Nungwi

Zanzibar, Tanzania

Walking through the quiet streets of Dar Es Salaam, I reach the ferry terminal within 15 mins. When I arrive I am surrounded by a mob of people, including many locals offering to carry my luggage or pointing me in a million different directions. I eventually find the right counter and pay for my ticket, after which I am directed around to the entrance gate outside. Through the gate I am led to a luggage area where my backpack is given an official-looking airport-style label, and a porter then picks it up and carries it off to the X-ray screen. On the other side he takes it all the way down to the end of the pier, where it is loaded into metal cages along with the other oversized bags. Both the porter and man stacking the bags demand that I give the porter a tip. No wonder so many people were willing to help me with my bags.

 

I sit in a rudimentary, open-air waiting area, following others around me as we are called onto the boat in waves. A mandatory wash of the hands and temperature check then I'm on board, with no idea where to go. The first section is air-conditioned, and I know that's for VIPs only, so I keep walking. I remember the man who sold me the ticket saying I should sit up top, so I head up the stairs. Locating an empty seat I tentatively sit down, worried I'll be berated for being in the wrong section. No one bats an eyelid. Not long later we set sail.

Pulling out of the harbour, I gaze out over a fairly uninspiring city skyline. We pass an area crowded with locals and dhows, ready to cruise out to nearby islands. Most of the dhows are carrying food and other goods, and a dozen or so passengers balance precariously on the edge. I'm fairly certain my trip will be much calmer than theirs will inevitably be. 

 

Getting off the ferry the process is just as haphazard.  I follow the crowds to the arrival hall, with no idea where to collect my luggage. As I'm walking towards an exit an immigration officer slaps her hand on the counter to gain my attention. It seems only foreigners have to stop at immigration, and looking around I am the only foreigner in sight. I present my passport and arrival card, get stamped through then ask about luggage. Just wait by the grey concrete slab, she says. One by one the metal cages arrive, and the bags are dumped unceremoniously on the slab with no sense of order. It doesn't take long to realise that you just go and pick up your bag when you see it. No one is checking who they belong to, so I'm not sure why I had to go through the whole procedure of obtaining a luggage tag and marking down which cage it was in.

 

With my bag safely in hand I exit the building, where I face a wall of taxi drivers. Not wanting to make this a lengthy back-and-forth haggling battle, I ask the first man who speaks to me how much it will cost to go to Nungwi. His quote of US$40 is much cheaper than the online reviews and Lonely Planet suggested. A half-hearted effort at negotiating sees it come down to about US$30. Deal.

 

The drive is a relaxing, traffic-free one, where I pass more palm trees than houses. There are frequent signs for spice farms, one of the main tourist attractions on Zanzibar, but no visitors in sight. The sun is out and there's a cool, fresh breeze. It definitely feels like island life.

 

Ninety minutes later we reach my villa in Nungwi. They have just reopened after being shut for four months, and I am their first (and only) guest. I quickly discover the hotel doesn't have Wi-Fi, because they didn't want to pay for it while no one was here. I express my disappointment and the manager says he will try to sort something out for me. It doesn't really matter right now, as the whole village is currently (and hopefully temporarily) without power.

The receptionist tells me that many restaurants are closed, and most tours aren't running right now (or are extremely costly, e.g. US$150 for a half-day snorkelling tour). That's fine by me, I'm not here to hit all the tourist attractions. He walks me down to the beach, only a couple of minutes away. Other than a handful of touts, it is completely empty. Seaweed blankets the shore, so it's not the most attractive setting, but the sound of water gently breaking on the sand puts me into relaxation mode straight away. 

I find an open restaurant sitting above the beach. There aren't many veg options, so I settle for hummus and a salad, plus a piña colada. The cocktail comes first - it's 2.45 p.m., and it's the first thing I've consumed all day. It's not as creamy or heavy as a regular piña colada, which makes it awesome. The hummus is extremely garlicky, but just as amazing. The salad is average.

 

After another sublime piña colada and an hour spent staring out over the water, I make my way back to the room to do some much needed washing. It's a bit of a challenge with the dribble of water flowing from the tap, but at least I have clean clothes to wear home on the plane.

 

Later in the afternoon I take a quick walk through the village, becoming completely lost in the narrow, sandy-floored laneways. I pass school kids running around, locals weaving fishing nets, and empty cement houses but no semblance of tourism or tourists. As the sun begins to set I make my way out to a different section of the beach, where there are several soccer games in action. Dozens of dhows are moored in the shallow waters, and as I walk along several pull in with the day's deliveries.

 

Passing empty resort after empty resort, I come across what looks like the most popular bar in Nungwi (with a total of 10 patrons). They have happy hour, music and tourists - the first I've seen all day.  I go for a passion fruit colada, which is nowhere near as good as the pineapple version, then a margarita, which is made with lemon rather than lime, so it's disappointment all-round. At least the sunset is decent, displaying a full spectrum of colours that is reflected on the water's surface. The only vegan option on their menu is a vegetable spaghetti with Asian sauce, so I go ahead and order it. The vegetables are severely lacking, the Asian sauce is oil with cracked pepper (is that even a sauce?) but the chilli I request on the side is a spice bomb. It's the best thing they have served me here.

 

Back at the hotel I am ecstatic to discover that the Wi-Fi has been connected, giving me some serious Netflix action before I fall asleep.

I sleep longer than expected, resulting in my plan to go for a run before breakfast being thwarted by the arrival of my food. A plate of tropical fruit, chapati, a sugary donut (that I don't touch), fried vegetables, and a gigantic fresh coconut (I swear there is a litre of water inside) is served on my front porch. The coconut alone is worth the running delay. The cook sits on the adjacent porch, staring at me the entire time I am eating. It's a little unnerving.

 

After my feast I lounge around for a while, catching up with the online world, before I feel I have digested enough to go for a run. It's mostly cloudy and quite warm, but at least it's a dry heat here, nothing like the humid sauna-esque conditions found in Hong Kong. I haven't run a step in three and a half weeks, and my body knows it. My hamstrings, calves and hips all tighten up, despite the slow pace and flat bitumen. Along the way I receive a few "jambo"s, and many curious stares, but in general I am left alone. 

 

Once I shower (in the pitiful excuse for a shower - water pressure seems to be non-existent here) I head to the local minimart, primarily to buy water. I spend 20 minutes in the two aisle store, amazed by products such as vegan mayonnaise, tahini, and hot and spicy microwave popcorn. If these ingredients can make their way to this tiny little town, why was I served almost exactly the same meal for my first three weeks in Tanzania? In the end I leave with two bottles of water, crackers, peanuts and a bottle of cider.

 

Following my shopping trip I walk down to the beach, where I find the tide has come right in. Seaweed still lingers over the shore, or what's left of it. Several times I'm forced to walk across resort properties to escape the water. None of the resorts have guests, although guards still patrol the empty sunbeds.

 

The further east I walk away from my accommodation, the less touristy Nungwi becomes. Less resorts, more open space, and many dhow makers applying their craft. I stop to watch them for a while, but their repetitive actions are less than enthralling.

 

I manage to walk for half an hour without meeting a single tout, which is an improvement on yesterday's encounters. Maybe they all take a break in the heat of the day. It must be difficult during this time for the hawkers to make a living, when there's few foreigners and little to offer. I only spot a handful of tourists across the morning, but no one is swimming in the water or sunbathing on the sand.

 

Other than the two restaurants I visited yesterday, I find just one other place open along the entire beach. It feels more like a bar than restaurant, but their menu board displays several veg options so I wander in. Sitting down on a cushioned couch, my feet digging into the sand, I gaze out at the sea while listening to African-influenced reggae music in the background. Bliss.

On the way back to the villa I work my way through the labyrinthine town, following sandy path after sandy path, not knowing where I'll end up. Many of the houses are just concrete shells, their centres a rubbly mess. Washing is hung up along walls, while young children play imaginary games in the "streets". I purchase a decent-sized bag of popcorn from a street seller that costs me all of 20 cents. I've never encountered such a popcorn-friendly country.

 

When I arrive back at the villa I am informed that yet again there is no power - the whole town is undergoing maintenance. The heat is oppressive and I can't bare to stay in the room. I sit on the porch eating my popcorn and drinking my cider (which took an eternity and a blood offering to open without a bottle opener), waiting for either A/C, internet or happy hour.

 

Happy hour comes first, although I end up at a bar without happy hour. This time I head south along the coast towards the next village, Kendwa, which is dramatically different to Nungwi. There are still the guestless resorts, occasional touts and soccer matches on the sand, but the seaweed has almost entirely disappeared. The beach actually looks inviting here, although I'm not tempted to go for a swim. Instead I stop in a bar, ready for a cocktail, but I'm informed they have no fruit, therefore no cocktails. Fruit is coming soon, they promise me. While I wait I stroll back to the bar I ate lunch in yesterday, indulging in my third piña colada there, plus ordering baba ganoush. It is just as garlicky as their hummus, but otherwise superb.

 

Once these are consumed I walk back to Kendwa, where several other tourists have congregated. The bar now has limited fruit options, so I make my way through their restricted menu. They are definitely not the best cocktails going around. Clearly there is only one place I can get a decent drink around here.

After my dinner of coconut curry (hands down one of the best meals I've eaten in Tanzania), I walk back to the villa along the empty beach, the sand lit up by the unoccupied hotels, listening to the sound of the water lapping on the shore. I wish I could have my own private beach every day.

I receive another impressive breakfast spread, compete with a humongous fresh coconut. The rest of the morning doesn't live up to this promising start. I check my flight to ensure it is departing as planned in two day's time. It's not. The first flight is delayed by five hours, the total trip time is five hours longer, and I have an extra stop in Dar Es Salaam. Frustrating.

 

The skies are dark grey but I wander down to the beach anyway. I pass a whole herd of cows, lying down lazily on the sand, a sight I'm sure I've never seen before. I decide to venture south again towards Kendwa but the high tide blocks my path, so I return the way I came. When I reach the cows I discover they are standing up, perfectly still, all facing away from the water. Their choreography is impressive.

 

A light rain starts to fall but I carry on, hoping it's just a passing shower. It progressively becomes heavier, forcing me to turn into the village. After zigzagging through the lanes and replying to the many "jambo"s I receive, I eventually reach the villa, damp but not soaked. The rain continues on and off for the next hour, after which I give up, pack my bags and leave for the capital of Zanzibar,  Stone Town.

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© 2017 Kim Matthews. All Rights Reserved

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