Wednesday, 18 November 2009

In which we find ourselves catapulted back to the mainland faster than expected…

November 10th

Yet another dawn swim; and our final indolent breakfast on the beach. The weather is different today; the sky is overcast and threatening and there’s a gusty wind. The waves are too big to make swimming easy. We think there’s probably going to be rain before mid day. The girls are having a lie in; Épi had a bad night with mosquitoes; Soraya is peeling all over her shoulders from where she caught the sun on the cycle ride. On the other hand, keeping our hut door wide open gave me enough ventilation and the best night’s sleep for days. (I’d set a booby trap in the shadows of the doorway just in case someone was tempted to try to steal from us during the night. In the event it was me, of course, who knocked the stuff over with a large clatter as I stumbled out of bed in the morning). Good job it didn’t wake the girls!

Épi and Soraya are desperate to come back to Zanzibar next year; I wonder if there’s a possibility that Tina might be back in Rwanda and able to travel with them? We put off leaving until the very last minute; Simon the patron owes Épi some change and we have to virtually twist his arm behind his back to get it before we finally say our farewells.

Leaving our departure till mid morning turns out not to have been our best move. The rain clouds have moved on and the sun is at full strength. Épi’s foot is still giving her trouble and she isn’t really up to a long walk with full pack up to the bus stop on the main road. On the other hand the prices being asked for taxi rides back to Stone Town are just crazy. So we compromise. One of the taxis is keen to get back to Stone Town and we make a deal with him to take us just up to the daladala stop. So for one mile we ride in armchairs, in air conditioned luxury, with tinted windows. We all gain; the money we give will certainly pay for petrol for their journey to Stone Town, and we’ve avoided a real slog to the main road.

Our luck is in and there’s a daladala waiting for us at the stop. It’s not too overcrowded but has an unusually low roof. I have difficulty in positioning myself so that I’m not constantly banging my head against the ceiling. There are two teenage Muslim girls sitting next to me and opposite me; they are in fits as I continually get bumped up and down against the ceiling. We have the usual variety of passengers and baggage; women going to market; tradesmen clattering their tools in the middle of the gangway as they take a ride to their next call out; mothers with crying babies.

We arrive at Creek Road bus station in the hottest part of the day and make straight for Flamingo Hotel. We’ve booked rooms there and the plan is to go souvenir shopping this afternoon and tomorrow morning before catching the 1230 ferry back to Dar es Salaam.

I take a cold shower, do some laundry ready for the journey home, and get changed. We ring the bus company just to check seats and times for our departure from Dar on Thursday. PANIC! We are told that we have been misinformed; the buses to Kigali leave on Wednesdays and Saturdays. This throws us. Do we have time to get back to the mainland today and catch the bus at 0600 tomorrow, or will we have to stay on the island till Saturday’s departure? We have a hurried discussion. We’d prefer not to have to wait until Saturday. But getting off the island today means we have to find another ferry back to Dar, find a hotel room for the night, and book and pay for seats on Wednesday’s bus. If any of these arrangements falls down, we’re stuck till the weekend.
By now it’s two o’clock. We leave Épi in the hotel room and Soraya and I quick march to the ferry terminal. Here we find that there are three different ferry companies operating to Dar. The night boat doesn’t get in till 0600 and is therefore too late to connect with our bus. The only chance of getting back is to catch the fast ferry leaving in around one hour’s time. I have to buy new tickets for all of us. (That gives us an extra problem in that we’ll have to try to get refunds on our original return tickets at Dar, but if the ferry booking office closes early then we’ve had it…)

We race back to the hotel, pack our things, and explain our predicament to Alif, the manager. Predeictably, in the urgency and confusion I take several wrong turns and by the time I make it back to our room we only have a bare 30 minutes before the ferry is due to leave. Worse than that, I have soaking wet washing to pack into my rucksack.To our amazement he doesn’t bat an eyelid, and doesn’t ask for any payment for the room we’ve occupied for a couple of hours! We’re about to discover more of the kindness of strangers, too.

We catch a taxi to the harbour, fuming at all the delays and hold ups in Creek Road’s chaotic traffic; the actual entrance is blocked off because another ferry has just docked and the entire place is streaming with passengers and papasi. We barge into the ferry terminal and heave a sigh of relief when we see that our boat hasn’t even started boarding yet. We have the emigration formalities to complete, and eventually take our seats in a very old catamaran. Fortunately we leave slightly late. At least we have resolved the first problem, that of getting back to Dar es Salaam today.

The ferry is very fast, very bumpy, and nowhere near as pleasant as the outbound one. (So to any VSOs reading this, it really definitely is best to get the slower ferry). When we reach Dar we make a beeline for the “Flying Horse” ferry office to get our refunds. Joy of joys, it is still open – just! Our friend Bashir is on the point of closing for the day. He remembers us and waves us into his little office. He’s wearing a neck brace where he’s damaged his neck from spending all day being stooped in front of a computer or a ticket sales window. He couldn’t have been more helpful if he tried. This man is truly a friend to us. We get a full refund without anything being deducted for his administration time. On a whim I ask him if he can ring the bus company and confirm our seats for tomorrow morning – he does so, even though it involves at least three separate phone calls.

“Where are you staying tonight?” he asks (a man from the bus company, Salim, will be bringing our tickets round to us later in the evening and will require payment; we need to tell him where we’re staying so he can find us). We say to Bashir that we’re staying at the Holiday Hotel – we aren’t; we haven’t got as far as making a booking. There didn’t seem to be any point until we knew we’d be able to get to Dar. And on top of everything else my phone battery has died, and I’ve got the only phone between us. Stressy or what?!

Bashir insists on driving us to the hotel; we wait a few minutes while he locks his office (involving three padlocks and a massive, heavy, steel security door), and duly drops us off at the hotel.

Again, if any VSO is reading this and intending to travel to Zanzibar by ferry, please patronise “Flying Horse” and give our greetings to Bashir. I think he’s going to remember us for a while!

Dar es Salaam is experiencing a city wide power cut; the entire hotel is in darkness and they’re fiddling around for ages trying to get their emergency generator working. They’ve closed the security gate at the main entrance, which in itself is up two flights of stairs over shops. It’s not the most auspicious welcome to a hotel but in our nerve-jangling state it’s enough for us that we have rooms for the night.

So far so good – fery back to Dar, refunds on original tickets, and hotel room found. All we need now is to have the bus tickets in our hands and we can relax. We go out for a meal (“Jambo Hotel” again, because we know the food is good and it’s close to our hotel). I have to leave messages with the Holiday hotel staff in case Salim comes to find us while we’re eating. He doesn’t. The girls are tired and take themselves off to bed; I decide to have another shower. Why hasn’t Salim come with our tickets – after all our luck this afternoon are we going to be bounced off the bus at the last minute?

While I’m actually in the shower there a lot of banging on my room door opposite; Salim certainly chooses his times to arrive! He has come up trumps; we have three tickets all in a line together on the bus. I have to wake up the girls to pay him, but we are happy now that the last main piece in our jigsaw has fallen into place. We have arranged wake up calls with the hotel, and asked them to find us a taxi for half past five in the morning to take us to the airport.

We can’t believe that this is still the same day that saw us start with a dawn swim, east breakfast on a paradise beach, and laze away the morning back at Kendwa.

On the other hand, it shows how experienced we’re getting as travellers and as “Africa hands” that we can take the initiative and change plans so effectively. I think in situations like this you make your own luck, but I want to salute three good people – Alif, Bashir and Salim – who went out of their way to accommodate and be helpful to three total strangers. It restores your faith in people!

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