If you're like me, for the longest time my knowledge of Zanzibar extended about as far as Tenacious D lyrics. It was only when our friends spent a week in Zanzibar did I research the Eastern African archipelago more in depth. It turns out Zanzibar is absolutely stunning: turquoise waters off white sand beaches and populated by people who know how to make one hell of a flavorful and aromatic meal (It is nicknamed "The Spice Island" after all). After learning more and more about main Zanzibar island, El and I became convinced that it needed to be one of our stops on our African adventure.
Part One: Courtney's a touristy jerk face
After our Kenyan safari wrapped up (Parts 1, 2, and 3 at the links), we took a quick Precision Airline flight from Nairobi to Zanzibar Airport. For being a smaller airline, the service was fantastic, and we even randomly got a (in all reality, kinda gross tasting) beef and cucumber sandwich while on the plane. After an hour flight, we landed at this tiny airport hangar that masqueraded as the Zanzibar Airport's "Arrivals Gate". The small area was a disorganized mess of people trying to figure out where to go and airport officials directing people to get in specific lines. I had read in my research (or at least thought I read) that US citizens didn't need a visa to enter Tanzania, so we got in line at border patrol right away. When one of the immigration officials pointed us to the visa line, I confidently told them that we didn't need a visa. He laughed and then pointed to an 8x10 piece of copy paper taped to a pillar that listed the visa prices for all foreign visitors. Every country outside of East African nations had to pay a $50 visa fee (even refugees, which is kinda sorta f**ked up), and for US citizens, it was double. I still stubbornly insisted that we didn't have to have a visa and probably sounded like the brattiest, privileged American your mind could conjure. In hindsight, I'm embarrassed. He and I went back and forth for a few minutes while Elliot tried to cool me down because, you know, it's probably not a good idea to get into a heated argument with border control. Trying to prove a point, I turned on Data Roaming on my phone, triumphantly pulled up the official State Department website, and.....saw that US citizens need visas for Tanzania. Swallowing my pride, I told the guy that he was right and I was wrong, apologized, and we coughed up the $200 for a full-page visa. You win this round, border dude.
Outside the hangar, the air was warm and balmy, and palm trees swayed in the light breeze. It was around 10pm, and we paid upfront for a taxi from an official-looking stand. As we drove through the streets to our hotel in Stone Town, we were struck by how EVERYONE was out and walking around. Zanzibar has a majority Muslim population, so women in richly patterned hijabs and lots of teenagers on scooters were out enjoying the night, stopping at colorful food stands that lined the streets. We later learned when cannons went off at midnight that it was Zanzibar's Independence Day, and everyone was out celebrating.
We arrived at the Tembo Hotel, a beach hotel decorated with very Moroccan/Arab influenced tiles and Islamic wood carvings. There was an open courtyard in the center and lots of different types of art and flags on the walls. We checked into our room, which had a sick balcony and view of the beach. Unfortunately, they didn't heed my request for one bed, so we got to do our best Dick van Dyke show routine and sleep in twin beds for a few days.
We walked to the nearby Jahazi Bar, and sat under a massive leafed tree and listened to the ocean while we had a Kilimanjaro beer. We were getting pretty hungry, so we walked past the Old Fort to the nearby Forodhani Gardens. Much like Marrakech, the entire square was chocablock full of food stalls: all types of schwarmas, meat & seafood kebabs, "Zanzibar pizza" (think like a crepe) and french fries. Also like Marrakech, there were plenty of people trying to persuade you to go to their specific stand. We eventually followed one guy, and I got a beef kebab and veggie samosa, and El got chicken masala. We split an order of fries while we sat on a stone edge of a fountain. Everything was served with hot sauce, which made the difficult-to-chew beef a little more palatable. The samosa and fries were pretty good though, and we also walked away with four liter bottles of water. Everything cost $15, which was probably an upcharge for Stone Town but seemed super cheap to us folk who live in London.
Part Two: Jambo and spice and everything nice
The next morning, we had breakfast on the beach then walked around Stone Town and got lost more than a few times in its maze-like alleys. There were open-air shops peddling scarves, paintings and jewelry, and I was struck by how much Zanzibar reminded me of North Africa, and Elliot of the Middle East. Much like the night before, people would talk to you to go into their shops, and CD peddlers would come up to us and sing, presumably one of the tracks, "Jambo! Jambo jambo! Jambo wanna!". Even though we didn't buy a CD, that jam became our theme song the rest of the trip. We then jambo'ed into the old stone fort, built by the sultans of Oman to repel the Portuguese, and checked out the art market that was ongoing. We got closer to the water and sat down for a beer at Mercury's Bar, named after Zanzibar's most famous former resident, Freddie Mercury. We watched people on the beach repairing their boats and saw several schooners returning from Prison Island. Even though it was hot and humid, the breeze from the water and the cold beer made it all a very pleasant afternoon.
After an afternoon of shopping, we went to a few rooftop bars (including this pretty awesome one called Tatu) and sat in the shade while sipping Kilimanjaro beer and eating some pretty tasty chicken skewers.
After lunch, we relaxed on the beach and at the pool, and coughed up $20 for a tiny ass bottle of sunscreen. Gotta love those tourist mark-ups! We got ready for the night and made our way to the Tea House at Emerson on Hurumzi for our booked rooftop dining experience. All these different websites said that this dinner was one of the best things to do in Stone Town, so I was able to get a reservation for our second night there. We climbed up a bunch of steps and were rewarded with a stunning view of the water and town. We sat "Swahili style" on cushions with small tables in front of us and relaxed with a cocktail before dinner. The rooftop area only had space for about 20 people, so it was tight but cozy. Once the sun started to go down, the dinner officially began at 7:00. Waiters brought out rose water for us to wash our hands and explained the story of the soro dinner, in which we were about to partake. The call to prayer was going on, so we didn't hear everything our waiter said, but we did catch that a soro dinner is for a bride-to-be to show off her good cooking to her groom's family, and then old ladies teach them how to have sex. I'm sure the story is much richer than that, but that's all I got.
The first course was soon brought out, a platter of baba ganoush with pita bread, and chili squid with lime sauce. We enjoyed the food while we watched a beautiful sunset quickly followed by a full moon. When the main course started, a local music school dedicated to preserving traditional music started to play. Three young guys played a hand drum, violin, and a form of guitar while a woman occasionally came into the dining area and sang and danced for us. She had a beautiful voice, and the whole musical experience was both hypnotic and matched the restaurant vibe. The waiter tried to get us up and dancing, but after my pogo-stick moves at the Masai village, I had enough dancing for the trip.
Dinner was very tasty; El had a fish called Bardalino, and I had pumpkin and saffron tagine, a cucumber and tomato salad, and a pilau Persian rice that was actually TOO spiced for my liking. Not too spicy, just too many flavors to take in. The last call to prayer for the evening was announced simultaneously with the ringing of bells in a nearby Hindu temple, and with the music playing at dinner, it was a cacophony of cultures swirling around us. We had a pudding made of dates, milk, and cinnamon for dessert and a ginger tea that was so strong I was only able to manage two sips. The whole dining experience was definitely one for the senses and a beautiful end to our first full day in Zanzibar.
Part Three: Foghorn or tortoises mating?
The next morning, we had breakfast again by the water before bargaining with a boat captain to take us to the nearby Changuu, also known as Prison Island. He called over to his, I guess skipper?, and we waded into the crystal clear water and climbed into his single engine wooden boat. We had the breeze on our faces and enjoyed the turquoise and dark blue colors of the water as we took the 20 minute journey to the nearby island. Changuu Island has the nickname of Prison Island because it used to house a, you guessed it, prison before eventually becoming a giant Aldabra tortoise sanctuary.
Our skipper dropped anchor and led us up some stone steps to an open-air stone building to get our sanctuary tickets. He told us that, back in 1919, four tortoises were brought over from the Seychelles and made their home on Changuu. The populations quickly grew before poachers and turtle thieves led to a sharp decline in the numbers; in fact, in 1996 there were only 7 left. Due to the efforts of conservationists, the tortoise population now numbers over 100 and, given the number of baby turtles we saw, definitely on the rise. We fortunately arrived right in time for their only feeding of the day, so our boat captain got some leafy branches for us to feed them. We walked around the lush wooded area where there were tortoises spread out everywhere and found a lone female (females have smooth backs, while the males will have humps) to feed. I noticed their tongues were huge, and their powerful jaws made quick work of the green leaves I offered. Feeding these giant creatures, and being face to face with them, was incredible and definitely something I'll always remember.
We heard this loud noise coming from another part of the woods and discovered two giant tortoises mating. I really can't explain the sound they made; it was like a goose honking while simultaneously letting out a big fart. The circle of life: what a beautiful thing. Close to the lovebirds was the oldest resident of the sanctuary, a 192 years young tortoise. The ages are spray-painted onto the shells, and there's apparently some way to conclusively tell a tortoise's age. If that's true about that hero in a half shell, that would mean he was born before the Civil War. Our captain walked us around the rest of the sanctuary, pointing out the incubator where baby tortoises randomly feed on watermelon and stay until they're five years old. Once they're five, they're then moved to a pen where they stay an extra five years. By age ten, they're big enough to join the rest of the big boys in the open area.
We did a walk through the prison (not much to see there) and swam in the warm Indian Ocean water before taking our boat back to the shore. After a quick change, we walked to the nearby rooftop restaurant, House of Spices, for lunch. A lazy fan was circulating, and we had a good view of people milling around the alleys below us. After lunch, we walked to nearby Jaw's Corner and Darajani Market, the main bazaar in town. It was more local than the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul but still full of people selling veggies, spices, fish, and meat. Everyone was bustling about, getting on with their day, and casually swatted away the flies from their wares. We walked through the alleys around the market, and passed by a few groups of laughing little kids who had just gotten out of school.
After a crucial swim back at the hotel, we had mojitos at the local 6 Degrees Rooftop bar/restaurant and watched the most incredible sunset and groups of kids playing and diving into the ocean, making the most of the hot summer day.
6 Degrees not only had an incredible view, but they had a pretty extensive wine list and a small greenhouse garden where they grew their own herbs. Club music started playing, and had this Mediterranean crostini topped with artichokes, olives, and tomatoes, spicy chicken wings, all washed down with a buttery Chardonnay. El had chicken pilau with tamarind sauce, and I had this lime and numeric soup called urojo, served with a beef skewer and potato spiced balls called kachori. The food and service were both fantastic, and the atmosphere sitting by the ocean and feeling the sea breeze was out of this world. It was the perfect soothing end to our spicy trip to Zanzibar...
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