We landed in Zanzibar after a three-hour layover in Nairobi on schedule at 1.35 am, robbed by darkness of that all-important first impression.
As we descended, the island lights below were random. No street lights running in straight lines. No straight lines at all. It was as if the ground were mirroring the sky, the lights on the houses below like random stars masked in part by a canopy of trees.
Walking down the aeroplane steps, we met a wall of humidity that reminded me of deplaning in Dubai all those years ago. That was a major shock to the system; this was the same. With Zanzibar a major player in the East African tourism business, I was expecting spit and polish and a modern steel and concrete look to it all. Thankfully, I was disappointed. The airport is basic. Very basic. The terminal reminded me of a very poor cousin to the small terminal in Valdez – double doors in off the runway. That said, there is a new building, finished three years ago, all chrome and polish but it has yet to open. Pole pole. Slowly slowly. This is how things go in Africa.
We handed in our medical forms having ticked no to the plethora of ailments we might have suffered in the previous 21 days. I’d given myself a clean bill of health, not wanting to admit that I’d been pretty out of it over Christmas. I didn’t fancy what might come if I checked the boxes for fever, chills, and feeling faint. I knew it wasn’t Ebola even if we were arriving from Kenya. But I didn’t have any great confidence that I looked as healthy as the form said I was so I admitted to having had a headache and threw in my bursitis for good measure. A nice lady took our temperature, pronounced us well, and we moved on to the next challenge.
An anxious official tried to corral the new arrivals into an orderly queue and failed miserably. He gave everyone two forms to fill in for immigration, leading to a battle for pens and desk space. The queues made little sense. It didn’t seem to matter whether we were foreigners or citizens, whether in transit or staying a while. We were directed at random to a window, regardless of the signs overhead. One window to apply, a second to pay, and a third to be stamped. One male passenger had a hissy fit when we skipped the queue (as he thought, but we were only going as directed). When a senior officer came from the VIP lounge, took our passports, and pulled us aside, yer man jumped the queue in protest. Then a second guy had minor hysterics because the first guy had skipped the queue and we’d been pulled aside. But the official directing traffic motioned for them to calm down, smiling his pole, pole.
Visas vary in cost depending on your passport – a lot like Istanbul. Ireland was half the price of the USA at $50. A transit visa is $30 but we couldn’t get ‘ah sure we’re on our way home next week’ to work. And like Istanbul, the card reader wasn’t working, something said with little conviction. Cash only. The almighty dollar is widely accepted and perhaps preferred to the Tanzanian schilling.
Duly photographed and fingerprinted (which was a tad discombobulating) we made our way through customs and then outside, through the tunnel, to find our driver, Osman, waiting for us. It was dark. And it was hot. And it was humid. My considerate self kicked in and I was all for hurrying, conscious that he’d been waiting for over an hour for us to get through the health check, immigration, and customs. But he smiled and cautioned: pole pole.
We drove the 30 km to Zanzi Resort, our home for the next few days. It’s right-hand drive, like Ireland, but they drive as they do in Georgia – when the road allows. It was too dark to see much of anything. I suspect that daytime dilapidation was masked by corner lights and the shadows of the moon. It all looked quite surreal.
Osman navigated the potholes, the sleeping policemen, the dips and crevices that lined what goes for a road. At one point, when we turned off to Zanzi entering Kama village, the recent rains had washed out part of the road. As the minivan made its way carefully through the water, I was reminded of a drive from Pretoria to Wakkerstroom in South Africa where the potholes were deep enough to swallow a VW Bug but the only way to check the depth was to forge the water.
About 3 am we arrived at a locked gate, opened with a phone call by the Masai security guard. In the resort, Mudi met us, took our passports, and showed us to our villa. No. 5. Too wound up to sleep, we had a beer by the pool, our private pool, and resisted the short-lived temptation to sleep on the outdoor bed, to be lulled asleep by the sound of the waves and the bush babies. Airconditioning won out.
In that 30-minute drive, I revisited Dubai, Turkey, Alaska, Georgia, and South Africa, and caught a glimpse of what we might see in the next few days. I went to sleep happy.
When I awoke the next morning, this is what I saw.
This is our home for the next few days, the school of pole pole. I plan to master the art of taking things slowly.