Thursday, July 10, 2008

Zanzibar - more than just a GI Joe character (by Todd)

Our original flight from Kilimanjaro to Zanzibar was 'diverted' to Johannesburg on account of the 50+ South Africans who were climbing Kili in a group on the same schedule as us. So instead of leaving at 7AM as expected, we did not take off until around noon, on a completely different airline, headed for the mysterious archipelago of Zanzibar.

Unbenownst to myself, Zanzibar is the most common name given to a group if islands off the coast of Tanzania, that until the early 60s was a country unto itself. It has been a stop for traders and sailers from nearly all corners of the world (but most specifically from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia) since at least the very first century AD. It's a conservative Muslim society, and Juli had a little trouble wrapping her burka at first, but the dirty looks abated as the days went on. The Zanzibaris seem to be very fond of fu-man-chus, however, as long as I kept my knees covered.

The first order of business for us was figuring out how to get to our final destination, Lamu in Kenya. During our 'planning phase' for this trip, I had brazenly told Juli we should just figure it out when we got to Zanzibar instead of trying to book something ahead of time (those who know us know that such spontenaeity is in strict violation of our 'normal' behavior). Unfortunately the cheapest route we found was priced at $550 each! We looked into chartering a plane, a boat, and various other options with no success (the parents will be happy we quickly eliminated riding the bus due to frequent robberies by Somali bandits), so we decided to stick in Zanzibar for a week instead.

After a furious 30 minutes studying somebody's borrowed Lonely Planet guidebook, we decided to head up north to the beach town of Nungwi, which promised nice beaches and good nightlife, something both of us were definitely looking forward to after the Kili experience. As the taxi veered off the paved road and through some rough dirt, we were rewarded with the blinding white sands and the amazing turquiose waters of the Indian Ocean, and we both felt the stress of our travel issues melt away. We settled in a cheap beach bungalow, basic and clean and just a few steps from the beach. It was also just a few steps from the loudest bar in Nungwi, and provided us with great bass grooves deep into the night (really deep, like 3 or 4AM).

We passed the days lazily (for us), doing some snorkeling, reading, kayaking, and almost any other activity we could do near the beach and water. On account of having so much time in Zanzibar, we even had one day where we planned absolutely NOTHING (shocking, I know). But of course one hour into that day we got stir-crazy and decided to setup a scuba diving trip for the day following.

Neither of us had ever been scuba diving before, so we signed up for the most basic course which they said consisted of a few lessons in a pool and then one dive. To our surprise (somewhat), there was no pool - they loaded us up on a boat and started out to the ocean. About five minutes before we arrived at the reef the guide went over all the instructions with us, something about a regulator, signals if you can't breathe, etc. I was sufficiently terrified. The boat stopped, the guide jumped in, and told us to do the same. At first it was just strange to be completely underwater and breathing normally (pretty heavily for me actually, but at least breathing in and out underwater was just surreal). We sank to the bottom of a 2-3m area and did some practice 'drills' which first consisted of having to remove your regulator from your mouth, throw it behind you, then find it and put it back in - I am sure Juli could see the terror in my eyes as I frantically searched for the mouthpiece to restore my air...she is the one who is good in the water, while I am always freaking out about my contact lenses or something else that is inconsequential. But I was able to find it without turning too deep a shade of blue, and then it was really 'go time,' and we headed for the reef.

I quickly warmed to the scuba diving - I don't think I can go back to snorkeling after having the freedom to stay underwater for 45 minutes at a time, and go deep to see more interesting marine life, of which there was tons...even for our guide there were some firsts, a leaffish which was well disguised on some coral; a few ribbon eels and lobsters, and a couple manta rays. Juli and I were really pumped about the diving and fortunately they let us go on a second dive in the area, which was just as great as the first. We only made it to a depth of about 8m (24ft) at the most, but it was an incredible experience - made us wish we had tried it sooner (especially a couple years ago in Thailand), but made us certain we would try again.

We had one final meal in Nungwi, chilled at a beach bar with a group of four from South Africa, and arranged for a morning ride to take us back to Stone Town (the big city on Zanzibar island) for our remaining few days in Africa.

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