Tue, 22 Jul 2008 12:01:09 +0000

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Today was my big day to finally see Zanzibar. I'd made this one of the key Things To See on the whole trip, not for any particular purpose, but just because it sounds so exotic and cool. The island is fairly large, but I felt that Stone Town was the real attraction, so that's what I intended to see. I only made a day trip, but this is in fact fine to explore the place.

The day started early, at 6:00 when it was still dark. I had planned to walk down to the ferry terminal, but the guy at reception seemed highly skeptical about that plan. Since I really don't want to be mugged at this stage (I reckon just get me through Zambia, then I'm prepared to be mugged), I took his advice and caught a taxi to the terminal. I arrived pretty much exactly when I was instructed to, an hour before departure. I.e., far too early. But it was OK, I just sat on the steps with everyone else. At one point a guy turned up and started singing hymns at us (the ferry terminal is just in front of a church). I don't know what the significance of that is, if anything, but it was a nice piece of background noise.

I was disappointed to find that I had a middle-row seat, wedged between two other passengers. But it was fairly comfortable nevertheless. They have a little galley where you can buy cold snacks and drinks. I got a few of those sweet deep-fried things I had yesterday, and a coffee, to make up for my missed hotel breakfast.

The sea was a little bumpy, bumpy enough that reading would have made me sick. I just listened to music. There was televisual entertainment. First was some kind of African rythym group whose gimmick apparently is dressing up in drag, badly. I got sick of them pretty quickly. This was followed up by "Casino Royale", with some extremely eccentric subtitles - I suspect they were automatically created by some computer program, but that doesn't explain the bizarre capitalisation. I tried to ignore it. I'd been promised that the ride took about an hour and a half, but I was unsurprised to find that it took more like two and a half hours.

On arrival in Zanzibar we lined up to fill out entry cards and get our passports stamped: Zanzibar insists on keeping its own immigration system within the Tanzanian union. With that out of the way, I was free to explore Stone Town.

I immediately went on a random walk. Stone Town is a bit of a grotty-looking place, with the walls of the buildings discoloured and rotting. But there's a nice atmosphere created by the twisty little streets and the distinctive architecture. Every building seems to have Arabic-style crenellations.

The most remarkable feature though is the elaborately-carved doors, which is something the Zanzibarans take particular pride in.

I eventually found myself in the market, which was pretty fun. The fish market is satisfyingly raw and bloody, and the fish looks fresh and tasty. I tried to find some of Zanzibar's famous elephant garlic, which was available from the supermarket in Oldenburg for exactly three days at one point, and which I loved using. Couldn't see any though, maybe out of season. I did get a few bananas to top up my vitamins.

I headed back towards the ferry to visit "the museum". There are at least two museums, in fact, and I visited both of them. The first was the palace museum, which is mostly just the preserved palace as it was left by the sultan. It's largely in a pretty sad state of decay, especially the top floor, where the ceiling has rotted through in many places. Since the last sultan had a taste for very-fasionable-in-the-50s formica furniture, those bits do not look at all palatial. But some of the state rooms, with their intricately-carved black furniture, do look very grand.

Also fascinating is the story of princess Salme, who eloped with a German and lived out her life in Hamburg. I'll have to get a copy of her autobiography.

Just up the road is the actual museum, which is somewhat under construction. The first two floors are in place though, and the lobby is dominated by a big replica dhow, using the old technique of sewn rather than nailed boards.

The museum has a lot of information about Zanzibaran life and customs. It also has a rather frank set of panels about how poorly-preserved much of Stone Town is, and what they're doing to try to undo the damage. The town is UNESCO world heritage listed now, and is a big tourist attraction. Certainly there were an awful lot of tourists out in the streets. So I guess the money to restore the place is on its way.

The descriptions in the museum of all the spices grown on or traded through Zanzibar had me itching to try some Tanzanian cuisine, so I went to a slightly posh restaurant that advertised this as a speciality (even though it also claimed to be an Italian restaurant). I got fish and green banana in coconut sauce, and it was excellent. Finally, I'd eaten something appropriately exotic in Tanzania.

I went in search of the cathedral, which unfortunately turned out to be closed. I also bought a random pancake thing from a small restaurant to bulk up the meagre portion from the restaurant. There are a few too many souvenir shops in that area, around the old fort. There are also quite a lot of touts harrassing passers-by. But I'm well able to ignore them by now.

With about an hour still to kill before getting back to the ferry, I just sat in a grassy park and watched the sea for a bit. It was a nice spot there, and the touts largely left me alone. There are various dhows plying the waves to stare at. Quite a peaceful moment.

Mind you, if I still lived in Perth I'd probably consider it claustrophobic. There are genuinely idyllic isolated beaches on Zanzibar, but that's not the kind of holiday I'm on.

Eventually it was time to head back to the ferry terminal. I did have one slight worry that my trip to Zanzibar might count as exiting Tanganyika and thus require another entry visa, but of course that would be silly. And anyway, the guy barely glanced at my passport or exit card. I found my way to my seat, which this time turned out to be not only in the middle but also facing backwards. But I had noticed that people didn't pay much attention to seat numbers on the way over, so I shuffled over to the window, and had quite a nice seat on the way back.

I think the best part of travelling is the actual travelling. I love being on my way somewhere, making progress, but not having to think or contribute to the process in any way. So I had a really marvellous time on the way back, just contemplating life, with my earphones plugged in and watching the boat ride up and down. The sea was a little bumpier on the way back, just enough to be interesting.

We got into Dar at a bit after six, with the sky starting to darken. I went for lunch at a western-style junk food place called "Steers", just because it was easy and nearby. I got a gigantic chicken tikka sub, which even though it was just silly junk food, was actually completely delicious.

By the time I'd finished that, and a coffee, it was really pretty dark, and I fearfully scurried back to the hotel. I really needn't be worried, sticking to relatively well-lit and busy streets, and knowing exactly where I was going. But a certain level of paranoia is healthy, and as I say, this is precisely where I don't want to get mugged.

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