Woke at 8:30am with a hangover. Packed, 50 press-ups, showered, changed, ready to go! Got a taxi to the ferry terminal, and checked in for the 90 minute trip to Zanzibar. The trip across was uneventful I had 2nd class seats downstairs for my $35, but they were still comfortable. David Attenborough was narrating a nature programme with an interesting murder-mystery quiz. Using forensic science, a team of doctors and scientists had to find out what animal had killed a baby Thompson Gazelle. Was it a cheetah? A hyena? A baboon? A vulture, even? The programme then went on to reveal the killer, and another programme about leopards came on. It showed warthogs too, timid, weird looking creatures I took an instant like for. Both programmes were filmed in East Africa. I’m here too! I couldn’t wait to see a warthog, a cheetah, a lion and a hyena for real.
We arrived at Stone Town harbour, and the views were lovely. Small wooden boats, outrigger canoes and others with orange, green and yellow coloured roofs were dotted in and amongst larger white vessels, and shows sailed around in between, their sails like shark fins cruising up and down looking for prey. It was all incredibly exotic and exciting. I collected my bag and went to a makeshift passport control in a tiny wooden hut, where I was given a stamp and proceeded to the exit. Scenes of typical harbour chaos followed, with hordes of fake taxi drivers trying to take me into town. I chose one with a proper ID, a chap called Abdul, and he took me in his dalla-dalla, a kind of minibus. We drove through Stone Town, down the busy Creek Road and past the bustling market, and on to Jambo Inn. Being a Lonely Planet suggestion, I didn’t expect anything much, and was merely using the place as an orientation point so it seemed like I knew where I was going to any taxi driver who might have ideas about taking me to a different place. I had a look at Jambo anyway, and when I was shown the dark, sparton room with an unfriendly notice that warned ‘No guests, either male or female, are allowed in rooms’, I decided this place wasn’t for me. Abdul walked me through some more winding streets, and we came to Manch Lodge. I instantly liked the place, and the laid-back vibe. It was set in a small garden, and seemed quiet. $20 a night for a double room. I couldn’t complain. I put on a pair of shorts and set out into the labyrinth of streets.
Women in bui-bui (black cover-all worn by some Islamic women outside the home), and others in Kanga (colourful patchwork cloth) swept down the streets, providing an amazing contrast with the white-washed houses behind. Small spice shops were abundant, groups of elderly men dressed in Kanzu (white robe-like outer garment worn by men) and with embroidered Kofia (a cap) on their heads, playing Bao ( a board game) and chatting. A fascinating, magical and somewhat jumbled array of streets of Ancient Persia and India’s Goan coast mixed together wonderfully, creating an intoxicating and fantastically invigorating experience. Kids run around in the narrow alleys smiling and laughing, some playing football. The atmosphere here is calm and it really feels as though you’ve escaped the city, and you’re on an island. Island life and island rythms take over – my pace of walking had slowed from its usual hurried sprint to that of an elderly gentleman with all the time in the world to meander.
I strolled towards Creek Road, stopping at the Anglican Cathedral, which is built on the grounds of the Old Slave Market. A few holding cells under St Monica’s Hostel next to the cathedral are all that remains of the Slave Market, and horrible little places they are too. This is where the slaves were kept before being bought. I continued on to Creek Road, just in time to see a man on his bicycle being knocked over by a car. He picked himself up, and road off again with no word of protest. Creek Road was very busy, but I managed to cross it and go to Barclays Bank ATM to withdraw 400,000 TZSh. It came in denominations of 5,000 Sh, so my wallet was at bursting point with all the cash, and my shorts pocket was bulging with the promise of lots of cash when I squeezed my wallet in, which I’m sure looked very appealing to any wannabe thief in Stone Town. I had my fat wallet, my passport and my camera. A prime target. ‘Amateur’, I thought to myself, as I carefully walked past the crowded and colourful market. I continued to the sea front. I sat down by the pier and watched as a procession of dhows sailed by, and smaller, wooden boats bobbed quietly up and down. A group of kids ranging in age from 9-15 then began a swimming race from one of the small boats anchored off shore to the stone steps of the pier. They scrambled up the steps, then ran around and jumped off the edge again into the water. There was no purpose, just kids having fun, as a group of young adults watched intently, shouting words of encouragement. A security officer watching lobbed some fruit at them as they were in the water, much to everyone’s amusement. Here were island kids running free, with no stress, sanctions on fun, or responsibilities. How kids in cram schools in Asia must wish to exchange places for a day or more, instead of having their childhoods ruined by pushy parents.
I began to feel very chilled out now, despite the burning African sun. I took a walk to a small coffee shop by the sea, and ordered a carrot cake and a cappuccino, then I sat by the sea once more on a concrete bench. A group of kids came over, curious to see a foreigner. Most people I’d met so far seemed interested in football, so an area of common ground develops. We now talked about Liverpool, Manchester, Arsenal, and our positions on the football field in broken English. I’ve learnt a few Swahili phrases now too, Jambo (hello), Si Jambo (hello back), Ha jambo (how are you), nzuri (good). karibou (welcome), hakuna-matata – everything OK, no problem etc….asante sana thankyou very much. I practiced my Swahili with the kids, and they shrieked in delight. We ‘chatted’ some more, I took some photos, finished my cake and coffee, and walked off once more. I love walking around a new place. New sights, sounds, smells….this is what it’s all about.
I walked past the impressive Beit El Ajaib (House of Wonders), which is home to the Zanzibar Natural Museum of History and Culture, and also past the Old Fort, a large, bastioned structure built in 1700, not home to the Zanzibar Cultural Centre. I walked on to Forodhani Gardens, a lovely area of waterside gardens by the beach where you can sit on concrete benches and have a bite to eat. This place really comes alive at night, where dozens of vendors serve seafood and grilled meats. I hopped onto the beach from here, and on past Livingstones beach restaurant. A number of beach restaurants are here, all affording impressive views of the (somewhat cluttered) ocean. Rickety wooden boats bob up and down, and some larger ships had docked, cargo ships, ready for loading the next day.
It was roasting, and I walked up and down the beach. I came across a couple of local girls, Amina and Jennifer, dark and exotic, just splashing around in the water and kicking a football on the sand. Amina was 20m Jen, 18. We chatted, and they invited me to sit with them, such is the friendly nature of the islanders. Within 10 minutes, we’d swapped numbers, and they said they’d be in touch later, and maybe invite me to their home. I said goodbye and walked away from the beach, and up the road towards my lodge. I stopped at a tourist info place and bought 3 postcards, wrote them, and posted them. Two for Crystal, one for my family. I also enquired about a plane ticket to Arusha, from where I was starting my safari. $180 apparently. Not too bad.
I then walked back through the maze of streets towards my lodge, past Arabic-style houses with their recessed inner courtyards, past Indian-influenced buildings boasting ornate balconies and latticework, and past huge, studded doors, like something out of an Arabian movie, past lively street-side vending stalls, getting lost, then on to my lodge finally. I showered and changed, and quickly headed back to the beach for sunset.
The sun set slowly over the harbour, casting a deep orange glow over the rickety wooden boats, and framing the graceful dhows. Fordhani Gardens was bustling, and here was a perfect, picture-postcard setting that proclaimed: Welcome to Africa! I walked on the beach as the sun teased out its last rays, and saw kids playing in the water, and doing cartwheels in the sand, creating a real feel-good atmosphere of happiness and freedom where many years ago not far from here there was one of sadness, slavery and confinement. Oh how free, natural, and uncomplicated these people and their lives are! These are simple fishermen, farmers, shop-keepers. Lives dictated by the tide, the weather, and the tourists spending money respectively. I met Anita and Jen on the beach, though I didn’t recognize them at first, as Anita had donned an Islamic headscarf. We walked together towards Creek Road. I thought they lived in Stone Town, and was a little apprehensive when they told me we needed to take a dalla-dalla to their home. Deciding to take a chance, I went with it, and we hopped in a dalla-dalla and towards their little village.
I was the source of much amusement in the dalla-dalla. People kept piling in, and turning and smiling at me. They tried speaking to me in Swahili, then broken English. They were all big smiles, flashing the whitest of teeth. They were curious to see a foreigner in a dalla-dalla with 2 ladies. After 10 minutes we arrived at the spot, and hopped out. I then followed them down a sidestreet off the busy main road, and into their village. It reminded me a little of the small villages in and around Jakarta. ‘City villages’ where the houses are built of stone with corrugated iron roofs, as opposed to in the country, where they are built of wood or mud and with thatched roofs.
We came to Anita’s house. Her brother, Abdul, was sitting outside on the stone step, wearing a Chelsea shirt. He was all smiles, and we exchanged pleasantries before football chat. I stepped down into the house,which are interestingly built lower than street level, perhaps to keep them cool. I entered and took off my sandals. I was in a small room, minimally furnished with 2 plastic chairs, a small table, a stool and a refrigerator. The floor was bare stone. A few pictures of old relatives had been taped on the walls, but apart from that, there was no decoration. There were 2 other rooms in the house, separated by sarongs. Mother was there, wearing a multi-coloured knitted traditional hat and flowing robes. She greeted me warmly enough, but with a certain amount of caution. Abdul did all the talking. He was the only one who could speak English well enough. The stool was brought out, and out came some zanzibarian cake and a glass of tropical juice with a bowl of water for washing my fingers. Nobody else ate, but they invited me to do so, and waited anxiously for my reaction. I began eating, all eyes turned on me. ‘Mmmmm…..delicious’ I repeated, the dry cake itching my throat, to big smiles all round.
As is customary in the Zanzibarian village, neighbours pop in and out anytime they like, are never refused, and everyone seems to be family. People popped in to say ‘hi’, and stayed when they saw the foreign guest. Soon, the room had 10 people. I took out my camera, which led to a ripple of excitement. They all wanted a turn being photographed. I was only too happy to oblige, aware of the rare and special opportunity I had been given to visit a local family in their home. I cursed myself for originally questioning the motives of these 2 girls on the beach who had so cordially invited me to their home. I’ve lived in Asia for too long. I expected something seedy, or to be scammed somehow, but here were honest, genuinely friendly people, inviting a stranger into their homes. I was honoured to be in this room with all these Africans. I was polite not to outstay my welcome, and left with Jen, Anita and Abdul to catch a dalla-dalla back to Stone Town. The dalla-dalla was impossibly packed, and I was again the source of much curiosity and amusement.
Back at Creek Road, I wanted to do something to show my gratitude, like buy dinner for them. We went to Foradhani Gardens, which was now alive with vendors in front of smoking fires grilling meat and all kinds of seafood. I gave Abdul 10,000 TZSh, enough for food for four, and he set off to buy. He came back with 4 plates of chips, salad and 2 skewers of grilled chicken on each plate, and we sat on the pier wall eating. He was happy I’d bought dinner for them, as he said this was a place he and his family could never afford to eat at. ‘This place is for people with money’ he said. Abdul was heading off to the mainland soon, and to university. With no father, the pressure was on him to succeed and be the breadwinner of his family. He wanted to go to England, and was hopeful that I could help him get there, as he’d heard of people whose British friends had helped them get to England. He said he’d love to go, but without money it was impossible. I felt sorry for him. He was hopeless, he knew he was in for a life of near-poverty. I tried to imagine what that would feel like. I couldn’t. I didn’t want to tell him he almost certainly wouldn’t fulfil his dream of going to England. He was a nice, intelligent young man with a personality as big and bright as his smile, and it was a shame he was in such a no-win position. I gave him 5,000 TZSh to buy his mum food to take away, then we all bid farewell. I went for a wander around the gardens, and they went back to their little village.
I called into Livingstone for a beer. It was reasonably lively, with football on the big screen. A girl came to talk to me, overly-friendly and clearly ‘working’, but I was bored, and bought her a beer anyway so we could have a chat. It was nice to get some local knowledge. She took me around the corner to a local bar – an outdoor reggae club, and a hangout for all the local druggies, whores and winos. Certainly an interesting experience. Drunk men were staggering around everywhere, and it was dark and rather uninviting. I had a bottle of Kilimanjaro beer, a bottle of safari, then it was time for me to go. A great day and night, all in all.