A frantic, hurried sprint to the ferry port in Dar left me anxious, sweating and out of breath. Somehow, I managed to fill the last available seat on the boat. My ticket read DIPLOMATIC and I soon came to understand what that meant – I was to accompany the captain and crew on their short voyage to Zanzibar. Captain John and I became quick friends as I told him of my plans. He graciously offered ideas of activities in both Zanzibar and the neighboring island of Pemba, and together we set off north, taking in the changing shades of the ocean and the warm colors painted delicately across the sky.
My first stop was Stone Town, the older section of Zanzibar City. Exuding a rich, palpable history, it’s no wonder it is declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Whether it be in the 22,000 year old microlithic tools, the stone-lined pathways, or the iconic Zanzibari doors, there is a story to be found.
Walking through Zanzibar was like being transported back to ancient Persia. Mesmerizing Arabic and Swahili script kissed off-white walls. Red and blue flags hugged the tops of buildings, guiding island inhabitants along narrow, twisting pathways whose ornate doors enticed its visitors further. A friend once told me that Stone Town reminded him of scenes from Aladdin, and he was not far off. The Call to Prayer, a nostalgic reminder of my months spent in Morocco, completely transfixed me. I could have stood for hours in those ancient walkways swathed in the reverberating sounds of those foreign, comforting words, forever vulnerable to their charm. I was intensely drawn to the zest that is Stone Town, feeling immediately welcome and at home within its walls.
The sun was setting rapidly on my single night there, so I hastened my pace to make it to the hotel before dark. The Warere Town House greeted me with such hospitality and warmth. Ideally located in a quiet area of Stone Town, there I found a unique blend of both solitude and companionship; something I desperately needed after my whirlwind time in Dar. As I opened the door to my room I stared and beamed. I made my way past my four-poster bed, the wood carved with beautiful Zanzibari intricacy and style, and I gazed out from my second story window. The tangerine sky left me breathless; its golden, vivid hue grew deeper as seconds passed, casting gentle shadows against the cobblestone ground below. As I opened the window a breeze wooshed in, washing over and blanketing me in its dewy comfort. I felt giddy. This place truly felt like magic; as if it could vanish in an instant without any explanation. I was determined to fill every moment of my short time there before it slipped away from me.
Despite a prolonged 4am struggle with Africa’s largest known cockroach, I awoke refreshed and ready for the day. The hotel staff had kindly arranged for a local man to take me on a walking tour of Stone Town and at 10am sharp we set off to do just that. I quickly found myself hanging onto every word my guide said. He spoke passionately about the island, and it was clear he had a wealth of knowledge he was eager to share.
We entered the basement of a building which once housed numerous slaves. The rusted chains used for their imprisonment lay atop cement blocks, haunting visitors. Making our way out, we spoke of the Arab slave trade and the importance of Zanzibar in its history. The same Zanzibari doors I had marveled at the day before also spoke to us, telling us of their origin, as well as the meaning in their carvings, color, and size. I am so lucky to be led through Stone Town by this man, I thought. And I welcomed each new piece of trivia, silently promising to research further once I was home. This place fascinated me, and I again felt at home as we made our way contentedly along.
Before I knew it, though, four short hours had quickly passed and it was time to make my way to the airport. The rush through traffic is not something I’ll likely forget, and many times I doubted I would make my flight. We’d found ourselves buried in the congestion surrounding the port, but after much practiced bobbing and weaving we finally made it to our destination. Relieved, I checked in, handed over my pack, and sat in wait of the arriving aircraft. After a short time, airline staff approached me, ushering me out to the airstrip where I was pleased to find Zach, my companion for the duration of the trip. Before we knew it, we were aboard our tiny, Auric Air aircraft and on our way to Zanzibar’s neighbor island – Pemba!
If I hadn’t known any better I’d have thought I’d flown into a scene of Eat, Pray, Love. We flew straight over heaven and landed right in the heart of it. Children excitedly shouted greetings as we passed and cars whizzed by on either side. We arrived in the late afternoon, and were consequently blessed by an otherworldly sunset. I stepped out of the taxi, immediately welcomed by the humid, Pemban air. A deep orange exploded across the sky, as the sun, glowing and radiant dipped behind palm trees and spice farms. What a magical, untouched island we had stumbled upon. How is it that tourists so rarely find themselves making the short 100km trip to visit this place?, I wondered. I didn’t know the answer, but I was elated to be among the few who had included Pemba in their itinerary.
The varied assortment of noises I awoke to assisted me out of bed that next morning, and for that they were a welcomed accompaniment to my morning routine. After readying ourselves for the day, we purchased some snacks (two loaves of bread), gathered our things, and set off. We’d arranged for a driver to take us north, stopping off at various locations along the way.
I pushed myself against the window, soaking in the sights of rural Pemba. I was glued to the glass the entire time, marveling at the various shades of foliage so well complementing those indigenous to the island. On our stroll through the Ngezi Forest Reserve we kept our eyes peeled for the endemic Pemba Flying Fox, while taking care to step over the occasional millipede. By mid-afternoon we had made our way to the Ras Kigomasha Lighthouse. I could have spent an eternity up there, basking in the hot sun. Unaffected by heights, I made my way to the grated platform at the top, sat down, and let my feet dangle over the edge; the wind blew unforgivingly around me, while the waters sparkled brilliant blues, inviting me in. It was my hunger that stole me from my reverie and I made my way down to seek out a meal.
The late afternoon was spent exchanging greetings with various children we found congregating near the road side. I could feel the dull ache in my cheeks from smiling and the sun-kissed glow atop them from a long day outside. We pulled up to a beach, one whose beauty fails to be explained in so many as 10,000 words, where we were greeted by turquoise waters and picturesque, floating dhows. We swam, climbed trees, and ran around the beach. The fine-grained, white sand is still caked along the bottoms of my pants.
It was like no other afternoon I had ever spent before and I wasn’t prepared to leave. It was Ramadan, though, and our driver had a warm meal to get back to. We let ourselves take in one last moment along the sea, said our goodbyes to those who came to welcome us, and let ourselves back into the car.
Though I so longed for it to stay, the sun began its initial descent in the evening sky. I was still wet and salty from my dip in the ocean; my hair a frazzled, tangled mess against my back. I let my forehead sink and rest against the window, trying to absorb every last feeling and sensation in that moment. Smoke from cooking meals escaped into the open air, billowing out along tin rooftops. Towering palm trees cast the sun’s reflecting, orange beams against my face and yet again I felt myself in a dream. A question crossed my mind, and it would with some regularity in the days to come: When will I get the chance to come back? I let this question sit – and then float away, dismissed as quickly as it had come. My driver’s voice filled the vacant space this thought left. Be at peace. With a long exhale, I surrendered myself to his request, taking in the final moments of that setting sun.