Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Zanzibar - The Spice Island

Getting on the plane to paradise.

Zanzibar has been known for hundreds of years as “The Spice Island.”  Back when pepper, cinnamon, saffron, etc. where worth their weight in gold, Zanzibar was an important and world-famous trading post and one of the main gateways to East Africa.  Unfortunately, spices were not the only commodities sold on the island, with it also being a bustling and important slave market, as the dungeons and chains of “Prison Island” off the coast of Stone Town will still attest to.

Stone Town Beach.

Those days are long gone, and although Zanzibar still produces spices in large quantities, it is now celebrated worldwide as a pretty kick ass place to get a tan and where Jack Black from Tenacious D will order you your favorite dish from.  It is the only place I have ever been to that looks exactly like it does in the postcards.  The beaches are white, the water is greenish-blue, the palm trees droop and twist just right, and the people are always smiling.

Idiocy at its best.

Zanzibar is actually only one of several islands that make up the Zanzibar Archipelago in the Indian Ocean off the East Coast of Tanzania.  Fun fact for ya, the name Zanzibar provided the “zan” in TanZANIA when the island joined with the former TANganyika in 1964 to form the current United Republic of Tanzania.  The language of Zanzibar, and the coastal people of Tanzania, Swahili, was adopted as the official language of the country, and is now the lingua franca for the entire East African region.

View from the bungalow.

Not bad for $22 per night!

Hot and humid, the climate of the island is exactly what one would expect of an island in the Indian Ocean, and only a couple of degrees south of the equator.  Even though I was there in the winter, the temperature was in the mid to high 80’s every day and the ocean the temperature of bath water.  The first morning I was there, I was excited to go on a morning swim, only to find that the beach had grown by about a mile overnight.

The extreme tides of Zanzibar.

With very shallow water, the beaches of Zanzibar are very much affected by the tides, with the water receding very far, especially with during a full moon like there was during my visit.  I foolishly decided that I was going to try and walk out to where the water would get deep again, far out by the island's barrier reef.  I had to give up after an hour of walking, when I reached about the halfway mark, and the water was still barely shin level.

Oh you know, just walking out to sea.

During the walk, I crossed patches of reef where sea urchins and starfish made their home, saw crabs mating, and local people farming and collecting seaweed to be sold for use in cosmetics, toothpaste, ice cream, and many other products.  The sun soon began to beat down on me and I had to come to grips with my extreme paleness before I got seriously sunburned.  Luckily, there was a beachfront bar nearby to where I was staying that allowed me to avoid the dangerously powerful rays of the midday sun, while sipping cold beer.

Bow chicka bow wow!

I sat down to a meal of Swahili Octopus, which I assumed was going to be something like calamari, but turned out to be more like sushi, and heavily spiced.  Once you got past the chewy texture of the octopus, the flavor was delicious, and the meal highly enjoyable.  I washed down the sea creature with a couple more beers then proceeded to be as lazy as possible for the rest of the afternoon, carefully cooking my skin with the weaker radiation the afternoon offered. 

Almost TOO pleasant.

When the sun went down, the beach quickly became pitch black, with barely a light source puncturing the black veil which had covered the island.  After a long day of drinking and slow-roasting my body, I quickly fell asleep, only to be rudely awakened in the middle of the night by fruit bats flying around the inside of the thatched roof of my bungalow.  The creatures quickly calmed down, however, and allowed me the blessing of a good night’s rest. 

Good morning sun!

When I awoke, my day repeated almost exactly the same as the one before, like I had somehow slipped into some sort of tropical Groundhog’s Day.  I quickly realized that like Bill Murray, I was doomed to repeat my actions every day that I was on the island.  There really isn’t much to do except to lie out and relax on the beach—and that is precisely why people go there.  It is a great place to chill out and forget the world.

Could be worse, I guess.

Getting restless, my sexy girlfriend and I decided to walk up the beach and see what there was to do in the area.  When I booked my bungalow on the island, I very carefully chose a location as far away from any big resort, and the hustle and bustle of Stone Town, that I could.  We soon learned that I had chosen our place of residence very well, with nothing close to us in either direction of the beach.  We also learned that we had luckily chosen the one part of the island that is almost devoid of “Beach Boys.”

This beach boy had a beach monkey.

I know what you’re thinking: “the Beach Boys are great!”  “California Girls,” “Good Vibrations,” and any number of their hits are tailor-made for a relaxing time on the beach.  I wholeheartedly agree, unfortunately, those weren’t the beach boys that I was referring to.  Beach boys are the innumerable number of young men that patrol the beach in hopes of selling trinkets to tourists, or cajoling you into going for a boat ride, a spice tour, or any other number of attractions.  They are essentially cheap and accessible tour guides, offering island services, and souvenirs.  You never quite know the quality of the experience you will get, but most people I spoke with described their experiences with them as generally positive.

Zanzibar - the postcard island

I can tell you one thing though, they are very, very annoying.  When you are not interested in buying anything, or any of their services, it is quite irritating to have them constantly assault you with offers and bags full of trinkets.  After about an hour of walking and fighting off would-be entrepreneurs, we gladly turned around and returned to our little bit of peace and quiet.  Satisfied with our small bit of exploration for the day, we decided to give into fate and lounge around for the rest of the afternoon.  I know, poor us, right?  On the way back we saw some tourists riding rented bicycles on the beach, which quickly kindled our interest.

A quick call and some Swahili later, I had some bikes lined up for my girlfriend and me, and two friends we met on the island.  However, there would be no peddling for us—our bikes came complete with a 250 cc engine.  Not the most powerful of dirt bikes, but plenty for what we needed them for, exploring the island at 50 miles per hour!  Staying on the southern and least populated part of Zanzibar, the roads all around us were well paved and nearly devoid of cars, perfect for a day of riding.

Zanzibar is probably one of the few places in the world where no one gives a crap when your ride a dirt bike right down onto the beach and go cruising.

The next morning, we all set out on the road with exploration in mind.  At $30 dollars for the whole day, the bike rentals were a steal.  We paid $10 dollars extra to acquire our foreigner’s drivers permits, so that we could avoid having to bribe every policeman at every checkpoint we passed.  The people that supplied the bikes also supplied us with some helmets.  They were several sizes too large, smelled terrible, and one of them had a whole in the top of it big enough to fit an apple through it.  A strong wind while riding would twist them around on our heads, and I had to position my head just right to keep it from moving and blocking my vision.  They would have most likely fallen right off in a crash but they still offered a small measure of comfort while on the road.

One of the wonderful places we discovered on our journey.
 For nearly eight hours we rode around the island, checking out the sites and seeing what Zanzibar had to offer.  It was a perfect day, with glorious sunshine, and a cool breeze.  We covered a pretty big portion of the island, traversing nearly 90 miles of road and beach over the course of the day.  I gotta give respect where it is due, my wonderful lady bravely hung on to my back as I flew down the highway, explored dirt roads, and went for cruises on the white sand beaches.  It was a wonderful experience that I will never forget, and the best part about it is that nobody got hurt.

We had a cheap tourist map of the island which showed the attractions that it offered.  One of the sights listed was the oldest mosque in Zanzibar.  We were intrigued and decided to make our way down to Kizimkazi on the southern tip of the island.  Kizimkazi is where tourists frequently go to swim with the dolphins.  By "swim," I mean some locals take you out on a boat, chase down a dolphin, and then dump you in the water before it swims away.  The dolphins are wild and are probably sick of beach boys chasing them with boats, and it is rare that a swimmer actually gets close to the creatures.  As we arrived on the beach at Kizimkazi, we were instantly assaulted by about 50 men, women, and children trying to sell us wooden trinkets and offering to take us out on their boast.  We lasted about ten minutes before getting back on our bikes and leaving the area, they were entirely too aggressive for our taste and were ruining our day.

A beautiful beach in Zanzibar.  Right before we were assaulted by annoying people.

We then made our way to the mosque, failing to find it at first.  We knew that we were in the right area, but couldn't quite locate it.  We rode through the same small village several times before we stopped and asked a man for directions.  He told us to ride back down the road we had just been on, insisting that the mosque was there.  When we returned we noticed a small sign that we had overlooked, proclaiming the site of the mosque.  There was nothing left but a rough foundation, with the basis of the original walls sticking a couple feet out of the ground.  Next to it was a small building that was being repainted, apparently a modern mosque.  We were expecting an old building, and found nothing but a few foundation stones, no wonder we had missed it.  We learned real quickly that the man-made attractions of Zanzibar definitely leave something to be desired, and the true beauty of the island lies in its natural sites.

Right side up gecko, upside down world.

We returned to our lodge and gave the bikes back to their rightful owners. After dinner we quickly fell asleep, waking up early to pack down our stuff.  In the morning, we went to Stone Town, the capital city of Zanzibar, and the site of hundreds of years of history.  The taxi ride to Stone Town took a little over an hour, with us passing bustling markets and vendors selling goods.  Soon we arrived in the city, and decided to get a drink to start off our day on the right foot.  Unfortunately, we chose a hotel that didn't serve any alcohol so we were forced to throw back some ice cold cokes instead.  Delicious, delicious, Coca Colas.



As we sat and enjoyed our drinks, we marveled at a large boat that simply pulled up to the beach next to the fishing and diving boats, was tied to a concrete block, and began to load and unload goods.  It was a strange sight to see while eating breakfast.  

The cows were confused as well.
After breakfast, we wandered the small and winding streets of Zanzibar and bought some choice goods from small shops.  There was a wonderful wealth of wooden chests, photo frames, and ornate boxes, as well as the usual tourists shops selling the same crap that can be found in any country in Africa.  We picked our way through the trash, eventually deciding on some small boxes and a cool folding bookshelf made out of unfinished wood, and sold by two men sitting in a small workshop reading the daily newspaper.

Old building in Stone Town

Manhole cover.

Back alley.

After wandering the streets and purchasing our goods, we hopped in a taxi and made our way to the airport, excited to return home to Northern Tanzania.  After waiting in some long lines and dealing with the usual security BS, we finally got on the plane and flew home.  As is often the case, I soon felt like I needed a vacation from my vacation, arriving at my apartment more tired than when I left. 

 I would like to say that I had the sweetest tan in the office when I went back to work, but since I work with a bunch of Tanzanians, even that wasn't the case.  I wil have to try harder next time!

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