Friday, 1 June 2007

Zanzibar - a collision and collusion of cultures

It's so exciting catching the ferry to Zanzibar - the exotic island of spices and slaves. We have negotiated hard with the street-savvy ferry ticket sellers and are pleased to have got passage for a mere $20US (usual price is over $30). However, this pleasure is somewhat mitigated when we have to walk about 2km to the far end of the port (it's sort of like flying Freedom Air, and ending up in Gate 87F), and join a large and motley crew of fellow travellers in a muddy holding area - luckily it's only for a couple of hours!! The crossing is scheduled to take us 4 hours, compared to the usual 2.5, but hey we're not doing anything else this afternoon. There's a lot of freight on this sailing, and it's amazing to see huge and incredibly heavy baskets of avocadoes and chunks of machinery get loaded onto the backs of rather muscular half naked African men and walked up the narrow gangplank. I could have watched all day.

These classic Swahili dhows sail up and down the coast and between Zanzibar and the mainland.
Soon enough though, it's time for us to stagger up the same gangplank under the weight of our packs, and secure a couple of seats in the front part of the boat. Somewhat to my surprise, the Mandeleo (I think this is it's name - it was written one way on our ticket, and the two life rings on our deck have it spelt two further ways) is surprisingly comfy. Most women seem happy to lay out their kanga (a piece of cloth usually worn around the waist, over the top of their other clothes, also used to secure their babies to their backs, with their money securely tied into a corner of the cloth) on the aisle floor and go to sleep, with their children around them. We choose instead to watch the James Bond movie that is thoughtfully provided for our entertainment. Before we know it, well, actually long after JB has saved the world again, we pull into port. To our surprise we have to go through an immigration process - Zanzibar is somewhat autonomous it seems and even now has a tense relationship with the rest of Tanzania. By the time this is all over, it's well and truly dark, and we are set upon by friend and foe alike as soon as we emerge from the immigration office. It's all a bit much really, but finally we decide one guy looks reasonably honest, and we clamber into his taxi for the remarkably short ride to our hotel - it's in Narrow Street which is too narrow for vehicles, so we are essentially paying him 1000 Tanzanian shillings to be shown the way - good value considering the maze that is Stone Town.

The hotel is another surprise - a good one. Our room is huge, with a large bed (as opposed to two small ones which is the norm), a sofa and an armchair, so we can watch our TV in comfort, a sort of dressing room and then a bathroom that is almost big enough to swing that cat in. We are very happy and decide to stay for two nights. Ahmed, our genial host (he tells us he's 24 and planning to marry soon, but he looks about 15), walks us through the maze again, dropping breadcrumbs for us so we can find our way back from Mercury's - a nearby restaurant/bar named after (riding on the coattails of) Freddie Mercury who was born in Zanzibar. It's pretty touristy, but then so is the whole island, and somehow even after a couple of beers, we find our way back to bed.

Breakfast the next morning confirms that we have made a sound decision in picking this hotel ... and then we are off, well we will be once the downpour stops. It's really tipping down. It's 29 May and the rainy season officially finishes at the end of the month - but today it stops late morning, and we head out to explore. Stone Town is really one of those places where you have to follow your nose and enjoy being "lost". It's really atmospheric, reminding us of both Old Havana and Fez - every now and then we pop out at the waterfront, get our bearings and dive back in. Sooner or later we find the touristy end of things, lovely hotels and gardens, nice restaurants and cafes and shops - we haven't seen shops like this in ages and it's a good opportunity to buy a wedding present for friends getting married late in June, and stock up on some more reading for ourselves.

Zanzibar is a strongly Moslem community, but the mix of African, Arab and Indian cultures means for us great food, football and music. It's a very appealing mix, though occasionally quite odd. There are a few Maasai people in town, hard to know whether they are just here for the tips, as they're a long way from their traditional home, but to see them alongside women covered from head to toe, men in long robes and little caps, and all of us tourists, is an intriguing sight. It's easy to sit in an open cafe, buy a coffee (something Tanzania does well) and watch the world go by. So we do. So far Zanzibar is feeling like a holiday within the holiday - and the next day when we head to a beach resort (of a very minor kind) this feeling is reinforced. Even though we get more rain, it's something of a relief to be away from the day-to-day hassles we have become used to. The Kendwa Rocks Beach Resort is a mixed sort of place, but obviously successful as they have embarked on a construction programme next to our banda (concrete floored bamboo hut with those two little beds I mentioned earlier). The restaurant is across a wide expanse of beautiful white sand, which I become practised at sprinting across in the pouring rain. Luckily we have lots of reading material and the BBC World Service to amuse ourselves with. We do swim a couple of times, but only because we are determined. The day we leave the sun comes out and it's bright and cheerful. Hmm!

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