Beach Boys in Santa Hats

January 2, 2013


Happy New Year, friends!! I feel like I owe you all a little longer post, so here’s a synopsis of my holidays:

I returned two days ago from the above beautiful landscape of Zanzibar! It is still hard to believe the whole vacation actually happened, given that every morning and evening it seemed like we were surrounded by postcards or doctored photos from National Geographic.  The island is located just off the East Coast of Tanzania and has a tumultuous history with the mainland country. A main route for slave and spice trade, the small island was (and still appeared to be when one walked the streets of the largest city, Stone Town) ruled by Arab sultans many years before German and British colonizers reached this Eastern shore. Kiswahili is the most spoken language (similar, but much easier than Kinyarwanda) with English serving as an administrative language. Arabic was also seen thoughout the island due to a large Muslim influence.

Nowadays, the island’s coasts are covered with tourists. The Tanzanian government owns much of the island’s more pristine coasts while tourism companies own the more “mzungu” areas. My travel companions included 9 Italians, a British/Italian and one girl from the Czech Republic. As the token American, I learned from locals on the island that I actually came from “Obamaland” instead of the United States of America. We traveled fairly cheaply in these areas, living in hostels and eating local cuisine (best calamari that I’ve ever tasted!), but there were many places that presented lavishly over-the-top digs.

Myself, Marta and Valeria: a couple of the fabulous Italians who tolerated me over holiday.

Myself, Marta and Valeria: a couple of the fabulous Italians who tolerated me over holiday.

Spending time with the Italians was always interesting. The group was fun, adventurous and generally loud. Our communication was often an odd negotiation between Italian, English and French. As most of the group came from a small town near Milan, they spoke a unique dialect that actually had some similarities to French making it a little easier for me to follow their conversations. If all goes well, I want to visit them on my return trip home. I now have a new goal to learn Italian!

Language is  always a funny, amorphous part of our personality. Language is probably the most transferable part of each of our cultures and how they mix and blend is a linguistic anthropologist’s dream. But as just an average traveler, it’s also interesting to observe the changes in myself. My English has even changed a little, evening out my strong Michigan accent in favor of a more neutral, internationally-understood one. I often take for granted that a majority of the world invests part of its education in my mother tongue, particularly in areas frequented by muzungus. But as I soon realized, traveling without knowing other languages is much more difficult for my European friends and even more so for my African friends.


And so, I finally come to the beach boys. These local young men patrol the beach, constantly offering their services as guides to the local activities: snorkeling, swimming with dolphins, spice tours and tours of the famed Prison Island. Yes, sometimes they were annoying (“Special price for you, rafiki”) but had incredible language skills. Italian, French, English, Swedish, German and even some limited Czech were frequently among the repertoires of these Rasta/Maasai/Santa Clauses.

One of my Italian friends, Giampaollo, was struck by the bizarreness of hearing your mother tongue spoken fluently in place far from home. As a spoiled English speaker, I had become habituated to such occurrences thoughthe occasional American slip of culture in such a faraway places still surprises me (Rihanna plays on the radio as much as East African singers do; American emblems worn on t shirts everywhere). The thought of it is slightly terrifying, the rest of the world observing my country’s actions and often taking a specific interest in American travelers. The Italians were noticed in the same way on Zanzibar (negative presumptions and all) and their disturbed reaction reminded me of my own country’s international presence and cultural pervasiveness. Escaping my own culture is becoming more and more difficult. The United States has a hand in nearly every nation’s pot, whether we like it or not.

5 Responses to “Beach Boys in Santa Hats”

  1. sjuniperj Says:

    Fabulously said, my dear. Looks like it was quite the holiday!! Glad you could get away for a minute and explore a new place. It’s always lovely to be exposed to language in use and how it influences culture in ways you hadn’t thought about 🙂

  2. uncledavethegoodguy Says:

    And what is meant by “A Thought for Each Hill”?

  3. Julianne Says:

    Another beautiful post Katie. I feel like am right there with you. Blessing on the new year. Love Aunt Julie

  4. Lyla Kirsch Says:

    Wow Katie, you write so amazing……….how did your ever learn that? so good to hear from you and that your safe and sound , these travel experiences your having will be such an amazing thing to share with your family, when you have one of your own!! And, we are so thankful you share it with us now!! Did you ever receive the package we sent, large manilla envelope??? Happy New Year to you dearest, and will keep you in our prayers!! Love, Aunt Lyla and Uncle Nick

  5. Deb Taylor Says:

    I always enjoy reading your posts! You paint a beautiful picture of wherever you are. Thank you for sharing your adventures!

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