Lisa Thorell

© Copyright 2023 by Lisa Rhorell

Photo by <a href="">Beauregard Laura, USFWS</a> on <a href="">Pixnio</a>
Photo by Beauregard Laura,USFWS, at Pixnio. 

"Do you think it's safe for a feminist to travel to an Islamic region of the world?" I ask my husband who has traveled to over 135 countries.

"Sure. If it's 'you' you are talking about." Paul says.

"Good. Because I've discovered where the largest crabs on the planet are, it's only 30 miles South of Dar El Salaam, where we will be anyway. Oh…catch this. These are the very same crabs that devoured Amelia Earhart when her plane crashed!"

"Are there going to be shoulder-to-shoulder tourist crowds with us – like in Montmartre?" he asks.

"Nope. We'll be nearly alone."

I knew this was the deal-clincher. As much as Paul loves animals, he abhors large crowds of humans. He tilts his head to think a moment.

"Well, okay then. To the crabs, we go!"
I smile. It isn't that it is hard to get him to travel; it's that it is hard to get him to stop. We do so much traveling that some friends accuse us of Post-Pandemic "Revenge Travel." Paul's sister even ventured that one of us must be terminally ill. Climate change stress. Throw in a little species-extinction anxiety. Hell, there is some logic to outrunning the angst in today’s world.

But, in the end, our travel is all about Derek.

Paul's only son became estranged five years ago, denying his father all contact. We'd made many attempts to communicate with him to no avail. It seemed the only cure for malaise over a son's rejection was the world itself: A sunset in Serengeti, a colony of puffins skirting the cliffs of Latrabjarg, a conga line of rockhopper penguins trundling in single file on South Georgia Island, all the things that make you giggle like a little kid again. It is travel as anesthetic.

And so Africa's most remote Zanzibar, eight degrees South of the equator, beckons.

But something is triggering my feminist brain centers. Even the World Bank has voiced concern about the violence against women and children across Tanzania.

Seeing my concerned face, Paul jokes, "If they only knew the ex-Berkeley Rad Femme was coming, they'd probably arrange a bounty hunter to welcome you ."

Our aircraft sets down in Dubai for the first leg of the 21-hour plane journey. Entering an airport restroom, my brain senses ten short black pyramids moving around me. These seem to be women in burkhas, shrouded from head to toe; not even their eyes are visible.

It's midnight. I'm jet-lagged and wonder where the Western-dressed people are. I resist the temptation to go back into the toilet stall and perform a few anxiety-reducing pranayamas. But I don't want strange sounds to (further?) alienate them either. So, instead, I stand by the sink and wash my hands, averting my eyes away from the mobile black pyramid shapes. I stare down at my soapy hands for as long as possible, remembering sixteen countries have banned these burkhas. Is it Islamophobia? Is this interfering with someone's testimony of faith? Or are these bans principally a security concern? Geez, if something goes wrong in here, how do I identify anyone in here?

My neurotic reverie is interrupted: One woman my size is within arm's length, and I sense she is watching my every move. So I stare back at my burkha-clad doppelganger, noticing that this one has a long row of silver metal tassels hanging in front of her eyes. How can she see through those silver diffraction gratings?

It seemed unlikely that she hadn't encountered my kind before, a blonde American in a baseball
cap, over-confidently dressed in athletic wear. She breaks the dramatic silence.

"Is that Lululemon you're wearing?" she asks in perfect Oxford English.

I have no words.

Still reeling from my self-generated Islamophobia, I join Paul to board our next flight into Nairobi.
Our fellow passengers include a few Russian, American, and French students headed to climb Mt Kilimanjaro. There is also a group of young businessmen from Ghana returning home from doing business in Dubai.

Paul's cell phone buzzes with an incoming text message.

Mr. Hettinger, this is Sargent Brannon
at the Fort Collins Police Department
calling about the Wellness Check you
requested for your son, Derek. He did
pick up the phone on that number you
gave us and reports he is okay. He also
told us that he wants nothing to do with
you. Please let us know if you have any
other questions.

Paul briefly flashes this message at me, then hangs his head down. Five years of this. I empathy-cringe and grab his hand.

Misery sometimes visits in groups. Still shellshocked by the Text-Message-To-Alienate-All-Attempts At-Parental-Contact, we land in Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, only to find chaos: All the airport screens flash bulletins that the Russians have invaded Ukraine.

Exiting our gate, we are informed the baggage for all passengers on this flight has gone missing. An attendant collects all our passports. Again- misery sometimes visits in groups.

"This is a horror show. Do you understand what's happening?" I ask Paul.

"Which horror show? The one in the plane or the one happening right now here?"

The young Ghana business passengers suddenly erupt, yelling in a Swahili chorus at the Kenyan Air employees. We Westerners and the Kilimanjaro hikers reflexively cluster together, distancing ourselves from the incomprehensible. Something tells me I can't trust Babel on my phone for the Swahili phrase "Take a chill pill".

Finally, an airport employee tells us they've arranged a Nairobi hotel until our luggage is found. All passengers are rounded up and led to a dilapidated white van. With its engine chortling and popping, the vehicle rolls past the first checkpoint, where Kenyan soldiers nonchalantly carry AR-15s. Where's my passport? I keep thinking. Paul and I are sitting high on our seats, in the vigilant posture of meerkat sentinels. One of the young Russian climbers catches my panicking eyes. He nods back to me, an assurance that all will be well. I realize the fate of this Russian man and myself are bound together, even while our countries may be on opposite sides of a war.

But still, where’s my passport?

As our van winds its way into Nairobi, the streets become thicker with people. Freeriding on any car fender or bus bumper they can find, young men jump on and off any vehicle moving in their desired direction, even while socializing with friends. It's astounding self-organization occurring in real-time.

But the young Ghanaians are exasperated by the mass of jumping people in the streets and start a new chorus.

"Kenyan people! You are torturing us!" bellows one man to no one in particular.

"This is so A-fri-ca!" another loudly complains.

Her seat companions repeat this refrain, rolling their eyes and shaking their heads.

"Crazy Africa!" You embarrass us! "yells a short man in a crisp business suit beside me.

Paul leans over and whispers, "This seems to be an African version of the British parliament's way of vocalizing objection."

"Good observation". I whisper back. "It's charming once you realize they are apologizing to us for all the madness." We still have no passports on us.


It’s a restless night of uncertainties.

But after picking up our luggage and regain our passports, Paul and I board the plane for the final leg of our journey into Tanzania. As our aircraft approaches, the Zanzibar Archipelago – myriad dots of white and green islands are below, floating on an immense sea of sapphire. The serenity and beauty are fine antidotes to Nairobi's over-exuberance.

On the way to the hotel, layers of this region's history flash by outside our taxi window: Elaborately carved doors from the Oman sultans of the sixteenth century, coral wall forts of the early Portuguese, the stern colonial buildings of the British governors. Dominating all are the omnipresent mosques. Time has not moved as quickly here: The smell of the cloves from the nearby spice market fills the warm air, and the Arabian dhows still float in the harbor - all much as they did centuries ago.

Paul's camera is out now, its shutter clicking: Th-whip, Th-whip, Th-whip. I sigh with relief: Exotic Zanzibar may be conquering the last depressing estrangement message - at least for now.

Our taxi pulls into the driveway of the Madinat Al Bahr, the most un-Western hotel I could find on Its Islamic architecture, bedecked with columns and arches, is interwoven with scores of repeating niches and colonnades. It is as though the architect had gone mad from some math affliction where one suffers by creating infinite periodicities.

"Geez - is this Africa?" Paul mutters rhetorically.

"I know," I answer anyway. "Even the name 'Zanzibar'. That's not Swahili. That's Persian, meaning "black-skinned coast."

We stop for drinks in the Madinat's geometry-obsessed bar. No wonder there is no alcohol drinking in this culture. With only one drink, all the repeating patterns and tessellations begin to scintillate in and out of phase.

We guide our time-lagged bodies into Stone Town, the historical Arab quarters. Passing a church, we see five human-sized stone statues of enslaved Africans, all standing in a pit with thick shackles and neck cuffs. These stand on the site of the world's last open slave market, where African rulers sold their prisoners of battle to Arab traders known for their cruelty. Ninety years later, the black national revolution chased out the Arab monarchy. This monument to human violence is conveniently not mentioned in the Tanzanian travel brochures.

For the astute or sober tourist, the dissonance is not disguised by the spice market. Even as tourists spend more on a luxury room than a Zanzibari makes in one year, young men in Zanzibar's Mtendeni area are being radicalized and recruited.

The Arab massacre was a retribution scar inflicted on the original scar of African slavery. Even today, the occasional threats of Zanzibarian secession echo that neither wound has healed.

All this history, revealed physically in front of first-time visitors, can be daunting.

Distressed, I look at Paul: "You know, I am most grateful to learn the full history of the world, especially the parts that seem to have been glossed over by schools in White People Land. But, you know, we did come here to escape human complexity… "

He finishes my sentence "… and instead, we've landed right in the hot sticky center of it all.”

He pauses. "I'm looking forward to seeing the Zanzibar that existed before the humans arrived."

In the morning, we are ready to meet the boat taking us out to Chumbe Island. Eight other tourists join us, including a young Belgian couple with two sons in tow. Paul gazes a long time at one of the boys who bears a resemblance to Derek at that age.

A young woman representing the Chumbe Reserve joins us. She tells us we will be wading out into the water to meet the boat, climb a small ladder into the boat, and then be off to the island. The Belgian youngsters squeal with glee over this mini-adventure. Paul is pissed as all hell.

"Wade into the water to get the boat to the hotel?" he keeps repeating while issuing a new epithet with each step on the rocky beach. We look up and see our boat: Barely 20 feet long with paint peeling, a few boards and boxes to sit on, and a ragged bimini top. The boat is crewed by two African boys, at most 14 years old. Surveying this scene, Paul staunchly refuses to wade out.

After some diplomatic shuffling, the organizers agree to send a small motorboat out separately for him. The rest of our tourist troop pulls away from the shore on the rickety vessel, heading out to Chumbe.

I am feeling bad at not having jumped out in time to join Paul when the young Belgian woman speaks to me.

"You know, I'm in the travel industry. The East Africans seem to think this wade-into-the-water welcome is a necessary part of the experience. I think it's a kind of mischievous torture for us tourists, "She winks.

I appreciate her sympathy.

"What brings you and your family to Chumbe and Zanzibar?" I ask.

"Oh, it's a day trip. We've been here for a week scouting a B&B we want to buy in Stone Town. The pandemic was quite hard on us. Like much of the world, the Belgian government shut down everything. Lucas and I are entrepreneurs, so the forced lockdown nearly drove our businesses into the ground. We refuse to take another life-round of that! We want to be in a country where we can have independence, where our children can grow up on sandy beaches and play in the open air.

"Ah…building a new life!" I respond.

She brightens at my encouraging words. I nod back to her. After all, we are both risk-takers leaving the pandemic nest early.

"And you? she asks.

"We've come to see the largest crabs on the planet!" I explode like a 12-year-old.

The Belgian mother looks back at me unconvinced.

"Well, my husband and I prefer remote places on the planet, places where animals still roam and - no offense- but where people are conspicuously missing."

There's that long pause here that often happens when strangers meet on travel. It’s that long philosophical moment where you both marvel at the unlikelihood of both being here at the remote place at the same time.

We break the silence.

"I admire your sense of adventure!" we both burst out saying and then laugh at the improbability of it all.

The small green dot we'd seen from our boat now looms larger: Chumbe Island. Our welcome greeters are a green forest, coral walls, and an immense expanse of white sand. As we leave the boat, tiny hermit crabs join in with castanets, their small carapaces clicking against the coral at our feet. I follow the group to the Visitor Center when the speedboat carrying Paul zips by. I can hear the burst of clicks from his camera shutter.

The Directress of the Chumbe Reserve greets us as we enter the area, simple open-air structures with grass wakuti roofs all facing the sea. She tells us Chumbe's marine sanctuary is home to most of East Africa's hard coral and 400 reef fish species. Chumbe's forest houses the massive coconut crabs and other rare wildlife: the green turtle, Ader's Duiker antelope, and a rare vervet green monkey. We learn that young Zanzibari girls, some the descendants of the Stone Town market slaves, learn to swim and snorkel here carefree. Little Chumbe Island is a sanctuary protecting nature from the fully-clothed primates that float in from the neighboring islands.

Having hiked all the forest and snorkeled the reefs, our daytripper companions leave on the afternoon boat back to Stone Town. Paul and I now have the entire island to ourselves.

Evening falls, and a guide takes us to the legendary coconut crabs. The coral rag forest is dark, and we hear rustling around us. The guide turns on his flashlight wider. Like animal actors auditioning for a Japanese science fiction movie, ten formidable-looking crabs, some red, some blue, scrabble over a pile of watermelon, eating everything in their lumbering path.

I point out a group to Paul. "See? That group there. They are large enough to have dismantled Amelia Earhart's corpse and carried the parts away to eat."

"I hope you remember that and can sleep tonight," he says." There are hundreds of these guys running just below our sea bungalow."

The next day we follow Chumbe's footpaths, clambering over large coral pieces into intertidal pools overgrown with mangroves. Her baobab trees shade us. We walk the entire circumference of Little Chumbe, stopping to examine the cast of thousands of colorful hermit crabs in the 15,000-year-old skeletal remains of corals and giant clams.

I jump on a large rock to get eye-level with Paul and spread my arms dramatically, singing, "This! All of this is why we came! "I circle 360 degrees in some random Instagram moment. "I hereby appoint us the official tally people of all crabs on this island."

As if in answer to my declaration, the tiniest red and white crab appears, hanging upside down from an encrusted ceiling of calcified reef over my head.

"Ah ha! Our first volunteer!" I continue my fantasy, whipping out my Android to take the crab's photo.

Later that evening, I hop onto the sole Wi-Fi spot on the island to Google Image Search for the little red crab and match her to a known species. Sadly, the only picture I can find is a similar red crab reported in 1898 in The Seychelles. Laying in our hammock, I worry that I'm the first to notice the last member of a near-extinct crab species. I wish I had carried it back to the Directress for tallying. There are some animals, like beetles, where humankind hasn’t even counted all the different species. Some animals may be extinct before we even know they existed.

Out in the distance, we can see how frail Chumbe's world is: A private island owned by billionaire Bill Gates is West of us. To the East are the twinkling lights of nearby Fumba Town, a new masterplan community advertising human access "to live the dream of a modern, spacious, secure and cosmopolitan lifestyle on a tropical island." A new fast ferry from Dar El Salaam to Zanzibar threatens the marine sanctuary. Little Chumbe itself might have already been sold if it were not for its UNESCO World Heritage status. But for now, the crabs still rule.
Night falls across the archipelago, and the remaining purple and gold streaks of the sunset emblazon the sky. Paul and I sit close together, our bare toes nestled in the sand. We stare out from the edge of the East Indian Ocean; a place so coveted that neighboring continents fought for centuries for this gateway to access the gold and ivory of Africa.

In the fading light, I see something exquisite and rare: A broad smile beams across Paul's face. And I think - Zanzibar is a special place. It’s where young Belgian immigrants can find new beginnings, great-great-granddaughters of Bantu slaves swim free and even the sons of Oman can still dream of a return. For us travelers as well - Here precious things lost can be found again. 

Lisa Thorell was born at a young age in New York. Because she was obsessed with light and vision (and could not see very well), she studied Visual Neurophysiology at UC Berkeley. To make money, she then went to the dark side, pursuing a career in hi tech and internet marketing in Silicon Valley, a place where she also lost money. She fully admits most of her life has been a conceptual art experiment.
While Lisa has published works on scientific and technical subjects, she’s never been paid for any writing that did not include a boatload of graphs and data.

Contact Lisa
(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher