Sunday, January 20, 2008

Zanzibar

it's been a whirlwind month or so, i'm back in lusaka after a lot of traveling. it looks like now i'll be starting my new job in the middle of february as there have been some problems finding housing for me here in the city--in the meantime i'll take the opportunity and go out to eastern province to visit some friends there.

this account of the last month is going to be more of an 'impressionist' piece, basically an excuse to transgress even more rules of proper (i.e. good) writing than i normally do.

four of us headed to kasanka national park in the middle of december to watch the annual migration of straw-colored fruit bats. there is a two-month period every year when, for reasons no one's sure of, a swarm of approximately 12 million of these bats migrate to a small forest in kasanka national park. every evening they leave the shelter of the forest en masse to feed on fruit in the surrounding areas; i've been to watch twice, and the spectacle has not gotten any less amazing. we walked with a guide out to the edge of a plain that borders the forest in question; right around dusk a few bats started flapping their way up out and out of the treeline. that must have been some sort of cue for the main body of bats, because suddenly an absolute swarm of black dots swirled into the area and started towards us--being from maine i couldn't help but be reminded of a massive cloud of black flies. for 45 minutes about 12 million bats that can reach up to 1 kg in weight each streamed over our upturned, gaping faces, a perforated torrent bobbing and weaving but all moving in the same general direction. it ended as abruptly as it had begun with just a few stragglers flapping their way out of the woods and into the darkness, leaving us still mumbling incisive observations like 'wow, that rocked,' and 'that's a lot of freaking bats.'

we returned to our campsite and crawled into our tents; i'd strategically placed mine on a slightly damp, muddy-ish bit of ground thinking it'd be softer. what i somehow failed to think about was that this is the middle of the rainy season, and damp, muddy-ish ground at the base of gradually up-sloping land just above a swamp might potentially be a natural drainage area. all of this did occur to me at around 2 am when the bottom of the tent started rippling like a waterbed and we were forced to wade our way out of a newly-formed river that would probably get marked on most maps. we spent a cramped and cold night in the land cruiser with me huddling in the back, trying to hide from the accusing glares i knew the others were firing into the dark at me.

after that adventure/misadventure, we drove to kapiri mposhi and got on a train for dar es salaam. it took about 45 hours total to get there, most of which was marked by a lot of boredom and sleeping. there were some fun moments, such as when we passed into tanzania and found ourselves without any way of communicating with the people selling food outside the train. doug had gotten his hands on a swahili phrasebook and kept trying out different phrases, most of which were met with puzzled stares. the rest of us tried a melange of english, bemba, nyanja, and lunda, figuring that by talking slowly and loudly and enunciating clearly, people who had no experience at all with those languages would be able to understand us (on an entirely unrelated side note: back when joel was still visiting we went to the kala camp that houses congolese refugees. we started talking to a small group of boys, none of whom was older than 10 probably: i perpetrated my bemba on them, joel spoke with them in french, their native language is swahili, and they understand some english. so, these pre-teens knew 3 1/2-4 languages...great, i thought, now i can feel inadequate in 2 more languages besides bemba.) doug soldiered on with his own method though, at one point leaning almost entirely out the train window in pursuit of a chipati, mumbling unintelligible swahili at a street vendor while nicole supervised the process. nicole: 'that's not going to work doug, even if he understands you you're not going to understand his response.' doug, ignoring her, continued butchering swahili until nicole poked her head out the window: 'iwe. chipati. CHI-PA-TI?'

fortunately food was sold on the train, otherwise we would have starved to death. also fortunately, the train travels through selous game reserve, the largest reserve in the world, just before reaching dar es salaam. we saw giraffes, zebras, impala, warthogs, etc., as we cruised slowly by, lending some excitement to the monotony. from dar we took a ferry to stone town in zanzibar island, the largest of a cluster of islands collectively known as zanzibar. the island is outrageously beautiful, i felt the entire time as if i were living in a postcard. the whole island is ringed almost entirely by beaches--white sand, tall palms with thin, softly curved trunks that look as though they're constantly blowing in a gentle breeze, bright turquoise and green water, small thatched shade shelters, and arches and rock formations carved by the ocean into the mostly-coral shoreline. stone town itself is an interesting mixture of the old and new--narrow, twisted streets paved with cobblestones, the drab gray, soaring buildings that give off a slight air of neglect and antiquity crowding right up to the streets. looking up from street level there are only narrow slices of brilliant blue sky to be seen between the buildings, along with the wrought iron balconies that stud the faces of the structures and the tall, slatted black shutters swinging out above the street. arabic script flows along the sides of the buildings and above the doors of the mosques, through which barefoot men in orderly rows can be glimpsed genuflecting towards mecca. the dull, humming drone of the three-times-daily call to prayer echoes down the streets and hangs in the humid air. bundles of black wires snake up the sides of the building to connect to the antennae and satellite dishes poking into the sky from the jumble of tin roofs, each one a different shade of rust. men in white flowing robes with beards stride along the streets next to women wrapped completely in multi-colored hijabs but for their faces, clutching, incongruously enough, expensive cellphones and handbags. indian men and women, black africans and white, gawking tourists perpetually in danger of being run down by a scooter or large, rough wooden wheelbarrows piled high with goods pushed by men shouting warnings round out the population. the busier areas are chaotic, loud, and very exciting.

we made our way to the eastern side of the island to a place called jambiani. we stayed for the evening at a spacious, whitewashed house with columns out front and the sandy beach running right up to the porch. i wandered out into the warm night and sat in a reclining chair, gazing up through the palms at the bright expanse of stars stretching from horizon to horizon. as i dug my feet into the sand the palm fronds overhead clattered lightly together in the soft breeze, making a sound like rainfall, punctuated by the crash of the breakers against the beach about 25 yards ahead of me, the white foam from the waves glimmering dully in the dark. the owner of the place sliced up a pineapple for us and we chewed on the sweet, juicy pulp contemplatively, i for my part wondering how i'd been so lucky to end up in a place so beautiful.

the next two days were spent in bwejuu which was equally beautiful before we headed back to stone town. some more impressions of those following days: dancing on the beach during new years, fireworks spiralling up into the night sky and shattering over the applauding crowd, then falling asleep on the beach to the sounds of music, surf, and the quiet laughter and chatter of the people spread about over the beach. scubadiving, swimming along in a silent blue world, watching brilliantly-colored fish move over the surface of the mounded coral that rose in lumps from the sandy floor of the ocean, twisting slowly onto my back and watching platinum air bubbles with highlights of silver tumble and roll their way towards the surface. columns of small silver fish rising above my head, the entire formation flashing as the filtered rays of the sun caught their sides as they darted collectively at our approach. the gaunt ribs of a shipwreck looming out of the dull blue smudge of the water in front of me, a few small kicks lifting myself up and into a hole in the oyster-festooned side of the vesssel, allowing the current to pull me down through the body of the wreck, admiring the shattered remnants of the craft now chunky with marine growth, threading my way through the long fuzzy fingers of brightly-hued kelp stretching towards the surface and swaying slowly in the current. lying sprawled on the hard canvas canopy of the boat, letting the bright sun dry us off as we munched on falafel and spicy potato balls, the deep blue of the ocean spreading all around us, pitching us back and forth in the swells, islands dotting the horizon. standing under the shade of a massive tree at the end of a spice tour as a man with a sharp knife moved through our group offering us chunks of local fruits--pineapple, jackfruit, papaya, mango, oranges, limes, the juice running down our forearms. visiting the night fish market where all the local seafood is offered, each small wooden stand illuminated with lanterns and candles, piling a paper plate high with kebabs of barracuda, snapper, shark, king marlin, tuna, calamari, octopus, lobster, mussels, crab legs, all cooked up on the small wrought-iron braais and washed down with sugarcane juice. sleeping on the topmost deck of the ferry back to dar es salaam, 5 of us sprawled in a corner being rocked to sleep by the slow rolling of the boat. piling back into the train, exhausted, a little sunburned, sand infiltrated throughout our luggage, broke, saddened at leaving, yet still slightly jubilant and wildly happy at the experience we'd all just enjoyed.

hopefully you got a little taste of what it's like to travel to zanzibar, although i honestly can't begin to do any of it justice...it's just something you have to experience for yourself. i've been lucky enough to travel to a lot of amazing places, and though i debate back and forth with myself on this one, i think zanzibar so far was the best. if you ever get the opportunity...GO!!

1 comment:

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