Thursday, February 16, 2012

A lesson in "Shaking your Tail Feather"

I took a taxi back to Stone Town on Friday morning so I would arrive early enough to meet Afton from the ferry. She was one of the Dar posse I'd been hanging out with the previous week, and my highly accomplished tour guide of Dar to boot, and was to be the first of that group to arrive for the Sauti za Busara music festival that was on this weekend. The festival is a celebration of African music, with artists and dance groups coming from several different countries around Africa, as well as from Tanzania. I had no idea what to expect from it, but the people I'd spoken to who had been before all said it was amazing, so I was looking forward to it.

After dropping our bags at Safari Lodge Hotel - a far smarter looking place than the one I'd been in earlier in the week - we set off to wander the streets while we waited for the next group to arrive. There were to be 8 of us staying at the hotel, but due to work commitments they were coming in at different times, some not arriving until the Saturday morning.

It was fun walking about with someone else, taking photos and trying to be artistic. Afton takes great photos and, because it had been so long since she'd last been to Stone Town, and because I was only just finding my way around, we managed to help each other to not get too lost. I'd learned, however, that even when you have no idea where you are in Stone Town (and that happens quite a lot), you are never far from where you want to be and there is always someone willing able to point you in the right direction.

I should say more about Stone Town at this point, I think. Before I arrived at the start of the week, I was slightly apprehensive, having read about it and been told what a maze of streets it was, and being advised to "just get lost" in the narrow lanes. Now, I often feel at my least comfortable when I have no idea where I am, so was not altogether sure I'd like this strategy, but by the time I left to go to Kendwa earlier in the week, I'd totally come to love Stone Town and the confusion that goes with it, so was looking forward to getting back to it for the festival.

A lot of my apprehension would have been based around the fear that there were thieves and robbers lurking round corners, waiting to pounce and relieve me of anything they could get. Very quickly I realised that, by thinking this, I was doing a massive injustice to the people of Stone Town. Maybe in the big cities on the mainland (Dar and Arusha, for example) this is a more likely scenario - although I have to be fair and say I never once got threatened or robbed in these places either, and quickly learned to relax there too - but in Stone Town it is just plain wrong to think like this. I'm not saying it never happens, I'm just saying every single person I met in my week on Zanzibar and the 5 days in Stone Town was friendly, welcoming and helpful and I had nothing but good experiences there.

However, when one first arrives and begins to walk the streets, it is understandable why some people might be nervous (including myself for a few hours right at the start!). The town is a labyrinth of narrow streets hemmed in by high buildings, making it almost impossible to spot a landmark to aid navigation. You may lean towards the strategy of taking a left then a right, believing this would eventually lead you roughly in a straight line, but you very quickly realise this never happens. Occasionally you pass a poster or graffiti slogan or shop or hotel that you remember passing before, then you pass it again, try a different street and pass it again! Other times, you miraculously find yourself directly where you wanted to go, only to find you have no idea how you did it or how to get back!

There are many locals with small shops, selling food or crafts, and even more folk just sitting in the shade, but all are happy to try and direct you, and some of the youngsters will even take you and show the way. Often they don't even want any money for this, which is a nice change. Up and down these crazy narrow streets ride people on bicycles and scooters, beeping horns and ringing their bells to clear a path and scatter children (or, more usually, clueless tourists). No-one ever seems to get cross or hurt, apart from in the busy market areas where tempers fray amongst the crush of people. Others push barrows loaded with all manner of goods through the streets, making a kissing noise that carries surprisingly well, to alert people in front to move to the side. This sound gets used a lot in Tanzania, not only to move people out of the way, but also to hustle for fares on the bajajh taxis. It is a more friendly sound than a horn, although they get used too!

This may now paint a slightly clearer picture of Stone Town, but still will not have done it justice at all. I was so pleased to find that I liked it though - despite my brave words back in Dar, boldly proclaiming that I'd be fine, I was not absolutely certain I would be, but it has to have been one of my favourite places of the trip.

Anyhow, come midday and Afton and I met the next ferry with its 3 extra members of our group. One more ferry to meet around 6pm and we'd be pretty much all here. By the time we'd got this round of people settled in to the hotel and found some lunch, it was about time to head to the Old Fort, the venue of the festival. However, just as we got settled and the first act was gearing up, I headed off to meet the last ferry of the day. I got to the ferry and found I had about half an hour to wait, so I decided to work out the best route to the hotel. I knew it was very close, and could find it if I followed the ring road the taxis used and then cut in, but guessed there must be an easier way. I went to the taxi drivers waiting by the big Banyan tree and asked. One of them offered to walk me there, and pointed out all the landmarks I could hope to find on the buildings we passed and, sure enough, in two minutes we were there. I'd never have found it on my own, but now I was the group expert on getting back to our digs, fast. It was to be just about the only place I could guarantee to find, and then only if I started at a particular place, but I was happy.

Back at the concert, and myself and the late comers had missed one of the feature acts - a 107 year old woman who sang. Apparently she was superb, and hopefully Afton got some video footage so I may get a taster, but nonetheless, the next acts were good too.

Bright, colourful costumes, lots of percussion and big groups of performers, singing, chanting, stamping, dancing, clearly having the best time. The energy was amazing, the smiles on their faces infectious, and the performances captivating. Its times like these I realise just how inadequate my writing style is to convey the amazing scenes in front of us. I'm not normally big on music gigs unless I know the artist or the songs really well, but I have to say I was never bored for a moment. The fact that any singing done was in Swahili and there for totally incomprehensible to me, made no difference. The rhythms and melodies wrought just by the performers' voices was enough to take me along for the ride, and I wasn't the only one. By the end of the evening, even I was having a bit of a dance to myself - high praise indeed, I think you'll agree!

Eventually we called it a night, and went back to catch some sleep, ready for my last day in Zanzibar, Kara's birthday and another evening of crazy music.

I was up early the next day, finding the heat hard to sleep in, and enjoyed a bit of quiet time on the hotel roof. Other folk gradually emerged, including, eventually, the Birthday Girl. It actually turned out she'd been up nearly as early as me but had gone out to track down some extra accommodation for a couple of extra people who had decided to come over as well. We went out to breakfast at a small cafe, enjoying some fantastic coconut bread and spiced avocado and tomato on toast, before Kara went off to meet the noon ferry and the final members of our increasingly large team.

The group split then, some off to Prison Island to see the large tortoises (technically they're Giant Tortoises, but having seen the Larger Galapagos ones, I feel I have to differentiate. Call it travelers snobbery if you will. That's probably exactly what it is!), others for a shower and a snooze before the evenings revelry, and some for further wanderings in the maze and a bit of shopping. Needless to say, eventually all roads led to the bar, and we reconvened and confirmed evening plans over a well earned cold beer.

The first plan was to see an early act at the festival. They were an incredible group of artists, each with a different physical handicap, but when they played and sang, you would never have guessed. One of the guys who came to dance at the front of the stage had no use of his legs, but was pulling off break-dancing moves and using his hands to chuck his useless limbs around in the same way Fred Astaire might have used a cane, or a Morris Dancer his bells on a stick. It had to be seen to be fully appreciated, but again, the energy and enthusiasm was infectious.

From there, we went to The House of Spices restaurant for a birthday feast of pizza and pasta and wine and beer and vodka shots, before returning to the festival in time to catch probably the act of the weekend, a Nigerian singer called Nneka (you tube her), likened by some to Lauren Hill. Amazing voice, mostly sang in English, powerful messages, very passionate about what she does. Superb performance.

Beers were sought after this, at which point excess alkyhol lead to a more permanent fracturing of the group. Afton and I went in search of some of her other Danish mates, and at some point the rest of the group slipped out to the night club, leaving us behind, half expecting to get a text when/if they left. No text, we figured, must mean they were still here. We went along to the club eventually, but with a door fee to pay and no idea if they were in there or not, we didn't go in, so sadly out evening came to an early end at about 1.30am. As I had to get up at about 7am to pack and get to the ferry by half 8, I wasn't too upset, but it would have been nice to have continued the party a bit longer. No matter, it was a stormer of a night anyway.

As I waited for my ferry in the morning, Kara came out to see me off. Despite what must have been one of the all time great hangovers, she found her way to the port with enough time for us to chat for a bit before I left, talk over the the finer points of the trip, and say cheerio. Whatever other activities I may have engaged in, however much I enjoyed them and however worthwhile they helped make the trip, I can't pretend this holiday was really about anything else for me than getting a chance to hang out with Kara and build the friendship we started back in Canada last August, and we got to do that. Maybe not in exactly the way I might have liked, but I'm glad we got the time we did, and I'm sure we'll catch up again some time. Until then, I had a 49 hour transit time from Zanzibar to NZ ahead of me, and at least 4 months of work before I could get away again. Who knows where to next time? Not I. There are options, as ever: maybe the UK/Sweden to see my new niece/nephew and go to a wedding; or to Brasil to meet my brother as he prepares to leave South America for the next leg of his epic road trip around the world; or some other as yet unspecified location. Money will be the deciding factor, so it's nose to the grindstone once again, driven by the desire to be elsewhere. I hope that whenever and wherever I go, you'll join me in the next version of my blog. I may yet bring forth a final, reflective entry. Until then, check out the photos I've uploaded onto flickr by using the link on this page. I've thoughtfully re-arranged the 3 trips into collections, so you can nose about in whatever takes your fancy. Thanks once again for your company and your feedback. Always nice when I get an e-pat on the back :-)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Just Another Day in Paradise

At last! After 3 weeks of the mundane and ordinary (climbing Kili, going on Safari (both wildlife and inner city), trawling the weird and wonderful in Dar es Salaam), I was finally off to do something interesting: scuba diving! I had 2 days booked up at Kendwa, in the northwest of Zanzibar, and one of the main resorty areas of the island. I had been under the impression that Kendwa was the less resorty one of the two main villages up there, but was told on arrival that my guide book was out of date, and Kendwa was now more expensive if slightly less crowded.

This became evident in the many half built hotels sitting atop the cliffs at the north end of the beach like so many uninspiring candles on the most incredible birthday cake. If only someone could blow them out (and off), the pristine nature of the beach would be preserved, but maybe that is just selfish of me...maybe the locals prefer the thought of income from tourists to the peace, quiet and paradise of where they live. It is an interesting problem. I dread to think how this place will have changed in the next 5 years or so.

For now, though, it is still relatively unharmed - just a half dozen or so hotels on the beach front, relatively discreet, and not too crowded for mid-week. I gather the weekends really kick off into party mode, and even more so on a full moon, but I'd missed the last one of those, and the tourist numbers were low enough for me. My hotel was the last one before the cliffs, so was slightly further away from the main hubbub, allowing me to choose if I wanted to join in or not.

When I got to the dive shop at around half nine, I was told the morning dive was cancelled due to rough seas, but the afternoon one would be going ahead. I killed some time settling into my room, finding a cold fruit juice and lounging in a hammock. Its a tough life. Having lost one of my Teva sandals at Bububu beach on my fist day in Zanzibar, I was going barefoot in Kendwa, but I figured that if the biggest problem I had every day was to pick the shortest route across the burning sand to the cooler shady surfaces, life couldn't be all bad.

The afternoon dive was just me and the guide, so it was a really casual (apart from the safety briefings) dive, allowing me to re-familiarise myself with my rusty skills of diving. Things came back fast, and once under the water, I was quickly back into my favourite game of hide and seek with the fish. They always seem to win - the stakes being somewhat higher for them if they lose, as a rule - but every now and then I caught one out and was rewarded with a fantastic lionfish or a liquorice-like nudibranch and, of course, I found Nemo. He's always there if you look in the right places. So was Dory today, as well as moorish idols and various other things too, making it a satisfying refresher dive.

I spent the evening at the Kendwa Rocks Hotel bar/restaurant and, not having met anyone to hang out with as yet, had a couple of beers and chatted to the local bar staff. I treated myself to Sex on Zanzibar - the cocktail, not the act - figuring correctly that it would likely be the closest I came to that, and I rather think, in retrospect, that I may have made a poor choice.

The next day, though not hungover at all, I was feeling a little congested in the sinuses and that, combined with the tiny amounts of residual alcohol in my blood and a rougher sea than I'm normally used to, left me feeling somewhat queasy after my morning dive. It had been a better site than the day before, although my dive buddy struggled with getting the right amount of weight in his belt, meaning he was floating about a good 3 or 4 meters higher in the water than me. This left me spending almost as much time searching for him to make sure he was close as I did looking for fish, which left me somewhat annoyed by the end of the dive.

Back on shore, the queasiness wouldn't quit, so I reluctantly pulled out of the second dive for the day. I can't fully blame the beer and, as I write this back in NZ, I am suffering from a continued bunged nose and slight cold, so maybe I was actually coming down with something, so I guess it was the right call.

The free afternoon allowed me to get a blog or two up and, later in the day, when a cute brunette I'd smiled at in the computer room called out to me as I walked past on my way to the bar, I thought my luck was changing. Her and her two companions had been volunteering at a hospital near Dodoma for a few weeks and were enjoying a week in Zanzibar before heading home - one to England and the brunette and the other to Denmark. We talked for a while and ended up going to dinner as a group, where reality bit and it turned out she hadn't recognised me at all, just thought I'd been arranging to go on the same snorkeling trip as them the next day, and was being friendly. Being somewhat younger than me and not having to get up early to go to Stone Town in the morning, they eventually went off to go party in Nungwi, the next village up the coast, but we made arrangements to try and meet up over the weekend when they got to the music festival in Stone Town.

Kendwa was nearly over for me, but it has to be one of the most beautiful places I've been, and I have to say I did wonder somewhat ruefully what I was doing there on my own, rather than with that someone special. I guess maybe I'll have to come back someday and do it right. I only hope it doesn't lose too much of its charm in the meantime.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Earning the "Crazy Roads" Stripes

OK, it has to be said that the main difference between the previous two trips you have so politely joined me on and this one, is that I was independently mobile for the first two, while I have had to rely on public transport in Tanzania. All that was about to change, as four other people and I haggled over the price of a hire car for the day. We got the price down from US$45 to US$35 using the tried and tested method of pretending we'd had a better offer elsewhere. This cunning ruse secured us the use of a Toyota Escudo (I think...), which was delivered sucking fumes from the empty gas tank. This is the renters cunning ruse: start empty, finish empty, knowing full well that any tourist will have no idea of distances to travel or fuel consumption, thus needlessly over-filling the tank and returning the car with what has now become free petrol for the renter. We obliged by throwing in about 20l of fuel, which was maybe 10l less than we were recommended for our proposed trip. We figured we could always top up en troute if needs be.

My companions for the day were Nanda and Diana again, and an English couple called Chris and Ally who were staying in the same accommodation as N and D. None of us had driven in Africa before, despite Diana, Chris and Ally having spent some considerable time living and working there, so I volunteered for the first stint, both because I'd driven insane traffic in South America and because I wanted to drive the insane traffic of Stone Town so I could legitimately count this holiday under the "Crazy Roads" banner. Insane it may have been - definitely was, in fact - but also not nearly as insane as in Dar, so I felt confident...just so long as all I had to concentrate on was dodging things (livestock/kids/bikes/adults/scooters/ potholes/taxis/the list is almost endless), and leave someone else to worry about where we were acually going.

It started well....ish. I failed to hit anyone/thing and we got on what General Concensus said was the right road. As is often the case, however, the General had no idea what was going on in the trenches, and we ended up at the airport. The turn around to escape was in the short-stay car park and, after a little confusion on the one-way exit route out (which invloved the smallest moment of locked wheels on the slidey gravel, a cheer and much laughter from the watching taxi drivers and a brandished machete from the driver of the 'other vehicle'- in fun, I think, although he was scowling now I com eto think about it), we were back on the road.

Diana - our capable Kiswahili speaker and a person more used to traveling solo and not that keen on group activities (her school report would almost certainly have read "does not always play well with others. Has difficulty sharing her toys" as well as, perhaps, "does not like spending money") was insistent that we should stop and ask directions, which we eventually did. She then chose not to talk, leaving us non-Kiswahili speakers to try and muddle through. Eventually she chipped in, but it was one of those strange situations where the rest of us all kind of looked at each other and wondered what her problem was, seeing as she'd asked for something, been given it and then not seemed to want to help. I wondered if the day was about to degenerate into tension and sulking, but as it turned out this was very nearly an isolated incident.

Finally, we got the right road and we were off. Once out of the densly populated areas, the traffic dried right up and the going was good. Nothing to dodge or swerve around, and only the occasional speed bumps to mark the way in and out of villages, but an observant man (take note, Dear Reader) like myself worked this out and and anticipated them, thus minimising their, quite literal, impact on the trip. We had one standard police check point, at which we were not fined, hassled or inconvenienced in any way at all, and then it was all on for the east coast beaches. To get there, though, we had to go past Jozani Forest, home to the world's only population of Red Colobus monkeys. Now, those that know me will guess that I'd have been up for a short stop to go take a peek, but it turned out that everyone else was running on a tighter budget than me, so the US$8 was too steep a price to pay. No matter, I'd seen monkeys before, and besides it was getting pretty hot and the beach beckoned.

Jambiani beach, like most of the east coast beaches, is vast at low tide. The water recedes a loooooong way, revealing expanses of seaweed that the locals go out to harvest, dry and eat. Unfortunately, it also means that there is no swimming to be had until the sea has made its loooooong way back in again. We arrived at low tide, needless to say, so were able to enjoy a stunning scene, made more interesting by the hive of activity being entered into by the locals, but were unable to enjoy a cooling dip. It was also a bit early for lunch, so a cold drink later at a slightly over-priced resort restaurant, and we were off again (this time with Chris behind the wheel) to take a look at Paje beach, about 5km north. Chris and Ally were to be staying there the following week and wanted to check out their digs and put down a deposit, and we all agreed now seemed a good time for that. It took some to-ing adn fro-ing to find their place, however, and by the time we did, a few tempers were fraying and it had become apparent that Chris was not quite so observant a driver as the previous pilot when it came to speed bumps. Now, perhaps I should have offered some advice, but I didn't want to back seat drive, and besides, I thought I'd give him a chance to work it out before patronising him. Bad (but comical) move.

Paje was very similar to Jambiani, and although the tide was coming in by now, it was still not swimmable. Another beer for me (not driving at this point, of course), and no food despite the now appropriate hour (we decided to look for something "cheap and local") and we were off again, Chris once again in control - well, he'd only done a few kms. It turned out that Chris was something of a speed freak, pushing the pain threshold of the local vehicle in unknown condition to its limits on the flat. This also made it hard for him to spot the speed bumps (and we're talking double the normal height bumps here, at least), especially as he apparently hadn't made the village = bumps connection yet, so the poor car was given the thrashing of its long and poorly treated life. Again, I gave him the benefit of the doubt, but eventually felt it would not be too fussy to drop into conversation the suggestion that the bumps by the villages must be used instead of the absent speed limit signs, to ensure that people slow down as they go through. We all agreed, even Chris, who then continued to hoon over the bumps, power through the middle of the villages and then get thumped by the bumps at the other end as well! I gave up, figuring there is only so much help you can give some people, and resolved that if he broke the car I'd not be chipping in to fix it. In my book, damage caused to a joint rental car due to driver error is on the driver. If I were to break it on my shift, I would not ask for contributions, so I was not going to pay up on someone else's shift. I just hoped the situation would not arise when I would have to make my stand.

As luck would have it, part of our route to Pongwe beach (the only low-tide swimmable beach on the east coast) took us on a rough track. On our return run we found the tarmac road, but for now, off road it was. Bumpy and slow, perhaps, but the car appreciated the gentler bumps I'm sure.

Pongwe beach was amazing. One of the few good beaches on Zanzibar not yet surrounded by resorts, like hungry vultures around a fresh kill, it was a smallish bay rather than a long beach, which kept the water further in at low tide. The village was small and wobbly, like all the villages, and after rejecting the very exclusive Italian resort, we opted for the normal priced but equally pleasant Santa Maria for lunch and another beer - and a swim this time. Despite the now reasonable prices, Diana abstained from spending money once again, but everyone else ordered food and went for dip until it came.

The water in the bay was like a bath. It was so warm it was not even close to being refreshing, but that was of no importance, as the setting was once again idyllic, Zanzibar pulling out the stops all over again. Flocks of waders exploded from the sand, did a quick lap of the bay, flashing dark then light as they wheeled about in perfect, rippling, synchronisation, before settling back on the sand. One of my favourite sights in nature, and one that I see all too rarely, put on for me at a beautiful beach on a beautiful island. This place just seemed to know how to make a good impression.

As 4 o'clock rolled around, we decided to head back to the west coast for the sunset. I took over the driving once again, as much to protect the suspension of the car as to calm my rattled nerves, especially as we'd have to go back into Stone Town again, and I'd rather have been in control of the vehicle than suffer the fear of being a passenger. We made it across the island, in and out of Stone Town, and up the coast to Bububu beach, the site of Sunday's introduction. We found a gated resort to park in to protect the car, with a view over the bay set off by anchored dhows and swimming locals, and watched yet another Oscar worthy sunset. All that was left for us was running the gauntlet of the drive back into town, only this time it would be....IN THE DARK! I took the reins once again (I don't think Chris minded at all - he seemed nervous about town traffic for some reason...) and with some navigational advice, we got back to town in one piece. We had, at Chris's insistance while he was driving, put an extra 5l of fuel in the car part way through the day, so the renters ploy paid off handsomely, as we handed over a car with a fuel gauge showing 1/4 full. I tried to get the guy to repay us at least something, but he insisted there must only be a couple of litres left. I was tired and weary from the slightly stressful driving in town, and got a bit shirty with him. I told him if he didn't want to buy it that was fine, but he shouldn't try and bullshit me by saying it was nearly empty when we both knew it wasn't. Water of a ducks back for both of us, and quickly forgotten.

Once again, Zanzibar had provided the goods and come up trumps. All that was left for the day was to grab a cheap feed at the local market, pack for the trip to Kendwa up the north west coast on the morrow, and meet up later for a celebratory beer at Livingstone's. The only other event worth noting was the local guy Nanada met on her way to the bar, named Lawrence but self-nicknamed Mimi (Swahili for 'Me' because, in his own words "wherever I go, I am ME!"). I was convinced he was off his tree on something, so massively happy about everything was he, and talking so fast and incessantly it was almost impossibe to get a word in, but I met him a few days later too and, not only did he recognise me and remember my name, but he was just the same hyperactive person, and I was with someone who knew him of old and confirmed he was always like that. The guy was high on life it seemed, and was actually hilarious to talk to. Another local encounter that went to show that Zanzibar is a remarkable place indeed. Next on the list was some diving and quality beach-slothing. Time was running out, but the last fw days were set to be good ones. And now I shall leave it there. I have hogged the free Dubai airport internet for long enough, I fear. I may bet another one away from Bankok if time and facilities permit. Otherwise, it will be a round up from back in NZ. See you all later :-)

Friday, February 10, 2012

In Spice of Everything...

Did I make it plain how incredibly amazing Zanzibar is in my last post? I think I may have under-played it a bit. After an incredible first impression, things were about to get even better. I'd signed up for a spice tour combined with a beach visit in the afternoon, and got a slight discount as it was through some bloke Nanda had met before I arrived. I think we can all agree that all the very best deals can only ever be got through "some bloke".

Anyhow, we set off in a mini-van along with about 7 others and went out to visit a spice farm. So many of the spices you use in your kitchen are grown here, maybe even the very ones you are using. It's what the islands are famous for and what attracted the attention of the Arab traders many many years ago, and I was interested to see what nutmeg looks like before it is trapped and skinned and put in a jar. Now, while there are areas of more intensely grown spices, most of the spice tours take place in a smaller area specially planted with the various varieties so that the poor farmers (both poor as in unfortunate as well as fiscally challenged) don't have clumsy tourist stamping about on the green gold. As the plants from which the spices are harvested often like to grow in shady areas, being often small and shrub-like, this made for a pleasant walk through some trees.

We were taken around by our guide and shadowed by some helpful workers, presumably on a break, or maybe this was their role, who helped climb trees or dig roots as required, and who made frogs and neck ties out of palm fronds in an effort to earn bigger tips at the end. We found out that there are 3 types of coconut that are used in different was and for different things, we saw ginger in its (or should that be "her", Smitch? You're the expert...) natural form, took a nibble of a clove fresh off the tree (it has an almost instant numbing effect), licked the bark of a cinnamon tree - after it had been peeled off - and dyed out hands yellow with turmeric. We also found the fabled nutmeg, and learned that the outer casing of the fruit can be used for marmalade and that the hard nutmeg stone comes protected by the strangest red, almost plastic-textured, sort of net that you peel off. Truly a very strange thing. The red plasticky bit is called mace (not the pepper spray kind of mace, and not used to make it either) and can also be used in cooking and is worth more than the nutmeg itself.

I ate jack fruit, kindly picked from the highest part of the tallest tree (it has special powers when picked under these circumstances) by one of our shadows who shot up despite the apparent lack of anything to hold on to. It's a strange fruit, part way between a pineapple and a banana in both texture and flavour. Quite nice, in fact.

We went on to find a pepper tree, visit a guy who makes spice infused oils for both cookingand massage, and also passed by a spice stand to buy some should we so wish. It was really interesting, and we broke for a lunch of local spice-flavoured rice, spinach and a delicious coconut curry sauce, made using a fruit whose name I forget, but whose flavour is much sourer than lemon (which is the alternative ingredient if you can't find this anonymous fruit in your local supermarket). So good, and really filling, and just right for setting us up to visit the slave caves and Managapwani beach in the afternoon.

The slave caves were exactly that - a way of smuggling slaves on or off the beach through a natural tunnel and then holding them until they could be moved to wherever. This was after the British made slavery illegal but before the Arabs wanted to stop, back in the eighteen sixty somethings or there abouts. A spooky kind of place, and not at all a nice place to have been kept.

The beach itself was possible the most beautiful beach I've ever seen. Small, secluded, beautiful clear blue water and fringed along the shore with coconut palms. Absolutely idyllic. There was even a bloke with a chilly-bin selling cold beer for the same price as in town. Can't get a lot better than that! We hung bout for an hour or so until the tide started to come in and take back the small area of beach it had loaned us for the afternoon, so we packed up and headed back to the bus.

Back in Stone Town, after a quick freshen up, I wandered down to the beach to take some (more) sunset shots and try and capture some local colour. A Wee boy of about 3 or 4 came over to have his photo take (the kids love to see the picture on the screen afterwards), and then wanted to take some of his own. His hands were too small to reach all the buttons, but he wouldn't be helped, so I just held the strap while pressed everything at once. I narrowly escaped having the memory card wiped clean, and he also somehow managed to get the video mode to work - something I have been trying unsuccessfully to do since I got the camera (my own fault, I never looked at the instruction book). Even after I got it to stop filming, I had no idea how to make it start again. The boy must be some kind of savant with cameras or something. After a while he got bored and asked for sweets, which I didn't have, so he wandered off.

Sunset came and went, and a couple of beers later and it was about 11pm and I'd still not had dinner, so Nanda, Diana and I headed back to the local food market (via, I have to confess, the Foudhani one, where I got a local pizza to tide me over). I had another pizza at the other market (they're only small) which was actually tastier, and as it was late and the market much quieter, the vendors were very chatty and entertaining. Most of them had pretty good English it seemed, or at least were good at pretending they had pretty good English, and it was great experience to be just hanging out with them, chatting for an hour or so. As in South America, I found limited language does not necessarily equal limited communication, and almost certainly does equal a fair amount of hilarity. Day 2 had somehow managed to surpass Day 1, which had been, quite frankly, pretty bloody good. I wonder what day 3, with a spur of the moment plan to hire a car with 4 others I'd met at the bar, to go touring the island, would bring?

Thursday, February 9, 2012


It's been a while in coming, but I was finally off to experience the tropical paradise that is Zanzibar. The Spice Islands (there are two of them) lie just off the coast of Tanzania, a little north of Dar es Salaam. Becoming known as honeymoon hotspot, I was gong to be seeing what they had to offer on me tod. Perhaps the future Mrs McMullen will benefit from this scouting mission at some point, once I have met her obviously.

The ferry across set off with the dawn and only took 2 hours, so I arrived nice and early in the day and was able to take some time to get my bearings a bit. I found a map - possible the least useful map of any town anywhere - and sat in a cafe to try and make either head or tail of it. As I left the cafe, determined to go a-wandering, I was met by a local fella who first of all told me to "just relax, this is Zanzibar" before explaining he'd love to show me around, he didn't work for anyone and I could pay him what I wanted. Some of that was true anyway...

He was actually very interesting, clearly one of the opportunist tourist-botherers, but to be fair he didn't bother me at all. He was very friendly, very knowledgeable, and very relaxed. He showed me some parts of town a lot of tourists don't go to, and other parts they do, and it helped me get a little more familiar with the maze - quite literally - of streets that are Stone Town.

When I left him, I paid what I thought was fair, and asked if it was, and of course he asked for a little more, which I decided to give him because he seemed like a nice guy. He volunteered his services again, and I may take him up on it, in which case I won't pay so much. It'll balance out in the end.

I then met up with Nanda, who I'd originally met in Arusha, and her friend Diana, and we got in a dala-dala to go to the beach up the coast a bit. The dala-dalas are the local shuttle buses - they go often, from designated stands but stop anywhere pretty much and pick up far more people than can usually comfortably fit in them. It's a very similar system to the one in Cusco, so it was vaguely familiar at least. That didn't stop me inadvertently handing my bus fare to the wrong person, however, who then got off the bus and said it was his fee for holding some seats for us. A lesson learned, luckily very cheaply. Don't hand your money over until the 'conductor' asks for it!

The beach we went to had the rather pleasing name of Bububu, and was not a normal tourist place. There were very few beach side bars, and lots and lots of local families enjoying a Sunday of fun. We hung out on the sand enjoyed a swim, treated ourselves to just the one beer, and finally sat and watched a game of beach soccer, one of many that sprung up as the tide went out and the playing surface was revealed. This also coincided with the sunset, and gave the girls something to do while I retraced our steps looking for my lost sandal. I never found it, but no matter. On my walk I stopped and talked with a number of locals who seem only too happy and keen to chat. There is a definite Friendly with a capital F vibe about Zanzibar.

Back in Stone Town, we investigated the locals food market, deciding to avoid the more famous - and expensive, needless to say - tourist one. The food was more traditional and cost all of US75c, and was delicious. The atmosphere was once again very friendly with the locals seeming to be highly amused at the mzungus joining them at their rickety tables. The system seems to work like a big picnic, really, with the vendors bringing large containers of pre-cooked goodies which the dish out until they're used up. Simple, really. Some stalls were cooking as they went, others not. and all with a smile. It might have helped that Diana speaks pretty good Swahili, but my pitiful efforts at greetings seemed to be appreciated too. I had my first taste of Ugali, the local dietry staple of maize flour and water cooked into a thick dough state. You use your hands, take a golf ball sized piece of the bigger lump, shape it in your hand and use it as kind of scooper/blotter for the bean stew, fish curry and spinach that came with it. Very tasty, very filling.

After dinner we did go down to the Fourdhani Food Market to take a look, and I have to say it is quite a sight. Very picturesque, but a lot more mercenary, with so many vendors all trying to sell the same stuff. Lots of tourists and the more well off locals, though, being lured by skewers of fish, mini pizza-like things, fruit and sugar cane juice, freshly squeezed. I'd not had this since I was about 12 years old, on my first ever trip to NZ via Singapore. I seem to remember feeling pretty crook on the way out and having no appetite until we found this juice. I've seen it once or twice since but never had the time to buy any, and I nervously decided to get some. I had memories of it being amazing and was concerned I may have built it up in my mind to be better than it is. Happily, it was just as good, if not better, than I remembered - and flavoured with a bit of ginger too.

It was good first introduction to Zanzibar, and I was looking forward to going on a spice tour the next day. Until then, it was back to my hotel room and the large box-mosquito net around my double bed. I was going to have to enter a bout of UFC against the inevitable little buggers that sneak inside and then hide, waiting to attack when I am at my most vulnerable. Blood was about to be spilled, and I suspected it would be mine! (PS I will add photos when I have access to a better /cheaper internet source!)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

On Yer bike!

Last full day in Dar? Wondering what to do with yourself? Why not go on an Afriroots bike tour with Meja (I spent the whole day thinking his name was "Major", but that's just how it sounded...)? It will truly allow you to see a side of Dar that you would not get to see otherwise. I went with 3 friends (Kara, Lisa and Afton), two of whom had spent considerable time in Dar, and both of whom wished they'd done the tour sooner to appreciate the place they'd be living all the more while they were/are there. Lisa, who is here for a while but only arrived the day after I did, is very glad she got to do it so soon and get an alternative view of the city she will be calilng home for the next 6 (?) months.

We started at 9am or there abouts, were given decent mountain bikes with suspension and brakes (never misunderestimate (sic) the value of good brakes), and headed straight across what is affectionately known as Suicide Road (but more correctly known as the New Bagamoyo road). We were taken through back streets and alley ways, through markets and people's back yards (or so it seemed), with numerous breaks to meet (in no particular order but as chronologically as I can remember): the street coffee sellers, roasting their beans in frying pans before grinding them with traditional wooden pestle and mortars (you know the kind, you've seen them on the Nat Geo channel being used by village women to crush grain). We even had a taste with some of the peanut caramel you have to eat along with the coffee to beat the bitterness. Every 6months or so, Meja changes which group of coffee boys he visits, thus spreading the fee he pays between the struggling entrepreneurs (the whole Afriroots tour company is all about supporting cultural tourism and local businesses).

We had breakfast cooked for us at the side of the road by local woman, after having been shown one of the oldest original houses in Dar, sadly being taken down as the area is being redeveloped. All very well, the government developing these areas, but apparently they didn't ask anyone who lived there if they minded, and all the current inhabitants will be unable to afford to live there once its finished, so they'll have to move on. Meja was not impressed, I think.

On through the streets, getting slightly suspicious looks by a few folks, friendly greetings from most others, and an on-going cheer-fest from the small kids along the way, who would stand at the side clapping and dancing and jumping up and down chanting "wa-zung-u, wa-zung-u" (that's the plural of Mzungu, which I mentioned last time) as we went past. It (and they) was hilarious. There had been a whole facebook thread amongst TZ ex-pats about whether they should or did find "Mzungu" insulting or derogatory. If they had seen these kids, they would have seen it for what is was, just a word, used for fun, not for nastiness. We paused at a bridge in one of the poorest parts of the city where all the waste and rubbish gets clogged, especially after the flooding that happened at the end of last year. the houses round here all have 2 foot high barriers cemented to their front doors, effectively the equivalent of permanent sandbags, as a preemptive precaution. They were about 3 feet too low during the last floods apparently. We also met a local herbalist here, a traditional healer growing and using the plants that have been used for generations to fix up the locals. Some people still rely on them heavily, either due to restricted financial capabilities or aversion to modern pills, others dip in and out as they see fit. The lady was sad that there were no youngsters keen to learn the old ways though.

On, on and we went through various markets, one virtually disused despite having been purpose built. it just never caught on with the locals, and its now slowly dying. Another was as crazy and chaotic as I've become used to seeing. There were some real characters on the stalls, some of whom were a bit surly and reluctant to have a bunch of 9 tourists take pictures, others played up to the camera were hilarious. I think they see these groups regularly and don't mind them a bit.

We had some wedges of pineapple carved off the fruit, some with the convenient leafy handle still attached, and stopped off for a soda (I had a grown-up's soda) just before finishing. It was an excellent day, and a good way for me to finally get rid of any residual nerves I may have had about wandering about in Tanzania. Common sense must still be taken into account, but I am not nearly so anxious as I was at the start. I am actually finding the place to be very enjoyable indeed now, which is how I'd hoped it would be.

I left for Zanzibar the next morning on the 7am ferry and, without wanting to give any spoilers, am having a great time here too. Stand by for more on that another time. Internet cafe time almost

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Da Da Daaaar!

So, I've spent this week in Dar es Salaam, relaxing a little more, hanging out with my friend Kara and her friends. There is quite the ex-pat community here in Dar, with lots of the foreigners hanging out together in regular friend-groups, and then bumping into an ever changing selection of non-regular friends at various social events. For example, on Tuesday when I got into town, I was taken to "Dining in Dar" which is a weekly event where "everyone" meets at a different restaurant each week, organised by one particularly efficient guy. In this way, folks get to meet new folks, catch up with folks they don't see that often and try out new places to eat in the city - and there are many places to eat in the city! I felt like a bit of a fraud, as the new folks, including myself, made their various introductions. While everyone else was able to explain their mostly worthy reasons for being in Dar (working for NGOs, volunteering, some other form of employment), I had to boldly state that I was just a tourist - although I spun this so that I was actually "supporting the local economy".

It was a great night, at a superb Indian restaurant, and I met some interesting people and reacquainted myself with some others that I'd met a couple of weeks early. There seems to be a constantly altering flow of people, which makes for interesting times.

One of the new arrivals (another canadian who is based in Denmark of all places) lives just round the corner from Kara, and was not due to start work (other than occasional meetings for a few days), so we have been able to hang out this week - a double bonus for me as it not only gives me a buddy to hang with but also one who is also familiar with the area, as this is her 2nd time back here, so I got a bit of a free tour guide too. Not only have I once again been able to relax and enjoy my local neighbourhood, but I've also been out further afield to, for example, the Welder's World, where local people stricken with polio and other debilitating conditions make their living turning scrap metal into amazing works of art, often on the theme of African wildlife. Imagine a ten foot tall steel giraffe made from re-shaped and burnished steel drums and bicycle chains, or a 5 foot long crocodile with old door hinges making up the armour plating on its back. They are amazing things, and there are many smaller items too, but all sadly too bulky and heavy (and expensive) for me to bring back.

I also went to the Mwenge Craft Market today, which is a whole area of narrow but curiously deep shops full of carvings (wood and stone), bead work, paintings, you name it, if you imagined it might come from Africa, its probably here. It's a strange place to go - there's such competition for the customers that the store owners sit outside and bid any passing Mzungu (the term used by locals for all tourists, and carrying with it maybe a small amount of controversy about its adopted mis-translation of "white person". Its actual translation is more like "wandering person" or some such, but as people tend to do, it has become synonymous with tourists, who are more often than not white, and now some people are choosing to take offense from a word that is not usually used in a derogatory manner) welcome and come and have a look, looking is free. Some of them seem bored, some mercenary, others genuinely lovely, and its hard to resist stepping into the gloomy interiors that seem to stretch deeper and deeper, almost like going back in time, as you are confronted by an amazing array of intricately carved dooby-dads. Some of the work is breath-taking - more giraffes, 8 feet tall and carved out of one piece of wood; others made from palm trunks, hollowed out and then carved to create lamp stands; rhinos, elephants and big cats; Maasai warriors that seem to have had an almost Dali-esque makeover; the imagination is almost endless, but at the same time there is a feeling of mass production in a lot of the work. Don't get me wrong, it is all clearly hand made, but I could almost picture the individual crafts-folk knocking out the same statue over and over again, while their neighbour does the same with another design. Certainly a lot of the paintings give this impression too (pardon the pun). Regardless, it is amazing work and, lost in the moment the urge is there to buy so many different pieces, before the obvious budget issues sober you up, closely followed by the thought of how much more it would cost to freight back to wherever and the realisation that you probably wouldn't have anywhere big enough to display it anyway, and besides, these things always seem to look somewhat out of place once you get them home anyway....Just as well I have neither the funds to purchase nor the house to decorate, so my hands stayed pretty much in my pockets. Although I do have a goddaughter who always appreciates a good giraffe.... I'd have loved to take photos, but it seemed a bit rude to snap away and then not buy anything, so I only managed a couple of hurried shots in a mask shop while the owners back was turned!

Other evening activities this week have included a trip to an excellent Lebanese restaurant and a night hosted by some Canadian diplomats (I move in high circles, you know that), and tonight is bingo night, complete with more fantastic Indian food. Apparently the bingo caller is hilarious, so I'm looking forward to that! Tomorrow is a 5 hour guided bike ride through some of the less frequented areas of Dar, then its off to Zanzibar for my last week, bright and early on Sunday morning. I know, you all feel so sorry for me...