Monday, 16 November 2009

In which we become bewitched by Zanzibar within hours of arriving

November 2nd

Despite the ceiling fan we endure a sticky night. It’s something of a relief to hear the call to prayer coming at about half past five. You hear each mosque individually, often overlapping. Some are tuneful, pleasant, intensely romantic, exotic; others are unmusical, squawky, over amplified, garbled. I’d hate to have to endure this every morning, especially from so many different mosques, but as a one-off experience it’s quite something!

As soon as the sun lifts above the horizon you can feel its heat. Here we are at sea level; we do not have the cool-ness of Rwanda’s mountains to shield us. We breakfast on fruit – pawpaw, bananas, with dubious jam and greasy margarine. There are no windows in the dining room; in fact one of the features of the Econolodge is the way it shuts itself off against direct sunlight. In our room there is a door between us and the balcony in order to shut out the heat. On the stairwells there are small round holes to let enough light in and allow air to circulate, but the place has been built as a defence against the debilitating heat of the full sun. I’ve never been in a building like this before, and I find it fascinating to see how the architecture is adjusted to make full use of the sea breezes which drift up the hot streets from the creek, and to give a sense of coolness against all the glare outside. Even the décor is predominantly white and green, restful against the heat.

We set off into town to look for a shopping mall. Where are the malls when you need them? – we can’t find one for love nor money. We decide to go into one building and ask for directions. Of all the places we could have chosen to ask our way, we find we’ve chosen the Tanzanian Ministry of Labour building……. They are as amused as we are embarrassed! We get conflicting directions from everybody we ask; eventually we agree that we’re running out of time and take a taxi. Of course, it turns out there’s a mall about two hundred yards from our hotel; it just doesn’t seem to be advertised or signposted.

I change my money and get my batteries; Épi gets her headphones; we all buy food for the boat. Back at the hotel we meet up with Rachael. She is a sailor and has spent the morning touring the yacht club to see if anyone wants to give her a free ride to Zanzibar as a crew member on their yacht. Unfortunately she has drawn a blank (the one yacht that was intending to go didn’t have its skipper at hand to ask). Also, the epidemic of piracy off Somalia has stretched far beyond the Horn of Africa and people seem nervous of sailing even as far south as Zanzibar. There are very few private yachts heading this way. So Rachael is coming with us on the catamaran. We touch base with families and friends at the internet café for a while, then head to the harbour. At the ferry office we talk to our friend Bashir again and buy return tickets (we get a small reduction if we buy them here rather than in Stone Town).

The terminal is alive with activity; a ferry has just docked and is unloading; the ticket office is besieged with people buying their fares for the outbound voyage. We get caught by a tout who “leads” us to our boat and the VIP lounge and then demands his tip. The lounge is distinctly empty and very comfortable; my only complaint is that there’s no way out onto deck from it, and the windows are too grimy to make photography very promising. Soraya and Épi aren’t confident sailors and take their seasickness tablets. There’s not much swell in this direction, and we set sail punctually, pass the harbour car ferry and the fish market, pass the beach where we first saw the open sea yesterday, and head out past the dhows and anchored cargo boats into the Ocean. Zanzibar, we’re really on our way now!

The trip takes about two and a half hours; we’re rarely out of sight of land. (Zanzibar is quite a way north of Dar so we follow the coast at a respectable distance; just at the point where we finally lose sight of the mainland coast we start to pick up the outlying reefs and islands and finally the mainland of Unguja – Zanzibar proper. We snooze.

Zanzibar consists of two main islands, Unguja and Pemba, and a mass of smaller islets and reefs. Unguja is the main island and is also called “Zanzibar”, which makes things a tad confusing at times.

There are sandbars of brilliant white coral sand, almost painful to look at in the glare of the sun. Every significant island sprouts coconut palms, and when you get close in you see that as often as not their trunks are curving in that idyllic way you see on the stereotype tourist pictures of tropical beaches. The sea colours range from deep green through every imaginable shade of blue to a milky white. Over the ocean itself the sky is cloudless, a hot blue; over the mainland there are massive banks of cloud.

As we approach Stone Town we start to recognise landmarks from pictures in our “Rough Guide” – the churches, the “house of wonders” a big hospital, the government buildings. The harbour contains boats of all sizes and descriptions from dugout canoes to container ships; there’s even a old Russian cruise ship permanently at anchor. One section of the commercial harbour appears from a distance as a solid wall of containers. All is bustle and constant movement.

Disembarkation is a scrum, and we have to fill out immigration cards and get our passports stamped as we enter Zanzibar. Zanzi is a semi-autonomous country. “Tanzania” is very much a marriage of convenience between two very disparate countries; huge Tanganyika and tiny Zanzibar. The island runs itself in almost all its affairs, although politics on the island are very fractious and become bloody at election times. (Next election is August 2010 so anyone reading this and planning to go next summer – beware!).

As we leave the port area we are pounced on by touts offering us taxis or to guide us to where we want to go, or insisting they know a nice hotel. In the local Swahili these people are known as “papasi” (“ticks”). They’re very persistent and at times can spoil our enjoyment of the island. We have a detailed map of Stone Town; we know where we‘re going, and we make it perfectly clear that we don’t need a guide. Even so, we have first two, then one man who trots along with us and won’t take no for an answer. I assume he’s waiting for us to get lost in the maze of alleyways that make up Stone Town, and then hopes we’ll fall on his services to get us to our hotel. To his dismay, and my surprise, we manage to find our hotel easily. The wretched guy goes away empty handed, but hot after he’s demanded money for doing what we specifically said we didn’t need….

On the way to our hotel we pass “Mercury’s”, a bar dedicated to Freddy Mercury; right on the water’s edge (the dining area is on stilts and at high tide the waves lap underneath you as you eat), and also the “big tree” – an enormous banyan tree on the harbour side. There are dozens of mosques, but they are unostentatious and you could easily pass many of them without realising they are places of worship. (We did this on many occasions). You can’t go into the mosques, but very often the doors are left open to let air in and we can see the carpeted interiors. In the evenings the mosques run quranic schools for children, and one of the commonest evening sights is children running to or from the mosque, or of children sitting cross legged in a circle under bright lights reciting from their Korans.

Stone Town is simply magic. Zanzibar as a whole is where Africa meets Arabia and with a dash of India and Britain (the colonial power) added like spices to a stew. But the old town feels almost entirely Arabic. Streets are so narrow you can’t get cars down most of them. That’s not to say they’re safe; you run a constant risk from bicycles and scooters. Houses are tall. Almost every building is painted off white, often grimy and needing refurbishment. Some houses are in a delicious powder blue. Most places have balconies with delicate filigree carved balustrades in wood or cement, so that womenfolk can take the air without being exposed to the gaze of passing men in the street below. The whole old part of Stone Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which means it can’t be disfigured with high rise buildings or ruined by McDonalds etc; and at the same time it means there is some money available for restoration. Where buildings have just been renovated they are simply magnificent: dazzling white paint, orange or teak coloured balconies. But there is way to go with the restoration, and fully renovated buildings are like islands in a sea of neglect. The overall effect reminds me of the old part of Havana. Some buildings are shored up with timber supports. Many have washing hanging on wires strung high above street level. The streets are a mass of tiny shops – jewellers, crafts, but also food. It’s not just a tourist honey pot; people actually live here and there’s a thriving local community.

One downside is that there are few signs telling you the names of streets. A few places have nicknames and are essential waymarks. “TV corner”, just up from our hotel, and “Jaws corner”, nearby, are little squares so named because in previous years people have set up big outdoor TV screens so that the locals could enjoy films. You have to have an accurate map if you need to go anywhere in a hurry, but if you’re prepared to let yourself get lost, then Stone Town becomes really enchanting. No two alleys are ever exactly the same; you discover marvellous little shops hidden away down dingy, narrow, mean looking lanes. Houses sometimes leave their doors open and you get a glimpse into an interior courtyard, sometimes with a fountain or tank of water – very Moroccan.

Everyone except the tourists is dressed Arabic style; some women wear the veil but most don’t. All women wear headscarves and ankle length dresses. Most men wear skullcap hats, often beautifully decorated with intricate lace patterns; many men wear long robes, usually ivory or cream, against the sun. People are friendly and welcoming. It’s almost unheard of to hear “muzungu” and be asked directly for money. Instead you get “jambo” (welcome), to which you reply “sijambo” (no problems). Or “mambo?” (what’s up?) to which you reply “poa”) (cool).

Our hotel, the Flamingo, finds us a four bed room. All is clean and white; we have mosquito nets and a view down along the tiny alley which gives access to the building. The windows have two layers of shutters; the sun is kept out; the air is let in; the room feels cool and welcoming. There’s a fan, and just up the hallway a clean shower and toilet. What more do we need?

The building is interesting; there’s a fountain in the middle courtyard and a central shaft open to the sky and around which the stairs and all the rooms are built. So when it rains the rain comes down the shaft and waters boxes of bedding plants at its edges.

We’re hungry (again); its mid afternoon and we haven’t eaten since breakfast except for a couple of packets of biscuits. We explore the alleys; at first we’re timid and terrified of getting hopelessly lost. (By the time we leave the island we deliberately don’t use the guidebook so that really can get lost and gradually work our way back home). We come to Forodhani Gardens and the Omani Fort – squat, heavy looking walls made of coral ragstone with Arabic-style crenellations along the walkways. The Forodhani gardens are beautiful; they’ve only just reopened after restoration. They are green, peaceful, and tasteful. My absolute favourite spot in Stone Town. They are full of flowers, trees, fountains with running water – exactly the Islamic notion of paradise. And they’re right next to the harbour wall so you get sea breezes all the time, and you sit in the gardens and watch the constant procession of boats and people. Even better, at sunset you watch the sun go down into the sea in one of the most spectacular views Africa can offer. I’m not joking, folks – things don’t get much better than this!

At one side of the gardens there’s a row of old Portuguese cannons facing out to sea; relics from the days of European rivalries which predate even the slave trade.

Just past Forodhani we discover an orphanage built, rather strangely, in the form of a bridge over one of the few roads in Stone Town which can take traffic. We discover an internet café close by and make use of it; we suspect that when we leave Stone Town we won’t be able to make contact very easily so we’re trying to let everyone know we’re here and safe before we venture on. Then we discover a restaurant called Archipelago which looks right out over the harbour. We want to eat in the gardens later on, so we just take drinks. I discover the local version of ginger beer called Stoney Tangawizi which is very gingery and certainly wakes you up after a doze in the afternoon heat! A few yards from us is the seam. Fishing boats are being moored; children are cooling off by swimming in the harbour; right next to where we’re sitting there are coconut palms, laden with fruit, their branches swaying and rustling in the breeze. What’s more difficult to describe to you are the colours – everything is so vivid. Greens of the plants, blues of the sea; bleached white sky, and all the other colours of people’s clothes, the boats, the buildings. We haven’t been in Zanzibar more than four hours and already all four of us have fallen in love with the place. That’s what it does to you.

The sun sets, and we take pictures of it sinking into the ocean. We get the shot everybody wants with the red sun sinking into the sea as a dhow, under sail, crosses the horizon; in the foreground people are playing in the waves and the surf is breaking on a coral beach. I tell myself I must remember that image in the dank, dreary drizzly dusk of Dorset in December!

As soon as it’s properly dark, the Forodhani gardens come to life. People descend on it from all directions. Tables are set up, lanterns and barbecues lit, and within half an hour you have possibly the best open air eating place in the world. Table after table is groaning under delicious collections of every kind of seafood you can imagine. Squid, calamares, octopi, lobsters, crabs, prawns, other shellfish, tuna, barracuda, shark, bluefin, marlin all cubed on kebabs. Elsewhere men are rolling lengths of sugar cane through presses to give fresh cane juice (mixed with lemon – it’s delicious). There are spicy and aromatic sauces everywhere. You can have omelettes, pizzas. If you don’t like fish there is meat and sausage, but in reality Zanzibar is a fish eater’s paradise, and all four of us are desperate to get some good fish after two years of tilapia and sambasa back in Rwanda!

We buy, we eat. Soraya overdoses on calamares; I explore some of the exotic fish kebabs. Some of us are degenerate and indulge in banana and chocolate pancakes…. We all eat more than we should and certainly allow ourselves to be charged more than we should. There’s no alcohol on sale openly, but if you ask at one of the little soft drinks sellers they can magic a bottle of beer out of nowhere for you. Not me; I’m enjoying my sugar cane cocktail.

We get absolutely pestered by papasi; part of our problem is that we are trying to keep all our options open and not commit to anything until tomorrow; to the papasi that means we’re available as customers and eventually they spoil our evening with their wheedling. Take my taxi. Come snorkelling with me. Let me show you the dolphins down in the south. I can arrange scuba diving for a good price. And always the same four words “for you – special price”, and it’s always a lie. And they’re all trying to work out my relationship with three beautiful young women…

We go over to the cannons and pose for group pictures; by now we’ve met Jenny who is another American “World Teach” volunteer from America, and whom we met at Jinja last Easter. It shows you how the volunteer community all tend to go to the same places and do the same things; the chances of us bumping into two friends from Jinja here in Stone Town must be vanishingly small, but it has just happened. At the cannons we meet an interesting German couple who have been six years going round the world in a converted Magirus lorry. They have driven across the Sahara, been right through West Africa and even managed to cross through Congo. Now they’re in Zanzibar on their way up the east coast to go through Tanzania, Kenya, and eventually Sudan and Ethiopia. He’s writing a book about his travels; to my shame I seem to have lost the piece of paper on which I wrote his name.

To get away from the papasi (who think nothing of breaking into your conversation to try to sell you shawls or trinkets; I nearly thumped one of them) the Germans take us to a pub. We wander up a dark alleyway, turn left at an unmarked corner and walk to a dead end. In front of us is a door, left ajar. Through the door we enter a wide garden with outside large screen TVs, and divided up into areas with chairs and tables for drinks. We sit under a roof whose central pole is a live palm tree trunk; all around us are coconut palms. We drink and chat. Suddenly there’s a loud thump and the waitress near us squeaks. A large coconut has just fallen from one of the trees and missed her by inches. Now that’s a hazard for bar staff you certainly don’t get in Dorset!

Eventually we decide to call it a night. We say farewell and bon voyage to our German friends, and walk through the deserted, dark alleys to take Jenny back to her hotel (she’s right across Stone Town, near the harbour). Despite dire warnings from papasi about the dangers of going into the darker alleys at night, and hence the need to do everything by taxi, we feel perfectly safe as a group; there is a badly lit and definitely less savoury section as we pass the harbour, but there are too many people around for us to feel vulnerable.

Back in our hotel room we rev up the ceiling fan to maximum speed, unfurl our mozzy nets and climb into bed.

Words can’t do justice to what a wonderful day it has been; we are all so happy to be here at last and to find that absolutely everything is living up to our expectations. After all the restrictions and dourness of Rwanda, Stone Town is simply magic.


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Parag said...

For many centuries there was intense sea borne trading activity between Asia and Africa,and this is illustrated in an exceptional manner by the architecture and urban structure of Stone Town Zanzibar

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