This blue marble

– and yet it spins

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(Rarely) deserted beaches of Zanzibar

pajebeachImagine an empty stretch of beach. The palm trees curve over the fine pale sand, like in those travel bureau brochures. Turquoise water gently froths the edge of the beach sand. Clouds crawl across the blue sky, rolling as if in slow motion. Not a soul in sight.

This scenery is very rare on Zanzibar. Either you will see a fishing boat, or a colorful flag of a hotel or kitesurfing center. And in 99 cases out of 100 you will see at least a handful people walking on the beach. Zanzibar is like Bali: so beautiful its existence is threatened by tourists loving it to death.

Everything must have been so different here when the traders and Europeans first began to settle: pristine, empty, white beaches and a few fishing boats, some mud brick huts, and reed huts. Local people probably wore very little clothing, and in general received everything they needed from nature. Today, what we tourists call a “beautiful sight” might be a wooden restaurant deck on stilts, stretching over the same beach, white-chalked hotel walls, and Swahili women in colorful long sarongs and headscarves.

While in Nungwi one can look over the water to Tumbatu island, which is part of the Zanzibar island group. Tumbatu is said to have only one road, used for walking or biking. There is no power except for a recent installation of solar panels.  My guidebook and online sites say voodoo practice is deeper ingrained Tumbatu than on Zanzibar, as are reservations against visitors. There is said to be no love of (or for) tourists. Very few stay overnight, and most snorkeling guests are visited by a boat from Tumbatu, demanding money for swimming on their shore. At the same time, the people of Tumbatu want very little to do with the tourist business on their soil.

Zanzibar has some 600,000 inhabitants and Pemba island some 400,000. The Tanzanian government’s vision is to reach 500,000 annual visitors to the Zanzibar isles by 2020. Today, with some 350,000 annual visitors, the roads do not seem crowded, but I am certain the locals already feel squeezed, maneuvering their pushbikes, buses, and ox-carts among hotel SUVs and minivans. At the same time, the number of locals seems to be growing, too: there are two universities on Zanzibar and a surprising number of schools. I watched a school end its morning shift in Stone Town, and an incredible number of students tumbled out of the building. I did not try to count. In the afternoon, a second batch of students will enter the school for the afternoon shift, learning exactly the same things as the morning students did.

Zanzibari families are large: a farmer family might easily have 6-8 children, maybe more. With today’s healthcare and education systems, child mortality must be decreasing. In 20-30 years Zanzibar will not be recognizable, thanks to its growing inhabitant and visitor numbers. The rate-limiting factor is employment: people leave the islands if they cannot be employed. But I am convinced that as the population grows and tourism industry expands (most beaches are still far less developed than Nungwi or Paje), there will be more work.

I am glad I came now and not 30 years later. And I am sad if the lushness, the peacefulness, and the feel of paradise will have disappeared by then.turquoisewater(Paje, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)

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Back to school

OWDBack to school. Obtaining the Open Water Diver certificate was a lot of work. Fortunately I had plenty of time here in Paje. Learning how to equalize my demanding, small ears means I crossed a significant hurdle, too. And Buccaneer Diving gave me a friend price and a fantastic instructor.

I am well bruised on my arms now: a dozen bruises at least, from working the scuba unit on and off in the water, weight belt off and on both in the pool and in the sea, and preparing the air cylinders which are heavy. Additionally, I have a sore bump on the back of my head from jumping in with a loose air cylinder on my back (due to all the de-kitting and re-kitting in the water).

Recreational diving relies so much on technology that the Open Water course assumes that a dive computer will be used. The planning tables and calculations are taught as a back-up. Modern dive computers can connect to the air source, in addition to instructing on surface interval time between dives, ascent rate, and dive time. I do not even own a waterproof watch and so learning the basics behind the dive computer functions was interesting to me and probably boring to most.

The exam in itself was surprisingly time-consuming: lots of questions and calculations. The book has a number of self-quizzes but also quizzes to be corrected and discussed with the instructor. Because I never accept any claim without questioning it, I ended up spending a few days debating with my instructor and my divemaster friend on various unnecessary details, before taking the exam. Because of their patience that never seemed to run out, I actually passed the exam, too. Hello fish, here I come.
DCIM100GOPROGOPR0383.JPG(Paje, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)

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Do not panic

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0369.JPGThe first time I dove I felt a tinge of panic: “what if I would just lose my head right now, remove the regulator, breathe in a gulp of water, and die? It would be so easy to die.” Indeed it would. And I am still trying to get used to the idea of the PADI buddy system: you travel anywhere on the planet, seek out a reputable dive center, get paired up with a stranger you’ve never met in your life and will probably never meet again, and then place your trust in this person; that he or she is going to stick nearby you during the entire dive and is willing to give you his/her alternate regulator should your air supply fail. And that he or she will stick with you and leave the beautiful scenery behind, should you need to return to the surface, far away from the boat.

Sometimes smaller things go wrong. Travel blogs describing the beauty of diving do not describe what it is like to feel sick and vomit into your regulator, but it happens. So far not to me, thank goodness. But it looks awful: fighting the urge of shooting up to the surface if you are too deep, and to just vomit into your air supply, trying to save air in your lungs so you can then try to purge your regulator. Or, like a kid did the other day, on his first dive ever: forget about safety, shoot up to the surface, remove your regulator, and throw up.

Diving is total surrender to both our ocean planet and to the people who inhabit it. This may sound beautiful but it also means confidence is a key factor when assessing a dive guest’s capability and readiness to dive. The worst that can happen is not equipment failure but panic.

The oceans are the last unexplored frontier of our planet. Even the high mountains and the polar regions have been explored, whereas there is so much unknown under the sea. And our planet is mostly underwater. Ten years ago, very few dove with an alternate regulator for back-up, which today sounds insane. And the first divers wore glass dome helmets and dry suits. They would have thought divers today were crazy. With modern equipment diving has become so safe and easy that even a 10-year-old can get certified. I can’t wait to see what new advances technology will keep bringing, to help us explore the  home of the fish, the dolphins, and the seahorses.DCIM100GOPROGOPR0463.JPG(Paje, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)

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Mastering the pressure

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0384.JPGI have a love-hate relationship with diving underwater. On the one hand I love the sea and looking at the underwater world. On the other hand, my ear canals are small and I have problems flying with the smallest symptoms of cold, or freediving deeper than 3 meager meters. But together with an instructor from Buccaneer Diving, a divemaster friend, and a lot of technique rehearsing, in Paje I found a way to equalize my ears. My goodness. I also found a way to work with my sinuses pre-emptively so that my ears would also not crackle and pop the next day after the dive.DCIM100GOPROGOPR0440.JPGHello fish, here I come. Even if I now go through the following routine every single minute: equalize by blowing against my nose, get water in mask so I can’t see, stop to clear water from mask by blowing bubbles. Hence, I need to become masterful in buoyancy control and level-diving to minimize pressure changes and the need to equalize. But hello fish, here I come!
DCIM100GOPROGOPR0245.JPG(Paje, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)

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Under the sea, part II

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0274.JPGIt turned out that the beach hut in Paje was next door to a 5-star PADI dive center. And on Paje beach, every 200 meters there is either a kitesurfing school or dive center. Not going out and underneath the waves was obviously out of the question. And what an amazing reef, outside of the lagoon.
DCIM100GOPROGOPR0252.JPGPaje is a windsurfing hotspot because of the wind, of course. This means that getting into the dive boat (and changing air cylinders) was – well, choppy, to say the least. On some days, positively “swell”.
DCIM100GOPROGOPR0285.JPG(Paje, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)


Exploring hidden coral caves

coralcaveUnderneath the surface, Zanzibar is a maze of coral rock caves. We stood on the beach near the Fukuchani ruins and felt the hollow ground shake beneath our feet: the waves crashed into subsurface holes in the coral rock. Oh the joy of baby fish, to play hide-and-seek in such a labyrinth!

Further down the road from Kidoti toward Mkwajuni there is a hidden coral rock cave, a short forest hike away. It is just one of the numerous known caves – and it is said to have a passage all the way to the sea. That must be true, as fish were swimming in the dark waters. And the water was crystal clear: everything grayish green on the photo above is underwater.

The cave was nearly impossible to find without the help of a local who knew, a badly placed sign, and some kids by the side of the road. They urged us to leave our expensive rental bikes and hike up. Because this is a locally maintained cave, not one of those famous slave caves that receive busloads of visitors every day. Here you can enjoy the silence and swim a few laps in the freezing cold, clear water without being photographed. Just like other cave explorers before have done, for hundreds of years.

(Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)

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Good wifi is expensive on Zanzibar

hiltonNo regrets for a very expensive dinner at the Hilton DoubleTree, so I could use their fast wifi for photo and video transfer. It cost me 79,000 TSH, which is about four times the price of a low-end tourist dinner, and about sixteen times a village dinner. In euros it is only about 30€, though. Cost is more culturally bound in Africa than anywhere else I have been, including Southeast Asia.

The tide crept in during the night and splashed my laptop. I paid 30€ for getting seawater on my laptop.

(Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)

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Beach life on Zanzibar

cowsSunbathers, cows, kids playing soccer, maasai touting safaris, others touting coconuts, and ladies fishing in colorful robes. This is the Africa I know, and expected but never encountered in Namibia. On the flipside, it is an odd shift to go in an instant from well-watered lawns and white-washed houses to bare concrete, trash on the ground, chickens running everywhere, and no imminent beauty in design. The people here live well it seems, but they just do not appreciate the same things we do. beachlifeDuring the day, kids crowd the beach: boys, big and small, play soccer in the sand; while girls, already draped in hijabs, walk on the beach giggling. It seems that the fashion here is very tight jeans or leggings and a looser, flowing top plus a beautifully colored headscarf.

When I buy fruit or transport with my local friend, people easily want to charge us more than what we know is reasonable. It upsets him. He says they think I am paying for everything. Moving around without my friend I notice the hawking beachcombers much more. The trinket peddlers. The Maasai who corner girls on the beach, selling snorkeling trips and safaris, and, according to my friend, also other services. It is a constant “Jambo, how are you?”. I wish I could be courteous and chat with everyone, but it is too much. Fortunately this is Africa and everybody has a sense of courtesy and limits for intrusion. The only time I have become properly upset is when a man tried to charge me ten thousand shillings for a coconut, when I knew I could buy one for two thousand elsewhere on the island.

My local friend does not fit in well, either. Some of his clothes are too trendy. He has a new cell phone and a GoPro, and European shoes, rucksack, and nice sunglasses. His time in Europe has changed his perspective, and he is only realizing it now. “Culture” is a dance where the rules are “code and expectations”. We are all expected to know the steps of this dance. But being a global citizen is dancing freestyle. And learning to dance freestyle means not really fitting in anywhere except for with other equally rootless people.

And so today I will do what a tourist is supposed to do: buy a coconut on the beach. But I will not pay more than three thousand shillings for it.
boat-4(Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)

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Maiden voyage of the mangowood boat

boat-1Our boat was freshly made, out of mangowood. The finishing touch was given by a fire just the night before. Burning the surface with a hay fire made it more seaworthy. I was glad it floated.

Zanzibari fishing boats are very narrow and deep, like deep kayaks with wooden side floaters and a sail. My bum was not much smaller than the width of the boat, but for the quite petite locals I am sure the size works much better. The sail is rigged with two ropes so it can be used by one single person – which is the case most of the time anyway. The floaters make the boat very stable, so a solo sailer can focus on working instead on staying afloat.

The fishermen often go out at night. There are very few lights by the shore, and some decades ago there was no electricity at all. The fishermen still know how to navigate using the stars and the wind, avoiding sand banks and coral rock in the dark. boat-3Our fisherman guide said he would not normally take his own daughters or wife out in the boat. It is not done. Women are considered to be too weak to manage the seas. He laughed when I said I pretty much grew up spending my summers on boats, home-made rafts, and other floaters. Local women do fish, but from the shore, wading in the water. Honoring the women, a boat may be named by other villagers after a man’s daughter. This boat was only proving to be seaworthy on this very voyage, so it had not yet earned a name.

Only one experienced boatmaker and sailor would take two tourists onboard for a maiden voyage. I was glad we stayed dry.
boat-2(Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)