We interrupt this travelogue for a news bulletin from Zanzibar International Airport….
Oman, o-man, will follow, but our arrival and introduction to old Zanzibar City (Stone Town) were so remarkable that the frog is going to leap ahead by a day.
We stepped out of our titanium cocoon (Oman Air, which – shockingly – served free wine and beer on the flight) into the instantly recognizable steam-bath of the tropics. With us were at least 250 fellow passengers flying from Muscat to the island. The air was redolent with the, uh, effects of the steam-bath on the human perspiration system. We needed a visa ($100 each, thank you very much) and our bags and then to find our hotel driver.
There was, of course, no queue at immigration. The entire planeload of sweating, melting passengers was pressed against one another and the doors, elbowing as far forward as they could, no patience to spare, us and our elbows in the midst of them.
Doris: Louis, why is that man holding a sign that says “Priority Pass”?
Louis: I will go ask.
Man: If you are a Priority Pass holder, please follow me.
We are entitled to Priority Pass travel benefits around the world because of our credit card, but we have never been greeted as pass-holders, and we had no idea what the man and his sign foreshadowed. Doris was having cinematic visions of a scene where the unsuspecting innocents follow a seemingly friendly guide through a door into a trap.
But follow we did, and now we wish we had taken a picture of the man and his sign because we will remember them with enormous fondness until our last travel days. Out of the crowd, out of the heat and into ….
Our own personal immigration lounge.
Air conditioning. Seating. A smiling young woman in brilliant tropical colors bearing a tray of cold, bottled water, nuts and sweets, urging us to make ourselves comfortable.
Welcome (hujambo) to Zanzibar.
It turned out that Priority Pass members and a few elite airline travel programs provide a private lounge and visa processing for arriving guests to Zanzibar. While the tired and overheated mob pressed against the three undermanned booths on the other side of the wall, our lovely hostess led Louis with our passports and credit card to the head of the line to pay for our entry, then back to the lounge, where a dedicated customs officer took our photos, stamped our visas into our passports and sent us on our way. All in 15 minutes, max. In the baggage area, our bags were already waiting.
Outside the open area where are bags came in, we cruised past the taxi touts to find our driver from the hotel waving our names.
A moderately bone-jolting ride on the British side of the road later, we were in our hotel being greeted with cool, wet towels and fresh mango juice, given a map and local recommendations. Likely before some of our fellow passengers had their visas, we were sipping Long Island ice teas at a beachside bar, savoring the sunset, watching the fishermen load their boats for a night on the water and all the rest that you dream of when it’s freezing back home. We call that travel karma.
And then it got better.
Suddenly, the young Russian woman at the next table leapt to her feet and all but dragged us to the railing of the bar, pointing wildly at the water. “Dolphins! Humpback dolphins! Humpbacks! They are the rarest sea mammal of the Indian Ocean!”
We were talking travel karma? Somehow, we ended up at the waterfront, sitting next to a Russian conservationist who can recognize a dolphin species from 100 yards. And then the dolphins started breaching. One after another – up and out of the water into perfect little arcs – all while the locals went on with their jogging and football and sand gymnastics in the foreground.
The Russian woman abandoned her shoes, purse and everything else at the table and went charging down the beach trying to photograph them with her cell phone. Louis stood at the rail, pointing and shooting, and here are the results.
When she came back, Katya told us humpback dolphins are considered to be on the brink of extinction, primarily because they live in shallow waters and are often caught in fishing nets. She has lived and worked in Zanzibar five years and rarely seen them. Not once has she seen them breaching. We were there for a few hours and saw a whole pod of them, with breach after breach.
Doris’s old travel companion Nora used to say that travel karma doesn’t make everything perfect, just perfectly memorable. Cloudless skies and a hundred-year storm are simply different extremes on the karmic scale. By that logic, our EU visa storm and our first hours in Zanzibar both qualify. In our book, we decided this must be our cosmic compensation for the visa snafu that continues to endanger the last month of our trip.
As for our Priority Pass, we have previously proselytized so earnestly about the Chase credit card that confers it so relentlessly that many friends and family members already have your own. Before oiling our way through Tanzanian immigration, the card had already paid for our two most expensive flight segments (on points) and saved us thousands of dollars in trip cancellation/interruption insurance on this trip alone.
If you want the dish on the card, email one of us personally. We will fill you in and send you a referral (that will earn us still more points for more points and blogs, thank you very much) if you decide it fits your needs.
Until then, kwa heri. Goodbye, goodbye.