We were almost ready to give up. Our original destination was supposed to be the Philippines in January. Typhoon Haiyan and the mass destruction that followed quashed any notion of travel to Managua for a few years. We zeroed in on Thailand and axed the idea after travel advisories were issued from the Canadian government urging non-essential travel due to political unrest and uprisings in Bangkok. We tried to figure out flight times to Bali that didn’t require 48 hours of travel and incongruent layovers in Tokyo.
Yes, Kim and I have a long list of coveted spots, but lousy weather patterns were wreaking havoc. Monsoons knocked Tanzania and the likes of Gombe stream and a safari in Arusha out of the line-up. Brazil’s weather maps didn’t look promising with daily thunderstorms, long overland travel legs for what we wanted to see, not to mention unsavoury crime reports. Then the Corn Islands in Nicaragua had a ferry strike that would impede getting to our preferred base camp at Little Corn.
The Maldives was our default. Again we trekked to the local library and took out another stack of guide books and dated documentaries. I played around on tripadvisor and booking.com and found a few half board resorts that included flights for $3,700 each for nine nights. Plus another $300 seaplane ticket. Each. Kim suggested we look at hotels that could be accessed by ferry on Male or Maafushi, or atolls closer to the airport, eliminating the seaplane expense. But, after deeper research and a few random queries to tripadvisor reviewers we learned that, if you are not staying at an exclusive all-inclusive, there is no beer to be found. Many of the atolls are prohibition era, even with tourist influx. Though the hotels are cheaper, due to the dominant Muslim population, bikinis on the beach aren’t appropriate either. So, for very selfish reasons, we scratched the Maldives off the list due to the no beer, bikinis or bacon situation.
And that was the genesis of Zanzibar. Though the archipelago is also very Muslim, the European influence has shifted strictness. Some women still wear a full hijab, others pump gas and wear Pradas. Even the Masai have been swept up in contemporary times with cell phones, iPods and lime green Crocs.
Seventeen hours of flying via Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, was worth the crampy calves and chewy bubblegum beef and crunchy rice Ethiopian Air entrees. (On the plus side we were able to watch four of the Oscar buzz movies we’d yet to see.)The entire plane smelled like a diaper and stale hair by the time we felt the first smack of African heat. The soupy temperature was a sharp contrast from the -30 wind chill slam we narrowly escaped. We felt buzzed and electric from the sixty degree difference in temp.
The airport taxi tout bombardment was tamer than Cairo, though, it was still a flash mob for our business. The main road out of the airport north was the typical African obstacle course of oxen pulling carts, braying donkeys, runaway goats, dazed cows, Pee Wee Herman-style bikes (carrying impossible loads of fish, crates of eggs, bunk beds) and kamikaze mopeds. Trucks barrelled by stacked with foam mattresses or loads of coral rubble (used to build homes).
I was surprised the road was paved. I had already set Kim up for a disc-squashing, bladder-pounding, pot-hole smattered ride to our lodge. Instead we followed the smooth snaking vein of cement through giant mahogany forests, spindly coconut trees, neon rice paddy fields, African pines and the storybook leafy canopy of a three kilometre stretch of ancient mango trees.
Masai boys leaned against incomplete cinder block buildings, schoolgirls carrying sugarcane stalks walked in tight groups along the roadside. I smiled at the young boy wearing a makeshift hat that he had crafted by cutting the top off of a plastic windshield washer fluid container. Genius.
Though our driver wanted to crank the air-con, we insisted on the windows being down. The smell of red dirt, humidity and sweet smoke was such a relief from the canned air on the plane. And, hearing Kenny Rogers on the radio brought back a flush of Kenyan, Egyptian and Ugandan memories. How “The Gambler” made the equatorial airwaves baffles, but, it’s a sweetly reassuring sound to me.
Arriving at Kichanga lodge in Michamvi (an hour north of the airport), weary and stoned from travel, the staff graciously welcomed us with ginger-spiked carrot juice, several “Jambo’s” (hello) and “Karibu’s” (welcome). And, to my delight, we had three resident dogs to greet us as well (though the old gal, Cleo, was happy to let the younger mutts do the wagging and barking session).
Kichanga also has three donkeys—really, what more could you look for in accommodations? The trees were alive with weaver birds and bow-legged crows. The assault of colour in hibiscus flowers, Zanzibarian fabric, and the nearly vibrating verdant landscape made our winter-logged souls sigh.
We dumped our bags in our rustic and romantic bungalow (think Mosquito Coast—palm frond roof and all) and made our way to the icing-sugar sand beach that had lured us all the way from Canada. There was not an iota of photoshopping here—the Indian Ocean was a surreal streak of cerulean and Listerine green. The clarity of the water! There was no need to snorkel—you could see a shark coming from a mile away! The brine and wet seaweed smell in our nose was instant rehab.
The beach was peppered with a beachcomber’s bonanza. Clown nose-red coral fragments, piles of swirly shells, skittering ghost crabs, and wayward oil-black sea urchins. As we compared shell finds a local stopped to kindly tell us, “be careful—some are still homes.”
The terrible trifecta of jet lag: feeling stoned, drunk and exhausted (and still required to conduct yourself in public) put us to bed early. We ate like royalty first, slightly sauced on our new invention of “gin lag” (gin and Stoney Tangawizi ginger beer—a Tanzanian soda pop that is like swallowing fire). Satiated by plates of punchy King fish curry, rice and golden chapattis, we absorbed the night sky and milky way seemingly resting on our heads.
We were off the grid for two weeks. Zero traffic of any sort—no vehicles, no motorized boats. Just red—breasted sunbirds and darting warblers on the move. Noise pollution? Oh, yeah, the crashing waves and cicadas—what a nuisance!
With our mosquito netting pulled down and snugged under our mattress we collapsed into the dream we had designed. The intensity of the cicada buzz amplifyied in the darkness. Already, though we had seen just a blurred glimpse of the Spice Island and the marvel of the Indian Ocean at high tide, we knew we were in trouble. We had ruined ourselves for all future travel.
We had found the most tranquil place on earth.