In January of 2005 my good friend K and I spent just under a month in Africa. This is from that trip.
We came off the plane into a wall of moist heat, forcing us to gasp for air. Our sweat mixed with the red Serengeti dust that still clung to our skin, creating a slick coat of mud. Seven days on safari in northern Tanzania had us in dire need of some mindless R&R and we were hoping to find it on a Zanzibar beach.
But first we had to get there. We trudged through the airless, tiny, rough airport and out the front door. Wham! Right into a sea of men jostling & yelling, offering assorted services – rides, hotels, tours and god knows what else. When they discovered our destination they quickly passed us on until we found a driver new enough not to know what the others did and/or desperate enough not to care.
We had a sinking feeling that Mother Africa would yet again challenge us.
Luggage safely stowed in the mini-van, we were on our way to a strip of beach called Kendwa Rocks on the north end of Zanzibar. We chose it because it was off the main tourist trail and was one of the few beaches on the island where you can swim even when the tide is out. It had been devilishly difficult to make the arrangements, they were less than prompt answering emails. We would soon understand why when we too would succumb to Kendwa time and intermittent internet.
What we hadn’t counted on was the 40-mile trek over rough highway and through rough military roadblocks. Our young driver was challenged by both. Then we hit the last few miles of dirt road. OHMYGAWD! The potholes, the size of Volkswagen, got deeper and deeper and our poor driver paler and paler as his van vibrated and metal screamed in protest. Lack of seat belts had us clinging to whatever we could grab so as not to bounce off the walls and ceiling. Soon our driver could take no more – his vehicle was going no further. He offered to help drag our luggage the last 500 yards to our hotel. One hundred degrees, no breeze, no clouds and no shade had me praying that this damn beach would be worth it. And vowing – again –to pack light next time! We tipped him generously.
“Oh no! Where was the ocean?!” I thought.
The cabins were up on a cliff surrounded by brilliant flowering bushes and palm trees. Interiors were sparse and clean, furnished with odds and ends like they had been collected from Zanzibar yard sales. The beds were elaborately carved out of dark wood and way too large for the space. Cozy porches were furnished with padded benches, colourful pillows and a cat to stroke & feed. Perfect.
Still looking for the beach we navigated down steep stairs and along what seemed to be someone’s idea of a formal garden – a stretch of sand the size of a football field with white painted rocks defining the path down the center, flanked on both sides by palm trees.
Then, there it was – the beach! Blue sky, blue water, white powdery beach. Words fail, it was just so damn perfect. “Post card come to life” perfect.
The previous two weeks we had gorged ourselves on the beauty of Uganda and Tanzania, challenging ourselves physically and emotionally with outrageous adventures and experiences. The result was the inside of my skull throbbed from over stimulation. Africa had taken my breath away – Kendwa Rocks would give it back with a gentle, slow healing hum. Four days of Zanzibar Zen. My mind, body and spirit sank into the place like I was born there. No culture shock. No friction. No angst. Just bliss.
Quickly a comfortable ritual evolved. Mornings we staked out our beach palapa and then enjoyed a simple but perfectly formed breakfast at the open-air beach restaurant steps away. One by one we’d gravitate back to our palapa and the rough rope beach beds, lounging for hours reading, napping and debriefing the adventures we had accumulated over the past two weeks. Regularly, the silky warm water of the Indian Ocean would call to me. On my back cradled by the water, I felt I was actually floating in the vivid azure sky.
I would stand waist deep and drink in the idyllic mirage around me and experience such deep happiness that it was real and, for a moment in time, it was mine. I was awed and humbled by my good fortune
The muted music from the nearby bar was a kaleidoscope of genres with Reggae the favorite, but hip-hop, country, world, opera all getting airtime. It reflected the eclectic assortment of people who had found their way there, both to visit & to live. They certainly made for interesting dinner eavesdropping!
Hunger would have us stumbling back to the restaurant/bar where they sated us with food & wine. The need to communicate with outside world would take us a little further down the beach to the Internet “café” which was hooked up to the same generator that gave us intermittent electricity. It was often a “crash” course on the value of saving every five minutes but such “tragedies” were eased by another nap in the shade.
With their sari’s floating in the breeze like coloured smoke, Muslim women wandered up and down the beach offering massages.
Only the noon heat would drive them into the shade where they lounged in groups and lazily chatted. When they were silhouetted against the deepening cobalt sky, their robes fluttering in the wind, the eerie quiet settling on the beach it signaled the transition from day to evening. We would slowly climb the stairs to our cabin to shower and change. Then we would linger on the porch petting the cats and enjoying the sweet scent of the abundant flowers in the twilight before returning down to the beach restaurant for dinner.
One night our quiet beach flooded with people milling, talking, laughing, dancing, drinking, and smoking! They had come to celebrate the full moon. The salty smell of the driftwood burning in huge bonfires along the beach, the flames snapping and dancing while the sunset oozed the same colours over the navy blue ocean. Had they all really come over that same wretched road that we had? Bands from all over Africa had come to celebrate and played long into the night. We fell asleep to the distant beat of the drums.
The drums, the moon and the fires all served to connect us to an ancient time when our ancestors would mark the same event. We are all from Africa and there is a real sense of coming home when we visit there. And for some of us, she calls us back over and over again, whether literally or figuratively.