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Zanzibar

TANZANIA | Saturday, 16 December 2006 | Views [3543]

A street in Stone Town.

A street in Stone Town.

Zanzibar, even the name has an exotic ring to it and conjures up images of Sultans, Spices and Slaves. One of the great island ports of the mystic east, ships traded the goods of Africa, the Middle East, and India and out across the Indian Ocean to the Far East and the Spice Islands. Even now as the Dhows with their lanteen sails ply the waters between island and mainland you get that sense of the past, when these same boats traded to Arabia and the sub continent which one senses are only just over the horizon.

Zanzibar glory days are now behind it and as much of its wealth was based on slavery this is perhaps no bad thing. Its existence as in independent Sultanate has also ended and it’s now part of Tanzania although travelers still have to show their passports on entry and are stamped in as if it were entering a separate state.

Much of Zanzibar’s attraction lies in its position and its distinctive culture. The landscape and people of Tanzania are what most would think of as Africa, the animals, the savanna landscapes and the colourful tribes; but by then making the short trip to Zanzibar you are suddenly dropped into another world, one that is Arab and Muslim. It is the juxtaposition with the African that makes it such an interesting contrast.

Arriving in Stone Town is to enter an ancient Arab city a warren of small streets and squares. Although such places are found all over North Africa, the smallness and randomness of it all marks is out as special when compared to the sprawl of mainland towns across the straits. Wandering around is a delight, the narrow streets have a vague order but by taking a wrong turn you can end up on the other side of town from where you started but it doesn’t matter, as the town is too small for you to get really lost. Along the sea front are grand houses, some now luxury hotels with wonderfully green and refreshing gardens lining the road behind them. The streets are full of those small shops so distinctive of the Arab world, selling non perishable essentials like washing powder and tea, although some areas are now given over to shops selling to tourists. Each street seems to have a small mosque in it, which are often not obvious as I discovered one morning when I was blasted out of bed at a quarter to five in the morning by the Muezzins call to prayer from the mosque which was just across the street. This is town where life is lived on the streets, people sit out on their doorsteps at all hours of the day, talking and drinking tea. The men are traditionally dressed with the dish dash and round hats, while the women are completely covered. At some times of day the streets are filled with children as they pour out of the madrasahs, which are often located being ornate wooden doors, all dressed like miniature versions of their parents.

From Stone Town I took a bus up to the north of the island to the village of Nungwi. The bus traveled through a lush green land of small villages and for some reason, lots of police checkpoints. Nungwi is a large traditional village which also happens to have a beach resort attached. The coast all around the northern tip is now being developed at an enormous rate and some of luxury hotels there are very big indeed. Land at the coast is now at a premium and one plot was recently sold for a million dollars. The business of Nungwi is the repair and building of dhows, which are beached to enable the work to be done, while the women and girls walk across the exposed beach at low tide collecting shellfish. The village is very traditional and the local people have very little to do with the thin tourist strip where most of the workers are from the mainland. What the locals think of Westerners lying around practically naked and guzzling beer I wasn’t able to discover.

The beach however is wonderful; the sand is white and the sea turquoise and the sky usually blue. This is in contrast to say Dar es Salaam just across the straits where the weather was usually horrible, hot, wet and humid. Zanzibar seems to be blessed to have its own more pleasant climate. The quality of accommodation is also very good, as good as places I’ve been in say Thailand and other backpacker resorts.

One drawback of Zanzibar however are the number of touts. A word you will learn very fast is ‘Jambo’, which means basically Hello in Swahili, but its multi purpose, so the are ‘Jambo Inns’, ‘Jambo Bros’, Jambo this, Jambo that, Jambo, Jambo, Jambo; pretty much all day as you are approached by men saying Jambo, and you can hardly not reply, who then want to sell you something or get you into their taxi. After the hundredth Jambo of the day you are almost ready to wring someone’s neck.

Zanzibar is a great destination, distinctive and exotic but with great facilities for the traveler. If you are going to Tanzania it is a must see, as interesting and unique as any of the great game parks. Three fast boats a day link Dar es Salaam with Stone Town and take two hours, with a cost for foreigners of $35. There are slow boats which are cheaper ($20) but some of these are very slow indeed so do check the travel times and try and buy the fast boat tickets the day before as they often sell out at peak times. Don’t forget your passport.

Tags: Observations

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