“I’m not staying here. I’m going back to Zanzibar” I said in horrified tones to Catherine, my traveling companion. ‘Here’ was a 3 walled hut containing 4 army cots with rough blankets. “Sit on the bed and look at the view” Catherine said in measured tones. “Don’t panic. I know it isn’t the Four Seasons, but if you stay it’ll be the best 5 days of your life. Trust me.” I looked at her. She seemed so calm. A room without a door didn’t seem to faze her one bit. I went over to the beds and sat on one. It was lumpy. I leaned against the wall and looked out. It was fantastic. I was looking out on the most astoundingly beautiful view. Golden sandy beach stretched out endlessly in a vast crescent. Palm trees dotted the beach. The crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean twinkled under the bright sunlight. “It’s fabulous” I cried. Catherine was smiling. “Shall I ask the driver to go back to Zanzibar then?” she asked. “Yes, yes, yes” I said, jumping up and down on the uncomfortable bed.
We were on Bwejuu Beach in Zanzibar’s remote east coast. Today a few resorts and hotels dot the beautiful but sometimes treacherous beaches of Zanzibar’s gorgeous east coast. Then, in 1989, no such thing existed, or if it did it was too expensive for the ordinary traveller. This beach we were on was neither resort nor guesthouse. It was a collection of 3 small huts and an outhouse. One three walled hut was the boarding area with 4 beds. One hut was a communal living area with a few chairs, a table and a killer view. The smaller hut contained a small cement tank, which served to hold the water we would use for bathing. The outhouse was simply a hole in the ground covered by a wooden lid enclosed by corrugated sheets and a flimsy door. Local women from an unseen village nearby brought us simple meals and fruit 3 times a day. They also filled our cement bathing tank with water they drew from a nearby well. They smiled and gestured at the food, but we had no language in common.
My misgivings came roaring back as we checked the facilities (or lack thereof). But there was no turning back. The jeep that had driven us out here over several hours of bumpy roads, had gone back to the city far away. We were essentially marooned here until the driver came back 5 days from now. Catherine looked remarkably chirpy considering how dire our conditions looked. She was humming as we made our way to the golden sands just in front of us. “This is heaven” she said in her beautifully accented English. “She must be mad” I thought. We walked on to the water’s edge and got our feet wet. That first sensation of the waves around your feet and the sand in your toes can never fail to excite. Catherine was making bird noises, her arms outstretched, twirling about in the shallows. I smiled looking at the sheer joy of her reaction. “Do those facilities back there really not bother you?” I asked her. She stopped her bird impression and smiled. “Come on, let’s sit a while on the beach and I’ll tell you my life story” she said. We headed back to the beach.
I hardly knew this woman, my traveling companion in a foreign country. We had bumped into her at a cafe in Zanzibar only 2 days ago. I knew she was French and a nurse with the Red Cross. She had told me she was taking a break from her job in Sudan. “I grew up solidly middle class in Nice. France is a great place to be middle class in”, she said, smiling at her memories. She said her father was a doctor back in France. “I always knew I wanted to be a medical professional like him, I simply didn’t have the grades to make it into medical school. So I decided to be a nurse.” She’d worked in Nice for a few years before the wanderlust had hit. She decided to join the Red Cross,a chance to work and travel she thought. Soon after she joined up, she was deputed to go Sudan, where a bitter and brutal conflict had been raging for years. It was like being thrown in the deep end before learning to swim, she said. The sink or swim reflex kicked in. She worked long hours mired in mud and blood and gore. It had been 8 months of this since she started she said, without a break. “It’s a long away from the plages of Nice” she said, with a wry twist of her mouth.
“I am sick and tired of the blood and the mayhem. The wounded are pitiful, many of them have lost limbs in the fighting. So many of them die before we can help them. The contagions spread so quickly and sepsis kills the rest. The Red Cross is trying to plug a leaking dam with a finger. The sheer pointlessness of the activity makes me tired. I’m exhausted. I have seen rivers of blood in the Sudan and I am so tired. So yes, this lovely, peaceful place is Heaven’s Beach. And you my friend are my heavenly friend.” Catherine sat back against the palm tree that swayed gently in the breeze. She did look exhausted.
I was appalled at her story and even more appalled by my own superficial concerns. I leaned forward and took my new friend’s hand in my own. “Let’s go have fun in the water Catherine. You can forget about everything else” I said. We romped around for hours, taking short naps in the shade of the palm trees. Eventually as the sun slipped low on the horizon, we watched a fiery sunset and made our way back to our humble lodgings. The lovely ladies of the village had brought us bread made of fried dough and crabmeat cooked with coconut. Never had I had a more delicious meal. We retired to our lumpy beds serenaded by the cool ocean breezes that came in through our nonexistent fourth wall. We slept the dreamless sleep of babies and woke up invigorated and ready to go diving among the coral reefs of the Indian Ocean.
Those five days slipped through my fingers like fine, golden sand. We had spent our time diving off a narrow boat, swimming in the crystal clear waters, looking through the colorful collection of local fabric and cooing over the gorgeous babies of the village women who took care of us. Too soon our idyll was disturbed by the sound of a car engine. Our ride had arrived to take us back to Zanzibar airport and on to Mombasa in Kenya.