Monday, September 16, 2013

Zanzibar: Scuba Diving, Nungwi Style

Since the idea of lying on the beach for 6 days sounded like complete torture to Kent, we decided to spend our time scuba diving. Kent and I met in Bocas del Toro,Panama, when he was getting his PADI certification and I was getting a tan. So since it was my first time scuba diving, I had to spend hours studying via an online course before we arrived in Zanzibar. But that meant that as soon as the taxi dropped us off at the hotel, I was ready to start my practice dives. There were several dive shops to choose from in Nungwi and we decided to go with Diving Poseidon, a dive shop run by an Austrian couple, Bernhard and Isle, and located about 200 steps from our hotel. Since Austrians were in charge, we knew it would be an efficient, by-the-book operation.

Learning to scuba dive was a little overwhelming at first. On my first practice dive, in only about 10 feet deep water, no one told me that I needed to equalize my ears (by plugging my nose and blowing out) so I spent the rest of the day feeling as if I were still underwater. Luckily that cleared up and by the second day I was ready for the open water.  Unfortunately it was raining so in addition to the sea being very choppy and cold, the underwater visibility was poor. Not that I was really focusing on what I could see- I was too preoccupied with trying not to crash into coral or the sea floor as I struggled to learn how to inflate and deflate my oxygen vest, which controls buoyancy.

I’m not gonna lie, after the first dive I wasn’t sure I was digging this new hobby.  But by the second dive of the day, I got slightly better at balancing myself and was able to enjoy more of my aquatic surroundings. 

We even saw a tiny little seahorse that was getting dragged back and forth along the ocean floor, just like me. Over the next few days we saw amazing underwater creations: highlights included neon colored fish of every shape and size, iridescent blue parrot fish, spotted sting rays, lurking eels with beady eyes, a giant stripped devil fish, coral reefs of bright lime green, red and pink, and giant lipped grouper. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Zanzibar: Langi Langi

Though I had my initial worries about the hotel, we ended up loving Langi Langi.  For about $100 a night, we had a clean, cool room with a view of the lush garden. An added pleasure was the fresh picked hibiscus flowers that our maid would leave on our bed at night. We enjoyed breakfasts of fresh fruit, crepes, red beans, fried fish and pastries made with touches of cardamom and cinnamon served every morning on the hotel’s wood deck overlooking the beautiful turquoise water and white sand beach.

This deck was our favorite place to hang out. During the day we lounged on lawn chairs, safe from the cat calls from the beach boys, and escaped down rickety stairs into the water for a refreshing dip.

On days with a low tide, we would watch the local women wrapped from head to toe in bright, colorful fabric wade out into the water to catch sardines, octopi, squid, clams and mussels. They would then bring it back on shore directly below the deck and divide up their share. One day I decided to capture the moment digitally but as soon as I focused my camera, one woman pointed up and they all started shouting at me. I immediately put my camera away and for the rest of the trip, only took their photos at a safe distance.

A majority of the nights in Nungwi, we ate dinner on the Langi Langi deck as well. We had developed a friendship with the hotel owner and chef Rasta because every day he would recommend a new place for lunch (as the Langi Langi closed for lunch during Ramadan) and we would come back and tell him it was crap. Rasta had a very quirky sense of humor and a sign posted in front of the restaurant described his restaurant’s values and his observations. Kent's favorite was "here a pizza will come faster than the police."  His food combined Indian and South East Asian spices and was delicious, if you didn’t mind waiting at least an hour. We my favorites were the octopus curry and stuffed tuna with shrimp sauce.  

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Zanzibar: The Beach Boys

We jumped right into exploring the island by taking a walk along the beach to the Mnarani Natural Aquarium. It was along this path that we had our first glimpse of what we would be dealing with for the rest of our 10 days in Zanzibar.  It started harmlessly enough; a man approached Kent and I and welcomed us to the island. “Where are you from?” he asked interested. “U.S.A.,” we replied. “Oh, Obama,” he enthusiastically responded. “Yes, Obama,” we said, excited that he viewed this as a good thing. Obama had just spent a few days in Dar Es Salaam under the guise of brokering a trade agreement between Tanzania and the U.S., but local sources said it was because they had just discovered a new oil reserve in the country and U.S. businesses wanted the rights to it.

                “Where are you going?”
                “To the turtle sanctuary”
                “Oh, I will take you there.”

After having been given a stern warning from our hotel concierge about scams from the “beach boys,”a.ka. men who spend their days walking up and down the beach trying to get tourists to purchase a sunset cruise, snorkel trip or a carved piece of wood, we realized this was not simply a friendly local trying to make us feel at home. “No thanks,” we said and tried to walk faster. “Hakuna Matata,” he repeated as he too quickened his pace. We tried various ways of reasoning with him that we didn’t need his services and after 10 minutes of this painfully awkward stroll, we approached the aquarium. Luckily he just shouted to something to his fellow beach boys and left us on our way. 

Beach boys in Nungwi, Zanzibar
After that experience and several more like it, we began to learn how to be polite but firm in our refusals. However the beach boys put somewhat of a damper on our beach experience because we could not enjoy simply laying on the sand because we would be interrupted every 5 minutes with someone trying to sell us something. Unlike Mexico or Italy where beach vendors are also rampant, these beach boys were incredibly smart. If we tried to speak a language other than English to pretend that we didn't understand them, they answered us right back in that language. One young boy was able to speak to me in German, Italian, French, Spanish and Chinese (well for this one I just took his word for it). Another beach boy came very close to convincing Kent to buy something by guilt tripping him about how tourists come to the island and patronize foreign owned hotels and restaurants that don’t actually support the local economy, where the average monthly income is about $50.    

Beach boys walk up and down the beach in Nungwi

Besides selling various products and services to tourists, our dive instructor also enlightened us to the fact that many also sell themselves. Many European women come to Zanzibar specifically for trysts with the beach boys and he said that Zanzibar is to women what Thailand is to men. Indeed, we saw many older women walking along the beach at night accompanied by beach boys or rolling with them in a hidden cove on the beach. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Zanzibar: Touch Down in Tanzania

Arriving in Zanzibar, an archipelago off the coast of Tanzania, after a 20 minute flight from the international airport in Dar Es Salaam, it was clear that we were on a different continent. With some anxiety we finally encountered the driver that was to escort us an hour north to the beachside escape of Nungwi.  As we passed through the hustle and bustle of the main town, the buildings began to morph into single story, one room structures made of mud, wood and stone finished with coconut palm roofs. Children played in the red dirt among chickens, goats and cattle while mothers and grandmas stood guard over roadside stands selling small tomatoes, limes, peppers, lychee, squash, cassava and root vegetables. Behind the villages and through the trees we caught the occasional glimpse of the deep blue ocean in the distance.

Even in the taxi, I was still a little trepidatious about this journey Kent and I were undertaking. We’d read that Zanzibar is an incredibly conservative island and local women cover themselves from head to toe in respect to their Muslim faith. On top of that, we would be in Zanzibar right in the middle of Ramadan, where people fast from sun up to sundown. We had no idea what to expect from the locals and I was a little worried about not being able to wear my cute new bikini as I frolicked on the beach, yet excited that I might lose a few pounds from the fasting bit.

The town of Nungwi was not the idyllic fishing village I had imagined exploring. Instead it consisted of single story cement structures, many without doors or glass for the windows. Merchants sat languidly in the heat watching our taxi closely as we drove along the dirt path. Finally a sign spray painted onto a scrap of metal announced that our hotel, the Langi Langi, was this direction. It can never be a good sign when a sleeping establishment cannot afford proper signage but my anxieties were quieted as soon as we pulled into the drive way and saw the beautiful white washed buildings with dark wood beams, lush tropical gardens and big blonde Scandinavian tourists milling about.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Odyssey in Odessa

While I've been home sick almost the entire month of August with African parasites and a random sinus infection, my boyfriend has been having an incredible time living with a host family in Odessa, Ukraine, studying Russian. I think I am especially jealous for two reasons: 1) I had an amazing summer studying abroad in Granada, Spain, living with my host mother, Esperanza, and 2) He is living on the beach and its sunny and warm. His host family is making a strong effort to make sure Kent feels like one of the family and gets the entire post-Soviet experience. His very adorable host little brother sometimes even bursts into the room when we are having our nightly FaceTime conversations. I try to ask him different questions in English but he just responds with "Da." I think my Russian is improving as a result. I now know that "Da" means "Yes."

Kent studies Russian for several hours each day and then goes on excursions organized by the language school to learn about the city's history and culture. Part of that cultural experience includes meeting with local young women to practice speaking, which he doesn't think is weird. I am totally comfortable with it though, its not like Ukraine is known for beautiful women like Mila Kunis and Milla Jovovich or that The Guardian called Odessa one of the principal hubs for the international sex trade.

Odessa is currently the third largest city in Ukraine with a population of roughly one million. Although the architecture of the city is European with Art Noveau, Classicist and Renaissance buildings, Kent says there is no escaping the fact that it was a former Soviet territory and that people there make do with very little space and money. For more information on what to see and do in Odessa, Travel and Leisure just happened to publish this piece in July.

I look forward to putting my Russian (pretty much the use of the word "Da") to use when Kent and I rendezvous in Ukraine's capital city Kiev this weekend. Kent is interested in visiting Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 explosion and fire that released large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere, spreading over much of Europe. It was widely considered to have been the worst nuclear power plant accident in history and is a mere 110 km from Kiev. Never one to pass up the opportunity to wade through nuclear waste, I said that I will accompany him on his quest. We shall see if we are able to make it there and back.        

Monday, September 2, 2013


Willkommen meine Freunden! That's about the extent of my knowledge of German after having lived here for over a year. Actually, that's not completely true. I can order a liter of beer as well, which can be a little dangerous given that's the equivalent of 4 beers in one glass. Nothing I couldn't handle in college, but I am getting a little older now...So I designed this blog to share all of my experiences in Europe and elsewhere with my friends and readers (who in all honestly are probably just my friends) before I forget the names of all the incredible places I've visited and the pieces of memories I've collected. Prost!

Some Germans with awesome hats at the Volksfest 2012