Island Vacation in Zanzibar, Tanzania

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East Coast Beach in Zanzibar, Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black

East Coast of Zanzibar

I spent my last weekend in Tanzania in Zanzibar. Zanzibar is actually a collection of a few small islands off the coast of Tanzania including Pemba. There are a few ways to get there from Moshi, with a flight being the fastest. There’s also the option of taking an 8+ hour ride on a dhow, but I wasn’t interested in a potential repeat of my seasickness bout in Pangani. A few hours after teaching my last class on a Thursday (tear), I boarded a Precision Air plane for the hour-long flight to the island. The plane was small and didn’t fit more than 80 people, most of whom were flying to Dar Es Salaam, or “Dar” as the residents refer to it, the unofficial capital of Tanzania.

My hotel, Sazani Beach Resort, arranged to have a taxi pick me up at the airport. When I walked out of the airport there was a cluster of rabid taxi drivers waiting for rideless victims. I found my driver, Fahroud, quietly waiting away from the group holding a sign with my name on it, saving me from the other Cujos foaming at the mouth for a fare. I was staying in Nungwi, a fisherpeople’s village in northern Zanzibar, about an hour from the airport on a mostly dark two-lane road flanked by lush vegetation.

J_ and K_’s trip to Zanzibar overlapped with mine by one night and they were also staying at Sazani. They’d flown in a few days earlier and planned to head out the next day to fly back home to the US. It was nice getting to see them one last time. J___ joined me for the dinner the hotel manager had set aside for me since I arrived after the kitchen closed: mashed potatoes, veggies and grilled fish.

The hotel cat, Mwezi, appeared from nowhere when the fish arrived. Mwezi is a grey & black short-haired tabby. She was either discovered on or born under a full moon. In Swahili her name means “moon.” Nikki, the manager, told us that since they don’t really do pets in Tanzania, she hasn’t found a place that sells cat food. So Mwezi, and the 4-month old puppy they recently took in, eat people food and whatever prey they find. I overestimated how hungry I was and they served me a huge plate of food, so I snuck Mwezi some of my fish. Bribing cats with food is the fastest way to their ambivalent little hearts.

Mwezi Tabby Cat at Sazani Beach Resort Zanzibar Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black

Mwezi (moon in Swahili, named such because of his moonlight arrival) lives a good life in Zanzibar at the resort.

The power cut out shortly after I arrived, an occurrence I’d grown accustomed to in Tanzania. “Oh the power’s out? Must be Thursday. Or 7am. Or 2012.” A generator backed up the common areas (and they are installing solar panels for sustainable energy; get with it USA), but the guest rooms were not included, so they gave me a lantern to walk around with. A real deal lantern! I felt like it was 1790 (minus the enslavement, oppression and asphyxiating corsets).

My picturesque, beach-themed room held a large four-poster bed dusted in hibiscus flowers. This is why I work hard: to occasionally spoil myself with romantic rooms for one. Sexytime for me and me. The shower had cold and hot water and both were working. Thank you, Jesus! I didn’t have to shower like a teenage boy fighting the damage done by thoughts of Samantha in the tight turtleneck at school.

Room with Queen Bed at Sazani Beach Resort Zanzibar Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black

My room. The mosquito net is both decorative and functional.

The resort is right along on the ocean and my room was only tens of feet away, so I could hear the waves crashing. I thought that ocean sounds were supposed to be soothing to sleep to? I found it disconcerting and really loud! I kept waking up thinking it was raining really hard or that monkeys were beating the thatched-roof with their tiny fists. But, there are worse things in the world than being awakened by the Indian Ocean.

Beach View Room at Sazani Beach Resort Zanzibar Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black

The view from my room at Sazani

The next morning, I met up with K___ and J___ for breakfast. Our options were eggs in various forms, including omelets, as well as French toast (with jam, no syrup), toast, fruit (mango, papaya, banana, orange) and tea or coffee.

After breakfast, J___ and I strolled along the beach to check out some of the other resorts. He told me how different he felt the tourists were in Zanzibar compared Moshi or Arusha. It seemed to him that most of the tourists were monied Europeans who weren’t very friendly. So far, in my travels and residencies, I’ve yet to find people as effusively friendly as Southerners in the US. Whenever I go back to Texas to visit the fam, I am practically accosted by strangers trying to have conversations with me. Although, I must say that once you know a Tanzanian, they seem to welcome you as a member of their family. It makes for a wonderful sense of community.

I couldn’t help but notice that the majority of tourists I saw did not look like us. Rarely did I see a brown face. This is not where most locals can afford to vacation.

We discovered a large resort where J___ told me the rooms cost $3000 per night. I asked, “Do they come to your room, massage you, fluff you and hand feed you your food for that much?” Do they have State Farm powers? Could they conjure up Channing Tatum for me if I switch my car insurance? Good lord. I thought our resort (a “moderately” priced choice) was awesome; what more could there be? When we reached the resort, my eyes widened at the sight of a large Infinity pool. I’m not gonna lie, I don’t want to spend the money, but I wouldn’t mind staying there. Let me be a baller for a second. I read enough Us Weekly to know how to do it right.

Beach resort in Zanzibar with Infinity Pool Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black

Baller resort with Infinity pool

In a crowd of people lounging on chairs, posing in and by the pool or strolling about, we were the only brown faces with exception of the staff. There were three attendants by the pool and one approached us curiously, as though we were lost. I know that look. It’s that, “You don’t look like you have the money to be here, homie,” look. We told him that we just wanted to look at the pool and see the hotel. He escorted us down a wooden bridge away from the hotel, to the restaurant and bar. We  tried to get rid of him thanked him and he retreated to his station. The whole thing made me uncomfortable. It saddens me that in a country as beautiful and as rich in natural resources as Tanzania, the residents themselves don’t seem to get to enjoy it the way tourists do. It’s a luxury for many to even consider a vacation.

Based on previous experiences during my trip and conversations with others, it’s clear that there’s an assumption or even an expectation from some of the local population that white people, in general, are “wealthy” and black Tanzanians are not. Given I was quite often mistaken for Tanzanian or native of some other African country I can imagine that the staff members didn’t see me and immediately think, “American.” Though my “brazenly” parading around in a bikini top should have given some indication that I might be “different.” In addition to feeling disheartened, I felt a mild sense of guilt. Even though I’ve worked hard and struggled to get to where I am (not that I’m living a Jay/Bey lifestyle), it doesn’t keep me from feeling guilty that I “lucked into” some fortunate circumstances while others are not so fortunate. J___ and I quickly snapped a few photos and headed back to the welcoming arms of our resort. A couple of hours later, he and K__ departed and I was by myself.

Kilimanjaro Beer on the Beach Zanzibar Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black

Nothing like enjoying a cold Kilimanjaro beer and reading on the beach

I spent the afternoon drinking a beer, reading on my Kindle (“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks“, it’s awesome, read it!) and napping. I was awakened around 5pm by Bakar, the bartender, inquiring what I would like for dinner. Okay: they hold dinner for me, know and call me by my name, and personally come by to see what option I would choose for dinner – what the hell could be going on at that $3000 a night joint that’s even better? Red Bull and eightball shooters? Dancing llamas? I chose prawns for dinner.

One of the hotel staff, JK, offered to show me around Nungwi. I was grateful since I didn’t have transportation and hadn’t arranged for any excursions that day. We hopped in a Rav4 which led to me think,

Whachu think I rap for / to push a fuckin’ Rav4?

Ah, Kanye, thanks for that gem. What’s wrong with a Rav4 anyway, Kanye? Whatever. Yeezy sleeps on fur pillows and wears leather pants so much I’m concerned he may suffer from recurring yeast infections.

Apart from the resort signs dotting the sides of the roads, Nungwi seems mostly residential. I saw a lot of the same small shanty homes with laundry drying on clotheslines and the requisite goats goating around, eating trash and other goatly shenanigans. Resident were outside their homes chatting, farming, selling, braiding hair, cooking over open flames and other activities I’d grown used to seeing.

JK attempted to play tour guide while he drove. Though he was speaking English, between his accent and the use of Swahili sentence structure, I only understood a quarter of what he said. I did a lot of nodding, raising eyebrows and light chuckling when it seemed appropriate. I think it worked: I didn’t end up mistakenly married, deported or anything else that would qualify as the inspiration for a bad Lifetime movie.

Sazani Beach is on the eastern side of Nungwi and JK drove to the western side where the number of resorts increased three-,  four-fold, as did the liveliness. This was definitely the more touristy, partier scene. Locals played football on the beach and surfed while tourists played volleyball or lay about in hammocks and straw chaises. Later, this scene would take on a different view for me given a conversation I had with someone in the know. on my return. This insider told me that she’s heard of older Italian women coming to Zanzibar to pick up on hot, young local men for their personal pleasure. Intriguing and scandalous behavior salacious enough for a beach novel.

Savanna Dry South African Cider by MicGloWal on Flickr.com | The Girl Next Door is Black

Savanna Dry Cider

I stopped at a little market to pick up my new favorite cider*, Savanna Dry. In the shop, I overheard two people talking. A girl asked, “What are we going to do tonight?” Her male friend answered, “Get high!” Their voices sounded familiar and sure enough they were the same young British kids I’d met three weeks ago on safari! We exchanged hellos.

I tried to explain to JK how I knew them. “I met them on safari.” “Yes, you’re on safari.” “NO, I met them ON a safari, we saw animals. Elephants, simbas [lions]…” He wrinkled his face with confusion. I dropped it. It was very “Who’s on First?” In Swahili  “safari” means “trip” so it’s used to refer to vacations, not just animal tourism, which led to several confusing conversations while I was there.

We arrived back at Sazani shortly before dinner. I met the other four-legged resident, a 4-month old puppy, Joa Calle (I am butchering this spelling) which means “warrior” in Swahili. Joa is adorable, looks like a golden Labrador and was teething. He tried to nibble on everything: towels, rugs, my real-deal-from-the-Brazilian-headquarters Havianas… They were having a hard time finding suitable chew toys for him. Poor doggie in non-pet land.

Puppy Dog in Zanzibar Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black

The puppy eyeing his ersatz chew toy

I arrived during a slow season, so there weren’t many others staying at the resort. Later that evening a group of six people in their 40s and 50s arrived. I’m not quite sure how they knew each other. It seemed like they all knew at least one of the women, who I’d later find out is American, but has lived and worked in Tanzania for years. She seemed like the organizer. The group members were an international bunch with two being French, another man Australian, a couple of Brits and the American.

For dinner, they pre-set the tables according to party number. So, a party of two would have a table for two and the large party that arrived that afternoon, had a table set for six. Nikki, the manager, told me she’d be joining me for dinner. So sweet of her to keep me from dining alone. Small touches like this are why I prefer staying in smaller hotels and resorts rather than the giant mega-hotel chains.

Nikki is affable. During dinner I learned that she is from Ireland, in her early 40s and recently divorced with an adult child. She decided to take a year off from her teaching job to do something different and ended up managing the resort. Not a bad gig at all.  She enjoys it, though it’s been challenging trying to run a staff that’s accustomed to working on Tanzanian time, which is to say: there is no rush to do anything. The pay is also drastically less. I told her a little about what led me to volunteer in Tanzania. I also shared that having met so many people who’d taken the plunge to either work or volunteer in Africa long-term inspired me to think about doing the same.

Our conversation eventually drifted to vacation time because she was amazed that I’d been in Tanzania for three weeks. Such things are unheard of for most Americans! “Work for yourself to the bone!” “Who has time to lay on the beach; time is money!” She said, “I don’t understand why Americans don’t fight and demand more time off.” I am not the American to ask. I work to live, not the other way around. I will say that it’s never occurred to me to try to change the system in that respect. I have just accepted that it’s the world Americans live in and if it really bothers me, I will move elsewhere. Or I will figure out how to retire by 45.

Mwezi showed up just as our prawns did. Nikki and I took turns feeding her the tails. My cats eat bougie, Whole Foods-like kitty dinners, so I worried about Mwezi’s nutrition. But, what could I do?

After dinner, I headed to bed to get a good night’s sleep as I had to wake up early the next morning to go snorkeling. So far, Zanzibar was working out just fine.

*Normally, I don’t drink cider. I’ve been conditioned to think of it as a “weak, girly drink.” I am not weak, nor girly (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and can handle my beer. But, damn, Savanna Dry is good and has higher alcohol content than many beers.

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2 Comments
  • Laura
    December 1, 2012

    Sounds like a great vacation!! Two things, mildly related to your post:

    I read The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks and loved it too. Great book.

    I was listening to NPR (I’ve only recently realized that a lot of my conversations start this way) and they were talking about the hunting of African albinos in Tanzania, and how it’s a problem there. Apparently, killing albinos is common for witch doctor purposes. It’s a condition that’s so poorly understood, that people think they have magical qualities with large monetary values when sold. It was so sad, but interesting.

    • thegirlnextdoorisblack
      December 2, 2012

      Despite the intense topic, it made for a great vacation book.

      Allen mentioned the albino thing to me shortly after I arrived. I’d had no idea! I only saw one albino person when I was there. But, that makes sense since I read that most of them choose to live in Dar es Salaam, which I didn’t visit.

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