The decision was easy. I wanted a short break to meet my friend from South Africa. I had just done a freediving course in Oman where we were living, and I wanted to try freediving in different waters. Zanzibar offers this. Oman Air has direct flights to Zanzibar which were cheap at the time – so the choice was easy.
Zanzibar Adventure – It’s Africa baby.
I arrived at night/early morning. My hotel was within walking distance of the airport, but I still decided to get a taxi. The area around the airport didn’t look like the kind of place to walk to the guesthouse on my own.
Before the visit to Zanzibar I was fearful that somewhere someone would take advantage of me – a single woman travelling on my own. It’s the feeling you get as a female going to a mechanic. You go there because bulb in your car is not working and you find yourself being told that you need to change your battery.
After breakfast, we hired a driver to take us to the south side of the island. But first, we needed some local cash – Tanzanian shillings. Our driver knew where we could find some working ATMs, but it took a few before we finally scored. Some machines didn’t work with my bank cards, some didn’t with my friend’s. Each ATM was located in a bank and each bank had a guy with a machine gun standing outside. We were withdrawing something like $300 for a week’s holiday and it was more than an average local annual salary.
Our morning drive was through unpicturesque and unfinished, but fascinating Zanzibar streets. I wanted to take photos of almost every person and everything. I had my camera and lenses – but I just didn’t have an SD card. I had removed it before the trip to download earlier photos and I hadn’t put back into the camera. Feeling foolish, I tried to ask our driver if he can get me to a suitable shop. He suggested some souvenir shops but looking around it was doubtful that there would be any place which would even know what an SD card was. I just had to relax, absorb what I was seeing and use my iPhone for photos.
Southern Zanzibar – around Paje
The South is less developed. It is less touristy and is much cleaner than the North. The South of Zanzibar was more attractive to us but when we arrived I wondered where was the sea?
The tides in Zanzibar are so extreme that at times the sea can be up to a kilometre away and hard to see. When the tide is out, the beach is used as a road. It becomes a scene of locals on bicycles mingling with beached boats looking as if they are abandoned in the sand, but really they are just waiting for the sea to come back.
By night, the tide was so high that I could see why the deckchairs were chained. If they had not been, they would have been taken away by the water.
We spent one and a half days just chilling, swimming in the pool and chatting. We were just doing girly things without thinking about the life outside our hotel. Then on the second day morning, I visited a local school with a gift of stationery. Just before I had left Oman I had posted a note on Facebook saying I was going to Zanzibar. One of my Facebook friends asked me to visit a local school in the south of and take some photos for their website. I said sure, why not and when I got there, of course, I had no SD card. Fortunately, before catching the evening flight I had gone to the stationary shop and bought loads of school supplies. So even without my camera, I visited the school. Hundreds of smiling kids in clean uniforms ran to greet me and check what I had in my two colourful bags. The joy each of these kids got from a single pen was probably bigger than my girls got from their iPads. That was probably the first time when I thought I should start travelling with my twins. They should see how different is life for other children and they should understand how privileged they are and stop taking life for granted.
I was lead to the director of the school with the remaining gifts. I decided that my diving fund should go to the school fund. I was given a tour of the school and made the photos on my phone.
As I returned from my 15-minute visit to the driver and my friend waiting for me outside, I was left with a stronger impression of this school than of all the beautiful sceneries of the sea and beach.
A Drive Through the Island
Another strong memory of our journey was the drive from south to Nungiwi in the north. It let us have a small glimpse into the life of local people. For those first two days, we had spent at the beach and in the swimming pool, blissfully unaware about the poverty that surrounded us in Zanzibar.
North Zanzibar – Nungiwi
The North is very different. More houses, more hotels. Small land plots and loads of rubbish. All the hotels were at the seaside but to get to them you would have to ride through villages and then through a margin of land so covered in rubbish that it felt like driving through landfill. And then there were the beautiful beaches, with light coloured sand and turquoise sea.
Trip Around the Houses in Nungiwi
While walking on the beach in the early morning I got chatting to a young man who offered his services as a guide to show us a village and tell us about Zanzibar. I wanted to know more and was up for it.
We met after breakfast and I saw men sleeping outside the houses waiting for someone to offer them work. I saw children crushing old bricks, stone and coral so their mothers could burn new bricks and build extensions to the house. We went into some of the houses and of course, this made a very strong impression.
The wealth of a home here might be determined by the ownership of say a plastic water cistern or some other thing which in western countries would have been thrown out long ago. It seemed that everyone was poor there. When we lived in India I saw poverty in the slums, but I saw also the better off Indians, the ones who had made it. With that range of wealth, there seemed to be hope – that one day, others could make a better living as well. But here I didn’t see anyone who had made it. I didn’t see the hope. Seeing this lack of hope killed me inside. Our guide spoke good English. He was educated – but as it turned out he was from Uganda and came to work here with his uncle.
Another Tide Out
There was another time when I lost the sight of the sea. Here the tide had left starfish marooned in small pools.
Zanzibari ladies fished for them using old net curtains. Others used metal bars to prod under the rocks for octopuses. When their hunting was successful they would remove the octopus from the bar and, holding it by tentacles, they would bash it against a rock until a change of colour meant it was tenderised and easier to eat. For these ladies and their families, there will be dinner in the evening.
Dhow Cruise and Snorkelling
In the afternoon when the tide was back in we went out for a dhow cruise.
The sea was beautiful, the boat was falling to pieces, the snorkelling was great, but I just couldn’t stop thinking about those women who have to hunt for an octopus to provide a dinner for family or about young children breaking stones to make bricks. I suddenly didn’t mind being ripped off and paying more than it’s worth for the boat trip. I understood that’s probably the only way how the locals can provide for their families.
The next day with my head still full I decided to go for a run. I was training for a triathlon at that time, so I got up early and went for a morning run. I ran along the beach as far as I could go, and then I turned inland. I thought maybe running would clear my mind from what I had seen. But it didn’t work.
While running I passed women carrying water in small cisterns on top of their heads. I would be taking a shower later from piped water in the hotel while they have to carry water to be able to cook the meal or wash.
We left our accommodation in the early morning to drop my friend to the airport. I had arranged with our driver that he would keep my luggage in his car while I would walk around Stone Town and we would meet at noon for my trip back to the airport. I started early, around 7am, and it was the best idea. I saw Stone Town waking up. I saw the market filling with people, I saw the fish auction.
And after that, I had enough time to just walk around the fort and street. Everything around me was charming and poor.
Zanzibar adventure – The End
I had planned for a big Zanzibar adventure and not much happened. I was too much struck by poverty and how it is that for local people, nothing matters but their own subsistence. I love the beauty of the beaches and I cried to see how poor are the people living there. And I think the worst part was that it was poverty without hope that it can be better.
Sometimes being ripped off just because we are white doesn’t have to be the worst thing, it just means we are privileged and we can afford it.
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About the author
photographer, traveller, mother of twin girls, wife, worldschooler, rulebreaker