On Birds and Beaches

About a year ago I gave myself a Swahili name, Kidege, which means ‘little bird’.  I rather like it, and think it suits me.  I even entertained the idea that it would be the name I would go by in Tanzania.  A couple of weeks ago I told my dada Najati that I had a Swahili name.  She asked me what it was, I told her, and she proceeded to laugh until tears ran down her cheeks.  I don’t know what’s so funny about it.

To arrange into words, and phrases, and paragraphs the infinite messages I wish to convey is impossible.  I have not updated my blog in the past twenty days, and I have a few lame excuses.  One being that each time I sit down to write, I cannot gather my thoughts.  My friend Katie visited me for twelve days, my family for five.  I went to four beaches spanning the northeast to southwest coasts of Zanzibar.   I took my family and two friends to an island which is known for its giant tortoises, and is the Zanzibari equivalent of Alcatraz.  We went to a forest in the heart of Zanzibar where I shook hands with a Red Colobus monkey.  And by way of a safari, I made a pilgrimage to Ngorongoro crater and Lake Manyara National Park in northern Tanzania.  All in the span of one week.  It was exhausting.  It was exhilarating.

It has been exactly thirty days since I moved to Zanzibar.  Having guests early on not only forced me to learn to navigate Stone Town’s alleyways, but also taught me how to best handle a myriad of situations.  To be shrewd and observant is an advantage here I can personally attest to.

I had been in Zanzibar for only one week when one of my dear friends, Katie arrived at the local airport.  Since my family was going to arrive six days later, we decided to embark on a four-day tour of Zanzibar’s beaches, characterized mostly by spontaneity.  We crisscrossed the island via dala-dala, never staying in a hotel for more than one night.  On the first day, Katie and I met up with my friends Sarah and Becky and the four of us made our way to Pongwe, a quiet little beach directly east of Stone Town.  It was there that I first encountered the nightly tidal dreamscape of Zanzibar’s eastern coast.

This past month has been one full of firsts; I have been reminded so many times of what an awe-inspiring world this is.  During low-tide on the east coast, the ocean recedes more than a mile.  The eye spies the waves breaking on the horizon, seeming deceivingly close, yet even after walking for one hour the water is only waist deep.  On some nights the moon lights up the water, there is a slight breeze, and the song of the waves in the distance.  That first night in Pongwe I was mesmerized by the terrifying beauty of the sea.  There were tidal pools teaming with life: octopus, squid, starfish, sea urchins, eels, fish of all shapes and colors, and crabs, to name just a few.  I only wish I were as brave as Katie, who marched right into the sea, barefoot, and armed only with my flashlight.  I cheered her on with gusto as she caught an enormous crab with her bare hands (with a bit of help from the hotel manager), and brought it back to the hotel to be stored in the fridge.  At breakfast the next morning the restaurant prepared the crab and served it to Katie on an extravagantly decorated platter.  It was pure entertainment to watch her eat it!

Katie and I spent a few hours lazing on hammocks that next morning before we started off towards our next destination: Matemwe.  It was en route to Matemwe that I realized how difficult it is to travel along the eastern coast without a car.  Public transportation is mainly provided by dala-dalas, however since the stations are so few and far between, locals are forced to walk or bike very long distances.  Katie and I were fortunate enough to be dropped off by the hotel manager at the dala-dala station in a village called Kinyasini, from which we caught a ride to Matemwe School, where our baba received us.  That day, our host family was having a picnic at a beach house built by our baba’s aunt, and we had been invited to join.  The house is stunning, and so picturesque it is hard to believe it is real—I have already been back since my first visit with Katie.  We enjoyed a Zanzibari picnic lunch of pilau rice, ndizi (plantains), fresh juice, and dates, and sat with the family on the veranda.  Around 5pm the family piled into the van and returned to Stone Town, while Katie and I stayed at the house for the night.

The next morning we boarded another dala-dala which took us back to Stone Town.  We ran some errands, repacked, booked flights to Arusha for the upcoming safari for which my family would join us, and scrambled onto the last dala-dala of the day which departed to Jambiani.  After two hours we arrived in the coastal village of Jambiani, just as it was getting dark.  We had no accommodations, so Katie and I walked down the beach in search of a reasonably priced room for the night, which we found after about half an hour.  Jambiani is absolutely stunning, especially at night.  As Katie and I returned to our room after dinner, an odd feeling descended on me when I looked up and saw the Milky Way.  To me, there is nothing so humbling as the night sky.

The following day after breakfast we made arrangements to go sailing during high tide.  Katie and I decided we wanted to stay in a more spacious room with a better view, so we moved to a guesthouse, where we met Jessie, a charming young British actress.  While Katie and I settled in, Jessie told us about her work in the village and the theater production she was organizing.  She also helped us arrange a dolphin tour in Kizimkazi for the next day.  Around 2pm, Katie and I met with Captain Jasper, who had agreed to take us on a two-hour sailboat ride.  I saw bluer blues and greener greens than I thought could exist and water so luminous I almost wished I was born a fish.  By that afternoon, Katie and I had worked up an appetite, so we sought out a restaurant which my guide-book described as local, tasty, and run by a group of Rastafarians.  While we waited for our food to be prepared, the last thing I expected was to be serenaded in Hindi.  While I was well aware of the popularity of Bollywood films, I did not realize how well the locals can mimic Hindi songs!

The following morning Katie and I awoke at 5:30am and packed up to leave to Kizimkazi for a dolphin tour.  I had been unsure of whether we should do the tour, but Jessie convinced us that it was well worth it, so we found ourselves in an SUV at 6am.  Erasmus, our bare-foot, dread-locked, Che Guevara t-shirt donning tour guide and driver, whose clock was set to run an hour early, picked us up and we were barreling down the road to the southwestern beach of Kizimkazi in no time.  Katie and I joined a group of hilarious French tourists for the tour, which was one T.I.A. (This Is Africa) experience after another.  Between Katie jumping out of the boat into the open ocean without her snorkel, me falling down and slamming my head on the bottom the boat, and the absence of both life jackets and buoys, the whole tour was one to remember.  We did see at least a dozen dolphins, and Katie, being the mermaid, actually swam with them.

I cannot say why, but there is a synchronicity between me and this place that is tangible.  My Swahili name still seems to be a joke in my house, however.

More to come…


One thought on “On Birds and Beaches

  1. Nila, your writing is so beautiful. You paint word pictures so vivid I can almost see the places you describe.

    Thanks for sharing this amazing adventure with us.

    Becky H

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