I was 43 and it was Christmas when I almost died off the coast of Zanzibar. I was halfway up the middle of Africa on a six-month solo journey far more common now than it was in 1996.
I’d put my mid-life crisis on the road, hoping solitude and surprise would air it out. It worked, and that cross-continent journey remains a high point of my life.
Except for the swim I took on Christmas day.
Friends are easy to make when you travel so off we went, into the clear blue waters of Nungwe beach, laughing and paddling towards a nearby rowboat. The sun baked our backs, we chatted of new friendships and old memories, and soon reached the boat.
I grabbed its edge and turned around. While we were swimming the tide had come in and the ‘nearby’ boat was now quite far from shore. My carefree friends started swimming back, slicing smoothly through the warm waters. I stared in horrir as their backs receded and remembered: I couldn’t swim – at least not beyond a little paddle and wiggle, and certainly not where I couldn’t touch the ground.
By now they were beyond shouting range, just dots in the distance.
Have you ever panicked? It’s not much fun. I was breathing hard, the air catching in my throat and my eyes watered. I tried to hoist myself into the rowboat but the sides were too high and I kept falling back into the water. Evening was settling in and the possibility of drifting out to sea gave me wings – or at least fins.
What was that they used to tell us? You can float if you lie on your back? Right, let’s try that. It worked for a few seconds. The dog paddle? Sure, I can handle that. Another few seconds. And so it went.
Each time I hyperventilated (every few seconds it seemed) I tried to calm down: “If you panic you die. If you panic you die.” That mantra echoed in my brain.
Seemingly forever, I floated and paddled my way towards shore. I thought of my family, who would never see me again. Hell, they wouldn’t even know what happened to me. In these pre-Internet days, I’d called home a couple of weeks ago from Dar-es-Salaam with vague northward-bound plans. That wouldn’t be much help if they had to scour half the continent to find my body, which would be floating down near the seabed.
Suddenly my toe grazed something. I burst into tears of joy, frustration, anger, embarassment, victory – but mostly relief. I almost danced out of the water.
I had come close enough to death to taste it and it wasn’t something I wanted to sample again. I still had too much to do.
Travel is wonderful but like everything there’s a risk involved. Of all the things that could have happened to me while on the road, this was perhaps the most avoidable. All I needed was to learn to swim. Or at least remember that I couldn’t…
I eventually went back into the water. I stayed in the shallow end and slowly taught myself to swim. I’m still not good at it and water intimidates me, but I no longer assume I’ll drown when I can’t touch bottom.
In many ways that Christmas in Zanzibar was a gift. In case I’d forgotten, it reminded me that every moment counts and that I’m lucky to be alive. Literally.
Leyla Giray is a journalist and development worker with a passion for travel and improving people’s lives in developing countries. She has lost her way in a Mozambican minefield, paddled out of a flood in the Philippines, met with dissidents in Cuba and unwittingly sat on an anaconda in Brazil. Born in Paris and raised in Spain and Canada, she works for a development agency in Geneva during the day and in the evenings writes about women and travel on her new blog at Women on the Road