Wednesday, 24 June 2009


[I went to Zanzibar last weekend but haven't had the time to upload this until now. Enjoy!]

The American Heritage Dictionary defines atmospheric as 'something intended to evoke a particular emotion or quality.' When I blogged about my central Asian travels last summer, I used the A-word a bit too much. It was always writing about atmospheric mosques, atmospheric villages, atmospheric ruins. This summer, I decided to turn over a new blogging leaf and self-impose a moratorium on the word. So far, I've stuck to my vow.

But if I'm allowed to use the word for one place I visit in East Africa, I'd use it for Zanzibar. It's an incredible place -- mysterious and exotic, but also fun and welcoming. Three of us left work early last Friday and took the four o'clock "Fast Ferry" to the island. Tanzanians aren't so great on choppy water, so the ferry staff passed out small black plastic pouches labelled "SICK BAG" in English. People used them, although I managed to make it without throwing up. I was too busy trying to understand the Jet Lee movie with Indonesian subtitles, although I probably wouldn't have figured it out even in English.

Zanzibar is a unique place from a political and legal viewpoint. When the African countries were getting their independence in the 1960s, Zanzibar actually won its independence several years before Tanganyika (the mainland). When modern Tanzania was created a few years later (TAN-ganyika + ZAN-zibar = Tanzania), Zanzibar was given a lot of independence. Zanzibar is part of Tanzania, of course, but it's semi-autonomous (like the UK / Scotland, or China / Hong Kong). Zanzibar has separate elections, political autonomy, its own flag, and customs controls. Fellow lawyers will be interested to know that there are even Sharia tribunals that operate in tandem with the national common-law courts!

The ferry arrived early evening in Stone Town, the oldest settlement on the island, with old buildings from earlier Portuguese, Omani, English and post-independence regimes. I've always loved exotic, 'Eastern' cities with narrow streets, tiny stalls and old buildings. Zanzibar is probably the best city I've ever visited for just walking around in the urban labyrinth. Here are a few pictures of the heart of Stone Town:

There are some great dining options in Stone Town. Unfortunately, the place we had dinner on Friday was not one of them. I probably should have guessed, since we were the only living creatures in the restaurant except for the big grey parrot next to our table. Afterwards, we went for a drink at New Africa House, a gorgeous house built during the Omani sultanate, now converted into a fancy hotel. Caris, Chris and I sat out on the balcony overlooking the ocean and watched the crowds below. Right behind the hotel is a giant outdoor food market which had been temporarily moved from its usual location at Forodhani Gardens. The food market had about twenty stalls, each manned by chefs in white chef hats who make incredible food. The prices were really ridiculous: shark meat kebabs for $0.75 each, giant helpings of 'Zanzibari Pizza' (fried pastries) for a dollar, and grilled chicken and meat for even cheaper. A few vendors were selling prawns on skewers -- kinda like a Swahili version of camarões da tarde. When I was walking around and smelling all the aromas, I really wished I hadn't spoiled my appetite at the place with the parrot. I bought a Zanzibari dessert pizza and spiced tea, a Stone Town specialty -- it's basically black tea brewed for hours with a bunch of local spices thrown in. If I go back to Stone Town again, I'm definitely going to eat all meals at the food stalls.

The next morning, I met up with two more TechnoServe volunteers and an American woman, Teddy, who was traveling around Tanzania. Teddy had hired a guide for the morning and invited us to join her on her tour. Our guide, Fareed, was gay (semi-openly), and was renowned for giving no-holds-barred insight into the gossip, taboos and intimate practices of the local people. At first, we walked around and saw a lot of the things you'd expect to see: a Hindu temple, fruit merchants, ancient buildings, and some boutique hotels. I'd actually never gone to a Hindu temple before. Although I have seen these before:

But we also saw some stranger things, including 'Jaws Corner,' a random little spot in town named after the shark film (it was a bit hit on Zanzibar). Fareed spent a long time talking to us about doors, the most famous cultrual symbol of Stone Town. (So famous, in fact, that many tourists have bought them illegally and shipped them home). All of the doors are two-paneled. Women and men used to knock on different sides so that an inhabitant of the appropriate gender could come to greet them. The older houses have elaborately-carved doors that used to convey information about the people inside. Flowers above the door showed the number of non-slave residents, the welcome slogan indicated religion, fish on the vertical part of the frame signalled pre-Islamic beliefs, and scrollwork told the occupation of the owner. Also, the spikes on the door are designed to protect against elephants. I have to admit that I didn't totally get that part. Here are some door photos:

After door-time, Fareed took us to a local cultural center, where he told us about some of the Swahili subleties around clothing and jewelry. Wearing your prayer cap a certain way lets women know that you're on the prowl; doing it differently says that you're in a bad mood, in mourning, or that you want to barter. I also learned about what Fareed called 'sex beads' -- chains of plastic beads that women can leave on their beds as non-verbal cues: 'come hither,' 'I have a headache,' 'I'm pissed at you,' or 'I'm leaving you.' We also discussed some more intimate practices, but I'll leave that for another time. Overall, the sublety and intricacy of Stone Town culture really reminded me of the complex non-verbal social cues that I've read about in ancient Persia or Baghdad, which makes sense given Zanzibar's cultural influences. A photo of us at the end of the tour, on a hotel roof deck.

After the tour, we left Stone Town and headed North into the naturally beautiful parts of the island. North of the city, there aren't any more ancient buildings, and the fields are filled with typical Tanzania villages, spices, coconuts and fruit. Our driver took us on a detour to a spice farm along the way to our hotel. As much as I'd like to think that I visited a working spice farm, it was pretty touristy -- after all, the sign said HAKUNA MATATA SPICE FARMS and the 'farmers' spoke English. Still, they grew vanilla, cardamom, pineapples, cloves, ginger and turmeric, and I got to smell and taste pretty much all of it. The taste of the spices right out the ground is actually quite different from the processed stuff. And who knew that cloves grew on trees and turmeric grew below ground? Not me.

One of the young apprentices at HMSF was an expert coconut-tree climber. He tied a rope around his feet and wormed his way up a coconut tree, where he knocked off a couple of dafu (young coconuts) before coming down again. He also sang a song at the top of his lungs while he was going up and down. Pretty hilarious!

Our host asked me if I felt like climbing up a coconut tree. Why not? If some 12-year old can climb up a tree in 40 seconds while singing at full pitch, I should be able to at least climb a few feet, right? It was tougher than it looked, though. You have to tie the rope around your feet in an infinity shape and then jump up and bear hug the tree trunk. At the same time, you jam your ankles against the trunk, so that the ragged rope will catch on the bumps of the tree; this stops you from sliding down. Once you're on the tree, you can wriggle your way higher. Here's me climbing the tree:

Post-spice farm, we went to Kendwa Rocks, a budget beach resort famous for its massive full-moon beach parties. We weren't there on a full-moon weekend, but the party was pretty great anyways: people dancing in the sand, a live acrobatic show featuring an albino who could dance with a flaming wheel on his head, cheap houkahs*, and a multinational crowd united by their love of reggae (or tolerance of reggae, in my case). Before the party, I walked along the beach (gorgeous) and played some more beach volleyball (quite intense). Here are some shots of the beaches at Kendwa:

That was atmospheric ol' Zanzibar in a nutshell. I hope I get back before I finish up the summer.

*'Houkah' refers to pipes, not professionals
**Thanks to Chris and Chelsey for giving me pictures for this post.


  1. "I have hobbies. I participate in Vietnam war re-enactments and I take pictures of interesting doors."


    I am just glad you weren't eaten.

  2. "I know this really neat Canadian restaurant near Times Square."