Zanzibar Part III: Istanbul (?)

[Zanzibar Part I: Pemba Magic]  |  [Zanzibar Part II: Stone Town]

Two days before I’m scheduled to depart for Africa, Turkish Airlines changes my return ticket so that instead of another couple of days in Zanzibar, I’ve got a 2-day layover in Istanbul. Turns out this isn’t as big a deal as I had envisioned… Stone Town is hot and dusty, and our one whirlwind day is plenty.

It also turns out that getting a Turkish e-Visa and finding a lovely little B&B just blocks from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia while sitting in my kitchen some 5000 miles away was also a piece of cake. So like that, I had plans to spend a couple of days in a city I thought I’d never get to see during these convoluted political times.

I had left Boston a week earlier, feeling angry, disheartened, rebellious, frustrated, embarrassed and altogether disapproving of the US current administration. Wanderlust raging and fernweh in high gear, I felt like an alien amongst my fellow Americans. I needed to get OUT. The stream of propaganda emanating from my country’s gold house makes me sick to my stomach; the deeper their hole of hate and other-izing is dug, the more my stomach reels as it did in the meat market in Stone Town.

I went to Zanzibar, American passport in hand, for a diving holiday with a dear European friend. We were in the far-flung reaches of a place not many tourists go, let alone even know exists. Aside from a very small handful of other travellers and assorted Peace Corps or aid workers, there were no other white people visiting there; Pemba is roughly 99% Muslim, as is Istanbul in theory. At Ataturk Airport, I’m mulling the fact that it’s almost a relief to have been surrounded by others for whom aggressive white (read: Christian, American, ignorant…) nationalism is just not a Thing at present.

And so I arrive in Istanbul, sad at having just said goodbye to my co-adventurer, slightly anxious about this new stamp in my passport, and more than slightly squeamish about my nationality and what it represents in a country mine has so recently postured to hate. Paradoxically, my complexion belies my country of origin and from the first interactions I’m asked, “Argentina? France? Spain?” I figure that some of my rusty Español and a strategically-asserted “Canada” here and there will be invaluable.


Sultanahmet. 

This mind-chatter is still occupying space in my head as I step out of the taxi and into the adorable Hotel Empress Zoe B&B. The neighbourhood is called Sultanahmet, which contains both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, sights I’ve been told are not-to-be-missed here. It is also the site of 2015 and 2016 suicide bombings. I’ve been warned of this as well. Of the school that lightning doesn’t usually strike in the same place (erm, 3 times), I’m slightly mollified by the presence of police with obvious machine guns and armoured vehicles at nearly every open space here. My room is fantastic. The greeting I receive by Layla is warm and welcoming. She arms me with a map and we orchestrate a sights-to-be-seen plan for my next 48 hours. The greeting I receive from the resident cats is equally as inviting.

Once I’m settled, the intention is to get the lay of the land and find some dinner. The first hot shower in a week is medicine for the chilly, damp gray air to which I’ve travelled; stark contrast to the prior week’s steamy East African days. I rebound and set off to explore.

Istanbul not Constantinople.

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Bosphorous Bridge from the air, connecting Europe and Asia

Called Lygos, Byzantium, Constantinople and then Istanbul, this city is a perfect confluence of east-meeting-west. Quite literally, since Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus, the strait that separates the continents of Europe and Asia, and has been a key trade route for millennia, connecting Black and Aegean Seas, commingling humans, spices, slaves and customs from ancient Greek, Roman, Persian and Byzantine empires before early Christian v. Muslim conflict delivered rule to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th Century.

Tourism is sparse. I’ve arrived to this normally teeming-with-tourists city in both a political maelstrom and the height of the low season. Glad that there are no lines to contend with at the major sights, I’m also a target for the desperate carpet-sellers that pop from nowhere to begin innocent chatter. “Hello, Argentina?” “Parlez-vous Français?” “Hablas español?” “Where are you from?” Learning from my first mistake, where a conversation with a friendly local turned into an introduction to his other “new friends from South America” and an invitation to the nearby rug shoppe. I declined the kind offer and deflect future propositions like these – of which there are many – with a firm “no,” as the promise “I’ll come by later” is clearly too naïve.

My first impression is that Istanbul is clean. People are chattering and smiling. Most, if not all, women are wearing a hijab. Men are dressed smartly, in tapered-leg suits. Even the street dogs are tagged and friendly-seeming. Like in India, some men hold hands in companionship. New York City seems more stressed-out to me than this place of recent turmoil and conflict.

It’s evening and the sun is preparing to set; we are between late-afternoon and evening adhans (calls to prayer), and I’ve set off to explore the plaza that sits between the Sultanahmet Mosque (dubbed ‘Blue Mosque’ for its elaborate inlaid tilework) and the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish), which mesmerises on first sight. Once a Greek Orthodox church and the world’s largest cathedral, Hagia Sophia’s pinkish stucco is transformed to a glowing architectural sculpture in the late-afternoon sun. I did not get a chance to go inside, but the domed structure itself is breathtaking.

I wander the Sultanahmet Square and note its peculiar mix of political metaphor: Greek and Egyptian obelisks and a German fountain dotting the plaza. Recalling the Istanbul scene in Dan Brown’s Inferno (which transpires roughly where I stand), I locate the entrance to the Basilica Cistern, which is where I’ll go first in the morning. I also find a gorgeous sweet shoppe, displaying the mounds of Turkish Delight that I’ll soon see is ubiquitous in this city. It reminds me of a Charleston Chew-meets-nougat-meets-gummy bear, only with pistachios and coconut. I’ve never had anything quite like it and I vow to find the best one in the city and buy some to take home with me (because clearly the 100g I’ve purchased won’t last the evening). Dinner is exquisite grilled calamari that rivals what I had in Sardinia, fresh bread with muhammara (a fantastic Turkish red pepper and walnut spread) and grilled sea bass, plucked from a pile of just-caught poissons on display in the lobby. My first quarter-day here is pas mal, if I do say so myself.

Monday: in which I do the tourist thing.

Olives and cheese and eggs for brekkie: I could get used to this. Well-sated and map in hand, I head out for a day of touristing. First stop: Basilica Cistern. Descending the 52 steps into this ancient cistern, an underground reservoir that filtered water for the grand Topkapi Palace, the first word in my head is WOW (and it’s the first word of those who enter just after me as well). Turkish music echoes. The ceiling is 9 metres high, its stone arches making it seem more cathedral-like than anything underground. Unfolding around me is a sea of carved marble columns radiating and reflecting the reddish light. The arches look medieval and Greek and Persian all at once. Towards the back of the cistern, a pathway leads to Medusa heads carved into column bases, supporting just two of the 336 columns in this magically eerie place. There are Doric and Ionic and Corinthian columns, and one which is called “Hen’s Eye” and is said to represent the tears shed by slaves who died building this place. I pause for a moment to connect the dots of horror from Zanzibar’s slave market, visited mere days before, to this grandeur. The music is haunting.

My next stop is Topkapi Palace. Almost by accident, I’ve wandered through one of the grand, guarded, fairytale-arched entrances to the palace, following old stone walls as I walked along the tram route towards the Bosphorous. I’ve purchased a scarf at a local shop to ward off the chilly air. From the patient proprietor, while talking tourism (v. slow these days) and sales tactics (low-pressure wins more business), I learn where to find the best Turkish Delight in the city: Koska, a fact subsequently confirmed by more than one local (luckily, it’s mere blocks from stop #3, the Mısır Çarşısı or spice bazaar).

Meandering through the gardens and buildings of Topkapi Palace and taking in the architecture, I reflect on the way of life in a place like this: servants and slaves and someone to wait one’s every whim. Gilded rooms and accoutrements abound, I bristle at the present-day irony of what the commoners’ tax dollars supported in medieval times. I dare not reflect on what today’s aspiring western Sultans would do with the harem or their quarters.

I consider the concept that I’m guided by spices as I continue walking, the narrower streets widening to a bustling downtown that reminds me of a cross between 34th Street in NYC and small villages like Jojawar in Rajasthan, the cobblestone streets and ancient stone mosques yielding only partially to modern commerce and city din, set on the banks of a strait dotted with Ottoman castles and mansions, the European-influenced Galata tower rising from the far European shore of what’s called the Golden Horn. I find the candy shop as well as the spice bazaar, not without getting turned around 6 or 7 times and stumbling upon a demonstration of sorts in the square just outside the market.

I wend my way back to my B&B with time to purchase some souvenir-worthy Turkish baklava, chat with more ever-so-friendly carpet sellers (I am mistaken for a Turkish woman from the back, with my new scarf tied apparently well enough to pass), partake in some local cuisine (for the record, my hummus is better!) and crumple into bed, exhausted, just after the last adhan sounds. Walk-weary legs having surely earned a pile of adventure points for the 17km I marched today.

The next morning, I have time to visit the Blue Mosque (exterior more impressive than interior to this tourist), wander some more around the charming neighbourhood, and I find myself lost amidst narrow cobbled streets and old relics of a time when building was an artform in stone.

At the airport, my travel bubble is burst when I am subjected to a ridiculous succession of security checks and passport controls between the entrance and the gate, an apparent result of the new regulations passed whilst we were in Africa. I fleetingly contemplate ditching the flight to the US altogether and boarding a train to northern Europe. The roaring of distant dragons compels my return to finish projects-in-process back in the real world. Bleh.


Back home, as I succumb to the jet-lag and collapse into my own bed, I feel the irony of re-entry pulse through my every cell…head in East Africa, body in North America, heart in Europe. Demain est un autre jour, I promise myself. My last thoughts before sleep finally takes hold: soothing accents, a swirl of bright colours, azure sea and sky, a personal aquarium, the embrace of a dear heart, mounds of spices in a faraway bazaar, dreamy magic carpet-like music, the sun setting over the Indian Ocean and the germinating seedlings of what I’ve dubbed year of Africa.

[Zanzibar Part I: Pemba Magic]  |  [Zanzibar Part II: Stone Town]

Zanzibar Part II: Stone Town. Spices. Ivory. Slaves.

[Part I: Pemba Magic]

flight1Early on this Sunday morning, the small plane carries its payload from Pemba back to the relative civilisation of the island of Ugunja where two of its passengers are to spend their last full day in Zanzibar exploring the streets, sights and sounds of Stone Town.

It is something of a sensory overload, this urban-ish smell of more densely-packed humans, the noise and bustle of cars, the barking of street vendors and flurry of tourists galore, compared with the tranquility we’ve just left on Pemba: the sweet fragrance of flowers in the air, a magical carpet of stars in the sky, African nocturnal critters rustling in the bush, crickets and bushbabies our nighttime soundtrack. And playing over in my mind is the hilarity of the prior night’s bushbaby “hunt” involving a baited stake-out, hoping to lure the small beasts with a mango while we hid, cameras peeled and giggles stifled, behind a wall. Meanwhile the bushbabies laughed at us from the trees above and made off with the mango after we got tired of the game and went to bed. A fruitless fruited effort, as it were.

Stone Town is essentially the crumbly remains of the capital of the old Zanzibar Sultinate (crumbles observed literally, as we walked past the blue cheese-like bits of a building that had recently succumbed to time and gravity). Stone Town was a big deal in its day: the hub of the spice, ivory and slave trades in East Africa in the 19th Century. Today the old city it is a World Heritage Site, though its largest industry these days is in catering to tourists.

We’re staying at the Stone Town Café and B&B in the thick of the Shangani section of town; blocks to the waterfront and not far from the two landmarks we’re keen on seeing here: the slave market site and the Darajani spice bazaar. I’ve chosen this place in part because of their work with the Creative Education Foundation, a schooling project that gives a Waldorf education to disadvantaged kids in Zanzibar. Disadvantaged kids back home look like sultans compared with the level of poverty found here. And because music is integral to their curriculum, I’ve brought with me things that can’t be gotten on the island: a stash of recorders (the musical kind) and some yarn for their arts projects at the suggestion of Judi, Stone Town Café’s owner.

DSC_2942 (2)Stone Town feels 10 degrees hotter than Pemba, although the thermometer reads virtually the same. So we pack water, have a nice meal of these Tanzanian breakfast chapatis of which we’ve become raving fans (they resemble a delectable cross between crêpe and injera), and take to the streets of Stone Town for our day of sightseeing.

Shops and more shops line the narrow maze of cobblestone streets, and we’re harassed every several metres to buy a souvenir or six. We dodge the crap-sellers (an I ❤ Tanzania mug is not on the liste de courses) by ducking down emptier streets, and wend our way towards Darajani market. Asking directions, we’re led by a guy to the market and find we need to lose him by promising to come to his spice shop later (our mistake: he pops up unexpectedly and repeatedly throughout the day, “you promised to come to my shop but you didn’t…” I would ironically meet his long-lost twin in Istanbul the following evening).

Finally, we reach our destination. Outside, tropical fruits from pineapples to mangoes to rambutan are on display. Inside, my stomach turns as we enter the ‘hall of meat’. The fish section is more interesting (and palatable), as every imaginable fish is on offer. Then we find the spice stands and my inner cardamom goddess dances with joy; I’m on the lookout for the merchant with the freshest-seeming stock. I love perusing the aisles, laden with every variety of local banana, taking in the pungent aromas, the piles of chilies, vegetables, fruits…everything here piques my senses.

I haggle with a merchant for kilos of turmeric, cardamom, cumin, star anise and of course the local cloves. My spice stores now overflowing, we’re off to find a market of a different variety.

Human chattel.

Exotic as Zanzibar sounds, its roots are in Africa’s darkest trades: slaves and ivory. Its spice trade, while sweetening the air, was also mired in shadow. Slaves worked the plantations that grew the spices to serve Omani and European needs. A vicious circle, which only partially ended when the slave market on Zanzibar was closed in 1873. The slave trade continued underground on Zanzibar for decades, and until 1909 in Pemba when those slave markets were closed as well.

Zanzibar was the Arab world’s largest slave market. Slaves were used to transport ivory to the coast, their handlers fetching double remuneration: for both the goods and their haulers. Those not carrying ivory were marched as bound animals, heavy wooden stocks around their necks, hands tied around the beams to thwart escape, from places like the Congo and Zambia. Many perished, some escaped and some were sold or traded along the way. Many others died as they were packed into the hulls of the trading ships bound for Zanzibar’s shores. Bodies of the recently- and not quite-dead were thrown overboard so the slave traders didn’t have to pay duty on their stale cargo. As if this treatment wasn’t inhumane enough, the humans-turned-chattel were then confined to underground holding rooms on the slave market site for days with no food, water or daylight (save a small window carved into a stone wall for ventilation), awaiting auction day. 75 were kept in a single 30 or 40 square metre cell, where many perished in the process. It was said that the strongest (quality merchandise if you will), after surviving the holding room and the requisite lashings while tied to the market’s central tree, fetched the best prices at auction.

An Anglican church now sits on the slave market site. They’ve set up a room inside one of the buildings with a pictorial depiction of Zanzibar’s slave history. Outside, a Swedish artist has carved a sculpture that incorporates some of the market’s original chains and shackles; in seeing these I think that no level of tribute could ever right the wrongs inflicted here. Even the distilled version of the atrocities turn my stomach; I can’t at all fathom what the survivors endured…surely this is the definition of ‘a fate worse than death.’

DSC_2998So with this historical dark stamp on our hearts, we wend back towards the B&B via some quieter roads not taken. We pass the old fort (a plaque is inscribed with ngome kongwe: Oldest Castle), stumble across a wood craftsman’s shop and purchase a couple of miniature Zanzibar chests as mementos, then decide to make a 2nd trip to the spice market (running into and dodging our “you promised” friend again) to haggle anew for a pile of goods to fill C’s spice shelves too. Returning to the same vendor near closing time had its benefits – I think he got the better deal than I.

A monsoon-like thunderstorm heralds our pre-dawn wake-up call, rains so intense that we’re concerned the plane won’t take off. But as we get closer to the airport, the skies clear and we’re shuttled through security for this next leg of the journey that will transport us back to Europe.

As we while away the hours on the flight, my mind replays our adventures in Africa, under and above water. With faraway friends, you must treasure each moment spent with them, as life sometimes gets in the way of life and you don’t know which visit may be your last or when the next will come. 💗

We say our goodbyes at Istanbul airport and my Calvin boards his flight home. And I, with melancholy heart, walk towards passport control to continue my adventures in this old-meets-new city, background music resonating in my head, “Istanbul not Constantinople.”

[Part I: Pemba Magic]

Zanzibar Part I: Pemba Magic

The tropical air hits my senses as I step off the plane and onto the tarmac. Warm, dense, smoky, organic air that wraps itself around you like a woolen blanket on a 27-degree (C) day. This air feels almost colourful and somehow different than the Central American jungle aromata I’ve experienced. There is a tinge of jasmine and spice and human je ne sais quoi…

Onward.

I complete the form and hand it to the immigration officer. “How do you like your President Trump?” is the first question I’m asked on African soil as I hand over my US passport. And so, the first interaction here is laced with humour; the local smiles are infectious and inviting. I’m travelling with my co-adventurer, Chris, the Calvin to my inner Hobbes, and we’ve just landed in Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous archipelago off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

And so begins my first foray onto this new and exotic continent. We board the 12-seater Cessna that will transport us from bustling Ugunja (the main island, to which we’ll return at the end of the trip for a day of sightseeing) to rustic and less-travelled Pemba, for a week of diving in its pristine waters 50km to the north. I’ve been incredibly busy these past weeks, and have had little time to do much more than find lodging. So what I know of where we’re headed is roughly this: Pemba is a volcanic island (unlike Ugunja, which was attached to the mainland at some point in its geological evolution); as such, Pemba is purported to be hillier and more lush than its sister-isles. These are fertile spice islands, known worldwide for their quality cloves. They also grow cardamom, star anise and cinnamon. The dive sites are reportedly pristine. Electricity is via generator. Internet is sporadic. There is no hot water. Local fauna includes the galago or bushbaby. All my senses (tentacles?) are on high alert.

Pemba Pemba.

C and I are the only foreigners on the small plane (I, more foreign than he in these parts, since Americans are not travelling abroad much these days, especially to predominantly Muslim destinations) and I am seated next to a petite older woman with perfect skin. She’s wearing traditional Islamic dress, the Abaya and headscarf, and mouths prayers to herself for the duration of the flight. We two are the only women on board and she and I smile and nod at each other in greeting. The men chat in Swahili and take selfies. This flight feels no different than any of the other small puddle-jumpers I’ve taken in far-flung locales over the years, save the outfits; the cobalt and turquoise of the water as we fly over reminds me of what awaits.

Eddie picks us up in his air-conditioned van, and with good humour tells us of his life on Pemba. He is one of 5 children from one of his father’s 4 wives. In the back seat, we do quick math and estimate 28 siblings. We’re not-so subtly reminded that we’re the anomaly in a culture accustomed to child brides and polygamy. Real Housewives of Pemba could be a thing, I think, as Eddie alludes to the modern challenges inherent to these old customs.

I can’t help but feel, as we pass scores of half-built, thatch-roofed mud houses during this ride to our destination, that we’re meant to find gratitude for the plenty we have that enables this adventure in a land of have-not. Houses half-built due to lack of resources, the building of which I could probably fund with my meagre pocket money. It’s a mixed feeling: a respect for those who can do so much with so little and shame (or maybe it’s guilt) for having relatively much and with it buying hedonistic thrill. I find comfort in the fact that my bag contains some gifts for a local school in Zanzibar, which I will deliver at the end of the trip.

We bump and bounce across subtly-paved roads, dodging chickens and scrawny cows, motos, bicycles and pedestrians as we wend our way through Pemba’s remote villages to Swahili Divers and Gecko Nature Lodge on the northwest side of the island. It’s remote, for a given value of remote in this place. The nearest village is called Makangale, about 5km away. The jungled countryside is a lush and vibrant rainbow of greens; the ground, in contrast, is dusty and dry. Rainy season looms in the not-too-distant future. We pass multiple dala dalas, the local mini-buses, piled-high with bodies and cargo; going where, I’m not clear, as larger villages give way to smaller and we enter a stretch of road that takes us through the Ngezi Forest Reserve, a protected swath of jungle at the north tip of the island. As if on cue, a band of Pemba vervet monkeys makes an appearance. We slow for a photo op, and they retreat into the trees after seeming to approve our passage. After over an hour of driving, we arrive at our destination; one of only a handful of guest houses and hotels on the entire island. Remote is an understatement. The air smells of jasmine, and the contented buzz of the honey bees in the trees resonates along with the sound of cicadas and birdsong to create something of a soundtrack to the already long day (and it’s still before noon).

We are greeted by a veritable United Nations… our hosts are Russian, French and Batswana. Staff is local. We later meet other guests from the UK and Ireland, Argentina and Denmark. You never know who you’ll meet in these sorts of places, and among our diving companions are an IT geek, an Argentinian telenovela star, a pediatrician, a kite surfing champ and a Richard Branson wanna-be.

The first day is for getting settled and acclimated to the place, as the term “Africa hot” is articulating its definition. After this, we quickly fall into the diver’s routine: Wake. Eat. Dive. Surface interval and snacks. Dive. Eat. Siesta. Play. Eat. Talk about the day’s dives. Crash; hard.

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Njao Gap

On our first day of diving, we head south to Njao Gap. This easily becomes one of my top 5 dives ever after the first 5 minutes of the first dive. And so goes the rest of the day. Unlike the diving we did in Thailand last year, these waters live up to their reputation as containing pristine and insanely vibrant reefs. Being hard-to-access has its benefits, namely thriving schools of fish and spectacularly healthy soft and hard corals.

Day 2 is Lighthouse Point. Less impressive because it is a more exposed dive site and therefore more susceptible to damage from storms and current. That’s not to say the dives weren’t amazing, just… already spoiled by Njao.

Day 3 blows both Njao and Lighthouse out of the proverbial (and crystal-clear) waters. At Fundu Gap, we’re carried away, quite literally, by the massive current. I am nonetheless mesmerised by this dive site, with its exquisite coral and teeming schools. The dive is not without its hazards, as I am bitten by a rogue clownfish protecting its den from the paparazzi. I’ve nicknamed him Cujo. And, although I’m ridiculed on the dive boat, I wear my battle scars well. The boat ride home treats us to a rainy season surprise; a downpour of the tropical torrent variety, soaking our already waterlogged bodies to the core.

Day 4 is back to Njao and then a final farewell at Fundu for Day 5, where the (even stronger) current whisks us across the wall at what felt like warp speed. Imagine sticking your head in a jacuzzi jet, trying to swim and simultaneously navigate its rollercoaster of current. Hearts racing, we surface, and glad to be back on the boat too…that last dive was harrowing at times.

Over the course of the week, we see impressive schools of surgeonfish, glassfish (cardinalfish), and butterfly fish, some little brownish-red ones I need to look up. We see tons of clownfish and anemonefish, plus my favourites from this region – the Moorish idol (think Gill in Finding Nemo), plus moray eels, spotted garden eels, trumpetfish, triggerfish, a very cool mantis shrimp, which I had never seen on a dive before, a dozen types of nudibranchs and the little goodies – fire gobies and a little orange and white cutie that looks like a drum of some sort and I can’t find it in a fish book. Of Nemo fame, we’ve seen the gang: Jacques (banded coral or cleaner shrimp), Peach (starfish), Deb (black and white damselfish), Bubbles (yellow tang), Bloat (puffer), Gurgle (fairy basslet) and of course Dory (blue tang), as Pemba is known to be home to over 400 fish species. My inner mermaid does backflips at each dive site.

Between lunch and dinner, which is eaten late here to accommodate sunset-watching, there are siestas on the deck and mini adventures. One afternoon we took bikes to nearby Ngezi Forest Reserve for a guided walk through the jungle. Our guide was most useful in pointing out the ginormous millipedes that he promised wouldn’t kill us. And the gracious great hornbills that took my breath away on first sight. Then he showed us the bats. Pemba is home to a species of giant bat called the Pemba flying fox that looks more like a cross between a Pomeranian and an accordion, only much larger. Luckily, they live high in the trees and don’t seem to have much interest in humans.

The locals, however, show a great deal of interest in us, greeting our foreign faces with shouts of “bye bye” – its origin indeterminate. We’ve learnt some local greetings, too: jambo (hello); asante (thank you); karibu (welcome); and we try to incorporate these as we ride through the village. The smiles, stares and waves follow us like we’re celebrities. There are simply No. Tourists. Here… Bliss.

Another afternoon, we kayak south to Njao gap, exploring the unspoiled coastline, hoping that this place remains as undeveloped as most of the other places one reads about in travel mags aren’t. We explore the rocky shores, finding limestone outcroppings teeming with crabs (the click-click of their claws on the volcanic rock sounds like a miniature tap dance recital) and a mangrove-lined lagoon rife with birdsong, paddling back to home base just as the sun begins to set over the Indian Ocean.

And so the African sun also sets on our last evening at the lodge. The next morning is an early wake-up call to catch a flight back to Zanzibar for a day in Stone Town, the island’s old capital.

[Part II: Stone Town: Spices. Ivory. Slaves.]

And read Chris’ interpretation of our trip here: Perfect Pemba.

A Year of Dog Wisdom: Reflections on what this year had in store.

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Last year, I wrote an article called On Messing Up the Bed and Other Things I’ve Learnt From My Dog. Having an aging companion, we begin to reflect upon the things they add to our lives and the things we learn as our days with them become of the numbered variety. And so, on January 1st I tasked myself with a project. Seemingly simple, I was going to take one picture of my dog each day and post on Instagram. Lest I become boring or, gods forbid, that crazy dog lady, I began to add anecdotes and, as the weeks marched on, Dog Wisdom. And so began the #instagus project.

In June, I wrote a story, A Month (or so) of Dog Wisdom, reflecting on the first leg of the journey. Several weeks later, I was asked to write about the project for Pup Journal, and the result was an essay on the whys and hows of embarking (get it?) on this year-long photo essay.

Against a backdrop of fear, name-calling, hate-mongering, loss (So. Many. Untimely. Deaths.), frustration, exhaustion, disbelief, anger, resentment, uncertainty, instability (…) this year, I was determined to focus on the simple truths of what was known, the realities of what lay in front of me and the notion that I am only able to change myself, how I view the world and how I interact with it each day. Dog wisdom channels Yogic wisdom, and one wonders where each begins and ends. Perhaps dogs are, in fact, the ultimate yogis.

During the year, what emanated from the posts were pleas for introspection, for kindness, for an adherence to values. Dogs teach us that there is magic in simplicity, that a methodical butt-sniff tells us if we’re dealing with friend or foe (regardless of breed or gender or silly dog attire), that kindness exists regardless of pedigree or socioeconomic status. And in this surreal year, a year in which humans tried to teach us that we must deceive and humiliate and pimp out our values in order to win; that a book should not be read, and moreover, should be judged by its cover; that some lives are more important than others; that money trumps pretty much everything, I’ve been compelled to live by Dog Wisdom rather than emulate these human actions. If I’m frank, humans have not been good for humanity this year.

I thought it fitting to wrap up this chaotic, merciless, infamous 2016 with a some of my favourite Dog Wisdom posts and reflections on how this galumphing, snoring, sometimes smelly-headed, fart machine helped me get through this year…

While uncertainty reigns, hold fast to the values of truth, integrity, humanity, kindness; appreciate natural beauty. Satya. Ahimsa. Asteya. Bramacharya. Aparigraha.

Dogs don’t see uncertainty around them, the world is just what it is. We humans project our fears, biases and ignorance on the world we encounter each day, while dogs see (and seek) love, food, shelter and kindness. Yoga teaches us 5 Yamas — Satya (truth); Ahimsa (non-harming); Asteya (non-stealing); Bramacharya (restraint); Aparigraha (non-grasping) — I’ve found these to be powerfully simple guides to help get through the overwhelming barrage of negativity that 2016 flung at us.

Dogs help us see that happiness is a good stick, a walk in the woods on a perfectly crisp fall day, and a warm place to sleep. They teach us to cherish the little things and seek adventure (or at least the spirit of it) in the everyday routine. 2016 sucked in countless ways. But there were highlights, too. There were parties and friends coming to visit; faraway holidays and European chocolates; neighbors helping neighbors and free concerts; hiking and kayaking and swimming in the ocean and beautiful sunrises…

Set intention, allow for the unknown, and the Universe responds in interesting ways.

Ever notice that when you stop fighting and yearning for something very specific, if you really identify what it is you’d like to see realised and stop making things so complicated, that opportunities and ideas and resources make themselves available? Dogs seem to go at their days with the intention of a nice romp or a long walk or simply earning a treat. The chased squirrels and found tennis balls and random dogish interactions are part of the journey. Canines show us that it’s our job to conjure up a willingness to explore every day, and embrace a belief that there’s just a little bit of magic left in the Universe to help things work out.

Focus intently on that which is in front of you. Expect bumps because there are no perfectly smooth paths; in doing so, distractions won’t warrant that much attention when they arise.

Yoga sutra 1.30 says that there are several kinds of obstacles that can be expected (doubt, carelessness, laziness, failure to detach from want, ungroundedness, illness, etc.) that distract us and get in the way of our path. By focusing on the immediate, the real, the stuff going on in front of our eyes, we can live less mired by the “what-ifs” that usually don’t come to fruition unless we let them. By paying attention, we can get more out of what we’ve got instead of attaching expectation (or anticipation of failure) to what may never come to pass. In this way, we don’t take for granted the good, we can let go of what isn’t serving us, and most of all, we can appreciate the cosmic humour in daily life.

Dog Wisdom: 99% of car rides result in an adventure. Our minds get mired in the “what-ifs” of misadventure that detract from the possibility of great adventures ahead.

This is the important stuff: Taking time to sniff out the truth. Listening to the heart. Letting go of what keeps us small and fearful. Surrounding yourself with those who care about your imperfect self. Giving to, or doing for, those who need it more than you do. Laughing at, and learning from, your mistakes. Sharing what makes you feel strong. Spending an afternoon in the forest. Listening to the soft snoring of a woods-weary pup…


Happy 2017, my friends… here’s to a new year full of possibility and new adventures.

And to 2016: You’ve been unceremoniously unfriended. Please don’t write.

[this essay cross-posted on Medium]

India, Day 1 (plus 730)

2014-12-21-12-24-41-1Two years ago today, I set off on the trip that would become the one to which I compare most others. After a whirlwind stopover in London, I was officially en route to Delhi, which was start and end to an almost 3-week adventure in Rajasthan.

I didn’t climb K2 or bathe in the Ganges; nor did I do yoga or a meditative retreat in an ashram in Rishikesh. Instead, I did sun salutations on the marble floor of a renovated haveli in Jodhpur on Christmas morning, to the sounds of a goat bleating to be let into the hotel’s lobby. I drank hand-brewed chai from a terra cotta cup on a dirt road in a dusty village market in Jojawar. I drank Kingfishers and danced to Bollywood music wearing a kurta (and a bindi) on New Year’s Eve in Jaipur. I walked the market streets of Pushkar before the bustling day began, to be blessed by a Brahmin priest by the magical Pushkar Lake. I got lost coming home from a mind-bending trip the Swaminarayan Akshardam in Delhi. I rode a camel; haggled for deals in markets; visited forts built in the middle ages; saw new puppies and starving dogs; smiled and shared tea with strangers; travelled on an overnight train; inhaled the aromas of amazing street food as well as those of the human condition; saw Delhi’s famed smog as well as its blue skies; tasted the best jalebi and samosas and aubergine curry and lassi and dosas I’ve ever had…and, yes, I saw the Taj Mahal. The toilet story was the best of that day, tho.

India was an experience for every physical sense, plus some senses I didn’t know how to tap into until I came home and began reflecting.

As I think about the coming year and begin to plan the shells of future wanders and adventures I wanted to share India Day 1, my first blog post and in it, the words that fail to adequately depict the shell shock that is one’s first contact with the entity that is India. [I hope you enjoy reading that post as much as I did writing it.]

Here is a full list of the India blog posts:

India, Day 1

Street Walking in Delhi

Night Train to Jodhpur

Christmas Eve 7000 Miles from Home

The Hidden Fortress at Kumbhalgarh

Falling in Love…AKA I (heart) Udaipur

Travelling Back in Time: Jojawar

Pushkar: Holy City By The Lake

New Year’s in Jaipur: Now is What Matters

Outskirts of Agra: More Time Travel and Amber That Shines Like Gold

Agra, Part 1: Where Mughal Emperors Reign(ed)

Agra, Part II: The Taj, and a Word About Public Toilets in India

Solo in Delhi: Day 1

Solo in Delhi, Day 2: Wherein I Find My Temple and Learn the Gods’ Days

Delhi: Grand Hearts, Shining Brightly

Where do you stay: on Impermanence and making an impact…

 

Fish out of water: 5 ways to harness daily wonder (courtesy of a diver on dry land)

eel1As I was walking my dog on a dreary, rainy, cold early December morning, I noticed some haphazard shoots growing out from under the rickety wooden steps of a multi-family house. I pass this house daily, sometimes multiple times a day, on my walks. It’s an unimpressive front lawn, arbitrarily sprouting ornaments in the form of random trash or the occasional creepy garden gnome. Shoots noted, I walked on.

The thought occurred to me then, that if it were an underwater common-as-anything porch (coral outcropping, if you will) sprouting tendrils from a dark place, not only would I have stopped, but I would have circled back, pulled out my camera and strobe and stuck head (and/or hand) into the unknown, full of hopeful wonder.

I’ve been a scuba diver for two decades. In the deep blue, magic lurks in the crevices, sea life sparkling and undulating with the current. Above water, magic barely splutters, remaining hopeful like un-popped corn, that it might get a chance to fly before the heat is switched off.*

What diving has taught me is patience and observation and wonder and marvel… it has taught me to notice small things that look just a hair out of place. It has taught me to appreciate the fragility of our ecosystem. Diving has taught me the subtleties of breath and to believe that there is subtle magic in what we encounter every day, depending how we look at things.

Sure, it would be peculiar here on dry land, poking around under strangers’ porches, rooting around in their garden beds, standing uninvited in backyards looking for critters… But let’s take Poseidon’s teachings to dry land and see if they work.

1. Pay attention to the natural world.

Look and listen. What is it trying to say? What is unique about today? Are we missing everyday beauty by walking too quickly, looking down at our phones, avoiding eye contact with strangers?

2. Observe one exceptional thing every day.

Think about its place in the Universe…contemplate yours. I saw a pileated woodpecker in the woods last weekend, watched as it flitted tree-to-tree. I spent ten minutes watching this amazing creature. It wasn’t the first one I’d ever seen, but each time I do brings out a swell of wonder that is hard to quantify.

3. Breathe.

Divers know that underwater we never hold our breath. We know that slow, deep and steady breathing helps conserve air. We know that small inhalations and exhalations manage buoyancy. We know that bubbles are our friends.

On land, observing our breath helps us be present — it helps us relax and evaluate the cacophonous chaos unfurling around us. Breathing consciously and not always just mechanically makes a world of difference. Nature sometimes makes us hold our breath, awaiting the cool thing that comes next… on dry land, seek that feeling out. Underwater, we learn to breathe in harmony with our surroundings.

4. Anticipate…don’t just wait.

There is a sense of entitlement in the act of waiting. I am a firm believer that we are not entitled to anything, and that we must appreciate each day, each sunrise, each kind person that enters our lives, each small treasure and each creature comfort. As we walk (drive, ride, run, jog, swim…) through our very fortunate Western lives, we plan well into the future, we think about the next thing to consume, we save for the unexpected, focusing on ourselves and taking for granted today. Instead of simply waiting and wanting more, let’s relish the anticipation, appreciate and delight in what’s to come, find joy in the planning, all without neglecting the small wonders of the sometimes unremarkable Now.

5. Believe in magic.

Not hocus-pocus trickery, but the marvel and the spectacular that is inherent in everyday life. Someone shares a secret; the silly thing a pet does to make you smile when you’re sad; a child’s discovery that made you grin from ear to ear; the blooming flowers where you least expect them; a call from an old friend out of the blue just when you’re thinking about them; pieces of a plan, like synchronicity, falling into place; the shoot growing, just peeking out from underneath a porch…

With daily headlines that border on the absurd, the darkness of winter closing its ranks, the chaos of the holidays bearing down on us, I invite non-divers to share in the spirit of Poseidon, Neptune, Varuna, Njord or the myriad other sea deities and borrow ocean wisdom from a diver on dry land.


*Alternate wisdom on the decline of magic, courtesy ChrisGoja: Above water, magic has become scarce, faltering like embers about to die, merely winking at us at times, as if to attract that one morsel that might nurture it back to life… 💜

(cross-posted from Medium)

The InstaGus 2017 Dog Wisdom calendar is here…

By popular demand, I’ve created a 2017 InstaGus Dog Wisdom calendar. In this calendar, you’ll get 12 months of photos and life lessons from my InstaGus series.

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I will be donating the proceeds to the North Shore Community Development Coalition, a non-profit I’ve been involved with for 10+ years, and on the Board of Directors for 8 or 9 of those. Among other things over these years, I’ve seen the organisation create exceptional, quality, environmentally-friendly affordable housing in the towns we serve. I’ve seen them give first-time homebuyer training, work with the community and the police to create safer open spaces for our neighborhoods, provide English as a Second Language courses, help community members get to the polls and establish a YouthBuild chapter here in our backyards, giving kids individual empowerment and a path to a diploma, professional certification and jobs within our immediate area.

If that’s not building community in all manner of speaking, I don’t know what is…and we need all the community building we can get these days!
CLICK HERE to purchase a calendar (they make great stocking stuffers!)
and if you’d like to read a bit more about the InstaGus project, here are two articles:
Please and Thank You… Happy Holidays!

Support the North Shore CDC: Buy this calendar on Lulu.