Sunday, December 19, 2010

Off the Beaten Track


After 19 days we have wondered into a place where babies stare at you and little kids cry in fright or delight at the sight of you. Mzungu, Mzungu (white, white) it is easy to tell when people are talking about you, but not exactly what they are saying. As we walk down the road around dusk a chorus of little kids voices yell “Jambo” until we are out of sight. A three hour ferry ride from Zanzibar, Pemba is a world away. The island itself if a tropical combination of the lush greens of Bali, the vistas of Italy or Greece, and it’s own special kind of Sunni Muslim Africa. The landscape is dotted with ancient baobab trees, enormous mango, jackfruit, papaya, palm, clove bushes and almost any other tropical vegetation you can think of. While people here may be economically poor, you can tell the red earth and their lives are rich. Surrounded by the bounty of the sea and the land people work hard, but live well. As proud young fathers hold their babies in the evenings and parade them down the streets you can see the pride of family.

Some people here speak English, but most speak Swahili. When we ask directions if people are afraid we do not understand all kinds of friendly helpers emerge to guide us to our next destination. When they have guided us there they ask for nothing in return, make sure we know where we are headed to next, and bid us a good day. It has been a pleasure and a relief to connect with locals at last on such a genuine level. It seems every one knows each other and who owns which fruit tree (and you never pick it without permission, but fruit on the ground is fair game)!

Today we decided to visit a local island so we caught a “dala dala” (a covered pick-up truck bed with benches in back). Now the thing to know about “dala dala” is that they seat anywhere from 10 to 50 people along with their buckets of sugar and plastic bags of fish. It all depends on how full they fare collector thinks he can fill it before the traffic cop will object. Most of the time you are comfortably packed in and it seems there is no space left and by the time you actually leave the number of people inside has at least doubled. People, chickens, mangos, and babies all stuffed like sardines into the back, not to mention all of the goods on top of the truck. The aroma of body odor and gasoline exhaust is truly unforgettable. Today we were luck and scored the seats in the cab next to the driver. He dropped us off at literally the end of the road and after we clarified with some locals where we were trying to go a few children emerged to lead the way. The path to the mangrove where the fishermen store their boats wound past the front doors of mud brick and stick huts. Women cooking, gardening, washing, breast-feeding babies, all somewhat surprised to see us walking past their house. The typical reactions frightened children, cheers of glee, and women double-checking to make sure their headscarfs were properly in place.

Pretty soon we found the mangrove full of Dhow’s (small wooden canoes with amas on both sides). After some group negotiation with the fishermen in mostly Swahili and some English we agreed on a price. As my feet squished through the mud I tried to forget about all of the tropical worms and parasites that thrive in stagnant water. “Where ever we end up….this is going to be an adventure!”, we told one another. In the boat that looked big enough for two we had the captain, two crew, and us the two Mzungus. As they rowed out of the mangrove swimming children dived underwater or ran into the bushes at the sight of us. We raised our tattered white sail attached to a bamboo mast and began out regatta with a fleet of about 5 other Dhows. It felt so good to be on the water surrounded by a kaleidoscope of turquoise blue. In an attempt to lighten our loads neither of us had brought our drybags and we soon realized that may have been a mistake. The captain wanted to sail and at times the two helpers were both on the amas wrangling the boat as the sail full of wind pulled us up on one ama. But at the last minute he would avoid a sure water entry by using the ”brake” and letting the sail loft.

In shorter time than expected we reached what looked like a pretty scraggly little island. As we disembarked an older women emerged from the banana grove with a bunch of bananas on top of her head. I suddenly realized where the idea of the Chiquita banana lady came from years ago. She looked stunning draped in her sari and head wrap with the about 20 bananas and stock on top of her head carrying bags with her hands.

Uncertain we were really headed to our desired destination we followed the kind captain as he signaled for us to go ashore. But wait we wanted to go to the beach does this lead to the beach? They assured us yes this is where you want to go. We set off down a dry rocky path in the middle of a young banana grove with different shades of lush yellows and greens filtering through the trees. Along the way our captain pointed out plans we should not touch and said danger. Pretty soon we could hear the familiar roar of the ocean and could see glimpses of azure turquoise water and powder white sand. We had come to a sort of eco lodge on the ocean with hammocks! Eager to jump in to the water after a few days of having an amazing view, but not being able to swim we were disheartened at the gaggle of men waiting to catch a glimpse of us in our bathing costumes. On second thought, wading sounds just as refreshing and much less revealing! We pulled out our lunch and snacked on our egg sandwich - which was literally two very small slices of baguette with an entire boiled egg in between.

After relaxing for a few hours we headed back to the boat for our sail home. As we boarded the tiny canoe the wind had picked up a lot and we knew we were going to be in for an adventurous ride home. For the next ½ hour we alternately raised our cameras in the air of reach of the waves splashing over the side as we leaned as far as we could across the ama to keep the boat with it’s sail full of wind from tipping too far to one side. After a close call that put the boat at about a 60 degree angle with one side of the boat fully emerged in the water the two crew men climbed onto the amas opposite of the sail and held on with ropes. They looked like water cowboys atop a bronking bull gracefully holding the rope to the sail with one hand as they leaned as far back as they could to keep the boat upright.

Pondering how long I could potentially hold my camera above my head and tread water we resolved ourselves to the fact we may be going swimming on this boat ride.

Suddenly the wind subsided and we were back in the protection of the mangrove. As they pulled out the oars to begin the rest of the paddle home, I tried to convince them that I know how to paddle an outrigger, but they wouldn’t have it. They just laughed and took the paddle from me. I am sure the thought of a women especially a mzungu doing a mans work was unfathomable! As we reached shore the tide had gone out and all of the wooden boats were resting in the sludgy brown mud as children jumped into the murky puddles. We trudged through the mud as a tribe of children greeted us to lead the way back through the village to the main road.

Unable to say much more than hello what is your name I pulled out my secret weapon. The Aerobe! It is essentially a really flat Frisbee with a hole in the middle. It usually goes something like this. The kids have not idea what it is or what it does. The first time you throw it they all stare in shock and confusion and it falls flat on the ground. Next, one young brave athletic boy picks it up and tries to throw it. It usually goes vertically into the air or nearly misses someone’s head and everyone erupts in laughter. Then as it is about to hit the ground again children emerge from every tree, house, and mangrove to catch a glimpse of that is going on and join in. For me the Aerobe has become the universal communicator…you can always play a game and laugh together. So we played a mean game of aerobe on the side of the road until the last dalla dalla of the day arrived. As drove past palm trees and the mud brick houses bathed in the afternoon glow of the sun we waived and yelled “Jambo” to all of the families sitting outside of their homes. Exhilarated at the fact we had finally gotten off the beaten track and really connected with this little piece of paradise. We bounced down the road wondering what our next adventure would hold…

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