Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

For the past 55 years, Gouda's sister city in Norway has presented a giant tree as a gift to grace the square in front of its medieval City Hall.  A ceremony has been held the second Tuesday of December each year, since then, to light the tree. Electricity in the entire square is turned off as candles light the windows of every house and building surrounding it.

I've wanted to go since 2008, but for one reason or another was never able to.  This year I didn't let anything stop me, and even convinced my friend Jeannine to join me in standing around in sub-freezing temperatures for a few hours.

We were filled with the Christmas spirit as soon as we stepped out of Gouda's train station. Carollers sang at every corner.  Floating lanterns filled the canals.  Roads were lined with votive candles.  A Christmas market was held on the street leading to the square.  Everyone was in a joyful mood.

And then... there was tree lighting magic!

Friday, December 17, 2010


Life really doesn't get much better than:
 eating gruyere in Gruyere

and gouda in Gouda.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Learning how to say no.

My family may laugh when I say this, but I really don't like being mean.  Maybe to pacify said family members, I should clarify my statement by saying, I really don't like being mean to people who don't share my immediate bloodline.

As I'd walk down the streets of Stone Town with offers to go out for drinks or dinner, instead of saying 'no' like I should have, I softened the blow by saying 'maybe'.  The only problem was, to them maybe meant yes, whereas for me maybe definitely meant no.

On one of those dinner offers from a local loiterer, I provided my one worded reply.  He wanted to meet by a tree near the evening market right at sun down, as he was Muslim and was fasting due to Ramadan.  Again, I threw out another 'maybe'.

He kept true to his word, and was waiting for me when I walked to the main square with Michael and Gina. When he asked if I was ready to go, I stammered out an apology explaining why I couldn't, but asked him if he wanted to join us at the street market for food.  He declined stating that he already booked a table for us at a restaurant.  I held my ground, sort of, ... since I agreed to 'maybe' have dinner with him a few nights later.  But I added the stipulation that it must be at the street market. 

As the days pressed on, he'd wave from his local hangout whenever I passed by on my way towards the square. On my final night in Stone Town, I planned on having dinner at the street market with two people I met at Chumbe Island.  I informed them of our potential guest, and explained I was happy to have them as chaperons.

Before the sunset on the horizon that night, and the call to prayer was heard, I again crossed his path.  He smiled and asked if I was ready to go. "To the street market, right?," I inquired.  He looked at me with exasperation, "no, the restaurant.  I booked a table Claire. You're not going to do this to me again are you?"  After discovering that the supposed restaurant was in the center of the city (about 5 minutes away, down dark winding alleyways) I explained I wasn't comfortable in going, and again suggested the street market.  "What, don't you trust me?" he questioned.  The response in my head was no, but verbally was "well, I just don't know you."   "What do you mean," he demanded, "we've known eachother for 3 days!"

I held back my shocked laughter as best I could and mumbled that I was sorry, and again explained I just didn't feel comfortable.  "We're good people, ClairePlus, I paid money to reserve the table."  "You didn't pay money," I responded disbelievingly.  I wanted to end the conversation and walk away, I was tired of reasoning with him.

Instead he went on to explain he didn't want to eat at the street market because it was too expensive.  I informed him that I had eaten more food than I could handle the night before for less than 5 dollars. He just looked at me and said "do you know how much money I paid to reserve the table, Claire?  30 dollars - that's what I paid for the table."  "Why would you pay 30 dollars for a table when you say the street market is too expensive?"  He hesitated for a moment and replied "you don't trust me."   And that's when I finally responded, "you're right, I don't."

He stared at me for a few moments, flashed me a fake smile, then turned to walk back over to his loitering spot while saying "Welcome to Zanzibar... welcome to Zanzibar."

Monday, December 6, 2010

like Robinson Crusoe, it's as primitive as can be

Alcove facing the Indian Ocean

Call it paradise, a haven, or whatever you'd like, Chumbe Island is what I call heaven on earth.  It really couldn't be anything less, especially when arriving there from a crowded and dirty location.

My cottage for the day

As we pulled up to the remote island on a small wooden motor-boat, I was in awe with the purity of it all. It is a research island where no rock is left unturned.  Only a total of 15 people are allowed access to it each day.  Each small group consisting of those 15 people are given an eco-friendly cottage during their stay.  The water used in the cottage is collected from the rain and stored under the foundation in large tanks. The heat and electricity comes from solar paneling located on the rooftops.  And the toilet is "flushed" with two scoops of leaf compost.

The main focus of the research is on the overly abundant coral reef.  After the few seconds it took for my brain to finally allow me to breathe through my mouth instead of my nose, I could hardly believe an hour and a half had gone by when our snorkeling instructor told us it was time for lunch. The color of the coral was so vibrant, and the species of fish beyond anything I had seen before.

I could have stayed for days and days.  If only Utopia didn't cost so much...