Mixed Influences in a Town Built of Stone

Trip Start May 04, 2011
Trip End Feb 20, 2014

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What I did
Tourist stuff, giant tortoise

Flag of Tanzania  , Zanzibar Archipelago,
Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The plane landed from Nairobi about 830pm in Stone Town, Zanzibar. Walking across the tarmac to the tin airport was humid and a bit surreal to think that I'd made it to this exotic Tanzanian island, a place that a few years ago I recall google mapping to check that it was actually a real place and not some TV created location. Another $50, another visa. This time given to me by a friendly immigration official – rare indeed. I’d arranged an airport-hotel transfer for 10 bucks and he was waiting patiently once I’d cleared the non-existent customs. I’d gone from a rather expensive lodge in Kenya to a $35/night basic hotel here in Stone Town. My way of reducing overall trip costs. When I booked over email, I could’ve upgraded to a room with air conditioning for an extra $15, but I said no – I don’t like air con anyways. Having said that, I opened my room door to find it stuffy and humid as hell. Fortunately I spotted an air con on the wall and luckily the remote works (some places have an air con, but deactivate it somehow unless u pay extra). So, it seems I had been upgraded for free! In my 'wisdom’ of choosing a non-air con room, I’d failed to remember that this is malaria territory and therefore windows closed at night, which makes air conditioning a must for comfort. I was thinking to myself what a bargain this place was, and then I got out of the shower to reach for the towel.........no towel. After enquiring the next day, they had simply omitted putting a towel in my room. This was good, because I was about to lecture them on putting this kind of basic detail on their website.

In summary, my 3 nights in Stone Town were an experience in varying cultures and influences. An Arab Sultan ruled Zanzibar for most of the 1800’s and then the British, a bit of India and of course the African influence is evident. The Muslim prayer call siren and speakers woke me each morning at 730am. There are lots and lots of hagglers and sellers on the streets. So annoying. If one more person asks me where I am from, I will strangle them I think. You say Australia, and then their response every single freaking time is "ahhh, Kangaroo?". I have taken to making up identities. Sometimes I am a Scottish Mining Engineer named Ryan, other times I am an Accountant from New Zealand named William. It at least gives me humour while I vaguely listen to them try and sell me something I am not interested in or walk along the beach talking dribble and then before we part asking for money so he can supposedly feed his wife and 3 kids. I feel for these people, but I won’t give money on the street for free. They could at least sing, dance, play an instrument, or try sell me a souvenir. I think I’m an easy target for them since I am travelling alone. There were some genuine friendly and kind people I met tho and all were good enough to back away once you insisted no interest.

I did pretty much all the touristy things to do in Stone Town, except a Spice Tour. I know that Zanzibar is renowned for its spices, but it is a 9am-3pm experience and I chose the Prison Island tour over this. I don’t like spices anyway. The Prison Island tour started with an anxious feeling. I arranged thru the hotel who I think ripped me off. U pay the hotel clerk who then contacts some guy who then pimps u out to a random duo of boat people who transfer u across to the island. I hate this kind of freelance tourism. Why can’t I just rock up at a wharf, get a physical hardcopy ticket from a booth attendant where the set price is advertised and get on a 21st century boat where I know the departure and return time. No, instead I get a near death-trap boat where everyone has paid a different price and everyone has a different idea of when we will return. I sucked in my frustration to just go with the flow and take it as it comes. The sea was rough with no wharf so I had to hold my camera and belongings out of the water as I tried to clamber into the ‘boat’. A journey that supposedly takes 20 minutes, took nearly an hour. We snorkelled over what must rate as the most pathetic excuse for a reef in the world (admittedly it was choppy water and visibility low), and then we got to the island. The giant tortoises were quite interesting – 4 were originally brought in from Seychelles as a gift to the Sultan and now there are heaps. Even tho the sign says no touching, our boat captain ushered us into the area to pat, pose and generally do whatever we liked except sit on their shells. The Europeans all wanted to sit on their shells...odd people. I thought my ‘ticket’ included island entry and lunch. Seems it included neither, just 20 bucks for a boat trip. I wondered about the island a bit. Not much to see other than the tortoises, so I was ready to go after an hour, but the 4 others on my boat wanted to swim and relax. Not the best day out, but I can now say I’ve scratched a tortoise under the neck and he raised his head just like a cat!

I found the Palace interesting. This got bombed by the British in the world’s shortest war (less than an hour). House of Wonders not so wondrous, but it did have an elevator installed in 1913 (couldn’t tell if it still functions and I was going to try) and a great view across town. The Old Fort was filled with market stalls and an intriguing place to visit and barter with people who weren’t overly pushy. I watched sunset from Africa House hotel where I met 2 Aussie girls here as medical students. We had some drinks at Mercury Bar, a pub/restaurant named after Freddie Mercury from Queen and decorated with some memorabilia – he was born in Zanzibar. Food here in Zanzibar is excellent and cheap even in the nicer places – 2 courses, 2 large beers for $20 AUD. [PS – I’ve downloaded the XE app for currency conversion and it has changed my life]. Only downside is the stray cats that hang about and try get your food if u eat in the public spaces etc.

The streets of Stone Town remind me a lot of Venice (without the sewage smell). Great architecture, especially the wood carved doors. I got lost numerous times, but unlike when I was in Venice, I withheld my frustration and just laughed at my inability to read the map. At least I got to see a bit of normal Stone Town life outside the main tourist precinct because I got severely off track when trying to find the Slave Market Site until a young guy who spoke really good English stopped to help me. I was deep in local territory where the kids stared at the white guy in thongs and boardshorts with camera around neck; I’d say Jambo and keep walking through the maze of back-streets trying to find a landmark of any recognition. When I did finally find the slave area, it was quite compelling. Zanzibar used to be the biggest slave trade market where slaves would be brought here, shackled, stored in horrible cave conditions, and then sold and put on a boat to Europe or elsewhere in the region. This continued up until the mid to late 1800s.

Before transferring up to Nungwi for my beach time, I had one final morning in Stone Town to roam the streets and buy a painting that I had spotted on day 1. The painting and a pen sketch of a wood carved door cost me 200,000 Tanzanian Shillings = $125 US = $119 AUD. Loving the Aussie dollar right now.
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