Updated: Nov 28, 2020
I love venturing off alone. I can do what I want, when I want to. I can sleep late or get up ridiculously early, without having unfair expectations on anyone else. I can spend two hours at the Sistine Chapel, sitting in silence staring at the ceiling (getting a stiff neck). Or I can dash through the war section of a museum in record time checking out the bits I find really interesting while steering clear of the ones that I find terribly sad. I can glam up, or sloth down, depending on my mood.
Some time back I ventured off to Zanzibar on my own for a couple of days before meeting up with a friend. Being from an African country, I expected that Tanzania would be very much like my home country. So I didn’t do much research. I spent about twenty minutes online booking the cheapest backpackers I could find on a beach and the easiest plane journey possible – which meant two flights
When I arrived Julius Nyerere airport in Dar es Salaam, I realised that I’d seriously misjudged my destination. From awkwardly being escorted to the front of the queue at customs for being ‘umzungu’ (a white person) while desperately protesting that I was ok to wait. To being protected by a kind Masai warrior for five hours while waiting for my connecting flight. I discovered that the cultures of this Africa were even more diverse than the ones I was used to in my little bubble.
I eventually touched down in Zanzibar, exhausted. I hadn’t managed to find any vegetarian food since leaving Johannesburg. My mobile phone had run out of battery and there were no charging points available. I was desperate to get to my backpackers to lie down, let my family know I was alive, and stuff my face – not necessarily in that order.
I collected by baggage and excitedly left the airport expecting to find my driver outside holding a sign with my name on it. No driver arrived. No one called my name. After some time they locked the airport. I found myself stranded, outside, in a third world city, on my own. After begging and paying a ton of dollars to the friendliest looking man I could spot, I headed into the night, trusting my safety in the hands of a complete stranger, in an unlicensed taxi. He dropped me off and disappeared.
I marched into the hostel reception, furious and famished. A very cool, dreadlocked guy warmly welcomed me and told me that sadly they had no available spaces left and that I’d have to come back tomorrow. It was 11 pm at night. I hadn’t eaten for 15 hours. And they’d left me at the airport to die – despite my pre-booking and paying for transport.
My firm, assertive voice came out. Which resulted in a banana leaf hut on the beach, with a shared bathroom and no electricity. It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than the alternative.
The next morning, I awoke to the most beautiful surroundings I’d ever seen. I forgot about the heinous day before – or the fact that I still hadn’t eaten. I took a cold shower and ventured out in my bikini, sarong and a string top to experience everything. I strolled along the beaches, played cricket with some kids, braided a local girl’s hair and collected shells.
While walking through a small village, taking pictures, an angry grey man approached me shouting at me to put some clothes on. “Young men will sex you” he said. And few days later I would understand this warning better.
Our wonderful tour guide Haji, arranged for his (rather good looking, strong) friend to take us to our respective transport routes. For just $15. He dropped my friend at the harbour to take the boat and then headed to the airport to drop me. Along the journey he pulled off the main road and stopped in the middle of nowhere. Then he launched himself at me. In an amorous way. I screamed and punched him. Hard. So hard that my ring dug into my finger and I started bleeding.
He looked stunned and shook his face a bit. I took a moment to review my options, given that this was physically powerful guy. Instead of opening the door and running (which a large part of my brain was suggesting I should do) I shouted “airport” and then started waving my British passport around, following with “if you hurt me the queen will find you!” I’m still not sure why. Once regaining his faculties he drove me to the airport and helped me with my luggage. I cried hysterically, feeling scared and violated.
It took me some time to realise that he’d misinterpreted by clothing choices, friendliness, single status and affection, assuming that I was in Zanzibar to experience more than the sights and sounds. The strict Muslim culture on the island meant women shouldn’t travel alone, or have uncovered elbows, knees or hair. I was giving off signals which lead to completely incorrect assumptions.
Though a lot of the experience infuriated me and offended my Western ideology, it taught me a lot about being mindful of other cultures. It showed me how deeply self-absorbed and ignorant I was. That I’m privileged to live in a country where I’m mostly treated as equal. It showed me that right and wrong are, to some degree, set by the environment we’re in. And that we should never put our ‘better’ Western beliefs on others. It also taught me to research my destinations in more detail but to keep travelling, experiencing and being. Because despite having moments of ugly, this world is a breathtakingly beautiful place.
First published on 1 March 2016, on highheelers.blogspot.com. Used with permission.