The most enjoyable you can have in 60 minutes

Trip Start Dec 28, 2009
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Trip End Jan 12, 2010


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Flag of Tanzania  , Zanzibar Archipelago,
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

If there's one belief I've held during my travels, it's that terrible fits of jet lag are best dealt with on warm, sandy beaches. The only problem with this tactic is that major international airports are rarely located next to beaches and therefore usually take a little extra effort. But after 27 hours of planes and layovers, what's another couple hours of buses and ferries? And if places like Raglan, New Zealand and Ios, Greece are worth that effort, than Zanzibar certainly is as well.

Thanks to my bizarre Egypt Air flight, my reunion with Rachel after 2.5 years was delayed 2.5 hours -- and those reasons remained a mystery as we landed to clear skies. Unfortunately for her, that extra time was spent sitting around the Dar es Salaam Airport. I got my stuff together and we met up with George, the driver our safari company had arranged for us, picked up Joy, Rachel's friend and fellow Peace Corps volunteer, and headed to the ferry. It only took as long as purchasing our ferry tickets, my first piece of official business in Tanzania, for my first encounter with Obama-nia. We were asked by the ticket agent to supply our names and our home country, when we all said, "USA," the agent looked up, smiled, gave a big thumbs up and went, "Obama!" This would be a common experience.

We found a hut across the street that served food and ordered some uncooked fried bread. But the important part was getting to a bathroom so I could change out of my pants -- since it wasn't even 9 yet and the temperature was already approaching 90 degrees ... with a steady dose of humidity -- and get reintroduced to the joys of the squat toilet. We ducked the touts trying to sell us the ferry tickets we'd already purchased and headed to our ferry, where we were greeted by a staff wearing shirts that proudly stated, 'The most enjoyable you can have in 60 minutes.' It was good to be back in the third world. Well, sometimes. During the ride out to Zanzibar, I started the long process of filling Rachel and Joy in on everything they'd missed over the last two years. And I have to admit, it was kind of depressing.

After more than hour, we arrived at the port in Stone Town. For the second time in about four hours I had to fill out a Tanzania entry card (and collect another passport stamp) as we entered Zanzibar. We didn't even make it past the 'Karibu Zanzibar' sign before the touts and taxi drivers descended on us. We found a driver to take us to Jambo Guest House, one of the three places Rachel had made a reservation for the three nights we would be staying on the island. But the thing about Zanzibar, and really Tanzania in general, is that every hotel is like the rental car company from Seinfeld -- they can take the reservations, they just can't hold them. So Jambo had our reservation for the last two nights, but not the first one. They first sent us to another guest house owned by the same guy, but we were informed as soon as we got there that they didn't have any power so we moved to another spot.

We were then led to Macha, which was situated next to a shady garden and looked peaceful and quiet. Ah, first impressions. We were told the place would have their generator on all day and night and that the free breakfast advertised was a pancake breakfast. For $15 this sounded fine. But we should've known something was up the moment we saw their negotiation skills. The girls were paying in Tanzanian shillings, which worked out to 45,400. The guy at reception wouldn't take an even 45,000 from Joy, but when I told him I only had $13 (I had yet exchange money, and he wouldn't give me change on a $20), he gladly accepted that. So he'd discount me $2, but not the equivalent of about 30 cents for Joy.

We pitched our bags and walked through the narrow, labyrinthine roads of Stone Town that had a claustrophobic feel with the high stone walls lining the streets. It sort of reminded me of the old Greek villages. Minus the white and blue paint. And the fact that cars and motos actually drove through these streets. When they did there was really not enough room for both motorist and pedestrian. This didn't seem to bother the drivers any. You'd get a warning honk and then the car would be on top of you. The honking wasn't so much a, 'I'm here, please get out of the way.' It's more a, 'I'm here, I'm coming through, and yes two seconds is more than enough warning, and if it isn't, I'm bigger than you so it's tough shit for you.' 

Touts and shop owners tried to welcome us in and the old men and children that sat outside all day would greet us with a warm 'Jambo' and a smile. The town had a peaceful and interesting cultural mix of Tanzanians, Muslims and Indians. The one thing I got a kick out of was all the random t-shirts that the kids wore; random sports teams and faux throwbacks and such. The one thing that Joy didn't get a kick out of; all the locals shouting 'Japanese' and 'Chinese' at her everywhere she went. Joy was Korean, and after two years in Africa, didn't have much of a sense of humor left about it. We stumbled upon the port much easier than we thought, considering how long and convoluted the taxi ride through the main roads had been. We decided to go get lunch at Mercury's, named for Freddy Mercury (born on Zanzibar), because it was right on the water, had a big menu, and seemed like one of the better candidates to serve cold beer. And yes, cold is not necessarily a priority for servers (and because of the Muslim influences, many places didn't serve alcohol at all). I started my sampling of Tanzanian beer with a Kilimanjaro, which would be my favorite of the lagers on offer and followed it with a Tusker (named for the elephant who killed its founder), which I didn't like as much as the Kili, but I enjoyed ordering more because of the way the Tanzanians would pronounce 'Tooskah.'

I was exhausted, sleep-deprived, in need of a shower and a teeth brushing (is that English), but being with Rachel, staring out at the water and eating fresh sea food and drinking a cold beer, all that could wait. An hour or so. We went back to Macha for naps, and even though there was no fan to keep the room cool in the 90-degree heat and humidity what was supposed to turn into an hour nap turned into four hours. I thought I had just cost myself an extra couple days of jetlag, but it turned out to do the trick. I managed to get running water long enough to get my first shower in 2 and a half days (this would turn out to be a stroke of luck, but more on this later), but not before I had my first massive spider sighting of my time in Africa. After reading enough of Rachel's stories about needing machetes to kill spiders with enough venom to kill you five times before you hit the ground, I was taking the same approach to arachnids that I did in Australia: Shoe first, ask questions later. That spider might not have killed me regardless, but it sure as shit wasn't going to kill me as a splatter spot on the bottom of my sneaker.

We went back to the waterfront for dinner, where we walked around the food stalls set up every night at Forodhani Gardens. The brand-new garden, situated in between the water and the Old Fort, is covered with food stalls selling fresh sea food skewers, pizza, samosas and sugar cane juice. It's lit by small lanterns and has an excellent ambiance. Rachel and I split a whole bunch of skewers of fish, lobster and other random sea foods that was grilled right in front of us. We sat on the stone wall in front of the cannons pointed out to sea and ate our food. It was a great setting, but I was having a difficult time shaking a feeling of uselessness that first day. I managed to survive a year of traveling on my own and take pride in my ability to be self-sufficient. But out here, I didn't have nearly the grasp of the culture and its idiosyncrasies that Joy and Rachel had after two years on the continent, my jetlag overcame my ability to develop any sense of direction in the confusing streets and I had no local currency of my own. I even had to borrow a towel from Rachel to dry myself off after my shower. But I would get over this. And a cold beer would help. After dinner, Rachel and I had decided that would be the best way to conclude my first day in Africa. We were trying to figure out where to go when Mr. Hilali walked up to us and asked if we were looking for a place to get a cold beer. What was this guy, a mind reader? Were we looking for a ride up to the beach for New Year's? This guy really is a mind reader. So now we had a cold beer situated AND a plan for New Year's. We walked to Livingstone's and closed the night by the beach with a warm Safari (the bronze medal of Tanzania beers) and a wild, and that-can't-possibly-be-safe fire show.
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