Traveling Zanzibar: Not Your Ordinary Island

Traveling Zanzibar: Not Your Ordinary Island

Zanzibar. The image I had in my mind of this island off the Tanzania coast was a cliché combination of white sand, turquoise water and bungalows built for tourists. I almost considered skipping it- why pay more for a slightly better beach when I was quite happy listening to the Indian Ocean under the palm trees and watching locals play football at beach near Dar Es Salaam.   “YOLO, YOLO” (You only live once”, tour guide Nikka advised me. Ok, not using the teenage abbreviation but essentially conveying the same message. “Ok, ok, I’ll do it”, I replied then strategically added, “you haven’t let me down yet” so I could watch his reaction to see if I really was making a good decision or he was just trying to get rid of me and the rest of the tour group for a few days. He seemed genuine. The ferry ride seemed to qualm some of my fears. Despite taking the fast ferry, tourists were a small fraction: isolated dots in a sea of swirling fabric with bold African prints, punctuated by bedazzled headdresses for the women and embroidered neutral colored hats perkily perched atop the men. Arrival in Zanzibar had a healthy dose of African chaos. Porters in reflective vests climbed over each other to offer their services helping with luggage. Staff from the boat yelled a warning, “Negotiate your prices before hand! Only trust official porters!”, but with a kind of half-smile that suggested they knew they were throwing us to the wolves. Zanzibar is part of the “United Republic of Tanzania” but we still had to fill out immigration forms (because more paperwork is ALWAYS better) then waited behind women who were unloading boxes from their heads, bags from under each arm and babies off their backs as their husbands stood uselessly, unburdened by their sides from the obligatory “baggage check”. Of course, most people got an automatic chalk check before they even began to unzip, except for the unfortunate souls that they arbitrarily decided to torture with an extended inspection. We did our best to make a beeline through the swarm of taxi drivers waving their keys in our faces then hopped in the van for a 50 kilometer drive from our entry point in Zanzibar Town to the Nungwi Beach, the location of the majority of resorts on the island. I was pleasantly surprised that the drive still felt like Africa: barbershops, cows hauling carts holding up traffic, people taking naps and elaborately carved door frames propped up against palm trees collecting dust as they wait for a buyer. We bump along, squeeze through one-way bridges and get stopped at a gate by a policeman that holds us up for an hour, trying to charge us for a driving a vehicle with a registration sticker that expires today. . The driver refuses to satisfy his ridiculous request and we proceed, eventually veering off on a side street through ramshackled huts selling half-inflated beach toys and backyards of people trying to catch their kids for bath time. We pull up to a gate, which opens to the touristy bungalows, sapphire swimming pools and attentive staff that I expected to see. I dumped my bags in my hotel room, looking past the king sized bed, flower petals and towels folded like swans to let out a squeal of glee to see a pillow (the past two weeks, I’ve been camping and using a makeshift cushion out of clothes stuffed into my sleeping bag cover). I kick off my shoes, ignoring the receptionist’s sea urchin warning and head barefoot to the beach. I traverse the beach in a squiggly path, trying to avoid the teenagers waving pamphlets selling snorkeling trips or (if you get closer to overhear) marijuana “Spice up your holiday with some Malawi-wowee! Welcome to Paradise Fun!”. I’m slightly mystified to see the elegant, statuesque Maasi men on the beach, with sea breezes rustling their red and black checked robes. They looked extremely out of place, hidden behind aviator sunglasses, when it seemed like they belonged drinking cow blood in the bush. I dismissed their presence as a photo-op for tourists, but it made even more sense when I later learned their involvement in sex tourism. On my walk back, more out of boredom that anything else, I allowed myself to be intercepted by one of the infamous “beach boys”. He found out pretty fast that I wasn’t going to pay $30 to be stuck on a boat with tourists for a sunset booze cruise. We started chatting in the shade of a hotel overhang and after he learned a bit about...