Thursday, 23 November 2006

Introduction - Friday, Nov. 9

When I was trying to figure out how my family should spend their time in Tanzania, I initially thought of a Kilimanjaro climb and a safari in the Northern Circuit. Those were a no-brainer. The question that came to mind was whether or not to tack on something else, fearing that it may be too much. I figured a day in Dar es Salaam would be ample since, though this is a nice place to live, it’s pretty dull from a tourist standpoint.

Zanzibar is one of the most exotic sounding destinations in the world. In fact, its name elicits thoughts of its rich history and beaches – grandeur that is probably difficult to live up to in reality. While I’m a big fan of the place, it’s still pretty raw as a tourist destination. Its infrastructure is a mess and it shares many of the woes that strangle sub-Saharan Africa (which I won’t go into now). Nevertheless, its qualities are numerous; its character is distinct and I decided that a visit there should be wedged in between the safari and the family’s departure from Dar.

On Thursday we returned from the Serengeti to the Ngurdoto Mountain Lodge near Arusha. I decided that we needed some time to regroup before leaving for Zanzibar so I scheduled the flight for the next day.

Freshly showered and rested, we had breakfast and headed for the airport Friday morning with our great safari guide, Niemen. He turned out to be such a cool guy. I highly recommend him for anyone heading out on safari. He’s smart and he’ll take good care of you.

We arrived at the airport in plenty of time and we had an easy one-hour trip to Zanzibar. The coolness of the Arusha area was replaced by the heat and humidity of the tropical island. Our driver was there to pick us up in a van and we were soon off to Stonetown.

I booked the rooms in the Tembo Hotel, one of the nicer places in town. I wanted to be near the center, near the water and in a place steeped in Zanzibar style. The Tembo fits the bill. It’s open to debate as to whether you get enough bang for your buck but I like it there.

Lisa and Brett were in the “deluxe room” perched high above the ocean front terraces. Curtis, Mom and CJ were in the large “family room”. Priya and I were in a normal room adjacent to the family room. We all checked into our rooms and then met up on the terrace of the large room. Priya was scheduled to arrive from Dar about an hour after our arrival and before too long she appeared. We then set off to explore.

Zanzibar is actually the name of an archipelago of islands which include Unguja, Pemba and a number of other smaller ones. It’s rich in history and culture and stands out from the rest of Tanzania. The principle town, Stonetown, was once known as the major gateway for entrance into and out of eastern Africa. It’s location at the end of the “slave trail” meant that the majority of slaves heading east were transported through its slave market – at its peak about 60,000 per year.

It was also the hub for commerce, especially ivory and spices, being exported from the continent. Many of the beautiful, large, old buildings were originally merchant houses from back in the day, including the Tembo Hotel.

We started off going to a common mzungu eating spot called Archipelago. It was hot and noisy. The food was decent but nothing special. We decided to follow this up with a trip to the House of Wonders, the most prominent piece of architecture in the city and the principle museum in Zanzibar. The building is the former house of the Sultan who governed Zanzibar and juts out prominently above Stonetown’s other buildings. One of the main reasons to go there is the view from the top though the building itself and some of the history is interesting.

Like most of Stonetown, it has the potential to be so much better than it is. It shares a lot of other qualities with its town as well: it’s dirty; the lighting is bad; it’s disorganized and it’s in danger of falling to pieces before any significant funding gets pointed in its direction. In comparison to the deluxe estates that can be found to house government ministers, it’s a glaring symbol of how bad governance is destroying Tanzania and strangling its citizens. I could really take off on that topic but I won’t.

From there we walked around town, visiting shops and fending off vendors. They are more aggressive on the island than on the mainland and it does make walking less pleasant. Unbeknownst to them, it hurts their business immeasurably. Many regular visitors to Stonetown refuse to walk the charming narrow streets. Those that do more often than not seek refuge in the mzungu-friendly shops such as Memories of Zanzibar. They do have nice things but it’s also because that’s the way Westerners like to shop. The aggressive vendors in the street don’t get it and they continue to chase business away.

We met up at the Tembo and headed off to the Africa House for a “sundowner”, a drink at sunset. Their terrace is the source of probably more sunset photos than anywhere else in Tanzania. We were not disappointed (though I have been there when it’s a bit better).

After a couple of drinks were off to the restaurant Monsoon for dinner. It’s a nice place that is more or less Zanzibari. You remove your shoes at the entrance and sit on the floor with pillows and so forth. It’s a nice atmosphere and most of us had good food. I have to admit, it’s cool just simply hanging with family and soaking in the travel experiences.

Saturday, Nov. 10

The next morning we were off to Prison Island. I’d been there a year and a half ago and I thought renting a boat, snorkeling, seeing the tortoises, etc. might be a fun excursion. Though the weather was a bit sketchy during the day, we ended up having a fun outing. The island had changed considerably since I’d been there with the development of a hotel.

The tortoises were still there and they’d done some procreating while I was away. They’re big and numerous. We were given some greens to feed them and they ended up occupying our attention for the better part of an hour.

We then snooped around the island a bit and then headed out to snorkel. We were out for a bit less than an hour and the sun came out enough to brighten up the colors of the coral reef and the tropical fish. Brett and I had toyed with the idea of diving, which I’ve never done off of Zanzibar, but it didn’t work out. This was a very nice second best.

We then headed back to Stonetown and decided to get a bite to eat. Our selectiveness was limited as we walked 20 feet straight up from where the boat dropped us off. It was next to our hotel and they served beer so we didn’t need to go further. It turned out to be very nice.

The sky opened up with rain shortly after getting sat down and we were told to move indoors though we were protected by umbrellas. We complied and moved to drier surroundings (temporarily) and good music. Towards the end of the meal a flood of water came rushing across the floor. We were moved again to a higher point in the uneven cement floor and women arrived to begin mopping. The whole scene was a bit comical and added to the experience.

During a break in the weather, we ventured out to the shops again briefly and then met up at the Tembo prior to going out for a drink. We decided to head to Mercury’s. It’s a themed restaurant named after the musical group Queen’s lead singer, Freddie Mercury. Mercury (aka Farok Bulsara) was born in Stonetown back in 1946 and many establishments in town claim affiliation with his short past on the island. He has many “birthplaces” and so forth and it’s not clear nowadays what is truly connected to his past. Not all of the island is proud of their famous son, however. The staunchly Muslim community recently put a stop to festivities honoring the anniversary of the gay singer whose life was cut short due to AIDS.

From there we walked the 20 minutes or so to The Two Tables restaurant. I’d temporarily led us astray (I was a block off) but we eventually found it. I’d been here a long time ago and I was hoping it had kept the charm it had the last time. It had. It’s what it says – two tables. It’s basically someone’s house and they have two large tables reserved for a dozen or so people. You sit with whoever arrives around the same time you do. In our case my friend Lou and his girlfriend coincidentally were there. It was good since I’d been wanting to hang out more with him anyway. Just weird that we showed up to the same place, the same evening.

You enter these peoples’ house, remove your shoes, head up the stairs, cross the living room and have a seat. Some of the family is sitting around watching TV and occasionally they get up to help wash dishes or help out with the meal in some way. This night the older Zanzibari dad did the serving and the mom was in the kitchen doing the cooking. Everyone gets the same food and everyone is served at the same time. If you need to use the restroom, it’s simply the family bathroom. The food was excellent as was the atmosphere. Lou and his girlfriend blended right in with the family (not sure what that says about them).

Sunday, Nov. 11

The next morning we took off on our spice tour. This I’d never done before though Priya had. A van picked us up from the hotel and we drove about 15 minutes just outside town where our tour began.

I will refrain from going into details about the tour but it turned out to be really fascinating. I’ve never really taken an interest in spices, to be honest, but it really wasn’t necessary in order to enjoy the tour. We basically walked around this foresty-looking area while this guy explained the spices and their uses. For some reason it doesn’t sound as interesting as it was.

At one point we were entertained by an expert coconut tree climber who shimmied up a tree showing off acrobatics along the way. There were no footholds cut into the tree and no ropes holding him. Pretty impressive. There were also things being fabricated from palm fronds as we walked along (a hat, ties, bags).

We finished up by purchasing some spices and headed back into Stonetown.

Since we’d had fun at Mercury’s the day before, and it was on the way, we had the driver drop us off there. We had a nice lunch and a drink before heading back to the hotel to grab our things and catch our lift back to the airport.

While waiting at the hotel for the airport shuttle, Curtis and I took advantage of the time and hopped into the pool to cool down. It was a refreshing respite from the muggy weather. However, the benefits were soon compromised in the Zanzibar airport. It was hot, no AC and a small percentage of the many available fans were operational. We eventually boarded our plane for the 15 min. flight to Dar and my family’s brief glimpse into my life there before their long flight back to the Western US.