Friday, June 1, 2012

Back to Africa... Zanzibar

Zanzibar was never a part of the original travel plan.  It found its way onto our itinerary when what was supposed to be a volunteering opportunity in a Tanzanian hospital turned out, unfortunately, to be an observational experience and, at that, not at all what we’d bargained for.  After a day and half of good faith effort at the hospital we had observed plenty, and we regrettably determined our skills and abilities could not be utilized at the facility.  After giving it a great deal of thought, we decided to conclude the observation experience early.  Having made that decision, we determined that a quick trip to Zanzibar was, in fact, doable.  So we pulled the trigger, bought a plane ticket and landed in Zanzibar about 16 hours after clicking “Confirm Payment” on the e-ticket.

We arrived on a Wednesday afternoon and immediately dove into three days and four nights of what was mostly a whole lot of nothing.  Now, anyone who has been reading this blog with regularity knows there have not been many days of “a whole lot of nothing” in the past four months.  After all, it sometimes takes weeks for me to get most of my blogs up and online.  But in Zanzibar, that was about it.  I think we spent all of six hours doing something mildly touristy in an effort to learn a little about the culture and history here.

We landed late in the afternoon but did not find ourselves in a hotel for nearly three hours.  There’s a story there, a long, irritating and only minimally interesting story.  If you really want to hear it, ask me about it sometime.  Shortly before 8:00 pm we found ourselves at the Funguni Hotel on the north end of  Stone Town – near the water, walking distance to anything we wanted to see/do in the area and close to a dala dala stop if we chose to check out another town.  The dala dala is the Tanzanian (and Zanzibarian!) local transit, 20 cents one way.

Breakfast view off the top of our hotel

Sometimes this is what happens when we have more than one night in a room...

The next day was Michelle’s birthday.  We decided to celebrate by going to the beach.  Finding a beach in Zanzibar was not as easy you’d think it ought be on a small island described as being “lined with sandy beaches.”  Zanzibar is about 95% Muslim and, therefore, is also a very conservative place.  Beach-going is not exactly a frequent activity for many locals.  Michelle asked at the hotel desk where we should go, and he sent us to Mtoni Marine, a private resort beach about 7 km north of Stone Town.  We put on our swimsuits and sunscreen, hopped on the dala dala to Bububu as directed and jumped out at the gates of the resort. 

For at least three reasons, being a foreigner on the local transport is pretty fun.  A) It’s much more affordable than a taxi.  B) The locals look at you quizzically; unable to decide weather you’re nuts or cool for joining them on the overcrowded and less-than-comfortable rides. C) The guy running the show tells you when you’re at your stop because he knows (correctly, usually) that you probably have no idea where you’re going in the first place.

So there we were at Mtoni Marine.  We walked through the gates and toward the oceanfront.  Not one person looked at us twice or as though we didn’t belong, so we kept walking.   We made our way back to the oceanfront pool.  The pool had giant sign stating it was for resort guests only, but not to worry!  The guys manning the empty pool happily set up beach chairs for us and, for the remainder of the afternoon, they served as our personal attendants as we sampled each of the local beers on the menu and enjoyed our lunch.

That evening Michelle and I shared a “romantic” birthday dinner at Mercury’s, a beachfront restaurant named after “Zanzibar’s First Son.”  It was lady’s night -- haha!

The best pictures we could get someone to take of us

Locals playing soccer on the beach

Birthday girl

The following day Michelle and I wandered around Stone Town to see what it was all about.  The old town is a maze of narrow streets and alleyways.  We thought it similar in appearance to Varanasi, India minus the cows and feces all over the place.  Many of the buildings date back to the 19th century and the slave trade. It was an interesting place to walk around.  At some point during our wandering today we thought maybe it would be a good idea to try and learn a little something about this place.  After all, we were in Zanzibar, a place that almost anyone you talk to has heard of, but few have any idea where to find it on a map.  A few hours later we booked a spice tour and a boat ride.  The tour operators are desperate to make sales this time of year, their low season, so without even trying we managed to score both tours at less than half the advertised price.

The spot where we can ice cream, twice!

View of the Indian ocean while eating ice cream

Market in "New" Stone Town

Trying out the local dishes...

Pilao (rice) with coconut curry
Ugali with fish

Finding our way through the alley ways

The boat ride was that evening.  We were in a dhow.  What is a dhow you ask?  Well, the dictionary defines it as a “…sail-rigged boat usually having a long overhang forward, a high poop and a low waist.”  (Oh?  Is that so?)  Anyway, the ride was complete with snacks, sodas and a fair amount of wind.  Many of you know that thanks to Chicago friends Ken and Tracy and their boat rover, I’m something of a sailor, try to be anyway.  So I enjoyed watching the dhow’s crew maneuver the single-sailed boat.  It was even more fun to watch Michelle get nervous at even the slightest heel.  

I quickly got very comfortable

Look at me I'm on a boat!

Simultaneously managing the snacks, the wind and my balance was also quite interesting.  There are no lifelines on these boats, just a 4-inch board to stop things from rolling off the edge.  As the ride got a little rocky the snacks were sacrificed, the sodas quickly consumed and the coconut milk spilled.  I really had no interest in losing my camera over the side.

Michelle managed to perfectly capture me trying to manage everything

On our last day we went on the spice tour with the same guys who’d sold us the boat ride.  They picked us up in a “private” dala dala. In other words, the guy driving it was paid to drive a bunch of tourists around all day instead of drive his regular route of stopping every 50 meters to pick up and drop off locals around Zanzibar.

They took us to a plantation about 20 km north of Stone Town and showed us many plants and spices in many stages of their growth and preparation for market.  We saw everything from just-planted rice paddies to nutmeg nearly ready to go to the market.


a whole lot of spice
The guys working on the plantation spent a lot of time decorating  the tourists with plants

as you can see here...

After the spice plantation, we stopped at the Mangapwani slave cave, a coral cavern with a passageway leading out to the ocean thought to have secretly kept several thousands of slaves in the years following the slave trade.  After this visit we felt a desire to learn a little more so we concluded our tour by being dropped off at the site of the original slave market.  It was both interesting and disturbing.  A few of the caverns where slaves were housed are still there today.  Many of the others are long gone, and a Christian church has been built on top of the site.

the entrance to the cave, it was too dark to take any pictures down there
At the site of the slave market...

Model of the church built over the slave chambers

Remaining slave chambers

Memorial outside the church

just a little creepy...

My goodness.  I never thought I could get two whole pages of commentary out of “a whole lot of nothing.”  I guess even when Michelle and I are doing nothing at all, we’re still busy. 

After Zanzibar we returned to the continent and set out on Safari – so, so much and so many photos.  It may still be a while until you get many details about our safari, a fabulous and truly unforgettable part of our fabulous and unforgettable trip!

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