Sunday, November 16, 2008

Nov 01, 2008 - ZightZeeing in Zanzibar

For my one day of holiday during the Africa/Middle East leg of my trip I decided to sacrifice the opportunity to sleep in and travel to Zanzibar. I had read some several websites about things to do but with only one day the options are quite limited. Thinking that a fast ferry would be better than the cost and time to travel to the airport, I left the hotel before 7am and walked towards the ferry terminal just down the street. I find it interesting that here on the east coast of Africa, thousands of miles from our great land of freedom and opportunity, a city bus was adorned on the back by the words "Barack Obama".

I have really come to realize that the presidential election in just a few days will affect not only Americans, but really the entire world. And in fact, it seems from my experience, that people throughout the world are interested in what's going on. When I was Australia several people I talked to asked about the race for President. Here in Africa people I've met--not just Africans--but from Germany and Holland and England--everyone is interested in the election. And as election day approaches it seems the vast majority of the English news coverage is about the same. Whether or not they are right will soon be seen, but it seems the vast majority of people outside the country favor Barack Obama. Whoever wins, whatever happens, I certainly believe that we are in a position of dramatic change not only in the US, but on the world stage.

As I approached the ferry terminal, street touts trying to sell me tickets here or there or wherever swarmed around me like mosquitoes. Because I did, in fact, need to buy a ticket, I finally yielded and began talking to one of them. Of course, I totally had my guard up, trusting no one and skeptical of everyone. I was lead to a small wooden table on the roadside and the whole thing seemed kind of bogus. I walked away thinking I could take care of getting a ticket myself. Me being the tall white guy in the midst of hundreds of Africans, though, I'm sure my vulnerability proceeded me. Or at least it felt that way. I did go to a ticket sales counter and, to my dismay, they said the 7:15 ferry was sold out. I didn't know whether or not to believe them, but whether that was indeed the case or I was being taken advantage of really didn't matter. There weren't any other options. Faced with going back to the hotel and doing who knows what, I decided, somewhat skeptically, to take the offer one guy to fly to Zanzibar and take the ferry back. I bought my return ticket and then somewhat hesitantly got in a taxi with that guy and the driver. The whole time, I was really trying to listen and feel the Spirit to determine if I was being warned of danger. I never felt that way so I went through it and headed to the airport.

I was ushered into a small stuffy office where I was told the flight would be 92,000 shillings. I gave them 90,000, wrote my name down and then exited the office following a couple of girls apparently in the same situation. Because it made me feel slightly less alone, I began to talk to them and found out they had been traveling through Africa and were now going to spend a week in Zanzibar. Helen and Fiona, sisters from England, were just as curious as I was about what had happened to the money we handed over and whether we'd get on a flight. After waiting, wondering, and keeping an eye on the guy we had paid, we were finally escorted to a teeny Coastal Air plane out on the tarmac. Strangely, none of us was ever handed a ticket. Our names never made it on the flight manifest either, but somehow, at least, we got on the plane. Not big enough to put two feet together in the aisle, my first thought was next time I have to fly a regional jet I will appreciate how roomy it is because this flight definitely wasn't. There were about four rows of three seats across. The top of the plane was only inches over my head, something I couldn't handle much longer than the 20-minute, 44 mile flight.

Before we landed, I asked the guy sitting next to me if he was interested in sharing a taxi into Stone Town. He wasn't, but a girl sitting in front of me, Cornelia, said she was going to Stone Town and would do it. Cornelia, like me, was going to Zanzibar just for the day. She also had a guidebook. I asked her if she would like to a self-guided walking tour together, so we set off to explore the historic streets of Stone Town.

Probably the most notable aspect of the architecture of Stone Town is the doors. Over 500 decorative and intricately-carved doors are on some kind of a register or otherwise noted for their historic value. Arabian doors with a flat lintel and Indian doors that have a more curved design at the top, all have large brass spikes sticking out so as to ward off the unobservant knocker. The story goes that centuries ago elephants roamed Zanzibar and that these spikes protected the door and the home against aggressive elephants.

I completely expected to be hot and humid, but I didn't expect to get caught in a deluge. Three separate times during my 4-hour stay on Zanzibar. As we walked the narrow alley-like streets observing the people and the architecture, we had to wait under an awning, under a tree, or beside a building to try to avoid getting completely soaked. After our first pass through the city, we walked to the edge of the island and saw several men building a dhow by hand. One appeared to be nearly completed and another had the spine and ribs done. It was fascinating to see something this big built by hand. Of course, ships were built by hand for millennia, but to actually see it taking place was a different thing.

The last "attraction" we visited was the market. Vendor after vendor had his wares displayed on a table to sell to the next person. Zanzibar is famous for its spices, but all kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables could be purchased as well as shells and other items. The meat market was both interesting and unsettling. Stall after stall of freshly butchered meat sat out on a stone or wood table, eyed by one of the neighborhood cats. One old man was chopping some kind of animal with a hatchet. The whole lack of sanitary conditions made me think that going vegan for the day was probably a good idea. After passing through the "red meat" market, the next section was seafood. All kinds of fish and squid and was pretty interesting.

Tired from walking, thirsty, and perhaps surprisingly, Cornelia and I sat down for a quick lunch at a restaurant (some distance from the market) before parting ways. I would go to Zanzibar again, but not just for the day. There is so much to see and do that I didn't get to. Swimming with dolphins, seeing the red colobus monkeys in the jungle, the spice tours, the fabulous beaches and resorts, snorkeling and diving....any of those things would be great, but having done it, I don't think it's quite worth the trip to spend just a few hours on foot.

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