Wednesday, 18 November 2009

In which one of us encounters a sea urchin and comes off worst

November 8th

To eat breakfast on the beach seems normal these days; it’s as if we’ve always done it. Fruit, fresh bread, omelette and pineapple jam (the latter is an in-joke within our little travelling group. Tina, I hope you’re reading this!). After which we pack our bags and move the few hundred yards to “Les Toits de Palme”. (Apparently one of the owners was French, hence the name, but he pulled out some time ago).

We manage to negotiate a good price for a three bed room, $40 per night between the three of us. The room needs a bit of TLC; the bathroom light bulb has blown, the fan doesn’t work and they’ve forgotten to put in toilet paper, but it’s comfortable and clean. (We never do get the light bulb or fan sorted, either. Life’s too short sometimes).

We decide on another lazy day; I spend a lot of the morning lounging around in a hammock with all my laundry spread out around me, waiting for it to dry. The girls chat and look at the craft stalls. After a while we all do the line of craft stalls; everyone is selling almost identical stuff – paintings, bracelets, wood carvings, earrings, shawls.

Eventually we get bored and walk up into Kendwa village for a change of scene. There’s not a lot there – a grocery store or two, a travel and tours agency and a very good café called Kijiji which sells the same food as Les Toits de Palme but at cheaper prices. (The menus are identical and printed in exactly the same style. They must be owned by the same family). I love the chubby octopus painted on the wall and take a picture. We decide to sample the food and are very impressed (prawn masala); the only down side is that at lunchtime there are a lot of flies. (We come back the following evening and have a completely fly-free time, so we are just unlucky today).

To get to the village we have to run the gauntlet of taxi drivers and other men all trying to make us commit to their tours or use their services. Of course, they assume we’re fragile newbies to Africa and not used to squashing into daladalas. But who in their right mind would pay 10—15000 per head, even in an air conditioned luxury taxi, for a ride which you could do for 1500 in a daladala and have the advantage of all the local colour? Not us, that’s for sure!

After lunch we drift back to our hut to snooze and wait out the heat. The beach is just picture postcard perfect. There’s lots of hibiscus and bougainvillea, a lot of shade trees back from the high water mark, and some guest houses are even planting more trees which is a good sign. As at Bwejuu most of the buildings are thatched and considering their size they blend well into the background. Only in the most ostentatious resorts are the buildings too assertive – too big and out of scale, and thrust too far forwards onto the sand so they try to claim the beach for themselves. In a few places guest houses have started to close off sections of beach, and I fear that before long it will only be possible to walk along the entire beach at low tide. That will be a real shale if it happens, and further proof that tourism so often seems to destroy the very assets it seeks to exploit.

The beach is wide, and at the rear there is the same low coral cliff, about ten to fifteen feet high, that we found on Changuu island. It seems to be commonplace on Zanzibar. Perhaps the sea level has fallen recently. Our hut is situated right at the edge of this cliff so we are raised up away from line of sight of people wandering on the beach, and just high enough to catch some breeze which would be stifled if we were underneath the coconut trees on the beach itself. It’s still barely a hundred yards from our front door to the water, and all of it over sand.

The downside is that the entire beach is in the process of being “developed”; there is already no piece of “wild” beach left. And as pressure grows from the upmarket package holiday resorts at each end of Kendwa, the few remaining laid back original businesses such as Les T de P will have to close or adapt. In some ways we are already three years too late in coming here, but in three more years we would have been terribly disappointed after the quiet and emptiness of Bwejuu. Already there is practically nowhere for the locals to come to the beach to swim or to walk.

After an hour or so Épi and I want to go swimming. It is low tide; the sea looks as if all the colours have been enhanced. You can see the sandy bottom for hundreds of yards out to sea. Every now and then there is a patch of weedy growth on the bottom, but most of the patches are deep enough to swim over.

I’m well out to sea, swimming out to and round the moored boats. Épi is close inshore. Suddenly she yelps in pain and shouts for me to come and help her. Not realising she’s over some of the weed, she’s put her foot down too low and accidentally brushed over the top of a sea urchin. The urchin has shot at least nine spines into her foot. She’s in great pain and can’t walk. Poor Épi; she didn’t even tread on the urchin but just brushed it. There can’t be many urchins on this beach, even at low tide, and she’s been monumentally unlucky to have encountered one.

We get her ashore and up to the Les T de P bar. The barman calls some of his friends over and within a few minutes Épi’s being treated by four young men, including Geoff, the barman, and Simon, the boss. I see that in my travel medicine guide it recommends bathing the foot in hot water to get the spines out, but we are being given the local remedy which is more colourful.

One lad is despatched to find unripe pawpaws (papayas), someone else to get some kerosene, while a third pulls off part of a coconut palm branch. He strips the green part away and uses a penknife to whittle the tough fibrous centre stalk into a series of makeshift needles. Meanwhile Épi’s looking more and more apprehensive at the thought of the kitchen table surgery to come.

They puncture the pawpaw skins with the needles so that a white, sticky sap oozes out and they smear this all over the affected part of her foot to deaden the pain. Next they bathe her foot in kerosene which seems to draw the fragments of spine back up towards the skin surface. Eventually someone comes with a couple of small limes from the bar and these are cut in half and the juice smeared over her foot. At this point the lads start digging into her foot with the makeshift needles to get the spine fragments out (the photos for today are self explanatory). Épi’s still in real pain; we get her a gin to take her mind off things…. Some Zanzibaris are having afternoon tea at the bar; they immediately recognise what has happened and are sympathetic. It’s an occupational hazard when you live and work on these beaches and I guess it’s happened to all of them at some time or another. Even if you wear flip flips you are still vulnerable around your ankles. And I remember as a much younger man when I went on an expedition to the Caribbean and accidentally sat on a sea urchin in the water; fortunately a far smaller and less potent one that that which Épi has crossed swords with.

It takes a long time to clean out the wound, and even minus the spines in her foot Épi’s still hobbling. After this experience we rest a while, and then go for another walk along the beach at sunset. A local man is walking along the sand carrying his harpoon gun and an armful of octopus which he’ll sell to one of the guest houses – from swimming in the ocean to cooked and eaten in just a couple of hours. Les Toits de Palme is all laid back and laissez faire; at some of the other resorts there are uniformed guards to keep non-residents off the private hammocks and prevent mere plebs like us from treading their upmarket sand…. It makes us laugh. We’re getting the same sun, sea, sand and general ambiance for a fraction of the prices these other people are paying. And while they may look down on us sweating up the lanes in the heat of the day with our backpacks, at least we are meeting the locals on the road and talking to them. I bet we speak to more Zanzibaris per day than they do! (OK, get off your soapbox – Ed).

As the sun sets and darkness falls we once again eat out on the beach; this time its fish in coconut juice with cold beers all round. I think Soraya and I have decided we won’t touch anything except seafood until we’re back in Rwanda. It sure puts goat brochettes and mélange in their place at the rearguard of culinary experience….

Our hut is a funny structure; it has a low ceiling consisting of wire mesh sprayed with some sort of plaster to make it waterproof and give it rigidity. Above it there’s an enormous void, and finally a palm roof some ten to fifteen feet higher up. You could fit a second storey above our room and still have space to spare for air circulation. It’s a really unusual design, but big enough for us and surprisingly comfortable. We like it. There’s a little sitting out place in the front with table and chairs, and we can watch the world go by and speak to the three Swedish girls in the hut next door…..

At the foot of the stairs leading up the cliff to our rooms (we are in one of about six huts) the bar staff have put a hurricane lamp, and more lamps outside every hut to show where the entrance steps are. We have electric light, of course, but the oil lamps give a gentle light and we think it makes a romantic and offbeat ambiance to our lodgings.

On the beach there are casuarinas pines as well as coconuts. Their roots are extremely shallow and spread out for yards and yards in all direction, sometimes just above the sand surface. They are always threatening to trip you up, especially after dark. And the fruit of the casuarinas trees consists of tiny cones the size of hazel nuts, but covered with sharp ridges. Put your instep down on one of them and you certainly feel it!

As we’re trying to get to sleep the bar is playing lovely Congolese music, not loud enough to be intrusive but very pleasant to listen to. By just after nine we’re all in bed and trying to sleep. The girls are next to a window each, but my corner of the hut is terribly humid and I find it really hard to get to sleep. Soraya has discovered lizard poo on her bed so keeps the mosquito net draped day and night.

Gitarama feels a zillion miles away.

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