Life’s A Beach

6 02 2009


     “I know I left the beach here somewhere!”     (low-tide fishermen, Zanzibar)


According to the highest purveyor of all encompassing wisdom in the world – the internet – there are 356,000 kilometres of coastline in the world. And while not all of it may be fine white sand overhung with tropical palm trees and lapped by crystal clear blue waters, in the middle of winter when we’re digging out our driveway or trying to prevent heat-seeking ice-crystals from penetrating the ring-of-wool around our necks, almost any beach sounds pretty appetising.


Each year, millions of people around the world flee south – or north – away from inclement weather to drop and flop on a sun-soaked beach. Many want nothing more than the classic guzzle-and-tan holiday: a resort which offers all-you-can-eat food extravaganzas, unlimited umbrella-festooned drinks and afternoon karaoke by the pool. However, for someone who wants a bit more, there are still more than 300,000 kilometres of coastline to choose from.


Zanzibar is everyone’s idea of a tropical island. It sits off the coast of Tanzania in east Africa, surrounded by the deliciously warm and clear waters of the Indian Ocean and protected by coral reefs. It is an island rich with history and culture from Sultans and harems, to revolutions and intrigue. At one time it was the centre of the Arab slave trade. Later, it was the starting point for expeditions by legendary names like Stanley, Livingstone, Burton and Speke. Its capital city, Stone Town, is a labyrinth of narrow lanes inaccessible by vehicles and untouched by history. Although there are a few modern resorts at the island’s north, there are also small properties hidden along its pristine coastline.


After an hour’s drive through small villages, banana and coconut plantations and along a bumpy dirt track, we arrived at one such place perched on a cliff. The hotel offered a hand-full of cottages overlooking the sea and surrounded by flowering bushes and immaculate lawns. There was a small restaurant where the menu was dictated by the catch of the day and whatever was available in the local market and then prepared to your requirements. And that was all.


There was no sprawling buffet, no mega-bar, no afternoon Pilates class, no spa, no disco, no internet café and no television or minibar in the rooms. What there was was the song of birds, the crash of waves and not a single other soul in sight.


The beach stretched as far as a rocky outcrop in one direction and meandered away among palm trees in the other. Apart from a few hundred tiny crabs scampering towards the water, it was completely deserted. The water was warm, clear and flawless and the only other swimmers were schools of colourful fish.


At night we slept with the windows open serenaded by the crash of the waves, the gentle whirr of the ceiling fan and the strange sounds of frogs and nightlife. We would awake to find a breakfast tray outside our door and sit and watch the seaweed farmers tending their crops while the tide was still out. Days were spent swimming, reading, watching the occasional dhow sail past and eating the freshest calamari in the world. By evening it was the myriad stars overhead and dinner by flickering torchlight.


There are beaches and then there are beaches. Our little slice of paradise might have seemed to have offered considerably less than the resorts further up the coast, but it also cost considerably less. Sometimes, however, less is more and as we made our way back towards Stone Town and our flight home, we really wished we had spent more time on our private beach.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan

The Human Stain

6 08 2008

Slave chamber

The Arab Slave Market, Stone Town, Zanzibar

I have never been to Auschwitz, Dachau or Buchenwald; never visited the Killing Fields of Cambodia or the genocide memorials in Rwanda. My omission has been neither through a lack of desire or squeamishness, but simply because my travels have yet to take me there.  Those I know who have been have said they were changed by the experience. I can’t imagine that anyone could remain unchanged after visiting any site of such epic barbarity, hatred and depravity.


For most of us, travel is an escape from the everyday norm. It is a diversion and distraction from the stresses of work and the tedium of laundry and shopping. Whether we’re lying on a beach, visiting ancient sights or hiking in the wilderness, travel provides us all with a much-needed break and revitalises our souls and our minds. But some travel transcends mere entertainment or relaxation, brings us face to face with our darkest side and becomes a life experience.


One of the greatest crimes against humanity is also one of the most ancient: slavery. Since the beginning of time, people have incarcerated others; traded, sold and transported them as possessions and dehumanised, mistreated, assaulted, tortured and murdered them. It is estimated that there are presently 27 million people in slavery throughout the world, more than at any other point in history. For many, the reality for those who are enslaved today is no less horrific than for those who crossed the Atlantic in their millions in centuries past.


In a small building in the centre of Stone Town, Zanzibar, sits the slave market through which an estimated one million African slaves passed on their way to the Middle East. Little still remains of the market today, except for a basement chamber in which the slaves were held before being sold and loaded onto dhows for the sea voyage to Arabia.


There is nothing even slightly commercial about the chamber. It is a sombre place accessed through a simple entrance, devoid of all tourist-trappings, as it should be. The ceiling is low and little light penetrates the small windows carved in the thick stone. When in use, there were no windows at all. No light. No air. No reprieve from stifling heat and humidity, from the crush of bodies, from illness and death. There are two chambers: one for men and one for women and children. From the walls and ceiling hang great iron chains and manacles.


There are no artist’s illustrations, scale models or animatronic figures to convey what things were like because they are not necessary.  There is nothing architecturally oppressive about these rooms, because the weight of history is sufficient. It requires little knowledge and no imagination to picture tired, hungry, terrified and ill humans pressed in; to hear their sobs and moans; to taste their fear, despondency and utter helplessness. To ache for the grotesque inhumanity and greed that led others to sail to these shores to steal the innocence of childhood, the sanctity of family, the essence of dignity and the very breath of life.


When the walls and ceiling press in too much, we are free to climb the stone steps and emerge into the blazing light of day. We can stand in silence and gaze at the clear blue sky, feel the refreshing breeze on our cheeks and sate our thirst on bottled water or Coke. Unlike those who preceded us, we can go home whenever we like, not be forever separated from our loved ones and transported to distant shores for a life of ritual abuse, brutal labour, cruel servitude and an untimely death.


When we have had enough we may leave the slave market forever, but I defy anyone to have the slave market forever leave them.



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan