Saturday, December 10, 2011

Zipping through Zanzibar

It was day 2 of our Overland Truck adventure and we were already ditching the truck and come to think of it, the land, as well.  We were taking the ferry to a place whose very name conjures up mystery and exoticism, we were heading to Zanzibar.

Our destined archipelago has been a part Tanzania since 1964, only before that time, there was no Tanzania. The mainland nation was called Tanganyika and only changed its name as a result of its merger with Zanzibar. In other words, Tanganyika + Zanzibar= Tanzania.  I imagine this is something that Tanzanian schoolchildren learn pretty early on.  Therefore, I am baffled as to why we had to undergo the full customs and immigration process both on entering and exiting Zanzibar City.  It's still the same country!   You would think that a nation that borders seven different countries would have sufficient real border crossings without having to implement an unnecessary fake one.

Thankfully, all the nonsensical bureaucracy is quickly forgotten once you 'cross over ' into the bustling port city of Stonetown.  Colonial and Arabic architectural styles blend to create a unique landscape that invites rambling exploration, something I wanted immediately to do.



But Daniel, our local guide, had other plans.  Zanzibar is nicknamed the Spice Islands and Daniel was going to show us why.  He took us on a tour, one which seems to be heavily promoted throughout the island, of a spice plantation.  He proved to be very enthusiastic and knowledgable about every root, leaf and flower in our path.  And were it not my first day in Stonetown, or had I more of an interest in botany, or had I believed that there was even a remote change that I would be able to remember what, say a clove plant looked like or what the complex life cycle of a ginger tree entailed, I might have had more patience for this particular tour.

This might be cotton.
I'm pretty sure these are used in making perfumes.
Thought this might be a coffee tree, but just googled it.  Nope.
The highlight of the tour was undoubtedly watching a certifiably crazy man strap a rope-like contraption to his feet and climb to the top of a coconut tree that must have been at least 50 feet tall, all the while singing the catchiest song ever written in any language. Ever.  It was the first time I'd heard this cheery ditty and listening to it sung under such incongruous circumstances only added to its charm.  However that would soon change.  From this point on,  Jambo Bwana, a Kenyan welcome song, would be played with such alarming frequency everywhere we went, that it was physically impossible to have a moment without it being stuck it in your head.  Just by searching for the video just now, I know I have condemned myself to at least a couple of days of Jambo Bwana.  Click the link at your own peril.


After tasting some local fruits and disappointing the plantation staff by not buying any spices to go (seriously though, we still had 2 weeks left on the tour, who wants to lug around a backpack that reeks of cloves for that long?), we went back into town to continue our tour.

Next up was the site where the largest slave market in Zanzibar once stood. The dungeons, where the slaves were held for up to 3 days before being sold remain, but an Anglican church has since been erected where the actual market was held with the alter marking the spot where the whipping post stood.


The wood for this cross comes from a tree growing on the spot where David Livingstone's heart was buried.
One of the two remaining holding cells.
Continuing on was the Old Fort, built by the Omani Arabs as part of their seemingly never-ending struggles with the Portuguese.  It is now more shopping mall than defensive fortification, making this a very brief stop, and also the end of our tour.



I felt as if we had checked off most of the boxes on the 'things-to-do' in Stonetown list, but still had not had the opportunity to do what I most wanted, leisurely explore on my own.  For this, I envied the  British duo who were able to bypass the meeting in Dar and thus spend more time in Zanzibar.  If my hindsight glasses had been properly calibrated, I would have definitely done this instead.

View from the Africa House bar, where I missed the actual sunset by just a few minutes.
We did get a short amount of time to explore the following morning and once again before returning to Dar, but it wasn't nearly enough for my taste. I was concerned that this was going to become an issue as the tour went on, me longing to do things my own way, but I can honestly say that this turned out to be the only part when I really wished I'd been on my own.


Most random trivia I learned: this is the house where Queen's Freddy Mercury grew up.

The next two days took us to the western side of the island to Nungwi Village Beach.  Where we had been short of time in Stonetown, we were basking in leisure here, with nothing to do but enjoy the perfect weather.





On the second day, a group of us signed up for a dive trip to Mnemba Atoll.  We had no way of knowing that we had also signed up for the Gilligan's Island special.  I noticed during the boat ride out to the dive site that the captain kept pulling the engine (singular, since the second engine was out for repairs) out of the water, trying to figure out why the boat was going so sluggishly. Once we had rounded the north part of the island, he got his answer. Oscar, the sexy Spanish dive instructor, had lifted one the boat's flooring panels to reveal a good two feet of water threatening to become three.

We were well into the process of sinking, not the most comforting of thoughts in a part of the world not exactly known for safety regulations.  Therefore, I have to give kudos to the outstanding Spanish Dancer Divers.  They did every single thing right.  They steered the boat close enough to shore to allow us to walk onto a pristine beach, even sending a case of water with us for the wait, while they continued to bail water at a furious pace.  We watched for well over an hour as they kept the ocean from claiming the dangerously listing boat.  Finally, a rescue boat arrived, which I assumed would return us to safety, but these guys were not done impressing us with the bad-assery. (Yes, that is a word- now.) They had transferred all the dive gear and we now continued on to the atoll for two spectacular reef dives.

We later learned that our boat had managed to make it back safely to the Nungwi Inn and had been pulled ashore by 20 or so Africans, singing Swahili songs (probably Jambo Bwana, but I can not confirm that) as they heaved her ashore.

Our vessel: post-incident.

We ended the night, our last one on Zanzibar, at a neighboring bar, where Oscar the Sexy Spaniard™ was holding court.  In between shots and booming music (mainly the traditional African sounds of Pitbull...dale!), I pointed out to OtSS my observation, derived from our conversation that night, that he was clearly an adrenaline junkie. His response perfectly summed up both the day and the philosophy of all us that were happily camping our way through Africa,  He said (in eloquent Spanish that I am now butchering in translation) "the safest place for a boat is in the harbor, but that's not what it's made for."  Can't argue with that.



UPDATE: I have recently learned that Oscar the Sexy Spanish Dive Instructor (seen above in the green shirt) has opened up his own dive center.  Anyone wanting to see Zanzibar's spectacular underwater world would do well booking with the Divine Yoga Diving Center. Bailing bucket not required. 

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