Christmas in Paradise

Categories Travel

If I had to spend Christmas alone, I could hardly have chosen a nicer place to do it.  I was feeling sorry for myself and the state of the world the day after the election, so I pulled the trigger on the plane ticket and reservation at Pongwe Beach Hotel.  Come to find out shortly thereafter that more than one relative and friend had stayed there in the past decade!  Good choice, guys.  I looked forward to that weekend like a beacon.  It’s a short 20 minute flight from Dar, but thanks to being a Friday afternoon, it took better than an hour on the road coming and going from the airports, and I arrived just after sundown.

More often than not there’s a stark economic divide between resort life and local life in tropical locations that’s pretty jarring, and Zanzibar is no different in that respect.  What IS different from other holiday hotspots is that it is a conservative culture, Muslim majority community.  Driving from the airport across the island, every single woman I saw was covered from fingertips to toes in dresses or robes, and wearing a head scarf or wrap.  A fair number of women wore a black abaya and some even a face veil.  I always wonder how they manage that in the sun and heat. Hot hot hotter than Dar es Salaam!  I would be stifled. There’s more traditional Islamic dress overall, among men as well as women, in keeping with the culture, but the mix of modern and traditional was more balanced among men. Though I wore a mid-calf length skirt, I was wearing a tank top, and felt distinctly under-dressed in the window of my taxi as we sat in Friday night traffic in town.  It would be quite a different thing to come back to Zanzibar on a work trip.   The road across the island was narrow, and once we got out of the main town, my driver proved a bit of a speed demon.  More than once I feared we might lose a game of chicken, or take out a local on a bicycle or shepherding goats across the road. The island is mostly flat, quite green across the middle with gracefully bowed tall palm trees and thick growth.  Other areas had lower much more drier looking, scrubby vegetation, and the landscape grew quite rocky with coral closer to the eastern coast.

Zanzibari woman in abaya and face veil.


For this trip, however, I was focused on relaxation.  I could have gone to tour Stone Town, I could have gone to a spice farm, or to the Jozani rain forest, or out any number of water sports.  Considering how close the island is to Dar, I decided there would be time for more active exploration another time. What I did instead was laze about in the sun, in the shade, on the beach, by the pool, in a hammock under a palm tree, with a book or two or three, and the occasional banana daiquiri or dawa.  (A dawa is vodka muddled with limes and honey, and maybe a splash of soda water.  Essentially a localized version of a caipiroska.)  Just what the doctor ordered.

The variation of shades of blue in sea and sky and pool was kind of incredible, depending on the time of day, the number clouds in the sky, and the degree of high or low tide.  Vibrant turquoise, robin’s egg blue, muted gray and aqua.  Spend hours contemplating the horizon?  No problem.  My favorite moment, couldn’t be captured on film at all, but I won’t forget it.  After dinner, strolling down the beach in the dark, I took a while to sit back in a hammock and stare up at the sky.  Facing out into the Indian Ocean, it felt like being at the edge of the world.  Not a single light on the horizon, no land, no boats. Nothing but stars in the blackness and the rushing sound of palm fronds in moving in the night wind. Extraordinarily peaceful.


Christmas was a mix of familiar traditional and not. Non-traditional warmth in the locale of course, the cavernous lodge had a tall Christmas tree; the main dish was turkey, but with sesame ginger roasted vegetables, and the dinner table decorations feature British Christmas crackers, candy canes, and…chili peppers?

One thing I noticed that was oddly in keeping with Dar and the mainland was the presence of Maasai guards.  In the city they guard the car parks, and in Zanzibar they were guarding the beach!   Odd because the Maasai traditionally come from northern inland Tanzania.  My taxi driver confirmed that they moved for the jobs.

All in all, I was sad to leave come the day after Christmas and took very little time to decide to come back at least once before my time in Tanzania is done.

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