Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Out.
As a kid in Ohio, my travel fantasies were shaped by places? names: Kathmandu, Bora Bora, and all the locales the Beach Boys rhapsodized over in their hit "Kokomo." By 33, I?d hit many of them, but one still loomed: Zanzibar.
Homosexuality is illegal in Tanzania, Zanzibar?s parent country, but I couldn?t shake the need to get there—and being told I shouldn?t go because of who I am made me want to go more. I wasn?t looking to Laura Ling my way into North Korea or open a gay bar in Kingston, Jamaica. My determining factors? Could I experience something similar somewhere else? Would I be putting myself in certain danger?
It became clear that Zanzibar?s scope and beauty couldn?t be approximated elsewhere. An archipelago in the Indian Ocean occupied by humans for 20,000 years, Zanzibar is best known as Africa?s entryway to the Arab world and its spice trade and was until recently the world?s largest supplier of cloves. Though overwhelmingly of African descent, 95% of the population follows Islamic law.
Fortunately, it wasn?t hard to find companies operating in Zanzibar with a history of accommodating gay customers. I traveled with &Beyond, a Johannesburg-based company with 40 safari camps throughout India and Africa.
Before embarking to my island paradise, we made two stops—Lake Manyara, where I was treated to the only open-Jeep after-dark safari in Africa (nocturnal porcupines, tree-climbing lions), and Ngorongoro Crater, home to 60,000 Maasai people and thousands of zebras and wildebeest, hundreds of hyenas, and 60 lions. &Beyond?s lodge is a Shangri-La cluster of clay and thatch huts overstuffed with cut crystal, ornate antiques, floor-to-ceiling windows, fireplaces, and stunning soaking tubs.
I?d nearly forgotten why I?d started this Tanzanian journey, but after a two-hour Jeep ride and a 90-minute flight, I was at the Zanzibar airport. Zanzibar Town was an amalgam of the streets of Kathmandu set among the landscape of Bora Bora. Reaching a more remote region, we jumped onto dirt roads lined with tidy villages and children at play, many of the young girls in vibrant colors befitting the exotic beach locale even if their Muslim niqabs, or face veils, seemed out of place. It wasn?t long before I was on a boat to Mnemba, &Beyond?s tiny private island, where 10 bungalows are situated on impossibly white beaches lapped by equally unreal turquoise waters.
Once shoreside, the manager took my shoes, BlackBerry, and wallet—and introduced me to the chef, bartender, masseuse, and scuba instructors. All the huts are open-air and wall-free, entirely luxurious and private, yet there?s no such thing as "dressing for dinner."
While I didn?t meet any other gays, I was quickly disabused of the notion that I was Mnemba Island?s gay Rosa Parks. & Beyond says it has several same-sex couples who are return guests, and out of the well-traveled, adventurous honeymooners, I stood out less for being gay than for being pasty. All in all, a marginal gamble that was worth the 30-year wait.