My Travel Map

My Travel Map

16 April 2016

Jambiani, Zanzibar

Our plan for Zanzibar was to take a few days to relax after the more than 34 hours of straight travel that it took to get from Western North America to Equatorial East Africa.  While planning the travel, we quickly established that the big, all-inclusive tourist resorts are mostly on the north side of the island.  We didn't want anything to do with that.  I don't want to waste my time in a foreign country completely shut off from the people who actually live there and their culture and food.  So... our next set of options for beach breaks plus some local culture were along the east coast, and the gem that stood out above the rest there was the small village of Jambiani.

The east coast of Unguja (Zanzibar) is not as popular with tourists because of its extreme tides. When the tide is in, the water is deep and murky, and when the tide goes out, hundreds and hundreds of meters of sandy tidal plane is revealed. So, this place might not offer the crystal clear gin waters of the northern destinations, but it offers up something quite unique. I had definitely never seen a place like this before. 

With the tide out, the landscape was quite surreal; it was almost like we were on some alien world. I loved it. It was intensely bright on the eyes thanks to all the exposed white sand, and the contrast between the patches of tidal pools, exposed seaweed, and brilliant blue sky was just extreme. Then there were the dhows, abandoned for the day to the extremes of the tide. There is a narrow window with which you can take them out and bring them back in again without a long hike or swim between the point where the sea is unaffected by the tide.

The people making their way across this bizarre land/sea-scape just added such a fantastic touch of character and intrigue as well.  What exactly were they all doing out there?

It turns out that with these tidal flats, Jambiani is a near-ideal place for harvesting seaweed.  What blew my mind was how many of the harvesters had no idea where the seaweed is being sold to.  They just knew that someone local paid them to keep the plots of seaweed and harvest it whenever it was ready.  Turns out that the majority of this seaweed goes to China, primarily for use in cosmetic products.  Go figure, eh?  I just hope (though strongly doubt) that the locals are getting their fair share of the profits on those final products to which their ingredients and hard work are so important.

The sticks poking up out of the sand provide anchors for the seaweed roots.  Seeing those during the day at low tide makes one appreciate that you need to watch your step carefully when the water is in.

The locals also collect small fish and shellfish from the tidal pools to supplement their diets.  I had an amazing time one night out looking for small translucent fish with some local kids.  Once they found out that my friends and I had headlamps, we all the sudden became interesting and of some value to them.  The group of kids broke us up into smaller groups, with each of us light-bearing mzungu (foreigners) escorted by a group of 4 or 5 kids and splitting up to optimize our effort.  The little fish, the biggest of which were about the size of a thumb, were very hard to find, and even harder to catch.  But with the help of the lamps, these kids were plucking them out of the water with seeming ease.  They had incredible eyes and fast reflexes.  It was a lot of fun helping the kids catch some tasty treats, and the kids seemed to have a great time having a laugh as they watched us try (and mostly fail) to catch the tiny and elusive prey.

When the tide is out, people are always out working the tidal pools and seaweed harvest.  They stand out starkly from the softer, brighter horizon.

Again, I can't stress enough how beautiful the contrasts are in this landscapes.

Our lovely guesthouse... a series of pleasant thatch-roofed bungalows.  The food was great there too.

In Jambiani, the resorts and restaurants along the beach have plenty of those beautiful carved doors too.

Tourist dollars bring plenty of opportunities and demand for workers... including Maasai from afar.  There were several of these guys around Jambiani, distinctive due to their red plaid robes, facial scarring, and missing teeth.  Many were selling souvenirs along the beach and several others were working security.  Maasai are renowned throughout East Africa as fierce warriors and are typically armed with long knives or pointed clubs, which were used traditionally to kill lions (yes... seriously) as well as for warfare.  So, they are also popular as security officers, and you see them all over the place helping to keep the peace.

There are plenty of food options along the beach in Jambiani, and we didn't have any issues with the food there.  It was all really good!

Thanks to the history of foreign powers and wealth of spices and local ingredients, there is no lack of richness or taste in Zanzibari cuisine.  Seafood plays a key role, but a lot of the local dishes also have their roots in Arab, Indian, and even European cuisines.

For example, there was this Biriani rice dish, which must have had $20 or more of saffron in it if it had been made anywhere in North America or Europe.

Being children with plenty of imagination but living in extreme poverty, the local kids' inventiveness for makeshift toys was just inspiring.   Some of my favorites were little wind powered boats and cars made from recycled plastic bottles and plastic bags.  The cars had working wheels too, and the kids raced different versions against one another, chasing them and screaming with joy as the makeshift vehicles sailed down the beach.

One of the things that appealed to me most about Jambiani as a destination, is that it is an actual village with a community of locals that are mostly not directly dependent on tourism.  So, we took quite a bit of time when we were there to wander through the village and get a better feel for what life is like there.

Like I mentioned above, these people do not have a lot of money.  Unfortunately, that isn't anything unusual for Africa.  However, that doesn't make life any less interesting.  Jambiani village was a pretty active place, with plenty of people out and about on the streets, plenty of kids going to and from school, and groups hanging out around television sets in the evenings.

The houses are simple... mostly plaster over cinder block frames and corrugated tin roofs.  I didn't get to see inside at all, but it is always interesting to see how people decorate and the utilitarian and personal possessions they keep.

The main strip had a few stores, the post office, a church, and the school.

In the evenings, this market served as the local hangout and bar, serving drinks and putting a TV set outside for extra entertainment.

The kids wandering around town were adorable and definitely interested in scoping out the mzungu passing through.  I'm guessing that it is only a small subset of tourists who actually take the time to walk through town.

Several of the places also had fenced areas for livestock.  We saw several chickens and even some sheep around town.

Back to the beach... from here on out will mostly be pictures showing more of the beautiful area around Jambiani.

The place was sleepy and idyllic, especially with the dhows floating peacefully along the horizon.

As elsewhere in the region, Islam is the predominant religion.  The local women had some beautifully colored head scarves and robes, which added even more splashes of color and beauty to the landscape.

It was fun to wander through the tidal pools too scoping out the wildlife.  There were tons of brittle stars.

And the views back to the shoreline were just something else too.

Then there was the lighting and how it changed from day to day and hour to hour.  This place can be a playground for photographers.

Sunrise wasn't too bad either.

Simply put, Jambiani is a neat place to check out if you're interested in escaping the all-inclusive fortresses of isolation.

10 April 2016

Stone Town, Zanzibar

Finally, Sub-Saharan Africa.  As of winter 2014, that was one of the last major regions of the world that I had yet to explore, and spending some time there had become my top priority for personal travel.   So, needless to say, when the plane landed around sunrise on an equatorial morning in Dar es Salaam, I was very excited to get the adventure going in full force.  I was lucky to be traveling with several of my best friends on this trip, and our first destination was the island of Zanzibar.  

Though crossing the channel by dhow is possible, we opted for the much faster express ferry.  Dhows are traditional sailing vessels common along the coasts of the western Indian Ocean.  We were treated to several close up views of these boats from the ferry.

Zanzibar is actually the name of the archipelago off the Tanzanian and Kenyan coasts.  However, the island of Unguja, being host to the administrative capital and major tourist destinations, has unofficially taken on the name Zanzibar as well.  Coming by ferry from Dar will bring you to that administrative capital, Zanzibar City.   

The old part of Zanzibar City is known as Stone Town, where the ferry port and most of the city's tourist accommodation and destinations are located.  Upon arrival, the grand old buildings adjacent to the waterfront immediately remind you of Zanzibar's rich and complex history.

This clock tower is part of the House of Wonders, which currently houses a museum of Swahili culture.

This 17th century fort was built during a period of rule by the Sultanate of Oman.  Zanzibar was and still is a place of great wealth.  This wealth is derived from Zanzibar's climate, which is ideal for growing a variety of spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and saffron.  For this reason, the archipelago is also known as "The Spice Islands."  During the times of the Sultans, the islands were also home to one of the major slave ports along the East African coast.  To maintain control of this wealth, the Sultanate needed to defend its control over this region, primarily from European colonial powers.

Wandering around Stone Town is definitely a highlight not to be missed if you ever get the chance to visit the islands.  It's sad how many people just fly into Zanzibar's airport and are shuttled immediately to one of the all-inclusive resorts, mostly on the far north of the island.  Actually, I guess that's not sad, I actually prefer not to have hordes of tourists ruining the charm and authenticity of Stone Town.

Like much of the East African coast, Zanzibar's population is majority Muslim Swahili.  The word Swahili derives from the Arabic word for "coast", and it is now used for both the people of the region and the language that they speak.  Islam is the dominant religion, also thanks to the history of Arabic influence over the coastal regions of East Africa.  The Swahili language, or kiswahili, has its roots in the Bantu language family of central Africa, but it has also incorporated a variety of words and grammatical form from Arabic and English.  The language has now become the lingua franca of the entire region, allowing people with a broad range of native languages to communicate with one another.

It isn't difficult to notice that Zanzibar isn't tremendously satisfied with its place as part of Tanzania.  This is immediately obvious when you arrive from Dar es Salaam and have to pass through Zanzibar customs, even though technically, you haven't crossed any national borders.  Zanzibar is, however, a semi-autonomous region with ambitions of gaining independence from Tanzania.  They have a good case: the islands were not part of Tanzania (or Tanganyika in German East Africa) in the past plus, with their relative high level of wealth from spice, tourism, and the fruits of the sea, it is easy to understand how Zanzibar feels it is losing out from the association with Tanzania.  Due to this, it is more common to see the flag of Zanzibar (pictured here) than it is that of Tanzania (in the first picture on this post) flying around the island.

One highlight of Stone Town is most definitely Forodhani Gardens and the food market that erupts there each night.

Zanzibar is famous for its seafood, and the options at the night market at Forodhani Gardens definitely showcases the bounty available in the coastal waters of the western Indian Ocean.

Back in town... another thing that I would strongly recommend is a good wander through the narrow maze-like alleys of Stone Town.  This really gives you a feel for the age of the city and the fact that it is still very much alive and lived-in.

With enough wandering, you should eventually stumble upon Jaws Corner, which seems to be a popular meeting point and hangout for the locals.

Another suggestion would be to set yourself up for a nice relaxing break in one of the many excellent cafes around Stone Town.  This one, Zanzibar Coffee, was especially charming, comfy, and pleasant.  The teas and coffees on the island are first class, especially when brewed up with some of those famous and fresh local spices for an extra kick of flavor.

Back on the streets, watching some local kids playing football.

It's impossible not to notice the decorated doors of Stone Town.  I'll provide several examples in the following pictures, but these beautifully carved works of functional art are all over town.  These doors were a showcase of wealth for the original owners responsible for the construction of these houses; the larger and more intricately carved doors marked the houses of Zanzibar's wealthiest citizens.

And there are still many fine examples of that wealth...

As seen here on the lintel, often there will be Arabic quotations from the Quran written into the surrounding carvings. 

There are several decaying examples of elaborately decorated balconies around town too.

Being a place of wealth, they apparently took the locks on the doors quite seriously too.

The Christ Church Anglican cathedral in the center of Stone Town.  This is definitely worth a visit and if you can, pay a few bucks for a local tour guide, who will probably be hanging out near the ticket office.  It is worth it since you will learn a lot about the history of the town and the church and get some insider details on some of the Christian artwork decorating the inside.

Plus, outside the church is this monument to slavery...

I don't know what it is exactly about these statues, but I found this very, very powerful.  The looks on the people's faces are so expressive and deep and sad.  The chains and the color and rough hew on the bodies are all effective elements as well. 

Near the church are these old slave cells... according to the guide, they would pack dozens of people in these small dungeons and keep them there for days at a time with no toilets or comforts of any kind.  It would have been horrifically awful.  How someone could do this to other people, I simply cannot comprehend.

OK, back to some lighter notes: back on the waterfront, we enjoyed a nice cold beer while watching the local kids playing at the beach around sunset.

There were plenty of fisherman getting their boats ready, probably for an evening fishing session or for the following day of work.

Then there was this guy, running what seemed to be the local corner store.  The best is the "airtel" signs, meaning that this guy sells cellular phone minutes from this little kiosk.  We really are living in a new and wonderful, high-tech age.

There we go... first stop in Zanzibar complete.  Next up, the spectacular and surreal Jambiani.