I like to think I’m fairly adaptable: I spent a summer living in a van; have moved to cities without an established roof to call home; bucket showers and squat toilets are not strangers to me. Generally speaking, I reckon I’m decent at taking new situations in stride. Culture shock has never been something I felt strongly impacted by. Based off accounts from friends, I anticipated culture shock would come into play on this adventure. Where it manifested, however, has surprised me.
It was neither the infrastructure, the facilities, nor the food. The burning piles of rubbish (and the holes, in which you could see land built up over multiple layers of plastics) were concerning. But where things really hit was in Zanzibar.
I’ll save the history lesson for another post, but Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania. The white sand beaches and turquoise waters deem it ‘paradise’ in many a person’s book. We took a trip to the archipelago last weekend for some well-earned R&R.
Conservative dress is key in Tanzania, as there is a significant Muslim population— ladies, this means keepin’ those knees covered! At home (in Mlandizi), we joke that the knees are the breasts of the leg. When you catch glimpse of a knobby knee peaking out when someone zooms past on a pikipiki (moto), it’s scandalous. Despite being ~99% Muslim, Zanzibar has a bit more leeway with bare knees, primarily due to the high tourist population. Unless a formal situation, we would rarely bat an eye at a bare leg in Canada. Affronted by thigh, we encountered a reverse culture shock, of sorts, remarking on the floozies striding past in their shorts and sundresses.
Respecting local customs should be on everyone’s radar when afraid from home (or you risk getting detained in Malaysia for your antics being the cause of an earthquake, and some Saskatchewan folks already took care of that for me). Needless to say, our team still has very pale legs.
A second oddity was water-based. Not due to complications with access or treatment (important note: we treat all our water), the oddity was temperature: our hostels had hot showers. We reveled the final hot shower in Lushoto before coming to Mlandizi but the temperature there was much cooler. When I typically think of cold showers I think of frigid, hose water bucket baths at the Farm in Northern Sask. Cold showers in Mlandizi are a different story. The water is warmed slightly by the sun and, when coupled with well-timed shower following a 12km bike ride in 30-degree heat, is fantastically refreshing. Showering in Paje began as a cool shower until the boiler kicked in. Soon I was bailing out of a hot stream trying to figure out what in the Sam Hill was wrong with the shower. After many a ball tournament in equal heat/red dirt/sweat, I always averted cold showers. While I wouldn’t say I’m a cold-water convert, there’s a time, a place, and an acceptable temperature level.
Finally, the last thing isn’t so much about culture shock as it is an appreciation for things we take for granted. In this case, it’s about toast. I’m a firm believer that things are better toasted. Properly toasted. None of that warmed and dried out bread some toasters try to pawn off as toast. Bread itself is something of a novelty. Gummy loaves of white bread or sweet buns can be found in the village (and consumed, in haste, before mold sets in) but a hearty whole-wheat loaf is unheard of (not surprising). Chapati (unleavened flat bread) for brekkie is how we take our bread. It’s tasty, but it’s not toast.
To my delight, our hostel in Stone Town gave us toast! It was white bread but toasted (and mold free, unlike the gummy white bread at the YMCA in Dar). Better still – the Paje hostel gave us homemade bread and provided a toaster so we could choose the degree of toasty good-ness. I’ve never been so stoked on toast in my life (as much as I’m talking this up, I eat toast maybe once a week).
No matter how adaptable you may be, your perceptions and what you deem “the norm” is influenced by what you are exposed to. Small things like bare knees, hot water, and toast make you realize how much people really are products of their environment. It’s a reminder to think about what is going on around you; to appreciate the small things; and to be considerate (but also question) things you may not understand.