I was excited to head to the beach. We’ve been on the road for 9 and a bit months and were ready for a relaxing final week on the shores of the Indian Ocean.
We headed towards the matatu stand and found the bus we needed: the 118 to Matemwe in the north-east of the island, the number on a sticker in the windscreen. The local buses in Zanzibar are essentially small converted lorries with covers on the top and benches built inside. It’s very cosy and we’re crammed in like sardines, our hip bones crunching against each other. Just when you think there’s no way another bottom can fit in that tiny little space, another bottom fits in that tiny little space. When room on the benches runs out, people hunker down in the middle, holding onto the low ceiling and swaying with the movement over the potholes.
Women in full burkas with their faces covered climb in. Their feet and hands are elaborately hennaed and they have beautiful bejewelled headscarves and purses. One women looks askance at my bare shoulders and I pull a scarf over my vest top.
We reach the end of the road at Matemwe and tumble gratefully out the back of the lorry. When we reach the guesthouse we’d booked, the owner Milo appears and is apologetic: the heavy rain has damaged some rooms and they are doing renovation and repair work, and would we mind if he upgraded us to his other property? He drives us to Zanzibar Bandas, a little further along the village and we’re blown away. We’re given our own little cottage made of coconut wood and matting, there’s a huge bed and an open shower and lots of coconut bath products (luxury for a girl that has been eking out the last of her 2-in-1 travel shampoo bar!)
We step out onto the veranda and then take three steps down on to the beach, it’s white sand fine and powdery like flour. We watch the dusk fall over the Indian Ocean, there’s a constant breeze on our skin and the sound of the palms clicking and swaying above, the endless rolling of the waves on the shore. I do a little dance of delight: we’ve fallen on our feet here.
In the morning I climb up to a wooden platform overlooking the sea and roll out my yoga mat, begin to stretch and do some sun salutations (hoping they will push back the overcast clouds). Haji, one of the guys working there who is deaf, came up and joined me, copying my moves. Every so often I’d touch his leg or arm to correct a position and he’d give me a thumbs up and a smile. It felt so special. No words needed, just a smile.
Matemwe beach is a wide stretch of white, white sand backed by palm trees. It’s a place where kids run tyres along the beach and play with homemade toys fashioned from sticks, rope and plastic jerry cans. Teenage guys practise flips on the sand or play huge games of football and I shade my eyes with the palm of my hand to look at the waves breaking far out on the reef. We’ve come in rainy season and the days work in cycles: rain and sun and cloud passing through every few hours. We wake most mornings to an overcast sky and, once, a monsoon. The women who harvest seaweed stay out in the torrential rain, blurry figures in the water. But then the sky clear to a deep blue and the sun hot.
Our days blur into each other. Yoga, running, a walk along the beach, reading creased paperbacks from the book exchange, playing board games, swimming. We’re barefoot all day and I can’t remember when we last wore shoes. We try and guess the identities of the other guests: the friendly middle-aged French lesbians, the couple next door who Moz overheard having a big row, the potential Chinese YouTube blogger always on his phone, the lady who says she’s from “infamous Salisbury” and we have no idea what she’s talking about so have to ask. I haven’t switched my phone onto wifi and I’m feeling relaxed and at peace and sleeping well, the sound of the waves rolling in as we fall asleep and wake in the morning, spots of sunlight dancing on the mosquito net.
While Moz goes for a run, I walk behind and breathe deeply. A group of women from the village are out for run too, dressed in yellow pink and blue headscarves; they run up to me to get a high five and I hear them later in the sea shrieking with laughter. Despite eating chips for practically every meal for the past three months, I feel thin and light – sort of blown through by the wind, anchored by the hard sand under my feet. This is the perfect place to end our travels.
There are two kayaks which we take out most days, paddling over the clear waters and spotting spiky sea anemones below. A cloud overhead threatens rain and we turn back, riding on the swell. The little kids playing nearby come to help us drag the kayaks in which involved them sitting in the kayaks and shrieking for us to pull them. The littlest girl energetically tries to carry the paddles and nearly takes Mozza’s eye out.
We’d planned to go snorkelling one day but rain puts paid to that. We sit and play scrabble and drink coffee after coffee. A thunderstorm rolls through and then it’s burning hot. Puffy cumulus nimbus stack up on the horizon, white edged with silver, golden and blue on the horizon. We splash in the pool and catch the late afternoon sun.
We walk along the beach to Mohammad’s, a little family restaurant that’s half built. They bring us delicious grilled calamari, coconut fish, rice, cold beers. We return a few nights later and order the same. Mohammad’s daughter in the waitress and smiles to us, her younger brother Hussein comes and shakes hands, shy. His favourite subject is mathematics and his favourite food is rice.
The sky is full of stars when we walk back. We stand heads back looking at the black blanket above and the milky constellations. “We’ll remember this, Skel” he says.