When I was in college in Philly there was a jazz club called Zanzibar Blue down on the Avenue of the Arts. This was the classy kind of jazz club where upscale folks went, people who can appreciate the finer things in life. In my head this where people like my friend Jed’s parents went. I’m not sure if they did actually go there, if we met them there once, or if it was simply mentioned at one point in their presence, but in my memory the two are linked. Classy folks = classy jazz club in Philly.
Twenty years later and Zanzibar actually showed up on my radar; the real Zanzibar; the spice island; the tropical paradise. The whole time I was planning the trip I recall saying often, in my head, in a smooth jazz-FM kind of NPR way, “Time to skedaddle to Zanzibar Blue, gents.”
Now, obviously, I know Zanzibar the island will be nothing like a central Philly jazz club, but my point is that I was at least aware that such a place really existed. And I knew, thanks to my African studies courses at Temple U, that it was in Africa. This is not true for everyone, I have found! So, for those unacquainted:
Zanzibar is a collection of islands (an archipelago) off the eastern coast of Africa. If you are looking at the whole continent, it’s just to the east of the slender middle. More precisely, it is off the coast of Tanzania, incorporated as a semi-autonomous state, and really gives the country the “zania” part of it’s name. When Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged in 1964 the names merged as well. Unguja is the real name of the largest and primarily inhabited island of the collection; most folks refer to it solely as Zanzibar.
Zanzibar’s history is both glorious and horrid. The Swahili culture of old thrived and traded spices actively within the Indian Ocean trade routes of the Persians and Asian ship routes. Later, the island became controlled by outside colonizers. Arab traders began living on the island, and brought with them culture, religion, and leadership. Portugal claimed the island for a long while in the 1500s but the local Arabs truly ruled the place. Eventually, it became part of the Sultanate of Oman and was a massive center of the slave trade for hundreds of years. In fact, you can visit a monument and museum about slavery at the Anglican church in Stone Town.
The people of Zanzibar are still nearly all Muslim; a big cultural difference from mainland Tanzania. In the 1800’s Britain became a protectorate of Zanzibar, finally outlawing the hundreds of years-old slavery machine but allowing the sultanate to self-govern. In 1963, the UK ended its relationship and Zanzibar nearly immediately had a violent revolution, ousted the sultan, experimented with socialism and then joined with Tanzania.
The ravages of such a history are apparent when visiting. There are beautiful ruins to behold; remnants of a sultanate wealthy from the slave trade. The island still exports lots of cloves as it’s ‘spice island’ status implies, but the timing of its revolution left it way behind in the technology game and hasn’t caught back up to its once glorious primary export.
The most noticeable economic attempt at improvement is the seaweed farms! They dot the shore all over the place, and while it obscures the view of Indian ocean blue it was quite a fun thing to watch women squatting knee-deep in the water tending their seaweed patches all day. It added variety and interest and a way to interact with local people even if simply to see them.
Our resort was a small family place called the Moonshine just out of the village of Uroa on the Indian Ocean side of the island. The resort was lovely, and our bungalow was wonderful. It was just on the soft white sand beach with gorgeous palm trees swaying and a lovely open cabana where breakfast was served. There was a pool to swim in when the tide was out, and delicious Italian food to eat. The owner is from Italy and she was quite nice and helpful, plus all the staff were outgoing and spoke English. There were other family’s and a cat with kittens. It was wonderful.
As we explored, though, the island felt more and more like a dramatic Us vs. Them or Have’s and Have Not’s experiment. The poverty of the local people was very apparent, but what struck me as the most odd were the numerous half-done projects everywhere. It was like rich people came in from somewhere and began to build resorts, vacation homes, and new homes for the local people out of cement block. But then no one returned to finish it. All over the place people lived in lovely, but tiny and well kept simple homes made from local materials and stone; they were obviously poor but self sufficient. However, right beside nearly each of them would be an unused newer structure of block walls – just the walls. It was so odd. While we have traveled to poor areas many times, Zanzibar gave us the most curious view of it. Perhaps this is what it looks like when outsiders try to help, but don’t complete what they’ve started. Just a guess.
We didn’t meet many local people; the women were busy out in the water with their seaweed farms all day. The men seemed busy with their daily lives as well, mostly out on fishing boats. A few men ran some shops in shacks along the beach and would troll us a bit to come have a look, but no one was ever rudely persistent. Here, a no thank you was honored. Quite pleasant, that!
The kids, however, we played with. There were a bunch of European kids to befriend at the resort, but the local kids were more interested in joining us in the water. During the morning, the girls would walk past our resort to school, barefooted on the sand but wearing their Khimar or Chador – a white loose fitting headscarf that buttoned under their chins and draped loosely down over their shoulders to about the knee. At noon they would return, and in the evening the boys went past in well pressed trousers and button shirts. Nearly immediately after getting home, however, they would strip down to their worn clothes and come out to the water.
Zoe and Avi enjoyed their company. Especially Avi. We would swim and look for fish, and they all traded around our kids’ snorkel mask. Avi taught them the word fish, and they would squeal “FISH! FISH!” and point when they found one and we’d all have to run over and spot it in the sandy underwater mounds of seaweed and coral. They taught us, without language, about a particular fish that would hurt if touched, and how to spot the spiky urchins in the seaweed. I was so glad they were around!
Zoe was more interested in walking among the seaweed farming women and was curious to see how that worked. One afternoon we went walking as a fam along the beach past Uroa village and hoped to round the corner and see the next beach over, but the longer we walked the further away that headland seemed.
In Uroa when the tide recedes it goes out very far and Chwaka bay becomes nearly dry. So, we timed our walk with the tidal out and enjoyed discovering new creatures as we ventured further and further out. Eventually, the tangle of seaweed farms and land-mine urchins turned us back. We never made it to the headland or even close to seeing the next beach! But what a lovely day out.
I had rented a car for us via Kibabu car rentals, which I highly recommend if you find yourselves going to Zanzibar. Most visitors, it seems, pay for transport to their resort and then pay daily for excursions. However, there is no reason you cannot simply do day trips around the island on your own and for significantly less money. Our rental was $35 daily, and for a small fee Kibabu pre-arranged Bryan’s obligatory Zanzibar driving permit. Kibabu met us at the airport, and was quite a jolly nice fellow! He told us how to handle any police pull-overs and we had his cell number if there was trouble; which we never used. Our only trouble was finding an ATM. Come with cash, or use the airport ATM: it will be the last you see on Zanzibar.
Our flight had been late to arrive. I take that back, our flight arrived on time but we weren’t on it. When we got to the Arusha airport in the Serengeti that morning we were informed that we had “been sold” to another carrier, but the flight was the same so it didn’t matter. So we set about finding something to do as it was apparent we did not actually need to be there 2 hours prior. The Arusha airport is merely a collection of open-air metal roofs that have been added onto over the years; there are quite a few tiny shops with walls built under the roof and the kids found the prices better than elsewhere. Avi finally got that wooden alligator he wanted. There were seats for waiting, arbitrarily lined up facing the runway though the view was obscured by trinket stands. Zoe listened to some audio books; I recommend White Giraffe for this trip. Avi made friends with a little girl and they played a long while until she popped him on the head with a toy airplane.
Bryan wandered off to chat with the local bush pilots who flew for some regional airline out to the Serengeti and came back all excited about the prospect of returning here one day to fly rich people out to see giraffes. The guy’s wife taught at the local international school, too, so it seemed I could be employed as well. Oh, to dream.
When time started to seem imminent we went back to the desk to finalize check in and get our bag tagged, which we did successfully. A Muslim family in front of us spoke English and one nice guy said, “oh are you going to Zanzibar, so are we. You can follow us.” So, I took that literally. I periodically checked with an attendant at THE desk (all the airlines take turns at one desk where peoples names are hand written on tickets), and he told me he’d let us know when to go through security. Eventually, past the time for our original flight, we followed the family through security. This was an actual x-ray and a metal detector like a big airport, just it was outside and merely admitted us to the runway side of the chain link fence. We followed the fam out to a plane, but were then turned away. Apparently that was their charter. OUR flight was in another hour! Bryan called Kibabu to give him our new arrival info and we settled in with the newfound flight information. Turns out we were switched from one airline on a little slow airplane to another airline with a larger faster craft that landed us in Zanzibar only an hour late even though we left two hours late. It worked out, and Kibabu was there in the parking lot.
For an excursion day we drove the rental out to the Jozani Forest. Of course, we couldn’t find an ATM and had a pretty low stash of cash, but I negotiated with the lady at the forest counter and we got in with a mix of dollars and shillings and an unadvertised “what do you have?” low rate. It was a wonderful little walking tour; we were assigned a guide who walked us along through the forest and taught us all about the plants and the ants and the red colobus monkeys. He knew where the clutch of them was and we were allowed to get as close as we wanted, but not to touch. He took us out to the mangrove to walk along the boardwalk trail and taught us about the ecosystem. It was wonderful and Bryan was so glad, nay excited, to see real friendly monkeys.
In all, 3 days was enough Zanzibar for us. It was a wonderful tropical respite after the dusty Serengeti, and a beautiful add on to the trip. The vibe, though, was one of confusion. It seems as if the local people aren’t sure what to think of the tourists; like me in my bikini next to modest ladies in head coverings tending their seaweed. It wasn’t apparent if they disapproved or were curious, if they wanted more tourists or were happy to see us go. It felt like the tourist boom from Europe had come one year and then Zanzibar was forgotten. It is certainly authentic; everyone we spoke with was friendly and smiley and helpful, and the place isn’t dolled up to appear perfect for our benefit. It was lovely to hear the call to prayer, and pet the cats and watch the fishing boats. It is not a resort; it is Zanzibar. It’s a paradise where people live simply and work hard and on occasion a tourist shows up.