We were looking for a place to spend ten days after our safari in South Africa and before our commitment to be in Kigali, Rwanda in early May to meet friends. The white sugar beaches, the azure Indian Ocean and an evocative history were enough to sway me like a palm tree to say yes toZanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania, as our next stop.
Getting to this top-ten honeymoon destination, however, was nearly a marriage breaker. It was my decision to save some money and see more of South Africa by taking a bus from Richards Bay to Johannesburg, where we would catch a short flight on Mango Air to the island. We've had some very comfortable bus rides during our four years of travel, but this ten hour journey won't make it on the list.
On the morning of our departure day it was pouring down with rain. We huddled at the pick-up point under a tree with a few fellow travelers and waited for our Greyhound to arrive, which it did, thirty minutes late. The good news was we had front row seats on the second level of the double-decker bus, which would allow for the anticipated vistas......which we would have enjoyed if it hadn't been pouring rain outside, and damp passengers weren't steaming up the windows on the inside. Oh well. As Michael says "It's not what happens to you, it's how your respond that makes the difference." Wise words - and I had lots of snacks, and we both had new books on our Kindles. And of course we could sleep - or not, as it turned out since shortly into the trip we realized the television screen and speakers for half the upper level sat right above us. There were four movies to be enjoyed on this journey whether you wanted to or not. Four! Two of them were religious, extolling the virtues of prayer and the joy of having Jesus in your life. The other two involved murder and mayhem. One, during the first days after Katrina and the second about drug trafficking in New York featuring the murder of a young family ... wait for it, on a bus!
Eventually, the sun did come out and the landscape was stunning. The movies became background noise and the snacks lasted most of the way. So all in all it wasn't too bad. Until we got to Johannesburg. We arrived in the city center around 9:00 pm (a place we were warned to never be after dark) and immediately knew we were somewhere we shouldn't be. The bus terminal was dark and menacing and hard to navigate. We were approached by some very scary characters more than once while we tried to get ourselves and our luggage to a "safe" place to call an Uber. We were feeling a little panicky at that point because Michael had to have his phone out along with our Skyroam hotspot to get WiFi. After a few false starts we couldn't make an Uber pick up work and weren't sure why, but we soon realized we'd have to figure out how to catch a taxi while keeping close to our bags and neither of us wanted to leave the other alone.
To end this long story and get to the sunny side of the street - I'll just say, once again, thank God for the kindness of strangers. Between a helpful security guard and a kind, elderly gentleman willing to lend us the 10 Rand we were short for the taxi fare (turned out Uber drivers are terrified to pick up passengers at the terminal because of attacks by traditional drivers). We finally arrived at our hotel around 11:00 pm for a very short stay since we'd be up at 4:00 am to catch the shuttle to the airport and get ourselves to Zanzibar! It seemed like it took twice as long to get through security and immigration and out to the gate than the actual flight to the island!
We stepped off the plane on to the tarmac and entered the airport feeling quite pleased with ourselves, because the Chief Travel Planner had filled out the necessary visa paper work before we arrived. That meant we could breeze up to the window to hand over $200 USD for a visa. But of course there was more paperwork needed (I am learning that in Africa, there will always be more paperwork). We were turned away and directed to a set of counters along with most every other person from our flight to fill out a few more forms.
Finally, papers in hand, we were now at the rear the end of the line for immigration. It was hot. We were tired. And obviously not thinking clearly because when I saw a commotion near the paperwork station, I felt badly for the person who had apparently left their carry-on bag behind and it had attracted the attention of security. It took me a full minute to realize that person was Michael. He had left our entire bag of computer chargers, cords, and other life-saving electronics on the counter. It was now in the hands of a security guard who was holding it aloft like it might explode any minute. I dashed over to claim it and calm him down. Mr. Campbell must have been equally out of it, because he was unaware of the fuss until I came back with the bag and pointed out he might be missing something.
If I mentioned we were tired, "bleary eyed" might have been an even better description. However, we could see clearly enough to read the very welcome handwritten sign reading Micel and Debi Cambell held by the driver our Airbnb host arranged for us. His name was Salum and we were very, very glad to meet him. He was a tall man with a great smile and a warm greeting of Jambo! Karibu! Welcome to Zanzibar. Hankuna Matata! (no worries).
With him at our side we were able to push our way though the swarm of porters and taxi drivers and collapse in his van. We almost always stay in the center of town, and this was no exception so off we went to the bustling harbor of Stone Town.
Salum took us to our home for the next eight days - a quirky Airbnb in the heart of ancient city. We had to park outside the city walls and then work our way through the tangled, narrow streets and if Salum hadn't led the way I am not sure we would have found the place and I was doubtful we'd find it again once we were on our own. Fortunately, a wizened old fellow sold a few bananas and avocados on our doorstep, so as long as he stayed in business we might be okay. He also turned out to be the one who watched our door, so we bought more bananas than we might otherwise. Salum helped us get SIM cards for the week and showed us a few important shops and landmarks before letting us into the flat and explaining the quirks that came with it.
I may have mentioned that on occasion we find a great Airbnb, but the entrance to the building is not for the faint-hearted. This would be one of those. If this had been your first Airbnb experience, you might have backed quietly away and stayed at the nice little hotel a few doors down. But being the seasoned guests that we are, we knew that once we got past the dark entry, three flights of rickety stairs, the smell of frying fish and a few wailing babies, we'd find the gem we booked online. And so it was. The flat was filled with colorful artwork, artifacts, books and bowls of shells. There were three large beds covered with plush cushions and surrounded by gauzy mosquito nets, and a variety of tropical plants fought for space with the settees on the two porches. It was a comfortable, welcoming space and that's a good thing because of the weather we spent a lot of time there.
Another thing about being Senior Nomads is that we can't really let seasonal weather be our guide on where to go next. Our budget doesn't allow for flitting from one destination to another to chase the sun - so sometimes we have to sit through a cold spell, or in this case, the tail end of the rainy season. We knew before we came to Zanzibar that it would likely rain for some of the time, I even said, "hey, were from Seattle, we don't mind rain" But I hadn't counted on it raining most of the time. And this was hard core rain - the kind that can turn a narrow street into a fast running creek in just a few minutes.
So we found ourselves staying inside the apartment or dashing to a nearby coffee shop between downpours. Things could have been worse than having to spend time at Zanzibar Coffee Company. They served great food and the best spiced coffee I've ever tasted. That's also where we met a new friend, Professor Marc Eichman from Boston. He was a fine fellow that shared the large communal table with us so we could all spread out and do some work. He was about our ages and turned out to be fascinating conversationalist. We ended up talking about a wide range of things for an hour. We decided to carry the conversation into dinner and then another coffee date. He is a professor and teaches at the college near Stone Town for three months a year. It is always a treat to find a fellow nomad to spend time with along the way.
Of course there were a few days where all it only rained part of the day. And there were sun breaks that reminded us that it must get really hot here! Salum took us wherever we wanted to go and provided lots of local insight. We spent one afternoon in the Jozani Forest where we enjoyed the company of rare Red Colum monkeys and toured the mangrove swamp.
Another day we visited the beach at the Protea hotel in the Mwabi Ruins. It's the beach the locals prefer and it is set among the crumbling foundations of a former free slave school built in the late 1800's. Salum dropped us off and would return for us four hours later. Just after he left it started to rain heavily and it never let up. We hunkered down under the thatched roof of the open air restaurant and stretched lunch out for as long as possible and then settled in to read. I venture out to the beach wrapped in a big scarf and toting a hotel umbrella because how could I not visit the beach in Zanzibar?
It was actually a nice afternoon where we couldn't do much else and definitely a time to reflect that as Senior Nomads we can be happy doing what we are doing anywhere in the world - regardless of the weather But we were also saddened by the poverty surrounding us. And everything looks worse in the rain, so many people living in mud huts with no electricity and seeming to just get by. And by staying in town instead of being whisked to a 5 star beach resort we could really see the underbelly, which drives home the income inequality all over the world.
After our first very lovely church experience we also stopped at the Catholic Cathedral where we'd heard some rousing music earlier in the day but instead of finding a service we found an all-day gospel choir competition! It was a another great diversion from the weather and we were able to catch the last few performances. It was a highlight.
There were day trips to the markets and we got to know the vendors up and down our street - which happened to be the apex of souvenir shopping. It took most of the week, but I finally convinced the hawkers that we really, really, really were not going to buy a single thing and then we could just greet each other with Jambo! Jambo! and Hankuna Matata! I know they were disappointed because we were about the only tourists in town - but the high season will start in just a few weeks and they will be swamped with people wanting to buy "authentic" African masks t-shirts, beads and fridge magnets. Salum escorted me to the main market and helped me negotiate prices for fruit and vegetables and for the second time since Morocco, I had a live chicken dispatched and turned into dinner. At least I knew it was fresh!
Did I mention there was a mosque just across the street and the early call to prayer was directed at our window at 5:15 every morning? Did I also mention that maybe we need to come to this delightful island again and give it a second chance? Maybe on a second honeymoon - in the sun.
Asanti Sana(Thank you very much) for following along,
Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads
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