Despite the fact there are very few hotels and guesthouses on this stretch of beach, the place is abuzz with activity. I’m looking out over a seaweed covered beach from my shade tree, the midday call to prayer setting the scene from another world. The air is sticky, there’s not even the faintest breeze, and it’s low tide making it impossible to swim in such shallow water. Instead, it’s time for the women in the neighboring village to tend to their crops of seaweed in the shallow surf. There must be nearly a hundred women, swathed from head to toe in the most beautifully patterned “kangas”, cultivating rows upon rows of coarse, leafy seaweed. Over the course of a few hours these women will drag countless bushels of seaweed from the sandbar to shore where it will dry in the afternoon sun over the next few days. Later the dried seaweed, now much lighter in weight, will be sold for cents on the dollar to a buyer who will then sell it at a substantial mark-up to be shipped all over the world. As it turns out, these Zanzibari women are growing a product that is used as a natural thickener and is processed in everything from toothpaste to soups.
I’m writing to you from a cozy armchair nestled in the corner of our jungle treehouse that’s hidden away on the far northeastern reaches of the island of Zanzibar.
It’s currently raining but it’s no bother; the warm rain showers are a welcome reprieve from the scorching equatorial sun. Utupoa, our tropical island haven, is perfectly camouflaged among the many varieties of palm trees and flowering tropical plants. With its tightly woven palm thatched rooftops and mangrove wooden beams, our hideaway is quite literally hidden from view. Despite its privileged location on a powdery white beach, a stroll along the beach can leave you feeling somewhat disoriented because Utupoa seems to retreat into the jungle as if to say, “I can see you but you can’t see me.” Seclusion, isolation, relaxation. With nothing but the sounds of island birds singing sweet melodies, the mysterious call of the many Bush Babies in the treetops, the soothing pitter patter of a morning rain shower, and the rhythmic sound of the sea lapping the shore I’d say we’ve found paradise. Hakuna Matata, or “no worries” indeed.
Don’t get me wrong; arriving in Zanzibar was no easy task and certainly not for the faint of heart. This is Africa after all, and as I’ve read, you either love her or you hate her. We arrived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s bustling capital, after sundown but we found that immigration was rather easy and before we knew it we were on the road into utter darkness. Passing through garbage laden streets and hordes of people provoked a bit of anxiety to a sleep deprived traveler. Navigating the ferry port the next day was equally daunting. We were stricken by the extreme poverty juxtaposed to adventure seeking, carefree tourists and at times we felt guilty for our mere presence in such a destitute place. Ironically, travelers like us are welcomed, even needed, to fuel the tourism industry and to keep communities afloat. Once on the ferry, our next two hours were filled with friendly conversation with a local man named Yussef who taught us a few words in Swahili in exchange for language lessons in Spanish. In the short time we had known him, we learned a great deal about the local culture and were grateful for his graciousness and warmth after such an overwhelming arrival. Our vacation had begun.
Compared to Dar, arriving in Stone Town was virtually stress free and we were relieved to find our driver was waiting for us as planned. The last leg of our journey took us an hour across the island during which we passed many small villages with houses made of mud and brick. We passed “buses” probably designed to seat about ten people but were packed with at least twenty with people spilling out of windows and hanging onto the back. We passed cows lazily grazing in nearby fields and cows strolling along the road. We passed banana trees heavy with their bright yellow fruit, and men flocking to their houses of worship removing shoes and washing their feet before prayer. Civilization thinned the further we traveled until eventually there was very little at all. The last turn before our final destination was cause for alarm as our driver led us down an incredibly narrow dirt/mud path. Our car seemed to be nearly swallowed by the dense vegetation, but in the distance a blazing red gate welcomed us with open arms. “Utupoa!” it says, or “Humanity is good!”
So, if you’re wondering how we are doing, or if you had reservations about our adventure plans to far away Zanzibar, Yussef taught us how to respond. I would say to you, “Mambopoa” – All is well.