Zanzibar. Just say it aloud, Zan-zii-baaaar….. it’s the coolest named place!! It just sounds exotic, and it is.
Stepping into Stone Town is exactly like stepping back in time. Zanzibar is almost entirely Muslim, so robes and scarves are everywhere. The narrow, crazy roads of Stone Town, the old center of Zanzibar city, are like something out of Arabian Nights. The Indian Ocean, is still spectacular.
For us at least, there were also plenty of down-sides. It’s really touristy and we did not care for that at all after weeks of living in local villages and being guided by David. The prices were ridiculous and we didn’t always have the energy to negotiate when they started at 10 or 20 times what we paid on the mainland. One day Aaron was on complete Shut Down. He needed food, NOW. We stopped at the street vendor for kebabs and french fries/chips, which normally cost us about 2,500 TSH (Tanzanian Shillings). The charming vendor asks for 15,000. I know Aaron is shaking and needs the kebabs, price be damned. I make this “you SO crazy” expression and yell really loud, “15,000! NO WAY!” And I act all surprised. Immediately he counters, “Okay, okay, 7,000 – that’s good price, less than 15,000“. Half that sentence is true. “4,000 and not a shilling more.” Deal. Suddenly I’m thrilled to be paying twice what an actual fair price is. If he haggled one more second poor Aaron might have passed out with a kebab inches from his finger tips. I’m happy to report he’s still with us! No one starves on this trip!
Another challenge was the touts. They followed us and wouldn’t leave us alone and then would jack up the prices when they “helped” us get where we were going anyway. I ended up exchanging words with one tout and that’s just not how we like to travel. I felt bad about it, but then when I didn’t hold my own a different time, we got ridiculously over-charged. No fun!
The crafts were mostly mass produced and not really our style while having every shop owner beg us to “look for free, just step inside, just one minute” was exhausting. Sometimes you just want to walk from point A to point B without running the gauntlet.
We did find four things we really loved about Zanzibar. First, the doors. Everyone loves the doors and you understand why once you see them.
Second, we had gelato for the first time since Buenos Aires — and it was really good gelato at that!
Third, we went up north and sailed to Mnemba Atoll for some of the best snorkeling ever! We saw oodles of fish, star fish, sea urchins and, while we were in the boat, dolphins! Aaron saw soft coral for the first time and couldn’t stop raving about how it looked just like on the National Geographic specials. It’s official: this was the best snorkeling I’ve done since the Marshall Islands. Yep, a fun day of sailing out, snorkeling, sailing to lunch, lunch on the beach and finally sailing home. I would go back to Zanzibar just for the snorkeling at Mnemba. The north part of the island, near where Mnemba lies, looks super-touristy too, but that might be the way to go next time just so we are close to the snorkeling.
A few pictures from around the island:
Every evening teenaged boys line up on the seawall and then hurl themselves into the ocean. Some of them are incredible divers and showmen. It lasts until dark…or until the authorities show up as it’s signed that there’s no diving off the seawall or swimming near it. Hah! Here’s a video.
Finally, the fourth thing we loved about Zanzibar; a place called Creative Solutions which is an unusual combo of art, nursery school and English and Swahili classes that form up this NGO founded by an American from Alabama and her Zanzibarian husband. Aida (the American) told us an amazing story of how she came to Dar nearly 20 years ago to finish off her PhD in art, which didn’t quite work out due to confusion with the university, but then one thing led to another and today she has Creative Solutions and a wonderful life in Zanzibar!
We paid $30 each for the day at Creative Solutions, which included learning to cut glass using a scoring knife and a candle flame (by a very animated fella name Hadji – who was an excellent teacher), melting and manipulating glass bottles (that was all Aaron) and working on a big outdoor wall mosaic, which I rather enjoyed. There were also dogs, cats, chickens and a tasty lunch with yummy mandazi (donuts) for dessert! It was a fine day out!!
Creative Solutions lies about 30 minutes from Stone Town and it was an easy dola-dola ride to get there (except for the tout…always the touts! UGH!). The Creative Solutions center was wall-to-wall art inside and out. Some of it produced by Aida, but much of it by visitors like us. How great is that!? It was just inspiration as far as the eye could see. We loved it!! The center has a couple of bunk rooms so visitors and volunteers can come and stay as long as they want, months even! Aida even provided “clean messy shirts” so we wouldn’t ruin our clothes and offered us showers at the end of the day. She was the high-energy art teacher we all wish we had. My only regret was that we didn’t get there earlier in the day so we would have had more Arts & Crafts Time. The photos are but a tiny sliver of all the wonderfulness that it holds.
All in all, Tanzania has been one of our favorite stops. We had planned to go on safari and head directly to Zanzibar for a few days before heading to South Africa, but we had such a wonderful time we stayed a total of six weeks! And we’d go back in a heartbeat. We are positive our trip was made wonderfully richer by our guides Sam, Frank and David. We will happily provide you their contact info if you are traveling their way. The lands were beautiful, but what made our trip so incredible were the incredibly generous, kind and helpful Tanzanian people. Ask any Tanzanian and they will almost certainly start telling you how everyone is very nice and that the country is “peaceful”. That seemed to be what people wanted us to most know and we couldn’t agree more. The world would be a lucky place if everyone behaved more like your average Tanzanian. We can’t wait to go back!