Exactly a year ago, I was sitting at a table on a white sand beach in Zanzibar. Traveler’s cafe, a nondescript shack tucked away from the main street offered decent wifi and a limited menu but it’s true treasure was its breathtaking view of the blue-green waters of the Indian Ocean. Cool breeze. Salty air. A perfect day with a brilliant blue, cloudless sky.
We had checked out of our hotel at noon. With six hours to spare before the ride to the airport, we decided to chill on our last day in the beautiful archipelago that had captivated us with it’s old-world simplicity and slow pace.
My daughters and I had spent three nights in the Stone Town area and taken excursions to pristine beaches. We had even watched dolphins at sunrise. But on this last afternoon, every half hour or so we ordered cold drinks, assorted appetizers, pizza, and then dessert, a not-so-subtle ploy to prolong our stay at this secret vantage point in paradise.
A group of children frolicked in the sand, at times oblivious to our curious stares, at others, hamming it up for our benefit. They alternately immersed themselves in the water and dried themselves by running around. Sometimes they chased or buried each other in the sand, performed cartwheels or laughed loudly to draw attention to themselves. I looked up from the book I was trying to half-heartedly read, aware that the vista that lay before me was one that I would always remember. Every so often I would look up and shake my head at the sheer beauty of the moment.
Our family trip to Tanzania had been intentionally split into two parts. Husband had left a week earlier to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Having no illusions about my trekking abilities and with the girls not showing much interest in joining him, we chose a different itinerary. We planned to visit Zanzibar and time our flight out to Arusha to coincide with his return from the weeklong hike. During the hours we lazed around at the cafe admiring crystal clear waters lapping against the shore, he had been swiftly descending after having climbed up to the summit of the tallest freestanding mountain in Africa.
Africa had been a surprise. Flying in from ultra-modern Dubai airport to the rustic facade of Zanzibar airport had transported us not just across continents but also across decades. With just one money changer and one other shop selling sim cards, the terminal was a crumbling relic of the previous century, untouched by industrialization. We cleared immigration, eager to show proof of the very expensive yellow fever shot that we had taken but the men at the counter didn’t bother.
The parking lot was crowded with cars and drivers with name cards. We dragged our respective suitcases but couldn’t spot the taxi the hotel was supposed to have sent. I felt a prick of irritation and fear. I had traveled solo to many countries, but not to this continent. I headed back into the terminal hoping to make a phone call but the lady at the money changer had closed her shop and left. I glanced at the taxi rates printed on a wall and quickly agreed on the fare with a driver, eager to reach the hotel before dark.
The streets were wide and clean, but deserted. Small stores, resembling ones in rural India dotted both sides. Within a few minutes we entered the narrow streets of Stone Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We passed The Park Hyatt and DoubleTree hotels that looked nothing like their counterparts in other parts of the world. Even their trademark signs were understated, painted on the sides of elegant old colonial buildings. Our hotel, Maru Maru, was located besides the old fort. To my surprise, the taxi dropped us off in front of an Arya Samaj temple with its name printed in Gujarati script.
We spent two days walking through bustling, litter-free streets where we were greeted with namaste and kem cho, words of welcome in familiar languages. In every interaction with the locals, we found the men to be polite, not pushy and the women, gentle and always happy to flash a wide smile. The hotel was a repurposed heritage building with a cosy, welcoming ambience with wood furniture and teal upholstery. The room had four poster beds equipped with mosquito nets and the bathroom had modern fittings. The rooftop restaurant had a fabulous view of the ocean and a live band in the evenings.
Later that night when our flight took us towards the second leg of our trip, we were excited about the safari in the Serengeti, but we were sad to leave beautiful Zanzibar.
When Google helpfully reminded me of the first anniversary of that calm afternoon in a remote cafe on the coast of East Africa, I was glad that I didn’t know then that a year later we would all be sheltering in place within our homes, with only memories of past travels to keep us company.
Photo credit Ranjani Rao’s personal archives