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Trip 25 -- Zanzibar Walk

Day 8: Muungoni to Marumbi via Jozani Forest
Sunday, February 21, 2021

Today: 40658 steps/28.64 km/17.79 mi/6h 19m
Total: 204195 steps/154.66 km/96.04 mi/30h 3m

The bush babies lulled me to sleep at Komba Nest, drowning out the scuttling of the large black ants through the coconut-palm walls. I woke up feeling rested, refreshed, and ready to start the day.

It was, however, only one o'clock in the morning.

At least it had cooled off. I turned over, fell asleep again, and repeated the exercise three hours later. And three hours after that, at which point the day was brightening and getting out of bed in a rustic cabin in the forest was no longer a prospect without purpose.

Maryam and the chef, Nudaila, brought me breakfast at eight, Maryam in a dress bearing black-and-white paisley and lattice patterns, Nudaila's sporting floral swirls in shades of purple. While I ate my fruit plate and crepes, they sat and caught up on their phones.

The Zanzibar Land Animals Park does very well with hospitality and local excursions, but it doesn't have much in the way of land animals, apart from a few tortoises and a terrapin who poked its head out of the murk for me. In the morning I took a nature walk with Mohammed, and in the afternoon I took a cultural walk with Ramadan, both part of the large extended family that makes up the northern part of Muungoni village. Like Muyuni, Muungoni is divided into three parts. Its population is about 2,000.

Mohammed introduced me to the flora of the area between the road and the mangroves: a henna tree, various banana types (some better cooked, some better raw, all easy to grow and sell -- plant a banana tree and you've got fruit in about four months), and limes. A sour sauce called siki is made from boiled lime juice aged in bottles for a few weeks. Breadfruit, jackfruit, and mbirimbi, a tiny, tart fruit resembling a starfruit that's used for curries and as a salad enhancer. The obviously owned groves aren't to be touched, but there are plenty of municipal trees, for want of a better description, and it's perfectly fine to pick your own fruit from them for personal use. It would be very bad form to gather it for sale, however.

Mohammed led me to a gravestone that looked quite old but dates from this millennium. Above it was a tree bearing white nuts encased in brown shells.

"This tree we call mbono," Mohammed said. "If you eat three of them, it's very dangerous." Once a classmate had dared him and a few friends to eat the mbono nuts. They all bid on how many they could eat.

"I waited and watched the others," Mohammed said.

"How many did you say you could eat?" I asked.

"Maybe one-half, maybe one," he said. "Some people said two or three. I ate half, and the taste was nice. I thought, this is OK. Then I ate the other half. And after a while, I had to vomit. I told the teacher, I need to go out and vomit. She said, 'But you just had recess.' But she understood."

"How did the others feel? The ones who ate two or three."

"They were all right, I think. But it's like alcohol. Some people can have a lot. I know I can't."

A less-dangerous childhood activity was to mix the berries of the mharita or soapberry tree with water, pour the liquid into hollow papaya twigs, and blow bubbles.

Many of the forest plants are used for healing; a mixture called nyungu (which literally means "pot") comprises seven herbs, which are boiled together and the vapor is inhaled.

We reached the shore of Chwaka Bay, on the opposite side of which were mangroves. Mohammed had access to a canoe, and he rowed us along them. There are seven types of mangrove trees in Zanzibar (at least according to Mohammed; my guide at Jozani put the number at ten).

I tried to help with the rowing, but the paddle was heavy, and I could do only a few strokes before I had to take a break.

"Just relax," Mohammed said. "I can row four people at a time."

He turned us into a narrow tunnel, a canopy of mangroves. Sometimes hundreds of silver fish jumped forward out of the brackish water at once, like synchronized acrobats.

He let the boat slow to a stop. "When you hear the clicking sound, those are crabs," he said.

We listened for a moment.

"Sometimes I come here when I need to be alone, in a quiet place," he went on.

"It's very peaceful. Thank you for bringing me here."

We rowed back just in time: a heavy downpour came as we reached the ZALA grounds. Nudaila served us lunch: rice with little fried fish, spiced spinach, and potatoes in a tomato broth.

I was evicted from Komba Nest, and I didn't mind. Three German women, teaching volunteers in Stone Town, were visiting ZALA on a weekend off, and they could all fit at Komba Nest. I was moved to a proper house within the ZALA grounds. It had most of the atmosphere I'd envisaged originally -- mustiness, photos of monkeys with their tracking data, a chalkboard diagram of the parts of a microscope, a hanging Arabic calendar from the fall of 2019, an old pair of black jeans and a T-shirt. But I was smart not to have much faith in the sink fixtures and electric outlets: They were all merely decorative. However, Mohammed brought in incense to air out the must.

Zanzibar's traditional houses, I learned on the cultural tour, were constructed of limestone and coral rock, coconut rope, and mangrove wood, with roofs of coconut-palm leaves. But the depletion of the mangrove forest (which supports 2,500 types of crustacean and cleans the water so that coral can flourish) has resulted in a ban on mangrove timber. Modern village houses are now made of limestone and coral rock exclusively, sometimes filled in with mud. Children typically live in a house with their parents until they reach about age 15, at which point their own houses are constructed within the compound.

Ramadan introduced me to some important Muungoni women. The healer boils a turmeric-like herb called mnywa for healing, boils betel nut with other leaves to create a black salve to treat deformities, and burns cow dung to relieve kids' shivering. One woman adeptly wove giant coconut-palm leaves for home construction; another wove the leaves of date palms into baskets, when she wasn't shaving a youngster's head with a razor blade. Around Muungoni, particularly the busier southern section, are open spaces used for meetings or prayer. A man shot at a baobab tree to ward off evil spirits; a shrine decorated in white and red ribbons grows out of a jackfruit tree and receives offerings.

I ate dinner on the floor of the main house with Mohammed, after which we headed across the highway to watch a soccer match: two teams from the mainland. Mohammed's team, Young Africans, beat Simba one to nothing; it was a mixed but good-natured crowd of about 40 people -- all men -- with their eyes glued to a single TV set in front of a food stall where Mohammed and I had bought grape sodas a few hours before.

My room was way too hot but I slept a full eight hours, to be awakened by ZALA's rooster singing in concert with the rest of Muungoni's roosters. I listened dreamily to the exchange, and I came to be able to cue our bird's entrance accurately. At seven, I walked the hour to Jozani Forest.

Shabani the guide was ready for our tour; I had arranged for him to take me on the regular route through Jozani and then lead me to a place called Wangwani, from where I could pick up a trail toward Chwaka, the southernmost of the villages on Zanzibar's northeast coast.

The stars of Jozani are the red colobus monkeys, indigenous to Zanzibar; they have reddish-orange backs and white and black heads and bellies. They're playful and, from what I could tell, not entirely on point when it comes to leaping from limb to limb. They live around 20 years, they can go a long time without water (Shabani has never seen one drink), and they prefer food that isn't sweet, such as seeds and berries, even charcoal as a digestive. There are about 5,800 of them.

The walk from the Jozani reception to Wangwani was often difficult, about two and a half hours to cover nine kilometers. It started as a gentle trail through mahogany forest; the 90-year-old trees, great for furniture and treating malaria and diarrhea, were crooked and extremely tall.

The trail narrowed and was often almost impassable, overgrown and hemmed in by brush that reached by head.

"I haven't been here in six months, because of corona," Shabani said. "I used to come every three weeks. I'll have to tell the forest office to clear the trail."

He pointed out all the medicinal benefits of the plants along the way, rattling off their Latin names. "This one is good for an upset stomach. This one is good for high blood pressure. This one for fever. This one for snakebite. This one is very good for women, if they have irregular menstruation."

We came to an area dense with trees bearing broad, spider-like green leaves flowing up to the heavens and down to the earth like a wedding gown. "This is pandanus," he said. "It's an aphrodisiac. We call it the 'never sleep alone' tree."

Shabani has been a guide for 25 years and seemed to know what he was talking about, but for all I know he was making it up. "This one is good if you did badly on a calculus test. This one if your annoying aunt is coming to stay with you. This one if you're bored."

He knew what he was talking about when it came to hazards in the forest. "Careful -- these are stinging nettles," he said a moment too late. I felt the pain on my left leg, but it went away quickly.

I'd been hiking in shorts, but I attached the legs to convert them to full-length pants. I was still susceptible to dangers, however.

"Ow!" I said, rapidly pulling down my pants.

"Scorpion?" Shabani asked.

"Ant," I said. A black biting ant. I had to pry it off my leg.

"Ant is no problem," he said. "I thought maybe you had a scorpion."

Then there were bushes with thorns and passages with mud from yesterday's rain. But there were also stretches of trail that were lovely and sweet-smelling from guava trees. Whenever we came to such a clearing, I breathed in deeply and remarked on how pretty it was.

After a little over two hours we arrived at Wangwani, a vast, marshy field with a narrow trail through the dirt. After rain, Shabani said, it could be extremely muddy.

"So you just follow the trail ahead, then up the hill, then into the village, and maybe you can find someone to show you the road," Shabani said.

Technically I'd hired him to show me only to Wangwani. But I'd hoped for a little more guidance into civilization.

"And which way are you going?" I asked him.

"The way we came."

"Please, can you help me find the road? I'll pay for your taxi back to Jozani."

He was hesitant, partly because he had to get back to business, and partly because he was unsure of the way once we picked our way across the Wangwani field.

"Let's try," he said after a moment.

He had to ask a couple of times, but eventually I was back on the road toward the northeast coast.

It was a long 15 kilometers, made longer because I detoured briefly to see the fishing village of Chwaka, which at this afternoon hour was busy with children's lessons and had little evidence of the sale of seafood. I continued north, past more guava trees. It hadn't been my longest walking day, not by a long shot, but with all the tramping through the forest it had been strenuous. My feet were almost numb.

According to Google Maps, the first lodging one comes to in this area is the Faki Faki hostel, which I neither saw nor wanted to investigate. The Chwaka Bay Bungalows seemed to be out of service, and the Moment in Time resort had no room for me.

The Paradise Beach Resort had confirmed my reservation, however, and I soon stepped into another world: an all-inclusive teeming with Russian holidayers. I downed a cup of 7-Up and took another to my room; a full bottle would have incurred an extra charge but the same bottle divided into two servings was included in the room rate. I enjoyed my first shower in three days, then had a brief swim to a soundtrack incorporating Tanzanian pop, Russian rock, and American hip-hop.

I watched Russians play beach volleyball and lounge on the platform at the end of the jetty. After our buffet dinner, Russian karaoke, cranked up to distortion levels, resounded across the property.

I could almost stay an extra night; I have the time for it. But I'm supposed to be on Zanzibar, am I not?

Go on to day 9