It is easy to write about white sand beaches that stretch on for miles, empty of people, dotted with thatched roof bungalows and beach front bars. Turquoise waters stretch outward and the tall, white sails of the catamarans delivering snorkelers to the reefs, the only blemishes on the endless merging hues of blues. We walk with a purpose, toes pointing north, with towering palms to our left and crashing ocean to our right.
It is easy to write about our second floor studio apartment, with mornings of coffee, reading and writing. The breakfasts of eggs and baked beans, of potatoes and onions with pineapple and mangos. The sparsely appointed room offers the basics, a big bed, replete with mosquito netting and ornate, detailed carvings, a table, two chairs, a couch and an appropriately stocked kitchen. The shower is spacious with good pressure. A sliding picture window provides easy access to our porch; its railings, lashed together with hemp cord, keep us from falling onto the white sand twenty feet below. The inconsistent wi-fi, delicate shower plumbing, and ant trails across the kitchen walls are just part of the charm, the experience. And at 23 dollars a night per person for the whole place plus access to the Coral Rock Hotel’s amenities as well, the price really can’t be beat. Tropical, beach front real estate for a reasonable price on the Indian Ocean is, well, pretty close to perfect.
It is easy to write about the perma-grin that invaded my face as we explored our new haunt several days ago. It is still there. The disbelief that I am in such a place, a veritable paradise of the stereotypical kind, is not wearing away quickly. We walk barefoot a short sixty meters to a oceanfront restaurant perched on a prominent, outcropping of craggy rock. Eons of water have slowly eroded below it, leaving it perched precariously, awaiting a forgone conclusion. Our toes wiggle in the sand as we walk past ocean views, daybeds, pools and into the covered, open air restaurant and bar of the Coral Rock Hotel. Kilimanjaros, white wines, chipsi (french fries), catches of the day, or fresh fruit juice, it is all at our fingertips. We linger over more conversation, eating, drinking, and smiling. The banter with the servers, the Captain, and the bartenders brings smiles and a new word or two in Kiswahili.
And it happens again and again as we walk the beach and belly up to another bar or slide into another table and we put down our shillings for overpriced bia. Around us is an empty paradise, the plethora of tables, restaurants, hotels, and services telling of a busier time, a time when the brightly clad Masai tribesmen who hawk their wares up and down the beach don’t know us by sight and have hundreds to offer up their sales pitch to: “jambo rafiki, hakuna matata, where are you from?” and “oh you speak Swahili” when Kate responds in the local tongue. “Jina lako nani” they ask, quarrying us about our names. Their tall, thin appearance and colorful shukas declare their presence from far away. Under a jetty, with goods laid out, or more mobile with their treasures tucked into a plaid, plastic shoulder bag, they are eager to sell you something. Bracelets, trinkets, bowls, shells, and boxes. Ubiquitous, sometimes I find it hard to not want to mess with them, maybe barter, or offer them something to buy, or just ask them to buy their blanket or shuka, which are actually the items that I am hoping to buy.
It is easy to write about these things because they make me smile.
It is harder to write about the main street. My feet hurt walking down the rough, rock strewn road. It has nothing to do with what is underfoot, not directly anyway. I am wearing sandals and the coarse, sand and salt encrusted webbing straps have worn open sores into my feet. It feels better to walk barefoot down the white sand. It is easier too. All around me children scramble and dash too and fro. They are barefoot, cruising across the mud, debris, rock, and cement without pause, their feet callused from since they could walk. Clad in a rag tag assortment of well worn clothing, proclaiming past trips to Breckenridge or their appreciation of Derrick Rose, they tear here and there, soccer balls, bikes, sticks, and trash providing the entertainment. They flash big smiles with mumbles of “jambo.” The beaches are best left for the mzungus and their soft feet. I dare not walk down these streets unshodden. We circumvent the mud puddles, giant reservoirs of the previous night’s rain, but the cars for hire and the SUVs plow right through, pushing the water and sludge everywhere. The roads are wide. Bikes, people, goats, cars, pakas, and scooters don’t really vie for limited space. It is here, I find most common.
It is harder for me to write about the contrast. Less than fifty steps from a 5000 shilling Coca-Cola the sand lined alleys are strewn with trash, the concrete walls begin to crumble, the thatched roofed cabanas give way to corrugated roofs of rusted, patched together, metal. The doors hang by a hinge and the windows are nonexistent. The smell of the fresh salt water is traded in for the scent of burning trash, its remnant smoke hanging like a smog, low over the red dirt mud. The low rhythmic crashing of the waves is replaced by the bleating of the goats; the reggae music for the roar of a diesel engine, honk of a horn, and rev of a boda boda. Fifty steps away one reality disappears into another. I walk the streets, looking for the next chipsi stand, or vegetables, or a package of Eet-sum-mor biscuits, only to find them in thinly laden rooms, with items scattered haphazardly across barren shelves. The well stocked kitchens and bars of a stone’s throw away are but a memory. Where does my money go, I wonder. Do I give it to the two men from Holland who own the Blue Reef Resort? The two who do their cross-fit work outs shirtless, in a thatched roof “gym” next to the bar, flaunting their tanned, sculpted tattooed bodies while ogling each woman that passes through? Or do I walk the streets poking my head into the small mini-markets that provide the locals with what they need? As I take the last of something off the shelf, I wonder, “is it truly me that needs it.” The beachfront bars serving up the flaming Rasta Shots with Natty and Robert are fun, and make for good conversation and people watching. But never have I felt so elitist. Even though the outsider can’t tell the difference between me and the guy next to me, I feel out of place. It is a frat scene in which I never partook. This dichotomy has me confused and uncertain. Tourism brings money, but where does the money go? Tourism brings jobs, and my prosperity no doubt trickles down, but what is my responsibility?
It is easy enough to write about the bargaining that is such a part of the culture; it is harder to write about the emotions it elicits. We give in once again and a Masai tribesman spreads his wares out on a red blanket surrounded by the white sand. Immediately two others join and start doing the same. “What about this, rhino leather, here. With a bead” one says, a broad smile across his face, his eyes hidden behind reflective, blue, wrap around sunglasses. “If you like it put it here” he says putting bowl out out for a “shopping cart.” “What about the bowl, is that for sale?” I ask, recognizing it as something that could find a spot of usefulness in my house. They are crouched, squatting, their long ubiquitous machetes, poking out of their flowing clothing, while I stand, more reserved than engaged. Next to me Kate too crouches and sifts through some bracelets, internally debating the need, the cost, and the implications of purchase. “For you rafiki” he says…then to the left of me, writes a “25” in the sand. I look at it thoughtfully. Kate softly adds “thousand” with a question in her voice. With my toe I draw three more zeros after the “25” and the tribesman nods his head. I dismiss the roughly eleven dollar cost with a wave of my hand and focus instead on some other things. Kate gets some bracelets, handing over some shillings and pocketing her finds. I return to the bowl. I ask about it again and write a “10” in the sand, once again, with my toe. The salesman smiles and pretends to choke himself with his hand. I have insulted him. He writes “18”; I write “12”; he writes “15”; I smile and nod in agreement. I fish out the two bills, hand them over and we clasp hands, smile and part ways… “Asante sana simba” he says as we move down the beach and he and his brethren load their bags up to do it all over again with the next tourist. Over and over we refute their advances as we stroll north toward Paje. Conflict wells up strong. They are just trying to make a living. Rich and poor are subjective and material wealth is not all that counts, but it does count. I am a tourist, I have money to spend. Why do I feel annoyed by these people just trying to do a job? Is it because they are interfering with my “paradise”? Is it because I feel guilty for being here, for enjoying myself and focusing on the beautiful beach side as opposed to the hotter, dustier main street? I can’t help but feel that even if they want to walk and talk and make conversation, even if they never ask to empty their bag for me, that ultimately they want to sell me something. The price tag is low, why can’t I just buy something. I know that to come here, to walk the beach idly, to stop in a bars and buy beer, one must be rich. Only I know that I don’t need more things. We try to be kind, but unlike them, the patience in me can wear thin. They though, keep walking up and down the beach, with calls of “hakuna matata, where you from?” echoing in my memory. Day after day, person after person, they keep at it. Maybe it is their insistence and their patience acts as my foil, their friendliness, their outgoing nature (natural or forced) acts as my foil as well. They talk with strangers endlessly.
It is harder for me to write about these things because they cause feelings that make me uncomfortable. It is harder to write about these things because in doing so, I make assumptions about how, where, what, etc. I do not know another’s situation. I haven’t asked what people are thinking, what they are feeling. Usually when I travel and feel uncomfortable it has to do with objective hazards: avalanche terrain, rockfall, storms, run out terrain, etc. But not here. Here I am forced to face my material wealth, my privilege and place. That I am being waited on and served by people who make very little money doesn’t always sit well. So I try to make their work less. A Kenyan friend, KG, pointed out however, that if we pay someone to do our laundry, that is helping them. It is giving them work and extra, non-expected, money. So I am uncertain. The friendliness of all whom I have encountered and the smiles of the kids as they run down the beach, or kick the soccer ball in the dirt, tell of something that I know nothing about. I want to do what is right, but I don’t know what that is. It is hard for me to write about this because even now, in a fully developed United States of America, we struggle with class inequality. We still struggle with basic human rights for all. I struggle with my being here because it seems I only help perpetuate the inequalities that friends at home struggle with on a daily basis. And all of this I sit and write from a second floor apartment with a white sand ocean view, on a laptop, with a fan blowing air all around, while not smelling a lick of burning trash I know I will experience when I step out the back door and onto main street.
In the end, what I experience is what I choose. The story I tell is one I choose. I can’t turn a blind eye to the roads, people, and places that are hidden from the beach. I can’t deny the beauty and the fun and the lifestyle that Kate and I lived for seven days. Both are real. To write about my “beach vacation” with out mentioning the pungent smell of burning trash, the glass, plastics, coconut shells, and used flip-flops that litter every trail and road, or the ramshackled houses squatting in the shadows of luxury resorts, is to not talk about Jambiani, Zanzibar, Tanzania, or Africa. It is to ignore the impact that money has on developing nations, the impact that I, as a traveler have and that how I chose to spend my money can make a difference. The differences are stark, night and day, and quiet literally, black and white.
Featured Image: Kate walking the white sand beaches of Jambiani, Zanzibar.