How to keep one’s chin up when one misses one’s boat in Zanzibar

I still don’t know how it happened.

One minute we were sitting in an almost-deserted Forodhani Gardens, sipping cold drinks, chatting with a charming local trying to sell us some colorful scarves and watching the boats bobbing lazily in the water, and Lulu ben was waving a cheerful goodbye to the Kenyan-Indian couples and the toddler, strolling off towards the ferry dock. We could see it from where we sat and were assured that the ferry WE were supposed to board to get back to Dar had not yet arrived, though it was getting closer to 4 pm….

Forodhani...deserted..(photo taken by Tina)
(photo taken by Tina)


The next minute we were jogging as fast as we could, with sinking hearts, towards the ferry dock!

The guy selling scarves jogged alongside Tina, keeping our morale up as we tried not to panic, but as we reached the dock where people were boarding ferries…….we realised ours had just left!

Tina and I were hot, a bit the worse for wear, and completely crestfallen. Our husbands were expecting us back from our day trip by evening, and it seemed from the frantic conversation Lulu ben was engrossed in with a porter that we could either take the midnight ferry (which would travel very slow and get us back to Dar around 6 am )…..or we could catch a plane.

(photo by Tina)

The clouds had gathered, finally providing some respite from the glaring sun, but Tina and I trudged dejectedly behind Lulu ben, (both worrying about how irresponsible our husbands would think we were) back to the ferry office to try and get a refund at least, an exercise in futility. The office was closing and as we walked out of there, it suddenly started to pour…

Lulu ben was busy making phone calls under the shelter of a porch roof. As our guide, she felt responsible for getting us back to Dar without further ado….

The pouring rain turned out to be just a passing shower, and as we stood around waiting for instructions from a friend, it seemed like a great idea to have some more coconuts. A coconut seller with baskets heaped with tiny coconuts stood a little distance away, and Tina gestured to him to bring us a couple.

Once again, Tina managed to cast her spell, and by the time we’d had our fill of coconuts, the coconut seller had declared his love for her and asked her to marry him…

We walked away from there, Tina laughing heartily as the poor rejected suitor stared after us, and made our way back to the Old Dispensary, which also happened to house the ticketing office for the airline.

Tired, our arms aching from the weight of the things we had bought, including a couple of kilos of an interesting Tanzanian fruit which Lulu ben insisted I take home with me, we hailed a cab which sped us to the Old Dispensary, the driver keeping our things safe in the car while he waited for us to buy our tickets.

So our trip ended where it began…..the Old Dispensary.

It was funny how differently one feels at the beginning of an adventure compared to how one feels towards the end. Though it was an interesting twist in the storyline, nevertheless it was unsettling to have missed the ferry. On top of it, I felt bad for Tina that she didn’t get to have the beachy Zanzibar experience she had probably anticipated.

Tina and I being foreigners ended up paying twice as much for our tickets as Lulu ben, adding insult to injury. But our drive to the airport was pleasant and our cabbie was a decent, soft-spoken man, very polite and well-mannered, getting us there just in time for our flight.

I thought I must have looked frightful, my hair a mess, my face sunburnt, my white clothes stained brown with coconut water and some mysterious yellow blotches that appeared to have leaked from the bags of fruit I had been hugging to me as I ran…

the errant wives 😛

All’s well that ends well though, and I suppose we would never have witnessed the beautiful seascape between Zanzibar and Dar es Salam from the air, a ride that took us all of twenty minutes. We reached Dar around the same time as we would have if we hadn’t missed the blasted ferry.

sky, cloud
Dar coastline nears...
Dar!

back! safe and sound.

Ah well, at least I managed to buy four colourful scarves for 10000 shillings before missing the boat 🙂

Stone Town in grayscale

We continued to wander around Stone Town after leaving Lulu ben’s place and saw some more beautiful buildings…

mosque premises

buildings

windows

We walked through the fish market, which was full of interesting Indian Ocean sea creatures but which quite overpowered the olfactory senses.

fresh octopus
dried octopus

We wandered through the stalls laden with packaged aromatic spices, and I picked up packets of vanilla and cinnamon…some for me, some as gifts…

vegetables (the okra was/were huge!)
bananas? plantain?

The midday sun was making us very hot and the sight of coconuts being expertly sliced at a corner made us stop and have a few, despite Lulu ben’s concern about all of us needing a loo afterwards. They were deliciously cool and sweet, and we drank straight from the coconuts, quenching our thirst most delightfully, scooping out the soft, translucent flesh with spoons carved from the husk itself.

I could have easily had twenty of those little coconuts. Wish I could have taken pictures, but my hands were sticky and I was too preoccupied 🙂

We ate platefuls of something they simply call ‘Mix’, which is basically a concoction of fried lentil ‘bhajias’ soaked in a yogurt based curry, spicy and lemony, with a liberal sprinkling of crunchy crisps, made by an old Kutchi-Memon lady by the name of Sughra.

We chatted with two young Kenyan-Indian couples who had been on the same ferry as us in the morning and apparently had no hang-ups about being appropriately dressed in a conservative place. We laughed sympathetically as one of the couples dealt with their two yr old in the throes of a fizzy drink demanding tantrum.

We meandered through another part of Stone Town where there were quaint souvenir shops here and there and we stopped to peruse these before making our way over to the street that led to the ferry dock.

I spent too much time comparing prices of goods from one shop to the next (and they really DID vary rather dramatically at times) but Lulu ben and Tina (much to their credit) hardly betrayed any impatience. The only thing I ended up buying was a colourful painting of Masaai tribesmen which I haggled over rather satisfactorily, asked the shopkeeper to take it off the canvas frame and roll it up as fast as he could, walking out of the shop triumphantly, one souvenir richer, 15000 Tanzanian shillings poorer. Not a bad deal at all!

(It now hangs, nicely framed, on my living room wall.)

shop

It was 3:35 as we walked out of Stone Town and made our way over to a deserted Forodhani in the afternoon. The ferry was to leave at 4 pm, so we bought some cold soft drinks and found a place to relax for a bit and enjoy the sea view before heading over to the ferry that would take us back to Dar…

(to be continued..)

Wandering around Stone Town

Once upon a time, Zanzibar was ‘one of the most important trading centres in the Indian Ocean region’, and Stone Town (or Mji Mkongwe as it is called in Swahili) was the capital of the Zanzibar Sultanate. It flourished with the commerce of spices and slaves.

Stone Town is a city of prominent historical and artistic importance in East Africa. Its architecture, mostly dating back to the 19th century, reflects the diverse influences underlying the Swahili culture, with a unique mixture of Moorish, Arab, Persian, Indian and European elements. For this reason, the town has been included in UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in 2000.

Due to its heritage, Stone Town is also a major tourist attraction in Tanzania, and a large part of its economy depends on tourism-related activities.

—————————————————————-

April, 2011.

Lulu ben was born and bred and lived in Karachi until a man from Zanzibar proposed to her and she said yes, which is how Fate led her to an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, into a vertical house right in the middle of the crowded, narrow alleyways of the labyrinthine Stone Town. This is where she spent the next 20 years or so of her married life, raised a family of six children, and where her husband continued to stay and run his business from a shop under the house, even after she decided she could no longer bear the claustrophobia…

Now she lives in Dar es salam, all the children are married (save one who is due to be married next year) ….grandchildren abound.

She visits her husband in Zanzibar weekly, and it just so happened that she had Tina and I with her this time. He is recuperating from the shock of undergoing a major surgery recently, and Lulu ben made a beeline for her old house, weaving her way expertly through the alleys, pointing out some historically significant buildings along the way.

I clicked away, my shirt stuck to my back, juggling my bags, my cap and my camera. It was a super hot and very sunny day, and I wished I was wearing shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt instead of the ridiculous outfit I had chosen for myself for the expedition. I had heard that Zanzibar had more of a Muslim/Arab influence, so I thought I’d be better off erring on the side of conservatism.

The coraline rock of Zanzibar was a good building material, but it is also easily eroded.
This is evident by the large number of houses that are in a bad state of repair.
Several buildings have already been renovated and the Stone Town Conservation Authority has been established to co-ordinate the restoration of the town to its original magnificence.
Most of the houses that can be seen today were built in the 19th century
key feature of most buildings is large verandas protected by carved wooden balustrades.
and the doors...
The most well-known feature of Zanzibari houses are the finely decorated wooden doors
sometimes with big brass studs of Indian tradition

Two main types of doors can be distinguished: those of Indian style have rounded tops
some were decorated rather differently.
Lulu ben and I (photo courtesy: Tina)

We continued walking through the convoluted alleys, me stopping to click interesting views and things and getting lost periodically. I was scared once when I couldn’t figure out which lane Lulu ben and Tina had veered into in our search for the Anglican Church. A boy approached me and we exchanged jambos and he asked what I was looking for. I told him I was looking for the people I was with and he suggested I turn left and follow the road. I did as he said, doubtfully, feeling afraid of coming to a dead end where I would then be conveniently mugged. To my relief, as I turned a corner, I finally caught up with the ladies.

But it was a bit creepy…

Stone Town is a living, breathing heritage area, and people live and work here.

Most of the women cover their hair...
shops lined the streets, really clean by Pakistani standards...

Soon we reached Lulu ben’s house. We walked through a small shop that sold a variety of hair accessories and an assortment of other goods, manned by two very old, frail-looking ladies in ridas. They were Lulu ben’s husbands sisters, and she greeted them warmly as they smiled and welcomed us in.

It was really dark inside, and she told us to be careful on the steps as we went upstairs. It reminded me of being in one of those really old buildings in the old parts of Karachi….only different.

the landing..

I finally met the elusive Mr Lulu ben. His name is Saifuddin, and we found him sitting quietly by himself on a chair in his bedroom, lost in thought. Lulu ben met him affectionately and introduced us, and while they talked and caught up with each other, Tina sat on the edge of a bed while I looked around curiously. This picture on the wall caught my eye.

formally dressed and turbaned in sherwanis, a long time ago

She took us further up the stairs to show us the rest of the house and I found the layout to be so unusual…. and interesting. Lulu ben had often felt so cooped up here, especially with so many kids. It would get gloomy and stifling inside, I’d imagine.

She showed us the door which lead to the terrace roof, where she would get some light and some fresh air and I pictured her having tea while the kids ran around….

But the door was locked, so unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the view.

(to be continued…)

Making our way to Stone Town

If memory serves me right, tourists pay twice as much as locals do for a two-way ferry-ride to Zanzibar from Dar. When I talked about haggling in my previous post, I actually meant that Lulu ben (our kind tour guide) tried to pass me off as one of her daughters and Tina as a local Tanzanian rather than a Ghanaian. In cahoots with the friendly ticket agent, Lulu ben managed to buy us tickets for half-price. All we had to do was keep our mouths shut and try not to look like tourists.

So while Lulu ben marched onto the ferry waving to the people she knew and shouting a cheery ‘Jambo!’, Tina and I slunk by her side trying our darndest to blend in, I feeling a bit weaselly, thinking about the consequences if we got caught. My heart thumped in my throat as I handed my ticket to the guard for inspection and felt so relieved as he motioned me to pass through without even suspecting me to be anything other than a local Indian!

Lulu ben and I on the ferry, just before it left Dar

I couldn’t help feeling like a South Asian wallflower next to the impressive African-ness of Tina in her rust-coloured dreadlocks. Tanzanian men didn’t give me a second glance as I walked by, whereas Tina elicited much attention. They were drawn to her, and could tell she wasn’t from around these parts. They tried chatting her up in Kiswahili (which Tina cannot understand or speak) and tried to guess where she was from. It was fascinating to watch, and I was amused, and not at all resentful in my invisibleness, pondering the subtle variations between Africans. I guess Ghanaians are built differently from Tanzanians. In any case, Tina remained coolly aloof and enigmatic, and refused to indulge their curiosity.

The ferry ride was a lovely, relaxing experience once we got over the anxiety of cheating the system, and in two hours it was time to disembark.

As we walked over the ramp that connected the ferry to the dock, Lulu ben told me a story about a Bohri lady who returned from a 40-day Haj, only to fall off this very ramp into the deceptively deep water of the dock….and drowned. Horrified, I steered clear of the edge of the ramp and quickened my pace to get off as fast as I could. How depressing to die just minutes before reaching home after a long long journey…

There was a great hustle and bustle near the dock, and we walked towards the general direction of the main road, where the first building I clapped eyes on was this…

the Old Dispensary

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture restored the Old Dispensary, thereby conserving it, and it is now known also as the Aga Khan Cultural Centre. More about this building here.

Lulu ben marched up the steps and beckoned us to follow her. We walked in and looked around, and it was quiet, cool and empty inside, as I roamed around taking pictures…

inner courtyard

staircase leading up
terrace with a view
the beautiful balcony overlooking the street outside…
and the sea on the other side
Sultan of Zanzibar with some grumpy-looking cronies
As we wandered around inside, I came across this picture on the wall along with some history on the island of Zanzibar. Right across from it, there was a woman standing near a pillar with a tray full of assorted packaged spices. Cloves, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, vanilla pods……and lots more.
I stopped for a look and asked Lulu ben if I should buy from here rather than the Spice market and she looked at me, baffled, no doubt wondering why I’d be interested in buying spices of all things.  I decided to walk on and think about spices later……I was sure I’d come across them again….
All I knew about Zanzibar was a vague notion of there being an exciting spice market somewhere, and some spectacular beaches and beautiful resort hotels. At this point I still harboured the hope that I’d get to see it all before I left. 
How very silly of me.
Next post: wandering around Stone Town..

Islands and ferry-rides

Many of you may recall that I went along with Huz to Tanzania in March and wrote about parts of the trip here, here, here, here and here.

I just realized that I did not follow up on that series with some of the other expeditions I went on while there. Therefore, I shall immediately proceed to write another bunch of photo-rich posts (since y’all like those so much) and fill you in on all the other stuff….

Here goes.

April, 2011.

It was a hot, humid day in Dar es salam, Tanzania. Huz and Willem were to be off to work as usual, and Tina and I had decided to go to Zanzibar with Lulu ben for a day trip. Tina had heard so much about Zanzibar and how lovely it was that there was no way she was going back to Ghana without having seen the famous beaches there.

I wasn’t too sure about this trip. The ferry left the dock at 9 in the morning and it took 2 hours to get to Zanzibar. The return ferry left at 4 in the afternoon, so we would only get 4 hours or so to explore whatever we could, and it seemed there was no way we could go to Nungwi, where the lovely beaches were, and back in time for the ferry.

The only thing we could realistically manage to do was explore Stone Town, and judging by Huz’s stories (from previous trips he’d made alone) there was nothing very interesting to see there, except some very old, decrepit buildings.

But there was nothing better to do, so we decided to go ahead. Tickets were haggled over and bought by our Swahili-speaking hostess, Lulu ben, and soon we were on a ferry and on our way.

We sat on the carpeted floor of the uppermost deck, since all the seats were taken. It was really nice to get such a panoramic view of the Indian Ocean, blue and vast, as the mainland receded from view.

Tina
sky, sea
budding island...?
Tina and Kenyan kiddo
kiddo peruses magazine
my favourite picture 🙂

Tina played with a little Kenyan boy, whose parents watched smilingly as we entertained him. Lulu ben and I talked about her life in Tanzania, first in Zanzibar and then in Dar es salam, so far away from her parents in Karachi and all her sisters, and how her five daughters and one son became her entire world. She regaled me with interesting stories, and it felt to me as if she hadn’t had a conversation like this in a long long time…talking to someone from Karachi was refreshing for her, and I, of course, was delighted to listen 🙂

There was a friendly Canadian lady on the ferry who had been backpacking all over Africa and was now going to see Zanzibar. That’s her in the green blouse.

Somewhere along the way, the ferry made a perpendicularish turn from the Tanzanian coastline and made a beeline eastwards towards Zanzibar. Soon, another coastline appeared on the horizon, and I headed over towards the other side of the ferry to take some pictures.

coastline
more coastline

getting closer..
the water is very clean and blue as we approach the ferry dock....

Next post: Making our way to Stone Town…