Monday, August 07, 2006

Hakuna Matata: Zanzibar

In advance of my trip to Rwanda, I had purchased the Lonely Planet guide to Africa. An ambitious work, it inspired many a daydream about traveling all over Africa during my six-month time here. I marked the pages on Mali, Madagascar, Zambia, South Africa. In the end, work caught up with me, and I forgot to take a real vacation, to really change scenery.

I wasn’t alone. Two of my friends in Kigali felt the same way, and we got together and decided to take action. We decided to take time off after World Refugee Day and fly to the most exotic place we could think of.

Lucky for us, Zanzibar (a land of coconut palms, white coral beaches, turquoise water, spices, and a unique Afro-Arab culture) was only a 3-hour flight away.

We headed out through Nairobi on Kenya Airways. After my credit card information was stolen by Kenya Airways in January, I was hesitant to take them again. Unfortunately, Kenya Airways seemingly has a monopoly over all the other airlines in East Africa, so even when you book on another airline, you’re put on a Kenya Airways flight. I haven’t been able to figure it out. In any case, we didn’t have a choice.

So, with the bad experience that I had already had with KA, I should have expected that our flight would be two hours late and that we would miss our connection by 20 minutes. My friends and I found ourselves in Nairobi Airport, at the poorly-situated KA transit desk, along with about 150 very unhappy travelers. After a 2-hour wait, we changed our tickets and were sent down to another KA desk, where they were to make hotel reservations for us and give us food vouchers (a process which took another hour).

Here’s a tip: If you’re ever stranded in Nairobi because of Kenya Airways, you can actually CHOOSE the hotel you want to stay in! We stayed in the Safari Park Hotel, but you could stay at the Hilton or the Stanley (all 4-star hotels). Not that we really had the time to enjoy it, because we were picked up at 4 am for our morning flight.

We landed at the tiny Zanzibar airport, paid for visas (fyi, it’s $50 to enter Zanzibar and $25 to leave) and a taxi sped down palm-lined boulevards bordered by powdery-white elegant arab-style homes. We arrived in Stone Town, the largest city in Zanzibar. Our taxi driver told us that the hotel at which we wanted to stay was closed for renovations, but we didn’t believe him—we had heard that taxis will say anything to direct tourists to hotels from which they will receive commission. When we arrived at the Hotel Kiponda, we found that he had been half-right; it was under renovation, but one room had been more or less finished.

Since we were the only guests, we were able to negotiate the price a bit, down to $10 a person for the three of us. We only found out later that there wasn’t any hot water and the beds were as soft as packed sand.

Traveling reveals a lot about a person. My friends were split; one loved the hotel, the other hated it. That was when I realized that this vacation, about which I had few expectations (except a lot of beach time) would be very interesting. My friend Ana was a professed communist, and preferred cheap, non-commercial, hole-in-the-wall places, and Beatriz, often very cheery, became easily stressed (the roach family that greeted her in the bathroom was an unwelcome surprise). As for myself, I’m not the kind of person who likes to dictate things (at least, on holiday :) but I also won’t deny that I enjoy luxuries when I’m on vacation. Ana didn’t want to spend more than $10 a day on lodging, which made me nervous because it didn’t seem like it would be enough to buy us a room in a relaxing hotel—I didn’t want roaches on vacation!

We decided to compromise—no roach motels, and no Italian resorts, and in retrospect, we definitely stayed in places that were toward the lower end of the price scale. Beatriz unhappily took a cold shower and we headed out to explore Stone Town.

Stone Town is a maze of tight, narrow unnamed alleys reminiscent of Venice. Around every corner were nameless boutiques and stands selling kikoys and kangas, children playing soccer, and Zanzibar natives greeting every muzungu with “Jambo!”—pidgin Swahili for hello. I don’t think I’ve said hello as much in my life, and I have to admit that I was very suspicious because Rwanda was very different. In Rwanda, no one says hello like that unless it’s followed by “give me money!” In Zanzibar, when people beg, they ask, “Give me book!” I thought I was in heaven.

After a while, I realized that the Zanzibarians were truly friendly. It was almost unbelievable, because the entire island was infested with muzungus, and they didn’t seem to mind.

Several hours later, weighed down with our purchases, we walked down to Forodhani Gardens, by the waterfront. The Forodhani Gardens weren’t really gardens; it was a park with a dilapidated pavilion and an enormous night market. Fishermen had set up tables of cooked seafood—steamed lobster claws, fried octopus, fried fish, whole boiled crabs, and all for pennies. We bought a freshly chopped coconut, from which we drank the juice. There were sugar cane juice machines that looked remarkably like instruments of torture, and tens of Masai, some with stretched holes in their ears, selling jewelry, masks and statues. We walked through and ended up on a small beach where locals were swimming and doing acrobatic tricks on the sand. There, I made the acquaintance of some boys with a pet monkey named Eduardo who didn’t seem very happy to be a pet.
Sipping our cocktails at a beachfront restaurant, we watched the sun set as the dhows, or traditional Zanzibarian sailboats, sailed in to shore for the night.

We managed to find our way back to our hotel after dark. Stone Town, the seat of ancient trading (in spices and slaves) is surprisingly safe, despite the masses of rich visitors that crowd its streets. We ate at Kidude (named after a famous female Taarab singer whom I later saw walking around Forodhani Gardens at the end of my trip), which Conde Nast apparently said was the best place for lunch in East Africa or something and was, in my opinion, nothing special. Exhausted, we then retired for the evening.

The next morning, we made it our mission to explore the markets. Zanzibar is a delightfully complex island—it was its own country until 1972, when it united with neighboring Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanzania. It was home to Omani sultans for centuries, so it is a once Arab and Africa. Over the years, many Indians have also made their home here, and their influence is particularly evident in Zanzibarian cuisine. Zanzibar is also the birthplace of Swahili, the lingua franca of East Africa and the most widely spoken language on the African continent.

Islam is the predominant religion by far; 95% of the population is estimated to be Muslim, and the wide presence of mosques confirms this—there are over 400 mosques in Zanzibar Town and only 2 churches—one Anglican and one Catholic!

All of this is a long way of explaining that Zanzibar’s remarkable diversity appears everywhere—in the markets, the Moroccan-like architecture, the colorful wraps and fabrics, the spices (they produce saffron to vanilla to everything in between), the doors—the amazing doors!—and the Taarab music, an Arab-sounding style which Zanzibarians claim to have invented and exported to Egyptians and other Arabs.

Next stop: The beach at Kendwa.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You write beautifully. You should consider turning your blogs into a book. And thank you for shedding light on the beauty and diversity of African culture.

A Ghanaian at CSIS.

10/02/2006 2:35 PM  

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