Honeymoon in Africa
a book excerpt by Kortnee With-a-k
CAPSIZED IN ZANZIBAR
My husband informed me that a ferry capsized just hours ago near Zanzibar killing dozens of people. We were on that very same boat just weeks ago as we started our own African Odyssey in June of 2012. Reading the details of an overloaded, overcrowded boat with inadequate exits immediately had my skin crawling. Yes indeed, I must agree that some stories are better to read from a chair; any chair. As I scanned the news looking for more information about the tragedy, I swooned and recalled our own ferryboat ride to Zanzibar from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.
A ferry or ferryboat is by definition a boat used to carry passengers, vehicles, and/or cargo across a body of water usually operating on a regular schedule and offering return services. Some ferries make multiple stops and can thereby be referred to as “water taxis”. Our ferry traveling from Dar Es Salaam, the capitol city of Tanzania, to Zanzibar’s Stone Town, was filled with people AND cargo. A lot of people and a lot of cargo. We know this because our ferry left port over an hour late after we sat watching dozens of strapping young men load the ferry boat deck with boxes, bags of grain, and various other oodles and tons of nameless stuff. And then, after all that stuff, the people were loaded. Many, many people loaded.
We quickly saw that we were the only “muzungus” on the boat, and as such, found ourselves standing out in the crowd like the white snow atop Mount Kilimanjaro just hundreds of miles away. We had been in Tanzania only a few hours at this point, but it had been long enough for us to have already learned that unless you are making a purchase, the people aren’t extremely welcoming. Typical city atmosphere; it’s the same around the globe. City busyness and hustle bustle.
No one is not rude in any way. They just aren’t smiling at us. It is clear and obvious, to us and to them, that we have landed from an alien planet. In fact, some frown at us, especially the women. The men’s glances are cool and pointedly aloof. My wispy blonde hair blowing about in the breeze seems to be a source of disdain to them or perhaps it’s the shorts and tank top I am wearing. I realize that I should’ve planned this outfit better to be heading out into a mainly Islamic culture in which most of the women are robed from stem to stern. But as I sneak glances into the crowd I realize the odd stares are also pointed at my husband. I wonder; perhaps, maybe they just don’t like muzungus? Then it occurs to me that pale skin and Christianity might not be their concern. There are other reasons for their stares at us aliens.
I, at sixty-eight inches tall, am dwarfed next to this man of mine. Weighing in at 230 pounds, standing six foot three inches tall with his long hair and scruffy beard. Bright blue eyes scanning the horizon, snapping photos of wooden boats bobbing in the ocean. It might not be me they are staring at- it’s my Nordic looking, giant Viking of a husband. Just for the literary record, my husband has no Nordic or Viking ancestry of which we are aware. He might indeed be an alien. The locals are coolly fascinated by both of us. They watch, sneaking furtive glances, while maintaining their aloof glares.
Then my Viking unwraps a Clif bar for us to snack on. A Clif bar is a unique and delicious, protein creation akin to a granola bar on steroids. We learned quickly and throughout our journey that American snacks are a rarity and largely unknown in Tanzania. As we gnaw on a chocolate brownie Clif bar I realize that the locals are wondering if these pale-faced foreigners are eating petrified dog poo.
Perched in our seats on the highest deck of the boat we finally set sail. It was five minutes of pure Indian ocean bliss. The turquoise waters, the brightest azure sky, yes, our honeymoon was happening. A romantic ferryboat cruise across an ocean on the opposite side of the globe; a dream come true. We “ooohed” and “aaahed” and snapped photos of ourselves and one another. Then came the pitch… And then the roll… And then came that screeching sound of the needle scratching across the record in our very own movie sound track.
As any person with vestibular balance disorder can tell you, the Dramamine absolutely has to be taken in advance. Way in advance. Not in mid pitch, mid roll, or mid twenty foot Indian Ocean swell. Stuffing the camera into his backpack, my Nordic Viking Muzungu alien husband glanced my way with concern at my shade of skin wondering if we were being magically transported to the Land of Oz. As the swells grew higher we quickly decided it would be best to head to a lower deck of the ship. This had worked well for me in preventing past bouts of boat barfing. As confused as my inner ears had become, I later learned it is even more confusing to gain any conclusive knowledge regarding the best place to be on a boat at this moment. The internet offers an array of disagreement ranging from top deck, middle front, and rear lowest. My own conclusion to this age old question was growing quite simple at this moment: toilet. Find a toilet. And fast. Risking treading into the realm of “too much information” this story wouldn’t be complete without more detail. So I proceed with a disclaimer and warning to any already queasy readers: please skip forward a couple paragraphs if you must. Seriously. It’s about to get ugly.
We stumbled across the ferry deck unable to keep our balance. No one is moving from their seats; they know it is futile to try. The ocean is too rough. Being an athletic warrior type, Kelly made it to the top of the steep stairs rather quickly. I, however, made the unfortunate mistake of not following directly behind him and headed across a different row thinking it would be a quicker exodus. As the ocean rolled and the people peeled out of the way of his giant lurching form- no longer white but pea green- I was tossed into the laps of several locals. They didn’t look happy as I peeled myself out of their arms gasping, “Sorry. Sorry. Oh I am so sorry.” Crazy green tourists pitching, staggering, and wondering how to apologize in Swahili, are not popular in ANY country. This definitely cannot be good for foreign relations and as I clutch my hand over my mouth, I am silently praying that Kelly’s high cheekbones and my French nose are preventing the good ol’ US of A from any bad will. Surely they think we are European or Canadian at the very least!
Kelly has managed to balance himself at the top of the stairs but is pitched forward with the next heave of the boat. I tumble forward thanking God for his super-human-husband-powers as he half carries, half throws me gently down the vertical staircase. Hanging onto the ship wall we careen around and down another level. At the next staircase it’s every man for himself and the fascinated locals stare at the two now avocado-colored tourists tumbling downward clutching the rail. Kelly glances back and somehow catches me as I am tossed helplessly down the ladder with the next pitch of the Indian ocean. We move to the inside area and find a section of floor to collapse onto.
But it is too late for me. My inner ear feels like it’s been strapped to a spinning teacup at the county fair while my insides are on spin cycle in a Maytag. “Oh God,” Is all I can manage to say. “Oh God. Oh God.” I am not taking the Lord’s name in vain, I am praying. Praying for a quick death instead of what I know is coming. Kelly is asking for the restroom. No one seems to understand him. He frantically resorts to sign language, pointing in my direction while making the universal gesture for vomiting. They finally understand. Someone points. Kelly steers me to a large metal door with a huge clamp holding it closed. He pulls open the hatch. Shoving the heavy door open and peering downward into the darkness and odor, he points into the stenching bowels of the ship. Shoving me through the door into Hades, my husband speaks one word to me, “Toilet.”
Knowing there is no other option I clamber down more ladder like stairs into the dank air with my stomach roiling to the surface. Deep in the hull of this boat are three stinking, nasty, filthy toilets. Three toilets that do not flush next to two sinks with brackish yellow water trickling out. I rush to the toilet that has the least amount of un-diagnosable debris floating around it on the floor and remove my white knuckled hand that is still clamped over my mouth. In a moment, nature will have its way with me.
Turning to my greenish alien husband, I beg for a barf bag and some clean water to drink. He doesn’t ask why. He knows why. Unfortunately he has seen me do this before. Unbeknownst to most of my friends and family, I have a horrible side effect that comes with the affliction of motion sickness. When my upper GI empties, my lower GI empathizes and does the same. I think this is medically referred to as “spewing out both ends”. Simply put, I could win an Olympic gold medal for deep gastrointestinal cleansing. I simply cannot vomit without simultaneously evacuating my innards. As I dropped my pants and sat on the filthy can, I prayed that Kelly would be quick about finding a bag so that I wouldn’t have to puke on the already grubby floor. He wasn’t.
I groaned, pressing my hands over my mouth as my bowels are defeated by the next swell of the ocean. Then I stand and turn to puke, before turning back around to cover both ends. Kelly eventually runs back down the stairs with the tiniest black plastic bag I’ve ever seen. It’s about the size of one can of beer.
“Oh God” I say grabbing it from him as my bowels continue to explode beneath me.
“It’s all they had, Baby, but I got two,” My greatest cheerleader tells me enthusiastically as he presents the second one. Grabbing it from him, it feels sturdy enough as the contents of my stomach pour into it. Plus it has convenient plastic handles on each side. This can work.
Kelly turns from green to gray as I add my own odors to the already ripe air. He leans against the wall and stares helplessly down at me, “Oh God” my cheerleader and biggest fan says. I glance up at the most empathetic person I’ve ever known and realize what’s about to happen, “Oh God!” I shout.
Empathy gasps, “I can’t do this. I need air.”
“Go up to the deck. Go. Go please. Oh God,” I exclaim as my bowels and belly twist and heave again.
I didn’t witness his retreat.
The next three hours were spent in similar fashion. Queasy Kelly bent over the boat rail staring at the Indian Ocean horizon while I squatted in a latrine begging for divine intervention while engaging in other aforementioned unmentionable activities. Being the first day of our African adventure, we both feared for our lives as we were carrying very large sums of cash. Credit cards don’t seem to exist in this country and they are choosy about the cash they receive as well; bills from certain years are not even accepted. My theory was that I was probably quite safe huddled up in a stinky toilet, defended by my own gross-ness. Kelly, on the other hand, was surrounded by locals on the deck above me, all fascinated by the huge greenish-white dude clutching the boat rail. He mused as he swooned that a plan was being hatched to toss him over the railing never to be seen again. Which might have worked out quite well since I was fantasizing about inflicting the same fate upon myself.
When we finally arrived in Zanzibar the egress from the boat was a challenge. Hundreds of people all converged on the one and only narrow exit path. At the time I was not imagining what this might be like if the boat were in the process of capsizing and I had no images of people struggling towards non-existent lifeboats. Thankfully these thoughts came only after we were safely at home weeks after our trip. Based on our own experience, sadly, the loss of life in this capsized ferryboat isn’t difficult to fathom.
In any country on any planet this is when humanity becomes inhumane and morals turn alien. Even on a ship that was not sinking, the people crowd and push their way through and past one another in an effort to evacuate the boat to enter back into their daily lives. Kelly is shocked to be pushed aside by a large pregnant woman carrying a toddler. As she squeezes past him trapping him against a wall, he is separated from me in the throng. I struggle forward still clutching my soggy barf bag. The pregnant lady pushes past an old woman who is limping. The senior citizen is pushed to the floor of the boat as she quietly struggles to gain her balance. People step over her and on top of her. Not a word is spoken as Kelly reaches down and scoops her back to her feet. He bodyguards her to the door where she falls again. A deck hand grabs her under the arms and drags the silent grandma through the tiny doorway to the gangway where she grabs the banister and continues to slowly hobble forward as though nothing ever happened. The crowd is unconcerned at what is apparently a commonplace event. Kelly is aghast. I am oblivious.
At this point all I care about is getting my feet on land and kissing the bobbling ocean vessel goodbye. After too many hours of breathing putrid air the concrete sways suspiciously under my feet. “Oh God.” I gulp more water from my bottle as we approach the customs desk. Customs? We are confused. We thought Zanzibar was part of Tanzania. According to Tanzania travel guides and websites it is. According to Zanzibar, however, it is “semi-autonomous”. Hmmm. Interesting. We find ourselves paying for two twenty-dollar visas to enter a country that isn’t quite a country. I learn that residual seasickness makes confusion more confusing but I am simply happy to be off the boat and getting another stamp in my passport. We’ll just think of this like Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands… related to the mainland but nobody is quite sure about the fine print. Hakuna Matata.
But wait there’s more fuzzy fine print and right now seems a really good time to be confused since we are being carded for yellow fever vaccination. Maybe this is because my greenish pallor has turned yellow? Should they have asked for this BEFORE collecting our money? Yellow fever, for crying out loud? Our doctor told us before leaving Texas that yellow fever vaccination is only required when entering Tanzania from a country in which there is currently a yellow fever outbreak or epidemic. Our doctor, however, did not realize that Zanzibar fancies itself to be its own country with its own rules for entry. As I glance back at the ferry with a somersault and spasm of the stomach, I glare beseechingly at the officer who is demanding my vaccination certificate while Kelly is getting our passports stamped.
“Yellow fever certificate,” she says reaching for me to hand it to her.
“We don’t have it with us,” I blurt out, deciding this is a better response than, “Our doctor said we didn’t need that shot to come to your country, Ma’am.”
“Yellow fever certificate please,” she says again.
I look her in the eye still clutching remnants of my own vomit in a tiny black bag and realize she may have a good point, “Our vaccination certificate is in our hotel back in Dar Es Salaam,” I reply gesturing back across the ocean toward the mainland.
“Where you come from?”
“Where you come from?”
“I uh…. ummm…” Why are these questions so hard and why is this land still rocking underneath my feet?
“You from what country?”
“Oh!” Now I understand, “America. Unites States.”
“You have hotel in Dar or you stay here in Zanzibar?”
“We have a place to stay in Dar Es Salaam. That’s where all our stuff is. We are here for today only.”
She sized me up. Glanced at my barf bag and then looked away.
I took this as my sign to move on. Kelly had just gotten away from the passport window and saw me giving him the “C’mon right now and hurry” head gesture. Reading my mind, like all good husbands should, he kept right on walking past Miss Yellow Fever. As we passed through the giant gates into Zanzibar from the port, I realized how grateful I was that we would be FLYING back over to the mainland that night. No more Indian Ocean ferries for me. Ever. And then a sudden panic hit me; we were scheduled (for another ferryboat transfer) to return by ferry to Dar at the conclusion of our three-week trip.