Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Spelunking in Hammer pants and other things the writers of the Lonely Planet guide clearly didn't do in Zanzibar

After 90 very long minutes in the back of a sweaty dalla-dalla full of slightly frightened children, Laura and I arrived at the quaint little village of Mangapwani on the northwestern coast of Zanzibar. Our lower extremities mostly numb from the trip, we ungracefully climbed over the mess of stinking plastic bags of fresh-caught octopus, henna-adorned feet, and 25-liter jerry-cans of petrol crowding the narrow aisle and made our way into the coral-stoned streets of the village.

The town of Mangapwani (literally “Omani Beach”) is described in the Lonely Planet guide to East Africa as “small and unremarkable,” which was enough to make me want to visit. It’s a rural village full of shambas (small farms), bent palm trees leaning inland from the incessant wind from the sea, and a ridiculous number of chickens (compared at least to Stone Town). It’s also home to the Mangapwani Coral Cavern, which is why we were there.

The Mangapwani Coral Cavern is a big underground cave full of slightly damp fossilized coral formed an estimated 1.6 million years ago. It was discovered by a shepherd boy in the early 19th century after one of his goats fell into the opening of the cave, which at the time was just a little hole in the middle of a forest. Unfortunately for the shepherd boy (who was a slave) and his fellow slaves, the discovery of the cave meant that the plantation’s Omani owner, Hamed El-Harthy, could continue to keep slaves even after slavery was officially outlawed some years later—he just hid them in the cave when he wasn’t using them. It wasn’t long, though, before the slaves living in the cave discovered two escape routes: one leading to the ocean (where lots of them drowned trying to get out) and one opening up just 90 meters from the entrance of the cave. Eventually several slaves escaped from this second passage and ran to the neighboring shamba for help, and since then the cave has been uninhabited (unless you believe the guide’s story about the cave’s “magical” python that improves the fertility and election results of anyone who brings it gifts of flowers or food…we didn’t see it).

Anyway, we followed our guide around the cave’s narrow passages, splashing around in potentially python- and parasite-infested waters and trying not to freak out when bats flew very close to our heads (I’m very afraid of bats). Our guide thought we were a hoot, too. We had expected a precariously steep staircase and a short tour and some history about slavery and whatnot, but not the clamoring around on sandy, slippery coral part. Laura was wearing a knee-length plaid skirt and bejeweled sandals, and I was wearing bright purple Hammer pants (like MC Hammer) and Chaco Z’s and carrying a messenger bag full of Kiswahili textbooks. I DID have a headlamp in my bag, which was really fortunate considering that I would have otherwise had to navigate by the dim light of my cell phone. But hey, we lived to tell about it. (And to write to Lonely Planet about their completely insufficient coverage of the Mangapwani Coral Cavern!)

Another must-see in Zanzibar (also neglected by Lonely Planet) is the Capital Art Studio, a little family-owned photography studio in the Shangani neighborhood of town that has photographed every important event and lots of everyday scenes in Zanzibar since the 1950’s. The walls of the shop are covered with black-and-white pictures of foreign dignitaries (including His Majesty King Mswati III) spending holidays in Zanzibar, of shop-keepers and fruit vendors, and of little gems of Zanzibari culture like women sorting fresh cloves and Yemeni boys selling coffee in the streets of Stone Town before the revolution in 1964. The shop’s owner, a second-generation Zanzibari photographer of Indian descent, had a story to go with each photo and as I sorted through a big box of old photos he narrated them with details about the time in which the photo was taken, giving them context and making them so much more interesting. He knew some of the people in the pictures, knew who the children grew up to be or where they fled to after the revolution, what happened to this building during the 1970’s or that building during some tropical storm, and he explained to me the impact of the revolution on the demographic and culture of Zanzibar (when a large part of the island’s resources, farms, business, and homes were nationalized and about 15% of the population, including most foreign-born non-Muslim residents, fled the country). I honestly think I learned more about the history of Zanzibar in an hour with him than from an hour at the Zanzibar National Museum of History! It was incredible to see how much the island has changed in the last half-century, and also how much it’s NOT changed.

Speaking of changes, it’s been a week since the end of Ramadan and I’m very much enjoying being able to eat in public and whatnot. Not much else has really changed except that the food vendors previously selling only at night are now selling during the day, and there’s more litter in the streets because people are eating in public where there aren’t trash cans for all their candy wrappers and plastic bags. And, turns out, like half the men in Zanzibar smoke. Who knew…

To mark the end of Ramadan, Zanzibaris celebrate three days of “Sikukuu.” Basically, it’s a big “we can eat now!” feast that involves fancy coordinating outfits for children and their mothers, the application of lots of colorful eye makeup on any girl old enough to walk, elaborately henna-ed hands and feet, and lots of staying up late and walking around. Kind of like a Muslim Christmas, kids get presents (mostly toy guns) and then parade around the town showing off their new clothes and toys. And they fire the cannons on the waterfront, which is a really scary way to wake up at 6am when you’re foreign and have no idea what is happening or why.

Some friends and I also stumbled upon a Sikukuu part two celebration in the town of Kizimkazi a full week after the rest of the island had finished celebrating. During Ramadan, women are exempted from fasting for the week of their menstruation, so the women of Kizimkazi tack an extra 6 days of fasting onto the end of their Ramadan and then celebrate the holiday a week later. There’s a bit of controversy about the Kizimkazi Sikukuu because it attracts so many prostitutes (which isn’t unlike the usual Sikukuu celebration if you ask me), but we had a good time wandering through tents selling sunglasses (at night?), toy guns, candy, chapatti and kebab at the Kizimkazi fairground. After most of the kids had gone home, we ended up at the “Casino Academy” and danced the night away to surprisingly explicit Swahili hip-hop music. Apparently it’s okay to rap about sex in English and drop F-bombs because nobody understands the words anyway.

In other news, I only have 3 more days of Kiswahili left in Zanzibar! (Sad.) Despite the fact that I really like my Kiswahili class and basically everything else about Zanzibar (including the decades old semi-automatic twin-tub washing machine in my apartment that I FINALLY figured out how to use), I’ve decided to give Iringa a try for two weeks or so before I decide where to live until December. If I don’t like it, I can always come back to Zanzibar. So, Saturday morning I’ll be taking the early ferry back to Dar Es Salaam and HOPEFULLY catching a bus 6 hours south to Iringa on either Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning. Monday morning I start the second phase of my Kiswahili classes at KIU Iringa. Unfortunately, nobody in Zanzibar knows anything about transport between Dar and Iringa so I have no idea how I’m going to get there, but worst case scenario I just hang out in Dar for a couple of days. It’s all part of the adventure, I guess.

Lakini sasa, nimemaliza. (For now, I’m done.)

Over and out.

Yet another sunset over the white sand beaches of Zanzibar, this time at Nungwi beach in the north of the island. I never tire of watching the sun set over the Indian Ocean… Laura, Victoria, and I found a shop that sold (possibly stolen) bottles of expensive South African wine for 15,000 Tanzanian shillings (about $10) each, so instead of going to a party with a cover charge of 5,000Tsh we hung out at some plastic tables outside the shop with a bunch of Rastafarian diving instructors and drank wine.

Me and Laura at the Mangapwani Coral Cavern. The light in the background is coming from the dangerously steep, somewhat slippery staircase that we used to enter the cave. The freshwater spring that pools in one of the passageways of the cave is the only source of clean water in the community, so local people frequent the cave to fetch water. And then walk up those stairs with 25-liter jerry-cans on their heads. The scarves on our shoulders are our “we’re making an effort not to scandalize the locals with our naked white shoulders” scarves, but after 15 minutes in the cave we didn’t care anymore. It was hot and stuffy.

Me trying to get out of the cave at Mangapwani. The slightly moldy tree stump in my right hand is the only thing keeping me from falling 3 meters back into the cave, which I was pretty sure was going to happen. I don’t have enough upper body strength in my gimp right arm to pull myself out of a hole in the ground! (Eventually, though, I got out.) Please note my sweet pants in this picture. My favorite thing about my Hammer pants (aside from the fact that they’re ridiculously comfortable) is that every morning I decide to wear them I end up with “Can’t Touch This” stuck in my head for several hours. It’s a great way to start the day.

There’s a dhow (traditional Swahili sailboat) at the Zanzibar National Museum of History made entirely without nails (which isn’t so remarkable since that’s how they used to be made, but it was new to me). It’s held together with tightly woven ropes laced through the adjoining boards like shoelaces, and the sail is made from tightly woven strips of palm leaf. It’s cool. (This is clearly just a picture of the front of it, which I’m sure has a more correct name than “the front” but I’m not a boat person so I don’t know what it’s called.)

Laura, Victoria, and I spent an afternoon meandering through the Jozani-Chwaka National Park, a big forest full of hundred-year-old mahogany trees and red colobus monkeys. The troop of red colobus monkeys at Jozani, which numbers about 200 individuals, is the largest troop of this particular type of monkeys anywhere in the world, but their numbers are (slowly) on the rise because they’re being protected from poachers and all natural predators.

It was really strange to see how HUMAN they were in their mannerisms, their facial expressions, and their interactions with each other. (And also how NOT afraid they were of me.) Watching them, it’s not hard to believe that we’re in some way related.

I nearly stepped on this guy’s tail when I was walking on the trail through the woods. That would’ve been interesting…monkey fang marks would’ve been kind of a cool souvenir. (Rabies shots not so much.)

Nearly every night in Stone Town (in Kiswahili, "Mji Mkongwe") I venture a couple blocks from my house to Babu Chai, a little stand selling tea, coffee, doughnuts, sweet bread, chapatti, and fried eggs. My usual is a ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and clove spiced tea with milk and sugar, and a sugar-coated deep-fried doughnut. (Healthy, I know.) Together, the tea and doughnut costs about $0.34, which is quite a good deal. For another $0.80, I can get a “Zanzibar pizza,” which is basically an egg-fried chapatti smothered in cabbage, chili sauce, fresh tamarind, and ketchup. Delish.

After Victoria and Laura left (last Tuesday and Friday respectively), I befriended a Dutch girl, 3 Germans, a Korean girl and another American also studying Kiswahili at the university here, and we made a weekend trip to the town of Kizimkazi in the southern part of the island. Kizimkazi is known for its dolphins (which we saw but didn’t swim with because I think that’s mean) and for its snorkeling. We took a day trip out to a private island, did some snorkeling (over a type of coral I’d never seen before), ate a bunch of barracuda, and then nearly died of sea sickness on the SUPER rough sees (seriously, I thought we would capsize…several times) on the 2 hour trip back to Kizimkazi. Totally worth it.

Our boat guys (friends of a friend…we were staying at their house and it was their boat) cooked us a delicious lunch of barracuda, rice, and a spicy tomato-based sauce, plus lots of fresh fruit. There was a boat full of Italians on the island, too, and we got their leftover lobsters (yum!) and some other stuff they would’ve otherwise wasted. Then, sitting at their fancy picnic table in the shade of their big umbrella, they drank their cold beers and glared at us while we sat in the sand and ate our food with our hands. (And while we rinsed our sandy watermelon in the ocean…) Apparently we’re not “private island” material. My favorite part, though, was GETTING to the little island. The boat dropped my Dutch friend and me off about a kilometer away and we snorkeled through the somewhat rough seas over lots of coral and whatnot all the way back to the island. When I’ve been snorkeling before, I’ve always stayed in a pretty small area around wherever the boat was, but it was incredible to see the diverse kinds of underwater environments I swam over in just a kilometer—live and dead coral, sea anemones of all kinds, fields of seaweed dancing in the current, sandy patches full of little bottom-dwelling critters, etc.

Campaigning for the October election has begun on the island! The ruling party (CCM) has plastered the whole city with green and yellow campaign posters, but the opposition (CUF) is growing in numbers and becoming increasingly vocal. Here, from the window of my classroom, we’re watching a CUF rally where the party officially announced its candidate for the presidency of Zanzibar. The party is lobbying for the independence of Zanzibar from mainland Tanzania and for more Sharia-compliant laws for the island’s Muslim people. It was really interesting to see such a public display of political opposition (something I never saw in Swaziland), and also to see traditional Muslim women wearing mabuibui (black overcoats worn in public) who were politically vocal. It seems strange to me that in a place where the banks are forbidden from offering interest on savings accounts (it’s prohibited under Islamic law for a person to gain interest on savings or charge interests on loans) and where adult women aren’t allowed to ride bicycles, women are still involved in political rallies.

The “chips mayai” (French fry omelet) that I think was responsible for the past ten days of digestive hell. After a week of avoiding all foods served further than 2 meters from a toilet, I finally went to see the doctor. Now, two days of Cipro later, it no longer feels like there’s a cell phone vibrating in my intestines. Oh, the miracle of modern medicine. 


Jessica D. said...

You were so stubborn that you waited TEN DAYS to go to the doctor!?!?!? I'm glad you didn't die from dehydration.

Elias777 said...

I have enjoyed reading your blog! I was born in Zanzibar. Accurately you have described Mangapwani village.

Keep up doing the good work to inform the world about gems.