I had been walking into the sea for 15 minutes, and the water level was still just under my knees! The tide of Paje’s beach, in the east coast of Zanzibar island, was at it’s lowest. The flowing water goes back so far away, I wondered where did it go?!
It looked like a children’s infinite pool within the actual sea.
But my walk so far had not been short on interesting discoveries. It was like a theatrical play. The characters: the locals, the sea life revealed by the shallow water, the tide, the wind, the sun and me. All brought together to unravel a story, the story of Paje’s beach. It was far from an ordinary beach, far from an ordinary story.
It was midday when I first stepped foot at the beach and my whole face frowned at the blinding brightness of the white sand. It was like looking at a mirrored reflection of the actual sun. My pupils sized down to adjust when I heard “Mambo!”. The so-called beach boys, Maasai dressed with traditional red cloth, the Shuka, greeted me with an equally blinding smile.
“Poa”, I answered.
There was something disturbing about seeing the Maasai walking at the beach… The greatest warriors, wearing the red cloth to scare the lion away, were casually having a stroll. They were not herding cows, but selling trinkets to tourists or playing football with each other. It was a sight out of context and yet, the beach suited them and they suited the beach.
A short exchange of words was made where mostly curiosity was satisfied. “No, I don’t live here, I am just visiting. Oh I know, I am dressed like a local, I had this dress made for me back in Moshi. I am from Portugal. Oh no no, I am not interested in buying anything now, Asante sana (thank you very much)”. So they resumed their slow paced stroll, and I turned my attention to the sea…. But?! Where was it?
Leaving behind me the lined up coconut trees and the soft dry sand, I walked into the sea, intrigued by how far the low tide has gone. For the first couple of minutes, there was no water, the sand was just wet and hard, and then small pools of water create beautiful lined marks across the seabed. There was the occasional fisher’s boat, that took a day off, sitting still in absent water.
Further in, the warm water rose to the ankles and then it reached just below my knees. Giving my full attention to where I was stepping, under the clear shallow waters I see little mollusks retreat into their tiny hole to hide from me. Sea snails and hermit crabs drag their house shell around and black sea urchins are best avoided. I was also lucky to see a grey sea snake, almost invisible against the white sand. I was even luckier to see it a second before stepping on it.
There was not a tourist in sight; the scorching midday sun keeps everyone sane in the shade. Everyone, except for some local women and the insane me. My insanity could be justified with curiosity. But for the local women, their fortune lies in these shallow waters.
Their fortune has the shape of little wood sticks dug vertically in the sand, arranged in neat rows with rope attached between them, tying down seaweed seedlings. It is a seaweed farm, only visible and accessible when the tide is low as most of these women cannot swim.
So everyday, they walk this far with the bottom of their Swahili dress floating in the water and bend forward in a perfect 90-degree angle to farm their plots. The harvested algae will later be converted into soaps, scrubs and oils. Seaweed farming is the second biggest source of income for this island, after tourism, and it has given financial independence to the Zanzibari women.
Other treasures exposed by the low tide include octopus and crabs. Both are delicacies that appeal to hotels and restaurants and therefore generate income to the locals.
In the open shallow waters, I met Chane.
Chane was carrying in one hand a big red African sea star and in the other hand, a spear. When I approached him, he enthusiastically explained how he uses the starfish as a bait to attract crabs out of their holes and then uses the spear to pin them down. I expected the starfish to feel soft like play dough, but in the contrary, it felt hard like a rock. “Is it dead?” “No!” He assured me the starfish was alive and he let me examine it closely. The grey body had bright red tubercles that grow upward from the arms, looking like it was hand painted. When we turned it upside down in the water, hundreds of little tentacles formed a mesmerizing pattern and the little tube feet wiggled life back at us.
As I zoomed out my attention back to where I was, I realized a few children, aged between 8 to 12, had joined me in this short lesson about starfish.
The children, also with their clothes on, were carrying a bucket half filled with scalene triangular shells of the size of my hand. In my poor Swahili I asked what was in the bucket?! But my Swahili wasn’t enough to comprehend their answer. Entertained by my confused look, with giggles and splashes, they led me to the spot where we could find more of these big shells, buried in the sand. I never found out what these shells were used for, but I thought I would help them collect some more.
So diving my hands in the water, I started looking for sharp tips in the sand, pushing away the thoughts that I might find a crab instead. Once I detected a sharp edge, I dug my fingers in the sand surrounding it, grabbed the shell carefully and wiggled it side to side until it released. The children were happy with my contribution and for a little while me and my wrinkly fingers felt like we also belonged to these waters.
Soon the tide was going to flow back up again, hiding all these gems, bringing in more sea life and providing fresh water to the seaweed farms. So I thought it was time for me to go look for a shade. Preferably, a coconut tree kind of shade, although I am one of those people who worry a coconut might fall in my head!
“Coconut tree is the tree of God!” says Robin, the friendly waiter behind the counter at this beach restaurant where I seek shade instead. His words framed with passion, “…the coconut might fall right next to where you are lying, but it will never fall on you”. He was certain but I wasn’t willing to test his theory.
When earlier I asked Robin if they serve coconut, Robin went looking for his friend, who does not work for the restaurant, but luckily was hanging out just outside. “He is the guardian of the coconut tree behind the restaurant… wait, I am going to ask him!”
When I saw the “guardian” picking up a machete and bypassing the hut, heading towards the back of the restaurant, I followed him! Is he going to climb up the tree now?! I have to see this!
So, Robin’s friend tied a rope between the soles of his bare feet, embraced the tree with a firm handgrip and hopped onto the trunk with his feet inwards, adopting a frog legs position. Pushing himself upwards, alternating the grip between legs, arms, legs, arms, he reached the top of this over 20 meters tall tree in just over 1 minute. Impressive! At the top, he twisted the coconut until the stem broke. He knocked on it to check if it was ripe and satisfied with his pick, he dropped it down on the sand.
While I watched this barefoot and bare-upper body guardian coming down the tree, the question that popped earlier in my mind gained voice and came out as an impulse “Robin, what is a coconut tree’ guardian?”
I didn’t realize Robin had been singing next to me, until he stopped to answer my question. “Coconut trees are special, they give fruit all year around and coconut is very important in Zanzibar kitchen.”
The guardian, back safely on the ground, held the coconut in one hand while he strikes the machete on it to slice the hard cover. I frowned. He wasn’t safe yet.
“You see…” Robin continued, “…the tree is expensive, it has the best wood, and people can steal coconuts, so sometimes the owner of the coconut trees needs a guardian to look after them.”
Now that makes sense! I wouldn’t want strangers climbing up on my trees either. What didn’t make as much sense was how a person can sell a piece of land and yet still own the coconut trees in it. Every coconut tree is sold separately from the land.
One last strike with the machete and I relax my frowned face. At last, the guardian handed me this beautiful coconut, perfectly ripped: with about a centimeter thick layer of meat and plenty of coconut water.
The beach scenery changed a little since I came out of the water. The seabed was now totally covered by the flowing tide, the wind picked up and so did the kite-surfing lessons in the blue lagoon.
Further up the beach, I witness the re-encounter between the fishermen, returning in their outrigger boats from a day out fishing, and their wives and children, who promptly welcome them with empty buckets.
The women walk right into the sea, now at waist high, to meet the fishermen in their boats. They collect the day’s worth of fishing into their buckets and walk out the water, balancing it on top of their heads.
The small children also want to be part of this ritual of exchanges, carrying smaller plates on their heads or just plain shells imitating their mothers.
A fisherman already ashore holds on to what looks like a white octopus, and gestures some business talk to another man, perhaps the owner of some restaurant, who came to fetch something fresh for the menu tonight.
This people-watching gets me in the mood for seafood. I have seen it, I have to sample it too.
And slowly, while the sun sets behind the coconut trees, the Paje’s characters vanish into their houses. I look for the coziness of my hotel’s restaurant and the night pulls a starry curtain over another day at Paje’s beach.
Hotel Paje by Night with this unusual pool: