This blue marble

– and yet it spins


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On voodoo and the reason for illness

lowtideAs our bungalow driver drove me to Stone Town he told me he had just driven his son to see the witch doctor, with pains in his stomach. It happens from time to time, he said, and the doctors at the hospital cannot find anything wrong. The boy has been helped by the witch doctor every time, with potions, magic, and by recognizing that someone wants to hurt the family by causing the boy to be sick.

According to other stories I have heard, too, this witch doctor seems to be famous and receives patients from far away African countries. It is said he can raise people from the dead. Somewhere on Zanzibar there is a forest of the dead. When you go there properly prepared by the witch doctor, taking a potion, you can see a dead friend or relative. Perhaps you have unfinished business, or simply want to wish goodbye. The witch doctor also has the ability to bring the dead person back, completely so she or he can continue life as if it never ended. This of course costs money, some 5 million TSH (approximately 1,700 EUR). The best proof of this medicine is the story of a local man who should be dead many times over, but always returns to his home.

Voodoo is still common on Zanzibar and nearby islands. Pemba is a globally known center of black magic, so famous that practitioners from Haiti do pilgrimages to the little island to learn. My knowledge of voodoo is limited, and so I listened with a growing perception that in voodoo the main reason for ailments is not disease or bad spirits, but that someone, a specific person, wishes to harm the sick person or his or her nearest family. Evil spirits or djinns may occupy a person, but most often an unexplained illness is due to ill-will of a person known to the victim, who sets the evil spirits after the victim. The witch doctor is able to both point out who this person is, as well as cure the illness.

Is this just the viewpoint of a successful, envied businessman? The underlying attitude is alarming to a European. On Bali, disease is seldom caused or wished by one single individual. The Balinese believe everything is a struggle and balance between good and evil, and that diseases are caused by bad spirits. They are typically not the fault of a human being. Here on Zanzibar the view portrayed by the driver is that most unexplained illness stems from people wishing to harm other villagers or relatives they know well.

There is scientific evidence for that illness can be propelled by our own minds: depression causes inflammation in the brain, and many difficult-to-diagnose pains and aches end up as psychosomatic, meaning they are caused by the patient’s mental pain and unwellness. But there is something more alarming to the concept of illness in voodoo. I could not help but follow the trail of my European-conditioned mind: if the reason for illness is inflicted by other people there must be much anger, envy, and hate around. After all, people do get sick from time to time, and every time they do they get to hear of a person who has something against them. Such a contrast, then, to the impression I have of the Swahili people: friendly, caring, people with a strong community feel. Kindness and charity are important aspects of Islam. None of these attitudes fit what I am now hearing: of a society where blame is easily pointed and many personal problems explained by ill-will by a community member.

But then again, I am not an African and am possibly missing about 99% of the cultural context of voodoo. Lovely ones, if anybody of you know better, please educate me!

(Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)


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Calm like a crab’s heart

watersedge.jpgSitting in the shade of coral rocks on the beach. A crab is cleaning out its dwelling in the sand, after the receding tide swept its front door shut. My dwelling is a simple bungalow with wood worms eating out my bed from the inside. Nature is (still) everywhere on Zanzibar.

I am trying to tell my mind to not be everywhere and to just be “here”. It is not easy, but yoga is helping. One of the core mantras of ashtanga yoga is “practise, and all is coming”, meaning that even if one is only instructed in asana (poses), the other 7 limbs of the practice will find their way into one’s life, too. This balance of spiritual vs. physical instruction is what I have been searching for in ashtanga practice since I started. I am too impatient, too demanding, too curious. Twice I thought I found it with an instructor, but both times I have been turned away by the ego of the teacher.

A yoga teacher acquaintance once told me that there are many people who seek for a personal guru for a long time, discarding one “candidate” after the other. I think he meant that many (including myself) hope to find a perfect person to follow, when such perfect persons do not exist. In the end, we all have within ourselves the key to the answers. Perfection is not a requirement for knowledge.

Before each practice here on Zanzibar we are asked to set an intention. The one I set myself every day is to calm my heart. I think the crab digging out its beach house has a calmer heart than I have.

(Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)


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Back to the mat

nungwideckSomehow this holiday also became a holiday from ashtanga Mysore practice. I am exploring new things in yoga after a challenging experience last year on Bali that subconsciously dragged down my willingness to adhere to the practice. I confess I have practised very little since then. And before this week, I have only two (very unpleasant) lead vinyasa flow experiences under my belt. Performed in a gym with instructors who lead us like we’d be doing aerobics. But now I am signed up for a week’s vinyasa flow, once in the mornings and once in the evenings.

Ashtanga Mysore is an individual practice, where you accept one main instructor into your life, and where that instructor gives you poses (asanas) when he or she feels you are ready for a new challenge. And in the meantime you repeat the same poses in the same sequence, at your own pace of breath. Ashtanga Mysore is about learning an order of poses so that it becomes muscle memory and there is no need to think, only to be.

Vinyasa flow is a class where the instructor calls out poses and shows how to flow from one new pose to the next one. Flow being imperative, although I mostly feel like a stumbling elephant. Even with spending some 30% flowing through the sequence we’ve learned that week, every class is different and thus I find it difficult to focus on breathing and stillness of my mind.

In Mysore practice one must be a good student and only try out new poses given by the teacher, in the same order as for everybody else. Here on Zanzibar I have tried entirely new poses: Cow, Half-Moon, Dancer. I move my body in different ways, finding out things I thought I could do but cannot, and things I did not think I could do but can.

And so here I have gone from almost no practice for an entire year to 3 hours of daily, new practice. Considering the starting point I am doing well. It is obviously not thanks to strength (which I do not have) but thanks to the good foundation I have been given by my Mysore teachers. Tackling new poses is easier when I have a sense of alignment and body awareness (when is my body part horizontal or vertical), and the focus on channeling strength into every poses. I see people try to just bend into the right-looking shape with movements that look risky, and even if I love our teacher she does ask us to do things I know are bad for most knees.

Ashtanga Mysore is the form of practice you can injure yourself at most easily. But it is also the practice you are taught how to protect yourself and move in a correct way. Vinyasa flow has an entirely different risk of injury because the teacher does not correct every person’s detailed movements, hand placement, alignment etc. He or she also does not teach us how to safely set up a pose. Most injury comes from doing things in the wrong way once too many times, not from doing a new thing wrong once. Perhaps the nature of the ever-changing, lead class protects from highly repetitive activity, where injury might happen more easily.

But here the pace is unhurried and meditative. We begin with shavasana, the last pose of ashtanga Mysore: just lying down on our backs, calming down our minds, and setting an intention for the practice. In the morning we continue with pranayama, or breathing exercises. Our lovely teacher sings to us some nights, as we lie down in stillness, listening to the waves crash against the boardwalk edge.

(Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)


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The backside of beach life

nungwibeachA beach boy sauntered down the beach carrying a wood-jacketed book (the Quran? The Bible? A voodoo spell book?), stopped by me and said “Hi, can I ask you a question? What do you think of black people?” Perhaps he was provoking an argument, or just wanted to make small talk. He kept talking and slurred so I barely understood half of what he said. His eyes spun in his sockets as he explained to me that he had a Norwegian girlfriend and encouraged me to be friendly to every person I met. And every half a minute I had no choice but to do the African male handshake of bumping knuckles with him.

Zanzibar has a dark underbelly, like most tourist paradises. I have heard stories of drugs and drug-related crimes here, too. Most locals (and possibly tourists) choose to go for heroin. Or maybe it is heroin that is best available. Since I get up early I have never stayed up very late, but I hear people get drugged and in trouble at large parties such as the Kendwa full moon party.

The beach boys hawking snorkeling trips and coconuts hawk pretty much anything if you ask the right individual. Including drugs. Yet, unlike many other (Muslim) tourist destinations, there are no signs at the airport warning for zero tolerance with regard to narcotics. I have also understood that here it is most often not the user but the peddler who gets into trouble. And the drug lords can bribe their way out of most trouble.

But none of this is visible in daylight. Although I have rarely been out past 11 pm, I have always felt safe walking in the dark, too. However, as noted above, there are strange people on the beach here. A beach boy stuck to me like a leech a few days earlier. He thought it was his prerogative to demand conversation, and I was rude for preferring to write undisturbed. Another beach boy had alcohol on his breath at 11 am and wanted to sell a coconut for 10,000 TSH, whereas I know 1,000 is a good price and anything above 3,000 is a rip-off.

Last night I ran into a few guys smoking pot outside of the restaurant I wanted to dine at. They yelled after me, saying they wanted my company afterwards and that they would wait. They actually did wait – and as they never asked me what I thought of their wish I slippedout through the back door.

The islanders here have their own friendly way of living, different from mainland. Perhaps crime is lower, too? I do not know of the facts. And in case one should forget in the dazzling sunlight on the white beach sand, Zanzibar is not Paradise but a real place, with real people. Where ever there is light there will be shadows.dhow.jpg(Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)


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The Spice Isles were not always so

spices-1Zanzibar and its surrounding islands are also known as the Spice Isles. Curiously, this is a wholly imported conception, as there was no real concentration of spices growing here until the Portuguese came and planted spice and fruit varieties they had encountered on their travels around the world. Everything seems to grow on Zanzibar, and so now the farmers grow peppercorn from India, lemongrass from Southeast Asia, avocado from Peru, cloves from Indonesia, and vanilla from South America. In essence, the ecosystem of Zanzibar changed completely with the settlement of the Portuguese. spices-4.jpgAnd yes, cloves come from red flowers on a tree and peppercorn grow on a vine. Cardamom comes from overground root-like pods produced after flowering, and pineapple takes 6 months to mature (and one can only harvest one fruit per plant per year). All of these, as well as cinnamon, turmeric, and other spices are now an integral part of the Swahili diet and kitchen. I would love to know what food tasted like before the Portuguese came.
spices-2.jpg(Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)


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A random day on Zanzibar

spices-3Went to Stone Town to fix my broken iPhone. The driver’s car broke too so we got it fixed at a mechanic in the scorching sun. Then this guy called Abdullah unscrewed the dozen miniature screws of my iPhone 6 display, inserted an authentic-looking but Hong Kong copy touch screen display, added a tempered glass cover, and charged a whopping 70 euros in Tanzanian shillings, cash: a wallet-thick wad of money I first extracted out of an ATM.

Then the driver took me to a spice farm for lunch where a guy climbed up a coconut tree to serenade for me, another guy decorated me with hand-woven jewelry and a crown, and a third guy made me eat a lot of fruit.

No, this was not a weird dream but a real day on Zanzibar.

(Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)


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Breathing, above and under water

beachtoes.jpgSwitching gears: from diving to yoga and one last week back in Nungwi. For this very week I have hauled my yoga mat around Africa for nearly two months. I could (and should!) have practised during those months, but either the room was too small or the schedule was too packed or the company was too good, or [insert other well-curated excuses here].

The leap from diving back to yoga is really not that great: in essence they are both breathing exercises, with focus on being 100% present in the moment. Mindful oxygen consumption underwater is really yogic breathing: deep, slow, calm breaths, with focus on the flow of breath so one never holds one’s breath underwater.

There is a contrast, though: yoga asana is done with no or minimal equipment, whereas diving is mostly all about equipment that facilitates staying and breathing underwater.

Both yoga and diving are about awareness: that of our own bodies’ capabilities and limits, as well as awareness of our own space in this world. With these similarities in mind, there is an increasing number of companies combining diving and yoga, which to a start sounds random but really isn’t.

And so, this last week I am going back to my basics and focusing on breathing above water, enjoying the open-air yoga shala and the sunset. Every night, for seven days.zanziyoga(Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)