Zanzibar R & R
Dec 28, 2004
David Rich 1300 Words
Z A N Z I B A R R & R
It'd been the trip from hell, stuck for two weeks with an incompetent sociopath punishing his passengers and piece-of-junk Land Rover from South Africa overland through Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi into Tanzania. By now I was stark raving tired of waiting eight hours between meals and dodging ambling highway hippos after dark in torrential rains. When we arrived in Dar es Salaam I grabbed the chance and left our too strange driver behind, jumping the ferry to Zanzibar for peace and quiet, a solitary R & R.
The magical word 'Zanzibar' conjures the mind but how does reality compare? Picture an exotic, remote and largely unknown island of spice, the tail that wagged the dog of the vast African continent for centuries, the stronghold of Sultans and the central shipping-off point for Africa's infamous slave trade from 1822 until the 1880s. Zanzibar has morphed into East Africa's party central with its fine white beaches fronting a paradise for snorkeling and diving, picturesque sailing dhows and atmospheric architecture with a genuine African flair.
As the ferry scraped the dock in Zanzibar a rasti-guy buttonholed me, introduced himself as Boniface and asked what hotel I was off to. Right away I saw a scam coming, the sort of tout that leaches on tourists worldwide. Yet I was leery of waking any sleeping sociopath so I answered kindly, "The Haven," pointing to the guidebook entry.
Boniface did a double take. "That's my hotel," he said. "I run it."
"Get out of here," I said. Boniface looked twenty-something and raggedy and I hoped he'd take my exit request seriously because a tout never accepts the hotel you pick, instead shuffling you off to one offering him a kickback gratuity.
"Serious, mon. I'll give you a ride over. And if you don't like it, though you picked it out, I'll find you another hotel. Here are the guys riding with me."
He introduced me to Joey and Justin, Americans serving the Peace Corps in Zambia, teaching the locals to plant fruit orchards for self-sufficiency.
Justin said, "Nothing like R & R in Zanzibar."
I didn't like The Haven and sure enough Boniface found me another hotel. I felt welcome in Zanzibar, R & R seeping instantly into my veins.
R & R was everyone's story as they frittered away sultry holidays kicking back in Stone Town, Zanzibar's capital, soaking up rays on the endless pristine beaches including those on closely adjacent islands. I took a more proactive approach, giddy on being AWOL from a certifiable nut case. I explored the labyrinth of Stone Town's narrow winding alleys overhung by balconies, took the plantation spice tour raved about in all the guide books and glanced at a couple of beaches and coral reefs.
Stone Town, confusingly also known as Zanzibar, is the island's heartbeat and a World Heritage Site with ancient Portuguese and Moorish buildings dating from the 1100s. Arab traders began swooping down the African coast in the 8th Century, riding the northerly monsoons for thousands of kilometers in billowing dhows. I sipped exotic juices and watched similar dhows spooling past outdoor cafés fronting the uncanny-blue water, surrounded by history. The Sultan of Oman and Muscat had hung out in Zanzibar for centuries, finally moving his palace to Zanzibar in 1832. After ping-ponging between colonial powers during the great wars, Zanzibar and Tanganyika finally grabbed independence in 1964 and merged to become Tanzania.
I wandered over to Creek Road bisecting Stone Town. To its east sits brutal stone blocks with rusty eye-rings for tethering human merchandise. The main slave market was a few blocks to the west, crammed between a massive stone church and a multi-pointed mosque, a market fueled by 19th Century Arab, European and African merchants.
I immediately became lost in alley-ways of crocodilian crookedness. So I wandered aimlessly, under jutting balconies and past innumerable displays of African arts and crafts, finally happening upon the great crenellated Portuguese fort with its tall tubby towers in the center of town. Next to the fort stands Zanzibar's tallest building, the Sultan's Palace. As the first building to have electricity and an elevator the Palace was renamed the House of Wonders. The House of Wonders hosts Zanzibar's precocious museum, which is worth the $3 admission for its meticulous history of Zanzibar and fourth floor veranda offering a 360 degree panorama over Stone Town. I spent half an hour circling the veranda, trying to pinpoint the many places I'd already gotten lost.
On the seafront sits Mercury's Pub named after Freddy Mercury, the lead singer of Queen, a Zanzibar native who never returned after founding what for many is the greatest band of the 1980s. When Freddy died of AIDS in 1991, Queen boasted 10 albums in world's top 100. I enjoyed Mercury Pub's live acts such as the Cultural Musical Club featuring Zanzibar's own brand of funky music fueled by violins, a bass, harpsi-keyboard and accordion, but then Zanzibar was briefly a German colony. I finished off at Mercury's with a local kids choir singing carols in unison, harmony delayed for New Years' resolutions and potential founders of world famous bands.
Every evening at sundown I'd gather with a hundred others to sample the skewers of a half dozen fish varieties, squid, prawn and lobster sold from little barbeque stands strewing the waterfront off Stone Town's Jamaturi Gardens Park. It was a fabulous feast for a few bucks, easily topped off with gelato or watermelon. I had both while admiring the sunset with silhouetted dhows. Then I'd wander over to the former British Officer's Club, transformed into the venerable Africa House Hotel, for post sunset toasts with new friends, after which we'd retired next door for jazz at La Fenice.
I spent a full day taking photos starring a cacophony of fancily dressed ladies, ornately carved doors and balconies, cashew nut vendors, African crafts from hard wood carvings to batik, a kid's party with a skinny black Santa, rocking church services and grand sit-down food orgies at multi-star hotels on the romantic beach front.
Don't miss the spice tour, the cheapest kick on the island, eight hours for $10 including lunch and all the raw spices you can ingest. I tasted vanilla, clove, mace, cocoa, cinnamon, banana, coffee, five kinds of pepper, turmeric and could have done with a toothbrush before lunch. An interesting tour feature was being the only male surrounded by predators from South Africa, Germany, Finland, the UK and US. The gracious ladies entertained me at the afternoon beach party and I received four invitations to late evening festivities, opting instead for Mercury's.
The week fled fast with impromptu parties and sunset reveries. Far too soon I stepped off the ferry in Dar es Salaam and there on the shore, like death personified, stood the madman from South Africa, instantly banishing the fond memories of an idyllic R & R in Zanzibar.
When You R & R in Zanzibar: Dar es Salaam is the political and aviation capitol of Tanzania, receiving direct flights from most European capitals for about $700 roundtrip with connections from the States for $1000. Ferry tickets to Zanzibar, 160,000 people living 35 kilometers (22 miles across the sea) off Dar es Salaam, triple in price for foreigners. Tickets cost $30 to $40 each way depending on the ferry line and the hawker selling the tickets.
Hotels on Zanzibar range from superb to ratty. The superb include the Zanzibar Serena Inn (223-3587, email@example.com) overlooking the sea from $235 to 680, which means it better be good. I liked the Tembo House Hotel (223-2069, firstname.lastname@example.org) from $85 to 175, also on the seafront in Stone Town. Also see the Zanzibar Beach Resort (223-0208, email@example.com) from $100 to $220. The Dhow Place Hotel (223-3012, firstname.lastname@example.org) is nice and more reasonably priced from $55 to 105, lovely with large rooms, antique furniture, fridge and all the accoutrements. All hotels can be booked and prepaid over the internet at about 50% of published rates. Generally, for Zanzibar's incredible number of hotels and direct bookings, see www.zanzibar.net, www.allaboutzanzibar.com, www.naomba.com and www.africapoint.com.