As an exercise of connectedness, I’ve imagined myself at the center of a crowd composed only of people I have ever met in my life, whether deeply or briefly. Toward the center and closest to me are the immediate family, the profoundest friends. Perhaps just out of this circle, my co-workers, students, neighbors. Further, old friends and loves who were foundational to me but have since moved on. Beyond them: that one person passed on the platform as the express train rushed through, that one shoulder I brushed in a crowded marketplace, that one shared airplane aisle smile. Looking at this scene from above, I wonder at the crowd’s size, this reasonably solipsistic study to imagine the wide and complex structure of human lives interacting with mine.
There’s chance in it—and deliberateness.
Off the Eastern coast of Africa is an island anchored to the mainland by a dubious political tie that harbors tourists and students, but also harbors a history of various travelers who rooted there, changed its culture, and brushed shoulders with strangers so much so that it would make a beautiful and curious crowd from above.
Flying into Zanzibar, the corrugated metal roofs of houses reflected sunlight and gleamed in a metal grid like studs on a punk rock jacket. When I stepped foot on the island, I was struck simultaneously by the humidity and with the humanity. Stonetown, Zanzibar’s capital and major city, points back at the mainland from the western coast of the island and is a collection of enigmatic streets that seem to lead as much to nowhere as they do to everywhere. They take you to smells of curry and signs in Arabic, to cafés that serve unforgettable milky-white spiced tea and extraordinarily-detailed wooden doors replete with brass studs and spikes for ornamentation, to markets full of color and flies and to an ocean of greenblue translucence that is warm and deep and constant.
Stonetown is beautiful and strange. It is controversial. Speak to a denizen of Zanzibar and they will tell you they have no interest in sustaining a relationship with the mainland, which, before forming a united nation with the island, was called Tanganyika. (Tanganyika + Zanzibar=Tanzania). It makes sense for the Tanzanian government to want Zanzibar: it boasts most of the country’s tourist industry, it produces exports like cloves, and it acts as a buffer for trade to parts east. But Zanzibaris believe the government takes from the island without giving back and the political discord is a simmer that could become boil.
But what Zanzibar lacks in political tranquility, it more than suffices when it comes to motley cultures inhabiting the same space. Stonetown has had many residents over the years—from the Afro-Swahilis, Arabs, British, Portuguese to the Indian—all of which leaving their mark in architecture, food, music, and clothing. This of course leads to a cosmopolitan place that isn’t as immediately recognizable as are other destinations. In just a few weeks there, I ate traditional Afro-Swahili fare, Ethiopian, pizza, Indian, danishes, and Spanish tapas. I was on a tropical island where the mosques called for prayer a few times a day. I tasted various spices from a nearby farm and waded through blue water. If I wasn’t so used to travel, Zanzibar could have easily short-circuited my brain.
The students, too. Don’t forget that my role in Zanzibar was to be a teacher, to provide for as much learning for our intrepid students as I possibly could. Where we were, I didn’t have to do much; our entire environment was a collection of stimuli so rich that mere looking was enough to fascinate. It meant a lot to me to be there with them, to experience my own awe through their enthusiasm.
But here’s part of the real truth: despite all of our gallivanting and learning and loving: I know Zanzibar isn’t my experience of it. Stonetown is largely a tourist’s haven (though it seems most of the people there are locals) and I am deeply aware that people are suffering on the archipelago. Political corruption, rampant poverty, a dearth of education; Julius Nyerere’s ideal independent socialist nation is suffering. When we walked around, eating our way through hundreds of years of history and culture, I knew that my experience there was largely a superficial one. The island paradise. The karibu. The hakuna matata. It was in the eyes of the street peddlers, the laconic waitresses and fishermen, the children. Every fruity cocktail drunk there was in some way a perilous ignoring of a greater human tragedy all around. This didn’t make Zanzibar less charming or the people less amazing, I just needed to use some space to make acknowledgements, if not amends.
There is a lesson to this: when keeping your eyes open, do not close them.
We had arrived in Zanzibar in June, which was in the middle of the holiest time for the majority of the island’s Muslim population: Ramadan. Though in no way more peculiar than the idiosyncrasies of any religion—drinking savior blood, building/destroying sand mandalas, circumcising baby boys—our deeply-introverted Western culture turns a skeptical, peripheral eye towards Islam and its holy practices. Ramadan is a deep tradition, but what results practically is a calm and pensive time of prayer where the devout fast from sunup to sundown each day in order to subscribe to their devotion. On a hot tropical island, notwithstanding, many go without even water.
Of course this makes for tricky tourism. Many restaurants and activities are closed during the daytime hours. Muslims on the island don conservative attire and practice conservative behavior while praying numerous times a day. In many ways, this makes the experience of Stonetown an unusual and remarkable place during Ramadan. Having never been to the city outside of the holiday, I have no basis for comparison; but it is easy to imagine the level of piousness and tranquility felt in the chaos of the winding streets is substituted for typical cosmopolitan life in the more secular months.
The students and chaperones tried to adhere as best we could to the customs of the place. We wished to be respectful, and so covered our extremities despite the heat. Some of us even fasted, sharing fresh dates with local hosts to break the fast only after the sun went down. We were complemented by a man by the memorial erected to honor slaves who passed through the island for our courtesy, noting that many tourists did not show such deference.
Watching an entire culture practice a devotion with collective sincerity—it reminded me of every time I’ve been in the presence of the religious who care not for politics or dogma or ritual but are enraptured with the deep-set mysteries of their own faith, and it warmed my agnostic heart.
I have been privy to and privileged by an exotic life of travel that has shown me repeated wonders that strike redundant as ocean waves incessant enough to encourage drowning but that do not harbor the wrath of malevolence. I have been lapped by these wave strikes in glee, all along shaking my head at the world’s majesty, which renews my faith in people each time I feel at the end of my hope. One evening during Ramadan in Zanzibar, I was again refueled to live on amongst and in service to all of us on this rewarding planet.
As part of our college’s planning of the Zanzibar leg of our study abroad trip, we connected with Salam, who was to be our point person while on the island. One of the activities we’d planned was to enjoy an Afro-Swahili cooking class with local cooks in an effort to understand tradition and sample local fare. But it was Ramadan, which meant our original plan had to be augmented to fit the customs of the place. Salam, in true Zanzibari form, took us home to his family.
About four hours until sundown, we were introduced to Salam’s entire family, his beautiful children and kind-beyond-comprehension wife, brothers, sisters, and more distant relatives; all gathered together to prepare to break fast in the courtyard just as soon as the light began to sweep away. The women of our cohort respectfully wore the proffered head scarves and, together, we prepared one of the most elaborate, specialized, from-scratch, and delicious meals imaginable. We made coconut milk from actual coconuts and leavened bread by making and kneading dough before twisting it into long tendrils, coiling it into saucers, and frying it in oil over burning coals. We peeled yucca. We rolled tiny balls of dough. We fried mandazi (African doughnuts like beignets). We kabobed lamb (for the Americans). We made Zanzibari milk tea with lemongrass, cloves, cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, and who-knows-what-else. We made an enormous and elaborated dinner that took a very long time, which made me a bit weary from hunger and exhaustion: I thought about how selfish I was. All month, all around the world, Muslims were fasting all day—and I felt weary because I hadn’t eaten since lunch.
When the dinner was ready, the family refused to get their food until we were all served first (kerplunk, goes the heart). Plates full of food that, four hours ago, I wouldn’t be able to identify but now knew intimately having been a part of their every development, we retreated to mats along the courtyard and, as dusk faded out the last of that one day’s light, ate together.
It may have been the best meal of my entire life.
Etymology: breakfast = to break fast (presumably, upon waking from sleep).
There’s a lesson in this: this group of American travelers, welcomed to the home of a devout Muslim family during their holiest month to share a delicious meal and some human peace. How wayward we become when we ceaselessly don’t understand how to first love one another.
The Chumbe Island lighthouse extended its white-tiered layers from a small patch of green vegetation surrounded by blue-slick glazed water. As we approached in our single-motor boat that had to fight unpredictable currents and volatile waves, the lighthouse’s length brought our gaze down to where we’d dock and begin our day: a small pavilion inhabited mostly by marine biologists both researching and protecting the unique biodiversity of the island.
If it wasn’t clear by now, note that Zanzibar is not a singular island off the mainland, but an archipelago of main islands (Unguja and Pemba) and occasionally-inhabited islets that are home to myriad and vulnerable species of flora and fauna and coral reefs that, if neglected, could cease to exist. Chumbe Island is an eco-protected habitat where researchers and—aren’t we lucky?—teachers and students can explore the habitats in an effort to understand the critical nature of man’s impact on the environment (which, is a thing). The increasing global temperature warms the ocean, which kills marine life on the coral, rendering it an ashen, ghostly white.
We met with a few marine biologists who taught us about their preservation efforts, hiked us around the island, and climbed with us up to the top of the lighthouse before preparing us for our snorkeling adventure at the coral reef.
Our boat took us from the beach out to where the coral reef rested in the shallows. I have donned a snorkel before, but I am in no way an advanced snorkeler. I have the cognitive capacity to understand how a snorkel works, am reasonably adept at mouth breathing, and have little self-consciousness concerning the foolishness of my visage when wearing a snorkeling mask; but what I’m not is a strong swimmer. Looking out over my shoulder, the coast seemed far away, the waves oscillated with vindictiveness, and the furtive glances of all the students wondering which of us would plunge first anchored us to the wooden seats of the boat. Not an advanced snorkeler am I, but content to be the guinea pig I am.
I shrugged and jumped.
I first tried to swim against the choppiness of the waves, using all of my might and memory of Michael Phelps to resist the eventual obviousness that I was no match for the entire ocean. I was struggling and drinking more than a share of ocean water to boot. For a good long moment, I hated marine biology and all of its oxygen-less inquiry. But then something happened: I sort of just let go. I stopped the spastic windmilling and foot slapping that was my wanting freestyle form, I stopped craning my neck to maintain my airwaves above the surface, and just went limp. It wasn’t some deathwish, come-what-may limpness, but a sudden realization. My struggle against the ocean and its waves was futile because I never had a chance to match it with my body; it was a body that was far more ancient and far more powerful than my own. If I let it have me, perhaps it would buoy me. And buoy me it did.
I floated and breathed, face down, with the snorkel extended up as it should be. Above the surface, it was loud, windy and violent; below, it was silent and calm. I almost couldn’t believe the difference. How was it possible that on the one side of the water, the side I lived my whole life in, it was so rough and unwieldy, and underneath there was such peace? I could hear nothing but the muted din of the boat’s motor that floated further and further away, but the water was transparent so I could see all the way to the coral and below; and what’s more—I could swim. I would kick a little, slither my body, separate my arms in one breast stroke, and I’d glide a few meters in any direction I’d choose. I swam amidst the reef, submerged more in awe than water, and floated amongst flirting fish that playfully swam in schools around me (more students) then scattered each time I rolled like a barrel to face them.
I was underwater in Africa and only surfaced an hour later when the boat motor approached and, perking my head back up into the world, realized everyone was looking at me with the “you done yet?” faces of endearing impatience that I typically see on those closest to me. That ring near the center of my crowd.
There’s a lesson in this: at times, it is right to stop struggling. There is peace and a beauty that you can’t really know, in just letting go.
As I write this, it’s been nearly a year since these moments. The world, in that time, has become a difficult place. Of course it’s been difficult, for many, always, and that the difficulty has bided its time to find me in my relatively safe confines should serve to neither shock nor marvel me. In truth, I am still largely protected from the greatest difficulties abounding. Still, I find myself challenged by it all. From the White House to the white Nissan with Jersey plates whose day is more important than any of ours, I can sometimes see the disillusionment that came to many folks as they matured in this world. But I’m reminded and energized by the Oscar Wilde quote: “It takes a great deal of courage to see the world in all its tainted glory, and still to love it.” I’m trying Osc.
When our formal CCP study abroad trip was complete, not long after Chumbe Island, the students and my wonderful colleagues were preparing to return home, while I had plans to stay in country for a few more weeks. The prospect of being alone did not concern me; the vulnerability of solo traveling in a foreign place was not daunting. I was mostly just preemptively missing my travel companions. But as they boarded the bus that would take them to the airport and home, and I looked toward the near future and great elevated peaks, I felt in our parting what Wilde called for. We had spent a lovely time amongst one another in a mesmerizing place that would forever be sewn into the fabric of our selves. As they drove away, I knew that we’d never have that particular experience again: these people in this point of our lives together in this place. That part was over. But it is also constant in its perpetuity. We are always there together.
I have traveled alone enough. I know how to find comfort in what is uncomfortable.
For my last few days in Zanzibar before heading back to mainland Tanzania and the tallest mountain on the continent, I spent the mornings reading in Forodhani Park, a local public area by the harbor. I cannot say I got a lot of reading done, conspicuous as I was the obvious interloper there. After a few flips of pages, I’d be visited by numerous local Zanzibaris, who were curious and courageous enough to come up and introduce themselves. Most wanted to practice their English, and so much of my mornings were spent in conversation that was premised on the pretense of rudimentary discourse, but moved swiftly to profound dialogue.
One day, I was approached by a cohort of schoolgirls, all headscarfed and precocious who—in developing a giggling courage—asked me if they could “practice their English,” whereby they launched into a prescribed soliloquy that included their names, hobbies, and academic aspirations. It was a sweet few moments. We talked through mostly language-barriered speech (they insisted I practice my Swahili, which naturally made them hysterical) and they performed a song and dance for me. I couldn’t help but notice that their interaction with me was beginning to get the attention of park denizens, so after taking a few selfies with the group, I made my way away.
I got lost in Stonetown every few minutes or so. It didn’t matter; I don’t really believe in being lost. Walk long enough and you’ll always find your way somewhere. I met Muksin for drinks at the Africa House where we watched the sunset over the ocean. I spied hidden restaurants where there were no tourists or outsiders in sight, and waited until sundown to enter and eat with the locals. One such place, Lukmaan, served Afro-Swahili fare that was perfect. Walking in was like experiencing one of those chaotic maelstroms of intimidation that force you into considering running and screaming, tucking tails and peacing out. Luckily, that temptation lasted only a foolish second. The restaurant was small and crowded and served food a la carte, lunch counter style. I knew next to nothing about any of the options, but also knew this was one of the best situations in which to be. I ambled up to the counter and, throwing my hands out in a shrugging question mark, said to the man there, “Listen, I have no idea what to get but it all looks great. Give me whatever you want.” Yellow rice, pea and carrot masala, butter curry sauce, breaded and deep fried cheese balls. All for $2.50. And I loved the world’s tainted glory.
My crowd growing ever greater.
Preparing to leave Zanzibar, the final leg of my Tanzanian journey was to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. I mean, even Hemingway only got to the base. I looked forward and up to this most prized hiking mecca and looked back on a diverse tropical place beyond expectation. Like many of the places I’ve gone and loved, I promised Zanzibar I’d return.
There’s a lesson in this: I write these journal entries for my own memories and the hope that other people find them intriguing enough to find their own adventures. Because I’m really just like everyone else; I get scared. Being alone is a foreign place where the customs are so unique from my own drums up in me the very real consternation everyone would have in similar scenarios. I’m not heroic or immune to the intimidation in all of this. What I am, however, is accepting of it all: the fear, the immersion, the splendor, the wonder. I open and absorb it. I guess what I mean is, whether you’re a student or a teacher or just a person moving in the world, the key has always been to approach with interest and courtesy and leave with affirmation and joy.
I know I know I know this is easier said than done. But so be it.