Every time I land in a new country there is a period of transition; I’ve come to understand this now. A period where I miss the place I just left, struggle to figure out how to get to where I want to be, how to eat what I am hungry for, assess the prices of things in relative terms, scratch and shift uncomfortably in my new room. Such was the case in Zanzibar.
I arrived early in the morning off a red-eye. I was exhausted and dull. The air was thick with moisture. The sun was only just starting to inch above the horizon, but it was already hot. Africa hot. We used to say that as kids growing up in New York City on those unforgiving August days to describe our suffering in the weather – “it’s Africa hot.” We thought we were clever. Here in Zanzibar, I actually was in Africa, and it was actually Africa hot. I humped my luggage into my room and fell asleep.
When I come to shortly after noon, I shake off the sleep and step outside the hotel to survey the area. White sand stretches out to the horizon dotted with black reeds. Sea water pools along the coast line creating streaks of turquoise blue and moss green. Fishing boats sit abandoned in the sand. The tide is out. Far out.. At the horizon a strip of deep blue melts into the endless sky. The endless sky dwarfs the people beneath it. Dwarfs me. The world feels expansive. The air is still. Only the screeching of birds overheard reassures me that I haven’t stepped into a painting. There are no objects, only shapes. There are no inhabitants, only colors: turquoise, cream, black and green.
I walk slowly down the beach. Slowly because I am still tired and jet lagged, slowly because I am melting under the mid day sun, slowly because I am dumbstruck by the beauty stretched out in front of me and I need to take it all in.
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By day three I found my rhythm. Wake at 9am, quick breakfast of fresh local fruit and down to the beach for a swim before the tide rolls out and the day is so hot even the sea provides little relief. Another traveler I met at my guest house, Pawel and I decide to walk out to the where the sand meets the sea – it looks to be about a mile. The idea of jumping off the reef that rims Paje beach, and into deep ocean summons us. We start our journey toward the horizon. The sea can be so deceptive. At one moment we are wading in ankle deep water, another step and we sink in as deep as our knees. For minutes at a time we drop onto our belly and do a careful breast stroke over the patches of rock and seaweed, the sun beating down on our backs which skim the water line. We stand again when the water turns too shallow to swim, and walk, raising our legs high over the water line like flamingos. About 1,000 feet from shore the sandy bottom is spotted with small purple sea urchins. Pawel warns me from stepping on the sea urchins with a story of a friend who ended up in the hospital to get the spines removed from his feet.
Stepping on a sea urchin is one of my earliest childhood memories. We were living in Curaçao at that time. I crawled off the side of our boat and sank to the ocean floor, my small foot landing on the sharp spines. I remember a hand wrapped around my hair pulling me up toward the sunlight. My mother. I remember screaming in pain on the dock while my nanny pulled the spines out of my chubby toddler foot. After that experience the sea felt even more mine.
Captured by that memory I sink back down into the water. It’s not quite deep enough to swim. I float on my belly, legs stretched behind me, arms reaching down in front of me grazing the sandy bottom. I use my fingers, like a paddle, to press against the sand and push my body forward in a kind of hand walk/ glide, careful to avoid the minefield of rocks and urchins only inches below me. I move slowly, carefully. The world around me feels immeasurably large. I feel like a child. I think about how much of emotional healing is about unlocking something essential within yourself.
Before New York City I was I was a happy island child, playing naked by the sea with other happy island children. I learned to swim before I learned to walk. Before my mother was a drunk and my father was gone. Before the names Shirley and Ueli became synonyms in my family for the terrible things that grown men do to little girls. Before my suicide attempt. Before I was adopted and felt the awkward out of place way of not belonging anywhere, or to anyone. Before I worked myself into the hospital in an attempt to cure the incurable place inside me that never felt wanted or loved. Before all of that, I swam in the calm Caribbean waters; I sank to the bottom of the shallow ocean and landed on a sea urchin; my nanny pulled the spines out of my tiny foot, calming my wild screams.
Now I am doing my slow hand walk / swim / glide through the urchin spotted waters, remembering life as it is when we are born. Life before shame. Before fear. Before anger ossifies into hate. Remembering that I was born into love. Remembering that before man’s laws, we are born free. Before me, we were born in Africa 60,000 years ago. Before any of us, we were fish who crawled out of the sea.