By Uche Amunike
It was taught when I was growing up that holidays are a very vital part of life. Even ordinary weekends during my childhood were well utilized in my home. In those days, we never spent Sundays at home. It was like a routine. On Saturdays, my parents took us to the Federal Palace Hotel in Victoria Island, Lagos to watch the Police Band play all sorts of live music. Other times, we watched Bongos Ikwue play live shows there. It was so much fun. On Sundays, we made the first stop at St. Dominic's Catholic Church in Lagos and then off to Bar Beach, which was the best beach in Lagos State at the time. It was probably the only beach in Lagos back then. My Mum usually cooked, packed the food and some snacks; we packed our mats, toys and board games. Since we spent most of the day at the beach, sometimes we were allowed to take our homework along and stole out time to do them at some point since we were usually too exhausted to do much else after getting home in the evenings. I also remember the horse rides at the Bar Beach and the suya and cocktails locally prepared right there by locals. Life was definitely good and simple back then. Again, during the holidays, we were regular travelers with the Nigerian Airways. This was usually during the long vacations. We traveller to Enugu or Port Harcourt. Holidays are something my siblings and I looked forward to back then, and we still do!
That was over three decades ago and things have truly changed. The state of our country, Nigeria has made it almost impossible for people to have simple things like family outings and holidays as much as they would want to. The economic crunch is so severe that the uppermost thing in the minds of most Nigerian parents is usually school fees and how to provide their children with their basic needs. Most Nigerians work round the clock and push the idea of holidays outside their list of priorities. Little wonder then, that the rate of hypertensive cases has shot quite high and even young people are being diagnosed of stroke and depression. So sad, really!
Anyway, I have been meaning to go on a vacation for a while now. Last week, I took my leave at the office and walked away from all my daily struggles from work and family and traveled outside the shores of Nigeria.
This is something I have been meaning to do but have been postponing it for so many reasons. I, however, woke up one day and told myself that I have only one life to live and the moment I do not live it full circle, I just might be filled with regrets in the future when it might have been too late for regrets. I called my two sisters who are both resident in the United States and told them of my plan to go on vacation. They were ecstatic because we used to travel at least once a year until things became really tough and my job didn't make it easy for me to travel. The last time we travelled on holiday was a few years ago. I was in private practice then, so I had all the time in the world. We had a great time in Dubai that year and the memories still linger. So, we had a conference call and decided to go to somewhere on the beach. After many deliberations, we settled for Zanzibar Island in Tanzania. It's somewhere in East Africa.
Once we agreed on a location, next step was to set a date that worked for all of us. We coordinated our calendars, checked with our employers and chose a date! My elder sister, Iruka was to come down from Atlanta, Georgia; my little sister, Vivian was to come in from Fontana, California; I was to come in from good old Naija. My younger brother's wife, Nkechi insisted on coming with us, so I left Naija with her. We set out to explore Zanzibar and its environs for one week. We had so much love, laughter, stories and great times with the most amazing women I know.
Our first stop was at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where we stayed for two days before heading to Zanzibar. We had a good experience at Addis Ababa. The first thing that struck me was the friendly disposition of the Ethiopians. Their immigration officers were also very professional. They did their jobs and let you go unlike their Nigerian counterparts that would make sure you parted with money the moment you came around them. For them, it's always about the tip they would get from you. They seemed to have this erroneous belief that anyone who was traveling had so much money to throw around. Ethiopia was certainly beautiful but extremely cold. Unfortunately, it rained the entire time we were there so we could not really get to move round the town like we intended. I observed that their environment was quite clean. I also loved their coffee. It was really strong and had good flavour.
We left for Zanzibar Island on the third day and that was where I actually had more fun than I envisaged. My very good friend, Emmanuel Obe who did a term paper on Zanzibar, gave me a brief history of the Island prior to my trip. Zanzibar was amalgamated with the mainland, Tangayika to form Tanzania. So, Zanzibar can be likened to what Mombasa is to Kenya or what Bombay (Mumbai) is to India.
Like Addis Ababa, the first thing that struck me in Zanzibar was their friendliness and the seamless way we passed through the airport. They were extremely professional. This was the quickest I have ever passed through immigration and customs. Getting a taxi to the hotel was also a very structured process. You didn't have people ambushing you when you stepped out of the airport. There was a small taxi stand. I walked to the stand and told them my hotel address. They pulled out a price sheet, told me the cost and called the next taxi in the queue to take me. No haggling; no stress; no worries. Their favorite phrase here is 'hakuna matata' or 'hakuna shida' which means 'no worries' and 'no problems' respectively.
We checked into Hotel Tembo where we experienced, yet again, the hospitality of the Zanzibaris. They went out of their way to make us feel like we were at home. They had this amazing cleanliness about them and it showed in the way they run their hotel. From the reception area to the rooms and indeed, in every part of the hotel, all their staff members wore a smile and seemed eager to please their guests. Their food was exotic and they have this amazing culinary mastery of the best kind of foods for both their natives and guests alike. They have great chefs and I guess that part of the reasons their food was tasty lies in the fact that they are known as the spice capital of the world. Zanzibar is one of the world's leading producers of spices, such as cloves, garlic, turmeric, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, etc. Their spice farm is actually a tourist attraction where tourists from all over the world visit in groups. We visited the Maganga Spice Farm and we were led through the massive farm from plant to plant, tasting the seeds, smelling the leaves and learning about various ways to use the spices in food, drinks and even makeup! At one of the stops on the tour, a Coconut Climber climbed the coconut tree in acrobatic swings while singing their native song and plucked a coconut for us and we drank the water as a sign of gratitude. At another stop, we tried several fruits that grow in the farm – pineapples, oranges, jack fruit, etc. The tour ended at a spice market where most tourists buy a lot of these spices as souvenirs.
Zanzibar is a Muslim country. Most women we came across wore the hijab (the veil that covers their head and chest). I saw groups of little girls in similar attires and was surprised to learn that the Muslim attire was actually their school uniform. I honestly didn't know what to think of it except that if there were Christians in that city, they would certainly be so few that their safety might just be threatened, were it not that Zanzibar is a city known for relative peace and tranquility. Talking about Christians, though, as we walked through the streets in one of those days during our tour of the city, we came across a gigantic edifice that stood just there at the labyrinth of the narrow street in a place called Stone Town. It was the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Joseph which is regarded as one of the most important buildings in Stone Town and a major tourist attraction. It was founded in 1860 and it has seven out-stations. The main entrance is often closed which makes it look deserted but the back gate is usually open and that's where the few Catholic locals attend masses on Sundays.
The official language here is Swahili even though many locals also speak Arabic. However, most of the Islanders speak English, but with a thick Zanzibari accent. Meanwhile, their currency is the Tanzanian Shilling which is worth more than the Naira of good old Naija. That got me truly sad. Midway through the week, we decided to experience a different part of the Island and checked into a different hotel. We chose the beautiful Golden Tulip Zanzibar Resort. I'm glad our sense of adventure brought us here. Their hospitality was impeccable, the food was great and the view from our oceanfront room was simply divine. We will always treasure the sweet memories we experienced here.
As we traversed through this very beautiful and peaceful city from Stone Town to Zanzibar City to Nungwi, one thing that struck me was how orderly everything was. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry. I spent six days here but never heard the sound of a car horn or even that of a motorcycle, both in the streets or the highway. It was so calm. There was no case of impatient driving or blasting of car horns or swearing words by motorists. Discipline and order reigned supreme. Believe me when I say that Nigeria has such a long way to go. If only our leaders can visit such places once in a while and feel the pulse of these amazing people, they just might learn one or two lessons from them.
Another highlight of the trip was spending all day on the beach. We took long walks, had lunch on the ocean front and hung out with the Zanzibaris. It was truly surreal. The highpoint of my trip was my birthday! My sisters planned an elegant dinner to celebrate my birthday on our last night in Zanzibar. We all live several miles apart so we rarely spend birthdays together any more. They pulled out all the stops – cake, champagne, music, etc. I felt so special and was really glad they were able to spend my birthday with me.
All in all, our trip was really fun and fulfilling. It was really nice to be able to slow down. Life is beautiful. Hakuna matata!