I had long dreamed of traveling to Africa and in 2009 that dream became reality. With a love for wildlife and an even greater love for beautiful beaches, I set out for Kenya and Zanzibar.
I landed in Nairobi, the plane guided to the gate by men in camouflage holding machine guns. For a moment, I thought, perhaps my parents were correct to think I was foolish to travel by myself to a place with such a volatile history. Thankfully, the fear quickly subsided as I made my way through customs and to my hostel.
I spent one night in Nairobi, waking to the sounds of the call to prayer at a nearby mosque. At daybreak, I climbed into a Toyota van modified with 4×4 tires and a snorkel. Myself and four other Americans began the bouncy journey toward our four-night trip in the Masai Mara. Clement, our charming driver and guide, deftly tracked giraffes, elephants, zebras, water buffalos and yes, lions! Fighting the 10-hour time difference, I kept my camera busy. My favorite subjects were the lionesses; I was lucky enough to watch them stalk the nearby impala but grateful not to witness the circle of life first hand.
My days in the Masai Mara were magical, but there was more to come. From the Mara I skipped the 6-hour drive back to Nairobi in the Toyota with my new friends and hopped on a puddle jumper at a dirt airstrip to connect to my flight to Zanzibar. I became air sick but it didn’t detract from the awe of seeing the snow on top of Mount Kilimanjaro from the tiny plane.
We landed in Stone Town and Mussa met me outside of the tiny terminal. Mussa was e-introduced to me by a dear friend who he had previously guided around Zanzibar. Mussa took me to my hotel and we grabbed a quick bite. I enjoyed his company but I seemed to be a bit too free spirited and adventurous for his sheltered Muslim liking. Don’t get me wrong; Mussa is still a friend who I keep in touch with frequently. However, a western woman traveling alone and drinking beer was definitely outside of his reality.
Stone Town is an extraordinary maze of winding and narrow streets peppered with intricately carved doors and getting lost there will remain one of my fondest memories of Africa. Curious stares, smiles and greetings of “Mambo!” from locals were returned with a relaxed and cheerful “poa!” Although I was 10,057 miles outside of my comfort zone, I felt at home, safe and encouraged or as the locals would say, “Poa kichizi kama ndizi,” which means crazy cool like a banana.
I eventually made my way to the north coast where the tide isn’t a factor and you can swim all day. Yes, ALL DAY! The road to Kendwa Rocks was inexplicably worse than the one leading into the Mara, but ahhh the reward! From the road, I made my way down a dirt path to reception. From reception, a man walked me to my beach bungalow. Down a flight of stairs, down, and down again I finally saw a stretch of white sand and the bluest water I had ever encountered.
Days were spent lazing in the sun, swimming, drinking mango margaritas with new friends, and devouring spicy prawn curry. I met Alva and Dahir from Sweden and Omar, a manager at Kendwa Rocks who introduced me to Wamba. Wamba is an extraordinary person. A rasta with long dreads who owns a home in Stone Town but prefers to sleep in a tent on the beach at Kendwa Rocks.
On my third, or maybe it was my fourth day (at some point on vacation you just stop counting!), Wamba offered to show me around Zanzibar. Without hesitation I jumped into his Suzuki sedan. Reggae music blasting and lion iconography hanging from the rear view mirror, we drove along mango groves, saw colobus monkeys, looked out on the stark buildings the Germans constructed during their occupation in the 1960s and watched children play.
Like any Rasta worth his salt, Wamba smoked weed…while he drove. Wisely, he pulled over and asked me to take over. Chauffeuring stoned new friend on unfamiliar roads that were opposite of the U.S.? No problem! Zanzibar has the occasional checkpoint and we were stopped twice and immediately allowed to continue. “Oh, it’s just Wamba” the guards said, and I carefully pulled off.
We stopped at Wamba’s house in Stone Town and he gave me a tour. We then went to shops owned by his friends and I bought a painting and other various souvenirs at prices a mgeni—Swahili for foreigner—would only fantasize of paying. We made our way back to Kendwa Rocks, stopping on the eastern coast to visit friends of Wamba. When we arrived they were taking a nap but quickly livened up once they realized Wamba had brought a new friend. We walked along the beach and they told me about the seaweed industry and how the women would harvest it during low tide. They showed me the grand houses that were rented out to tourists. They made us lunch, fish and chips and fruit juice, and we listened to music and watched the waves, heaven! And then the short drive back to Kendwa Rocks for a few more sleeps before returning home.
Zanzibar is a remarkable place. It is visually stunning, the food is incredible (grilled octopus at the night market was a favorite), and the people are beyond friendly. I returned to Stone Town from Kendwa Rocks in a shared van and then got a cab to the airport. The driver mentioned that he had seen me the previous week with Mussa. On the short drive I told him how I had come to know Mussa, about the safari in the Masai Mara, my life in the U.S., and how this little island, capable of being traversed in a day, had become so important to me in the space of one week.
We arrived at the airport, shook hands and said our goodbyes. I walked slowly through immigration and security in a delicious haze. Finally taking a seat near the departure gate, I realized that I had left my painting in the cab. I quickly called Mussa and told him I was driven to the airport in a brown Toyota sedan and the driver, whose name I didn’t get, knew him. I loved that painting and would be grateful if he could track it down and ship it to me in America. Needless to say, that painting now hangs in my son’s room here in a suburb of Los Angeles and I will forever be thankful to Mussa, the driver of the brown Toyota cab, Wamba, and all of the other people I had the pleasure of meeting in Zanzibar.