The International Journal of Sport and Leisure
(Some sport. Some leisure. Also, schistosomiasis.)
Galapagos Islands (5)
About Me (1)
Ecuador: Quito (5)
Honduras: Utila (4)
Rio de Janeiro (2)
South Africa (14)
Temporary Update (1)
* Zanzibar Time (Part II of II: Nungwi)
* Zanzibar Time (Part I of II: Stone Town)
* Diving Aliwal Shoal
* South of Durban
* Escape from the Cape
* Skydiving for Bacon
* Rage Against the Machine
* Bite Me
* Africa Cold
* Scum-Dodging on Long Street
* Cable Cars, Lentil Soup and Bart Simpson
* Cape Town
* Cape Drear
* Lows of Travel ("Welcome to Africa")
* High Entertainment
* Paradise or Miami Vice? (Part 2 of 2)
* Paradise or Miami Vice? (Part 1 of 2)
* Don't Make Me Cry, Argentina
* Hago el Vago en Buenos Aires (Part III: Final Week)
April 28, 2005
Zanzibar Time (Part I of II: Stone Town)
Monday, April 25 to Thursday, April 28, 2005
I flew to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on Monday, April 25, after arriving in Johannesburg from Durban on the 24th. I kept a low profile in Jo'burg by staying in my hostel for the whole time I was there, thus avoiding any more problems with ATM scams or other hassles. The flight to Dar was fairly comfortable and uncrowded, giving me plenty of time to stare out the window at the Mozambiquan coastline and the miles of narrow dirt roads and uninhabited green wilderness. In the airport in Dar I waited in line for 20 minutes to pay $50 for a visa, then collected my backpack and asked an airline employee whether it was too late in the afternoon to get on a connecting 25-minute flight to Zanzibar. He led me out of the stifling heat to an airconditioned office and began to make some calls with one of his co-workers. I was very impressed by how friendly people were and how much they smiled --- perhaps it was the contrast with the atmosphere in South Africa that made this so memorable. Two hours later, I boarded an 8-seat plane which took me and several locals to the small airport on Zanzibar just outside of Stone Town. The views of the clear turquoise water lying between the mainland and the archipelago were worth the $55 ticket price.
I tried to haggle with a group of 7 or 8 taxi drivers dressed in traditional Islamic robes outside the airport, but they knew they had me where they wanted me and laughed (politely but irritatingly) at my efforts to negotiate. There were no cheap buses into Stone Town available that late in the day, so, lacking any real alternative, I could only bargain them down to $8 from a starting price of $10. I have heard that $3 is possible if you threaten to use a form of collective transportation, but there was none. A hard-faced man of about 25, wearing a scull-cap, drove me to town in silence. He took me to the Victoria Guesthouse, where I spent a total of 3 days at $10 per night. A woman in long black robes (but without a veil, which many of the women on the island wear) checked me into my room. Large but dusty and crumbling, it had a private bathroom with cold shower and a TV that received three channels, only one of which had a clear picture. One played South African soap operas. Another played the news in Swahili. The third station was middle-eastern, in Arabic, and seemed to be the "Anti-Israel" channel, as it steadily played a game show on which contestants who correctly answered certain questions advanced their armies of tanks and troops across a digital map of the "holy land" to thunderous audience applause and the congratulations of a smiling Saddam Hussein-mustached host.
The problem with the Victoria Guesthouse was that it had the most uncomfortable beds I have ever slept in: Both single mattresses were covered with a thin, plastic protective coating. The sheets stuck to the coating and, even with the fan at full blast, the heat was oppressive enough to cause me to stick to the sheets. To top it off, the mosquito nets over the bed had holes in them and there were plenty of mosquitos that found there way through the closed windows and into the room. On my last night in Stone Town I splurged on a $20 room that featured, blissfully, air-conditioning, comfortable mattresses and functional mosquito netting.
I spent 3 full days in Stone Town before leaving on Friday morning. While there is an old Omani Fort, more than a few historic mosques, the old colonial and mixed-style "House of Wonders" (the first house in Africa to have electricity and a lift) and other noteworthy buildings, the highlight of Stone Town is really just wandering through its streets at random and taking in the sights while generally getting yourself lost in its maze-like web of alleys and markets. The small city is filled with spectacular old architecture, a mix of many styles and cultures that reflect the island's history over 100s of years as the base of a slave-trading empire and one-time seat of the Omani throne: African, Arabian, Portugese, English, Indian and more. Ornate door carvings, elaborate latticed balconies, domes and high ceilings --- its difficult to separate the features of any one particular building out from those of the many others. With its old and cracked and charmingly peeling edifices, its streets narrow, labrynthine and claustrophobic, it reminded me less of Istanbul than it did (speaking very generally) of an Islamic --- and obviously canal-free --- version of Venice. Boat-lined stretches of beach along the opulent but fading palaces and mansions on the waterfront look out on warm, clear (and therefore very un-Venetian) water to the horizon, over which the sun sets spectacularly on most nights. Palm and coconut trees compete with the buildings for sun. Although it was the rainy season and violent thunderstorms would sporadically burst out above from seemingly nowhere, the skies were for the most part clear and blue.
The food available in Stone Town is for the most part incredibly good, affordable and varied. Indian, African and middle-eastern places are abundant, but excellent cuisine from other cultures, including Chinese and Thai, are available. In addition, every night at 6 PM or so, numerous vendors begin selling grilled meat and fresh seafood, fresh juices and chapatis, from the Forodhani Gardens outside the enormous House of Wonders on the waterfront. A kebob of shrimp, kingfish, mussels or meat will cost about $1.00. Jumbo prawns, octopus, calamari and lobster are also available. The only problem with eating at the markets is the unfortunate hassle.
As is to be expected in a place with so much poverty amidst the wealth, Stone Town is not an island paradise free from all problems. Nothing makes this so clear as the crowded presence along the main street and markets of "papasi" (literally, "ticks"; also called "beach boys"). A few of them seem to be genuinely friendly and eager to be helpful to tourists, but I would be lying if I didn't bluntly state that most are at least a nuisance and some are very aggressive and offensive in their efforts to sell you tours and souvenir goods you don't want at (far) more than the going rate. Generally, beach boys will approach a person on the street that they suspect is new to Zanzibar and tell them they are "welcome to Zanzibar." If you do not stop, they will follow along side you while asking a series of brusque conversation-starter questions ("Where are you from? Where are you staying?") and then tell you that they work for or even own a tour company or shop. They will try to pressure you to accompany them to the offices of "their" tour company or shop, where the real owner will sell you a tour/souvenir at more than the regular price, in order to pay a commission to the papasi. Saying "no thank you" repeatedly and walking along without averting your gaze is the best strategy in response to this, but often gets you followed for several blocks and ends in the frustrated papasi accusing you of rudeness in the face of what he will have you believe is his own magnanimous hospitality. I have to say that this isn't all that different from the way things are in many other places, except that it was particularly bad in Stone Town: I could expect to have perhaps ten different people come up to me, one right after the other, on any given jaunt down the main roads during my first several days on the island. Its exhausting work after a while and tends to ruin your ability to experience the town with any peace or quiet. Particularly annoying are the papasi who tell you that their behavior comports with rules of simple Islamic hospitality and that your reaction to that hospitality shows your ignorance/unawareness of their culture (talk to a local, however, and they will assure you that you are correct to resist the unwanted attention and virtual stalking behavior, which is an abuse of the Islamic custom of making guests feel welcome; a policy that is otherwise quite evident on the island).
At one point I made what might have been the "mistake" of being kind to one of the more polite papasi, a young guy named Solomon. The problem was that thereafter, every single time I saw Solomon (every single time I walked on the main road), he would smile, yell my name, come up to me, try to sell me a new tour, and (after I declined politely) follow me around to chat with me casually fo half an hour or more while dropping un-subtle hints about his precarious economic condition. It became very tiring to try to explain that I really didn't want to spend all of my time talking about how rich America is compared to Tanzania. That said, Solomon wasn't going entirely, 100% for a guilt trip (he didn't get more than $1 from me in any event) and seemed, at least, a decent guy trying to get by (though the last time I saw him he appeared to be high on something). He didn't tell me outrageous lies as a number of people did ("I also from New York, my friend!") or insist that my failure to purchase a CD of local music at a "very special price" was an insult to him and his family. I'm not trying to be insensitive to the problems of the people on Zanzibar here: 99.99-something percent of the people are very friendly and hospitable, even as many of them just barely scrape by. The papasi, however, are a general exception to the rule and make their presence felt. The good news is that by learning your way around the backstreets and alleys, you can avoid a lot of attention: Off of the main road you are more likely to encounter smiling children yelling "Jambo!" and locals waving or smiling at you, some of them offering you directions (without expecting you to stop in their shop as compensation).
I spent two of my mornings and afternoons in Stone Town diving with the One Ocean Zanzibar dive center. An easy, relaxed experience, trips are made to the dive sites on a large motorized dhow packed with drinks, fresh fruit and a lunch of home-cooked Indian samosas and fritters. The water was approximately 85 degrees and quite clear and while the fish life to been seen on my trips out was nothing superb, the color and diversity of the corals was very impressive. I made inquiries into doing my PADI Rescue Diver course and possibly my Dive master course, but because it was the "height of the low season," there weren't enough instructors on hand to teach me and attend to all of the shop's needs. I would have to wait for a while or else consider another diving school, perhaps in another part of Zanzibar. (As it turned out, I went for the latter option.)
After a few days in Stone Town I grew tired of being followed and hassled by touts and also realized that the best diving off of the island required me to base myself on the northern or eastern side of Zanzibar, whereas Stone Town is on the west, facing the African continent. I was a bit sorry to be leaving all of the great food behind, but figured I would come back for a while at some point, hopefully to find that tourism had picked up a little, thereby making me less of an obvious attraction to the papasi.
Posted by Joshua on April 28, 2005 09:51 AM
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