Thursday, November 29, 2012

-- Spice Island: Stone Town 2.0 --

Distances on a car seem way shorter in Zanzibar and without noticing, the massive ships docked in the Zanzibar Strait are a sign of the madness we are arriving to, Stone Town.

This nearly-one-million-inhabitants town is the heart of the island and where everyone arrives and leaves. A place that does not make much sense in an urban perspective but most importantly, an interesting mix of Omani and African cultures.

I wasn’t impressed by the place at the beginning of my stay in the island although I admit the circumstances were different then and all I could think of back then, was the nice paradisiac settings I have been experiencing for the past days.
It feels right to give this place a second chance and, as soon as we arrive and leave our luggage in a conveniently located lodge south of the city, we immerse ourselves in this madness of this place by walking through narrow streets covered in rustic stone cobblestones and big chunks of rustic concrete running in all possible directions while scooters, street vendors and pedestrians fight for every single space. The smell of clove and saffron is stronger than ever and brings me back to the hectic souqs of the Middle East.
Men assembly around blue-coloured mosques. Minaretes call the prayer loudly and a festival of loose shoes and sandals is left outside them. I am in Africa yet it does not feel like it.

We need to sort out a few things in town so the first stop is to meet the dodgy “Travel agent” the German had contacted in order to arrange her trip to Mount Kilimanjaro. The meeting takes place in a car park where she hands out part of the money and she gets a rather dodgy receipt in return. It takes no more than five minutes and we leave hoping for the best. Sorting out my plane ticket to Dar Es Salaam is next and after visiting several airline companies, I am left alone with Tropical Air's little Cessnas for the return leg.
The afternoon time flies by as we get lost in the winding and narrow streets of town buying souvenirs and haggling (not my specialty). I am happy with the purchases which are small but symbolize the best highlights of my trip to these lands.

A loud parade catches my attention, it is the Indian community residing in Zanzibar celebrating the Festival of Colours with loud Indian tunes and basically a large amount of colored powder and water. I am tempted to participate but they ramble around the streets rather quickly. A mandatory good Tanzanian-Arabian coffee follows and then time to enjoy by Stone Town main beach where I manage to steal some free wi-fi from the hotel nearby and watch the world-famous sunsets that take place in here.
The beach is mostly used by the locals and kids are seen playing around everywhere, swimming and doing crazy pirouettes in the sand. The boats are coming from Prison Island and the “dhows” are sailing off to the sea for the night fishing. The sun setting in the West creates an amazing optical illusion and gives us the most orange sky I have seen in my whole life.

As the day gives way to the night, a few power shortages remind me of the African reality and set the mood for what I can only describe as an amazing experience: The Night market.
A festival of sights, smells and flavours challenging my senses with all sorts of sea food delightfully laid out in tables and stalls around Forodhani Park, just by the main pier and the bay. Smoke coming from all of them and featuring smells of fish and vegetarian food being cooked with strong tones of saffron and curry awake my sense of smell while the combination of octopus, fish brochettes, falafel and coconut bread awake my senses of sight and taste. It is madness to walk in between stalls as vendors pull you by the arm with a very elaborated speech about them being the best in town (or recommended by a Lonely Planet guide) and trying to make you try what’s on sale.

As a sea food enthusiast, I am massively tempted to try everything on sale but I am aware of  possible food poisoning risk so I am happy enough with a delicious falafel and a banana-and-Nutella Zanzibarian pizza (made with a very thin pastry rolled up in balls, stretched and folded with the fillings inside of it, then finally fried).
The following day is marked by feeling of the trip finally coming to an end. I switch lodges to a new one recommended by the American couple I had met on the way to Paje which looks more like a house with some extra beds near the port.
I feel a knot in my throat when finally saying good-bye to my travel partner and see the ferry sailing off to Dar Es Salaam. Her adventure is just about to begin while mine will be over the next day. A promise of meeting back in Europe is done and I decide to spend the rest of the afternoon losing myself through the streets of Stone Town eating chapattis and having some nice coffee.

I walk to the beach to watch the sunset and take some nice snapshots of it. Night time follows and I head to the market to have some Zanzibarian pizzas again.
Just when I am about to go back to the hostel , a couple of girls from Poland surprisingly make conversation with me in a very dramatic and sharp way. They ask for advice about the North of the island and we continue talking about our adventures around the world and how to move around the African continent. They seem eager to see what I had just been seeing and ask for advice on Uganda and Rwanda, two of my now favourite countries.
The night unfolds while chatting , making jokes and enjoying some local (safe) food. Foreigners are all over the place amazed by the drama of this stunning market, set in a unique way in a truly unique place in the world.
I am leaving Africa tomorrow. I think the idea of giving Stone Town a second chance was a wise choice. It is one of those places that grow on you, it is madness, somehow dangerous and dirty but most importantly, it is different. And that is what this trip to Africa was all about.
Stone Town surprised me as a place rich in history and culture, where two continents blended in a single place as a trade hub, slightly spoilt by the uncontrollable tourism development.

Monday, November 26, 2012

-- Spice Island : Little Italy --

I notice I am in paradise when I wake up with the sound of waves crashing underneath my wooden balcony while the fresh and sometimes gusty wind blows from the Indian Ocean and the sun timidly appears over the horizon dyeing the sky in dozens of tons of purple and yellow.

The sweetened environment adds up to it and I find myself cuddling sheltered by a light blanket while watching the start of another day in the Equator.

Kiwengwa is a place ready to be explored and shortly after having a substantial breakfast with Nutella-covered pancakes, we decide to go around and explore this new stretch of land.
The tide is low which makes it enjoyable for a morning walk around the lagoon. Boats are stuck in the sand like ghost ships waiting to be rescued later and witnesses of the hectic fishing activity at night time. Palm trees cover the beach nearby the local village where kids play around a water well trying to refresh from the heat in the low tide.
As we walk South of the beach , luscious  and expensive resorts splurge around like coral reefs bursting with overly tanned tourists reading books through their thick sunglasses and listening to some music on their iPods, submerged in their own little world. Around them , hordes of fly catchers offer all sorts of services and products sheltered in their shacks with big signs in Italian language hanging off them.
Later we would come to know that Kiwengwa is famous for its resort atmosphere and very popular with the Italian market. Tanned skins around me confirm this fact in an almost obvious way.
For the first time in Africa, I am not offered something in English but an energetic “Ciao” becomes the main greeting for our walk through the scorching white sand. I answer politely and decline offers, even because I am mostly offered things I do not need or will not buy at all.
The Masaai people proudly wear their outfits and their intentions sheltered on a fake kindness quickly becomes obvious when they shift the conversation towards any kind of product they are offering. Random acts of kindness start to become rare and the “Mambo Jambo” hassle provoked by these people stalking you while walking becomes annoying. 

Even kids run towards us when carrying food or water on our hands, grabbing our bottles aggressively and trying to take them away from our hands while shouting “Aqua, aqua” (Italian for water). So Kiwengwa becomes the best example I have of a near-to-perfect place completely ruined by tourism and fueled by bad tourism behavior.
For the remaining four days, a search for food in an overly expensive place take place almost every day and I set a record for the most potato chips and eggs eaten in a single week. Villages down the sand strand are discovered and we are charged double the price for every single thing we try to buy ( luckly I have my German sidekick to help me haggle with everything, because I am terrible at it) but we still manage to enjoy the best of the white sand and blue ocean combo predominant in each one of the activities we do and marveling our sights every day.

Days of chilling on the beach go by,  while playing Sudoku and lying on conveniently placed Zanzibarian “kangas” falling asleep with the sound of the tide dancing up and down the horizon like a spoilt kid. The locals life unfold just around us when kids walk through the beach wearing school uniforms in the middle of the afternoon and local fishermen ride their “dhows” for another night of hectic fishing in the warm Indian Ocean.

We try sea kayaking, recommended activity by other guests staying in our lodge. Little we know that is not a nice activity to be tried when the tide is high. Waves knock us down several times and my stomach feels a bit ill while doing it. It is still good fun and a great exercise in paradise.
A change of sight is necessary and we try a beach described as pure paradise on our guidebooks. Pongwe Beach, south of Kiwengwa proves to be the biggest disappointment in the whole trip when, after walking 5 miles each way under the strong sunshine and on the main road with no sight of water or even a breeze around, we find ourselves in an empty, dry and rocky gulf with no attractive whatsoever. Even the little village looks deserted.
We cramp around a small strand of sand, property of one of the many resorts in the island and we decide to spend the rest of the afternoon there building a well-engineered sand castle and enjoying some fresh pineapple kindly offered by one of the hotel staff member.


And so on, my last day in Kiwengwa unfolds by relaxing on the wooden balcony , writing, reading and alternating it with some bathing and swimming in the ocean and some photo shoots in the late afternoon. We even manage to spot an expensive posh wedding taking place in the private beach next to us and everyone in the lodge is invited to the after-party. I am tired and decide to hang around the colorful pillows while talking about life and cuddling underneath the blanket.

The sunsets and sunrises here just keep enchanting me every single day and I make sure I wake up at 7:00am just to see our closest star making its entrance through the blue ocean. The warm morning breeze caressing our asleep cuddling bodies will be a memory I will carry around for years to come. Bit of an unplanned honeymoon as we would like to think.
After four days, it is time to leave Kiwengwa and head to the last stop of this trip: Stone Town, before finally setting off for different directions. From there, the German is going back to continental Tanzania on an adventure to the Serengeti and the Kilimanjaro and I will be going back to cold Europe.
We get a lift from a local  (and thanks to our Finnish friend who managed to get the lift for us) saving us the hassle of taking another crowded dalla-dalla. It is the last time I see the Eastern side of Zanzibar and the roaring Indian Ocean is left behind me.
Kiwengwa proved to be a bit of a challenge. A contradiction and some sort of an unexpected touch of reality. Paradise here is relative and outside the well-groomed resort gardens and expensive restaurants crowded with overly-tanned Italians, lies a society that have lost their identity in order to make a profit out of everything. No blame on them, if anything, I could blame it on the tourists who feed these habits, handing out free money and candy to begging kids and paying inflated prices for everything they are sold.

Ciao Kiwengwa!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

-- Spice Island : Our road to Kiwengwa --

The scorching sunshine wakes me up for yet another day of enjoyable beaches experience in this tropical paradise. The sandy floor feels somehow refreshing as I walk around the hostel and have a nicely crafted breakfast with pancakes and chocolate syrup on the high balcony while the tide recedes in the background setting the daily clock for the locals.

We rush up the main road and roundabout to take a dalla-dalla into Stone Town as direct services between beaches are practically impossible to get. In addition, it is a good opportunity to withdraw some money as we head North of the island and try to hit the 'busy' Zanzibar people talk about.

The early morning dalla is packed as usual. A child holding a bucket of somehow dead fish besides me proves to be the best way to wake up from the heat lethargy as we make our way into the once again messy main urban conglomerate in the island.
Withdrawing money again becomes a very hard ordeal with again , only one ATM available, but this time I have someone to walk around with me and make conversation with. The German girl is tagging along with me and the time in Stone Town quickly pass as we buy some crackers, chapattis and food for the way North.

Time for another two hour ride. Our destination: Kiwengwa Beach.
The reason for changing the quiet and beautiful South Zanzibar for this new place relies on a pure instinct of exploration and a thirst for new experiences, places and the opportunity of experience the island at its utmost. The North is also known as Party Central in Tanzania, so it becomes as an attractive spot to meet new people.

The midday heat becomes obvious when I find myself cramped in a dalla again. It is almost impossible to spot the landscape around us and when we notice, we hit the last stop. Even though the dalla was clearly signaled as "Kiwengwa", we were dropped at Pwani Michangani beach , lying about 4 or 5 miles away from our destination. A backtracking walk becomes the option and in between jokes and some mild whining , we manage to complete the journey while dodging the rising tides, fighting the scorching heat with no liquids or food and under the sight of many locals watching us in an almost comical way due to the amount of backpacks carried by myself. We even get a glimpse of luxury as we are escorted in and out of the Melia Zanzibar Resort Hotel apparently for security reasons and into the boring and inhospitable main road.

As we reach Kiwengwa, tired and thirsty, robust palm trees covering a private beach are the first thing in sight. Baby Bush Lodge, the only budget backpacker place in the whole beach is just up the narrow road and overlooking the local village. Check in is made by a friendly American guy and the facilities are basic yet set in a beautiful privileged spot.

Wooden balconies set in many levels embedded in a steep hill and covered in colored cushions, invite all guests for some quality relax time while the waves caress the thin and steep white sand strand surrounded by palm trees. The words read on my worn out Lonely Planet guide describing the place as paradise were so far fulfilled, despite the long journey and a mandatory bath in the beautiful warm waters is necessary to level up the energies, followed by a quest for some reasonable priced food, which we manage to fail, ending up in a dinner of chapattis and potato chips.
Some guests are hanging around the lodge reading, chatting or playing cards. We choose the best couch just facing the dark sea and first point of contact between the lodge and the strong sea breeze. Moods get sweetened and we fall asleep cuddling underneath a blanket, sandwiched in between the bright Milky Way above and the wild Indian Ocean underneath us.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

-- Spice Island: Young Paje --

Jambiani proved me right and was shown to me as a quiet and relaxing paradise. I am traveling alone and start to feel it might be too quiet for me so the decision to move around the island is imminent.

Paje Beach, just down the road seems to be the best option , however I do not have enough cash to pay for a few nights accommodation. A trip to Stone Town is necessary as, even Zanzibar being such a big island, the only ATMs available are in the main urban conglomerate.

I grab my heavy backpack and scram it into a dalla-dalla. It is still early in the morning and it's alread busy with locals heading into Stone Town carrying all sorts of good and dried seaweed. We head down the paved road and leave the East side through a light jungle and villages. Just over an hour later the madness of Stone Town is clearly visible. Markets are everywhere and people are rushing through the streets while the sun roasts every possible piece of visible skin. Locals wear abayahs and dish-dashes and somehow they are fresh.

I try two ATMs with no success. At Barclays Bank I am even told the ATM hasn't been working for months now. At some point I start panicking and wandering if my Irish bank cancelled my withdrawals due to transactions in random and exotic places appearing on my statements. My backpack feels heavier as I walk around the streets tired, but just hidden in between some narrow worn out streets, I find the only operational ATM in the whole island, with a nice and long queue under the sunshine of course.

As I line up, I can appreciate the Muslim culture unfolding just around me. People heading to Mosques and some Omani-African fusion dishes being served on the streets. 
I take the dalla-dalla back to the East a few minutes afterwards, this one has seats and a nice conversation with an American couple takes place as we discuss tips for the trip, we get to Paje just an hour later and I am dropped off at the roundabout.

While I walk through the village, I can notice the place is a lot busier than Jambiani. They even have two small supermarkets. The charm is still the same and walking under tall palm trees while my bare feet sink in the white powdery sand is refreshing after some hectic hours in Stone Town.
I choose to stay at Teddy's Place as the reviews were good enough, the price was accessible and it was announced as party central by all guidebooks.
The premises consist in a bunch of cabins piled around a big courtyard, a nice and small restaurant/cafe and a lovely elevated reading shack with couches facing the woodland that separates this lodging spot from the beach. I am handed out my key and the first thing I can notice when in the cabin is that there is no such thing as floor. The white powdery sand works as a soft and warm omnipresent carpet so shoes are banned for the length of the stay here.

I get ready for the beach and spot a shy German girl while go past the reading shack. She just greets me "Hi" and I move along. I run through the palm trees and face the afternoon turquoise high tide. The water is warm and refreshing after a long day of traveling around the island. Once relaxing on the beach, two girls look at me through their thick dark sunglasses and a sharp "I know you"comes out of their mouth. Small world as it is, two of the girls who I had met in Nairobi (and went out on that mentally tragic night out) a few weeks ago were just in Paje, right in front me!

The afternoon went by while enjoying a nice Zanzibarian pizza for lunch at a local restaurant just a few meters down the hectic beach while watching people learning how to kitesurf crashing their expensive equipment in the water and building sand sculptures of female figures.

Once back in the hostel with the sun setting and the moods switching to 'sleep mode' I meet my roommate. The German girl. She looks a bit shy, even threatening and a rather uncomfortable standing-up conversation takes place just outside the shack. She is studying Medicine back in Germany and was doing some volunteering work in a hospital located in Southern Tanzania. We seem to click and decide to hang around the hostel with the girls while taking about our experiences in Uganda, the horror stories of very improvised procedures and lack of health infrastructure in Tanzania and the locals with their humble spirits despite their needs.

It looks like a quiet night but we decide to go out and experience the party scene of Spice Island. We walk around a dark and warm beach for hours just to get lost in the end. We are lead through sleepy hotels and sandy dark streets to a local spot. A dark shack bubbling with drunk locals and African music being played. I feel a bit out of place but due to starvation I am forced to 'enjoy' some chips with a fried egg on top. Classic Tanzanian dish.
The beers are warm and the place does not seem inviting enough so we decide to leave an hour later and as one of the few random acts of kindness seeing here, we are offered a lift back to the hostel from a local.

In the morning , the girls depart for Dar and Zambia shortly after having a delicious pancake and chocolate , fresh fruit and juice breakfast. The German girl goes diving (as she is passionate about it) and I have a day to relax by the beach, do some writing and reading.
The day goes by as  a "beach/couch back and forth routine" while the temperature rises and the tides play with the geography in the Blue Lagoon in the most dramatic way possible.

Once my new friend is back from diving , we go for some shopping in the local supermarket, Internet browsing in the only computer available in miles, and finally for yet another Zanzibarian pizza in the local restaurant, overlooking the dark and rough tide and caressing our sunburnt skin with a gusty fresh sea breeze.
A decision to explore the island follows and leaving Paje becomes the best option on the next morning. Direction: the North East and the beaches of Kiwengwa, obviously via Stone Town as a golden rule in this place.

For now, Paje delivered a friendly and busy place, a quieter party central, with the amazing Indian Ocean as a background ruling all activities unfolding in this small piece of paradise.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

-- Spice Island: Relaxing Jambiani --

As yesterday preluded, today I woke up with a stunning sunshine and the sound of the tide slowly receding for the day. My room faces the sea and the salty air refreshed my evening and gave me a good night sleep.
I am greeted "Good Morning" with the sound of Bob Marley being played on the rustic wooden bar and a very complete breakfast with pancakes, syrup, chocolate, fresh fruit, eggs and Tanzanian coffee, without forgetting the classic pot of Blue Band.

The tide in the Eastern part of Zanzibar recedes as far as a mile away basically because the island is surrounded by shallow water or what the locals call "The lagoon".
By doing so , it creates the perfect setting for something I see for the first time in my life: seaweed plantations.
Local women wearing colourful abayahs are seeing scattered all around the shallow water collecting and planting seaweed in organized and lined crops made out of fishing lines and fixed onto the white sand with stakes.
They are shy and photographing them is not welcome so I decide to take the camera and walk around taking pictures of the surroundings.

My eyes feel a bit sore from the extremely lit environment and soon the heat of the Equator hits me and start sweating , this is when it's time to go back to the hostel and relax which I do underneath a coconut tree while enjoying a Stoney Tangawizi , typical Tanzanian ginger soft drink.  A local climbs up the tree with an unimaginable skill and soon we are all enjoying some fresh coconut water and fruit.

Another guest, a German traveling around Kenya and Tanzania asks me to join me for a talk in a way only people from that country do. It's a most welcomed action and a long talk about our experiences in Africa takes places as the sun roasts the dry sand and the tide slowly comes back to us.

Some hours later, the blue ocean waves crash on our particular beach. I spot as much as ten tourists playing around me while finally bathing in the refreshing waters.
The Indian Ocean does not disappoint me. Perfect temperature and absolutely clean water perfectly matching the soft white sand and the whole virgin setting. Long gone is the hectic Stone Town or even Dar Es Salaam, this is a place for relaxing.

I swim for a bit trying to reach the fishermen boats that now float with the high tide and then get the camera again to do some basic exploring.
The village looks peaceful and quiet in the end of the afternoon. There is a rustic convenience shop in the middle selling local candies and soft drinks. Their life seem to revolve in a very slow paced way and kids play around the beach and the houses running at all times. They stare at me, laugh and run away. The palm trees are tall silent guardians of this piece of paradise, almost unspoiled by tourism.
Two local kids ask me to take their picture. It is one of the few times they have seen themselves on a digital screen , just like those experiences in Uganda.
A festival of dhows, typical Zanzibarian boats follows as fishermen take their boats in an daily tradition that is still held nowadays in the exact same way Omani immigrants did hundreds of years ago.

The sun is setting behind the palm trees on yet another beautiful day in Paradise Island. The ocean breeze refreshes my sunburnt skin and I rush back to the hostel for some well-deserved "sambusa" pre-dinner again. I had spotted an Italian food shack just down the beach, proudly advertising the fact they have wi-fi. It becomes my bet for the night and the opportunity to enjoy a lovely chargrilled tomato sauce with chapattis while updating my people of my whereabouts. The owner that looked like a crazy Italian hippie becomes an excellent host and his local staff give me some directions of how to travel my way around the island.

Time seems to run slowly in Jambiani and the weather conditions were calling for laying on the beach listening to some music and looking at the stars. The Milky Way dominates the black clear sky and a power blackout, typical of this part of the world completes the experience of remoteness. To my Zanzibarian bed later with the noise of the waves crashing just fifty meters away from my bed.