Big Party Ever

Trip Start Dec 28, 2009
Trip End Jan 12, 2010

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Flag of Tanzania  , Zanzibar Archipelago,
Thursday, December 31, 2009

The final day of 2009 had a terrible start, an even worse finish and an incredible in between. Like a gourmet sandwich made with moldy bread. Or something like that.

We woke up to a similar situation to what we went to sleep to, a room with less than fully functioning power and no running water. We were pretty upset that we had paid so much for a room that didn't have the basic amenities we were promised, but figured we'd at least have a decent breakfast. Well, our pancake breakfast consisted of slices of bread and jam, but only if we asked nice for the jam. The girls wanted to demand some of the money back. I was too exhausted. The manager came over, and when it was clear we couldn't get anything form him we asked for the owner. The owner was not clearly seeing our side of the logic; that we'd paid for a room with power through the night and running water, and that when his guest house didn't deliver either of these services, we should get some of that money back. First he kept referring to me as my friend. But he was not friend, guy. He was also visibly drunk -- at 9 in the morning. Not hungover. Not woke up still-drunk from an excessive night. Just drunk. He then turned insulting, insinuating that we weren't smart enough to figure out how to turn on a faucet. We reached a point where we had yelled as much as we could've yelled, cursed as much as we could've cursed, and clearly nothing was going to happen, so we gave up.

To prove his point that there was running water, the owner had instructed one of his workers during the argument to go turn on the generator. To prove we could turn on a faucet, before we left, the girls decided to turn the water on. Sure it was petty. Sure it was immature. But I supported it. And it was especially effective since once of our issues with the room was there was no drainage in the bathroom. What the girls did that I didn't approve of, however, was take the room key. There was no way this was going to end well. This became abundantly clear as we set out in the Stone Town maze in search of Jambo Guest House. We wandered, made blind turns, asked directions, and couldn't quite track it down (later in the day, after we'd checked out, we walked out of Jambo to our right, went through one alley, and popped right out to the adjoining alley that led to Macha; if only we'd known). In the time we got lost and wandered the streets, the owner had managed to track us down. We insisted that we didn't have the key. More to the point, I insisted we didn't have the key, because I was unaware that they'd taken it. But it was me making the point, because I was the man in the group.

When we were walking around the port in Dar es Salaam the previous day, the girls had already noted the immediate difference it made to have a guy in the group. Touts didn't bother them nearly as much in general, and them as girls in particular. We noticed the same trend when we complained to the manager at breakfast that morning. Even though the girls were doing all the talking, the manager was looking at me the whole time (sensing this, I tried to look angry and menacing, but between being jetlagged, exhausted, and well, me, I also sensed this wasn't working). But the whole gender role thing took on a new level when the owner started threatening that he'd have no problem hiring a few guys to beat us up until we handed over the key. By us, I knew he meant me. At this point, I was less than thrilled with Rachel. Eventually after he tracked us down a second time, Rachel gave in and threw the key down the road. I turned down an alley to stay out of the way until the owner and his little lackey friend walked away. I turned around to find the lackey and Rachel gripping on to each other's shirts getting ready to fight, so now I got to step back in and throw him off her (not to imply that Rachel couldn't hold her own, but well, gender roles). And that's how my first full day in Tanzania started. Couldn't have drawn it up any better.

After cooling off at Jambo -- and I mean this only emotionally because it was already 90 degrees outside and the guest house had turned off the generator for the afternoon -- we headed back out toward the waterfront. My jet lag was clearing, I finally had some Tanzanian currency, and I'd even bought my sweet as Obama 'towel,' things were starting to look up. And it was New Year's Eve dammit. We settled on Silk Route, one of the best Indian restaurants on the island, for lunch. It was open-aired and breezy, and the dining room, up on the third floor, overlooked the ocean. Could you ask for much more? I ordered the vindaloo, and this terrified the waitress. She gave me this concerned look, like I had just volunteered to go bungy jumping sans rope. 'Very hot,' she said. I insisted it was fine. She asked again, in a tone that implied, we're not held responsible if you die while eating it, and it's a distinct possibility. I assured her it was fine. The look in her eye changed to one of, I'm going to get a good look at you, for this is the last time I will get to see you living and breathing. Needless to say I was psyched out. While pondering my final moments on Earth, Kate, my airplane buddy walked in. She wasn't interested in coming up to Kendwa Rocks with us for New Year's, but she did make for a fun lunch companion just in case this was my last meal.

After surviving my brush with fire-breathing vindaloo we got in touch with Mr. Hilali to organize a ride up to the beach for our New Year's bash. We rode up with Hilali's brother as our driver and his Kenyan friend Bran (spelling?). Kendwa Rocks, on the northern part of Zanzibar, couldn't have been more than 30 or so kilometers from Stone Town, yet the ride took well over an hour. And while an hour-plus in a car might not sound terrible on its own, well... About 20 minutes into the ride Hilali's brother turned on the radio. What he put on wasn't so much music as someone 'singing' without instruments in an endless loop. Beyond a couple basic words, I know no Swahili and it all sounds like gibberish, but I could tell there was just the same couple lines repeated over and over again. It sounded like someone was holding a gun to Alvin the Chipmunk and making him sing their demands over and over again. It was excruciating. I managed to fall asleep for a few minutes, and when I woke up, it was still going. By the time we reached the beach, the 'song' was stuck in my head, and I didn't even know the words. At the entrance to the beach at Kendwa Rocks was a poster advertising 'Big Party Ever.' Kendwa Rocks is known around Zanzibar for its Full Moon parties. And there just happened to be a full moon on New Year's Eve. And a lunar eclipse. Therefore, big party ever.

We got to the beach early enough so that we could enjoy some sunshine, and ya know, beachy stuff, before the festivities kicked off. Rachel and I tossed the frisbee around for a while before we decided the time was beer o'clock and it was time to go to the beachside bar. We ordered a couple Kilimanjaros, sat back in the cushioned tables and looked out at the idyllic beach in front of us. The sand was a perfect white, the water calm and blue. The water around Zanzibar usually turns shades of blue you've never seen seas turn, but since it was a little cloudy and the sun was starting to go down, we missed out on this. We watched as the traditional Zanzibari sail boats sailed in front of the setting sun; it was then we had fully decided we'd made the right decision to come here for New Year's.

I'm not sure what it is, whether I just loosed up when I'm out of my hometown, or there's something about being overseas that emboldens me and I can talk with absolutely anyone without inhibition. Throw in a steady dose of Kilimanjaros, and I was starting to make friends everywhere. Before the night started getting crazy, the bar put on an acrobat show. It was wild. The show was five guys tumbling, flipping, contorting in unimaginable ways. It seemed like their mode of transportation was the backflip. I can imagine them at home and tucking and rolling and flipping their way from the couch to the refrigerator to get a drink.

Once the show was over, there was not much left to do but 'prepare' for midnight in earnest. It was at this point that Rachel decided to finally show me the wonders of 'Slamball,' the drinking game her and her fellow Peace Corps volunteers had developed. Slamball is best played in forward-thinking places like Tanzania where beer is served in half-liter bottles as opposed to the piddling 12-ounce midgets we get in the States. You play on a long table, with two people in each team. Each person puts a full bottle on the corner in front of them and you alternate throwing the bottle caps at the bottles. If you hit your opponents bottle, your teammate drinks until the other team finds the cap and places it back on the table. It's the rare drinking game that rewards you for doing well. And here's the funny thing about drinking games: foreigners, the English in particular, mock Americans for their obsession with drinking games. Well, they mock up until the point they see how much fun the games are and then they desperately want in. The first game we played, I teamed up with the German guy who was sitting at a table opposite us while we ate dinner. He dinged his cap off a bottle and I started drinking. Rachel and her teammate scrambled under the table to find the cap, a nightmarish mission since we were playing on a beach in the middle of a crowd. But this instance, the cap somehow rolled back to our end of the table and they didn't have a clue. I managed to put down the half liter, and with frightening ease. I had thought that was a skill that I had gladly lost upon graduating college, but apparently tonight, the Kilis would be flowing a little too easy.

As you might imagine, things became a little less coherent after a couple games of Slamball. The bar announced its midnight countdown with only five seconds to spare -- in that they started the countdown at 5. It was actually about 12:07 when they did it. Even something fairly straightforward like midnight arrives at Tanzania time. I collected a few New Year's kisses from the English girls who were friends with my second Slamball partner along the way. These weren't sordid, get-a-room kisses, just friendly smooches, and that was sort of indicative of the atmosphere -- there were a lot of people and a LOT of alcohol, but everyone was out for a chilled, good time. Some time shortly after the countdown there was a small fireworks show on the beach. Another pleasant surprise from Big Party Ever.

From there, it was just general, slightly blurry mayhem, mixed with taking breaks to lie on the beach and stare at the full moon with Rachel. The bar decided to play Jay-Z's Empire State of Mind no fewer than four times over the course of the night, and every single time anyone who was around who knew I was from New York would go absolutely crazy. The next morning when we were talking about this phenomenon, Rachel remarked that it was random that they would play a song about New York so much. Of course, buried in a tiny village in Mozambique she had no clue that this was one of the most inescapable songs going. Later on in the night I ran into Chris and his gang of crazy Norwegians, completing my circuit of reuniting with all my airplane buddies. The last really memorable part of the night was the one that put a bit of a damper on the whole thing.

While this story didn't sound like it was setting up for a terrible finish, there was one. At some point while we were on the dancefloor our eyes started to water and it became difficult to breathe. A rival bar had managed to sneak past all the security detail the hotel had hired and launched a pleasant little pepper spray attack. There was a mad rush up the beach to get away to try to recover our breaths and get the sting out of our eyes. Once it subsided everyone returned to the bar and the party kept going. But it was shortly after returning that I realized that at some point during the chaos and confusion my camera had disappeared from my pocket. Whether someone reached in and got it, or it just fell out, the result was the same. And this was the annoying thing: not only was this a brand new camera, that I had bought specifically to take on safari and already had taken several nice pictures from Cairo, Stone Town and the Big Party Ever mayhem, but I had brought a backup camera that I wasn't particularly fond of solely for the purpose of having for nights out. I had even said I didn't care what happened to that one, it could get dropped, get beer spilled on it, stolen. Then of course it was the new one that went missing. Cruel, cruel irony. So after some scrambling and only getting through a few of the phases of loss (I didn't hit acceptance this night), we decided to head back to Stone Town at 4:30 with the party still at full swing. And that's why there are no pretty pictures to accompany this entry.
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