Copyright 2023 by Lisa Rhorell
Photo by Beauregard Laura,USFWS, at Pixnio.
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
If it's 'you' you are talking about." Paul says.
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!"
there going to be shoulder-to-shoulder tourist crowds with us –
like in Montmartre?" he asks.
We'll be nearly alone."
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.
then. To the crabs, we go!"
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.
in the end, our travel is all about Derek.
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.
so Africa's most remote Zanzibar, eight degrees South of the equator,
something is triggering my feminist brain centers. Even the World
Bank has voiced concern about the violence against women and children
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 ."
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.
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?
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?
seemed unlikely that she hadn't encountered my kind before, a blonde
American in a baseball
over-confidently dressed in athletic wear. She breaks the dramatic
Lululemon you're wearing?" she asks in perfect Oxford English.
have no words.
reeling from my self-generated Islamophobia, I join Paul to board our
next flight into Nairobi.
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
buzzes with an incoming text message.
Hettinger, this is Sargent Brannon
the Fort Collins Police Department
about the Wellness Check you
for your son, Derek. He did
up the phone on that number you
us and reports he is okay. He also
us that he wants nothing to do with
Please let us know if you have any
briefly flashes this message at me, then hangs his head down. Five
years of this. I empathy-cringe and grab his hand.
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
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.
horror show. Do you understand what's happening?" I ask Paul.
horror show? The one in the plane or the one happening right now
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".
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
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.
still, where’s my passport?
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.
the young Ghanaians are exasperated by the mass of jumping people in
the streets and start a new chorus.
people! You are torturing us!" bellows one man to no one in
is so A-fri-ca!" another loudly complains.
repeat this refrain, rolling their eyes and shaking their heads.
You embarrass us! "yells a short man in a crisp business suit
leans over and whispers, "This seems to be an African version of
the British parliament's way of vocalizing objection."
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.
a restless night of uncertainties.
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
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.
camera is out now, its shutter clicking: Th-whip, Th-whip, Th-whip. I
sigh with relief: Exotic
be conquering the last depressing estrangement message - at least for
taxi pulls into the driveway of the Madinat Al Bahr, the most
un-Western hotel I could find on Booking.com. 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.
- is this Africa?" Paul mutters rhetorically.
know," I answer anyway. "Even the name 'Zanzibar'. That's
not Swahili. That's Persian, meaning "black-skinned coast."
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.
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
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.
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.
this history, revealed physically in front of first-time visitors,
can be daunting.
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… "
finishes my sentence "… and instead, we've landed right
in the hot sticky center of it all.”
pauses. "I'm looking forward to seeing the Zanzibar that existed
before the humans arrived."
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.
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.
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.
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.
am feeling bad at not having jumped out in time to join Paul when the
young Belgian woman speaks to me.
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.
appreciate her sympathy.
brings you and your family to Chumbe and Zanzibar?" I ask.
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
a new life!" I respond.
brightens at my encouraging words. I nod back to her. After all, we
are both risk-takers leaving the pandemic nest early.
come to see the largest crabs on the planet!" I explode like a
Belgian mother looks back at me unconvinced.
my husband and I prefer remote places on the planet, places where
animals still roam and - no offense- but where people are
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.
break the silence.
admire your sense of adventure!" we both burst out saying and
then laugh at the improbability of it all.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
hope you remember that and can sleep tonight," he says."
There are hundreds of these guys running just below our sea
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.
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."
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.
first volunteer!" I continue my fantasy, whipping out my Android
to take the crab's photo.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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