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The International Writers Magazine: Africa

It Began in Zanzibar
• Jackie Brinkman
In 1990 I decided it was time to get out of my comfort zone and see something of the world beyond Denver.  I began my trip by flying to Africa and eventually ended up in Arusha, Tanzania after having done a week long safari in the Ngorongoro Crater.


 I had met three Germans on the safari who were  backpackers (like myself),  and we set out together by bus for the ten-hour trip  to Dar es Salaam, the jumping off point for the island of Zanzibar.The bus was packed with people, chickens, and crying babies and included numerous stops in villages along the way.  Although this wasn’t the most comfortable mode of transportation, it was cheap -  we were backpackers after all!  The scenery along the way was thick with jungle and mud homes, and we were treated to the sight of Mt Kilimanjaro peaking through the clouds.  I had to pinch myself every once in awhile to realize that I was actually in Africa – my dream of many years.

I can’t recall anything specific about my diet while in Africa other than it included lots of packaged junk food.  We were constantly warned about eating the wrong foods and getting montezumas revenge so were wary of everything we put in our mouths. On the bus route we stopped in every little village and the food vendors’ outstretched arms held plates of food up to the windows of the bus hoping for a sale. We never succumbed to their good looking foods.  We also avoided the so called “purified” water which often times wasn’t purified and instead drank bottles of Fanta orange soda. 

We had also been warned not to get off the bus as cholera and malaria were epidemic in many villages.  Cholera didn’t scare me but cerebral malaria did.  Stories abounded about tourists who got malaria with or without taking preventive medicine.  One particularly disturbing story was about an overland tour from England to Africa where one of the travelers contracted malaria in the middle of nowhere, died and was buried in the bush.  All I could think of was how that person’s family must have felt not even being able to say goodbye to that family member.  

Kariakoo By the time we reached the capital, it was just us three mazungas (white people) left on the bus.  Dar es Salaam, which means the abode of peace in Swahili, sounded so exotic, but it was very hot and dusty.  We checked into a traveler’s hotel, and hardly moved the next day because we were exhausted and the heat was so intense.  Just being under or in front of a fan was the only thing we wanted to do.

We planned to arrive in Zanzibar for the Christmas and New Year holidays.  I had been reading about Zanzibar and other backpackers confirmed that it shouldn’t be missed. There were two modes of transport to Zanzibar. Flying, which was very expensive, or the much cheaper ferry.  I chose the ferry, but my German friends decided to fly.  I was on my own for that part of the trip.

While waiting at the ferry dock I met an American man who had been in the jungle for weeks with a small tour.  He told me about ordeals such as sleeping under trucks and showed me the bug bites he was covered in…he also had the compulsive and horrible habit of constantly picking his nose.  Oh my gaud, I didn’t want to touch him -  I figured he had parasites.  He immediately clung to me and decided to go with me by ferry to Zanzibar.  I guess I was glad for the company.  As a single woman traveling in Africa I was always “picked up” by other travelers, but my companions were not always those I would have chosen in other circumstances.

At the dock there were hundreds of people waiting so I assumed there would be multiple ferries.  Wrong!   It was just one.  There is no queing up to get on a boat or a bus - everyone just rushes the entrance at once.  This went against my polite upbringing, so of course the crowd rushed by me as I politely stood in the back waiting.  My “friend” jumped on and held out his hand to pull me on. I didn’t want to miss out on the trip so I took his (filthy) hand.  What the heck, I was filthy anyway, having just peed over a toilet that was covered in maggots (which happened a lot, especially when peeing in a hole in the ground).  He  pulled me and my 20 pound backpack on board.

The ferry ride was smooth enough, but one of the boatmen kept coming up from the ferry’s underbelly  covered in sweat.  I think he was bailing water.  I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t really want to think about it too long or too hard.  The crowd on board was calm and quiet, but it was so overcrowded that many were hanging off the sides of the boat.  (Years later one of those boats sank because of overloading.  All on board died.)

All of the hard traveling was worth it because Zanzibar was fabulous!  It exuded a feeling  of calm and peace.  Things moved slower and  people seemed happy.  I reunited with my German friends  and we stayed in a hotel run by an East Indian woman who fed us well with lots of rice and vegetarian spicy foods.  On Christmas day I made a pilgrimage to an old Catholic church that had been one of the first slave trade auction markets in eastern Africa.
zanzibar The basement of the now Catholic church had bunkbed-type shelves where African slaves were stacked  on top of each other and where Arabs would  come to pick their favorites for purchase.  I couldn’t imagine stacking live bodies on top of each other in the dampness and moldy smelling dirt-floored room. 

The altar where the priest celebrated mass had been the auction market stage where slaves were auctioned off and then shipped to Saudi Arabia.  Most didn’t make it, dying of malnutrition and disease.

Zanzibar is actually comprised of an archipelago of several islands that have been referred to at various times as the “spice islands.”  To see for ourselves, we visited a spice farm which produced Zanzibar’s main exports - cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and black pepper.  We also explored  an island where giant tortoises wallowed in the sand, some weighing over 200 pounds and some over 100-years-old.  This same island had been a leper colony and the smokestacks where the bodies of dead lepers were burned were still standing.  On  New Years  Eve we went to an isolated area on the other side of the main island  and stayed in primitive huts.  At midnight, in the dark and under a full moon, we sang and danced with the local women. 

And so, I began my 1991 in Zanzibar.  It was an unusual beginning to a new year and one that I will never forget.  

© Jackie Brinkman June 2014
jackiebrinkman59 at

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