Saturday, December 7, 2013

Zanzibar - Days 1-2

In 2005, while going to grad school in South Africa, my good friend B and I planned an epic trip to East Africa.  We'd start in Dar es Salaam, go to Zanzibar for a week to dive, then on to Kenya's Masai Mara before heading to Uganda to find the source of the Nile.  We got as far as getting PADI-certified before life took us both in different directions.  I think about B a lot now that I'm in Uganda and hope she and her husband will make it out here to visit.  So she and that dream trip were on my mind a lot last week as I made the trek to Zanzibar, albeit in a slightly more luxurious manner than we likely would have done it, in our starving international grad student phase.

As it was, grand plans were again made with many friends, though only D and I managed the Zanzibar bit of it before reuniting with T in Selous.

This will be a multi-post travelogue as usual; this is the first two days.

D and I started our relatively long travel day on a beautiful Ugandan day.  We flew Precision Air, a smaller Tanzanian airline, from Entebbe to Kilimanjaro to Dar to Zanzibar.  The planes were small but not tiny, but it was far too many flights for my liking.  After flying by the peaks of Kili and experiencing entirely too much turbulence due to the hot winds, we deplaned while the plane refueled at JRO before continuing to Dar.  There we got our first taste of the heat and humidity that would follow us all week.  Despite my two years in KSA, a year in Uganda's perfect climate has destroyed all of my heat tolerance.  Completely.  We sailed through immigration in Dar and went through security again, twice, and retrieved my checked bag (which was supposed to be checked through to Zan but which I luckily spotted on the baggage carousel).  There was a bit of confusion over which terminal we'd depart from for our next flight, but several security/airline/cafe personnel made sure we were in the right place.  They were the first of many wonderful people we encountered this vacation.

Our final, fifteen minute flight to Zanzibar was at sunset, which made for a magical arrival, and as our driver regaled us with tales of Zanzibar's history we gasped at our first glimpses of Stone Town's famed narrow streets and gorgeous buildings.  We stayed at the storied Serena Stone Town Inn, which was as elegant and gorgeous as we could have possibly hoped.  The ebullient bellman and super efficient desk clerk got us checked in with lots of laughter, and we went to our rooms marveling at the artwork, architecture, and design detail that the hotel showcased. 

After freshening up we headed to dinner, giddily realizing that our table at the hotel's restaurant was right. next. to. the. ocean.  With the sound of waves lapping at the seawall, the bouncing lights on boats in the water, the heat and humidity, and the smell of frangipani overloading our senses, we giddily tucked into our three course dinner, which was presented in perfect Serena fashion.  A group of musicians serenaded each table with a mix of African and Western instrumental songs including, of all things, When the Saints Go Marching In and Celebrate.  Odd but endearing.

I sadly did not sleep well, as the A/C in my room was broken, which I didn't realize until the next morning, but I woke up to fabulous views of the Indian Ocean and a host of colorful dhows, which made me forget all of that immediately. 

We breakfasted at the sumptuous buffet while planning our day.  The Serena is extremely centrally-located, so we were perfectly positioned.  We'd heard about the touts and were ready with our best smiling "no, thank yous" as we set out, but we hadn't gone 200 meters before we were tired of the constant hassling.  We pushed onward along the seafront, ducking into the Old Fort for a few minutes, trying to get into the national museum (only to find it closed), before finding ourselves just too fed up with the hassle.  We hurried back to the hotel with the intention of hiring a guide, if only to keep the touts away.

The downside, of course, of staying at a hotel like the Serena is the price of things.  We were quoted $50 for a two hour walking tour, which was just fairly ludicrous.  So we stocked up on water, consulted our maps again, and headed out.  This time more stores were open, and we ducked into a few tanzanite shops along the way, making mental notes for later.  We browsed in a touristy souvenir shop while a quick rain storm passed through the headed towards some of our destinations.

By now we were firmly within Stone Town's winding, narrow streets, our senses of direction completely eliminated but our sense of adventure going strong.  We stopped several times to sit and just take in the scenes, blissfully free from hassling touts.  The Quranic schools must have been getting out around this time, as the streets filled with young children in traditional Islamic dress walking in different directions.  One young boy determinedly kicked a piece of pipe for several hundred meters, stubbornly ignoring all obstacles in his path, including our feet.  A few young girls fawned over one of Stone Town's thousands of stray cats.  Some kids waved and said hello, others were too wrapped up in their commute. 

We marveled at the woodwork the island is famous for, stopping to take photos of some of the more striking examples, as we got hopelessly lost countless times.  In the absence of any street signs or helpful landmarks, we finally found the Catholic church we were seeking out, only to find it was in full swing for Sunday service.  We silently crept out and almost stumbled upon our next destination - the Anglican cathedral built upon the former slave market.

We visited the eerie underground rooms where slaves were held for days before being brought to market before paying our respects at the memorial nearby. 

After that we wandered through the city's main market area, redefining sensory overload, and wandered through the labyrinth again before emerging at our final destination - the Palace Museum.  Built for the Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar, the gorgeous building has a lot of historical artifacts, several furnished rooms, and beautiful views of the seafront. 

Having had our fill of history we hurried through the throngs of touts one more time to a small cafe for a late lunch where we watched the tourists and locals pass by.  On the way back a stop at the best tanzanite dealer we'd found resulted in a little bit of splurging.  But, really, it's kind of required to buy tanzanite in Tanzania, right?

We whiled away the afternoon at the Serena, watching dolphins and locals frolic in the water.  The only low point was trying to arrange tours and transfers for the next day and, once again, getting ridiculous quotes.  I finally looked up some private companies and found one that would do everything we wanted the next day for more than 50% less than the best quote we'd gotten from the front desk. 

Dinner was lovely again, this time accompanied by a traditional taarab band.  I slept much better now that the A/C was working, and I consider the Stone Town experience an overall success. 

Stone Town reminded me of a blend of Oman (for obvious historical reasons), Jerusalem (for the winding streets and mix of religious sites), Balad in Jeddah (for the architecture and intricate woodwork), and Key West (for the sense of independence from the mainland and the ubiquitous chickens and cats).  It was lovely.

To be continued...

What a view to wake up to!

Dhow in the morning haze

The view from breakfast

Walls of the Old Fort

One of many friendly cats who greeted us

Interior of the Old Fort

National Museum, which was sadly closed

Dhow laden with cargo and crew

A perfect perch for people-watching

So many doorways were like this!

Gorgeous, intricate woodwork

Young girl headed home along Stone Town's enchanting streets

Sobering memorial at the former slave market

The Anglican Cathedral