Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Bungalows and Beaches


At noon, we left Stone Town in favor of the beach. We didn’t have a reservation, but found a shared taxi to Kendwa, our first destination. Our driver didn’t really speak English, so we also had a guide named Saidi (though he went by Side—pronounced “see-day”), a surprisingly intellectual and sharp guy on whom I would end up relying heavily at the end of my trip.

After driving through villages where every child greeted us with a smile and a dance, we turned down an unmarked, dusty path leading to Kendwa, a village in the northwest of Zanzibar. Just south of Nungwi, a major destination for young, drunken travelers (think Cancun in the Indian Ocean), the Lonely Planet guide said that Kendwa was a quiet, relaxing foil to its loud, northerly neighbor.

Let me be perfectly clear: the Lonely Planet Guidebook is a waste of space in your luggage. It hasn’t been updated for years, and its advice is at once incomplete and unreliable. Get a different guide.

Perhaps with regard to Kendwa, it’s better that the guidebook doesn’t say much about it—it is, quite simply, the best destination in Zanzibar.

We found a bungalow at Kendwa Rocks, an eclectic, laid-back hotel run by Rastafarians. While the bungalows don’t have hot water, most “hotels” in Kendwa don’t. In front of every thatched roof bungalow is a hammock, and there are some in the restaurant, too. The outdoor pavilion restaurant was the center of activity not just for the lodge, but for all of Kendwa—people in neighboring lodges came to Kendwa Rocks because the meals were delicious (they had all sorts of seafood at every meal) and cheap, there was a DJ spinning music, and there was an outside lounge were everyone drank beer and watched the World Cup. The Rastafarians often enjoyed their beer with a joint (or several). On the beach at night, the Rastas would build a bonfire, and people would pluck guitars and watch the stars.

The one thing about Kendwa that I couldn’t figure out was the constant presence of village guys. Between 18 and 30 years old, they appeared out of practically nowhere every night. Always friendly, they were a bit too friendly, but never aggressive…they were also a bit suffocating because they sat down at your table uninvited, or would start a conversation with you when you’re trying to have a quiet moment to yourself. They would even interrupt or sit in on conversations and toss in an opinion. I had, like everyone else, become friends with them (they took to calling me “cappuccino” because of my skin color) but I must admit that it felt like every one of them would have jumped at the opportunity to stick their tongue down my throat. Or any other girl’s, for that matter.

Stranger than that was the fact that all the villagers were male. “Where are the women?” we repeatedly asked these guys. They told us that the women were Muslim, so they couldn’t come out. We only partially believed them. After much debate, we decided that the guys either wanted us to buy hash or were male prostitutes for the flocks of single female travelers that passed through. Maybe they were just nice people, but I’m telling you, something was fishy.

On the subject of crazy locals, when Portugal beat England in the World Cup, a man in his fifties in a drunken stupor pulled down his pants and jumped around bottomless. (This followed an earlier spectacle, during which he cast a spell on the English team. I am not kidding.) I am happy to report that I was blissfully on the other side of the lodge, but a fellow traveler reported that the man bent over and spread his cheeks (“the single most disgusting thing I have ever seen,” he reported). This was, not surprisingly, the same man who, earlier in the evening, kept repeating “Konichiwa” to me until I told him to go to hell and walked away.

The snorkeling around Zanzibar is world-class, so we decided to take advantage. We signed up for a full day of snorkeling (lunch included) for only $20 at the Spanish Dancer Dive Center. When we showed up, we found out that the people taking us were not actually with the Dive Center, but were other locals. We don’t really know how or why this happened, but since everything is so fluid and laid back in Kendwa, we decided to go with the flow.

Twelve of us boarded the boat for a two-hour boat ride around the northern tip of Zanzibar to a reef near Mnemba Island, a private resort island. It was only when we were at the reef that we began to understand the downfalls of going with locals instead of an established company—they didn’t give any instructions. I ended up being the seasoned expert among my friends, and I’ve only been snorkeling once before, in a tank at Disney World (where I hyperventilated and nearly drowned). Something about that seemed wrong.

This professionalism of our snorkeling staff was perhaps epitomized when I asked for a life jacket, and the boatmen asked me why. “Nah, just swim without it,” one said. “You’ll be fine.” Great.

The water was surprisingly warm, and I paddled around, admiring the wealth of fish (I felt like I was in “Finding Nemo”) and coral. It was then that I first felt it—a sting like a needle on my thigh. I scratched it and kept thinking, “Don’t hyperventilate. Don’t hyperventilate” as whatever it was kept stinging me all over my legs. I thought it was floating kelp or something. Finally, I had had enough, and I returned to the boat to find my legs covered with welts.

I wasn’t alone. No one had warned us about the almost-invisible baby jellyfish. Riiiight.

We had a late lunch on the shore facing Mnemba Island (to touch the sand of their beach is to be tackled by 10 guards) and feasted on fruit, chapatti, and fish grilled in a foil papillote with cardamom, ginger, coriander, cinnamon, cloves, and lime juice. What a tasty change from Rwandan food!
A Zanzibarian sailor on a dhow we hired to watch the sunset.

Jambiani, Paje, Bwejuu

From Kendwa, we ventured diagonally across the island to Jambiani, which our guidebook had said was a favorite place for travelers, and looked like a postcard of paradise.

We stayed at the Traveller’s Inn, a hospitable (if tired) hotel. Our room was great (compared to where we had slept in the days prior) as we had a TV, hot water, and beds with real mattresses. We were the only tourists at the hotel. In fact, I would venture to say that we were the only tourists in Jambiani.

The solitude was a bit too much for me. Maybe I would have liked it better had I been on a romantic getaway, but as it was, I was with two girlfriends, and we were looking for other fun people. Up the beach was another town called Paje, where there were many more hotels, restaurants, and people. As the hotel staff told us that it was only 30 minutes’ walking distance, we decided to walk there to find a hotel for the next night.

Little did we realize that Zanzibarians (like Rwandese) have very little concept of time. It may have seemed like a half an hour to them because the route is familiar. In reality, we walked for two and a half hours before we reached a hotel. It was sundown and we hadn’t even arrived at Paje yet. Tired and agitated, we couldn’t find a boda-boda (a motorcycle taxi) or a dalla-dalla (a local bus that looks like a streetcar) to take us to Paje.

In the end, the hotel that we stopped at lent us a Masai—yes, a real Masai—to accompany us to Paje. He carried a walking stick and a knife to protect us. (My friend asked the owner of the hotel if it was safe to walk, and the owner said, “Oh, if anyone tries to rob you, just run. They won’t follow you.” Her advice was little consolation, and we accepted her offer to send one of her Masai staff with us.

As the light was running out, the Masai walked with us. He didn’t understand a word of French or English, and we didn’t understand Swahili. Somehow, Mr. Masai and I managed to have a conversation. For my part, I would just imagine what he might be saying and responding as if that were the case. It was a very interesting conversation. He told me that he wrestled lions with his bare hands. Maybe.

We found that Paje wasn’t much better than Jambiani, so we decided to move even further up the Eastern coast to Bwejuu. Bwejuu had a couple of Italian resorts and a lot of little bungalow lodges on a picture-perfect beach.

We, of course, stayed at one of the bungalow lodges: The Twisted Palm. It was mostly fine, without hot water and a generally pretty gross bathroom. But we were eager to lay on the beautiful beach and frolic in the Indian Ocean waves.

Unfortunately, no one had told us that there are no waves. In fact, there’s no water. There is a natural reef barrier which prevents water from coming up to the beach at low tide, which is during the hours when one generally wants to swim. The water goes out at about 9 am and comes in at about 5 pm. If you want, you can wander through the squishy tide pools, but that wasn’t what I had been hoping for. The wind was also startlingly strong; at the Twisted Palm’s elevated restaurant, the wind blows the food off your fork before it makes it to your mouth.

Since we couldn’t swim, Beatriz and I rented bicycles for $5 and rode down the beach. Poor Ana stayed behind because she had caught the flu and wanted to rest. We rode for a good couple of miles on the packed sand, the wind at our backs, cheerily stopping now and then to take a photo. We pedaled all the way past the last Bwejuu hotel to where the waves carved out caverns in the rocks at high tide.

Of course, what we hadn’t realized was that if the wind was at our backs going down the beach, it would be blowing head-on as we returned. Our quads burned as we painfully and slowly pedaled against the wind. I don’t think I have ever had a better workout, and there was something ironic about the fact that it happened while I was on vacation.

Frankly, we didn’t like Bwejuu at all, so with only a couple of days left, we decided not to waste them there and head back to the best place in Zanzibar: Kendwa. Side picked us up, along with two travelers that smoked more marijuana than I thought possible (I told them that they would love Kendwa, and I was right) and we started on our way.

No vacation, especially in Africa, is complete without some sort of speed bump on the way, and about 20 minutes outside of Kendwa, our taxi van rolled to a stop. We had run out of gas. Beatriz began to flip out, I started laughing, and the marijuana boys went outside for a smoke. Side hitched a ride on a passing motorcycle and returned 20 minutes later with a small can of fuel. Using a page from a magazine, the driver created a funnel and poured in the gas—then he pulled up the mat from under my feet and pulled out a tube, which he started sucking to draw up the fuel. It was disgusting. We then continued on our way as if nothing had happened.

In Zanzibar, for whatever reason, you have to have a permit for the exact number of people in our car. Our van’s capacity was 10, but they only had a permit for me and my friends, not the extra two passengers. We were stopped by a police roadblock, and Side started cheerfully chatting with an official as if they were old friends. He then reached into his wallet and pulled out all of the contents, handing it to the guy, and we continued. It was the first time that I had seen corruption before my eyes—in Rwanda, there is hardly any corruption, which, I grant, is pretty unusual.

After one night in Kendwa, I had to return to Stone Town to catch an early flight the following day. Side drove me back alone, and I realized that I had a lot of shopping to do and didn’t have a guide (we had used Ana’s), nor did I have a map. Oh, and I didn’t speak Swahili, either. He volunteered to spend the day with me, showing me around and helping me to negotiate. We explored the markets, hung out in the park, wandered through the maze of alleys, and drank fresh sugar cane juice mixed with ginger and lemon juice. He recounted the history of Zanzibar and told me how they were to have split from Tanganyika in 1982, but that the agreement between the two countries had been lost and the current government says that without the original agreement, the two may not split; apparently every leader sympathetic to separation has been assassinated or has died. He told me about how he studied in Europe and how he hopes to study law in Dar-es-Salaam. He is also fluent in German, and everyone in Zanzibar (because everyone knows everyone) calls him “Saidi the German.” We grabbed drinks on the rooftop of Emerson and Green’s before he left me there to eat dinner.

The rooftop restaurant at Emerson and Green’s is known to be the finest dining in the Zanzibar archipelago. Overlooking the picturesque Zanzibar harbor, it is decorated in an old-world style, with cushions on the floor, low tables, intricate woodwork, and luxuriant draperies. It seats 20, maximum, and offers a fixed 6-course meal accompanied by live music and a traditional dancer (only on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays). That day, the featured music was Taarab. It was a deal for only $30 a person.

Unfortunately, my lunch was not sitting well with me; Side and I had gone to the Passing Show, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant of questionable cleanliness. While I was eating dinner, I was blindsided by vertigo and a high fever, but was determined to make it through the entire thing. Side was supposed to meet me after dinner and take me dancing before my morning flight, but I had already planned to ask him just to accompany me to my hotel.

Dinner itself, or what little of it I could stomach, was delicious. The first course was a “cigale,” which means “grasshopper” in French. I was a bit apprehensive, but when they brought out the cigales, my heart leapt for joy—they were essentially crayfish. I had been searching for lobster the entire time I was in Zanzibar, and apart from Forodhani Gardens, I hadn’t seen lobster for less than $20 (the locals, I think, caught on that this was a specialty for muzungus). Everyone was served a finger-length sized cigale. When the waiter set the plate in front of me, I looked up at him in surprise. It wasn’t finger-length—it was the length of my foot! It wasn’t a cigale, it was a lobster. The people next to me laughed at the size difference between my cigale and that of everyone else. I looked over at the guy next to me and asked him, with all seriousness, if we were supposed to share. (We both came alone.) But no, it was all mine, and I just shook my head. I wasn’t in the least bit hungry because I was so ill. But there it was, a whole lobster, just for me. Oh, the irony.

I miraculously made it through dinner and met Side at the door. He helped me limp back to my hotel.

The Chavda Hotel is, for the record, gorgeous and beautiful, and the best hotel I stayed at in Zanzibar. It was also, incidentally, the most expensive, but they gave it to me with a $30 discount without my even asking because it was the low season. I cheerfully paid $60, which included breakfast. The room was tastefully appointed with a four-poster bed, a big television, beautiful wooden furniture, air conditioning, ample space to sit and put up your feet, and a great bathroom (the shower head, however, will exfoliate your skin because the water pressure is so high). The halls and doors remind visitors of how Zanzibar used to be back in its heyday. I didn’t have much time to enjoy it, though—I took about 4 different medications that I had thankfully brought with me, and slept poorly through the night. At 6 am, Side came with the car to pick me up and take me to the airport. Still feeble and delirious, I managed to thank my Zanzibarian friend for having been such a great guide.

As I flew back to Nairobi and then Kigali, I waved hello to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. I guess vacations can’t go on forever, because then they wouldn’t really be vacations. Zanzibar was an overload for the senses. I can’t wait to go back. But when I do, I will be avoiding that hole-in-the-wall restaurant.

p.s. If anyone wants to use Side as their guide and taxi, just ask the taxis under the big tree in Stone Town (there’s only one big tree) or ask the taxis as Forodhani Gardens. Everyone knows him. He’s absolutely fabulous.


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