Friday, January 11, 2008

Arriving on Zanzibar (Unguja) Island


Tanzania has three jewels of Africa’s crown – Kilimanjaru, the highest mountain on the continent, the Serengeti, a vast wilderness and national park, whose wildebeest migration is the biggest animal spectacle on earth, and Zanzibar, the Spice Islands, where Asian influences rule supreme and the diving is great. The capital is Dodoma, a city of which I must confess I had never heard. It sits in the middle of the country. Also it was near modern-day town of Kigoma that after a journey of more than a year looking for Dr David Livingstone, who had become lost in the Tanzanian interior looking for the source of the Nile, Henry Stanley uttered the immortal “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”.

When the Victorian British moved to suppress the global slave trade, their battleships blockaded the coast here to prevent boats escaping to the Middle East with African slaves. Later the Germans colonised what was then known as Tanganyika, before the British took it over, granting independence in 1959. Later Zanzibar joined after some messy politics, and modern-day Tanzania was formed.

After Nairobi, we fly back the same way, arriving in Dar es Salaam an hour or so later (we’d actually flown over Dar on the way up). Off the plane, the passport control area looks absolutely chaotic. I grab an arrival card and pick a queue to fill it out in. In fact the queue moves fast, and soon I hand over my passport and card. I’d asked for 30 days on the card, but within seconds I’m given a 3 month stamp and through. Next bags, again mayhem, yet twenty seconds later my bag appears on a belt! Remarkable!

I was about to leave when I notice a pair of women standing in the arrival area holding a card saying Coastal Aviation’s flight to Zanzibar with a passenger list. I ask them when, if they have space and how much. 5:45pm, 70US$ including all taxes, and yes there’s space. Brilliant! I had resigned myself to staying a night in Dar es Salaam as the last boat out to Zanzibar goes at 4pm, not a problem in itself, but I’ll be coming through on the way back anyway, so would rather skip it for now.

So before buying the ticket I went out, used an ATM, grabbed 300,000 Tanzanian Shillings (exchange rate is a marvellous 2372 to the pound), and picked up a celtel SIM card. Back inside, I asked for the ticket, so she lead me through to their office and books the seat for me. Now, I’d learnt from our negotiations with dhows in Pemba in Mozambique that it can be muddled at times talking in English with Swahili speakers. Here this was reiterated when this woman, who had repeatedly told me there was a flight at 5:45pm, gave me a ticket (this was about 4pm) for the 7pm flight. When I queried why, she told me that I’d missed the 4:30pm flight. But you said 5:45pm?! No, 4:30pm. Welcome to Tanzania! She then proceeded to suggest that she should keep the change from the money I’d given her for the ticket. I think not. That money is coming with me.

Where? Up to the Flamingo Cafeteria for a Kilimanjaru Beer!!

Back down to the airport, and security won’t let in to what is technically the arrivals area to collect my bag, but I find the woman who was serving me earlier and she comes round, admonishing the poor chap until he lets me in. She directs me to the transfer desk – now I understand what is going on – I’m actually in “transit” but have been let out for a beer. Anyway, after waiting a few minutes at the transit desk, I get my boarding pass and they put the baggage tag on my backpack. And then just leave it on the ground in front of the desk. Hmmm. Anyway, a chap leads me round a secret corridor which drops me straight into domestic departures, where I go through the usual security checks, and again up stairs, where I wait in the lounge, this time trying a Serengeti beer, and finding an English language local newspaper. Finally, some news in English!

We board about fifteen minutes before the flight is due to depart – on to a faded looking Boeing which is part of the “newly re-launched” Air Tanzania. The flight is actually going to Kilimanjaru, via Zanzibar – I presume there’s a lot of this combination flight business going on, as the Zanzibar flight is a 25 minute “hop”.

Out, and I’m braced for an argument with the taxis. I’d helped Christy to negotiate her cab at Dar and we’d only got it down to 17k, substantially more than the book (LP) implied was the going rate. Here though I managed to hit the lower end of LP’s estimates, so I strongly suspect Dar was a complete rip-off. The chap who drives me the 7km into town is friendly enough, though I notice one interesting consideration in speaking with locals – their English pronunciation is very good, which fools you into assuming their English is good, which it often is not. A few times this chap would apologise and say he didn’t understand me, or give me an answer with no bearing to my question, which surprised me given his elocution.

Flamingo Guest House, as recommended by Kara, is a bargain-basement but perfectly acceptable place in Mkunazini area of Stonetown, the capital of Zanzibar. I have a single room with double bed, en-suite bathroom with shower (thank goodness) for 12 US$ per night. It’s never going to appear in Conde Nast, but it’ll do. I head out on to the streets to find food and internet.

Stonetown and Getting Horribly Lost
As soon as I come out, I am plunged into a warren of alleyways and darkly lit streets.

It’s busy – it’s evening prayer time for Muslims on this predominantly Islamic island. Men with flowing robes and skull-caps and groups of women with veils hurry to mosques. One hears “Jambo” the standard Swahili greeting, called out, but not in such an innocent friendly way like one would expect in Mozambique – here if people are nothing to do with tourists, they often just stare back at you briefly without smiling if you greet them.

I zig-zag across town without a clue as to where I am or where I’m going. Generally I’m following people, trying to reach a busier or well-lit avenue of some kind, but it doesn’t really come, I can hardly see where I’m going. I pop into an internet place near Flamingo only to be told that the charge is 500 shillings per half hour, or double that if I want to use my laptop. What on earth is the logic behind that, I ask? He doesn’t know, but his boss has told him. No haggling possible here, so I walk away.

I feel like I’ve stumbled into a Moroccan Fez Medina-like experience. The history here dates from the 8th century, when Shirazi traders from Persia came to trade spices, glassware and textiles for slaves, gold, ivory and wood. In the 16th century the Portuguese took control, then later Omani Arabs kicked out the Portuguese and apparently the Sultanate of Oman relocated itself here in 1840, such was the prosperity of the region. The town thus is a mixture of Arabic-style houses with Indian and European influences. I presume the narrow streets are to avoid the effects of the strong sun which presumably I’ll suffer tomorrow. As for the complete lack of street lights, sign-posts or any indication of the names of any of the streets, well that’s just all part of the fun I suppose!

Emerging next to a large and very old-looking fort, I hear “snake-charmer” style music (in fact the Zumari flute) echoing about, accompanied by staccato drumming (Msondo drum). Finally the street opens out – I’ve apparently found Forodhani (Jamituri) Gardens, next to the sea, where in the evening dozens of food stalls are set up, selling grilled octopus, which I don’t feel up to, and Zanzibar pizza, a kind of rolled dough omelette with a mixed filling of ground beef, onions, chopped chilli, egg and other things, which I try. I sit on a bench eating it with a cocktail stick gazing out to the sea.

Next I head along to find Kenyatta Street, which seems according to my LP map to be the centre of town. I find a couple of dive shops, and plenty of nice looking restaurants. The internet place which is still open, Shangani, is 1,000s per half hour, which initially I balk at, but change my mind and use, making sure that I use 30 minutes and not a moment more (I notice that the guy rounds up my starting time, so I keep my own record).

That done, I try to go home. And fail. I can’t say exactly what happened, but I ended up walking for an hour, getting more worried as to where I was. It didn’t seem to make sense, as I kept bearing left, assuming that I would eventually end up back where I started, or at least cross somewhere I’d been before and would recognise. But the territory became more and more unfamiliar – I was in the suburbs, with long rows of ugly tower blocks – I could have been in South London! (I subsequently learnt that these were built in the 70s with the help of the East Germany’s development aid). No road signs to help me, and no light to examine my (anyway useless) LP map. Eventually by chance I emerged in Malindi, right at the far side of Stonetown, next to the port. At least somewhere I had bearings on.

So back to the food gardens, another pancake, and then another attempt! It was almost 11pm now, and I was tired. I tried to reverse my initial route from the hotel, but soon ended up going the same way I’d gone previously, the nightmare was repeating!! Nothing for it but to ask – I had the general area where I was staying, so started asking people. They sent me the way I went before. Turns out, I had been within about 20m of Flamingo without realising it! Drat drat and double drat! Still, relief at getting home turned into delight after a nice long refreshing shower.

Does Zanzibar feel safe? Generally yes. LP says there have been robberies and muggings in Stonetown, especially at night or in the early morning. I felt most unsafe around the food garden area, where I experienced the Arabic thing of seeing a black face with a pair of evil eyes through the crowd, apparently staring at me, and making me feel very uncomfortable. I hung around the food stalls until he seemed to have gone. Also being Islamic, there is little beer about, at least overtly, but plenty of locals seem to be high on some kind of drugs. There’s also lots of tout action, people pretending to be friendly and welcoming, then of course dropping the smiles when you refuse to take them up on some offer.

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