The Exotic Zanzibar Archipelago

Trip Start Jan 26, 2007
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Trip End Feb 06, 2008


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Flag of Tanzania  ,
Tuesday, July 17, 2007

I flew from Jo'burg to Dar es Salaam, took a taxi, and really felt like I was in Africa. In Dar es Salaam, there are no facades of first-world "culture" to try to convince anyone that they aren't on a different continent - of which there is a considerable amount in South Africa. Dar es Salaam is raw Africa, from the moment you step out of the airport. The city is a chaotic grid of narrow streets, no traffic lights, no rules of the road really. No supermarkets, just little salespeople in roadside tiendas built into the building faces, or selling fruit in mobile kiosks. I was in Dar es Salaam to get to Zanzibar, and I did so the next day.

Various street characters hover around tourist destinations, such as ferry ticket offices or ATM's, and greet you with a "Jambo" (hello) or a "mambo" (what's up) or a "karibu!" (welcome). Greetings and friendly exchanges are a big thing in East Africa, even when your exchange is the person trying to sell you something. However, as I quickly learned, this should not be brushed off like it can be done in South America or Europe. Even the mangy street people get offended if you don't return their greeting. I had to change my avoidance strategy - now I return a friendly greeting, allow the conversation to proceed, and then drop the "no, thank you" or "hapana, asante" when it is opportune. Oftentimes, many people will approach you in the street, and after a 3 minute conversation, will just say goodbye and welcome. They actually do just want to talk to you. So that's a positive experience, a bonus for being willing to tak to even the homeless drug addict who may be trying to get you to buy a doghair necklace.

Caught a ferry to Zanzibar which took 6 hours instead of the promised "two and a half." I have a feeling this will be a pattern in East Africa. A very-slow moving cargo ferry, where people were packed in together with their luggage, except for the 8 or so "first class" western travellers who were shepherded into this tiny corner area of the main compartment, separated only by a waist-high wooden door. It was potentially less comfortable than the main area. And I felt strangely sequestered, separated unnaturally and uncomfortably from the rest of the 200-odd passengers.

At any given time during the ferry journey, one could look out at the channel and see other boats passing, sometimes traditional fishing dhows with characteristic triangular sails, most of the time high-speed ferries or cargo ships (I took the budget option to Zanzibar). One could, also, see various pieces of trash nonchalantly tossed into the ocean as our boat lumbered onerously towards the archipelago. Banana peels, plastic bottles, paper plates and forks, basically anything. Oh, it's legal. International dumping laws allow anything except plastic to be dumped overboard once you're 20 miles offshore or so.

Once we finally pulled alongside Zanzibar, I got my first glimpse of Stone Town (or Zanzibar town, the main island).  It was nothing like I imagined. Just looked grungy. Lots of shipping boats, containers, etc. Just a dockyard anywhere in the world, except for the occasional tall palm tree that arched its way above some cement building.

I got to a nice hotel with two other travelers, a Scottish and an English girl. The English girl's "papaasi" (tick, beach boy, street urchin) strategy was to be really rude - pardon the expression, but bitchy. She made violent gestures at people who tried to talk to us, and even chided me for returning a "jambo!" from a guy across the street.

I thought about our differing strategies, and figured it out - to me, these people are powerless, feebly trying to manipulate my behavior by being forthright, pushy, suggestive. They hope you will, in a traveller's daze, follow them to the hotel or taxi where they receive commission, or at very worst and rarely, into a dark alley where they can take some cash. I hold all the power in the interaction, as I have the money, and I have the ability to make my own decision. As long as I keep my wits about me and know where I am and am not going, who I am and am not following, then these papaasi are of no concern to me, are not a threat.

However, to this girl, the boys are a huge threat. They have the power to trick you. They have the power to rob you. You must fight them with anger and aggression, with forthright disdain. You can't even say hello back, because their wily ways will begin to work on you immediately. Maybe some of this has to do with her being a female traveller in a foreign, confusing land, but I still think one can navigate the horde of petty salesmen and papaasi without being a total dick about it.

So, there's a little travelling philosophy. Anyway, we got a cab after about 5 minutes of trying to bargain the guy down about $0.40. He wasn't going to budge from (Tanzanian shilling) Tsh2000. The girl told him, "I hope you're happy, you're taking the last of our money and we are poor students and can't even afford it." I thought this was a pretty silly thing to say, even for the "principle" of not getting ripped off (on a $1.60 cab ride). I suppose this is how she has continued to travel. I prefer lighthearted banter while bargaining.

The hotel was pretty decent. Not compared to South America value, but $10 in a quiet part of town and free breakfast. As a bonus, this hotel doesn't pay commission to the Papaasi, so they often try to trick you by saying, "Flamingo hotel, it's closed/full." It was now just past sunset, so I made my way through the labyrinthine alleyways of Stone Town towards the Forodhani gardens, where cheap street vendors sell fried food for dinner. Lots of them, huge banquet-tables of skewered "fresh" fish, piles of samosas and french fries, etc. Every second step you take, you are offered, in well-practiced speech, the delights of the most bountiful feast of seafood that humanity has ever witnessed. While bargaining, I noticed that the Kingfish-skewer stack had some special extras - about 50 tiny maggots crawling all over them. The stack was hastily removed and I opted for the vegetable samosas.

The food was filling, if a bit underwarmed and cheap (naturally). The next day, Stone Town was mine to explore, and this day is when Zanzibar turned me around and made me a fan. I wandered the back alleyways (the entire old-city area is a maze of back-alleyways, two or three stories high with traditional muslim-dressed locals walking around, to work, to school, etc.) Every once in a while you happen upon another Mzungu (foreigner). Sometimes an entire touristy alleyway for mzungu, but often, just in this ancient-ish residential maze. Huge, carved wooden doors with imposing looking studs line these alleyways, giving the city an imprenetrable feel.

Indeed, the city has been relatively impervious to the onslaught of western tourism. Even with the masses of white-sock-wearing, camera-and-moneybelt-visibly-hanging, sunburnt westerners flowing through the city's veins, it manages to keep a strong traditional feel. Stone Town is full of character, is resilient. It is mysterious and intriguing. You feel like an invader, an intruder in the back alleys, as locals who are just living their lives don't greet you with loud, tourist-sucking Jambo's and Mambo's. Maybe a glance or a nod. Over the centuries, Zanzibar has been a commercial and trade center for many civilizations, and while each has left its mark, the feeling is that the place will always have its own personality.

Went to Changuu Island in a small wooden dhow. I had just talked to a boat owner for a while about the business of fishing and/or ferrying mzungu to the islands. Too long to detail here, but he's dropping his fishing business branch to focus on mzungu full-time. Changuu (Prison Island) is a tiny tropical isle about 30min away from Stone Town by tiny boat, so within clear sight. There are massive 100yr old giant turtles there. They creak and groan as they walk around and do slow-motion pushups to reach the lettuce tourists hold out for their pink sticky tongues and powerful reptile mouths. There were some overpriced restaurants on the island, and there was also a huge peacock in this little forest area that I found.

The waters are a ridiculous turquoise, the sands a brilliant, even blinding white. The skies have dollops of thick tropical cloud sliding along in the breeze. Always on the horizon are the characteristic sharp triangle outlines of the dhow sails. And Zanzibar's final takedown punch was my first real sunset on the beach near the Forodhani fried food stands, when all the fishermen (even today) depart by dhow for their night-time fishing runs, unfurling their exotic sails in front of a red sunset, perfunctorily workmanlike, embarking on a visually stunning journey. The fresh fish all goes to Dar es Salaam, which I learned from Miller the boat owner, so I again opted only for the fried samosas and chapati bread at the nighttime feast. But that sunset is not an impression I will quickly forget - the local boys splashing around on the beachfront while the men, maybe their fathers, stoically sailed away into the sunset.

I went the next day to the desolate white palm-fringed beaches of the east coast. They were not as desolate as I thought, or as clean. The tides went out about 1km and locals harvested seaweed there. There were tons of people, not travellers but just people living in the cement buildings that squatted amongst palm tree forests. Wasn't all that tranquil.

Left the next day for the north, the other beach hot-spot. Went to Kendwa Rocks, which was three huts without electricity 10 years ago and is, today, a peaceful, but posh-ish, resort. 5 minutes walk to the south gave you a view of a little bay where fishermen readied their tiny dhows, 10 minutes north got you to a massive resort complex, not so much Holiday Inn but still many, many organized deck chairs on sand, and a big, fancypants restaurant on a small pier in the ocean.

I stayed in the dorm room and got dominated by mosquitoes. For that reason, today, I got tested for malaria, since I had a headache and a sore neck. Negative! Now I know the threshhold has to be a bit higher. I think the chances of me getting malaria are in the 60% range. Anyone want to bet?

My 2 days at Kendwa beach were spent reading, or swimming in the bathwater, or getting out of the sun. Was a very nice place - families having real resort holidays while I paid $10 for the same experience. boom.

Probably forgot a lot. Zanzibar is pretty special, even with the tourists. There are some great indian food places - had really good samosas for lunch. There are, of course, Italian and hamburger places, too, for the homesick or unadventurous traveller. The gelato was good. Tonight I take the overnight ferry back to Dar es Salaam, which will probably be a miserable experience. Then, immediately onto a 12 hour bus to Arusha, in the central north, near Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti. The wildebeest migration is on, and I hope to find a safari that will catch it in the north (may be hard to find a place, actually - many just drive in circles in the Seronera area, where the migration was about 1 month ago).

PHOTO UPDATING IN PROGRESS. And, photos for Jo'burg / Drakensberg updated in the last post.
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Comments

glynn
glynn on

Zanzibar
Have always wanted to go to Zanzibar but have heard such mixed reports about it. Your descriptions remind me of why I want to go there. And I sincerely hope you don't get malaria, Eric, not to mention other unmentionables from some of the food you're eating! Vegetarian sounds like a good option at the moment.

gdadamson
gdadamson on

Zanzibar beaches and animals next
What a wonderful blog! You are on your way to Arusha now, where I first experienced Africa. You will have a great time. LD

radamson
radamson on

zanzibar!
Sounds like this could be your favorite stop thus far? I love that you are eating samosas for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I'd be worrying about scurvy at this point too -- not just the malaria. LOL!
I miss you so much and everyone keeps asking after you...spent the week of 4th of July in San Francisco and all my friends are so impressed with your travels.
Keep the pictures coming. Do you have any of you and the locals??

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