Sunday, March 11, 2012

Re-visiting paradise

But first, a little about leaving Kenya... Our time in Kenya was great and I could have stayed much longer. Zavion really enjoyed rural life - the animals, the walking, etc. However, he tired quickly of all of the attention from the kids... I think if we had stayed longer than 10 days in any one place, his novelty would have worn off and he would have warmed up to the kids more. Still, I think he got a lot out of it and I am looking forward to bringing him back when he's a little older :) For his birthday, though, he wanted some beach time so.... it was off to Zanzibar!

"ZANZIBAR...... The name alone conjures up images of a veritable island paradise... and the reality does not disappoint. There's the windy, narrow, labyrinthine streets of Stone Town - oozing with character and steeped in an enigmatic and contrasting history. From the richness of the spice industry to the desperation of the slave trade. Here Africa meets the Arab world and you feel a true mix of cultures. Stone Town has a character all her own. And there's the idyllic, azure, dhow studded sea lapping up to the impossibly white, sugar-soft sand of the surrounding beaches...."  From my journal - February, 2001 (2nd visit to Zbar)

 Ten years and a couple visits later and the place still has a magic to it.

We arrived on his birthday after a VERY early start/ plane ride, went through the (very slow) visa formalities and went to meet our pre-arranged transport. We waited. And waited. To no avail. So much for pre-arranged. We took a taxi to Stone Town and the driver didn't quite drop us off at the most convenient spot - we ended up having to walk through the narrow streets with all of our bags, already feeling over-tired, in the stifling heat for far too long. We were hot, tired and cranky, but glad to finally get to our room. We rested under the fan for awhile, had some fresh juice and were renewed.

The obligatory wander through Stone Town then commenced. Stone Town -- like a step back in time. Even on a fourth visit, it doesn't lose it's appeal and still oozes with charm and character. It's so great to wander the the narrow alleyways lined with crumbling yet ornate Arab buildings with great wooden doors, decorative balconies and overhanging verandas.  To peek into the little, hole-in-the-wall shops, tailors and food stalls. To people watch. Zavion was especially impressed with the women in full hijab - he kept nudging me and saying, 'Mom, look at the ninjas! - what are they doing here?' One of my favorite things to do while traveling is to get lost in towns like this and to experience a new surprise around every twist and corner. Usually I let go of time and let myself wander and wander, but with a tired birthday boy in tow, we cut it short and found a place by the water for a bite. Zavi played on the beach, we ate French Fries and curry and birthday cake and I sang him the requisite song. Which he appreciated, but later said that it was just a little sad that I was the only one singing and why didn't any of his friends or cousins make it to his birthday this year. :( After an afternoon nap, we headed out again - enjoying dinner at the numerous open-air food stalls at Fordhani Gardens which offer true sensory overload -- a plethora of smells, sounds, sights and tastes. We enjoyed fresh fish, fruit, etc. Zavion SAID he was excited to try the octopus, but once he got a glimpse of the tentacles and suction cups, he just couldn't bring himself to try it. He DID try (and love) the nutella/banana crepes and the sugar cane juice. But then, who wouldn't? Being a Saturday and with high tide coinciding with sundown, the place was packed. Everyone jumping off the walls into the water - all manner of flips, dives, etc. Zavion's favorite activity was playing on the canons and pretending to be at war. Oh, the joy of a five year old boy.

The next day, we planned a boat/snorkel trip to Prison Island, but it was windy and the water was a little rough. My mother's intuition said to postpone the trip, but we boarded the boat anyway. The boat was rocking and rolling over the waves and it didn't seem like the best conditions for someone's first snorkel trip, so I asked the boat to turn around and bring us back. Which it did. Zavion was carried to shore and, as I was waiting to climb off the boat myself, a huge wave hit and sent me flying. Well, it sent part of me flying. My foot got caught on the boat, but the rest of me fell into the water - breaking my flip-flop (therefore, putting 'Margaritaville' in my head for the remainder of the day) and pulling my hamstring in the process. (Now, two weeks later, the hamstring isn't healed and I still can't run - I'm hoping to be good in time for soccer in a few weeks!) I'm just glad it was me and not Zavion. Turns out, we needed a down day, anyway, and just enjoyed hanging out with eachother.

We had a good trip to see dolphins the next day and joined a school of about 20 of them for a bit. Zavi loved them! Afterwards, we had a nice romp on the low tide beach. Later, we had a great time seeing the red colobus and blue sykes monkeys. We were able to get really close and saw several young ones romping and playing. They really look like little, old men.

Our next stop was Jimiani beach for a few days - a lovely spot on the east coast. It has a nice, wide beach, but there was a bit too much seaweed this time of the year. The guest house was nice - all manner of hammocks, swings, etc. and no shoes necessary :) We enjoyed wandering the tidal pools at low tide and adding to Zavion's 'collection.' I made the mistake of saying, 'let's see how many shells we can find,' not realizing how many there'd be! We poked along the beach and filled our entire shopping bag with lovely shells. 'Mom, in my entire imagination of a million years, I never thought I'd find this many shells!' There wasn't much ocean swimming to be had at low tide, but we enjoyed our time on the beach - building castles for his gogos, playing ball and frisbee, corraling ghost crabs, having sandbending wars, etc. We also did an entire track meet - including all of the events -Z now has dreams of becoming a decathlete and I suffered a slight elbow injury trying to shotput a beachball. Between my hammy and my elbow, I realize that I am, officially, OLD not as young as I used to be. We had a lot of fun, but being his only playmate means there's no downtime for me - we are constantly playing... mostly battles and play-acting- and it does get exhausting. I'm ready for him to have a live-in playmate. He still asks about his cousins daily and was upset when none of them showed up on Zanzibar to spend his birthday with him.

High hurdles and gogo fortress

The hotel had a pool, so we spent some time in that. It's really great how well Zavion is swimming on his own now - floaties are definitely a thing of the past ('I think the floaties were holding me back anyway, Mom.') He is now able to swim the entire width of the pool unaided. He is also much more comfortable - jumping off the sides, holding his breath longer and longer, being thrown by me, climbing on my shoulders, etc. Yay!

We didn't have electricity for much of the time and we ran out of batteries on everything -- it's amazing how dependent on electronics we've become. No camera, no phones/movies, not even a book to read (when the Kindle ran out...) It was actually a good thing, though - lots of playing in the water/beach, cards, etc. And we enjoyed watching some rainstorms come in. Our trip coincided with the beginning of the rainy season and we welcomed the break from the oppressively hot, humid weather.

Next, we headed to Kendwa Beach on the NW coast for a week. This is now my favorite beach on Zanzibar. I can't believe it took me this long to discover it! It's just south of my previous favorite spot, Nungwe. Kendwa comes complete with huge swaths of perfect, powder sugar white sand, impossibly clear, cerulean water which was absolutely perfect for swimming - perfect clarity and color, perfect temperature for lounging in for long periods of time, perfect balance of calmness and small waves, and is suitable for swimming at any tide level (rare for a Zanzabari beach - most lose the water at low tide and/or the beach at high tide.) Kendwa lacks the funky village feel of Nungwe, but it's better with a kiddo in tow. We still spent a day in Nungwe - wandering the tidal pools, watching the boat builders and fishermen and checking out the turtle sanctuary. We also enjoyed watching the fishermen from Kendwa and the dozens of traditionally clad women wading out to the fishing boats to collect their daily catch. Part of the magic of Zanzibar is that it's so much more than a tourist/beach destination. It's a real, working island steeped in history and culture and so much character.

A typical day for us included meals on the beach with our toes in the sand - there's something to be said about not wearing shoes for a few days..., hanging out/playing on the beach and bobbing about in the water for hours (Zavion loving when the small waves came in - he enjoyed the pummeling,) eating fresh fruit, people-watching, swinging in the hammocks, chatting around the bonfires, watching the sunset and moonrise, etc.... it was rough. We also enjoyed a moonlight swim - it's much warmer (air and water) in March than in July (my last visit.) At our usual dinner place, Zavion befriended a couple of boys - Sebastian from France and Augustin from Italy. They didn't speak each other's languages, but they all 'spoke' the language of little boy - chasing, wrestling, play-fighting, etc... And a pretty humorous moment consisting of them all falling out of a hammock- hands, feet and sand flying everywhere, boys giggling, patrons suitably amused.

There was definitely some confusion brought on by Zavion and I and our relationship. He does resemble the Zanzabari. The locals were shocked when he didn't respond to their Kiswahili; he was, on more than one occassion, shooed away from our table by a waiter telling him to leave the tourist (me) alone; a few other travelers made comments like, 'how long has this kid been hanging with you?... he really likes you!' ... When I tell people he's mine, they first assume that he's biracial (which instantly gives me street cred with the locals) and, depending on where we are, I get the 'Oh, his father must be Kenyan... Or, his father must be Zanzibari... or Maasai... wink, wink, nudge, nudge.' Interesting studies into social interaction...

Another interesting social phenomenon in Zanzibar is the huge number of older, Italian female tourists that pay for, by the week, local 'Maasai beach boys' (aka prostitutes.) They can even be 'rented' as part of a package tour at the many large, Italian resorts. So there are many 60 year old women hand in hand with stunningly attractive 20-something local men in full Maasai garb (even though, apparently, many aren't true Maasais.) Weird - I've been in many places where sex tourism of a different sort exists - middle-aged men with very young female prostitutes (many under age) but people's gut reactions are definitely different (including mine.) Is it a double standard?

But I digress...

We also took a few boat trips - a lovely sunset dhow trip and two outings to go snorkelling in nearby reefs. The snorkelling was excellenct - great visability and a myriad of colorful fish, sea stars, urchins, etc. And Zavion really got it! I was surprised he picked it up so quickly and was so comfortable - it was awesome. We started out holding hands, but he eventually took off on his own and even mastered the art of blowing water out of the snorkel when necessary. At one point, I could hear him humming the Tuff Puppy theme song through his snorkel.

And, of course, a trip to Zanzibar would not be complete with my requisite sunburn - Apparently, a morning application of SPF 15 doesn't quite cut it in the equatorial sun - especially when in the water all day. Zavion said, 'I'm really sorry you got sunburned, Mommy. Don't you wish you had brown skin like me so you'd be protected?'

Our last day on the beach - Z and I both got henna tattoos - he wasn't so sure at first, 'Mom, are you sure this is a good idea? Are tattoos only for girls?' but he ended up getting four - a lizard, a dragon, a scorpion and a dolphin.

We spent our last day back in Stone Town and I got to meet up with a friend of mine, Heather, who I'd met in 2002 at a work-camp in Bulgaria. Thanks to Facebook, we've recently been back in touch and she just so happens to be teaching in Zanzibar now! It was great to hang out again after all these years and Z took an immediate liking to her :)  We have an invitation back at any time :):)

Suffice it to say, we had a great time and Zavi definitely enjoyed it and already speaks wistfully and fondly of our time on the island. The island sent us off with a bang - as we were boarding our flight out, we were treated to the full moon rise - in true,giant African orb fashion. AND we got to view Kilimanjaro by moonlight from the plane. Pretty sweet.

We are in Ethiopia now - I'll have much to say about that soon... and we'll be home in less than two weeks...

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