Our flight from Arusha to Zanzibar is more fun to explain (and hopefully read) than it was to experience. We arrived at the Arusha airport a couple of hours early. I suggested to Selemani, our safari guide, that we were probably OK now and he could get on with the rest of his day. He laughed and said “No way, I’ll be here until your plane disappears over the horizon”. I’m very glad he stayed with us.
The airport waiting area has a roof, no walls, and is about 50 feet from the tarmac. The seat cushions are meant for inside use and didn’t fare so well in the rain storm we were about to experience. In the passenger waiting area we found a few vacant chairs and began eating our box lunch. Then the sky opened up and it began to rain – and rain in a Big African way. Lightening, thunder, wind, and LOTS of water. The gutters (which had not been maintained) filled up and begin to overflow onto the front row of cushioned seats, then the water began to fill the waiting area. At first it was just a half-inch of water in the lower areas; but within 15 minutes the entire waiting area had a couple of inches of water flowing under the seats. We sat with our feet up, trying not to drop our lunch into the flash flood that appeared around us. The water kept rising and we decided to wade out of the waiting area before the water became too deep.
Eventually Selemani informed us it was time to board the plane. Apparently the boarding notification happens by word-of-mouth because we never heard any sort of announcement. I’m pretty sure the security station we passed through operated using the placebo effect.
As we passed through security Suzanne noticed Alex’s bag sitting by itself in a corner. She asked a guy who looked like he was in charge if they had missed getting her bag on the plane. Sure enough, he called over the dude loading luggage and made him come back and get her bag! Holy cow!
Luckily the rain had lessened some, because the next waiting area didn’t have enough roof to cover all the waiting passengers. When it was time a woman with an official looking badge around her neck told us to walk across the tarmac – being careful of the moving planes – and board our flight. As we climbed aboard I read off our seats assignments, but the pilot told us it didn’t matter, just sit down anywhere we would fit. Patrick and Alex found seats right behind the pilot. Before leaving he spun around in his seat and confirmed we were all supposed to be going to Zanzibar, told us to buckle our belts, and since the next toilet is in Zanzibar – please hold it if you have to go. This may sound funny to you, but a couple of us were still fighting a stomach bug that morning – so it was a little stressful. But we all made it without incident.
Zanzibar itself was not as relaxing as we had hoped.
Let me start with the great things. We stayed at a sleepy little resort a few miles out of Stonetown. It over looked a beautiful white sandy beach and a stand of mangrove trees and beautiful flowers. Our rooms smelled like the tropical flowers that were scattered on our beds. The resort owner and staff were friendly and helpful. The weather was wonderful and the sea water was warm and inviting.
Unfortunately, the week before we arrived in Zanzibar there was political unrest on the island due to the trial of a leader of a Zanzibar Independence movement. Most of the population on the island is Muslim, and the news has reported radical elements on the rise in Zanzibar. We were already exhausted from the safari, and this put us on edge as we arrived. We also heard of some criminal activities around our lodge the first night we were there. The next day we walked down to the beach near our hotel and found a crowd of local children playing in the surf. A couple of employees from our resort prepared beach chairs for us, then proceeded to evict the locals from 100 yards of beach so we could swim without being bothered. It was extremely uncomfortable for us to be the reason local kids were evicted from the beach. Suzanne and I did try to interact with some of the people, but those who spoke to us were selling stuff – which was just annoying. We decided that the beach was not the place for us to relax, so we spent most of our time in the common area of our resort – which was a very comfortable space.
Update to this post after we arrived home:
I severely down-played the “criminal activity” we encountered in Zanzibar in the blog while were abroad so we wouldn’t freak-out our family at home. The first night we were in Zanzibar I was awakened about 2AM in the morning when I heard someone yelling something in German from outside our room. I woke up with a start and reached for my flashlight. I knocked the flashlight to the floor where I heard it break into a few pieces. Suzanne startled out of a deep sleep and asked what was going on, a tinge of panic in her voice. The voice from the dark night outside the door switched from German to accented English and asked if we were OK. I replied “Yes. What’s going on? What do you want?” The voice said “Criminals kicked in my door and robbed me! I’m checking to see if you are OK.” From the bed I heard Suzanne say “How about the kids?” Oh my God! The kids were in the room next to ours, with their own door to the outside! A nightmare flashed in my mind – our kids violently attacked by criminals in the middle of the night while I slept in the next room. I quickly stepped over to their door and tried the knob, it was still locked. I banged on their door, and yelled for them to open up, but no one stirred from inside their room. The German voice said “If the door is locked, I’m sure they are OK. I need to check on the other guests.” And I saw his flashlight move on to the next room. I pushed down the feeling of impending panic and returned to my room to discuss the situation with Suzanne. After a few minutes we realized that the German voice was right, the kids were sleeping soundly behind the locked door and we just needed to mellow-out and decide what to do next. I scrounged around in my backpack for another flashlight and checked the kids door to make sure it had not been forced. The door looked fine, and we relaxed a little. Suzanne and I retreated to our room, and jammed some heavy wooden furniture behind the door in case the criminals came back later that night. We know they did not come back because we spent the rest of the night laying in the dark listening for anything suspicious.
In the morning we discovered, as expected, the kids had slept through the entire thing. We also discovered that the criminals had robbed the owners of the resort first, then had begun kicking in doors, wielding machetes, and robbing guests. The robbers had only ransacked one room, when, by a bit of “good” fortune, one of the owners returned to the resort after helping a departing guest with an early morning flight and discovered the robbery in progress. When the owner called for help from another local resort, the criminals escaped down the beach.
The event cast a pall over everything for us during our stay in Zanzibar. We felt very exposed and insecure, and we had moments of paranoia about our safety. The next night we changed sleeping arrangements so an adult was in each room and we agreed on the best way to barricade the furniture behind the door so we could sleep. The robbery in Zanzibar was a wake-up call for us. This was the first criminal activity we had not encountered in our travels so far, and while we didn’t intend to “travel scared”, we needed to “travel smart” and take the normal precautions to stay safe.
Unfortunately the power at our resort was out for about 75% of the time we were there, so we were not able to make much progress on the blog and school work. The owner explained that electricity comes from the mainland via an old submarine cable installed in the 1960’s. The cable was not sized for the current demand, so there are daily blackouts across the island. We experienced the same thing everywhere in Tanzania. Unfortunately our resort blew the switch that connected us to the grid, so we experienced much more power outage than the rest of the island. It took the electrician a couple of days to get us back up because he had to come from the other side of the island. So Zanzibar was pretty much of a write-off for us. We decided not to navigate the standard tourist excursions like the Spice Factory and Old Stonetown. We hunkered down to regain our energy. We slept, ate, and got healthy in preperation for our upcoming time in India.