Making the trek to the Island of Zanzibar was pretty great, and not just because of the white sand beaches, narrow mazes of twisted alleyways, or spice plantations dotting the island. It was great, among so many other reasons, because Zanzibar has always held a legendary place in my mind. It’s one of those places I wanted to believe was real but I always feared (hoped?) might just be my imagination from watching too many pirate and/or Muppet movies in my youth. I know it’s on the maps, but that doesn’t always prove anything… I like to think cartographers might share some of my whimsical views of pirates and/or Muppets, adding flourishing script here, big X marks there, dotted red lines tracing our trek, and perhaps a sea monster now and again on the browned, weathered map of Zanzibar’s coastline.
Going to Zanzibar may have destroyed some of the mystery of the island, but it was absolutely worth it.
For what it’s worth, Zanzibar in real life is a pretty odd little place. It has proudly seen it’s share of adventure and it’s share of conquests… The Sumerians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Indians, Chinese, and Persians. Most recently the Portuguese built a fort in the 1400s, the Omani Arabs took over after that, but then came the Dutch and most recently the English. It’s been it’s own Republic for a long time, but gained colonial independence 43 years ago when it merged with Tanganyika. Quite simply, TANgantika + ZANzibar = modern day Tanzania.
I’ve heard Zanzibar compared to Lamu (and you know how I love Lamu), but while there are some similarities, there are also very obvious differences. They are both islands of the coast of East Africa. They both have some winding, narrow streets. They were both claimed by Portuguese, Omani Arabs, and then Brits. They both have subsequent large Muslim populations. And that’s that.
The differences are vast and pronounced. (I admit I wasn’t expecting the giant cargo ships and the mess of boats waiting their turn at the port). I was also a little surprised to find Zanzibar required us to go through immigration again, even though it’s not its own country and is instead part of Tanzania. We’d already gotten our visas and passport stamps for Tanzania, but ended up having to get another stamp at the Zanzibar immigration window too. I was further surprised to learn Zanzibar actually has its own president, separate from the president of mainland Tanzania, has its own license plates, own driving permits, etc. Interesting…
While you can only reach Lamu by dhow sailboat or small motorboat, most people reach Zanzibar by commercial jets or giant ferries. We went the ferry route because we’re cheap and didn’t mind a three hour boat ride. We took the cheapest ferry leaving on a Thursday (Flying Horse, $20 non-resident rate) and I definitely wasn’t expecting a first class VIP cabin with couches, coffee tables, TVs, and air conditioning. Guess that’s why you pay $20+ to get to Zanzibar on the ferry instead of $0.50 to get to Lamu by motorboat. The ferry’s VIP room was basically empty, with lots of locals crowded on to lower decks at a fraction of the price. I’d rather have crowded on and saved the money, but not that’s not allowed for non-residents. Alas… the couches were great, we got to watch some news (Virginia Tech murder? how awful!), and met Jack, another traveler from the US who’s volunteering here doing HIV education.
Lamu has donkeys as the only form of public or private transit, and has hand carts to move food supplies, crates of beer, etc. Zanzibar has cars, trucks, semis, minibuses, dalla dallas, and more, all barrelling down streets both wide and narrow.
I wasn’t too impressed with the endless supply of buses and trucks, but the scooters looked pretty fun. The chance of death by scooter adds to the excitement of being on Zanzibar. The scooters are plentiful and are the only vehicles that can fit into Stone Town’s maze of streets. You’ve got to watch yourself so you don’t get ploughed down as they recklessly zoom around blind corners…
Maze of narrow streets in Stone Town
Tinga Tinga style of painting famous in Zanzibar. I’ve decided I really like the style, even though I couldn’t bring myself to buy and carry around a giant framed painting.
Zanzibar Apples aren’t really apples as we know them, but they are in season right now and are readily available on the trees and in the market. The fruit inside looks like apple, but the taste is quite different. Makes me think of Michael Pollan’s book “The Botany of Desire” and the history of the modern apple. Really is a must read if you like plants and/or desire.
Zanzibar is pretty touristy, and like most coffee shops in Africa the Zanzibar Coffee House was patronized entirely by mzungu (white/foreign) customers. However, how can one be expected to resist? It was a gorgeous building, with locally grown coffee, fresh roasted right inside their coffee house in Stone Town.
They (smartly) market their coffee for guests to take home with them
Large Muslim population –> lots of mosques –> lots of calls to prayer –> most tourists complain regularly of being woken at 4am by the wakeup call to prayer. I take pride in being a good sleeper (or maybe I’ve traveled in enough Muslim countries?), and I’m happy to say I sleep through the 4am call to prayer 93% of the time.
The history of the island is in the writing on the wall: Arabic, Swahili, and English
The good thing about it being touristy: Zanzibar has an amazingly good gelato shop run by an old Italian man who’d only speak to us in Italian
My favorite game in the dalla dallas was looking out the window trying to spot the misfit palm trees with crazy trunks (hit by lightening, supposedly).
One of the many great things about tropical islands is the lush vegetation
Got to love deserted stretches of beaches…
Hand woven fishing traps
Can you get more touristy than drinking fresh coconut juice? Might as well snap the required cheesy photo while you’re at it…
Daniel from Portugal/Holland… former heroin junky, but overall a nice enough guy willing to share chocolate and wine. What is it about the men traveling and their crazy sweet tooth? All are rough enough and manly enough to travel Africa solo, and all seem to have a sweet tooth much bigger than my big sweet tooth. Maybe everyone on the road in Africa feels the pull of chocolate, ice cream, and cool refreshing Coke? Could be something in the air…
Anyone know Zanzibar’s most famous home town hero? The sign is a hint.
Oddly enough, Freddie Mercury, the long deceased lead singer of Queen, grew up in Zanzibar when his father was working there.
Need a great boat name? Look no further.
One of the other great things is the plentiful fresh seafood. Susie’s enjoying her first local meal of coconut curry fish, greens, and pilau.
I think the night market at Forodhani Gardens is probably the most fun you can have eating seafood in Zanzibar. Everything is fresh from the ocean and it’s laid out on table after table for you to pick… orange prawns, purple octopus, and pink pili pili lobster are the most colorful seafood options, but everything’s good. You can get kingfish, calamari, crab, cassava, chapatti, falafel, bread fruit (not really a bread or a fruit, it actually tastes more like casava), ice cream, spiced tea, donuts, and even chocolate banana Zanzibar pizzas.
Fishermen who make it all happen