Sleeping in Zanzibar

We do a lot of activities together, but sleep is not one of them.

I didn’t know I wanted to visit Zanzibar until I saw a documentary on PBS a few months before we left for Africa. Dennis was in the middle of a conference call when I bounded up the stairs to his mezzanine office. He eye-balled me, warily. Can’t you see I’m in the middle of a conversation? I poked around his desk looking for paper and pen. In bold letters, I wrote: WE HAVE TO GO TO ZANZIBAR. I could tell by the look on his face, he wasn’t sure where Zanzibar was and until ten minutes ago, I wasn’t either. Africa, I mouthed. His thumb popped up in the universal sign of approval.


Leaving the Mara for Zanzibar was bittersweet. The experience with Dominic and Peter, and the gracious staff, at Sentinel Camp, was heartwarming. Images of the sweeping landscape and jumping Masai men are stored in memory when I need a holiday from everyday living. I’d miss the camp and the grunts and wheezes of the nearby hippos. For certain I would miss the chunky homemade granola, I crunched through every morning. Most of what was in the mixture I could not identify. I figured it was bits and pieces of the Mara roasted in a little oil and honey.  

It would take seventeen hours by car to travel from Nairobi to the coast of Tanzania and another two hours by ferry across the Zanzibar Channel to our destination. We flew. The driver who fetched us from the airport on Unguja Island, the main island of the Zanzibar Archipelago, did not instill me with confidence. Unkempt, he seemed preoccupied. The air felt thick, the way it felt when we landed in Mumbai, India, in the middle of the night, ten years ago. Not a particularly fond memory. From the airport to the ancient city center, Stone Town, the roads changed from four-lanes to two.  Near missing dozens of motorbikes, whose drivers seemed mindless of cars, the city seemed all male. We zipped past dinky stalls, stuffed with snack foods, doors open to the night. Word was not out in Zanzibar, or if it was, no one listened: Smoking is Hazardous to Health. Mingling in the brew of vapors I smelled fried food and the grime of time-worn buildings. A once white cat flopped to its’ side at the feet of a man like cats do when they want a belly rub. The streets narrowed to one way and further to stone paths until the car could go no more. 

Finally, our driver spoke. “We stop. We walk.”

Like antennae on a dragonfly, my senses were heightened for potential danger. Dennis looked as skeptical as I was feeling. We exchanged glances of the what the hell variety and extricated ourselves from the back seat of the shabby Mercedes. I was tired of lugging my backpack around, but I pulled it from the trunk and followed the short, thick-set man in the not so white shirt carrying our duffel bags. If he disappeared with our luggage, I had my passport, money and a credit card in my pack along with my phone and the South African number I had yet to commit to memory.

“This way. It’s shorter,” he urged.

We had no clue where we were, and in spite of my misgivings the only person we know, know being a gross exaggeration, was leading us down a dark alley. If left on my own, I’d head back to the light and the dusty cat. I wanted to trust our chauffeur, but I’ve heard stories. We hung back, whispering our concerns to one another. Our driver disappeared around a corner. We stepped carefully upon worn cobblestones until we reached the corner where he turned right.

“This is it,” our driver declared, standing in the light, outlining the tall, open doors of an ancient building. I was not impressed. I like to look at and explore old buildings, but I’m not crazy about sleeping in one. Often, I find them dark and in spite of the best intentions of the housekeeping staff, and especially in a humid environment, musty. Tish, our travel professional who has been designing trips all over Africa for decades and upon whom we trust the planning of our adventures, miscalculated on this one. We climbed the narrow steps to the entrance and walked into the light of a simple yet stately lobby with stone walls three feet thick. I silently apologized to Tish.

We were welcomed to the Emerson Spice Hotel by Muslim men dressed in long white robes wearing kufis, small, intricately embroidered skull caps. A restored ancient merchant’s house, built around a courtyard with fountains and eleven singular rooms the likes of which I’ve not seen before; would be our home for the next three days. The late Emerson Skeens, from New York City, had rescued the disintegrating building eight years prior. With the passion and imagination of the artist he was, he had created a masterpiece.

A dark, wooden stairway inched to what looked like forever, step by step. I kinked my neck following the banister and stairs to the top. The only way to the eleven rooms, on four floors, and a fifth-floor rooftop restaurant was one step at a time. Not a hotel for the handicapped or the elderly. Our porter carried our backpacks and small, heavy duffels to our room, effortlessly. We trudged behind, me catching glimpses of bulging calf muscles usually hidden beneath the long robe. How many more steps did we have to climb? We paused to catch our breath while our porter seemed to skip up the stairs on fairy feet.

Generous, our room was nearly the size of our flat in Cape Town. Painted turquoise it was muraled with oversized leaves and flowers from floor to ceiling. Fabric mirrored flora and fauna and brought a fanciful jungle feel to the inside. Dark carved wood accentuated the double windows and doors opened to a view of the time-worn street below. A brass skeleton key locked and unlocked our door. Custom designed tubs with showers, one indoors the other on a balcony, complete with carved screens and plants for the sake of privacy. Two queen beds sat in sturdy frames made from wood equally as old as the hotel. Our sleeping arrangement catered to the truth. We do a lot of activities together, but sleep is not one of them.




It’s taken a long time to feel okay about sleeping separately. Looking back, I’m amazed what Dennis endured to sustain the “marital mandate” of sleeping together. He had two somnoplasties (painful), slept with a C-pap machine for years until he felt claustrophobic, and unsuccessfully wore a mouth guard designed to pull the lower jaw forward to prevent the soft pallet from falling back. His snoring was less, but not gone. I suppose my mother would have been grateful for a quieter version of her husband as she clung to the side of their double bed trying to distance herself from my dad who never had a restless night and sounded like a piece of harvesting equipment.

Still, we persisted. I stuffed earplugs down my ear canals and slept with a white noise machine which dampened all the ambient sound, except the one I didn’t want to hear. Dennis knew a jab in the rib cage was a signal to roll over. We grappled with sharing the bed. Dennis felt bad for snoring. I felt guilty for wanting to sleep somewhere else. Neither of us was getting quality sleep.

To complicate the issue I’m cold, Dennis is hot. He kicks covers off; I pile them on. I sleep with several pillows propping up body parts like my knees and arms. In the middle of the night, I shift around and reorganize everything. If ever a split was imminent, it was not because of sleeping separately; it was because of trying to sleep together! Compatibility, sex, emotional well being, mental alacrity, is not improved if one is sleep deprived.

All the years I struggled with the snoring there was another layer of truth I recently acknowledged: I like to sleep by myself. I need space. Silence is how I manage my highly sensitive system; how I wind down. When Dennis and I married in 1968 unconsciously, I set aside my personal needs shifting into the role of a wife, modeled after my mother and grandmother, who were composites of the women and men by whom they had been raised. I verbalized women’s lib, but deep inside my operating system was mired in traditional expectations and so was Dennis.

We struggled, not only with sleep, with other aspects of our relationship. When I heard the call to move to Africa for a year I knew there was more involved than our shared quest to see wild animals. When I rely on faith, I go forward without preconceptions. I remind myself when my thinking revs up; this is an issue for which I’ve prayed. Patience. Wait. My growing experience indicates, by so doing I’m moved in directions I did not expect, yet are what I need. My primary relationship, the one I have with Dennis needed a tune-up. Discussion of our feelings, our expectations, our needs, were complicated and difficult. I tended to blame Dennis. Dennis took a defensive stance on just about everything. We had the language but didn’t know how to use it to permit individual expression and grow our relationship. We needed to reveal our needs—be vulnerable—regardless of the discomfort. I began.

“I feel like I’m not important to you. I need your attention,” I said.

“I think you’re right.”

He heard me.

“I feel like you criticize me all the time,” he said.

“I didn’t realize how much, until now. I agree.”

I heard him.

On the surface, the conversation sounds simple; for us, it was an important step. The only explanation I can offer as to why it took so long to have, is because we were not ready. Rather than bemoan what “should” have been, it makes more sense to be grateful the conversation had begun. We were old dogs practicing new tricks.

It’s late. For now, it’s good enough to crawl beneath the mosquito netting, and under the sheets, turn on the white noise app on my I phone, and relax. I’ll be sleeping in a building whose walls hold centuries of lost history of the everyday variety: conversations between men and women, probably multiple women as in polygamy.    No doubt there were disagreements, babies crying, children whining, meals, and celebrations. The concept of communication between partners, at least the kind many of us marrieds desire, was centuries away. Stephanie Coontz, an expert on the subject, wrote:  “Marriage was a way of getting in-laws, of making alliances, and expanding the family labor force.” Communication and vulnerability in relationships were not relevant, at least not consciously.

I took a couple of deep breaths. Slow down. Slow—way—down. It’s time for sleep. You’ve thought enough and been enough for this day. After early morning wake-up calls on the Mara; we agreed to sleep late and eat a leisurely breakfast. A long rest and the two flights of stairs to breakfast would be easy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll Up