African Beach Holiday In Zanzibar

Welcome to Zanzibar.Never a destination on my ‘must do’ list, but since I was in Africa to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, it was the closest beach resort we could find.
Just off the Tanzanian northern coast, it is a relatively small island in the Indian Ocean. It’s a short flight from Kilimanjaro to Zanzibar (less than an hour) on Precision Air. When we arrived at the airport we got off the plane onto the tarmac and were welcomed by warm, humid sea air – a wonderful change from the dry dusty air we were used to on Kilimanjaro and on safari. We entered the terminal and the baggage handlers pulled up in a cart and started unloading the luggage (from different flights) onto a counter. It was organized mayhem and seemed to work – at least on the arrivals level. We grabbed a taxi bus at the airport for the hour plus ride to our hotel.
Zanzibar is so unique and exotic. Since this was my first visit to an Islamic region I was overwelmed by the beautiful architecture that was Middle Eastern influenced. Zanzibar lies on the far east coast of Africa and has a long history of doing business with the Arab world. The women were all modestly dressed – some wearing the hijab, others in full berka.

School girls wore white cotton veils and dark navy blue uniforms. Along the way we had to stop at a police checkpoint. They checked the driver’s papers and looked us over and then sent us on our way. Not too unusual except that it happened not once but FOUR times in less than an hour! They apparently only stop taxis with passengers but I don’t know if it’s for our safety or theirs. On another trip into the city our driver said when he got to the local bureau to get his travel papers it was closed. So everytime we were stopped he had to bribe the cop with a 10,000 shilling note (about $9us).
The accommodations were not what we were expecting – we had seen photos of this beautiful thatched hut hotel on a beach next to a turquoise blue sea. But when we got there, the tide was out – way out! It looked like we would have to walk a mile to get to the surf. The hotel seemed like it wasn’t well care for and we all became nervous – a one star at best. The washroom had a shower in the centre of it and plastic bucket if you wanted to bathe – turns out it was a favourite spot for mosquitos – dangerous at night! Certainly not what we expected for $130 a night. But we decided to get over it, and as it turned out when the tide came in, it came right up to the hotel beach. The room was relatively clean; there was a solid bed (instead of sleeping on the rocks of Kilimanjaro or on a cot in a tent. There was (usually) some water pressure, and the area really was beautiful…especially the sugar white sand beach. It was a fairly quiet beach area, although there were a lot of ‘beach vendors’. Women were offering beach massages. ‘Masai’ were selling jewellery on the beach (not anything a traditional masai would consider). They also pitched you to take their boat snorkelling or rent out of their beach bicycles (that you see riding back and forth along the beach all day).Some will let you go when you say you are not interested, others are very persistent. They would often try to speak to you in Italian, because so many Italians visit the island they assume that if you ignore them when they speak English to you, that you must be Italian.On our first stroll up the beach, we discovered what great beach combing for shells it was – and that became a morning ritual.
And in the evening we would sit out on the hotel bar deck overlooking the beach and have a glass of wine. As the sun set, a cool breeze picked up. You may be in Africa and on the equator but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get cold, especially in the evening so bring some warmer clothes. After a great morning at the beach we hired a taxi van – Kiro, the brother of one of the hotel staff – to take us into town and to a spice plantation for a tour. The taxi trip would cost us $120 us for the entire day for all 6 of us – so about 20 bucks each.
It was a terrifying ride, people all over the road, it’s narrow – barely 2 lanes wide. Our van had to dodge people wandering all along the road, crossing the streets, riding bikes, push carts, ox carts and cows. Someone asked what side of the road they drive on in Zanzibar, and it turns out, it’s whatever side they can get past. I wonder how many people are killed on the roads every year.We passed through the ancient area of Stonetown, full of amazing ancient buildings, Islamic architecture, carved doors, some very intricately.

There are many spice plantations in Zanzibar the one we chose was a family spice plantation and our guide was none other than ‘Mister Spice’!  It was an amazing educational experience as we saw how exotic spices are grown and prepared. I was surprised at how interesting it really is… if you are a foody at heart or just have an interest on where things come from, a spice tour shouldn’t be missed. Mr. Spice opened a cocoa nut and let each of us eat one of the slimy beans inside; hard to believe it would become rich chocolate. We saw coffee beans, and pepper. He opened up one pod to show us the beautiful ruby red plastic spider of the mace flower as it wrapped itself around the nutmeg. He showed us soap berries that he crushed and added water to create a lathery soap. We were able to sample and smell the various spices and exotic fruits.
There was one seed that was brilliant orange coloured… used in tandoori, for bindi and the circle mark on the top of the forehead by Masai, it’s also used as lipstick and nail polish.
When it was all over we were presented with a counter of personally blended spices, perfume oils, soaps, coffees, teas, all that we were able to purchase. Our small group managed to spend $150 and the family was so pleased. That is a lot of money in Zanzibar, more than double or triple a month’s salary for the average worker.

We headed back to Stonetown for some sightseeing, some bartering and some photo taking. I was so excited to start taking pictures, and I started clicking away as we wandered the maze like narrow alleyways. We had to jump out of the way of bicycles, motorcycles, and even cars, all trying to squeeze by on a road, no wider than a sidewalk.
We saw stray cats, digging through the garbage on the sides of the road, for any scraps of food they could find. I also understand the streets become open sewage channels when there is heavy rain. As we wandered past one place, there sitting by the open windows of a restaurant were Jody and Paul, having a coffee and cake. We went inside for a snack and I had the most amazing ginger, cashew cake. I also bought a cake and soda for our taxi driver who was keeping us from getting lost, or into trouble. As I prepared to take a picture of the group of us, my camera battery died. It was so disappointing; it was one of the parts of the trip I was really looking forward to. There were so many wonderful photo ops, but I had to leave it up to others to capture them.And here’s why it pays to do your homework BEFORE you travel someplace… I was disappointed when we missed going to the Mercury Bar… a tribute to Zanzibar’s most famous and controversial son – Freddie Mercury from Queen. The island has a strange relationship with him… on one hand they are proud of his international success but he is also looked down on for being gay. Homosexuality is still illegal in Zanzibar and Tanzania. Zanzibar has banned gay tourists and has a penalty of 25 years for those in gay relationships – 7 years for lesbians. Like most Islamic areas, not the best places to be ‘out’.

On our last full day we had a relaxing day… beachcombing and then tanning on the beach. We even got massages as we lay under the thatched umbrellas on the beach… the masseuses hang around the beach looking to earn their $4 for a half hour massage.We wandered up the beach later in the afternoon, our cameras catching some of the interesting beach scenes we’d come across.

We stopped by a teahouse run by a German couple,  who served us spiced teas and pineapple cake. And because Jody and Linda brought some clothes to give to the orphans they wouldn’t let us pay for our snack.

One warning for those who like to stay plugged in when they’re vacationing, communication in Zanzibar really sucks… even worse than the other parts of Tanzania we had been in.
And it seems Zanzibar has one more surprise for departing tourists… it seems they don’t want to let you go. At least that’s
the impression I got after trying to get to our flight. At the ‘check-in counter’ everyone was standing out in the blazing hot sun, trying to jostle their way to the front of the haphazard line-ups to check in. There were about 5 people in front of us when we arrived and it still ended up taking us about 75 minutes to get through. It was filled with pushing, shoving, yelling. The agent takes your luggage and puts it on the other side of the counter, then takes your ticket and passport and goes into this small office to get your boarding pass and luggage tags. But everyone else shares the same office so it takes forever. We finally got our ticket then had to go in through another entrance, and make our way to another counter where we had to pay $40 for an exit visa. Then we had to carry our luggage over to the screening area. The security guard said, ‘Seashells are forbidden, you can not take them’ so I said ‘no problem, just give me my suitcase and I will take them out’. So he says ‘Oh no my friend, I will let it go’ which is followed by the punch line ‘ won’t you give me a tip for doing you this favour?’ Unfortunately neither Deb nor I had any US or Tanzanian cash left after paying for our visa. After the look he gave us, we were certain he would take off our luggage tags and send our bags to Timbuktu. (Turns out our bags did get lost… but when we transferred in London, they missed the flight, and arrived the next day- it wasn’t his fault).

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