Part Two: Zanzibar (part one)
(Friday January 28th, 2000)
So, we finally boarded the airplane, a real jet this time instead of a turboprop, and left Nairobi for a couple of weeks. We would have to come back at the end of the vacation and I wasn’t looking forward to the experience.
Despite having huge difficulties in getting a ticket at the travel agent office in Kisumu, the plane was mostly empty and we were able to sit anywhere we wanted. Flying from Nairobi to Zanzibar is only a forty-minute flight southeast across the border with Tanzania and then out into the Indian Ocean. On the way, we passed Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa at 5,895 m and the setting for a whole bunch of stories (most notably Hemingway’s, in which, if I remember correctly, a guy on safari dies of gangrene and then flies in an imagined rescue plane to the summit). It is hard to tell from this photo, but Kili is huge. It sprouts out of a sprawling tabletop of land without the polite warning of foothills. As we flew past the mountain, hundreds of people were preparing to climb it (also hard to tell from the picture). On top of the $400-$750 usual cost, it was rumored that they had to pay an extra $350 for the privilege of being the first people to see the millennial sunrise from the summit.
We landed on Zanzibar twenty minutes later. Man, I had thought that Kisumu was hot! I was dripping sweat by the time we had crossed the tarmac to the terminal. I know if I complain too much to those of you having to shovel several feet of snow off your cars and driveways, I’ll get hate e-mail. I am not complaining about it being hot, I’m just saying…well…that it was very, very hot.
The airport was carved out of the jungle with palm trees surrounding the single airstrip on three sides. The fourth side was a small two-story terminal, the second story a long balcony lined with kids silently watching the six mzungu get off the plane. They just stood there, some of them with their chins resting on the railing, looking at us, with not a single, “Mzungu! Mzungu! How are you!?!”. It was a little disquieting.
We took a taxi to Zanzibar Town, which is the only real city on the island. It is the main port and the capital of the island. Two minutes into the trip we could tell we were in a different country. I, perhaps like some of you, knew absolutely nothing about Zanzibar, except that it is an expensive restaurant near the corner of South State and East Liberty in Ann Arbor. I suspected, but didn’t know for sure, that it was a real place. Sort of like Timbuctoo or Lake Titicaca (which actually do exist).
So here is the lowdown on Zanzibar: It is a small island of about 1658 sq km in the Indian Ocean on the Tanzanian coast, just north of Dar es Salaam and just south of the Kenyan Border. Through its history, Zanzibar has been ruled by, or had strong ties with, the Sumerians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Indians, Americans, English, Germans, Dutch, Chinese, Shirazi Persians, and the Omani Arabs. The Arabs and Persians stayed on for a bit longer than everyone else and have left a very strong stamp. Zanzibar was an important trading link for goods, especially slaves, on the east coast of Africa. Besides being a trading port, Zanzibar also produced, and continues to produce, a large variety of spices. It merged with Tanganyika to form Tanzania in 1964, the previous government having been a British protectorate ruled by an Omani Arab Sultan. There is a huge Arab influence here, with 90% of the inhabitants Muslim. Here’s a link to a web site with more information about Zanzibar if you are interested: Zanzibar Info.
The Arab influence was what was obvious a couple of minutes into the drive. Most of the women we passed were wearing traditional clothing to varying degrees. I don’t know that we saw more than a couple of women who went the whole nine yards with veils and headdresses, but most women had most of the their bodies covered. Many of the men were also similarly dressed with those small round caps not entirely unlike fezzes and long flowing, often white, robes. The architecture of the larger and older buildings was decidedly Arabian, but the smaller and newer buildings were clearly African.
We drove around for a while looking for a place to stay the night. Since it was Christmas Eve, and we hadn’t called ahead for a room, I was more than a little worried that we wouldn’t be able to find anything. I thought that this year, especially, it would be really crowded, you know, for Christmas, the Millennium, and all that. I bet Kim that we would have to go to at least four places before we found a room. I lost. I am definitely used to making reservations, but that is not how things work in Africa. You show up and something will be worked out, although sometimes it will cost you.
We stayed the night at a little hotel called Victoria Guesthouse. They had vacancy for just one night, after which we would have to go elsewhere. We had our own shower room/toilet and three very small beds, one and a half more than we really needed. Their diminutive nature notwithstanding, we fell asleep in them (well, two of them) immediately, as we were still bushed from having not really slept the night before in Nairobi. When we woke up, we went directly to a dive shop having decided beforehand that one of the things that we could do while we were here would be to get dive certified.
We went to a place called One Ocean right on the coast of Zanzibar Channel, the body of water between Zanzibar and the coast of Tanzania. We made arrangements to go snorkeling on Christmas Day, take a dhow sunset cruise on the 26th and take scuba lessons from the 27th through the 30th. In one short half hour, we had an itinerary for half of our vacation. After a good-sized walk across Stone Town (I’ll get to Stone Town in a minute) to the Malindi Guest Lodge, we had also arranged for a place to stay for the next couple of nights after leaving Victoria Guesthouse. So, we were able to relax a little bit and start enjoying our vacation. Actually, Kim was already pretty relaxed. She knew that we would find a place to sleep, I was the one that was a bit uptight about it. So, in a more relaxed state of mind, we wandered through Stone Town for the remainder of the afternoon.
This place is inexpressibly cool.
Even if I described it street-by-street, building-by-building, and door-by-door, how cool this place is, you still wouldn’t get a good idea of it. Stone Town is the oldest section of the city perched on the westernmost tip of the island as it juts in to the Channel. It is a labyrinth of tiny streets twisting around beautifully crumbling stone buildings with a decidedly Arabic flavor. It’s the perfect setting for an exotic story of intrigue and archaeology. It was the kind of place where you wouldn’t have been terribly surprised if Indiana Jones ran past you, golden idol in hand, being chased by men in robes with machetes.
It is a city planner’s fevered nightmare: all streets meander, most of the buildings are in decay, and efficiency and utility have been given the last couple of centuries off. It is a city designed to get pleasantly and thoroughly lost in. I have never been to a place so full of practical wonder. At every junction you wonder which way to go, wonder what is down that dark alley, wonder what is going on quietly behind the shutters and balconies, wonder, wonder, wonder, everywhere. There is even a building called the House of Wonder, once a Sultan’s Palace, a huge old building with two-story pillared balconies wrapped around all four sides, dominating the center of town.
Walking through the streets it was hard to keep in mind that it was a living city.; that people worked and lived in the midst of all the history. The beautiful old buildings were in constant use as schools, homes, stores, restaurants, and workshops. Even the House of Wonder itself had been converted to a more prosaic use as a local government party headquarters.
I would have loved to have taken hundreds of pictures of Stone Town, but two factors held me back. One, I was a little uncomfortable taking pictures of people. . The other reason was that I unfortunately couldn’t take very many pictures with my camera. At this point we had not yet received the packages that we shipped from the States before we left. Without additional memory, which was coming in the shipment, I could only take about fifteen high quality pictures and about ten of the lowest quality pictures. Nevertheless here is a high quality photo typical street in Stone Town:
And the doors! Oh the doors! The doors were gorgeous. Not an adjective normally associated with doors I know, but an apt one I swear! They were huge ornately carved old wooden doors some with brass spikes, some with intricate carving of Scripture in Arabic. Here’s a picture. I tried to find one of the best ones, but I was a bit rushed on the last day to find a good one.
I know that at some point later on I’m going to write, “And after that we wandered around in Stone Town for a little while,” or something much like that. When I do, I can’t describe the whole thing over again to you because it would quadruple the length of this entry. So, it’s important that you keep the above description in mind whenever we re-enter Stone Town, even just for a little while.
To get back to the narrative, this is where we spent the remainder of the afternoon of our arrival. As it neared sunset we wandered over to a bar called Africa House. It was on the second floor of an old hotel that was being slowly refurbished. To get in you had to go through the construction site. Everything was covered with dirt and the interior was lit by low-wattage bare bulbs on extension cords. The bar itself was operational and we found a seat on the large open balcony and waited for the sun to set. We weren’t the only ones, most of the tourist population slowly filtered in as it got closer to sunset. The bar was right on the coast and faced directly in to the setting sun, giving us a truly spectacular view of the sunset. And what a sunset! Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me but take this picture and imagine that it was ten times as beautiful and you’ll have a good idea of what it looked like. We sat with the other mzungu, over a hundred of them, I would estimate, until the sun was well set and then we went to a nearby restaurant for dinner.
I know that when you are in strange and exotic places that one of the true joys of traveling is trying new things, especially when it comes to food. Those of you who know me well will realize what a difficult proposition this is for me. My diet in the States was, to put it delicately, somewhat limited. Josh and his family love to tell a somewhat exaggerated story about how I only eat pudding and spaghetti (exaggerated as I don’t really eat that much pudding). So it should be no surprise that instead of venturing out into the unknown of Zanzibarian cuisine, we went to the Chinese restaurant right next to Africa House. In my defense, I am pretty sure that I tried something that I had never tried before…
Just as we finished dinner, the power went out. It was a pretty fancy restaurant so they already had little candles at each table so we weren’t plunged into complete darkness. We paid our bill and ventured out into the dark streets. In the absence of street lighting, Stone Town was a much scarier place. All of those hidden little alleys and doorways didn’t look so inviting anymore. They were now areas to be hurried past. If we weren’t already on the street leading to Victoria Guesthouse, I’m not sure that we would have been able to find our way back. It was also one of the first opportunities that I had to use the little Maglite that I bought before I left the States. Unfortunately, I had played with it so much the batteries had already died. Ooops.
We made it back to the hotel and went to bed.
The next day was Christmas Day. After opening our presents, we spent most of the day snorkeling out in the channel. The channel in front of Zanzibar Town is a little bit strange. There were huge ships anchored in the harbor and at the single pier. But less than half an hour away from shore, there are huge, beautiful shallow coral reef formations. We went out with three scuba divers, a South African couple from one of the ships in port and a Belgian guy from the UN. On the ride out we talked to the Belgian guy, George. He was pretty interesting. He was on vacation from Ethiopia where he was doing demographic work for the UN. His girlfriend was finishing the scuba course at One Ocean that we were just about to start.
After about 45 minutes in the boat we stopped at Pange sandbar. While George, the South African couple, and the Zanzibarian divemaster went diving, we went snorkeling. It was gorgeous! Coral covered the floor of the ocean while innumerable schools of fishes swam by. While there were no sharks to be seen, or any other hostile fish, there were poisonous sea urchins scattered everywhere like mines. Some of the coral was also unfriendly fire coral, so there was not a lot that we could touch, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable time. After snorkeling for about an hour we went back to the boat and went to pick up the divers. While we were under it had begun to rain and the water, although 29 degrees C, felt quite cold.
Because of the weather the divemaster changed plans somewhat and instead of going to another reef, we went to a sunken ship. On the way we had a lunch of papaya, mango, banana, some potato and meat concoction, and chapati. Unfortunately, they don’t have real Pizza House style chipatis, but rather a flat thick very greasy tortilla-like substance. Pretty good, but it takes several days to get all of the grease off of your hands. George let me borrow a wetsuit for the next dive and as we neared the wreck the sun peeked out again. Here’s what it looked like: Photo.
It was a medium-sized boat that wrecked, and honestly, wasn’t very spectacular. We found out that it sunk on December 31, 1899, so this was almost its 100th anniversary. We swam around it a bit and, an hour or so later, went back in to Stone Town. It was a pretty nice way to spend Christmas Day and primed us for the scuba diving lessons later in the week.
I should mention a bit more about the people in Zanzibar at this point. As I said, the majority of the population of Zanzibar is Muslim. We happened to be there during Ramadan, a month of fasting and prayer for Muslims worldwide. Here’s what Microsoft Bookshelf has to say about it: “Ramadan, ninth month of the Islamic year [a lunar calendar], the holy month of fasting ordained by the Koran for all adult Muslims. According to the Koran, the fast has been instituted so that believers “may cultivate piety”; this month was designated because it was the month during which Muhammad received the first of the Koran's revelations. The fast begins each day at dawn and ends at sunset. During the fast, Muslims are forbidden to eat, drink, or smoke.” It does, however, fail to mention that you are not supposed to fool around either. Despite all of these restrictions, the Zanzibarians were a very friendly bunch. Many of them gave the usual “Hello, how are you?” but many of them were also interested in actually talking to us also, which was very nice. They were, in general, at least four or five times friendlier than I have found the Kenyans to be. Who knows how friendly they could have been if they weren’t exhausted, hungry, craving a smoke, and frisky.
They are also finely attuned to the importance of tourists to the Zanzibar economy. As it was Christmas, every other person that we walked past wanted to wish us a “Merry Christmas!” It was as if a flyer had been circulated. We’re pretty sure they didn’t really know much about Christmas, they were just doing the friendly hospitable thing. It was a little awkward, as both Kim and I celebrate a pretty secular version of Christmas and I’m sure that they thought that it was a religious holiday for all mzungu, just as Ramadan was a holiday for them. It wasn’t exactly the kind of thing that you could explain in a casual passing conversation, so we just smiled and said thank you.
We started to lug our bags across town to the Malindi Lodge, but a truck full of rambunctious, and quite possibly intoxicated, South Africans pulled up and asked us if we wanted a lift. After a very fast bumpy ride we arrived at the lodge. Once we were checked in we took a much-needed nap in the air-conditioned comfort of our little room (the air-conditioning was an unsought, but much welcomed, surprise when we checked in) When we woke we set out across town for Christmas dinner at “Zibar”. It was a nice little restaurant that catered to Mzungu tourists. Great atmosphere, horrible service, passable food. For Christmas dinner it was Spaghetti Bolognese and cokes. (At some point in this vacation I do experiment with food, I swear!)
While not the strangest, or necessarily most exotic, Christmas I have ever had, it was certainly pleasant and memorable. I highly recommend Christmas in a tropical paradise!
We woke up at four in the morning. Why did we want to wake up at four in the morning? Was it to see the glorious sight of the sun rising majestically over the tall palm trees? Was it to get an early start on a long trek through the jungle to look at the monkeys (they do have a whole forest full of them there)? Was it to catch an early boat to some postcard-beautiful secluded white sand beach? Or was it because we had a room right across the street from a mosque and they had loudspeakers set up on the minaret to broadcast the morning prayers signaling the beginning of the day’s fast?
If you know me, and you know what time I prefer to wake up on my vacations, I’m sure that you’ll be able to guess which one of these it was.
I managed to go to back to sleep, but it didn’t last for very long. Africa wakes up very early. Gerard does not. We are going to come to blows at some point…We were also on the main road from the rest of the island to the dock, so the lorries came early in the morning to either pick up or drop off goods to or from the boats. I struggled out of bed, took a shower in one of the communal shower/toilets and got ready for the day.
Problem is I don’t really remember what we did this day. We probably just wandered around Stone Town. I told you I’d say it, now you’re supposed to do your part and remember what an absolutel