Sunday, October 14, 2012

I Went to Zanzibar and I Saw…

Zanzibar’s Stone Town is a UNESCO world heritage site and I couldn’t wait to wander along its narrow alleys touching fabrics, smelling spices and trying on clothes in quaint shops. In spite of assurances that Zanzibaris spoke English over and above Swahili, I saw embarrassed looks and heard smatterings of Swanglish when I engaged people in English. Suffice to say that language was only one reason this trip was memorable.

I landed in Dar (Dar es Salaam) from Nairobi completely culture shocked by the way things were done in contrast to Kenya. I came to see Stone Town – the only functioning historical town in East Africa, and a UNESCO world heritage site. First, there were too many immigration officials. Seven of them were inside the glass booths, and five, seemingly senior ones, wandering about among the queuing passengers. You’d think this would mean speedy service. Shock on me; it was a case of too many confused cops spoiling the broth and resulting in frustrated travelers. How a man, albeit uniformed, can take one’s passport and particulars without a word and disappear with them behind an official-looking counter is beyond me. I suppressed my nerves and pretended to be utterly confident. The way these officers ‘consulted’ with their superiors, a step behind you so you feel the pressure of first class graft, smelled of ass-kissing 101 to me.

The surprising development was that instead of transferring travelers to Zanzibar, visa issues were now dealt with in Dar. Amazingly, even with the incredible loudness of the airport, an entire desk of five officers were taking a nap and when spoken to by confused travelers, responded as though they were being intruded upon while in their living rooms.

The flight from Dar to Zanzibar was brief with a beautiful scenery barely visible under the cloud covers. We landed at the city’s small airport and after a currency exchange exited the airport to negotiate our transportation into the city.

Our cabbie Yusuf was a vocal man with a barrage of opinions. Having been in his profession for twenty years, he was persuasive to the point of pushy, at once encouraging us to go North and gradually make our way to Stone town over two days. After we voiced our preference spend all our time in Stone town while in Dar, he voluntarily made inquiries and took us to “better” options than Jafferji Hotel for accommodation, which he opined “was too dark inside anyway”. According to Yusuf, the pictures of Jafferji Hotel’s rooms on the Internet were misleading and most people left the hotel disappointed. He sent us off with maps, though not without first confusing us with his search for cheaper accommodation (By the way, I am the queen of frugal). When he insisted on a larger tip for the ‘extra service’, needless to say, Yusuf left a bad taste in my mouth.

Zanzibar's Dongwe Ocean View Hotel, Tanzania
Zanzibar Ocean View Hotel cost just over 120 dollars a night. It was right by the beach, which our cabbie had initially described as muddy. To me, the water was deep blue with white sand and, aside from the power cuts, the room and the view were pretty good, if you didn’t mind that it was a public beach with all sorts. Yusuf was the reason we detoured to Chavda Hotel in the first place. The hotel didn’t accept credit cards and, not wanting to go to an ATM machine --getting charged more cab fare, not to mention the risk of carrying cash around as a tourist, we left Chavda for what he described as a ‘nearby’ hotel. After a relatively long trip back towards the airport and away from our desired Stone Town, we arrived back at the ‘hotel with a muddy beach’. At that point we decided to stay the night. My suspicion is the hotels pay cabbies commissions, so the ’best’ hotel at any one time is the one who paid the highest commission, and so he steered us firmly along his list of choices.

The dinner -- chicken in macadamia nut sauce -- was spectacular, a real treat. It was served with sticky Jasmine rice and a light tomato salad. I combed the menu for local dishes and treats to sample and was laughed away when I asked about traditional Tanzanian food. We asked the waitress to put off the TV, which coincidentally aired news by Citizen Television, a Kenyan television station. In a matter of minutes, a different waiter put it back on, attracting a group of hotel staff to watch.  When another staff member put on the radio, so both the television and radio were playing at a go, I ate quickly and left.

The second day we moved to Serena. At just under 300 dollars (US) per night, the inn was centrally located in the heart of Stone Town, and for that fee I was expecting death and going to heaven, in that order. Ah well, it wasn’t heaven. In fact, we got the room right next to the reception area, which in my experience with hotels, is usually the worst and noisiest room. Our room was dark with shadows at 10am. When I inquired about getting another, they said they couldn’t replace it until midday ‘if I hadn’t used anything’ as the rest of the rooms were being cleaned. We decided to stay.

Other than the soaps and shampoos in little British bottles, there was nothing worth the 300 dollars (US) in the room. Actually, that evening, when we went to relax by the beach, we came across sewerage that stank and was overflowing right at the front of the hotel, hence the bus shuttle to the ‘special’ beach for hotel residents.  The pool was divine blue surrounded by little white sculptures and sun seekers. The 4pm tea was a good idea, even though I’d expected a lot more than just pancakes and tea -- the 300 dollars (US) kept coming back to mind and raising my expectations to high heaven. The next morning’s breakfast, though, was to die for. The range of food to eat was superb. I have not devoured such a beautiful breakfast in my life, except maybe at Fairview Hotel in Nairobi, which is a story for another day.

After a quiet day, we went to Forodhani Gardens in the evening, where food stands sold cheap but wholesome dishes, including mshikaki, barbecue chicken, lamb and beef, fries and other starch, with a refreshing drink of sugarcane juice laced with ginger. People hung about in large numbers relaxing by the beach and socializing across social and cultural class. I marveled at a boy who, assisted by his mother, peed directly into the Indian Ocean, while holding on to an old cannon.

The third night we moved to Emerson Spice, for 200 dollars a night. After a delayed but friendly check in, we went off on a delightful spice tour. It was informative, as the ‘Ujamaa’ socialism ideal is still alive -- Ujamaa was the concept that formed the basis of Julius Nyerere's social and economic development policies in Tanzania after independence from Britain. My hosts kindly allowed me to use the very clean community traditional toilet while we explored the spice farm. A small irritant was that the service people were on standby for tips. It irritated me as I’m not from a tipping culture. Where I’m from, a tip isn’t expected; it’s only given if a service is really extraordinary.

On our last night, we got lost and couldn’t find our way back to the hotel. I wished I’d brought the mobile phone the hotel had provided us for emergencies. Determined to find our way, we belligerently ignored the old man who volunteered to bring us back to Emerson Spice until we were sure of being truly lost. We begrudgingly agreed to follow the old man’s lead back to the hotel. When we got there, I hung my head in shame at his shrill complaints of dissatisfaction with his tip as we walked into the hotel lobby. A few flights of steep stairs later, I went into my exceedingly large room adorned with posters of old Zanzibari films and fell asleep, ignoring the calls of the large cement tub in the bathroom.

Stone Town, Tanzania

Our early breakfast was served in the small rooftop restaurant with a panoramic view of Stone Town. The small fruit platter left me disappointed. The kitchen didn’t have an alternative to eggs (to which I’m allergic and miscommunication left me thinking there was a following course after fruits).

The airport in Zanzibar had a sign saying ”Hakuna Bakshishi’ discouraging tipping, though it didn’t stop people from lurking about waiting to be tipped for doing something as mundane as indicating the correct queue to be in. And so we boarded our plane and left the Zanzibari paradise for the familiar comforts of home.

Lina Marie Dyur is the founder of Firestorm, a communications, marketing and PR company. Originally from Kenya, Lina currently lives in Qatar where, in addition to her entrepreneurial pursuits, and working as a freelance journalist, she is also repositioning herself as a public speaker and Afropolitan with the ability to say ’yes’ to new experiences - including bungee jumping over the Zambezi River and quad biking in the Middle Eastern desert. Lina can be contacted for questions and comments at

Your comments and feedback are much appreciated. To engage in further discussion with the editors and contributors of the blog on this topic and other related topics, follow us on twitter @SEADiaspora and/or leave a comment below.