A lucky escape (CONTAINS VIDEO)

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
Trip End Mar 21, 2008

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Here is the video of our trip to Zanzibar, plus our time in Pangani.

It is fair to say that we have had a fairly sedentary month here in Pangani.  Jane works much harder than me, as usual, but barring a few bus trips to Tanga, a full-day bike ride to Coco Beach and daily walks to and from work, it's been quite relaxed.  Now it is time to shake things up with a trip to Zanzibar, the exotic spice island, former Omani slave trading centre, beach hangout and postcard setting.  

There are boats that sail directly from Pangani to Zanzibar, and most tourists either take the big fast ferry from Dar es Salaam or fly.  But all of those options would be much too simple and straightforward for us.  Instead, we opt to travel from Kipumbwe, a little-known fishing village further down the coast from Pangani.  Mr. Iddy, our local expert on everything, explains why.

"Kipumbwe is actually closer to Zanzibar so it won't take as long to get there.  I know some boat captains there who can take you to Zanzibar for cheaper than from Pangani.  I will come with you to arrange things with the captain."

Although we know that "arrange things" means "collect my commission", we trust his judgement.  And so, at two o'clock on a hot and humid Thursday afternoon we find ourselves at the Pangani ferry waiting for the bus to take us to Kipumbwe.  As our perverted African luck would have it, what should trundle around the corner, an hour late, but the same bus that, kicking and screaming, took me to Tanga on the Reader's Digest version of the bus from hell a couple of weeks ago.

"It's only a short way, right Mr. Iddy?"

"Yes, of course.  It is only thirty-five kilometres.  This should take maybe one-and-a-half hours.  Isn't it."

Like many Tanzanians, Mr. Iddy has this slightly annoying habit of finishing sentences with "isn't it", not always a question as much as a confirmation, similar to the Canadian "eh".  For example, "he will be back at three o'clock, isn't it," or "I think you are hungry, isn't it".  Now I just respond with "yes, it is" or "no, it isn't" rather than the grammatically correct answer.

The bus is over-flowing with people and we are lucky to get seats.  It is four o'clock when we get going and, to quote Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam, "It's hot.  DAMN hot".  While we are in motion, there is the slightest of breezes through the window.  This bus, however, is the mechanical equivalent of a game of American football - ten seconds of action followed by a three minute break.  Or ten minutes if luggage needs to be hauled off the roof.  Or twenty minutes if some part of the wheel falls off and some guys have to bang around randomly underneath until it is fixed.  Or twenty-five minutes if the bus reaches the spot where the sun is shining brightest into our window and there is no shade and the driver gets out to have a chat and a joint with his buddy.  Actually I don't know if he is smoking a joint but anyone who takes three-and-a-half hours to drive thirty-five kilometres must be under the influence of something.

Darkness settles like a mosquito net over this remote edge of the African mainland.  The bus limps into Kipumbwe, the end of the road, where it is greeted as the day's only traffic by the entire village swarming around it.  Amazingly, none of these people are interested in the two sweaty white people who tumble out, besides for our curiosity value.  This is probably because they have nothing to sell us - there are no taxis here, no onward buses, no safaris, no hotels.  

Kipumbwe is simply a tiny village on the beach that happens to be close to Zanzibar.  Plenty of people pass through here to take the boats to Zanzibar but they aren't wazungu - foreigners - like us.  Only the most intrepid or cost-conscious, or foolish wazungu take their Zanzi voyage from a place like Kipumbwe.  Kipumbwe has no roads, the closest thing is the dirt track that the bus hobbles in on.  Everywhere else is simply sand.  It's a weird sensation to walk around a village and feel like you are walking on the beach.  When you do pass behind the buildings and walk on the beach proper, you only feel it because the sand is a little looser.

The only accommodation in Kipumbwe is a nameless guesthouse opposite the bus.  To call the rooms 'Spartan' would be a disservice to those thrifty Greeks of years gone by.  Had our room been offered to the hardy soldiers of ancient Sparta, I think most would have gone AWOL and opted for the resort twenty kilometres up the coast.  

The guesthouse is six small rooms located around a central open-air atrium.  Sounds nice so far, isn't it.  And the rooms even have traveller-friendly names like 'Paris', 'Amerecan' [sic] and much less romantic sounding ones like 'Pakistan' and 'Irack'.  The atrium is a concrete floor with some puddles; puddles that look like water but, on closer inspection seem to be at least partly urine.  The shared toilet, a door at the side of the atrium, is simply a roofless concrete room that does not even have a hole in which to deposit anything.  Instead it seems you just pick a spot on the floor and let fly.  

Our room (Yes! We got 'Paris'!) is by a long distance the scungiest of our seven month trip thus far, including those in the hill tribe villages of Nepal or Thailand.  At least those ones seemed clean and cared for.  This room is almost exactly the image I developed of Nelson Mandela's Robben Island prison cell while reading his autobiography.  It is a six-by-ten foot concrete cube with a thin mattress laid across a raised concrete ledge.  The window, barred and partially covered by a limp, hole-ridden curtain, has mosquito mesh across it but there are so many holes in it as to defeat the purpose entirely.  The landlady notices us noticing this and says something to Mr. Iddy.

"She says they have no mosquitoes here."

"No mosquitoes?  On the coast of Equatorial Africa?  During rainy season?"

"That's what she says."

"Then why do they have mosquito mesh on the windows?"

"You make a good point.  Isn't it."

The walls look as though they were originally white but they are now a kind of blotchy beige.  Just above our bed are two dark red streaks, the type you see on a television crime scene.  In keeping with the crime scene them, hanging from the wooden beam that span the top of our room, where a ceiling would normally be, is a loop of rope.  Perfect noose material.

"We'll take it!" I say in mock enthusiasm, causing the landlady to smile and Jane to frown and mention how many insects and spiders she has counted in the room so far.  At less than $2, the room is probably quite fairly priced.

"Right, that's that sorted.  Now, Mr. Iddy, take us to Kipumbwe's finest restaurant."

Kipumbwe's only restaurant happens to be next door to the guesthouse.  It's what they call a 'mama lishe' over here, a shack with one table and a 'mama' who rustles up simple dishes over a small fire.  At the end of the meal I ask Mr. Iddy the cost of our dinners, gesturing towards mine and Jane's.  He checks with the mama and says, "Cost is three-thousand three-hundred shillings".  Even with my basic maths I can tell that he has included his own meal in this amount.  

"You know what, Mr. Iddy?  We'll get yours too.  How much is it including your meal?"

"Oh, that is including mine."

I don't say anything else but it does bug us when people assume we are buying them something, as they do often, particularly as no one ever says 'thank you'.  This is not the first time Mr. Iddy has made presumptions upon our hospitality.  He is doing us a favour by arranging our transportation but it would be nice if he let us offer to buy him dinner.

We retire to the Paris suite to admire the cockroaches while Mr. Iddy heads to the beach to negotiate the terms of our passage with any boat captains that might be going our way.  We suspect he may have been waylaid on the way back.  It is a quarter to midnight when he knocks on our door, unsteady on his feet and smelling strongly of beer.

"I found the boat that is leaving tomorrow."

"Oh good," I say anticipating a good five or six hours of sleep before an early sailing as the sun rises.  "What time do we leave?"

"The problem, you see, is that they must leave when the wind is best.  So the boat will go at two o'clock."

Bugger.  We have to wait around here until two in the afternoon.

"Hmm, two PM, eh?"

"No, no, two AM.  Isn't it."

I go back inside to update Jane on developments while Mr. Iddy heads back to the bar.

"Are you all nuts?" Jane asks me, "sailing in a little boat on the open sea in pitch black for four hours?"

"Well, they said it usually takes three hours . . . And we have a torch.  Besides we don't have much option; this is the only boat leaving today.  Hey, how bad can it be?"

I really must stop saying that.

At five to two, not having had any sleep, we walk down to the beach.  The drizzly rain has stopped and our path is lit by the incredible array of stars that covers the sky, like a bowl of sugar spilt on a black tablecloth.  I can't work out whether we see the northern or southern hemisphere stars here, being located as we are near the equator.  It looks like both just judging by the sheer number of them.  At least once a minute a shooting star appears for a brief moment, zipping across the night sky.  It is cool to think that the event we are watching actually took place a while ago but, due to the speed of light, we are only seeing it now.  Kind of like that new technology where you can record live TV and watch it later.  Nature's a cool thing.

We are envisioning a simple but sturdy engine-powered boat for our voyage, similar to the one we had for our river cruise in Pangani.  The captain will be experienced and courteous and maybe even speak some English, a rarity in these rural parts.  We are paying US$25 each for this boat ride, five times what locals pay, so we expect that there may only be a couple of other passengers and that we will have our pick of seats.

There are actually about seven or eight other people waiting on the shore.  

"Are they on our boat", I wonder out load, a little snobbishly but surprised that we are sharing with so many others.

"Okay then, have a nice trip," Mr. Iddy slurs as we shake hands on the shore.  "I'll see you back in Pangani."

We are helped into a little dinghy that paddles us out to our boat.  

"Ooh, it looks a good size," Jane says excitedly as the shadowy dhow starts to emerge in the darkness.  Indeed it does, probably ten metres long by three across, very basic - no fancy electronic navigation gizmos or safety equipment here - but strong-looking.  The design of the dhow has changed very little in over a thousand years.  It is basically a hollowed out hull with a mast and a strong canvas sail.  Our boat, we are told, varies from this tried and true design only with the addition of a small outboard motor at the back.

The dinghy pulls up and we climb aboard the boat, thinking of the best place to claim a seat.  Then we see them.  Masses and masses of human bodies, squashed together like sardines in a tin or cattle in a truck.  They are lying so silently that it looks like a massacre scene from Hotel Rwanda.  Every possible spare inch of this boat is covered by an African's body or their typically eclectic luggage.  Some people have sacks of rice, some have suitcases, one is clutching a bed headboard and frame and others have baskets full of tiny fish.

I twist on our torch and slowly pan the length of the boat.  There must be fifty people on board this vessel.  In most circumstances it would have a capacity of maybe eight or ten.  Most of them are asleep, no doubt having boarded when the boat arrived at nine o'clock or whenever, and they cringe and shield their eyes when my torch beam hits them.

Every morning on our way to work in Pangani we pass the old slave depot, a reminder of the human trade that flourished for centuries in these parts.  Now I can't help but associate this huddled mass of poor Africans with the dhows just like this one that would have transported slaves to Zanzibar as recently as one hundred years ago.  

Someone calls out something that includes the word 'wazungu'.  Passengers groan and reluctantly retract an extended leg or roll onto their side until there is enough room for us to squeeze aboard.  Jane accidently stands on the face of an invisible passenger lying on the deck but they hardly seem to care.  It has quickly become apparent that the inflated amount we paid for our passage will buy us no preferential treatment on this boat.  The two of us have exactly enough space to sit on our backsides on the deck, knees up to our chests and bags clutched tightly in the darkness.  The boat is sitting very low in the water, thanks to all the passengers and cargo.  We can reach over and touch the water from our 'seats'.

I spare a thought for our friend Peggy in Canada, a middle-aged lady who enjoys cruises.  She regales us in her tales of iceberg views from the HMS Alaska or stopping off in Caribbean ports for a spot of shopping.

"So much for our luxurious cruise then", I remark.

Jane flashes me a look that I recognise as 'yes, this may be funny later when we think about it but it is not right now'.  I respect the glance and refrain from any attempts at humour.

The boat floats around for another hour while the dinghy delivers more and more passengers.  Somehow they all manage to squeeze aboard.  The outboard motor is finally started up with some vicious yanks of the cord at around 3 AM.    

We are very uncomfortable.  Our pampered western backsides are not accustomed to long periods sitting on hard wood and our limbs and joints are not flexible enough to be in such positions.  We comfort ourselves in the beauty of our surroundings - the breathtaking night sky and its reflection on the gentle waves of the Indian Ocean - and the belief that the journey will only take three hours.

Half an hour in, the motor is cut and the sail is hoisted.  It is an old-fashioned dhow sail with that distinctive Arabic shape, like a 'D' with the top pinched, and it puffs up elegantly as the wind catches it.  The fifty-odd people and their sacks and suitcases and bed frames clearly weigh a lot and the edges of the poor old boat are barely above the water line.  Any time we hit a wave on the wrong angle, a good portion of it drenches those of us seated around the edges.  I am just wearing a short-sleeve shirt and shorts and I am soaked through after one or two of these waves.  Jane has her raincoat but that doesn't give her too much protection.  By hour two we are saturated from head to toe and sitting in puddles of salty water.  The strong trade winds that are aiding our progress are also making our wet bodies very cold.

I check my watch - 4.15 AM.  The distant lights of the African mainland still seem less distant than the distant lights of Zanzibar.  Perhaps three hours was a bit optimistic.  Wouldn't it be funny, I ponder during a shivering moment with my head between my legs, if the sail and the outboard motor both broke?  Ha!  What would we do?  There's no cell phone coverage out here, we're a million miles from land in any direction and there is no safety equipment whatsoever on board.  I guess we could all cling to the wooden bed frame.  On the positive side, the water is very warm.

Shortly after I close this internal Q&A and begin one involving a seafood buffet, there is a loud snap from above us, waking the sleeping passengers and causing panicked shouts among the crew.  The sail has snapped off its masthead and ripped.  The crew lowers it to investigate but even from where we sit we can see it doesn't look good.  

No worries, we have the outboard motor.  All heads turn to the back of the boat.  Relishing his moment to shine, the outboard motor guy pulls the string with a flourish.  Nothing.  Another tug.  Nothing.  Five more tugs, this time with a little more desperation.  Nothing.  

The captain takes charge and has a go.  Tug.  Tug.  Tug.  Still nothing.  The silence is eerie because everyone realises the situation.  We are out in the ocean, an unlit, uncovered, overloaded old dhow with no lifeboats or lifejackets.  It is the dead of night, we are past the point of no return but nowhere near the point of nearly there.

No longer propelled forward by anything, the boat is rocked by the heavy ocean waves.  Left. Right. Left. Right.  Gaining momentum on each tilt like a playground swing.  People begin to shout things in Swahili across the boat.  Children start to cry.  No one is asleep now.  

At one point we sway so far to our side of the boat that we dip under the water line and the water slurps in over the side before the boat is hurled back the other way.  The waves are splashing huge amounts of water into the already-overloaded boat.  Two guys are steadily bailing out water but the ship's only bucket cannot compete with the endless waves.

I don't mind saying that I was planning our post-capsize strategy and had gotten as far as 'scream for help'.  No one on board speaks English but the language barrier is no barrier in this situation, people's faces tell the story.   The only part of their dark faces we can see are the teeth and the eyes, and the eyes have fear in them.  It was only a week or so ago, we learn later, that a dhow sunk in almost identical circumstances and almost all its passengers drowned.  

There is a call from the bow end - the sail has been patched up.  It's a rough job but hopefully it will get us to Zanzibar.

I check my watch again - 4:30.  I'm reminded of when Einstein was asked to explain his theory of relativity.  He said something like "One minute spent talking to a pretty girl seems a very short time but one minute with your hand on a hot stove feels like forever.  That's relativity."  Well, fifteen minutes on a hard-rocking boat with too many people and no propulsion feels like a long time.  

The next two hours are not much more enjoyable.  The anti-nausea pills we popped before getting on board are no match for this kind of situation.  I can just imagine the scientists who developed these pills standing around in a lab somewhere stroking their beards and predicting the worst case scenario for their product.  One young junior scientist would propose a situation exactly like the one we are in now and recommend adding more whatever-it-is to the pill for strength.  The senior pharmacists would just laugh at him condescendingly and tell him to go clean some test tubes.  We have a lot of time for thinking about stupid things like this.

"I feel sick," groans Jane, who never feels sick.  She twists as far as she can without kicking anyone and aims off the side of the boat.  Her lack of gag reflex means she can't product anything more than some spit.  I have more success when my turn comes.  I point my head downwards but the ship is so low in the water that I don't need to.  Last night's dinner of egg and chips is recognisable even in the dark as it floats out to sea.  One post-puke spit doesn't make a clean break from my mouth and ends up blowing into the shirt of the man downwind from me.  He doesn't even flinch.

Four hours in, six o'clock, and we don't seem any closer to the glow of Zanzibar's lights than we did two hours ago.  The water continues to soak us and increase the layer of salt on our faces.  We can't lick our lips because they are covered in warm salt water and we can't dry them with anything because everything is soaking wet.  The only thing we can do is sit with our heads between our legs and assume that we are actually getting closer to Zanzibar.  

At around 7AM, hours five, it begins to get light, just as the drizzle starts.  We hardly notice it.  The man sitting next to - and I mean right next to - Jane has to pee.  Without moving, he just slides his shorts up and pisses, right on the deck, letting out a little sigh of relief.  Still no sign of Zanzibar.  The lights from the towns have gone out and the grey sky is blocking any view of land.  We are both shivering from the wind on our wet clothes, teeth chattering.  Our arses are numb and I start to get cramp in my legs.  I have to quickly stretch my legs to stop the cramp but there are people everywhere so my foot ends up in someone face or poking them in the back.

In the morning light we can see that there are probably five or six children on board.  We cannot believe how patient and well-behaved they have been.  Children from our cultures would have hardly lasted five minutes on a boat like this without screaming and whining.

Then, as we close in on hour six, the sun peeks through the clouds.  It is symbolic, the start of a new day, offering the possibility of survival, of warmth and hope of finally arriving somewhere.  The faint view of some hills appears on the horizon.  It is nine-thirty, another hour and a half, before we reach the small town of Mkokotoni, our destination.

The ship drops anchor about thirty metres from shore and a series of little metal dinghies race out to pick up passengers, at 100 shillings a head.  There is a bit of push and shove to get on the first dinghy, won by two women and a man, each bearing a suitcase.  They climb quickly on to the dinghy and promptly capsize, bags and all.  I feel sorry for them, having survived this marathon boat trip and then falling at the last hurdle.  My sympathies are not shared by the rest of the passengers, who howl with laughter, clutching their stomachs and pointing at the poor buggers like school ground bullies.  I feel most sorry for the dinghy 'captain' who must now haul his upturned boat back to shore with the prolonged guffaws of the passengers ringing in his ears, and knowing he won't get any revenue from this boat load.

It is ten o'clock when we touch dry land.  Twenty-seven hours since we slept.  Eight hours of sea-borne agony on a trip that had been described to us as three hours of romantic comfort.  There will be time for recriminations later.  For now we just want to get the hell down to Stone Town and find a hotel with a soft bed.

A young man in an official-looking outfit greets us as we wade out of the water, dripping.

"Good morning, sir, madam.  I am waiting for you in the immigration office," he says, pointing to a nearby building.  Although Zanzibar is part of Tanzania it still retains its own immigration section, mainly for ego reasons.  We had heard that it is not compulsory to register here but can save some bureaucratic hassle on departure.

"Please, sit," he says kindly when we squelch into his office.  "Fill this form, please."  

While we are completing the form he adds, "I will need to collect the ten thousand shilling entry fee from you as well."

"There is no fee to enter Zanzibar," I say confidently, having double-checked this with the immigration officer in Pangani, as well as online before leaving.

"Uh, yes, this is an administrative fee.  I have to travel here from Stone Town to meet you, so this fee is to cover my expenses."

He is blatantly looking for a bribe but we are having none of it.  

"You didn't need to travel up here.  There is an immigration office in Stone Town we could visit."

"Um, this is true but we still charge the fee."

"Well we're not paying it.  Show me in writing where it mentions this fee," we demand.  I surreptitiously take out our camera and put it on the handy 'audio recording' setting.  Our friend Mr. Alex, the corruption officer in Pangani, might be interested to hear this.

He realises he has met his match and begins to back down.  "Well, if you refuse to pay, that is fine I suppose."

"You're damn right we refuse to pay.  And we don't like that you are trying to charge us fees that don't exist.  I'll ask again, please show us in writing where it mentions this fee."

He stands and beckons for us to leave, still trying to save face.

"I cannot force you to pay the fee.  Now, I am very busy so we will go."

I have some evidence on camera and we don't have the energy to fight any more with this guy.  But when the young chap on the daladala to Stone Town tries to charge us 1500 shillings each instead of 1000, the combination of tiredness, wetness and corruption-weariness causes me to snap.  

"Why are you ripping me off?" I shout in front of the other passengers.  "It's just because we are wazungu, isn't it?  I've had it with you fucking cheats trying to squeeze money out of us everywhere.  You're a mwezi, that's what you are."  

Mwezi means thief in Swahili.  If you are robbed on the street you cry 'Mwezi!' and locals will chase the thief and literally beat him to death if you do not then intervene.  I don't really mean for this guy, already shell-shocked from my outburst, to get beaten to death so we just sit down and I blow off some steam.  We are incredibly lucky to even be here, so I focus on that instead of the extra thousand shillings the guy was trying to earn from us.
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thetembas on

Dhows of Doom
Your story reminded me of a student/faculty group that toured Tanzania with my university's biology department in the 90's. I had spent a semester in TZ but was not going on this summer trip. The professor did bounce some ideas off me since I had been there and showed me the itinerary when it was finished. The itinerary included a dhow ride from Pangani to Zanzibar. Knowing how long it took to get there from Dar by hydrofoil (and knowing what Dhows were like) I told him that if they did really try to hustle them onto a dhow in Pangani I wouldn't do it. I knew that the trip was organized by a Mzungu owned safari company based in Arusha. I figured no sane mzungu would book a group of 30 wazungu on a dhow headed to Zanzibar. It turns out that Arusha people know nothing about Dar or the coast or boats because that is exactly what they did.

A friend who did go on a trip recounted a story much like yours except they were 30 wazungu on the boat (totally freaking out and barfing all over the place) and it was the mast that broke off and sunk, sail and all. It took hours for the engine to get fixed but he said that it was the only time in his life he figured that death was imminent. I think they arrived 12 hours later. The boat with the 6 faculty (none of them spring chickens) didn't have a motor and was swept off course in a storm. It arrived 24 hours later.
I have since married a Tanzanian and that story still gets a big, big laugh at family parties when we are in Dar. You are right about the Tanzanian humor. I could totally see people busting up when people fall off a boat.
Anyway, I really enjoyed the story and will have to finish the rest of your blog. I love to read people's impressions of TZ, especially when they are so funny.

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