This blue marble

– and yet it spins

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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)

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On seaweed and female strength

seaweedfarmIn Paje there is a seaweed plantation, just like on Nusa Lembongan off Bali. Here the seaweed is grown on ropes tied to poles and left dry with the receding tide, twice a day.

The seaweed plantations on Zanzibar is managed by the women of the village, who also fish with nets from the shore. Swahili women are an interesting combination of strength, pride, and demureness. They mostly walk with a slow swing, in no hurry, almost as if they were deep in thought. When they smile at a man they look down, as if they harbor a secret. I sometimes hear them laugh, but their behavior around men certainly is very soft, submissive, and demure. And yet I am convinced that if anyone tries to cross a Swahili woman they will most likely not survive to tell the tale.

Yesterday I went to Jaqueline’s for another massage. She told me about her two kids and their lives in Kenya with their aunt. Jaqueline is here on Zanzibar all alone, for work. She is proud of herself, and made a point of how she no longer has a husband and gets no help from her family besides lodging for her children; that she makes everything else work by herself. Jaqueline is a woman even I would not dare to cross.

(Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)

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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, manoeuvring 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 ┬áhome of the fish, the dolphins, and the seahorses.DCIM100GOPROGOPR0463.JPG(Paje, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)