I wound my way through the 6 foot high coral heads looking at all the beautiful animals in the tidal pools. There were starfish of every imaginable color, really big sea urchins, and colorful fish trapped in the pools by the receding tide. The bright African sun shone down from a blue sky speckled with wispy clouds.
I was young, maybe 23 or so. I looked up and was surprised to see a thin, beautiful woman about my age wearing a batik wrap, white t-shirt, and a yellow headdress. And she had an enormous octopus draped over her shoulders with tentacles brushing her ankles. She smiled and asked me in Swahili if I wanted some of it. Back then I spoke enough to refuse politely. She asked me where I was going and I pointed out towards the edge of the reef, maybe half a mile further out. I couldn’t make out what she said, but it was pretty clear she thought that was a bad idea. So I did what any 23 year old male would have done.
Making my way to the edge of the reef I couldn’t believe how beautiful the ocean was. I’d been traveling for some time inland and Zanzibar was the first beach I’d been to in almost a year and a half. I couldn’t resist and set my clothes on the top of a large coral head and picked my way gingerly to the edge of the reef and dove in. The water was perfect and I swam out and caught a few body surfing waves. After a bit I noticed the dry area I’d entered from was no longer dry. I suddenly realized why the young woman was so concerned. Even though I was basically right on the equator, meaning that the tides don’t vary that much, the flat long beach was starting to fill with water. I was almost a mile from the beach.
Slipping on my sandals, shirt, and pack I started wading back to shore. At first it was pretty easy. The water was so clear I could easily avoid the sea urchins and, as long as I was careful, it was easy to find a foot hold. But progress was slow and the water kept rising. Eventually it was up to my waist and was rushing like a river through barnacle encrusted coral and rocks. By then I couldn’t see where I stepped and had already gotten caught by sea urchins a couple of times.
I stopped and breathed and thought for a minute. I still had half a mile to go. Something from a Red Cross lifesaving class came to mind, so I pulled out my rain jacket and tied knots in the sleeves. Inflating it, I lay on top of it. I steered my makeshift raft through the coral without touching the ground until I was close to shore.
I noticed some villagers laughing. I was glad to provide entertainment, but was really happy to have had that lifeguard training!