Monday, April 30, 2007

We Tried To Open A Can Of Whoop-Ass And Failed

Brady flew back to Nairobi early this morning, so I’m on my own for the rest of the trip. I was sad to send my partner in laziness back to the fast-paced rat race of his dust-covered village in Ukambani, where a tall pile of work awaited him. Uh…wait. I was sad to send my partner in laziness back to a land where, like Zanzibar, nothing is ever an emergency. Ever.

A van came to pick me up this morning to go to Kizimkazi, on the southern tip of Zanzibar, where we would take a boat out to try to see some dolphins. The “dolphin tour” has been talked down in several travel guides and magazines including the Lonely Planet for being rather unfriendly towards the dolphins themselves. Apparently a lot of boats aggressively chase down dolphins and generally disturb them in their natural habitat just so tourists can get a glimpse of them. Despite all the shortcomings of the boat we took, I have to say that at least our operator wasn’t of the “hunt and chase” variety.

The British couple turned up on the same tour (the male half of whom, incidentally, resembled Gael Garcia Bernal), as well as a Swedish expat living in Zambia, her 4-year-old granddaughter, and an Indian couple from Dar es Salaam. The van dumped us at a beach, where we were greeted by two different vendors renting out the exact same snorkeling gear. The rental fee was included in the cost of the tour, so we didn’t really care whose snorkeling gear we used, but obviously the two vendors did, because they raced each other to our van as we pulled up so that they could abduct as many of us as possible and lead us to their shop.

After we selected our snorkels, a third guy came up and said he was renting life jackets. The couple from Dar had already paid for theirs, but the rest of us nearly started a riot.

“We’re not paying for life jackets. They’re required in the boats and they should be provided for free,” British Gael said.

“I’m certainly not paying for a life jacket for her,” the Swedish woman said, pointing to her granddaughter. “She’s four years old and they’ve got to give her a life jacket. She can’t go out there without a life jacket.”

“Where’s our captain? We demand to talk to him.”

“It’s illegal in this country to operate a passenger boat without life jackets,” we said, not actually sure if it was true. “If anything they should be included in the cost of the tour, but we’re certainly not paying extra for them.”

In typical fashion, the life jacket scam man refused to acknowledge what we were saying, and presented a bunch of lame excuses instead, hoping we would get confused about the real issue and just shell out the money.

“This is my shop,” he said. “I sell life jackets. You must pay for them. Only 2000 shillings, I give you good price.”

The boat captain came over and tried to further explain the incompetence we were currently witnessing. “I have life jackets on my boat,” he said. “But they are broken. So you must pay this man.”

“Can’t you swim?” the captain asked us, as an afterthought.

“Yes, we can all swim, but it doesn’t matter. If the boat capsizes we’ll need life jackets,” we all said in various impatient tones. “And the girl can’t swim.”

“So you pay for a life jacket for her.”

“Do you understand that without providing life jackets you’re running an illegal operation?” British Gael said. “Are you even licensed? Show us your license.”

“Ah, my friend,” the captain said. “I have left it at home.”

“So what you’re saying is, you’re not even licensed to operate a motorized boat, and you want us to pay for life jackets because you’re breaking the law.”

“This is my shop,” the life jacket man said again. “If you want life jackets you must pay.”

“That’s wrong and illegal, and if you don’t provide life jackets for free we will all get back into the van and go home,” British Gael said, looking at the rest of us to make sure we’d back him up.

We all nodded, looking back at the van to make sure it was still there. It suddenly dawned on us that we hadn’t been given receipts for the tour. The van could have driven away and if we ever found them they could have denied that we ever paid for anything.

The captain finally offered to let us try the broken life jackets in his boat. If we could get them to work, we could use them for free. So, um, how exactly do you break a life jacket? And even if you manage to break one, how do you end up breaking several, all in the same boat?

All of us, except for the couple from Dar, were ex-pats living in Africa. We were all too familiar with how things work, and more often, don’t work. So we should have known better.

In fact, I think we did know better, but we were hoping that since there was a group of us that our demands might have some weight, as opposed to, for example, when I’m the only person complaining on a matatu stuffed with 25 people, even though everyone else is thinking the same thing but not willing to do anything about it.

It was low tide, and the beach was really long and flat, so it took us ten minutes to walk out to the boat. The water was knee-deep in some places and full of sea urchins. The Swedish girl had taken a liking to me in the van, and waded next to me, chatting away.

I’ve developed a reflex where if I see a young kid it means I have to speak to them in Swahili. So when this girl starting talking to me, I couldn’t stop marveling about the not-so-remarkable fact that a four-year-old was speaking to me in English.

“My Mum took me on a safari. There were a lot of zebras. We saw lions, and giraffes, and then we went to the zoo and saw monkeys,” she said. “Do you like elephants? Elephants are my favorite.”

“See those black spiky things in the water, under all the rocks?” I said, excited that I could use adjectives and adverbs.

“Yeah?” she said.

“Don’t step on them,” I said. “They’ll sting you and it’ll hurt.”

“Are they alive? Are they animals?” she asked. God, this girl was brilliant!

“Yes, they’re sea urchins,” I said.

There were several guides who were escorting us out to the boat. As we got to one area with a lot of sea urchins, one of them asked me, “Do you want me to carry your baby for you?”

This is one of the great mysteries of East Africa. It’s easily assumed that this blond, curly-haired, blue-eyed girl must be my daughter. If I travel with a male colleague who is white, I’m often asked if he’s my brother. And the lady at my bakery thinks Neetha and I are sisters.

“You think we resemble?” I’d ask, thinking maybe she was using the term “sister” loosely, like when touts at the stage say, “Eh, sister, why can’t you buy some sunglass?”

“Yes, you are so similar,” she’d say.

“But she is tall and dark brown, and I’m short and light brown,” I’d say.

“It is true,” she’d say. “But the face is the same.” Apparently the way Harold looks like Kumar.

Anyway, we finally arrived at our boat, a motorized wooden dhow covered with a makeshift tarp which, we surmised from the large UNHCR logo stamped on it, used to be a tent from a refugee camp. We climbed inside the dhow, and guess what? No life jackets. I know that deep down none of us were surprised, but we were indignant nonetheless.

“You lied to us,” we said. “You said you had life jackets in the boat. You’ve been sailing around without life jackets. That’s illegal.”

British Gael got out of the boat. “I’m going back to the beach. I won’t go without life jackets,” he announced to the captain. To us he whispered, “I’ll go rent the damn things.”

The captain and some of the guides scrambled to a neighboring boat and found some life jackets. “Here! We have some! We will bring them.”

This seemed to appease British Gael enough that he got back into the boat. We left the captain to collect life jackets and settled into our seats. We inspected two of the life jackets, which were indeed broken – all the buckles were missing. They were also archaic models that were counter-intuitive to put on and possessed questionable flotation properties, but we practiced putting them on until we thought we might be able to do it in an emergency.

“Hey, they only brought us two life jackets,” someone observed. There were five of us. “Hey, where are the other life jackets?”

It was too late. Our captain had already sped us out to sea.

“You know,” British Gael’s girlfriend said, “I’m actually licensed to operate this type of motorboat.”

“Well, you’re more qualified than anyone else here,” I said.

“That’s worrying,” British Gael said, as we turned to look at the captain, who had passed the duty of operating the boat to a boy who had inexplicably joined our trip.

“It can’t be more worrying than the fact that a 12-year-old is now driving our boat.”

We motored around for a long time, and the beach kept getting farther and farther away, until it was just a thin white strip in the distance. Occasionally we’d pass other dhows carrying tourists hoping to see dolphins, and our captain would ask if they’d seen any. Almost an hour passed and we hadn’t seen a thing, except for a few snorkelers we mistook for dolphins. Disappointment was starting to set in. After the life jacket fiasco it would have been nice to at least see some dolphins, even though we knew that dolphin sightings weren’t guaranteed on these trips.

“This is not a dolphin tour at all,” the Swedish girl sighed, verbalizing sentiments the rest of us were reluctant to say out loud, the way only a four-year-old can get away with.

A few minutes later, we finally spotted them. There were several groups swimming together, in threes.

“Jump in!” our captain said. We looked at each other hesitantly. They had explained that this was what we were supposed to do, but it didn’t feel very natural to jump into the deep blue sea with a bunch of very large dolphins whose size could have easily rendered us dismembered if they so chose.

One by one we lowered ourselves into the water. The dolphins barely noticed, and with our fins and snorkels we were able to keep up with them with a leisurely kick. Despite their size, they are incredibly docile. I think it helps that their mouth is shaped into a perma-smile.

Dolphins are more amazing and beautiful up close than anything you’ve ever seen on National Geographic. It was breathtaking to watch them frolick in the sapphire water. We could almost touch them, but they were obviously acclimated to random snorkel-wearing people wanting to do just that because they stayed just beyond arm’s reach. I followed one group for awhile. It was a calf and two adults, and they would dive deep, then swim in an upward spiral with the calf in the middle. Dolphins are apparently rather fond of log-rolling underwater. Another group let me follow them for a short distance, then the trailing dolphin decided to take a crap in my face. Nature wins again.

It was one of those experiences that could never last long enough. I see why this tour gets mixed reviews. The experience of swimming with dolphins is unmatched by anything else, but after awhile I did feel like my “following” became “chasing.” As with any opportunity to see wild animals in their natural habitat, there is obviously some human encroachment on their territory and habits. But like any experience that exposes us to new things – people, animals, art – we gain an appreciation that we wouldn’t otherwise have. People who have the rare opportunity to swim with dolphins, I think, inevitably walk away with an appreciation for the beauty of dolphins and of nature itself that few people will ever have. It’s a tradeoff.

This same dilemma exists for tourism in general. A lot of people mourn the disappearance of traditional cultures, especially as modern cultures have more access to vacation destinations in developing countries. But contact and exchange between different cultures has happened throughout history, and cultures are constantly evolving because of it.

With animals – and natural destinations like forests, mountains and oceans – no matter how lightly we tread, there will always be environmental degradation as a result of tourism. But without tourism, and opportunities to experience places different from our own, we couldn’t develop the compassion and understanding that bridges ignorance, hatred and indifference – some of our planet’s most abundant natural resources.

British People Talk Funny. After the dolphin adventure our guides prepared a very meager lunch of fish and rice for us on the beach. I didn’t quite understand the dearth of portions considering how all of my African friends are not shy about piling several pounds of food onto my plate and insisting on seconds. But I figured it was our guides’ way of skimming as much of our tour fees into his own pocket as possible, because really, wazungu have plenty of money. Why not steal what they’ve paid in good faith?

Anyway, most of our clothes were at least a little wet from wading from the boat, so as we were waiting for our one-minnow meal, I hung my jeans on a post next to British Gael’s towel and said, “Remind me to take my pants down after lunch.”

There was a confused pause, and then he said with a tiny, withering grin, “You mean your trousers.”

(Photo by Brady Zieman)


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