Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Tanzania: Getting Spicy on Zanzibar

You probably know that Zanzibar was one of the original ‘Spice Islands,’ where traders from near and far came to swap goods and pick up exotic spices. But did you also know that it was home to Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of the band Queen? It’s true. And it’s fitting for an island like Zanzibar, which is such a crazy crossroads of cultures, architecture, and attractions. Mosques ring out the call to prayer, India influences the cuisine and music, and everyone from Rastas to Masai plies their wares on the streets. We wandered the narrow alleys, enjoying the feeling of being back in Egypt at times, and capped our evenings off with sundowners on the famed balcony of the Africa House Hotel. Kathleen became particularly enamored with the dawa, a mix of kunyagi (the local cane-based fire water), vodka, lemon and ginger. We tried to check out the local music scene at the Dharma Lounge, but we were put off the sign that prohibited both prostitution and bedroom slippers. Talk about a kill-joy.

While largely Muslim, Zanzibar feels so different from Egypt, as the women wear brightly colored kangas (cotton print cloth used for skirts, dresses, head wraps, etc) with Swahili proverbs on them that convey everything from loving endearments to sassy advice. We had good fun asking women in the street to help us translate them. Another testament to the relaxed culture in Zanzibar was the veiled woman at our backpacker hostel, who couldn’t taker her eyes off Jay Z’s racy ‘Umbrella’ video with scantily-clad women writhing around. She told us, ‘Oh, I love this one!’ as she was helping us check out of our room.

We also made our way out to the coast at Pongwe Beach. Rather than fork over the cash for a taxi, we opted for the daladala, a pickup truck converted into a taxi of sorts. People get on and off as you rumble down the road, with everyone packed in like sardines. At one point, we counted 21 people in the back, including the two women crouched in the middle with no seat.

Heading out into the hinterlands, we encounter kids playing their own version of shirts and skins on the soccer field, with one team wearing jerseys made out of old rice bags and the other bare-chested. We jumped out at Santa Maria Coral Park, awaiting seaside bliss. Instead we were greeted with low tide (the sea looked miles away) and hundreds of kids running amok, screeching and careening into each other at our seaside abode. But we learned that the kids were orphans (largely due to HIV/AIDS) on a day trip, so how could you be angry with them? And the tide came back at 3pm. After a beachside beer at the bar made out of an old dhow (fishing boat), followed by barbecued kingfish and a post-dinner bonfire, we had changed our tune. And our one night stay turned into three. Our only wish was that the Three Stupids could have been in charge of the stereo system. Instead, we found ourselves dancing barefoot to bad American mukaz classics. But we did learn to play the wooden board game, boa, and we bought a board to teach all of our friends at home.

For the most part, we lazed around reading, journaling and hammocking, but we did ride rental bikes up the coast to Kiwenge, a largely Italian-oriented resort village. We cracked up at the Masai on the beach who greeted us with ‘ciao regazzi!’ Evidently we were all out of our element, as neither us, nor the Masai, really belonged there.

The highlight of our Zanzibar experience, however, had to be our daladala ride back to Stone Town. We foolishly convinced our new German friends Tim and Melanie to join us on the daladala instead of a taxi. Which was all well and good until the skies opened up and poured rain on us while we waited by the side of the road. But soon enough we were picked up, with just a short detour to pick up a 6-foot bull shark, manta ray, and heaps of firewood to load on top with our backpacks. It was rather unreal, and the whole ride we had a view of the shark’s fin bouncing down the road with us. We practiced our new language skills with the daladala drivers, and when Eric busted out his ‘poa kichisi kama ndizi’ (crazy cool like a banana) they laughed and accused us of speaking gangsta Swahili. Upon arriving in town, we saw them unceremoniously dump the shark on the pavement and drag it a block to the shop, prompting us to eat vegetarian that night.

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