Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Tales from the Spice Islands

So I went to Zanzibar. One of East Africa's spice islands (not to be confused with the Island of the Spices). I didn't really know much about Zanzibar but I thought it had a cool name and I have had a serious deficiency of beach this summer and I have heard it mentioned in some Jimmy Buffett songs so there was no way I was going to be this close and not go. It is a 2 hour ferry ride from Dar if you take the fast ferry (which I did) and between 4 and 10 hours if you take the slow boat.

Pulling into Zanzibar harbor i couldn't help but be impressed by the crystal turquoise water and dhows parked lazily on the beach with children splashing beside them. But dominating the field of vision above the waterfront are the colonial and precolonial buildings of Stone Town. And they immediately filled me with a sense of wonder.

Upon leaving the boat I was greeted by a taxi drive wearing a University of Alabama polo. He eloquently informed me that "the man standing in front of you is a taxi driver" and I politely inquired, "Does the man standing in front of me know what kind of shirt he is wearing?" He said he did but couldn't tell me much about Alabama and I joked with him a little and said if he were wearing an Auburn shirt I would take a ride but then assured him that I didn't need one because a friend had arranged someone to meet me at the port and give me a tour of stonetown. But the friend of Dr. Karim from St. Joseph's didn't show up (it turns out he thought I was coming a few days later) and after waiting for a little while I decided to dive into Stone Town alone....and I am glad I did.

Stone Town is shrouded in antiquity and seems to be straight from an Arabian fairytale. I could wander around for days following its narrow cobblestone streets (they were about 4 feet wide) dodging scooters and watching children playing, walking past shops and inns and mosques, and the occasional fortress-like Cathedral (there are only 2 on this island that is 99% muslim, but they are huge, impressive buildings). I kept looking for a magic carpet or Aladdin's lamp and think if I had stayed much longer I would have found them. Anyway, after a few hours I met up with some of the volunteers that had stayed in Moshi earlier in the summer and so I spent the rest of my two days with them and the misunderstanding with my guide wasn't a problem. So the first day I spent wondering around Stone Town.

The second day I had to find a beach and of course the more the difficult the beach is to get to the better it is right? We decided to go to one on the eastern shore of the island (Stone Town is on the western shore) named Pongwe. It took us 2 hours on the bus and when we got there we were the only people on the beach. But this place was awesome. The beach was made of snow white sands and bordered by a tropical palm forest with a sleepy little fishing and seaweed farming village nestled within the trees and lining parts of the beach. And the water was beautiful, but it was about a half a mile away because the tide was out. I spent a while admiring the beach and trying to imagine how much better it would be if the tide were in. And when I could take it no longer I hiked for about 45 minutes over exposed rocky ocean floor and tidal pools to get to the water so I could swim a little. It was nice.

Afterward I talked extensively with the local shaman and complemented him on the great beauty and tranquility of his beach. He informed me that he had dreamed of a much better beach located in Southern Mexico and advised me to head west immediately. This frustrated me to no end but I did as he said and began journeying west as far as Stone Town where i stopped to rest for the night and enjoyed a feast of grilled octopus, red snapper, and shrimp at the local seafood market - this part is true. (I cannot confirm or deny the statements regarding the shaman in the previous paragraph. He may or may not have existed. And the statements regarding Mexican beaches may or may not be my own humble, yet somewhat knowledgeable, opinion - seriously, can you beat the Caribbean? I think not.)
The next morning I spent a few hours hypnotically exploring the maze of buildings that is Stone Town (i honestly enjoyed this as much as the beach) and then caught the 2:00 Ferry back to Dar. I knew there were problems when as we were leaving the harbor the crew began passing out plastic bags that were labeled "sick bag". I am by no means a salty sea captain but I have been on a few boats and never really had problems with sea sickness. But then again, I had never been on a sea like this. As our 200 passenger catamaran cut through the waves headed to Dar we encountered huge swells and the boat was constantly rocking and bouncing and crashing into the water. I saw many European tourists as their faces slowly went from a tanned bronze to a sickly green and felt the green invading my own face as well (I think I would have been fine if it had not been for the bad breath and B.O. of the man sitting to my left who was a very nervous Tanzanian and would not stop talking to me). The boat was also very warm in the lower deck which did not help any. So I spent the better part of the next two hours taking deep breaths and listening to people vomit behind me and smelling the vomit when the wind died down. This was not pleasant. And I timidly lined the inside of my hat with the barf bag and prayed i wouldn't have to use it. And I did not get sick. Once the boat was docked I had to step over a pool of someone elses vomit to get off of the boat. And all during the trip they were herding sick white people out to the bow, I had a good view of this from my seat and would have enjoyed it much more if it hadn't been for my own nausea.

Back in Dar (I really felt at home in this city, it is huge, coastal, laid back, and runs on typical African "organized chaos), I could feel the bronze replacing the green on my face and with it came confidence that I could find my way around the city on my own. So I negotiated a cab to take me back to the medical school where I was staying (some friends I had met here in 2003 were hosting me). Once in the cab, after about half of the trip someone ran a stoplight and crashed into the cab on my side. It seemed like a minor fender bender but as we continued on the tire blew out. I insisted on paying the guy extra for his trouble and then had to get a new taxi back to the hospital. So I survived barfboat 09 and a taxi wreck within an hour of each other and it was fun.

Dar has also inspired me to write a song about Tanzania's public transportation system of daladalas. The song is titled "Butt in the face" and is sung to the tune of Band on the Run. I have only written one line so far....

So, in summation, Go to Zanzibar! and spend some time in Dar on the way!

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