Sunday 18 August 2013

o : Mafia Island, No. 1 (Arrival)

Room No. 2, ‘Shark’
New Lizu Hotel
Mafia Island

Dear o,

I’m not sure when it was that I knew for sure I was on Mafia Island.  It could have been the cold shower in my cheap Kilindoni room’s bathroom: there is no working light, slippers are available to avoid stepping on the floor (to, I assume, prevent hookworm), and all the water from the sink, shower and bucket drains into the squat-over toilet-bowl.  That’s not so bad at all, when I think of what I’ve seen and used over the last few months, and what I may have to get used to on the island.  But it’s a pretty clear statement of the life I’ll be living for the next year.

It could have been the barber shop I visited to get my overgrown, food-catching beard trimmed for 1,000 shillings (about 50 cents).  There were a gang of 20-somethings inside, hanging out and playing cards, teasing me for my long hair and wild look, laughing with the barber who didn’t quite know how to cut a beard until I told him (with hand gestures, as he didn’t speak English) to just treat it like a head needing a razor.  After the cut I was invited to play cards: I didn’t have a clue what they were playing, or how, and nobody knew enough English to explain.  I tried my hand at one round and got pummeled.  Then they asked me to show them a game: I tried Hearts.  Now, that’s not the easiest one to teach across the language divide, but they caught on quick.  Not so quick, however, that I didn’t recover some of my pride. 

It could have been the open-air bar where I grabbed a late lunch (doubling as an even later breakfast).  English football was on, chips were being served, and the conversation was loud.  The barbecuer laid a plate before me along with some tomato sauce and toothpicks.  I stopped him.  “May I have a fork?”  “Fork?” he asked, puzzled.  I made the international gesture for eating.  “I don’t know fork,” he said.  I pointed at my food, and made the gesture again.  He pointed at the toothpicks.  Oh, right.  I smiled my dumb smile and he walked off: toothpicks are the forks, spoons and knives of Mafia Island.

It could have been the sheer beauty of the place.  The ferry that brought us this morning from Nyamisati, about 150km south of Dar es Salaam, was a frightening thing from the start.  It was low tide and the boat was just in front of the hard shoreline, with the gangplank missing the stone steps and wedged between two wet rocks.  It would have been dangerous enough to slip over the rocks, get caught in the mud, and navigate the plank without falling into the water, but we had all of our stuff: six boxes plastic-wrapped into three bulky pieces, a guitar, a scuba diving kit in a heavy gym bag, two large backpacks, my smaller backpack, a cloth bag of food, and Al’s handbag.  Luckily, we had our team.  Because we missed the early ferry yesterday, we had to spend the night in Nyamisati, and there we met three other couples in the same boat: one from Peru and Ukraine, meeting up for a holiday; one from Austin, Texas, who make regular trips all over Africa; and one from Switzerland, who are crossing Tanzania by bicycle – after doing much of our West African route the same way.  You can imagine the stories we shared, yesterday as well as on the ferry today.  But once we shoved off from the sandbar at Nyamisati and crossed a few hours over the waves, we came within sight of Mafia Island, and all of us shut our mouths.  We watched the beaches and forests get bigger, we marvelled at the different hues of water blue, we nonchalantly pointed at dolphins coming up for air, and I think we all sensed the little peace that is here.  It is no different when you step off and walk around: this island is one handsome place.

Or, it could have been when Al and I left each other on the side of the dirt road, at the gate of where she begins her next year.  I couldn’t go past without paying a US $20 fee per day.  I hope to get exempted for my own volunteer work – but this is all unconfirmed.  Tomorrow I have a tentative meeting with someone to talk about my options for living and working, but until that process is complete, there stands a barrier between me and the girl I’ve been calling my wife for months.  Needless to say, we didn’t expect this.  She got back in the truck with all of our stuff, and I stood there with my backpacks, one big and one small.  We blew kisses but didn’t touch, as we were surrounded by islanders who, we must assume, abhor public displays of affection.  I stood there as she was driven off, longer than I should have.  And then I turned to the islanders, said “Asante” (thank you) and walked down the road.  The park official, who refused me entry, laughed and said it was 15km to Kilindoni.  “That’s alright,” I said, and waved.  I wanted to walk.

I eventually caught a motorcycle into town, found this cheap room, and got a little settled (hence the shower, toothpicked food and beard trim).  Al and I agreed that she would at some point come find me here, but she hasn’t come.  I don’t know when she’ll come, actually.  We made no agreement of time.  Our new Tanzanian phone number, which is with her, hasn’t been working.  I have no phone.  I’ve sent emails to say where I am, but I don’t think she has internet access.  And so, for better or worse, I wait for her or for marine park exemption, whichever comes first.

I didn’t want my letters to you to get too personal.  I hope they haven’t been.  Yes, I wanted to give you my view, I wanted to be myself, but I have no wish for these to be the ramblings of some guy who really likes the sound of his own voice.  I want to say something.  I want to describe, and assist, and explore, and excavate.  I want to write these letters, and not just try to impress you with where I am and what I’ve done.  By no means am I here to bitch and moan and root out your sympathy.  But by the code I’ve just described, sometimes I have to let you in.

It’s hard to be sitting here.  Right now, Al is making new friends – a new family.  The person who has had her job for a year is already handing over responsibility; training, teaching, showing.  Al is jumping in, as she does, forgetting the morning and the month and the year: she is in the moment, caught up and loving it.  She has a bed of some sorts, a room of some sorts, a place to put all of her stuff.  I know she’s already unpacked a good deal of our things, and placed it around her space in such a way that makes her feel right.  That is, if she’s had the time.  I imagine a campfire lit up, celebratory food being served, stories being told.  The chronicle of our African crossing is being shared, volunteer’s faces are lit up, and underneath Al can’t wait to just get to sleep and start work tomorrow.  She’s been looking forward to this for a long time.

Over here on the other side of the island, I’m not so much gregarious as uptight.  I’m not good at meeting new people, I never have been.  I wave and say hello, I smile and am polite, with a purpose or a role I can get things done, and in a group I can hold my own.  But in the fight or flight of social dynamics, I am in the habit of running.  I need my own space, I tell myself.  I need to think, to work things out in my head, to go for long solitary walks – I tell myself.  Need, need, need; and it’s certainly no easier.  This is especially important when it comes to learning a new language, and there is no doubt that that will be necessary here on Mafia.  The only words I know so far in Swahili are “mambo” (hello, not actually Swahili), “habari” (how are you?), “rafiki” (friend) and “asante” (thank-you), and on my first day on the island I have been giving all of them out in spades.  In Dar es Salaam I bought books, but I know how important it is to socialise in order to learn.  Al will be speaking and working mostly in English for the year, but she’ll still excel.

And here I am, writing to you in treasured English, that language which is at once a salvation from time, and a wall erected against the real world, where I have now arrived.

It’s one of these nights now where my gut is alarmed: it feels tight, as if I’m hungry, but I know the feeling from many nights before.  I’m nervous.  What am I going to do?  Tomorrow is as void or as complete as I will it to be, and there is no one to push me or pull me or slap me around.  That’s the alarm, I guess: the uncertain future, and my responsibility for it.

Now I know, I am definitely on the island.



The ferry from Nyamisati
View of Nyamisati dock from the ferry
On the ferry
Approaching Mafia