We had always wanted to go to Zanzibar because the name evoked the sound of a mysterious, sexy, exotically inviting island getaway.
After being married for a year I began to feel all the pieces of my life come together with unusual synchronicity. Suddenly I felt a powerful urge to visit Egypt, study Arabic, and get more connected to my roots. I wanted to really and truly understand what the culture and mindset of the people of the Middle East was -- and to separate that reality from the one that the so-called Middle Eastern pundits were constructing for me every night on television. So I bought the ticket and off I went with my traveling companion Ashley.
We're Not in Santa Monica Anymore
"Distance lends enchantment to the view, and robes the mountain in its azure hue." (Thomas Campbell)
Zanzibar was also the name of one of our favorite Santa Monica music clubs, so we flew to the real Zanzibar with exotic nightclub expectations. We envisioned a chill atmosphere of cool people. We fantasized about intriguing cuisine like the fare served in L.A.'s African restaurant district, and could almost smell the heady aroma of unusual spices. There would be fabulous white sand beaches and the sounds of lively African music and soulfully passionate drumming would fill the streets at night.
But if experience is the best teacher, travel is a full scholarship PhD program, and it is important to accept those lessons gained along the way, otherwise travel is reduced to arm's-length tourism.
Getting Bored and Going Batty
"It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive." (Robert Louis Stevenson)
As soon as we got our bearings in Zanzibar the magical mystery faded -- replaced by images of grime and filth, scary insects, and spooky bats. The ambiance was punctuated -- or saturated -- by an alarmingly pungent, pervasive, stomach curdling body odor that was so potent you could practically bottle it from thin air to use for nefarious witchcraft.
There was no enchanted rooftop bar with a fabulous view and an intriguing ambiance. Nobody writhed seductively to intoxicating music while celebrating the night until it was time to drink a toast to the new dawn.
Truth be told, the only party going on in Zanzibar was the one we had planned in our minds -- and it was a total flop because nobody showed up. They were all in bed asleep or engaged in prayer because, after all, Zanzibar was a city populated by conservative Muslims.
Author John Updike once said that Russia is the only country of the world you can be homesick for while you're still in it. But apparently Updike never visited Zanzibar. The more we learned about the place, the more we longed to travel to the other Zanzibar -- the enchanting and magical one we had constructed with naïve imagination.
All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go
Nothing was shaking in Zanzibar except the foundation of our crumbling expectations.
Ash and I were stoked and primed for an exuberant weekend getaway. We were eager to let our hair down, wiggle our bods, and party hearty until we wore holes in the soles of our dancing shoes. But our wild weekend turned out to be nothing more than hopeful mental window dressing. It was as if Zanzibar -- our romantic foreign fling -- had totally stood us up.
The real purpose of the journey -- and the enduring lesson for Ashley and me -- became clearer to us as our dream vacation became increasingly obscured by reality. We were finding out the hard way that preconceptions are prone to misconceptions, and that traveling in a true spirit of discovery means to remain grounded in the here and now. We all need to dream and exercise the creative, intentional imagination. But we also have to be open to accepting life's unexpected possibilities and surprise outcomes.
Anemic on Magic but at Least Low on Crime
When reality threatens to spoil your next dream, coax and cajole a little creative re-framing to the rescue.
They say that no vacation goes unpunished, and we've all experienced it. Your Hawaiian beach holiday gets rained out. You have to have emergency root canal surgery during your excursion to beautiful Bali. Or you fly off to Paris for your honeymoon and arrive just in time for the citywide garbage collector's strike.
But rather than surrendering to negativity and seeing the glass of water half empty -- and full of infectious bacteria -- we decided to look on the bright side. Zanzibar was dull as flat Perrier water, but the glass was almost completely empty of crime -- there was nary a drop.
The nightlife involved creepy crawlies scurrying along the walls and hiding in the bathroom sink -- instead of pulsating clubs, passionate percussion, and eclectic cuisine spiced with sensational conversation. But while it was ridden with insects and infested with bats, Zanzibar boasted exceptionally few human predators.
Tour Guides Taking Us for a Ride
Some people will rob you with a knife and pistol, but others just steal you blind with a handshake and a smile.
Pretty much the only crime syndicate we observed was organized by cabbies intent on gouging their unsuspecting customers, and that's a form of annoying misdeed universally perpetrated on tourists and travelers everywhere.
Taxi drivers in Zanzibar automatically assume the role of tour guides who don't just steer the car but they also steer their hapless passengers. You ask them to take you to one place and they insist on taking you to another that holds greater historical significance. We arrived at these destinations to find that not only were they insignificant, they were already history -- and whatever had been there to see was just a pile of broken bricks. The only thing about these places that related to authentic ruins was that the more of them we saw, the more our impression of Zanzibar got ruined and our fun weekend was reduced to rubble.
We asked to be taken to a hamaam for a traditional Turkish bath. Instead of the bath we looked forward to we found a vacant building where there was, once upon a time, an actual hamaam.
We asked our cabbie to take us to the famous spice market, since Zanzibar is known as the Spice Island. He drove us to some dilapidated buildings that were on his must-see list, and then eventually taxied us to a farm where spices were grown. In the middle of a pepper field was a table, where a variety of prepackaged spices was displayed like souvenirs at a roadside stand. For 17,000 Zanzibar schillings -- or approximately 18 dollars -- we purchased the right to brag to our friends back home that we bought spices right from the source. And our cabbie got a fat cut of the action as his finder's fee. But we returned home without ever getting so much as a glimpse of Zanzibar's renowned spice market.
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