Stone Town

Trip Start Jul 19, 2007
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Trip End Aug 03, 2007


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Flag of Tanzania  ,
Sunday, July 29, 2007

On our flight to Zanzibar, we got our one and only chance to see any part of Mt. Kilimanjaro: one little horizontal strip was visible between layers of clouds.

The skies over the coast were clear enough for us to see reefs in the cool blue ocean as we passed over.  Nathan was able to snap a few shots, as the pilot did not seemed overly concerned about when we used our "approved electronic devices."

An REI rep had met us at the Arusha airport to explain that our hotels on Zanzibar had changed from the itinerary sent just a few weeks earlier.  What he did not explain was the mob that would greet us on Zanzibar.  The airport was small and we only had to wait a few minutes for our bags, but we had to push our way through an onslaught of tour guides and taxi drivers as soon as we hit the exit.  This isn't really uncommon, but these guys were very aggressive.  A few were holding signs, but none said "REI" or "Active Africa."  Several seemed to be prying for information they might be able to use to get our business, but we were hesitant to divulge much until we knew we had the right guy.

One man finally approached and said he was told to take a group of five people to the Serena Inn.  We were a little suspicious, since we had just told someone that's where we were going, and we were obviously a group of five.  He said he was from "Ocean Tours," which we had never heard of.  He knew a couple of our names and it didn't seem like he had just read them off our luggage tags, so we decided to go with him.  At this point, just the fact that he had an air-conditioned van was enough to tip us over the edge and go along.

On the ride to the hotel, the driver explained that our guide had been held up, and so he (the driver) had been asked to shuttle us to the hotel and explain that the guide would meet us later.  He took us to the right hotel and didn't ask for any money, so everything seemed to be on the level.

Our "replacement" hotel here was the Serena Inn.  This is a lovely hotel, composed of a mix of new and restored buildings on the western coast of the island (read more here: http://www.serenahotels.com/zanzibar/inn/home.asp).  After settling in, exploring the hotel a little, and meeting with our guide (late again), the two of us took a little walk along the beach.  The fisherman were lined up along the shore, cooking their fresh catch of the day.  One spent about five minutes showing us his wares, but Nathan found the hoards of flies a little disconcerting.

After just one night here, we had to pack up all of our things and meet the guide in the lobby (late a third time!).  He and the driver loaded our luggage into the van and we headed out on a walking tour of Stone Town.

The architecture and people are very different from what we saw on the mainland.  Zanzibar was once colonized by the Sultanate of Oman, and today the society is still heavily muslim.  There is also a significant population of Indians, descendents of craftsmen brought to the island to build and furnish elaborate palaces, as well as the immense doors Stone Town is widely known for.

The most emotional stop was the Anglican Cathedral, built in 1870s on the site of an old slave market.  Inside, our guide outlined the history of Zanzibar and its role as a waystation in the days of the slave trade.  We also the old slave holding cells under St. Monica's Hostel, next door.  Even sanitized for tourists, these rooms are horrifying.  The thought of dozens of people crammed into these rooms that seemed barely able to hold our small tour group, with little or no food or water, no bathrooms, hardly any light or ventilation for days...it's inhuman.

A few moments later, we were overwhelmed by throngs of people surging through the massive and chaotic Darajani market.  All of us were on the verge of being sick by the time we got through the fish market.

We exited the market to find the van and driver waiting for us.  We piled in, grateful to be back in an air-conditioned space for a few minutes.  As we drove off, a scuffle broke out between a couple of men at a bread stand.  We asked our guide if we should tell the police, but he said the police are more concerned with traffic problems.

As if on cue, the most surreal part of our adventure began with a traffic cop knocking on the passenger window.  The guide rolled down the window, and the cop engaged in a heated discussion with our driver in Swahili.  Suddenly the cop opened the door, and the driver stepped on the gas!  The cop was clinging to the door, shouting all the way.  The traffic was too heavy for the driver to get very far, and as soon as he stopped the cop pushed his way into the passenger seat, with our guide squeezed into the middle.

As the cop and the driver continued to fuss at each other, our guide tried to keep us calm by telling us that the cop needed a ride to the station and the driver didn't want to give him a ride.  We weren't sure exactly what was going on, but we were pretty sure that wasn't it!

A few minutes later, we pulled up in front of a restored building called the Old Dispensary.  Our guide twisted around in his seat to tell us a little bit about its history, but the absurdity of the situation (the guide trying to continue the tour, with this cop in the car still arguing with the driver) was too much.  Someone giggled, and pretty soon we were all cracking up.

Eventually, we got to our next stop: The House of Wonder.  There was some debate about whether it was OK to leave the van with our luggage in it, with this mysterious dispute with the cop still in progress.  Another man came up claiming to be a cop (although he was not in any sort of uniform), and he said that everything would be taken care of.  Our guide promised he would stay with the van and nothing would happen to our luggage, so we reluctantly enter the H-o-W.

It was worth a visit, if for nothing other than the excellent view from the top level.  Someone asked our guide if there were bathrooms inside, and he said, "Yes...but the term 'wonder' does not really extend to the bathrooms."  And he was right.  Stinky!

After half an hour or so of wandering around, we reconvened in the parking lot.  The cops were gone, the van and our driver (and our luggage!) were still there, and there was a fresh license sticker of some sort on the inside of the windshield, so apparently everything had been resolved.

From here we headed due east, looking forward to spending a few days relaxing on the beach...
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