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The Dhow and I
By Mary Ann Smyth

'I can't do this,' I said to myself. 'Self, it can't be done. So you're sixty-six years old. That's young by today's standards. You're only as old as you feel. But this is pushing it.' As I stood on the sands of a beach on Zanzibar Island I felt one hundred and five years old. The waters of the Indian Ocean, lapping gently on my injured ankles, felt soothing and comforting. My mind however was not fooled. It was anything but soothed and comforted.

'You really want me to climb into that?' That was a native dhow, the type of boat that the fishermen of Zanzibar use to make their living from the sea. The sides of the thing looked as high as the Berlin Wall.

'Come on,' said Patt, my new friend the snorkeling enthusiast. 'We'll tip the boat toward you and you can hop in.' Hopping was what I had been doing since I turned both ankles on a safari in the Serengeti. The two balloons that had once been fairly sturdy ankles had turned various shades of black and blue with a few streaks of green here and there, the whole just starting to yellow nicely - but I had managed to keep up for the last week of safari and was determined to do the same during our week in Zanzibar.

Three of my fellow adventurers and I were staying at the Matemwe Bungalows, a tiny resort on the eastern edge of the island. The hammock on the verandah of my personal bungalow seemed like the better option for the morning. I had spent most of the previous day gently swaying in that wide strip of canvas. I watched the native fisherman start their day at sunrise and managed to be in the same spot as they returned on the tide. My companions and I had agreed that we needed that laid-back day to rest from the rigors of the fast-paced safari. We all managed to stagger to the open-air dining room for gourmet meals and then to early bed (the lack of electricity added to the charm of the small resort, but made reading in bed with a flashlight mounted on my forehead not worth the effort.)

As we toasted each other with our wineglasses the previous night, we agreed that the lazy day had sufficiently recharged our batteries. Let's be active. Let's take advantage of where we are on an island in the Indian Ocean. So much to do and see. Walk the beach. Explore the fishermen's villages along the coast. Walk to the natural coral reef when the tide goes out. Hire a boat and guides to take us to tiny Pemba Island (just a hand wave away from Matemwe), where we could snorkel. Thinking snorkeling would get me off my ankles, I opted for a day in the water. I never dreamed the chosen vessel would look like a primitive lifeboat from a derelict freighter.

It seemed sturdy enough. Made of teak, it was a wonder of open planks and unfinished surfaces. My friends, with enviable agility, clambered aboard and were instructed where to sit to balance the craft. Never a successful clamberer even on my better days, I viewed the boat that seemed so romantic from the distance of the folds of my hammock. Some of the fishermen's dhows flew patched sails. Several were powered by motor. Many were poled through the shallow water. I saw one small powerboat with three men aboard pulling another dhow with at least fifteen men seated like birds on power lines. They outdistanced the polers in minutes.

This was the subject of my innumerable pictures? The noble vessel that allowed these people of Zanzibar to make their living pulling fish from the sea? As my late husband used to say, 'Make a decision and act on it'. I made my decision. I would climb the Matterhorn. Climb isn't really the operative word here. I was pushed, prodded, and pulled while words of encouragement poured into my ears.

'You can do it.'

'Poli, poli. Take your time.'

'Just get one foot over the side.'

'There! You're almost in.' As I landed with as much grace as a pig on ice, Patt said the deciding words. 'You'll love snorkeling. It's a whole other world.' Okay, I thought, as I gathered my dignity around me like the brightly colored kangas the women wear on this legendary island. Let's do it.

The passage to Pemba Island was uneventful; clear skies, not a ripple in the water except for our wake as we chugged along. The only sound was the low roar of the engine that didn't mask the sounds of birds wheeling overhead. On the trip, Patt gave the two neophyte snorkelers, Cass and me, a quick lesson on how to use our gear, rented from the same place as the dhow.

Getting out of the boat proved easier than getting in and I discovered the underwater world of a coral reef. Where had this been all my life? Unfortunately, most of the coral was dead, but the fish swimming through it were a myriad of gaudy colors. I gloried in the sight as well as the freedom from being earthbound. A gesture from Patt made me lift my head to watch dolphin swimming beyond us. Looking like some water show in Florida, they leapt and dove with grace. Then arm gestures from the men in the boat brought me swimming back to the same mountain to be climbed again. How would I get back in this thing?

'I will take you closer to the dolphins,' one of the men said. He seemed as thrilled as we were to see the cavorting creatures. An iron-runged ladder molded to the side of the vessel was no help at all. My head barely cleared the surface of the water to reach the bottom rung. Each man on board grabbed an arm. Patt's husband Mat placed both hands firmly on my bottom and pushed as the men pulled. My new friends Cass and Patt shouted encouragement and somehow I was scraped over the side of the dhow. My ankles bulged around my flippers, the bruises dark in contrast to the bright yellow of the rubber.

My companions climbed aboard and we were off in hot pursuit of the dolphins. Getting as close as we could without intruding on their space, we sat in awe and watched the show these sleek mammals put on for us. At a gesture from one of the men, Patt and Mat dropped over the side as one. I watched as Cass prepared to do the same. I shrugged my shoulders in apology. The indignity of being hauled aboard twice was enough. I received extremely disappointed looks from the two men. They had done their best to provide me with the thrill of a lifetime and I refused it!

'What the hell,' I muttered as I once again climbed over the side. I had just begun to move away from the dhow when I spotted dolphins swimming just below me! There were two in a row and a third beside them. I couldn't keep up with them. They were in their own element - a sight I shall treasure and pull up from my image bank on long cold snowy nights in front of the fire. The pain from my ankles drifted away with the current. The privilege I had just enjoyed overrode my struggles to reach that point; well worth every moan and groan.

Ain't life great?
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