I have a few places in the world that I like to keep secret. I guess, out of fear that the secret would somehow reach the world and then the world, with all of its commercialism and such, plague it and turn it into another Dubai or Gold Coast. They are usually always the places hardest to get to and for that reason, have a sense of seclusion and untouchability. But, one alone can’t stop the progress… just hope that progress doesn’t mean regress for the locals or detract away from the beauty and innocence which made me fall in love with the place in the first place.
Zanzibar – just the name alone sound so alluringly exotic – is one of those places. I can’t hide you from it so I’m going to tell you how wonderful it is, just so you know how carefully to tread if you decide to venture to one of the most exquisite places on earth. Dar Es Salaam is the launch point for the Zanzibar Ferry. It’s a two-hour ferry costing about $25 each way, and takes you into Stone Town: a conservative Muslim town that has been the center for trading since the Arabs sailed on Dhow boats. It was also the centre for the slave trade, where many Africans were brought from Malawi, Tanzania and Congo, amongst others, to be sold off in the European market. Walking around Stone Town is like a trip back in time, with small cobblestone alleyways and hidden stall shops. The architectural influence is a mix between Indian and Arab. Even the large wooden doors are intricately carved with large brass studs decorating them (round tops are India style, square are Arab), and it is a photographer’s heaven.
My first day is always spent in Stone Town, walking through the ancient alleys awing at the markets and $1/hour internet stalls. By the way, this part of town is quite conservative so adherence to local and Muslim culture is to taken seriously, not that the polite local would say anything but it is only respectful to follow suit in this part of the island. You can take it all off and run naked for miles once you get to the beaches in the north and east, where a good friend of mine, Babloo lives and works as a guide. Once there, I always drop what I’m doing and agree to meet for a sunset drink overlooking the triangular sailboats and local kids splashing about in the water.
I’m always anxiously awaiting dusk to see the night come alive and the market come out of the closet and shine the night away. As if appearing from nothing, seafood stands, rows of painting venders, wooden Masai dealers turn up and the bargaining begins. The best time to bargain is when you have no interest in buying anything. Much in the same way in Pakistan do you haggle the prices of everything – so do you here, even for cigarettes – and if you don’t like the price then rest assured you will be chased down the street as you walk away seeking a better price, by the store owner offering a price better than the one you initially tried to haggle for. Ironically so!
Food, fantastic. Make sure to buy from a vender that a local is eating at, especially where the women eat; they tend to be cleaner and in the know of the fresh food from the previous day’s leftovers. In fact, some of the time I’d ask the women which fish kebabs they intended to purchase, or which Zanzibar pizza they liked and always, their advice left me with solid poos on the next motion! I usually stay away from other meats as when there is seafood around; I am naught but a slave to King Neptune.
Zanzibar is also known for the spice plantations run by the British back in the day. The spice tour on the way to the north end of the island is a must. You will learn about curry, (is there any more one could learn about curry living or coming from South Asia? – there certainly is), nutmeg, vanilla, cloves, pepper… what each plant looks like, how the spices are harvested and are cultivated to localise the taste – and there is a big difference. Curry, coconut and clams, squid and fish with a hint of ginger, honey and cloves in a broth of milk is probably the most exotic thing one could imagine but curried fish wrapped in banana leaves and cooked under the ground amidst coals, is another. Additionally, you will learn how pineapples are grown, how to climb a coconut tree using only some twine wrapped around your feet and a pocket full of bravery, then after some amazing chilling-out time with lemon-grass, masala and ginger tea, you will be taken along the bumpy roads up to Kendwa Beach.
Kendwa Beach is a little slice of heaven, as are most of the beaches on Zanzibar. Kind of what Kashmir is to Pakistanis is Kendwa to a Tanzanian – and the rest of those whom discover it. The Sunset Hotel is reliably right on the beach. Now, this place is a charm and a half. Romantic wooden beds draped with mosquito nets and turquoise sheets to match the water. Down a few coral steps was the sand and about 100 meters out was the water: turquoise blue, warm and refreshingly salty. The sand; all white, and soft; as if heaven is being all fluffy under your feet. It goes on for miles, an eternity in fact.
There’s not a lot to do there, but who wants to do anything when on holiday. There’s the usual scuba diving, skiing, sailing, snorkeling, swimming, fishing, sunbathing, bike riding and trekking, not to mention localised dance lessons and language lessons, but besides a little scuba diving and swimming, I opt for a book and a hammock every time. The biggest decision of the day is usually whether to get a henna tattoo or a divine massage from the local beach women, about $4/30 minutes. The evenings are occupied by sunset strolls and trying to get the best sunset shots, sometimes with an old wooden boat drifting away, sometimes with a lobster pot shadowed in the corner. Some days are spent on the back of Babloo’s dirt bike rediscovering the island, which you can also rent for the price of chips back home.
As you can imagine, it is very sad to leave Zanzibar. Relaxing, magical and entertaining for all who like the easy life. I can still feel the warmth of the water, just floating along with the waves, the salt drying on my skin as I bathe in the sun whilst the colour of the white coral sand steals the vista. I love crinkling my toes in the sand to a peach-faced sunset. The hardest thing about leaving, in Zanzibar for any traveler, whether high-end or budget backpackers, is actually leaving, for you never know if it’ll be the same when you get back. At least till now, the last 15 years hasn’t changed it much so I don’t mind sharing a little of it with you. So, if you’re not relishing or rediscovering your kindred spirit and love to crinkle sand between your toes whilst sipping exotic beverages, then discover Zanzibar at least once before you get old and die!