2K effect, the power returned. The lights and music came back and the party went to a higher gear. You might be able to see, very faintly through the droplets of champagne on the lens, in this picture that there are actually people dancing up in the rafters. Fortunately for me, one of the first songs they played after midnight was a James Brown song. Between the Godfather of Soul and the several mouthfuls of champagne that I had put away, I finally managed to get my body moving. Kim got into the dancing-on-the-bar action. If you look carefully, you can see that two of the women on the bar with her are possessed by demons.

We stayed here for a little while longer. When they were on the third cycle of the same songs we decided to check out the other parties. The first was a party with mostly Africans, playing African dance music. When it comes to music, Kim and I don’t agree very often. I thought that this stuff was great, probably because the kind of dancing that they were doing involved sort of shuffling back and forth with the music, something I could actually do. We left that party and went to the third, a beach bonfire with some surprisingly good techno. The smell of marijuana billowed over the beach. Not five minutes after we arrived South Africa hit midnight and the drunk South Africans, and there seemed to be an awful lot of them wherever we went, went nuts. Not ten minutes after that a dozen or so mzungu went on the first skinny dip of the New Year. The Zanzibarian men on the beach really loved that! They actually walked right up to where the woman were leaving there clothes so they could have a better look when they came back out. After a couple of hours of wandering around from party to party, we biked back through the silent village to our hotel room and called it a night.

You are not going to believe this part, but I actually woke up early on purpose the next morning. I woke up at seven in the morning and biked back to the bar. You’re also not gong to believe why I woke up so early in morning and biked back to the bar. The reason? I really wanted to watch the ball drop on Times Square. Don’t laugh! (Kim did) I just thought about all my family and friends back home and wanted to share the moment with them (ya’ll), as best I could. If I left it to biology, I would have slept until midnight in Hawaii.

As it was, when I got to the bar and it was open, sort of. There were about five or six guys passed out throughout the bar. A couple of people were trying to clean up the mess from the night before and were working as best they could around the drunks. I asked a couple of them if they could turn on the television, but they said that the remote was locked up and that the person with the key wouldn’t be back until later. I tried to bribe them, but they wouldn’t budge. Thwarted, I sat out on the beach with an entirely different group of passed out drunks, watched the waves roll in and waited for your midnight to come and go, wondering if any bombs were going off, riots breaking out, or if any of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse were riding down Broadway.

I went back to the hotel and slept until at least midnight in L.A. After breakfast we went back to the beach and tried to make arrangements for diving. We tried one place, but they were full so we tried the other place, which was also full. We went back to the first one to sign up for some snorkeling at least. When we got there they said that someone had just cancelled and that we could leave right away.

We climbed in and set off into the surf. It was unbelievably rough. We were in a much smaller boat than we had been in before with One Ocean and it really got tossed around. By the time we got to the dive spot I was thoroughly sea-sick. I couldn’t wait to get in the water and off the boat. When we did that cool scuba thing where you do a sort of backwards somersault out of the boat into the water, I lost my tank. It fell right out my vest and was wedged between my legs. Instead of going under the waves, Kim and I were stuck in the swells trying to get my tank back in the right spot. It was a little bit scary and more than a little bit nauseating. We finally got it together and caught up with every one else.

Even underwater I was sick. I don’t remember much about the dive. I’m sure we saw some fish and some coral. I’m sure it was very pretty. I spent most of the time being very aware of how far we were from the surface and how uncomfortable I was, because of the waves and all of the equipment I was wearing. It was the least fun I had in the water the in entire trip. I was very happy when we finally climbed back on to the boat. I was even happier when I could lay down on the beach when we got back to Nungwi.

The most of the rest of the evening was spent groaning and trying to keep the world steady. We did manage to get back to the, now clean, Flat Fish Bar for dinner. They finally had the television working; apparently the person with the remote had recovered sufficiently to operate it. We watched with the other mzungu anxiously as the BBC world news came on. I don’t know how you felt about the non-occurrence of Y2K, but I have to admit that I was a little disappointed that nothing happened. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t really want the world to end or anything, nor did I really think that it would. But after so much hype, you would have thought at least something would have happened. On the BBC the only real news was that Yeltsin had resigned. They didn’t even run a story about the lack of Y2K problems, in direct contrast to the thousands of stories they must have run leading up to the actual non-event.

But honestly, as we waited for news, and as I had been waiting for news since seven in the morning, I have to admit to having discovered an inner anarchist. I think deep down inside I was really hoping panic in the streets, money flowing from ATM, billions of dollars in credit card debt re-arranged, a day or two without power and water, as long as people didn’t really get hurt. I didn’t want murder, arson, terrorism, nuclear disaster, disease, death, destruction, and revolution, but rather mayhem, havoc, mischief, mayhem, confusion and turmoil. I know that it’s a little bit juvenile, but I just wished, just a little tiny bit, that things had gotten a little bit shaken up. As it was, there was some consolation in imagining all of those people sheepishly disconnecting their generators, clambering over their stacks of canned food and storage tanks of water and climbing out of their bomb shelters and basements, shotguns in hand to find the world still functioning normally, albeit without the dubious benefit of Boris Yeltsin leading Russia into the next millennium.

(As a digression: I was talking to Zac a couple of days before I left Ann Arbor about what would actually happen if the beginning of the New Year was the end of the world. I thought a huge wall of fire would sweep slowly across the globe as each time zone hit midnight. Zac pointed out that what I was imagining was the “Genesis Effect” from Star Trek Two: The Wrath of Kahn. I realized that not only had I unconsciously stolen the idea from Star Trek, but as I was describing it to him that I was imaging, moment for moment, from the identical camera angle, the exact scene from the movie. There is definitely such a thing as seeing too many movies or seeing the same movie too many times.)

We walked back from the bar to our lodge on the moonless beach. The lack of a moon only began again our argument about the Big Dipper, but we made it back without seriously injuring each other. If someone could settle this argument for us definitively, we would appreciate it…

The next day, our last in Nungwi, we decided to not cancel our booking for a snorkeling trip made the day before on the assurance that it would not be nearly as rough as the day before. We climbed into the same boat with about ten scuba divers and started off towards Mnemba Atoll. Ten minutes in to the trip we knew that we had been lied to. The boat headed straight out to sea past surf zone and then turned starboard so the waves coming directly out of the Indian Ocean hit us broadside. Despite the fact that we were going to be out almost the entire day with the divers, I didn’t speak a single word to any of them. I just sat on the gunwale, stared at the horizon and tried very hard not to get sick.

While I was staring out in to the fiercely active sea, I saw two things. The first was a huge school of blue-gray flying fish. There were over a hundred of them popping out of the water, gliding through the air for a short time and then splashing back in to the ocean. I tried to point them out to Kim, but she and most of the people around me were engaged in conversation, and I couldn’t get anyone’s attention. When I turned back, they were gone.

What I was able to share with everyone was the pod of dolphins that started swimming with the boat. I know that it is not that unusual to be on a cruise ship and have a pod of dolphins swimming alongside or ahead of the ship, but it was a little bit different here because we were so close to the water and to the dolphins. Another boat that was also heading to Mnemba Atoll stopped and a couple of people tried to hop in and swim with the dolphins. Since, the dolphins kept going, I doubt they had much success.

This was how most of the dolphin tours that you could book out of Stone Town went according to Kim. If you were lucky enough to find a spot with dolphins, then by the time you got your mask and snorkel on and jumped in to the water to swim with them they were gone. All you could see were ten other mzungu splashing around looking for dolphins. Our plan for the next couple of days was to go to the East Coast, which was closer to where most of the dolphin areas were, and for me to go on a tour while Kim stayed at the beach. Since, I had already come as close to the dolphins as I was going to get, I decided that this experience would suffice.

So, anyway, we made it all the way to Mnemba Atoll without further excitement. I was much relieved that the surf was much calmer at the Atoll and to find that staring at the horizon really does work for preventing seasickness. Consequently, Kim, who had been talking to a CARE worker from Uganda the entire time instead of staring at the horizen, was now seasick.

Mnemba atoll is an atoll on the northeast side of the island, about two kilometers offshore. We joined the two or three boats already present and began snorkeling. This was the best time that we had in the water while we were in Zanzibar. There was great coral and so many fish. It was fantastic. We trailed the divers, floating ten to fifteen meters above them as they swam alongside a coral cliff that rose to about a meter of water. I discovered that with a good lungful of air that I could dive all the way down to where the divers were. It was exhilarating. Your ears pop like mad for the first couple of meters and then the water gets very cold and changes color. I would go as far as I possibly could before it felt like I was out of air, I would look around for as long as I could and then I would rocket back up to the surface. Going up takes a lot less time and energy then going down. The first couple of times down were very difficult because I had become so used to breathing underwater from scuba diving. I got a couple of lungfuls of water before I could reprogram myself. I have to admit that there was more than a little machismo involved. Like a teenage boy, I tried to see just how far I could go for how long, always making it a little bit of a point to dive where someone could see me. Shameless. The greatest moment of stupid macho pride came when a diver saw me, did a double take, and then looked at his depth gauge. Disgustingly shallow, but deeply satisfying. Fortunately, my displays of juvenility did not in any detract from my enjoyment of the reef. It was truly great.

We took an hour break for lunch and then dove again. This time we dove above a large coral boulder called, appropriately, Eel Garden. You could dive down and wiggle your fingers by the little holes in the boulder and the black eels would pop their heads out. They wouldn’t really bite your fingers, or even make an attempt. They just looked at them. At any one time seven or eight of them would have their heads out swaying in the water quietly regarding the divers like a cobras out of a Snake Charmer’s basket. The whole boulder was full of them.

We stayed with the divers, until they headed for deeper waters and then we returned to the coral cliff that we were on earlier. We had a great time.

So here’s the spot where I get to tell the story about the celebrity sighting that we really hope is true. See this island? It’s Mnemba Island, a very expensive resort island. An American that we talked to on New Year’s Eve said that he had gone snorkeling, on the same trip that we were on, and he had swam up to the island to look around. Walking down the beach with one guy that looked like a security guard was…Bill Gates! The guard told him to take a hike, so he got back in the ocean and swam back. I’m pretty sure that he wasn’t making the story up, or was mistaken, because we heard from a couple other people independently that he was on the island. Story was that he had rented the entire island and was holing up there for New Years. Now keep in mind that this was before we knew that nothing was going to happen with Y2K. I don’t know if this means that he knew nothing was going to happen, or if he just wanted to be as far away from Microsoft World Headquarters in Seattle as possible when it hit the fan. If you look very closely at the photo there is no chance that you can see him, nor could we no matter how hard we tried…but there you have it, where Bill Gates was at the Millennium, thirdhand.

So, we started back to Nungwi. This time it was much better. The tide was in, so we could travel in between the surf zone and the beach. It was a lot calmer, but, taking no chances, I stared straight at the shore. I don’t think I missed much in the way of conversation. Most of the divers were overweight South Africans talking about marketing strategies or the complexities of their five hundred dollar, five pound diving computers. I’m not sure I’m going to be a scuba diver…

We returned, picked up our stuff and got a ride back to Stone Town in someone’s pickup truck.

By the time we made it to Stone Time and had checked in to a different guest house (a quieter one), it became painfully clear that we were very sunburned. Kim was significantly less burned than I was, probably because she wore sunscreen. My mom has been telling me for years to put the stuff on, but…you know…I wanted to get a tan…

I managed to sleep, somehow, and in the morning we were on the way to the East Coast. We stopped in Paje at the first place that had a vacancy. It turned out to not be such a great place, unfortunately. I think at some point years ago, someone had spent a good hunk of money on building or renovating the place, and then went away. It had decayed noticeably. The rooms were mildewed, the ceiling fan threatened to fall and slice us to pieces, and the electricity was intermittent. I’m really glad that I didn’t look too closely in to the kitchen of the small restaurant where we had breakfast and lunch.

A problem that the entire east coast, not just the place we were staying, has is that there is a shallow shelf that extends out into the Indian Ocean for a long way. This means that the tide is very pronounced. It rushes in and then quickly rushes very far out leaving more mud and seaweed than beach.

It wasn’t until the second day that we discovered that neither of us wanted to be there.

You’ve probably done that before. You and your partner watch a movie, or eat at a restaurant, or have kid, or move to another town or something, only because you both think that the other person wants to, when actually, neither one of you wants to do it at all. It’s always a mystery where these things start, isn’t it? It took as awhile longer to figure out that the only reason that we wanted to go the East Coast was so I could go and see the dolphins, which I had already done. Oops.

One of the bright spots was that we ran into George, the Belgian guy from the first dive. He was also staying there and we got to meet his girlfriend. I don’t remember her name, but she was the beautiful daughter of an important, wealthy Ethopian businesswoman that fled to Nairobi while the Communists were in power. She was a sophisticated globetrotting multi-lingual woman who went to university in London, Ontario in Canada. Why London, Ontario I have no idea. I didn’t even know there was a University in London. But we did get to talk about Detroit a little bit. We went out to dinner with them the first night we were there at, of all places, a Japanese Inn. There aren’t many places you can to in the world without running in to Japanese tourists, but Japanese innkeepers? We had a decent meal of Chicken Teriyaki, and great conversation with George and his girlfriend, all in flickering torchlight under an open air thatched roof pavilion. A nice night.

So there is not much more to tell. We hung out at the beach. We went swimming when the tide was in. Kim collected shells when the tide was out. At night we looked up at the stars (and argued about them). We listened to the surf pounding a couple of hundred meters away. We walked on the beach in the wind and the dark. But mostly we just read a lot.

Having made arrangements with the driver that brought us to Paje for a ride back, we were only slightly surprised to have a different driver show up to pick us up. He did have the little piece of paper from the first driver so everything seemed like it was all right. However, what the first driver had failed to inform the second driver was that we needed to be back before noon in order to pick up some presents (you’ll get them eventually!) and to catch our plane. We had even made the first driver write it on his little slip of paper. The second driver had a minibus full of tourists that he was bringing from Stone Town to the East Coast to find a place to stay. That meant that they were going to drive all the way south down the coast dropping off tourists at each hotel or resort and picking up new ones to take back to Stone Town. Very clearly this was going to take a long time. Having no other choice, you couldn’t exactly call a taxi, we climbed in with them, giving the driver strict instructions to stop if there was another bus going the other way back to Stone Town. After about twenty minutes, and after having passed one minibus by without saying anything, the driver stopped a second minibus and we were able to climb in.

There were probably about twelve people in the mini-bus, a driver and his assistant and at least ten tourists from three or four different countries. Proving that mathematics is an international language, the assistant gave a math riddle to us and the rest of the ride was spent happily arguing about the correct answer. I couldn’t quite hear the riddle (it was something about the number of monkeys in a car or something), but everyone was very animated in solving it. After a couple of failed attempts at explaining the answer verbally, the pencils and papers came out and people started setting up the equations. Josh would have been so pleased!

We made it back to Stone Town in plenty of time, and picked up the gifts (I should tell you what they were…you won’t be getting them for awhile and you’ll probably forget all about them…). We got back in to the mini-bus and were back at the airport with all of the Mzungu waiting to get back to Nairobi…And you know exactly how much I wanted to be in Nairobi again…