Sunday, June 1, 2008

Vacation in Zanzibar

After running the Longtom Marathon in April, Jennie and I joined 10 other Peace Corps volunteers on a trip to the island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa. The first term of school had just ended and we took two weeks of vacation to get out of the village and take advantage of some relatively nearby wonders.

We took a two hour flight north to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, just north of Zimbabwe and south of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The flight was brief and they served dinner! Zambia Airways has not scraped in-flight meals like corporate America. We ate delicious tuna salad hoggies with 100% fruit juice and a nuts in milk chocolate candy bar. Then, in addition, they served drinks, including bottled water! It was one of my highlights of the trip.

Landing in Lusaka, we spent about an hour getting through immigration. They were only accepting US dollars to buy our $150 visas. Some of us had the wise foresight to change some rand into dollars before the flight. Some of us also got to walk through immigration to change our rand into dollars near the entrance and then walk back to immigration and pay for our visas. After immigration we spent another hour trying to haggle for a fair price on a taxi to take us to the home of Fraiser, a Zambian Peace Corps volunteer, who was opening his flat to all 12 of us to stay the night. We finally found a bus (covered with Disney characters like Dumbo) that would charge us only 20,000 kwacha each and loaded up with about 15 other Zambian passengers for our ride into the city.

South African culture is at a very interesting stage. We have been welcomed warmly by the people in our village and they have always been friendly to us. However, due to apartheid, there is a sort of quiet discomfort when it comes to color in South Africa from Black, White, Indian, and Coloured. It affects how quickly trusting relationships can develop.

Zambia was different. It wouldn't be until the next day when a local told me "we Zambians are a very friendly people." I already knew it was true. On our airport Dumbo bus, we had the regular chit-chat on our ride, not unlike the conversations I sometimes have on kumbis in South Africa. But when we had some trouble finding Fraiser's flat, another passenger whipped out his cell phone and asked for the number. This is no small thing in Africa. Airtime is expensive and pre-paid. I almost always text message if I can avoid a call. Cell phone users more often send free "please call me" messages rather than buy airtime. But this man that we had met only twenty minutes ago was using two minutes of precious airtime to figure out where we needed to go at midnight in a completely unfamiliar African capital. We did figure out where we needed to go and all the passengers wished us a safe journey.

Fraiser was very laid back about everything. Jennie and I found some floor space to crash on in a spare bed room and caught about four hours of sleep before we had to get up to catch a taxi to the bus station the next morning.

The bus station was an experience. As our mini-bus taxi pulled in, we were swarmed and for a moment I was genuinely concerned about our safety. Two men threw open the door and jumped into the moving taxi and asked us where we were going. We told them and they both had a bus to offer us. We had been told that the bus ride shouldn't cost more than 20,000 kwacha. Both of these buses cost 45,000 kwacha.

We didn't want to get cheated due to our skin color so we bargained with about 50 bus drivers - all at once - for a bus at that first price. We finally found that bus, much to the disappointment of the other bus drivers, though one said to me as I walked away "Eh, that bus won't leave for 16 hours. You'll see."

The nice thing about traveling with a bunch of other people is that sometimes they're more willing to deal with stuff than you are. And so after waiting on that bus for over 4 hours, the price rising to 35,000 kwacha, and then two hours later finding the bus still has not left, we had to get off that bus and get on another that would get us to the train station two hours north of Lusaka in time. And get our 35,000 back. Fortunately, Jennie and I did not have to fight that battle. Unfortunately, we did not get our money back and then paid 45,000 kwacha for the bus afterall. Ah well - it was really a difference of eight US dollars.

In Kampiri Moshi, we boarded our train and moved into our 2nd class cabins that we would use for the next two nights. I have been on a train only once when I was 10 or so and it was a short two hour ride. Jennie had been on a train just last year before leaving the United States. We both had something different in mind. In our car, six people slept in a cabin. The back pad of the couch-like seat folded up to become the beds. The pads were a thick metal slab with half an inch of cushioning. We didn't figure out how to lock the middle bunks until we finished our trip to Tanzania, so they kind of bounced up and down during the night. The toilet was a hole in the floor of the train that dropped everything onto the tracks. The food was affordable but oily. The whole experience was a lot of fun.

We did finally see what Africa was really like. South Africa is two worlds - first world and second/third world. In the village we pump our own water, take bucket baths, and handwash our clothing. But in another part of our village, a fair number of people have indoor plumbing, full bathrooms, and washing machines. We all have electricity. In the city, these things are common place. There are malls bigger than those in the United States. Going to the city in South Africa is kind of like going home. Kind of.

On the train, we passed village after village with housing made completely of thatch and venders selling fruit or chapathis (like tortillas, only better tasting and worse for you). We saw more poverty than we've seen in South Africa. We bought bottled water - the only stuff we could safely drink - from some clever children at one of the stations. They had refilled old bottles found by the train tracks. At all the stops we were sometimes taken advantage of and sometimes given a more than fair price.

At the Zambian - Tanzanian border crossing, after our first night on the train, we were told that the train would no longer accept kwacha on the other side of the border. We had to exchange all our money for Tanzanian shillings. This was a lucrative business for some money changers that boarded all trains at the border. They made a 30% profit exchanging our kwacha and rand for shillings. We also got our passports stamped and bought Tanzanian visas for 100 US dollars.

The next morning we passed through a game park on the train and saw some zebras and giraffes. I might have seen hippos in the water, but it was at the very crack of dawn, so who knows. We pulled into Dar es Salaam at 11 o'clock that day.

I had thought Dar was a grand town and was a little disappointed. It was a very busy city and definitely a different and educational experience, but I had expected more Arabic archetechure or something more cultural. Our hotel was very nice and we had a big lunch to save on expenses. The next morning we boarded a ferry at 7 for Zanzibar. I expected a ferry ride like we've experienced in Seattle. But if you look at a map, Zanzibar is actually pretty far off the coast and north of Dar es Salaam.

Getting off the boat we were helped by a local to find our hotel, the Manch Lodge, and set about the town. Without help, we would have never found anything in the first few days. The streets of Stonetown are narrow alleyways, turning and curving in all directions. The first day we found place to eat and just figured out our bearings.

The two places we stayed were both very cheap and served breakfast. The Manch Lodge was 15 USD per person per night and had a great breakfast of crepes, fruit, and bread. The Flamingo Guest House was 10 USD per person per night and served fruit, toast, and an egg. The Manch Lodge had the better breakfast, but the Flamingo was cheaper - at least, during low season.

Low season is a very short window when rain is more frequent. It hardly disrupted our visit. The first day it rained all day long, and there were a couple downpours on other days, but it didn't diminish our trip at all.

Jennie and I tried to eat two meals a day. It was cheaper, and we found a fantastic resturant on one of the busy main streets of town. The Passing Show Hotel, where we were the only tourists, has a long and affordable menu featuring all sorts of basic Indian and East African dishes and freshly squeezed juice. For some travelers the first experence of bogobe (or pap) takes a little bit to get used to, but we've acquired a taste for it. We ate lunch there forthree days.

We were a little disappointed by the beach close to town. It was a quick, 300 shilling (about 30 cents) taxi ride up the coast to Mtoni Marine, but the beach was littered with trash and a pipe lead from a nearby factory into the water where a brown, foamy liquid was deposited. The beaches near Stonetown are not the same pictured on postcards.

On the island our group didn't stick together as much, but we did join them for a trip to Prison Island, site of a Portugese prison and tortise sanctuary. The main attraction for us was swimming and snorkeling. These beaches are the ones found on postcards. The water was very clear, allowing us to see starfish on the ocean floor.

We took another taxi across the island to Jozanzi forest, endemic home to the red colobus monkey. They are protected on the island and so used to humans we were brought directly below the trees where they were eating. We hiked around a little bit and also saw some black colobus monkeys. Colobus describes the number of fingers these primates have on their upper limbs: four.

Zanzibar is famous for it's spices, and we took a slightly expensive (25 USD per person) but tremendous tour with Eco-Culture Tours of a spice farm just outside Stonetown. They also threw in a 10 minute tour of a Persian bath the Sultan built for his second wife . . . We saw the plants nutmeg, cinnimon, pepper, vanilla bean, iodine, cardimon, tumeric, and others. Vanilla was particularly interesting - if you've ever bought pure vanilla instead of immitation, there is a significant price difference. A large factor is that vanilla has no natural pollinators. In order to produce the beans used to make the extract, people have to pollinate the flowers by hand. Iodine, the orange staining antiseptic, is harvested from the stem of a woody, tall but slender plant.

Joining us on the spice tour was a couple on their honeymoon. Athena and Josh are working for for Tulane University in Rwanda and had done Peace Corps separately about 7 years ago in Guinea and Ivory Coast. It was neat to meet some people on the other side of the experience. They were nice enough to ask us out for drinks that evening and then we decided to have dinner together too! They're doing malaria prevention and will be returning to the states around the same time we will be.

Some of Jennie's thoughts on Zanzibar:
Zanibar was so different than I expected. I was thinking that this would be a vacation divided by lying on the beach reading and swimming in the beautiful water. I was thinking that there would be more white sandy beaches. What I found turned out to be magical in a very different way. Beautiful, curious people allowing us to witness a part of their everyday lives. What an experience to walk down the winding, narrow streets that are not familiar but to feel a sense of peace and hope. The giggles of children running down the cobblestone passageways always brought a smile to my face. While I came to Zanzibar expecting to lay on a beach oblivious to the world around me, I was blessed to become tangled into the web of Zanzibari life.

All in all, we had a wonderful trip and it was an experience that we will never forget.

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