Traveling Zanzibar: Not Your Ordinary Island

Traveling Zanzibar: Not Your Ordinary Island

Zanzibar. The image I had in my mind of this island off the Tanzania coast was a cliché combination of white sand, turquoise water and bungalows built for tourists. I almost considered skipping it- why pay more for a slightly better beach when I was quite happy listening to the Indian Ocean under the palm trees and watching locals play football at beach near Dar Es Salaam.   “YOLO, YOLO” (You only live once”, tour guide Nikka advised me. Ok, not using the teenage abbreviation but essentially conveying the same message.

“Ok, ok, I’ll do it”, I replied then strategically added, “you haven’t let me down yet” so I could watch his reaction to see if I really was making a good decision or he was just trying to get rid of me and the rest of the tour group for a few days. He seemed genuine.

The ferry ride seemed to qualm some of my fears. Despite taking the fast ferry, tourists were a small fraction: isolated dots in a sea of swirling fabric with bold African prints, punctuated by bedazzled headdresses for the women and embroidered neutral colored hats perkily perched atop the men. Arrival in Zanzibar had a healthy dose of African chaos. Porters in reflective vests climbed over each other to offer their services helping with luggage. Staff from the boat yelled a warning, “Negotiate your prices before hand! Only trust official porters!”, but with a kind of half-smile that suggested they knew they were throwing us to the wolves.

Zanzibar is part of the “United Republic of Tanzania” but we still had to fill out immigration forms (because more paperwork is ALWAYS better) then waited behind women who were unloading boxes from their heads, bags from under each arm and babies off their backs as their husbands stood uselessly, unburdened by their sides from the obligatory “baggage check”. Of course, most people got an automatic chalk check before they even began to unzip, except for the unfortunate souls that they arbitrarily decided to torture with an extended inspection.

We did our best to make a beeline through the swarm of taxi drivers waving their keys in our faces then hopped in the van for a 50 kilometer drive from our entry point in Zanzibar Town to the Nungwi Beach, the location of the majority of resorts on the island.

I was pleasantly surprised that the drive still felt like Africa: barbershops, cows hauling carts holding up traffic, people taking naps and elaborately carved door frames propped up against palm trees collecting dust as they wait for a buyer. We bump along, squeeze through one-way bridges and get stopped at a gate by a policeman that holds us up for an hour, trying to charge us for a driving a vehicle with a registration sticker that expires today. . The driver refuses to satisfy his ridiculous request and we proceed, eventually veering off on a side street through ramshackled huts selling half-inflated beach toys and backyards of people trying to catch their kids for bath time.

We pull up to a gate, which opens to the touristy bungalows, sapphire swimming pools and attentive staff that I expected to see. I dumped my bags in my hotel room, looking past the king sized bed, flower petals and towels folded like swans to let out a squeal of glee to see a pillow (the past two weeks, I’ve been camping and using a makeshift cushion out of clothes stuffed into my sleeping bag cover). I kick off my shoes, ignoring the receptionist’s sea urchin warning and head barefoot to the beach.

Beautiful beaches of Zanzibar with Masaai looking for business

Beautiful beaches of Zanzibar with Masaai looking for business

I traverse the beach in a squiggly path, trying to avoid the teenagers waving pamphlets selling snorkeling trips or (if you get closer to overhear) marijuana “Spice up your holiday with some Malawi-wowee! Welcome to Paradise Fun!”. I’m slightly mystified to see the elegant, statuesque Maasi men on the beach, with sea breezes rustling their red and black checked robes. They looked extremely out of place, hidden behind aviator sunglasses, when it seemed like they belonged drinking cow blood in the bush. I dismissed their presence as a photo-op for tourists, but it made even more sense when I later learned their involvement in sex tourism.

On my walk back, more out of boredom that anything else, I allowed myself to be intercepted by one of the infamous “beach boys”. He found out pretty fast that I wasn’t going to pay $30 to be stuck on a boat with tourists for a sunset booze cruise. We started chatting in the shade of a hotel overhang and after he learned a bit about experiences in Africa thus far, he looked at his watch and invited me for lunch at a local place.


Local Zanzibar

We walked for less than five minutes, swerving around the promenade of the hotels and ducked into a unmarked place that looked more like a house than a restaurant. “Mama makes the best food around here”, John explained to me as she smiled and piled his plate even higher, without even asking for our order. We squeezed behind a few other people who were too busy eating to acknowledge our presence, sat in plastic chairs and plopped down our meal. John waved away flies then explained what we were eating. He piled the tomato salad on the rice, grabbed a forkful of beans and bananas and after chewing, “this is pilau, rice with spices. Usually used for celebrations, like weddings and holidays”. My eyes bugged out in delight. The simple dish wasn’t spicy but I tasted an energizing mix of fresh, fruity flavors that instantly convinced me that Zanzibar deserved its “spice island” reputation.

We decided to wash down our meal with a beer from a local bar. Once again, it felt like we were entering someone’s home more than an official establishment. When she saw us, the bartender paused picking apart a fish head, extricating herself from the wooden slab of a picnic bench with greasy fingers raised as she ducked under the bar to get us a couple beers. We headed up some steep stairs and John played me some local music from his phone, turning up the volume to overpower the snoring in the attic above and the muezzin’s call to prayer outside.

My new friend John by a fishing boat when we decided to make the best of a stormy day

My new friend John by a fishing boat when we decided to make the best of a stormy day

My three days in Zanzibar passed pretty fast for spending each day moving so pole pole (slowly, slowly). I spent most of the time with John in local places, meeting his friends, sharing music for each other and house hopping in the village. One day, we wandered past where men busily hammered and sanded traditional fishing boats, to pristine beaches beyond the grasp of typical tourists. I waved to the island where most of my tour mates elected to go for a snorkeling trip (which I later learned turned into a big debacle… Zanzibar is decidedly African!). Meanwhile, we enjoyed island time, where nothing happened fast and people lived with bare feet, neon sunglasses and seashells in their hair.


“Africa is a Wild Treasure”

Before I embarked on this journey through East Africa, a South African friend exclaimed, “Enjoy! Africa’s a Wild Treasure!” I love this continent primarily because of the people, but secondly because of exactly what she described. I’ve been a lot of beautiful places but so many of them are “civilized” and made more approachable for tourists, and smothered by things like Starbucks and shopping malls. I love Africa because it has an untamed beauty, with sometimes monotonous, but nevertheless magnificent, sites but that still defy modernization. Its unique spirit is still unconquered.

I was amazed that Zanzibar seems to be protected by this same magical resilience. Sure, they’ve erected a few tourist hotels that seem generic enough to be in any tropical location. For every one of these civilized establishments, there are all these layers of local life, vibrantly existing, undisturbed by outside influences.

It’s so fascinating to see how these two worlds interact. Tourists generally “own” the beaches during the day but retreat to their cushy resorts for happy hour and locals seamlessly resume ownership for a shirts-versus-skins football game. If you wake up early enough, it’s still theirs: people going for runs, doing push-ups, doing some kind of martial arts in the shade of hotel overhangs. By the time the tourists have enjoyed leisurely buffet breakfasts, slathered up in sunscreen and wrapped themselves in “Zanzibar: Hakuta Matata” cover-ups that they bought in the gift store, most locals have already disappeared. This transition happens so seamlessly that this unspoken system of sharing seems to work, hakuna matata, no worries.

Interestingly, this peaceful coexistence seems to fill the whole island, yet there’s a surprising lack of ex-pats and commercialization. Zanzibar has been occupied by diverse groups through the ages, as an important stop for traders of spices and slaves. Their cultural legacies have intermingled into an inseparable and vibrant blend of these Portuguese, African and Arabic influences. Someone asked the tour guide, “What percentage of the Island has people of Arabic heritage?”. He looked a bit befuddled and after she explained her question again, he laughed and said, “We are all mixed. We don’t distinguish. Muslim, Christian, Arabic, African, all are welcome, hakuna matata”. What he said feels true, and the island’s attitude of welcoming acceptance makes me more amazed that this piece of paradise hasn’t been completely ruined by tourism.

One of the famous doors of Zanzibar

One of the famous doors of Zanzibar

Stone Town: One of the Only Remaining “Functioning Historic Towns” in East Africa

We tore ourselves away from the beach for an afternoon to explore the unique architecture of the historic “Stone town”. I was pleasantly surprised that the authenticity that I experienced in other parts of the island seemed to carry over to this UNESCO site. Yes there were tourist shops, yes there were a couple five star hotels but, generally speaking, the area still felt very lived in. It’s a bit worn and crumbling but it feels real. Zanzibar is famous for it’s elaborate doors that were used as a display of wealth back in the day. As we explored the alleyways, you can see kids peeking out of the shadows behind incredibly elaborate doors that had fallen into disrepair in the past decades.

Supposedly, UNESCO has donated funds for maintenance and preservation this part of town (the main museum has been under construction for 9 months and doesn’t look like it will be opening anytime soon). Not surprisingly, because of corruption, some of these funds have been filling the pockets of politicians instead of fixing the town. While I hope the architecture isn’t irrevocably lost, when areas are gentrified, its original occupants typically can no longer afford to live there. While that’s starting to happen here too, its nice to experience Zanzibar in a more natural state, especially after coming from China which was filled with brightly painted, photo optimized renditions of what should have been there.

Locals hanging out by the boats in Stone Town

Locals hanging out by fishing boats in Stone Town

Nikka was right again: traveling Zanzibar was an incredibly fun and unique place to explore.  Where else can you get henna and eat chapatti while looking out to traditional dhow fishing boats bopping to the beat of reggae songs in sang in Swahili?  Stay wild, Zanzibar.

Songs of the Moment: Jambo Bwana– Them Mushrooms (The welcome song they play for all the tourists), Amarula– Roberto (it’s actually from West Africa but they love it in Zanzibar & Collabo– PSquare (Nigerian band and the video is shot in South Africa but they also love this song in Zanzibar)

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