Tuesday, 17 November 2009

In which we find acrobats, and possibly the most perfect beach ever. (Pity about all the other people)

November 7th

Time to leave Bwejuu. We want to go up to the north coast of Zanzibar where the beaches are supposed to be even better. The guest house owner paid, he escorts us up to the tarmac road. We explain that we’ll wait for a daladala to stop for us. The first one that comes is going in the opposite direction, but it’s almost empty and the crew is terrified that someone else will take our fares, so they pile us in and off we go – in the wrong direction. We drive all the way back to Ka, to the lagoon – all the route we cycled yesterday. Rachael, who didn’t cycle, is suitably impressed. We learn that the correct fare to Stone Town is 1500 shillings, not the 2000 we paid on the outward run. The wind is cool in the back of the bus and we’re never as unpleasantly crowded as we were the other day. The dalaldalas’ driving technique is always the same. To go at breakneck speed wherever possible, then screech to a halt where there are police, checkpoints, speed bumps or potential passengers. My knees are jammed into an enormous basket of tomatoes, and there’s a drum of cooking oil next to it with an insecure looking stopper.

We pass the Joziani forest national park where there are red colobus monkeys. Needless to say in our formula one daladala we don’t see any wildlife unless it’s dead on the road, but the trees look cool and inviting. The convoyeur hurls himself into the passenger section at the sight of a policeman, easily identifiable in their pristine white uniforms with peaked caps. Below the knees they look more old fashioned, with baggy shorts, “sensible shoes” and knee length socks. And that’s just the women. In Rwanda such a uniform wouldn’t stay clean for more than an hour with all the dry season’s dust.

Stone Town seems hot and noisy after Bwejuu. We go back to the Flamingo hotel. Rachael is going to stay a night or two; she’s waiting to meet another one of the American teachers who has just arrived on the island. And, yes, he’s yet another volunteer who we all met in Uganda at Easter. We leave our bags in the hotel and go down town to change money, use the internet and above all write a postcard for Tina back home in England.

We decide we ought to head straight up to the north and make sure of somewhere to stay for the night. Nungwi is easily the most touristy part of the island, with huge resorts taking advantage of its beaches. We find the daladala easily but once again get ripped off paying twice the correct fare. We’re learning; we won’t ever make that mistake again. Having consulted the “Rough Guide” we decide we’ll forsake Nungwi and stay at Kendwa. It’s supposed to be less developed and is more “our sort of place”. It’s also only a couple of miles from Nungi. Walking distance if we want to go there.

On the way we pass seawater lagoons on the outskirts of Stone Town but miss one of the old palaces (it’s almost swamped by an oil storage depot). In the countryside the terribly poor housing extends for mile after mile. This is the old spice plantation part of the island, and just now and again there’s tremendous waft of nutmeg, presumably from some sort of processing plant where it is being ground prior to export. But looking at the land, the houses, and the sheer number of underemployed people lounging on the roadside with nothing to do but waste day after day, you can quite understand why everyone wants to go to Stone Town and take their chance of getting a finger in the tourist pie.

There’s the usual assortment of sacks of produce on the roof; at one point the driver’s enthusiastic method of tackling speed bumps causes a sack to come undone and we start spilling peppers all over the road. The woman owning the sack bangs frantically on the side of the bus to stop the driver. But by the time we come to a halt people have appeared from surrounding houses and are picking up the spilt peppers with absolutely no intention of returning them. There’s a lot of arguing between the lady passenger and the driver, but nothing comes of it and if anything the man drives even faster to make up for lost time.

Unfortunately our 2006 guidebook is dead accurate. It tells people to visit Kendwa before it gets overdeveloped, which will happen imminently. Now, in 2009, Kendwa has gone the same way as Nungwi. There are just a few glimpses of the former carefree environment left. We are dropped at the end of a lane and halve to walk a mile or so through the heat to the village. The guest house we really want we can’t find and we assume it no longer exists, so we plump for our second choice at “Kendwa Rocks”. Whether the title is geographical or a wish on the owners’ part isn’t clear. We book into the communal dorm; cheap and cheerful but adequate with ceiling fans and good quality mosquito nets. This is a seriously developing resort. Bwejuu was empty; Kendwa is pretty full and we’re only at the start of the winter season.

At “Kendwa Rocks” the clientele seem very young – backpackers. A lot of them are here for the scuba diving; almost every guest house advertises lessons and at night there are rows of butch looking rubber boats drawn up on the sand. The place is developing as fast as it can; it has manicured gardens and little walled sectiosn which suddenly open up via gates to give you the perfect view through palm trees to the sand and water. If we hadn’t just come from Bwejuu we’d have thought this place the bee’s knees. But after the quiet and empty open spaces on the east coast Kendwa feels a little over egged. It’s not an anticlimax – the beach and general setting is too perfect for that, but to us it feels as if there is too much building, too many people, and too much intrusion onto the natural environment.

Kendwa has to giant resort complexes at each end of its beach catering almost entirely for Italians. Even the “plastic Masai” have signs advertising their wares in Italian.

The crowning glory of Kendwa is its beach. Much more steeply shelving than at Bwejuu, you can swim at any stage of the tide (though low tide has its hazards, as we are about to discover). The downside is that the water is colder than at Bwejuu; there’s no sizzling expanse of sand and mud to heat it as the tide comes in. I swim out to a dhow moored close to the beach; its entire bow section is delicately carved and painted and the entire boat is new and well cared for. Definitely for the tourist trade! Out on the horizon is a group of islands, the biggest of which is Tumbatu. This is a strange place; the inhabitants think they are the original Zanzibaris and they keep very much to themselves. Visits from tourists are positively discouraged. There are only two main settlements on the island, barely three miles apart, and they have evolved different dialects. That’s how insular these people have become!

The sunsets aren’t very good at Kendwa during our stay; the sun is setting towards Africa, into the Zanzibar Channel, and there a lot of cloud with continuous lightning coming from the mainland. The rainy season has certainly arrived there.

We swim, we walk along the beach, and we find the gurst house we were originally looking for – “Les Toits de Palme”, half hidden at the back of the beach. To get to it you have to walk right through the “White Sands” complex; we hesitated to do this because we didn’t know it was a right of way when we first arrived. We talk to the owner at Les T de P and decide we’ll transfer there tomorrow. There’s always a security risk when you sleep with strangers in a dormitory, and, besides, we like to have our own space. Les T de P has very cheap huts right on the beach, but they are close to some of the Masai and look as if they would be child’s play to break into, se we agree that we’ll go for the next stage up – a hut at the top of the little cliff at the back of the beach. This has sea views and is much more secure.

We try the food at “Les Toits de Palme” – the waiter sets a table right out onto the beach for us; we dine by candle light. With the ocean swishing just yards away we dine on prawns in coconut sauce (you notice that almost everything here is cooked in coconut; it makes food amazingly rich and creamy). The mix of fresh seafood, coconut and spices is just unbeatable. I’m determined to try to find recipes and replicate some of these dishes when I get home!

After we’ve eaten we return to our dorm. It’s Saturday night and now thatwe’ve eaten we are just in time for the entertainment at Kendwa Rocks. We’ve met Steve, a young Oxford Law graduate who has been here a while; he takes us in tow for the evening. Épi and I are ready to dance, but nothing happens till around eleven o’clock when the floor show begins. This is the only live show in the district and people have come from all the other resorts to watch. To buy drinks you first have to buy tokens which you exchange for alcohol at the bar. That’s a measure of how much these places don’t or can’t trust their bar staff. We have a troupe of acrobats. They are extremely agile and the whole show is a hoot, especially when there’s the occasional mishap. One man hurts his face quite badly when the wooden blocks he’s balancing on to do a handstand on a table come loose.

It’s virtually midnight when the dancing starts, and by then both Épi and I are too tired to want to dance away for another couple of hours, so we retreat to bed. We all sleep well despite revellers returning at intervals all through the night.

We’re about three years too late coming here – but just perfect timing for Bwejuu!

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