8/6/09 - 8/13/09 77 °F
"Be careful going in search of adventure - it's ridiculously easy to find."
--William Least Heat-Moon
August 6, 2009
Most people do the safari first and then go to the islands to relax. And that is how I originally planned it. But on a whim, I decided to check when Ramadan occurred. Figures, it starts in mid August. SO, we reversed our plans and went to Zanzibar first so that we could enjoy the island without the effects of Ramadan.
Our flight to Zanzibar was at 6:40am. Since we had to be there an hour early, we left the hotel at 5:15. It took us about 10-15 minutes this time...no traffic at this hour. Even though we were technically travelling domestic, our airline worked out of the Julius Nyerere International airport (where we first arrived). When we got there, there was one huge line out the door so we just got in line without knowing if we were doing the right thing. There's good reason to get to the airport an hour early. And then it's a mad rush for the window seats on the plane.
This was the shortest flight ever...about 20 minutes from leaving the gate to landing. We took a pretty big prop plane and we shared it, interestingly enough, with mostly locals and the former president of Tanzania. It was a bit rainy this morning and our luggage got wet when they dumped it onto the ground. Good thing Matt saw someone from our plane carrying luggage from the runway because we were waiting for our luggage at the "luggage carousel."
Our driver was waiting for us and our first stop was to Jozani Forest. As we leave the airport I was again disappointed to see billboards. But it soon became rural. We had to pass through the market and I have never seen so many cars, bicycles, mopeds, carts with donkeys/cows and people as well as market stands. Here's a less crowded area (atually from Stone Town).
We were told there are a million people on the islands of Zanzibar (most being kids). One thing we noticed right away were all the Obama stickers on cars. The people in Tanzania LOVE Obama and Michael Jackson. We've also noticed that everyone knows the "Governator." It's the first thing they say when we tell them we're from California. Most of Zanzibar is fairly rural. It is quite poor. The dwellings have four walls (sometimes a ceiling) and a cement floor. You'll usually find a mat that is used for eating and sleeping. That's it. No electricity. But it seems that every person manages to have a cell phone. Great reception and it is really cheap here. There are police stops every few kilometers. They check to make sure the guides/cars are legitimate, you have permits, licenses, etc. They are heavily armed and from what we hear, they are quick to give out fines. I don't think our guide translates English too well but I asked why there were school kids marching, dancing, singing and playing instruments on the road. We were told that the Torch was scheduled to arrive that morning. It is carried all throughout Tanzania and he said that it promotes all the national programs and it's cause for big celebration. I believe it was the freedom torch representing their independence.
Our guide/ranger at the Jozani forest had the most pleasing personality. Soft spoken, he knew all the Latin names of the plants and animals and was really into his job. He, like many others, have never been off the island and his dream is to see big animals in the wild. The largest non-domesticated animal he had ever seen was a boar (supposedly there is a rich Arab on the island who has camels for pets). The highlight of the forest is the red colobus monkey. They don't have thumbs and are endangered (not inferring that one leads to another). One group of monkeys aren't shy and we can get right next to them. So cool to be so close without any cages, bars, fences or walls.
Next stop was a village tour of Jambiani. We first stopped at the school for 3-7 year olds. The company I booked with (Eco + Culture) gives back to the country and this is one of the schools they developed. They are all taught Swahili, English and Arabic. When we came in, they sang to us and showed off their English skills. But mostly, I was the one learning...a little Swahili...habari (how are you?), nzuri sana (very well), tembo (elephant). Watching the teachers and kids, it really made me want to someday take a year off and teach in Africa. They so badly need the help. I am disappointed I couldn't carry the 15 pounds of school supplies I had purchased in the states. Despite their surroundings, the kids are happy and really enjoy getting their pictures taken. A couple of the boys were pretty lively.
A pretty nice house in Jambiani.
We then went to see the women harvesting/planting seaweed in the ocean. It's a lot of work for very little money and a bit controversial from an ecological viewpoint. I got to help string and stake some of the seaweed.
When the seaweed is fully grown, they bring it back to shore for drying.
The tides are extreme here and as you can see, low tide is REALLY low tide. During high tide, the water will come all the way to the wall of the hotels.
For lunch, we ate at a local hut for traditional village food. I can't believe it but Matt ate everything...eggplant, spinach, squash covered in curries and sauces. And, he enjoyed it! It was very good even though we didn't know what we were eating most of the time. We also visited a woman who grated coconut and another that made rope out of the coconut strands. The last stop was the "medicine man" who really was an herbalist. Apparently, he is famous in all of Tanzania.
So I was curious about the dreams and aspirations of our guide. I asked him if he could visit anywhere in the world, where would he like to go? I think he was stunned by the question because he didn't know how to answer. It was almost by default that he proclaimed England. And when I asked why, he said "it wouldn't be too expensive." I'm guessing he was equivalating distance with expense. But it just shows how traveling is not even a thought to him. He is so proud of Jambiani and such an ardent supporter of their village lifestyle.
Our first night was at Kikadini Villas in the Palm Villa and it was spectacular. We had a butler and the villa to ourselves. The rooftop lounge had great views.
The water is an intoxicating blue here.
As it is August, it is quite breezy. Everyone is very friendly here and we don't even mind the peddlers. They are actually fun to talk to and we are learning phrases beyond "hakuna matata" (thanks Disney). One thing we've noticed is that the power outages are frequent. We had dinner in the dark. Although, not sure how the cook was managing it. Some of the hotels have back up generators but those are only at the big establishments. So you always have to be prepared although we've been lucky that they haven't lasted long (as in several days straight).
August 7, 2009
Jambo (hello)! We are off again. The people at Kikadini are sad to see us go. I am absolutely impressed how immaculate everything is in Africa. They are constantly sweeping, dusting so that everything is pristine. We are headed to just north of Bwejuu. We are staying at Echo Beach Hotel. Every hotel arrival is met by "Karibu" (welcome), a welcome drink and a cold towel. Today is just a day of relaxing. Matt is still not caught up in his sleep and takes very long naps as well as going to bed super early. The beach is not too much more different...there is not as much seaweed, it's a bit more swimmable but the water is not as blue and there are just a few more people here.
For dinner, we all sat in the lounge and had cocktails while we waited for our first course to arrive and then they showed us to our dining table. Pretty nice. The food was yummy. My first attack of mosquito bites was here. 4 GIANT ones. It didn't matter that I had sprayed my clothes with insect repellent, smeared on deet, wore an insect repellent bracelet and a mosquito patch. Matt was fine.
August 8, 2009
We are now headed to Stone Town. It will be a big day today. We are doing the obligatory spice tour and then we will visit the giant tortoises on Prison Island. Boy, it is hot here. It is in the high 70s but it is winter so the people of Zanzibar find this weather quite cold. They don't like air conditioning and they even wear jackets! Matt and I are streaming sweat (let me rephrase, I AM glistening). But we are headed to the highlands today (300 feet above sea level) so it will be one degree cooler. Matt discovered he's pretty good at identifying spice plants. Watch out for the turmeric because it is very staining! We tried all sorts of yummy tropical fruits and spices but the highlight was the coconut climber. He was quite a character and had a beautiful voice. He sang the famous "Jambo Jambo" song as he climbed to the top of the tree to cut down some coconuts (you can find him on you tube). We tried young coconuts and a medium mature coconut. Never had the fruit of the young before...it's really soft. Throughout the tour, you are approached by many selling their wares. It seems mandatory for you to buy some spices. They do have a large selection and I pick up a few teas and some hand made soap. At the end, they made us crowns and baskets out of the palm leaves and flowers and we were deemed king and queen of spices for the day.
I am glad we went on the spice tour but I did feel I tipped out more than the cost of the tour...everyone is looking for a little money. For lunch, we ate a traditional Swahili meal at a local house. Matt continues to eat everything (yams, eggplant, dried fish, etc.) and I am just floored (more than just from eating on a mat on the floor). Here we encounter our first begging experience. The children immediately cry "pennies or dollars for school supplies please," and then insistently place rings and bracelets made from palm leaves onto your finger and wrist.
We stopped to check in at the Zanzibar Serena Inn in Stone Town. This is where we discovered bungo juice. It is absolutely delicious. We need to figure out how we can get it exported to the US. The hotel is in a very colonial style and the staff is incredibly friendly. There really aren't elevators in Zanzibar so we had to climb 3 stories every day. Good exercise.
Off to Prison Island. We took a small boat across to the island (about a half hour trip). The waters, while quite beautiful, are a little rough...you get pretty wet.
A view of Stone Town from Prison Island.
The type of boat we took to get here.
The hotel on the island looks nice here. But we are here to see the giant tortoises. There are many of them in all sizes. As you enter, you grab a bunch of spinach and feed the turtles. They will practically jump for the food. Once they know you are there, they start clamoring your way.
After playing with them for a while, we get back on the boat to snorkel. The water is a little cold. I am somewhat afraid of the snorkel gear. Not only were my fins too big but the mouthpiece was a bit non existent on the snorkel (and who knows if they clean these things). So, I got a lot of water in my mask as well as snorkel. On top of that, there were thousands of tiny jellyfish. I am sure I swallowed many. Visibility wasn't great and not too exciting. But in the end, it was a fairly decent day.
August 9, 2009
Wow, breakfast is fantastic at Serena. You can order some hot items and the rest are buffet style. We've grown addicted to the mango, pineapple, Swahili donuts, banana bread and Norwegian pancakes. And all the bungo juice we can drink! They squeeze everything fresh and after eating a bungo fruit, I've found it is not really a practical fruit for juicing.
Today was a free day. We were going to spend it touring town and then go swimming. But first off to the bank. The lines for the ATM are painfully long and guarded by an armed police. I don't know why it takes so long for people but the guard will come in and hassle you if you are in there for a really long time (so he's in there quite often).
Matt at the ATM and the orphanage straight ahead.
I really like Stone Town. This is a high density population and the buildings are on top of each other. This results in many narrow streets that wind everywhere. It is extremely easy to get lost. But eventually, you will pop out to a main road.
Zanzibar from above
They are also famous for their extravagantly carved wood doors. At some point, these homes belonged to wealthier people and now most house the poor.
Some people are shy and won't let you take pictures but most of the kids want their photos taken. This one's a little blurry, but they are so cute!
We went by Mercury Restaurant & Bar (in honor of Freddy Mercury...he was born in Zanzibar).
I noticed that many people stare at me...not just the kids. I don't think there are a lot of Asians in Zanzibar.
Now, you're probably thinking, Zanzibar doesn't look so poor. Many of the lodges and restaurants are amazing five star places but not so much the case with the homes and markets. We browsed the shops and local market but were afraid to get anything cause we were already over our weight limit. At the market, they sell everything from fish to entire dead animals to shoes. I did get a CD and a banana leaf print for about $7 (10,000 shillings) after bargaining with some of the boys. I do feel a little bad. Note, if you travel to Tanzania, bring lots of singles because NO ONE has change either in dollars or shillings. And remember that all currency has to be newer than 1997? or they won't accept it. Not too many places take credit cards and if they do, they have a 5% surcharge on top of the fees you will be paying with your bank, even if it's a US dollar transaction (unless it's AmEx). This is one of the things I read about before coming and it is totally true. I have money hidden everywhere and you don't realize how thick US money really is until you have a stash of $150 in singles.
Upon returning to the hotel, we discovered the pool was going to close today! But it was because there was a big boat race happening in front of the hotel. We saw about 26 boats lined up on the shore. We had a great view from the daybed on our floor.
The tides are crazy here as well and we watched as the boats started a bit down from the beach but by race time, the water had come all the way to the walls of the hotel (you'd think they would have known that as this happens every day). We felt sorry for some of the teams because they had such a hard time constantly bailing water and holding the boat back. After all that work, it was just a short sprint out and back. The president of Zanzibar was there to congratulate the winning team.
We had sunset drinks (sundowners) at the famed Africa House Hotel. They have the best view and cheap drinks. Matt got a beer and I got a bloody mary (note, do not order again...it's just freshly squeezed tomatoes over vodka). It is very crowded here and Matt thought the person behind him kept bumping into his back. But it turns out, he just had a monkey on his back...literally! She scrambled everywhere but eventually jumped onto the table and settled on my bloody mary.
I think she quite enjoyed it so I let her have it.
She is actually one of the staff's pet so no need to worry about getting bit. Dinner was at Beyt al Chai. It was really good and much more reasonable than the Serena Hotel's fancy seafood restaurant (which wasn't even good). My appetizer course of layered crab, crispy eggplant and green mango was excellent. There is a lot of seafood here in Zanzibar and they cook it just as any other fancy restaurant in the U.S. We are not really experiencing a totally different food culture in the top-rated restaurants.
August 10, 2009
Today we are headed to Chumbe Island. It's a private marine reserve and only 14 guests are allowed at any time. We pass through a village called Mwembe. This is the first time we saw real houses. In fact, some were mansions. We were told that this is where people who have money live. What a difference! The boat ride to the island is about 45 minutes. We had no idea what to expect but I chose the island because I heard it had the best snorkelling. It turns out, every guest, including day guests, get a bungalow for the day and it is pretty much an all inclusive deal. It's a beautiful beach and we are welcomed upon arrival. Our bungalow is ecologically built. It is very Robinson Crusoe...solar lights, compost toilets, rainwater storage, completely open to nature. The downstairs is the living area with a hammock and upstairs is the bedroom.
We are now wishing we were staying here for the night. Our first excursion is a reef walk so we head back to reception to meet our guide. They also have extreme tides and right now, the reef is exposed. I have never seen so many colorful marine creatures. From all kinds of starfish to slugs to oysters.
It was over an hour and the sun was blazing but we had a great time. Next was a traditional Swahili lunch of octopus, pumpkin, spinach, etc. And yes, Matt ate it all! Amazing!!! Every table had a wonderful view of the ocean. We went back to our bungalow to rest and Matt and I fought for the hammock. I won. But I gave it up after a while...I did want Matt smiling on this trip. Interesting story about a couple who donated the solar lamps. When they returned to the US, they asked what would be most valuable and solar powered items were by far the most useful. So, they mailed off a bunch of them. After a lot of tracking and cajoling authorities, the torches finally arrived 6 months later. So I guess I shouldn't mail my 15 pounds of school supplies. At 3pm, we took off for our snorkel trip. They were handing out wet suits and we were a little surprised but everyone said that we should wear it. Mine was just a skin suit and I was wishing it were neoprene once we dove into the water. There were all kinds of fish...and so many. We ended 45 minutes later, shivering but satisfied that two sea turtles were swimming with us. We rushed to make it to the returning boat but I desperately had to go to the bathroom. So I ran back to our bungalow, washed my feet off and raced to the toilet. Only, the floors are all cement and I went down really hard since my feet were wet. Accident #1. Bound to happen. I was pretty sore and a little worried I had damaged my shoulders. But hopefully it will go away in the morning. We were REALLY sad to leave. This was by far the coolest excursion and wish we were staying a couple of nights. We would recommend this to anyone travelling to Zanzibar. I am also sad that it is our last night in Stone Town. We had dinner at Al Johari. It's one of the best restaurants on the island but I thought the food was just o.k. My shoulder still hurts.
August 11, 2009
Yay, shoulder pain is pretty much gone. However, all the yummy mango I've been eating has affected my lips and the small, blistering, painful bumps are appearing. I also have a cankor sore developing. Darn.
We did a quick tour of the House of Wonders this morning. It is the first dwelling to have electricity and an elevator in East Africa. It was very grand in the old days. The redone Forodhani Gardens are also really beautiful...hard to believe you are in Stone Town.
Checking in on the ATM again to see if there's any money in it. Yay, there's at least some (you have to keep punching in different amounts of money until it matches the amount it is willing to give you that day). We've been fairly lucky that we have been able to withdraw something but I wouldn't rely on them. They break and/or run out of cash frequently. After a quick walk through the alleyways, we head back to the hotel to say goodbye to the staff at Serena. We've grown fond of them and they all know Matt really well. Asante sana (thank you very much) Serena!
Our driver is headed to Matemwe today. It's about an hour away. It's only 11am but Azanzi Beach Hotel has our room ready in 15 minutes. It is AMAZING. We have a gigantic deck that has a full panoramic view of the ocean! And the bathroom is beautiful. It's a pretty enormous room.
We are only here for the day and diving tomorrow. We have a couple of hours before we have to leave for our scuba refresher course. We decide to walk the reef with the hotel guide. It is painstaking as there are a gazillion sea urchin here. We have these rubber shoes on but it is slow going.
Once out to the reef, there wasn't too much there. But just as we were turning back, a sea snake weaved its way through us. Matt has a great video of it.
So it was worth it just to see that!
Thank goodness we took a scuba refresher course. It's been about 6 years since the last dive and I can't believe I forgot a few things. My one mistake was slightly opening my eyes in the heavily chlorinated pool (even though the instructor warned us not to open our eyes). Dinner was buffet style. Matt tries Tusker beer and it is his favorite so far. I have some tropical martini but it is too sweet for my taste. Not fond of buffets but we did try everything. We are pretty exhausted and we have to get up early for the dive tomorrow. Am getting tired of brushing my teeth with bottled water and worrying about my contacts but so far neither Matt or myself have been sick...yay.
August 12, 2009
Oh no, accident #2. I awoke this morning and thought I had pink eye. My left eye was goopy. But Matt insists it was the chlorine. I hope so. I now have a bad eye, swollen lips and the cankor sore is huge! While getting ready and packing up our luggage, we got a call this morning. A bit of a panic when I answered. My cousin was calling to tell us that our house had been robbed again. I couldn't believe it but I did leave thinking that it could happen. In fact, I left Paul with all of our home insurance information and I had fortunately hid most of our valuables (since safe deposit boxes are impossible to get in L.A.). A weird burglary. They took movie tickets. The laptops were still there, the keys were untouched. I'm guessing they were kids/drug addicts looking for cash.
We rushed to One Ocean Dive Center to catch our boat for the dive to Mnemba Atoll. There are about 19 of us diving/snorkelling. The boats are big and can hold 18 tanks. One of the couples overheard us talking about our burglary and they sympathized with us because they had been robbed before as well. But they live in Johannesburg and when they say robbery, that means guns blazing, holding hostages, taking everything they own. Now that's scary!
The trip is about a half hour to the reefs. We wore 5mm suits and I felt like I could barely move in them. The dive masters had 10mm suits and wore hoodies and booties in 24 celsius water. We made fun of them. The first dive had really poor visibility but at the very end of the dive, it cleared up. Again, tons of fish but nothing too big. We did see a grouper but I really wanted to see a Napoleon. No luck. I had plenty of air but everyone else was low so we went back up after 40 minutes or so. We had a small snack on the boat before heading out to dive #2. We were going to the Aquarium. Wow, it was pretty cool. The currents were strong so my oxygen was depleting quickly but we saw octopus, yellow snapper (very pretty), eels, squid, nudibranch, etc. The coral was amazing. Unfortunately, we were only able to see a quarter of the dive as the currents we were swimming against were strong. Back on the boat, we made a quick pass of the exclusive Mnemba Island. It is breathtakingly beautiful. So remember the tides I talked about? We had to unload at a different beach because it was super low tide by the dive shop. So we all disembarked at a beach further up north and had to take a chicken bus (dhala dhala-a flatbed truck with bench seats) back. I was so excited. Although there were no chickens with us.
View of Mnemba Atoll from the dhala dhala
Our dive master
Our driver was waiting for us at the hotel. Today we are transferring to Nungwi beach to The Z Hotel. We are staying at a hotel designed by Phillipe Starck. Does that seem strange for rural Africa? We have an overwater bungalow. The beaches here don't experience as extreme of tidal changes. But as everyone said, it is much more touristy here. The water was extremely inviting, even though it was cold, and we spent the rest of the afternoon in the sun.
Our room is two stories and it has a TV in the living room downstairs as well as in bed. Matt was going through withdrawals and had to watch some TV. After a very long dinner, we were glad we were only here for one night. We much rather prefer the tranquil settings.
So tonight ends our portion of Zanzibar. The highlights were definitely Stone Town and Chumbe Island. Those are must sees for anyone going to Zanzibar. But we enjoyed all 8 days here and I'd come back in a heartbeat!