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.