Zanzibar: A Spice Island Getaway

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Approach to Stone Town with the ferry

We needed a holiday.  I needed a holiday.  The head honcho told me it had been awhile since she had seen one in such need of a vacation as myself.  She was not wrong.  After a busy summer wearing multiple hats, followed by a visit by FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States), immediately followed by the visit of a member of Congress, I was desperate for more than a long weekend away.  I really love Malawi, but I needed a bit of time and distance away.

Zanzibar  It is one of those place names that evokes the exotic. It hints of history and adventure.  I have wanted to visit for quite some time and at last we would.  It did not hurt that it is one of the closest island beach places we can get to from Malawi.

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C getting lost in Stone Town alleyways

We flew to Dar es Salaam on a Friday evening.  We flew south to Blantyre, Malawi’s second city, and then back up to Dar.  We landed at 9 PM; its not my preference to arrive in a new place after dark, but we have to work with the few flights we have available, which often have less than ideal schedules.  I arranged for airport pick up and direct transfer to our hotel.  At nearly 10 PM at night there was little traffic, and as we whizzed down the road in the darkness I was struck that the road had four lanes, nicely white painted lines, and a flyover.  There is not a single flyover in all of Malawi (though one is currently under construction).  And it occurred to me we had not been outside of Malawi for five months.

The next morning we took a short taxi to the Azam Marine ferry terminal for our two hour trip to Zanzibar.  Arriving, the taxi was immediately surrounded by mesh-vested men, their vests I suppose declaring they work in some capacity there, but frankly, I thought, anyone can buy a vest.  I jumped out of the taxi quickly because I knew as soon as the trunk was open these guys were going to jostle one another to grab our suitcases.  I swooped in first, but made a quick calculation that we might be better off with one of these men than without, so made eye contact with one and nodded.  He took charge of the luggage and we followed swiftly behind.

Vested-man’s help got us to VIP luggage check and, what I can only guess is the equivalent of “economy-plus,” waiting area, a no-AC area just slightly less crowded than the waiting area for the masses, where I sat on a plastic chair and C sat on a cement stair.  Our two hour trip was uneventful and we slipped into the dock at Stone Town right on time at 11:30.  Here we went through immigration for the Revolutionary Republic of Zanzibar.  A psuedo-official looking woman told me to get our yellow fever certificates out, but then neither she nor anyone else actually asked for them again.

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Stone Town?  More like Cat Town.

I knew our hotel, the Doubletree, was located somewhere close by, about ten minutes on foot, within the rabbit warren of narrow streets, but I had no map.  Yet I knew approximately where to go and what it was near, so C and I headed off, each with a backpack and a rolling suitcase, through the gauntlet of “helpers” despite their warnings that it was “too far.”  At Forodhani Gardens I asked a group of three men the general direction and one opted to lead us with apparently only hope, but not a solid expectation, of a payoff.  Within five minutes we were checking in.

We settled in, had lunch at the rooftop restaurant with a beautiful view of rooptops and the sparkling Indian Ocean beyond, then headed out on our own walking tour.  We visited the Old Fort, walked past the under-renovation Palace of Wonders, sought refuge from the burning sun at the Sultan’s Palace now a historical museum, and then visited the finely decorated historic Old Dispensary.  Along the way we came across many, many stray street cats, much to C’s delight.  Just walking back from the Old Dispensary, we counted at least 20.  Cats quickly shot up to C’s favorite part about Stone Town.

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Walkway through the mangrove forest of Jozani

For our second day we headed out on a tour of Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park, the only national park in Zanzibar.  It is the home of the endangered red colobus monkey, found only on Unguja, Zanzibar’s main island.  We drove for nearly an hour through the island’s villages.  Look for images of Zanzibar online and you will first find pictures of sparkling blue waters, dazzling white sands, palm trees, and beautiful people in beach ware.  Then you would find photos of the crumbly, colorful, crooked streets of Stone Town.  But there are few if any pictures of the island interior, the poor, tumbledown, desperate looking villages.  Looking around, I thought a lot about Malawi.  Zanzibar has 2.5 times the GDP per capita than Malawi, though Malawi has nearly 20 times the population.  I push the uncomfortable thoughts aside.

The park is lovely and green.  We take a short hike through the trees and are lucky to see blue monkeys and the red colobus.  We actually see quite a few, very close to the parking area.  Then we walk on a wooden walkway through a mangrove forest, catching sight of fish and crabs below us.  On the way back to town I have the tour guide drop us at an Italian place on the outskirts of historic Stone Town.  My daughter orders a burger — perhaps the best we have had in five months.  Following lunch, we head back into the maze, stopping first at the Old Slave Market, now a small, but extremely informative museum.  We slowly make our way back to our hotel — we count stray cats along the way.

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Doors of Stone Town

On our third and final day in Stone Town we opt for a spice tour, probably the most popular tour on the island.  And why not?  It makes perfect sense as Zanzibar is one of the original spice islands, a centuries old location of trade in cardamon, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, and cloves (one the world’s number one producer of cloves).  I worried C might grow bored, but the guide catered to her, giving her ample opportunities to try and guess the different spices we encountered.  He also wove grass handbags, headbands, and bracelets as we walked.  C did not want to wear them but was happy to put her beloved stuffie into the bag.  After our excursion and lunch, we again wandered the narrow alleys of Stone Town, visiting Jaws Corner, where old guys go to sit around and chat (and there is an old phone tied to a telephone poll with a sign advertising “free international phone calls”), the old Hammani baths, and the Mercury House, where lead singer of Queen Freddie Mercury spent some of his formative years, had mother/daughter henna designs painted on our hands, and I took pictures of more Zanzibar doors.  And we played with more cats.  Of course.

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One cannot deny how pretty the view is

From Stone Town we moved about an hour north to a resort on the western coast, the Sea Cliff Resort and Spa.  This was a real change of pace — from sightseeing around the island and walking around the historic city, to the leisurely pace of an all-inclusive beach resort.  Well, not quite beach, it isn’t called sea “cliff” for nothing.  Hanging out by the pool is not usually my thing.  I love sunshine and a view of sparkling ocean water, but I am very fair skinned…yet, my daughter loves the pool, the ocean, the beach, sunshine.  I try to make sure each vacation has something for each of us.

 

I had hoped we might do a few activities at the resort, but it turned out that few of them were actually held there, with the exception of horseback riding, one of the key reasons I decided on Sea Cliff.  C LOVES horses.  She envisions herself some kind of horse whisperer.  While at the age of 6, she has had more horse experience than I have, but it is still limited to horse-sitting other than horse-riding.  I also reserved the Sea Cliff because of its kids’ club.  A few years ago we visited the Dominican Republic; it was our first time at an all-inclusive and it was magical.  Before, an all-inclusive was the antithesis of what I looked for in a holiday, that is before I began traveling as a single mom.  Now, it is not always what I like to do, but I do like to throw at least one into the vacation mix every year if possible.

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No beach, but this lovely boardwalk out to a sunset pavilion made up for it

Unfortunately the kids’ club was under renovation.  And although they had moved it to another part of the resort, actually in the game room where there was a pool table and foosball, both things C likes to play, and they had a bouncy castle and trampoline, C was the only child dropped off at the kids’ club.  We saw other children at breakfast and dinner, but only one or two during the day.  Though I did drop her off a few times for only an hour or so, she preferred to sit in the back of the gym with her tablet while I worked out.  So we spent more time together than I had anticipated.  That is not a bad thing at all, of course, part of the purpose of the trip was not only to have some distance from Malawi and our usual routine, but to have quality mother-daughter time.  Unfortunately for us both, some work had followed me on vacation.

 

It is another of those small post realities.  I am the political officer but as we have a small State Department footprint, I also back-up the Economic and Consular officers.  The recent departure of the Management Officer (retired) without an immediate replacement, the Financial Management Officer (FMO) would need a back-up certifying officer… I only needed to take a 40 hour course and pass a four hour test before the FMO went on a two week training session the first week of November.  So while C had some pool time, I had some fiscal data time.

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C and I walk into the sunset on the back of horses

Still it was a beautiful place and we had some good time together.  Despite the work, it was a perfect holiday together.

Until we had to head back to Dar es Salaam.  Although C had been fine on the ferry over, we were not so lucky on the way back.  I had purchased business class tickets, which were exactly like the economy class seats we had on the way over, with the exception of their location on the boat.  I chose front seats, in front of the aisle and the television.  None of it mattered.  About 45 minutes into the trip, C declared she was not feeling so good and then without warning projectile vomited on her backpack, my backpack, the seat, the floor, miraculously missing most of herself.  A boat attendant was at our side in approximately 30 seconds with a roll of paper towels, apparently well-trained for such incidents.  I got C to the restroom at the back of the boat to clean her and our backpacks off.  We sat back down, only to 30 minutes later get to experience the whole magical experience again.  Except this time she made sure she got it all over her clothes and her stuffie and somehow in her hair.  There was only so much I could do to clean her up.

We disembarked in Dar rather smelly, others gave us a wide berth.  At least at first.  Once we stood ready to gather our two rolling suitcases and walk the 10 minutes to the hotel, we were suddenly the hottest tickets in town, no matter how much we stunk.  We probably just looked all the more pathetic and susceptible to “assistance.”  Men tried to grab out suitcases out of our hands and almost demand we accept their help.  My “No, thank you,” and “we are fine, thanks” were completely ignored.  Men on foot, and men in taxis, and men in other forms of transport pursued us.  At one point I was completely fed up and angrily told the man walking behind us that we were “JUST FINE” and to “PLEASE LEAVE US ALONE.”  And of course he said, “ok, ok, Hakuna Matata.” And I about lost it.

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Mother-Daughter henna

Perhaps the biggest annoyance of our visit to Dar/Zanzibar was the overuse of the swahili phrase appropriated by Disney for the Lion King so everyone knows it.  And very irritating “helpers” used this phrase to guilt tourists into coughing up money.  In Stone Town, while C and I followed signs around a corner to stairs leading to a Japanese restaurant, a “helper” appeared at our sides to “help” us find our way.  I told him repeatedly I did not need help, but he refused to go away, insisting “its my job. Hakuna Matata.”  His “job” to lead people where they already know they are going? No doubt, hoping I would slip him a few dollars (as if not more useful in Zanzibar as Tanzanian shillings).  I did not.  As I headed to a shop about 9 PM to get C and I some snacks a man began to videotape me with his phone, right in my face.  I asked him to get out of my way and stop recording, but he said I needed to “help him or let me die.”  At that moment I completely and utterly understood why a celebrity might punch a paparazzi.  But hey, “Hakuna Matata.”

We made it past the “helpers” and to the hotel, our sole thought to check in and clean up.  Maybe exercise — the gym for me, the pool for C.  Only to find out once in our room on the top floor that the hot water was not working, the hot water tank was on the roof, just above our heads, so while waiting in our executive floor suite we could hear every clang and bang of someone attempting to rectify the water situation.  The executive floor lounge was closed on Saturdays.  The pool and rooftop bar closed for renovation.  We were told two hours until the water would be fixed.  It took four.  C and I tried to make the best of it, but it was not easy.  Though I can laugh about it now.  Sort of.

Overall a good trip.  Overall being the key word.  Certainly not boring and a trip we will not forget.

 

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