Monday, 9 November 2009

Exploring Stone Town

We arrived at Zanzibar loaded down with our rucksacks and with our passports to hand. Since the coup in the 1970s (I need to double check this date!), Zanzibar has been held under the jurisdiction of Tanzania and ever since then Zanzibar has been striving for its independence. To prove a point, your passport must be duly stamped both when you arrive and leave the island.

It was seriously humid. Our shirts were wet through and we had a bit of a walk ahead of us. Ravi led us into Stone Town, a map in hand, his American tour leader impression kicking in. We had a 10-15 minute walk to get to a hostel which had been recommended to us. The walk was an obstacle course of tout dodging. Touts here (like in India) will follow you to your destination and then either ask you for money for being a ‘guide’ or will ask the hotel for commission for bringing you there. At one point we had about six touts tailing us – some pretending to walk casually on the other side of the road so as suggest that they weren’t really touting

We announced very loudly that we wouldn’t be paying for guides and as soon as we arrived at the hostel we told the guy at reception not to give commission (that’s because it inevitably comes out of your pocket because they raise the cost of the room to compensate for the commission paid out).

St Monica’s was a hostel that was built by the church. It was located in the centre of Stone Town where the second largest slave market in Zanzibar used to stand. 14 of us arrived and the man at the reception managed to find us rooms at pretty decent rates. I shared a triple room that boasted three double beds, mosquito nets and a fan – utter luxury after living in a tent for nearly four weeks.

That afternoon we headed out to find food and ate local at a restaurant recommended by Nat’s friend Nick who’d met up with us. The restaurant had six or seven large tables which we shared with locals. The food was excellent and very cheap: Nat and I had the best octopus we’d ever tasted here.

We shared our table with a local couple and the woman wore a burka. It was fascinating as it had never occurred to me that a woman wearing a burka would have to show her face when eating. It would seem obvious that she had to lift the veil that covered her face in order to eat but it was not something I’d ever really thought about. She was a very pretty woman but she didn’t smile and she avoided eye contact with the rest of us.

Stone Town is captivating. The myriad of narrow streets transforms the town into a veritable rabbit warren that you can wander about in just getting totally lost and soaking up the stunning surroundings: beautifully carved doorways, the elegant white wash of classic Arabic architecture, the golden domes of mosques. Every now and then, you stand aside as a bicycle, squeaking its brakes to denote its presence, brushes by you with one or more people on it. Reach the sea and you can watch traditional Arab dhows sail by and local fishermen land their catches whilst young boys in the sea use sticks to hit crabs that have drifted ashore following a change in the trade winds.

That evening we watched the sun set from a typically mzungo bar called Livingstones which was located on the beach. As the sun began its descent, transforming the sky into blazing red and orange, a young lad silhouetted against the sky energetically back flipped as his friends cheered him on. Along the beach cashew nut sellers were out in force, local couples sat on the sands or on the sea wall absorbed by the sun’s final moments, the fishermen continued their work.

Behind the sea wall the stall holders of the night market were busy enticing customers to take a look at their wares. We finished our drinks and made our way there to take a look. Seafood filled the stalls: lobster, crab, kebab sticks of barracuda, octopus, scallops and oysters could be cooked up on one of the many oil drum bbqs and served with chapatti or naan bread. Sugar cane juice sellers crushed sugar cane with lime and ginger to create a refreshing drink and at the pizza stalls you could opt for little parcels of dough fried up with a filling of tomato, meat and cheese and which didn’t really resemble pizza at all. We all got stuck into food and all kept our fingers crossed that we didn’t get ill as a result.

After a fill at the market, Nick, Nat, Jon, a couple of American girls Nick and Nat had met and I went to a local bar called the Prince’s Garden for a beer. It took us an age to find as we tried to navigate through the streets of Stone Town but we got there in the end. It was a sedate affair (it was a Sunday night I guess) so a beer later and we were back at St Monica’s. It wasn’t late but bed was on the cards as we knew we’d have an early 5am wake-up call with the muslim call to prayer emanating from the many mosques that surrounded our hostel.

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