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Whale Sharks and Shawarma

The buzz of the school grounds hushed steadily as December approached; students took exams in waves then packed up and left for the holidays. Leguminous trees with long dark pods bloomed scarlet red, gracing the school, then the flowers faded and fell. The school garden, once lush with greens, was harvested down to the last leaf of mchicha. I spent the final days of November marking biology exams, and then I was free to leave for Early Service Training in Morogoro. 

The journey to Morogoro from Iringa Town is about 6 hours by bus and passes through Mikumi National Park. I’ve been on this stretch of road a handful of times now, and it’s always a treat to see the numerous impala, mud-caked buffalo, and distant elephant herds from my window. Morogoro is set at the base of the Uluguru Mountains, and that gives the city some wild charm. My cohort and I stayed at a conference center, went to informational sessions during the day, and hurried out in the evenings to eat Indian food or shawarma. That weekend a group of my friends and I trekked through the mountains. We bought bananas from women descending from their homes, big bushels carried on their heads. The climb was steep for a while, tapering off into a winding path that overlooked a fertile valley. The slopes were textured with sowed fields and distant banana trees, and a heavy mist clung to the peaks. The pinnacle was a break beside a roaring waterfall before we made our descent.

For December break I traded the cool highlands for island life. Alongside a friend, I made my way to Dar es Salaam where we’d set off. Dar is the vibrant and bustling economic capital of Tanzania, just a coastal fishing village until the end of the 19th century. In a taxi we passed grand embassies and diplomats’ residencies along the coast in Oyster Bay; from a stately mosque a cascade of decorative flags fluttered from strings; wide barbecues were packed with seasoned half chickens, sending smoky aromas into the air. It was a change of pace from the village life I’d left, and from other Tanzanian cities, but I adopted a heightened vigilance and welcomed the stimulation for the short while I was there.

From Dar, a 12-seater airliner transported my friends and I to Mafia Island where we’d spend Christmas. We stayed on a small stretch of beach, some of us in bungalows and a few (myself included) in tents. On Christmas morning we gathered our fins and snorkels and waded out to a small wooden boat. The sea was choppy but it was a blast when the boat rocked heavily. At one point we were told to be on "stand by," so we slipped into our fins and spat into our masks. Over the course of our excursion we saw four different whale sharks. These endangered sharks are a docile filter feeding species, and the largest of the planet’s fish. Their seasonal migrations to rich feeding areas have attracted tourists and spurred an industry that has become unsustainable in some parts of the world. With our local guides and their small operation, and their rule not to touch the sharks, I felt we were being fairly responsible ecotourists. Still, I reminded myself that we were in their domain as uninvited observers. Sometimes we could see their spotted dorsal sides from the surface, wide mouths gaping; alongside them in the water they were even more impressive. At one point I met with one nearly head-on and its school bus-long body glided right by me. I would have screamed, but my snorkel allowed me only strange gurgles of excitement. The whale shark seemed graceful despite its mass, and it continued on its quest for teeny fish and plankton. It was tiring getting in and out of the boat and staying above the crashing waves while snorkeling, and heading back to shore I felt high with a combination of exhaustion and elation. There was still a whole day ahead to bake under the sun and try and wrap my mind around the fact that it was Christmas. Midday some of us walked along the beach to a nearby village to have lunch. We ate in a nook where mamas cooked over a series of charcoal stoves and we were served perfectly formed mounds of rice with beans. On the walk back we saw a man shimmying up a slender palm trunk to harvest coconuts, his feet fashioned with scraps of net for grip; and a puffer fish, washed up on shore, was ballooned in death. We all went out to sea again for a sunset cruise, drinking Safari lagers and going in for a dip. Back on shore fish were roasting over a bonfire, staked neatly on sticks like giant kabobs and tepeed over the flames. The fish was delicious, flavored with smoke and squirted with lime, and it was good to have a meal surrounded by friends and sea breeze.

The next morning the tide was high and crashing and the sky: pearly with smoky clouds. As I wrote in my journal, two guides, having finished their tasks, sat in silence with cigarettes and stared out at the ocean. Over the course of that day and the next, I finished my SCUBA certification with a series of four open water dives. Among the animals I saw were a moray eel, parrot and unicorn fish, a sea cucumber, and a brown marbled grouper. As I grew more comfortable with my buoyancy I became more observant of the texture and form of the corals. I ventured closer to the reefs and saw a nudibranch (sea slug) with lime spots and neon orange stripes, and a flamboyant electric blue flatworm. The highlight was a hawksbill sea turtle drifting and munching around the corals.

On the plane back to Dar I sat in as co-pilot, marveling over the radar and dials, and the African coastline materialized vivid green and snaked with inlets. We ferried the following day to Unguja, the main island of the Zanzibar archipelago. (Zanzibar unified with the mainland, then Tanganyika, in 1964.) At our hotel we were welcomed with hibiscus juice, and setting off to explore we let the narrow labyrinthine streets take us through Stone Town and beyond. We passed the chalky white palaces of sultans, a Persian bath, handsome mosques (Zanzibar’s population is about 99% Muslim), and a tucked away Hindu temple with candy-striped decoration. The market was filled with aromatic spices (cardamom, cloves, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric), glossy red, orange, and green peppers, piles of gourds, and the knobby roots of ginger. In one hall, butchers stood behind stalls hung with halved and quartered cows and grotesque bunches of entrails; aproned men hurried through the crowds with cuts of red meat. Outside the market building a massive marlin lay severed in half before a group of chatting men. Out of the sea and on a tarp, steely blue and bloody, it was unrecognizable as a powerful predatory fish.

Most notable for me, walking through Zanzibar Town, were the carved wooden doors with symbols of chains and lotus flowers, date trees, and the serpentine billows of frankincense. Some were faded with mint and jade green paint and some were lustrous natural wood. The older doors of Arabic influence were rectangular in frame, while more modern doors were arched. Some featured big brass spikes of Indian influence—originally safeguarding from elephants. I was struck by the intricate design of each door, a functional part of the house that both welcomes and protects.

Taking a break from the city, Ross and I took a series of local buses to the tree cover of Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park. We went to see the red colobus monkeys, endemic to Zanzibar, the main goal of my travels. After a gray morning, the sun came out and we were able to observe them up close and clearly. Some lounged in the trees in stoic pose and some rested in Buddha-like contentment. An infant peeked out from under its mother’s arm and stared with wide inky eyes, and juveniles sprang around in the grass. As a primate enthusiast, I was overwhelmed with glee watching them play and eat leaves.

At night my friends and I frequented the Forodhani Gardens, where food stands popped up at dusk and chicken shawarma glistened on spits. There was roasted fish, Zanzibar pizza, and urojo, a coconutty soup with hardboiled egg and other garnishes. Under lanterns and surrounded by a crowd of excited onlookers, young men took turns doing trick dives off the side of the pier. It was a lively place for people to gather and friends to hang out, full of buzzing energy.

New Year’s Eve was spent on the northernmost tip of the island, in the sand of Nungwi Beach. After a final day to relax, sun, and swim in Zanzibar Town, my friends and I traveled back to Dar, then back to our respective sites to start a new school year.

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