December 26-30, 2008
We returned from the Kilimanjaro hike, looking forward to our first shower in five days. Normally when we return from a hike like this we look forward to a good meal, but in Kilimanjaro they fed us so well that we were still overdosing from food 🙂
One thing I did look forward to is a haircut. You can find small hair salons everywhere in Africa, maybe because so many people like to keep their head shaved close (men because it’s the style and women because they often wear wigs over short hair). Anyhow, for less than a dollar this guy spent well over a half hour giving me a basic “travel do”. At home this normally takes 5 minutes but this guy was like a surgeon – very precise.
Heading to Zanzibar
We caught our flight to Zanzibar aboard Precision Air. The flight was only 90 minutes.
Stone Town is the main city on the island of Zanzibar. Most tourists pass through here quickly and immediately head to one of the beach resorts on the east coast of the island. But Pnina and I are not beach people, so we checked into the Flamingo Guest House in the narrow streets of Stone Town and stayed there for our 4 nights.
Stone Town has a lot of character, partly because of its mix of cultures – African, Arab, and Indian. Zanzibar used to be controlled by the Sultan of Oman, who even moved his court to the island for a while. About 95% of the people here are Muslim, so Pnina and I were at first somewhat hesitant to reveal that we are Jewish and Israeli. But Zanzibar has a very peaceful flavor of Islam – they just don’t care where we’re from. In fact, a bunch of the people in the travel business in Zanzibar know a few words of Hebrew, and the company we ended up using for a couple of tours on the island is owned by an Israeli woman, Sara.
One thing that struck us immediately is that Zanzibar is a very touristy place. At times it seemed like there were more mzungus around than locals. The locals told us that this Christmas-to-New-Years season is the busiest time of year, though this year is noticeably slower than others, likely because of the economic slow down around the world.
We Are The Champions
One of the famous former residents of Zanzibar is the late Freddie Mercury, front man for the band Queen. His original name was Farrokh Bulsara. He was born in 1946 to a Zoroastrian family in Stone Town. How did he get the name “Mercury”? In the 1960’s the US was in a space race with the USSR. The Russians took the lead when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth. The Americans followed when Alan Shepherd entered space and when John Glenn orbited the Earth. The American effort was called Project Mercury. To track and communicate with their space ships the Americans set up 18 stations around the world, two at sea and 16 on mainland. One of these stations was located just 15 km east of Stone Town on Zanzibar. In 1964 a revolution in Zanzibar forced that station to close down, and since then it’s been sitting largely untouched. But I guess it made enough of an impact that Farrokh chose to go by the name “Mercury”.
Finally – Good Local Food!
Pnina and I are not major foodies, but we do enjoy tasting local foods when we travel. Some of our favorite foods are foreign to us: Thai and Indian for example.
But so far on our trip in Africa we’ve been largely disappointed by local food. Most of Africa subsists on a sticky glop of mashed maize meal. Depending on where you go it may be called “pap”, “nshima”, “ugali”, “posha”, etc. But in each case the glop is equally tasteless and bland. It’s kind of odd that this maize-glop is such a staple in Africa since maize wasn’t introduced to Africa until the new world was rediscovered in the 15th/16th century.
If it’s not maize glop, it’s glop made from bananas (called “matoke”) or from millet and a root called kasava, or other basic foods. Africans are just not into strong flavors, at least in south and east Africa.
Of course, there were a few good foods along the way. In South Africa we liked a liquor called Amarulla, similar to Irish Cream. We also liked a fast food chain called Nandos, and of course Hannes made some great food for us in Cape Town. In Malawi we had fantastic food in a restaurant called Gecko at Lake Maclear. In Rwanda we loved the yoghurt. All around East Africa we loved their small bananas, much sweeter than the regular-size bananas we have at home. In Uganda we loved the simple roasted chicken you find in stalls on the side of the road. And in some places we found some decent samosas. But if you notice, most of the things we liked we snack-like. The great majority of restaurants along the way were blah.
Then we arrived at Zanzibar and things changed.
The first night we went to a restaurant called Bambusa Two Tables Restaurant, which was recommended by my friend Sasha at Redfin. The restaurant gets its name because it’s literally two tables in some guy’s house. At the entrance you leave your shoes, then walk upstairs, pass the living room where the owner’s wife is watching TV, and head to the terrace where you sit European-style with other random visitors.
Going there we didn’t know what we were going to get. There’s no menu. The owner simply brings out dish after dish, pausing for a moment to describe what he just placed on the table. We had some fish in tangy white sauce, some bambusa bread dipped in an awesome lentil curry, and other goodies.
But to us, the best food in Zanzibar (also cheapest) was the stuff we had at the night market by the fort. Normally this market is set up in Forodhani Gardens, but during our visit the gardens were closed for renovation, so the night market relocated to a small alley.
The best food was something called Zanzibar Pizza. It’s not really pizza. It’s more like a crepe with filling. The savory “pizza” has ground beef, vegetables, egg, mayo, and some spices. The sweet one has bananas and chocolate. Both are awesome and each costs just over a dollar.
The other highlight is the seafood. There are various stands with impressive spreads of so many kinds of seafood on shish-kabab skewers. They say that all the fish are caught fresh each day, but we’re not so sure – some tasted fresher than others. Still, they’re very good. We tried marlin, tuna, lobster, squid, and octopus. The first two were the best.
There was also sugar-cane juice to drink and various odds and ends. Some booths even had falafel, though it’s not at all similar to the falafel you find in Israel, which, of course, is the only “true” falafel in the world 🙂
Muhamed, Alex, and Ahmed
One of the nights, at the market, we met a trio of local guys: Muhamed, Alex, and Ahmed. The three are classmates, studying English. For practice they come to the market and look for tourists to chat with. They wanted to know our opinions of various people: Obama (of course), Tupac, and Bill Gates, among others. We referred them to http://www.LiveMocha.com, a website where you can learn a language and get help from random people around the world (and which also happens to be a Seattle-based startup, like Redfin). Anyhow, it was fun to chat with these guys. But the truly awesome thing about it (which only occurred to us later) is that it was the first time in nearly 3 months of travel that locals approached us with no alterior motive – they just wanted to talk. If only this happened more often!
Zanzibar grew rich for two kinds of trade: slaves and spices. Luckily one of those went away and the other remained.
Pnina and I went on one of the standard spice tours. We boarded a minibus and went inland about an hour to one of the many spice plantations. The tour involved walking around the plantation and getting small samples of each fruit/spice to taste or smell. As we walked, local kids created all kinds of paraphanelia from banana leaves: hats, sunglasses, rings, et cetera. They would “gift” these items and later ask for a tip.
Back to the spices…the impressive thing was the sheer variety of plants they have growing: teak, kasava, sweet potato, nutmeg, jack fruit, cardamum, pepper, pomela, cloves, cinamon, cinerto, turmeric, pineapple, starfruit, coconut, cacao, curry, lemongrass, chili, and ginger. Or at least those are the ones they showed us – there may be others. The other surprising thing is that these plants are not grown in any kind of orderly fashion – not in straight lines or separate sections. It’s just a big hodge podge of plants all over the place. They don’t really do any work to plant new plants – they just let the plants reproduce as mother nature intended.
Not far from the spice plantation we took a quick look at some of the baths set up for the Oman sultan back when he ruled the island. The architecture was interesting but there wasn’t much inside to see.
After the baths we had lunch. It was rice and potatos, which doesn’t sound that exiciting, but it had a lot of local spices. It was great.
After lunch we went to a nearby beach. Above the beach there’s an entrance to a cave that was once used to hold slaves, around the time that the British outlawed slave trade so the slave traders had to work in secrecy. It’s interesting to learn about the history, but there’s not much to see in the cave. Then it was time for the beach. So beautiful!
In Seattle Pnina and I have a little Yamaha Vino scooter. We love it and we miss it. In Zanzibar it’s pretty easy and relatively cheap to rent a scooter for the day, so we jumped at the opportunity. If you don’t have an international lisence, you need to get a local Zanzibar permit, for which you just need to show your home lisence and pay about $10. If you think about going without the permit, well, the police have road blocks all around the island, and when they see a foreigner they definitely ask him to stop and show the permit; so it’s best ot just pony up the $10 up front. Anyhow, besides the permit it costs about $20/day (or whatever price you manage to negotiate). Plus fuel – you get it with a near empty tank.
We got our scooter from Uhuru Tours, same people that arranged our spice tours. The manager brought the scooter to our hotel early in the morning and pointed out that it’s brand new (had 600 km on it) and that we’re the first people to rent it. Before leaving he wanted to make sure that we know what we’re doing, so he and I rode to a nearby soccer field for a test ride. The trick is that it’s a manual scooter (our Yamaha is automatic). So, only 2 months after learning how to drive a manual car, I now quickly had to convince this guy that I know how to ride a manual scooter. I managed to pass the test 🙂
Our first stop was the town of Kizimkazi, near the southern tip of Zanzibar. The big attraction there is swimming with dolphins in the wild. You can sign up for tours from Stone Town that include transportation to Kizimkazi and the boat out to see the dolphins (for about $35 each). We decided to get there on our own and try to find a group to join for just the boat part.
When we got there, we didn’t really see any other groups. We figured that maybe we were late – that all the groups left. Then a local guy came up and offered us our own private boat for 16,000 TSh (about $12), so we took his offer. But when we were already a good distance from shore, it occured to me that maybe he said 60, not 16. I asked him to write down his price, and sure enough, he meant 60,000 Tsh – not a good price at all. Crap, what to do? We already spent some of his time and petrol, and we wanted to keep going, but not at that price. We asked him to stop the boat while we negotiated a new price, and we settled on 43,000 TSh, which is actually a good price for a private tour, as it turns out. Then we kept going in search of the dolphins.
Soon enough we caught up to some of the other tour boats (yes, there were other tour boats, and even more came later), and joined the hunt. It was a really funny chaotic scene. The dolphins swim in groups of about 10. They come up for air every 5 minutes, at which time they spend maybe 1 minute swimming close the surface. Then they head back down to deeper waters. While they are below all eyes from all boats scour the area looking for dorsal fins. As soon as somebody spots one, all the boats make a mad dash for the area and tourists scramble to get into the water and to get a good look. But of course dolphins swim much faster than humans so it’s a pretty futile effort for most of us (there were a few good swimmers who managed to follow for a short while). Then the boats make the rounds to collect their respective swimmers, and it’s back to scouring the seas for the next location where the dolphins choose to surface. In the end Pnina and I agreed that we got our best views from the boat, not from the water. But it was a fun game anyhow.
We also did some snorkling not far from the dolphin site, but the chorals/sealife were kind of scarce, and our masks couldn’t keep water out for more than a minute at a time.
From Kizimkazi we headed up the eastern shore to Paje, one of the beach resort towns. This was early afternoon and it happened to be low tide. In Zanzibar the slope into the sea is so gradual that there’s a huge difference between low tide and high tide – the water recedes at least 100 meters. We grabbed some lunch at the Paradise Beach Bungalows, a place that claimed to have Japanese food but was out of rice when we arrived (out of rice??).
After the beach we went back inland to the Jozani Park. This is a sanctuary for the Red Colobus Monkey, a kind of monkey that lives only on Zanzibar. It’s not quite as beautiful as the Black and White Colobus Monkeys that we saw in the mainland, but these Red Colobus Monkeys were completely unafraid – they let us get really close to them.
On the way back to Stone Town the scooter suddenly stalled – the throttle suddenly ceased to function and we slowly came to a stop. It kind of felt like we ran out of gas, but that couldn’t have been the case because the gauge was still showing nearly half-full. I pulled the scooter over and we started investigating the situation, but we were out of our element – neither one of us knows much about engines. Then this random local guy comes over and starts doing a full inspection, removing this panel, then that one, etc. He quickly figured out that our spark plug came loose, probably when we went over a bump. He reattached it and waved us on our way. What a good semeritan! 🙂 We wanted to give him some kind of tip for his help, but we only had really tiny bills (which would have been considered a joke/insult) or really huge bills (which we weren’t ready to give), so we didn’t give him anything. But he didn’t ask for anything either, which is the really beautiful thing about his act.
Back to Arusha
We had one more half-day in Zanzibar before our flight. We considered trying to squeeze in a quick trip to nearby Prison Island, where you can see huge tortoises, but in the end we decided to just take it easy.
Zanzibar’s airport was kind of a mess on the way out. Lots of people standing in various lines, none of the lines moving, and nobody sure he’s standing in the right line. We actually had two flights – one to Dar es Salam (20 minutes), then another to Arusha, and in between we had to get out of the plane and then back on. What a waste of time for everyone. But somehow everyone ends up in their destination and things work out – that’s how it is in Africa.
While killing time we met a guy named Jeremy, a stage-play director from DC. He told us about an interesting play they did recently called “Things Happen”, named after a phrase Rumsfeld blurted out during a press conference on the Iraq War.
Around the World
War broke out between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. It started when Hamas lobbed rockets at towns in southern Israel. This kind of thing has happened before, and I don’t condone it, but this time Israel retaliated more forcefully than in other times. The result was a large number of palestinian civilian casualties and backlash against Israel in many parts of the world. Over the next few weeks Pnina and I watched the news more closely, hoping to see a cease fire, wondering if it’s a good idea for us to proceed with our original itinerary and enter Egypt. More on that later.
The price of oil is on a roller coaster ride. Starting in early 2007 the price of a barrel of oil climed steeply from just over $40 to nearly $140. People were talking a lot about “peak oil” and alternative sources of energy. But in the last 2-3 months the price has tanked, reaching a low of around $36. I hope this huge drop doesn’t derail efforts to invest in wind/hydro/solar, and in more fuel efficient cars.
Our friend Jodie is pregnant! Congratulations Jodie and Ian!! 🙂 Seems like it’s baby season – various friends are getting pregnant and giving births left and right. What’s up with that?