First impressions, and Zanzibar

We arrived in Dar es Salaam over a week ago now, and have spent days in the city as well as five days in Zanzibar. I think it’s about time to post a note of some of my first impressions.

Dar es Salaam is an African city which has really surprised me. The traffic is the worst I’ve come across in Africa (Disclaimer: I haven’t been to Lagos yet).  Worse than Nairobi’s Ngong Road in the rainy season (!!) But also, there are very few actual tarmacked roads to speak of, which is astounding for such a sizable capital city.  The built up city centre seems to consist of a very small area, which quickly gives way to vast expanses of shack-like housing.  Both the hotels we have stayed at have been lovely hotels, placed smack bang in the middle of… well, slums.

The second category of shock has been the people. Not as many as I expected speak English. Which is refreshing, actually. Enter my rudimentary efforts at Swahili. A great opportunity to shape my knowledge back up. As opposed to other countries in East Africa, my efforts have been met with absolute beams from Tanzanians, who have been good natured (and humoured), and really very supportive, of a mzungu muddling through in Swahili. This is just one of the reasons why I can honestly say I have never met kinder, nicer people. Tanzanians bend over backwards to make visitors feel completely at home, and have really been thrilled at the idea of one foreigner trying their best to speak their language. I’ve been honestly touched (and had numerous Swahili conversations each day).

So, first impressions recounted, I want to tell the story of Zanzibar. And what a story it is.

We woke up early on Saturday morning, to trek down to the ferry port of Dar es Salaam to take the ferry to Zanzibar. Although we had bought VIP tickets at the insistence of the ticketing lady (“Less people, AC, refreshments, space for your luggage!”), we sat in economy, and spent the two hour crossing enjoying the beautiful sea views, before landing in the stifling heat of Zanzibar.

Hair appropriately stuck to face, we passed through passport control, and on to the security checks. Queue my first Swahili conversation with a very kind “polisi”, who let me through wishing me a happy holiday, but not realising we were together, decided Tom’s decidedly fishy looks meant he was a drug dealer.

And so our first half our in Zanzibar was spent in a tiny police office, being interrogated about Tom’s pouch of tobacco, and disproportionate sweating. Interrogation techniques included holding a hand on Tom’s heart (a fail-safe lie detecting technique), and a barrage of weird accusations: “You’ve been in Iran!” Deciding there was nothing else for it, I took the joking approach: “Oh no, don’t ask him to take his shoes off, they stink! You’ll be sorry!” And when menacingly questioned on my medicines pouch, handing the police my bumper pack of diarrhea tablets (“OKOK put them away quick”). I was caught in possession of one contraband item, the cause of much tutting: plastic bags. Illegal in Zanzibar. On establishing Tom is genuinely not a drug dealer, the police became our friends, hugs and handshakes all round, apologies, and welcomes to Zanzibar. We were free to go. “Wait!” yelled the policeman on our way out. “Yes?”. “How many children do you have?”. “None”. “Why not, why you are not making babies with her?” They shouted at Tom. “I’ll get started right away,” Tom replied, to an outburst of absolute hilarity, fist-bumping, high-fiving, back-slapping, between him and the whole police station.

Getting into a taxi, we spent our first hour in Zanzibar being driven to random cake shops, the driver not quite believing our hotel was actually called “the Cake House”. Finally at the hotel, and having drunk our complementary tamarind juices (foul), we set out to explore Stone Town – the old fort, museums, the “House of Wonders” (so called for being the first building on the island with electricity, flushing toilets, and a lift). We also discovered the last living sultan of Zanzibar currently lives in Southampton.

A highlight of our wanderings included visiting the old hammam, now a museum. Our very enthusiastic tour guide insisted on giving a (thankfully pants-on) demonstration of how private parts used to get shaved in one particular area, and then insisted on climbing onto the roof. Not content with the rooftop view, he suggested we scale the cupola of the baths, for the best view of all. Ladies first, naturally. So barefoot, up I clambered to the top of the cupola, clinging on for dear life. And the view was great, before I realised getting down would be more difficult!

We also spent a day on a spice tour, sniffing and tasting all the spices grown in Zanzibar – cloves being a key export.

Then it was time to set off for Nungwi beach for a few days. Work in the mornings, before swimming, sunsets, and a lot of lobsters.

I was also lucky enough to get traditional Zanzibari henna painted on my feet, by an incredibly steady-handed, talented Muslim young lady. Sitting on the floor, in her head-to-toe black gown, she crafted the most intricate patterns I have ever seen, without any template – just freehand. I’m floored by the talent.

With the Tanzanian elections taking place this weekend, election fever if rife across the country. After dinner on our last evening, we sat having a drink at a beach campfire, and a number of locals wandered over to join us. Zanzibari people feel hard done by, by the current government, we learnt. The island contributes a lot of money to the country, but is increasingly in decline, as it receives near no funding or support in return. So our last evening in Zanzibar was spent, of course, debating politics around a campfire on the beach, with a painter and a hooker.

I told you it was a good story.

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Dar es Salaam – Cape Town… the start!

As of exactly today, I have one month to get to Cape Town…overland.

I arrived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s capital, at 3am this morning.

The plan is, to visit Zanzibar by boat this weekend, spend another week in Tanzania, then take the infamous Tazara train to Zambia… then we’ll see…

For this reason I’m reviving my blog, as I hope some of you will enjoy taking this trip with me.

Ever since I “met” Africa 4 years ago, I’ve loved travelling overland, getting to meet the people, the places, the cultures … the things we miss when we fly over them.

I’ve spent the majority of my time in Kenya and South Africa, and to connect the two through an overland exodus has been my dream for so long. I hope you’ll join me 🙂

As a PS, I’ve committed to improving my Kiswahili knowledge, seeing as Tanzanians speak the most “pure” Swahili. So please, all of you hold me to my promise! Tafadhali!

Arriving at Dar es Salaam at 3am this morning, the visa officer excitedly engaged with our rudimental knowledge of Kiswahili, our driver whipped my bag out of my hand to carry it himself.  Telling him we have spent time in Kenya, I asked him: “What’s the difference between Kenya and Tanzania?” His answer: “We Tanzanians, we’re more friendly.”

And I have to concede, everyone we have come across so far, has been friendly, generous, and kind.

I’m excited to visit Tanzania, I’m excited for the next month.