I spent the long weekend on the island of Pemba, off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean, north of Zanzibar, and as my archeologist buddy puts, on the bog end of no where. Pemba is a lush green island known for clove plantations, scuba diving and poverty. I was most interested in the second of the three, at least on this trip.
I flew out of Dar on the smallest commercial airliner I have ever been on. There were six of us on the plane. The pilot hopped into the plane, looked back at us, asked okay? Then starts down the runway, taxiing like a drag racer, trying to put on his seat belt while talking to the tower and jaggering with the guy behind him in Swahili. Total African cowboy. The flight itself was definitely noteworthy. You could look out the window to the blue-green water and coral reefs. And the flight was short so we only topped out at 3500 feet. And even that was uncomfortably far away from the ground. This guy wasn’t a particularly good pilot. I am pretty calm flyer, but there were moments when we were bouncing around the sky that I had my airplane mantra “People die during take-off and landing, planes do not fall from the sky” running through my head.
At the airport I got to again deal with my least favorite people on earth, taxi drivers. I was locked in a heated argument with a driver (over 80 cents and principle), when he made the cardinal mistake that any driver can make with me. What are you going to do? Walk? Listen buddy, it’s only 3.5 miles and I have two hours of daylight left. I told him to ask one of the other five passengers if they need a ride. And hitchhiked into town.
The place I stayed in was an old mission house turned dive shop. Pemba is 99.9999% crazy conservative Islam (little girls as young as four or five were veiled), so the mission was probably more profitable in its current incarnation. It was a very communal living type of place, with all of us sitting around a big table on the deck for evening meals. I stayed in the dorms with a 30 something Austrian guy who said he was European Commission diplomat. He about as much of a diplomat as James Bond was a special trade envoy, but live and let live.
The next day it was out on the reef. It was a miserable morning with pouring rain, but it doesn’t matter much when you are underwater. The diving was beautiful. The water was crystal clear, there were no other divers and the reef was well-stocked with brightly colored fish. I tried out my underwater camera for the first time. Shooting fish underwater is like trying to take pictures of roving herds of puppies from the back of a motorcycle. You move, the current moves and the god damned fish will not just hold still and get their picture taken. My first day’s work was met by the divemaster with the comment, maybe you should stick to coral, sponges and fish whose defense mechanism isn’t flight. But the diving was fun anyway.
That night we all hung out on the deck and drank beer while the sunset over the banana plantations. The view was only marred by the cloud of mosquitoes that hung in the air. Occasionally a Pemba native “flying fox” would swoop through the air. (Flying foxes are bats that appear to answer the age-old question of what happens when a vampire gets it on with a werewolf.)
Next morning it was back out to the reef. The diving the second day was even better, there was less current and I stuck to shooting pictures of sponges. And a scorpion fish, who is so mercilessly poisonous that he didn’t seem to mind my camera six inches from him.
That night was more of the same with beer and balconies and flying foxes. Next day I couldn’t dive because I was flying out that afternoon, so I decided to go see Mark the archeologist at his dig site at the north of the island. I got on the daladala (public pickup truck) that ran north. I explained to the driver where I wanted to go by pointing to a picture of a ruined mosque that was in my guidebook. It came in handy as I was dumped off on the side of the road in a rice paddy. I eventually found some women washing clothes and two children were promptly dispatched to lead me through the rice paddy and mint fields to the dig site. Mark and the other archeologists apparently don’t get many visitors because I was very well-received. Mark and the other head archeologist gave me a tour of the site, showing the 14th century mosque they had under excavation, and the other mosques they had dug up in years past. Their special mission this year was to figure out how the common people lived. Rather unfortunately for the archeologists, the common people lived in mud houses. So they are digging centuries old mud out of current mud. Again, live and let live.
Mark also showed me the old fort and an excavation he was working on of a 9th century mosque. As we careened through the knee-high grass and fields (Mark never walks anywhere), he pointed out the hundreds of bits of broken pottery that littered the field. People were planting in a place where they had apparently been breaking pots for over a millennium. He lets me keep a couple of the nicer shards I picked up, which I am sure will lead to an amusing story in a couple weeks as I am arrested at the border for smuggling antiquities out of the country.
Then I got to spend a half hour digging. You take a little trowel and very carefully dig very slowly. Then another team shifts what you have just dug up. I found three pottery shards and a broken piece of ostrich egg. Which leads me to believe that perhaps Indiana Jones movies are a bit edited for the general audience.
Then it was back to town to shower, grab my bag and head to the airport. Flying back I discovered a new cost saving method that could be huge boost for the struggling domestic airline industry. Stay with me here. So you buy a plane that seats fifteen passengers. Which is good. But what would be better is to buy a plane for fifteen people and put sixteen people in it anyway. You really only need one pilot right? On the way back they wanted to seat me in the copilot’s seat, a common practice on overbooked planes. (“Madam, copilot, yes?) You just have to be careful not to hit the pedals on the floor. I was tempted, but I decided to let one of the kids sit there. He cared more than I did. I would probably feel less guilty if he took out a plane full of people because he was trying to take a picture out the window.
So I am back in Dar, finishing my last week here. Next week it is on to Kampala, Uganda…