Zanzibar!! What's it mean to you? Seriously I want you to write down your answer right now. Okay I suppose you can hold that thought until you can write a comment at the end.
To me I suppose it was the quintessential far far away strange exotic place. Just that, a word, I think there were times I wasn't even sure it was a real place. I don't think I knew, specifically, that it was in Tanzania until I was looking at a map a month or two ago -- I know I didn't realize until then that it's actually an island (turns out, it's actually an island) (okay, it's actually a town on an island, and the name of the archipelago of islands, but the island is called Unguja).
Looking at a map, and seeing that it was in Tanzania, where I'd be going for a conference anyway, I resolved to go to Zanzibar based on the famous name alone.
The following is Part II of the travelogue of this trip. [Part I]
Day 3, Thursday, November 6th - Flight was an hour and forty minutes from Nairobi, arriving at 8:25pm. As it was dark when I arrived I couldn't see much but it was warm and damp, with puddles on the ground seeming to indicate recent rain. A young man in a lab coat at the door to the terminal looked at our yellow fever vaccination cards. We also had to fill out a questionnaire about whether we'd been in Guinea in the last 21 days ... fortunately no one has given me grief yet that I was there three months ago. Getting the visa on arrival was simple. In the passport control booth the three men looked positively cherubic, all round headed and dimpled and smiling.
A driver from our hotel was waiting for us and it was more than an hour drive through the dark to our hotel, in the village of Nungnwi on the northern tip of the island. Couldn't see anything but I enjoyed the fresh warm tropical air blowing in the windows. In the village cinderblock houses emergerd from the darkness and then suddenly we went through a gate into a nice well-kept tree-lined area -- we were in one of the hotel compounds! Investigation would reveal that several hotels were clustered together here to form a fortified refuge for tourists. Hotel was mostly empty thanks to wildly unfounded ebola fear (not going to Zimbabwe because there's ebola in Guinea is like not going to California because there's ebola in Boston). On strolling about the place we were impressed by how swanky it was, both agreeing that it was too fancy for our usual taste, but hey, it happened to be a good price. Among other signs of swankiness it had a swimming pool just beside the beach.
Day 4, Friday, November 7th - In the morning we found that the raised wooden patio overlooked a beautiful white sand beach and crystal clear turquoise sea beyond, with traditional fishing dhows plying their trade back and forth beyond.
We signed up for three excursions for that day, "Jozani Forest," the "Spice Farms" and "Stone Town." The hotel manager tried to sell me on the popular "dolphin tour" too but I narrowed my eyes at him and noted that dolphins are a dime a dozen where I come from.
Osman, who would be our driver for the day, materialized moments later like some kind of genie, and we were on our way. One bit of advice I have for future visiters to Zanzibar -- Nungnwi is lovely but its at the far end of the island, see everything else while based in Zanzibar City and then relocate to Nungwi. Once again we had more than an hour's drive ahead of us, but this time I could see the island. Along most of the way there were cinderblock houses just off the road. While it didn't look so densely populated beyond the road, it seemed like a continuous thin village along the entire length of the road, with people walking back and forth along the side and going about their business. It was lovely though, under the palm trees, everything looked so peaceful. Doug, who was in Jamaica with the Peace Corps, kept commenting on how much it reminded him of Jamaica.
Jozani Forest is a national park in the middle of the island. Our guide, Khummus (pronounced "Hummus" with a slight gaspiness to the initial H), only had one ear, the other one appearing to have never developed, there wasn't even an ear hole. He was from one of the nine villages that neighbor the national park, as are most of the guides. He was an out-of-work science teacher and worked at the national park as a volunteer. At first he seemed kind of dull and stand-off-ish, but then it became apparent that he was really into biology, being able to tell us the scientific names and numerous facts about all kinds of different plants in the forest. As Doug and I, being beekeepers, are also pretty into that, we soon found we had common ground and he opened up a bit. Then we found out he was actually am member of the Zanzibari Beekeepers Association (Zanba?), which, we'd thus far had no luck trying to discovered evidence of beekeepers on the island so that was a real coup.
Pretty much as soon as we entered the forest we started hearing monkeys crashing about in the canopy. Zanzibar has two types of monkey: the Zanzibari Red Colobus which is endemic only to Zanzibar, and the Sykes Monkey. Interestingly the two types of monkeys tend to hang out together.
I also saw an elephant shrew snuffling about in the underbrush, which looked kinda like a red and black opossum. At first I was excited to simply see monkeys at a distance but pretty soon we found a family of them at ground level, and they'd ignore us completely even as one gets within a few feet of them. There were several little adorable baby monkeys. It was definitely more of a monkey experience than I'd hoped for.
There was also a boardwalk through a mangrove swamp, which was fun.
Spice Farm - The Zanzibar Archipelago is also known as the "Spice Islands" (not to be confused with the islands in Indonesia known by that same name), and have always been a major producer of cloves, cinnamon, nutmet, cardamon, and many other spices. The Spice Farm the tour goes to isn't so much a working farm I think as a display farm with some examples of each of the spice plants. Again, being interested in biology we were very interested to see the plants all these well known spices come from. It was interesting to note that the bark of the cinnamon tree tastes good and cinnamony right off the tree. I was getting slightly annoyed that the guides seemed to talk primarily to Doug while comparatively ignoring me, presumably because he was older, but that came to be an advantage in this tour, where they at times were kind of pushy about trying to get us to buy their spices but they concentrated their efforts entirely on Doug. In the end we tipped them $10 (after we accidentally BOTH tipped our Safari guide the previous day $20 each, we were now making sure to coordinate our tipping) and the guide looked at it sourly and started to whine about supporting the local community. Doug pointed out that he'd bought $35 worth of spices from them. Khummus, by comparison, at the end of the Jozani Forest tour, hadn't even bothered to look at the $20 we tipped him.
Stone Town - is the historic old part of Zanzibar City. It is a World Heritage Site. It is full of narrow winding medieval streets. Doug got along very well with our guide, Abdul, it was veritably a bromance. I thought the tour was kind of disappointing though. We saw the market, old slave-holding pens and the church that has been built above them, and a famous door. For me the highlight was probably just an intersection of the winding streets called "Jaws Corner," where old men gather every day to drink coffee and play dominoes or other traditional games. We had coffee there, strong and black in little cups.
Got to watch the sunset from a beach at the edge of Stone Town, where even at sunset many many young people were frolicking in the water. They appeared to be having a diving competition off a nearby area where deep water directly abutted the promenade, doing flips in the air before hitting the water. A dhow was sailing on a course that would take it across the sunset and I really wanted to get a picture of it directly in front of the sunset but unfortunately Doug and Abdul were anxious to keep moving.
There was a small castle there but I don't recall Abdul saying anything about it. I think I read it is Portuguese. The tour unfortunately involved nearly no historical information other than that the second-to-last Sultan of Zanzibar had had the market built, some sultan had had the fancy door brought from India to impress his wife, and that Dr Livingstone (I presume) had witnessed the slave trade here (it was a major hub) and subsequently successfully petitioned the British parliament to ban it. By force of arms the British Navy convinced the Sultan of Zanzibar that he ought to build an anglican church over his slave trading pens.
And then we tipped Abdul ($20 again), and were on our way on the long drive back to Nungnwi again.
Sitting on the patio late in the evening I watched four drunk young local men stumble by on the beach. Two of them were wearing normal western clothing, and two were wearing the traditional maasai garb, all were exhibiting the culturally universal stumble of someone having a good time on a tropical beach. Then I discovered a floofy cat had curled up under my seat. What an evening.
Day 5, Saturday, November 8th - It had been our plan to visit Pembe Island this day. Pembe is the second of the two big islands of the Zanzibar Archipelago and its main draw for us was that it doesn't have the tourists that Zanzibar does. Originally we had wanted to go there by traditional dhow, and were both very undisuaded by the universal response of "that's very dangerous!!" as if it was practically suicide. What did finally dissuade me was noticing that it was 50 kilometers away, it could easily take ten hours to sail there. To go by motorized vessel we'd have to travel way back down to Zanzibar town again, even though Nungnwi is the closest point to the island. We decided at this point just to cross Pembe off our list and instead just relocate to a more deserted place on the island. Also it being the weekend, the hotel-compound had become inundated with Australians. I don't think I've ever seen so many Aussies in one place, not even in Australia! I thought it was a bit off that they all showed up on the weekend -- who goes to Zanzibar "for the weekend" -- even from Australia its gotta be an 18 hour trip with a layover or two on the way. So we decided to go to Pongwe, halfway down the east coast of the island -- the Lonely Planet guidebook described it as pretty quiet and peaceful (as opposed to Nungnwi which I think is the number one tourist destination on the island).
But first! We'd go for a walk down the beach since thus far we hadn't really had time to poke around Nungnwi at all.
The tide was out, WAY out. We could see waves breaking waht looked to be a quarter mile seaward. Many many locals were out in the extensive tidepools gathering seaweed and probably other sea creatures of nutritional or economic value. Traveling down the beach towards the point we found many many traditional dhows left high and dry. Many were being worked on. And there was a steady clink of hammers and drifting smoke from fires used to ... boil pitch?
Just beside the lighthouse at the point we found a turtle rescue pond. In this natural pond, which is connected to the sea by water percolating through the coral "rock" they collect turtles. When a fisherman accidentally catches a turtle in their net they give him $10 for it (alive). Alternatively if there's any evidence a fisherman caught a turtle and killed it they face heavy fines and/or jail time. Once a year, February 20th for some reason, they release all the turtles they have back into the sea.
They also had many baby turtles in smaller tubs, and they were adorable. In the main pond they had about a dozen really big leatherback turtles, who had really pretty patterns on their shells. I got to hand feed them some seaweed. In a separate inclosure they had carniverous I-forget-their-name turtles, which weren't quite as big as the huge leatherbacks. They also had some tortoises with an interested sort of hinged shell.
Walking back towards the hotel we decided just to stay in this village and enjoy it. We trie to go all the way out to the sea but the tide started coming, and was rising surprisingly fast, so we had to angle back towards shore. I became separated from Doug during this retreat, largely because I was easily distracted by good photo opportunities involving dhows.
Once I reached the beach I decided to try a different tack and go up through the village. The guidebook described it as somewhat ramshackle but they'ive clearly never been to Nigeria if they think this is ramshackle! I thought it seemed like a nice quaint little village. The only thing separating it from the idyllic image of an island village is that the roofs were mostly corrugated metal instead of thatch and mostly cinderblock instead of wattle-and-daub, but there were still some mud walled thatched cottages.
I arrived at the hotel reception expecting to find Doug there but he wasn't. I was just negotiating with them for a room for another night when Doug showed up and said he'd found a better hotel. We got out stuff and went down the beach to a much quieter hotel that wasn't as ostentaciously swanky but had a quiet elegant dignity about it, the room was definitely nicer, and the rates cheaper (this was the Smiles Hotel vs the Amaan Bungalows, for those of you following along at home / planning your trip to Zanzidoozle). The manager was a friendly dutch fellow who didn't look much older than me.
A fellow dressed in traditional maasai garb who'd been lounging about in the courtyard area came to talk to me in a very friendly manner as I walked through, and though I was friendly back to him I made my escape as fast as I could suspecting he was about to try to sell me something. He never did but later he chased off some others that were trying to bother me while I was trying to relax in a lounge chair on the beach just in front of the hotel, shoeing them off just like a herdsman chastising misbehaving goats, and then later he came to say goodbye because he was off work and leaving, so I guess maybe they employ him as a herder of people.
Also I finally got some swimming in on this nice lazy afternoon. The water was lovely. Crystal clear and just the right temperature.
Which brings us up to now, where I'm writing this with candle light at a table by the sea in beautiful tropical Zanzibar. I haven't been to the more "normal" tropical paradises closer to the States so I can't really compare, but this place is pretty lovely. Later on tonight there is a full moon party down the beach a waiter was telling me about so I suppose I'll go down there and see what that is all about.
Full Moon Party - Picking up where I left off, on Saturday evening around 22:00 I started down the beach to the left (south) towards where I'd been told the Full Moon Party was. I only made it a short way.
Coming towards me I saw a group of about half a dozen local young men, obviously drunk. They hailed me as they approached and said that the party here was only a small one and I should ocme with them they were going to drive to a bigger full moon party in another village 10 km away.
I did some quick calculations -- should I go with a drunk group of local young men, would they just rob me blind and leave me in a thicket? If I went there and lost them how could I possibly travel ten km through an unknown island to get back home? And naturally I decided to go with them.
A plan to mug me would not begin with a group so jovially traveling down the beach before they saw me, and their good humor seemed impossible to fake. As to the potential of being marooned ten kilometers away, I'd just have to run the risk.
They all proceeded to bar at sort of rastafarian bungalow "hotel" at the very end of the "strip" just beside the boatyard for some pre-drinking. It turns out they had a Swedish couple with them as well, which made me feel a little better, apparently if it was all a trick I wasn't the only poor sucker they'd tricked into their company.
Another highlight of the evening was that while none of them were dressed in the traditional Maasai garb, a number of them were ethnically Maasai. You've probably seen the Maasai on the Discovery Channel doing their jumping dance, where they stand straight and try to jump as high as they can with their arms straight down at their sides. Well it turns out when you get Maasai drunk at a bar, Maasai jumping contests break out. I found this very amusing and did much jumping myself.
While most of the persons present did seem innocently jovial there was this one fellow with an attempt at a mustache (or maybe he just gave up on shaving his upper lip two weeks ago?) who just had a sort of evil look in his eye, despite being outwardly friendly. Long story short, he spent most of the evening trying to weasel money out of me in one way or another.
The party turned out to be a lot of fun. I am not a big "party scene" person, nor am I much for dancing or clubbing, but hey I was out partying with Maasai tribespersons in Zanzibar!! The full moon party was pretty much an epic dance party that was both indoors and outdoors and we pretty much rocked out.
I had a major scare when I discovered my phone wasn't in my pocket and spent most of the evening thinking it had been stolen. Mr Mustache weasled some more money off me through some explanation that he could get it back with just a few dollars to the right person, and I was drunk and desperate to get it back.
Finally when we returned to the car the driver, a Maasai girl named Jessica (!?), found it on the back seat where I'd been sitting. She later mentioned to me confidentially that if the guy with the mustache or his friend had found it first they surely never would have returned it to me, so she had made sure she had a chance to look back there before she unlocked the rest of the car. She was a strong counterpoint to Mr Mustache, being a she (A) didn't have a mustache; and (B) despite being an attractive young lady, and therefore someone who might "legitimately" expect me to buy her drinks, she never tried to finagle a cent out of me.
Passed out on a couch in the rastifarian bungalow camp.
Day 6, Sunday, November 9th - Roused myself up at 9:30 in case check-out was at 10:00. It was pouring fitfully out (fortunately I was under a thatched canopy), but the sun was shining. As I walked back to my hotel through the pouring rain the beach looked so perfectly white, and the ocean was flat underneath the rain, with damp dhows bobbing at anchor.
I found Doug having breakfast with two christian missionaries from the states. They were a retired couple, aged approximately 65 and 70, and they seemed nice and I know their hearts were in the right place, but while they were talking about how they had sought out "uncontacted" maasai tribesmen deep in the bush to teach them about Jesus I just kept thinking what a shame it was to purposefully venture out to some of the last people who have had the fortune of being isolated from the modern world and tell them their beliefs are wrong. Local culture, customs and beliefs are a fragile and endangered thing, and to me their mission sounded like seeking out an endangered butterfly just to kill it.
In our hotel back in Nairobi at least two missionaries had passed through. What is this the land of missionaries? I remember one of them had been going on proudly about how his ministry has 5,000 followers, as evidenced by the number of followers his facebook page has, and he clearly thought this was a veritable mandate from heaven.
We were going to take the local transit, the "dalla-dalla" back to Stone Town, where we'd spend the night, but Jessica, the driver from the previous night, had mentioned she was driving back there during the day.
Unfortunately we had to wait until she got up around 2:00pm. But we chilled around the Rastifarian camp. Doug had some fish they all shared, and I later ordered some delicious huge prawns. Finally Jessica was down and along with a friend of hers (a kind of large and overbearinbg girl that I think got on Doug's nerves -- her first words to him were "move your ass!" as she got in the car) and we were off!
Arriving in Stone Town, Jessica and her friend said they'd meet us at a beachfront bar / restaurant after we checked in to the hotel. Doug got distracted by a bookstore after check in though, and apparently ended up meeting up (Accidentally?) again with Abdul, our erstwhile Stone Town guide, and having dinner with him.
I found Jessica and her friend at the restaurant indicated, along with a funny rastifarian named Moody, and most surprisingly, the Swedish couple, whom we had not coordinated with at all. We whiled away the early evening over beers and good company at this pleasant outdoor seating area. Feeling perhaps nostalgic already that I was leaving the next morning I contemplated with appreciative wonderment how I'd come to be sitting with five friends I hadn't known 24 hours earlier here at a lovely little place in Zanzibar. Someone walked by on the beach with a little pet monkey on a leash.
As the sun set I discovered I was not far from where I'd been trying to get the dhow picture earlier in the week, and was finally able to capture it crossing the setting sun.
Jessica and her friend left to go to Jessica's place (she lives in Zanzibar town. Being as she doesn't appear to work, and has a nicer car than anyone I know, I suspect she may secretly be a Zanzibari princess) her friend mentioned that she was going to "nap for maybe an hour" and I knew right then and there that we'd likely never see them again.
The other four of us wandered the narrow medieval lanes of Stone Town after dark. There were puddles, there were cats, there were some foul smelling alleys (but most of them just smelled like rain, fortunately), it was all ill-lit, it was incredibly easy to imagine the place looking exactly the same 200 years ago. As the evening wore on we tried to contact Jessica and her friend several times and more than once they assured us they were on their way. We waited in front of the castle, by the night market with its tables piled high with food. Finally around midnight as we were all starting to nod off we decided to call it a night.
Day 7, Monday, November 10th - It was with a heavy heart this morning that I left Zanzibar. Not much of a story there. A typical breakfast at the hotel's rooftop dining area of delicious tropical fruit and an omelette. 15 minute taxi ride to the little airport, and we were gone!
Stopover in Dar Es Salaam, where we disembarked the plain, went through a little rat-maze in the terminal, put our stuff through two x-ray machines 100 ft apart lest we got up to mischief in the middle, and completed our cirucler route to reboard the same plane that was still waiting in the same spot.
Now I'm in Arusha deep in the interior of Tanzania, and its hot and dusty and the touts, the people who follow you around the streets saying "my friend, my friend!" are like swarms of flies here, and I miss Zanzibar a lot. But Arusha will be a story for another time, a story that at this moment hasn't happened yet. But Zanzibar, I'll never think of Zanzibar the same way again. It's not just the name of the furthest away place anymore. And to me, it's not the swanky tourist compound it is to the Aussie tourists on their six-month-long vacations. Its the rain on the white sand, the fishermen sailing their dhows into the sunset, the old men playing dominoes in the center of the labyrinth of ancient twisting streets, and grinning Maasai wearing western clothes but jumping like their ancestors, in a rastifarian bar.
[Pictures to be added as soon as I get a chance!! In the mean time please check out the ones I've managed to post to instagram]
Zanzibar!! What's it mean to you? Seriously I want you to write down your answer right now. Okay I suppose you can hold that thought until you can write a comment at the end.
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