Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why people fly

After an hour-long trek with 100 pounds of luggage through the seemingly endless maze of streets in Stone Town at 5:30 Saturday morning, I was looking forward to taking a 2 hour nap on the ferry and waking up in Dar Es-Salaam. I tucked my messenger bag under the seat in front of me, fluffed up my travel pillow, settled into my big blue vinyl-upholstered seat on the ferry’s lower cabin and waited to be lulled to sleep by the rocking boat as the ferry pulled out of Zanzibar Harbor.

A man in an Azam Marine Company uniform was walking up and down the aisles of the ferry, handing out little black plastic bags. I thought it humorous that the Azam Marine Company bothered to have their own bags printed up with its logo and “SICK BAG,” and informed him that I didn’t need one. I’d been just fine on the ferry TO Zanzibar, but he insisted I take one.

Ten minutes later, the puking started. As we picked up speed, the rough seas threw our little ferry violently from side to side and my fellow passengers unfolded their sick bags. I understood why the Azam Marine Company guy had insisted that I take one. This trip was NOTHING like the ferry TO Zanzibar; it was like the most nauseating of amusement park rides, complete with the stifling heat and eau de vomit. Of the 20 people sitting in my little section, 4 of them got sick in the first hour. (I had donated my sick bag to the woman in front of me, so getting seasick wasn’t an option for me.) The “puke collectors” (the guys who exchanged used sick bags for new ones) certainly had their work cut out for them.

After I’d become inured to the constant echo of vomiting and the foul odor of the cabin, it was almost humorous. And then we hit a really big wave. Grown men on the left side of the cabin were thrown out of their seats, seasick women lying on the floor rolled violently towards the front deck, and the hysterical screaming began. Though most of the screaming was done in Kiswahili or Arabic (they pray in Arabic), I understood enough to know that everyone was begging Allah to deliver us safely to the mainland. And the hysteria was contagious. One teenage girl’s frantic screaming for her mother inspired twenty 30-something women to throw themselves into the aisles in fits of wailing reminiscent of a pouty 3-year-old. It was dramatic.

I exchanged a very awkward, confused look with the Canadian girl sitting next to me, but the Azam Marine Company man assured us that this was normal. Normal? Really? These people live on an island. Shouldn’t they be used to boats and seasickness and whatnot? (Kudos to the people who work for Azam Marine Company, though. That has to be the worst job ever.)

We docked in Dar around 9:30 and, after all the previously hysterical women pinned their headscarves back in place and regained their composure, disembarked no worse for the wear. I grabbed my bags and set out to find a cheap taxi to the bus rank, eager to get on a bus to Iringa. But first: Subway. I’d been dreaming of Subway sandwiches since learning about it a week earlier, so my taxi waited while I ordered a foot long chicken breast sandwich with spicy Southwest sauce. Then we braved the mid-morning traffic through Dar to the Ubungo bus station.

As we pulled into the bus station we passed the 11:00am bus to Iringa. Leaving. No worries, though…I only had to wait 3 hours for the next one. (The Subway was TOTALLY worth it.) The taxi driver dropped me off outside the office of Abood Bus and dragged all my luggage inside to buy my ticket. Sensing my frustration (really I was just impatient to get on the bus so I could eat my sandwich), the guy behind the Iringa counter let me jump the line and gave me my choice of seats on the 1:00 bus. I paid him the 25,000/= ($16) he asked for, got my ticket and receipt in return, and made my way to the bus.

Sitting on the bus, though, I started to get a little worried that I’d been ripped off or tricked in some way. I’d tried to do everything right: I’d vociferously kept my bags with me at all times so I didn’t have to pay a porter and didn’t have anything stolen, I’d insisted on going to Abood’s office to buy my ticket and asked several employees for the price of the ticket before buying it, checked that the bus was in working order before agreeing to anything, made sure he gave me a receipt for the right amount, and made sure he wrote my name in on the seating chart for the bus. I’d even gotten the name, business card and phone number of the man (Imo) who sold me the ticket in case I needed anything later.

And then, looking at my receipt, I noticed that it was written for 26 September instead of 25 September. I asked the man behind me how much he’d paid for his ticket: 12,000/= less than me. Something wasn’t right.

I called Imo back and asked if he’d meet me at the bus to take me to lunch (I knew he wouldn’t come back if I told him I realized I’d been ripped off), and then confronted him about being a weasel. I threatened to tell his boss if he didn’t give me my money back, and (because he’d been so insistent on telling me he was a Born Again Christian) informed him that Jesus already knew he was a liar. He nervously changed my ticket to the proper day (which I checked and double-checked with the driver of the bus) and refunded me 6,000/= of the money he’d stolen from me. He said he’d spent the rest already on a Coke and a pack of cigarettes, which I believe, but an hour later he brought me a coke and a newspaper, so I think he felt guilty. I still paid 6,000/= more than everyone else on the bus, but, all things considered, $4 extra isn’t too bad for a Mzungu (white person) price.

The 1:00 bus pulled out of the station at 1:30 (of course the 11:00 bus couldn’t have been 30 minutes late leaving…) and began the 500 kilometer, 10 hour trip to Iringa. The first few hours of the trip was uneventful: mostly paved roads, lots of little towns full of goats and bicycles, a couple potty breaks along the way. We drove through Mikumi National Park, past families of giraffes, zebras, elephants and lots of DLCs (deer-like creatures), and survived the winding dirt roads through the Udzungwa Mountains, arriving in Iringa at 10:30 Saturday night.

So today is my first full day in Iringa, and mostly I’m just confused and disoriented and overwhelmed by the lack of English-speakers. So far I’ve found a cheap but safe hotel in a township outside Iringa (where I’ll stay until I can find a flat or a room to rent) and wandered around a bit looking for an internet cafĂ© and being harassed by men who are quit insistent that they love me. (In Kiswahili…I just pretend not to understand.) I’m REALLY glad I took 3 weeks of Kiswahili class in Zanzibar before I came here because NOBODY speaks English. Not even a little. I suppose that’s a good thing, though, since I’m here to learn Kiswahili anyway.

Tomorrow I start classes again, and hopefully I’ll figure out where things are and how to get there and whatnot in the couple of days. The tourist information place is open tomorrow, which should be helpful. And maybe my teacher can help me find a place to volunteer or something. Until then I’ll just hide in my room and watch BBC Planet Earth and do Kiswahili homework. What a life.


The new Blogger Photo Uploader thing is really difficult.

Since the official kickoff of election campaigning two weeks ago, the whole of Zanzibar has been plastered with CCM and CUF campaign posters. Most of them are CCM and they're yellow and green and say "Chague CCM, Chague (name of candidate)" which means "Vote for CCM, Vote for (name of candidate)." And then there are lots of billboards that say things like "CCM is the party of the people" and have pictures of Kikwete (the incumbent) shaking hands with disabled people. It's kind of funny how the posters and whatnot work, though...they're literally EVERYWHERE. Like graffiti.
This delicious chicken breast sandwich with spicy Southwest sauce is the reason I missed my bus to Iringa and had to take the late bus and nearly died. Totally worth it.
View from the bus window. For about 6 hours. (The other 4 hours it was dark.) I'm happy to be back around mountains, though...says the girl from Kansas. Mountains make me think of Swaziland.
Driving through the game park at sunset. Everyone thought I was crazy for taking so many pictures, but I was just bored. Unfortunately, I wasn't taking pictures when we drove past the family of elephants on the side of the road, when we nearly hit a giraffe crossing the road, or when we had to wait for a herd of zebras to cross. 

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. 

Saturday, September 11, 2010

My week in Zanzibar, in photos

The top picture is a typical Soviet-style apartment block in downtown Zanzibar Town, just opposite of the classroom where I have my Swahili classes. (I'm not sure why Blogger won't let me caption the picture properly, but it won't so this is where its caption is going to go.)

The second picture is of the street view on Creek Road in Zanzibar Town. The red-roofed stone building on the left is the Darajani Market (Sokoni Darajani) where I buy my vegetables and spices and whatnot. There's also a big fresh (?) meat and seafood market that smells like I bet you'd imagine an outdoor meat market smells like in the heat of the day on a tropical island. I've gotten really good at holding my breath for extended periods of time when I pass it.
Laura reppin' Swaziland on our dhow (traditional Swahili sailboat) on our trip to Mnemba Atoll. We strung her lihiya (Swazi cloth) up on the mast like a flag and then made jokes about Swazi pirates. (Incidentally, jokes about pirates are not funny in East Africa.)
"Stone Town Conservation and Development Authority" sewer cover in Stone Town. I'm not sure why, but I think they're pretty, especially when covered in sand.
"Warning! Do Not Sit on the Tortoise." After seeing how big the tortoises were at Chunguu Island, I totally understand the need for this sign.
Me hanging out with a 30-year-old Aldabra Tortoise at Chunguu Island. (You can tell she's 30 because her back says so.) She followed me around a lot that day...very slowly. Either turtles are attracted to brightly colored fabric or I am exceptionally attractive to tortoises.
If you tickle their armpits, they stand up like this. Seriously.
Biggest spider thing EVER! They have these in Swaziland, too, but I never got a good picture of them because usually I was too busy trying to get them out of my house. Gross.
Another typical street scene in Zanzibar Town. If I die in the next 2 weeks, it will be while trying to cross the road at this intersection. All of the lights are faded by the sun so they are all white and nobody really knows when they're supposed to go or not go and it's kind of scary. I usually wait to cross the road until a local person is crossing the road and then just go when they go. The truck thing with the red and white side is called a "dalla-dalla" and it's the kombi (mini-bus) of Tanzania/Zanzibar. It's basically a truck with a cover over the bed and wooden benches up against all the "walls." They generally seat 20-30 people (max capacity is stated at 20), plus bananas and doors and goats and bicycles and things strapped on the top. It's not so bad for the first 20 minutes, but after that your butt/legs/feet start to go numb from being all squished up. The worst part is that, as a tall person, when I'm sitting in a dalla-dalla my knees are up higher than the seat, so it's super uncomfortable.
Wild cocoa beans in the forest somewhere in the middle of the island. It tastes nothing like chocolate, unfortunately.
Persian baths in the middle of Zanzibar, built by some Zanzibari nobleman for his Persian wife.
Nutmeg (the brown nut part) and mace (the red part) on the spice tour. These are the only two spices that grow two to a plant, apparently, and it's SUPER expensive in Zanzibar. (Well, expensive relative to the cost of the other spices, but cheaper here than elsewhere in the world.) Really interesting, though. And pretty.
Laura and Victoria building a sand castle with a very confused local. He kept saying, "What is this again? A sand palace?" Which, for some reason, I thought was hilarious.
A dhow (traditional Swahili sailboat) and another little boat at sunset at Kendwa Beach. (You were probably at work while I was watching this.)
Masaai (or fake Masaai) person selling overpriced touristy things to people who don't know any better. As a general rule, it's advisable to say "Eish! Ni ghali sana!" (Whoa! That's too expensive!) to whatever price these guys give you.

"After Ramadan, we will party-party"

As I sit sweating in the near triple-digit heat of my third floor apartment in Zanzibar’s historic Stone Town, I’m a little overwhelmed by how significantly my life has changed in the last week. I’ve moved from a steadfastly Christian, HIV- and drought-devastated, mostly maize-eating rural homestead in the land-locked, SiSwati-speaking absolute monarchy of Swaziland to the cultural heart of the sun-drenched, 100% Muslim, Kiswahili-speaking, fish- and coconut rice-eating island of Zanzibar...during Ramadan. This place may, in fact, be the opposite of Swaziland. And I’m loving it.

(Sidenote: “Swahili” is the culture of the coastal people from Kenya to Northern Mozambique, including the islands of Lamu, Pemba, Zanzibar and a few others. “Kiswahili” is the language of the Swahili people. Saying that Swahili people speak Swahili is kind of like saying that Americans speak American.)

After several hours of wandering aimlessly through the winding streets of Stone Town last Friday, I finally met up with Victoria and Jenn (PCVs from Swaziland) and Laura (our Finnish friend) so that we could get lost together. Stone Town, where I live, is the centuries old historic district of Zanzibar Town, and it’s BEAUTIFUL, but basically impossible to navigate. Hundreds of narrow cobblestone alleys wind and weave through ten square blocks of three- and four-story white-washed buildings boasting elaborate Arab-influenced archways, European-style latticed balconies and facades, and ornate Swahili hardwood and brass Zanzibar doors. Small shops selling homemade yogurt, glass bottles of orange Fanta, and a random assortment of everyday necessities line the alleyways at the street level, and brightly colored kanga wraps sporting Kiswahili idioms hang from the balconies above. There’s a constant flow of foot, bike, and Vespa traffic through the alleyways, and every couple of blocks the narrow streets open up to courtyards full of chai masala (spiced tea) vendors, fruit sellers, and kofia-clad men passing the heat of the day in the shade of the stoop outside their Mosques. It’s easy to lose a couple of hours strolling through Stone Town, snacking on street food and practicing my Kiswahili with curious little Zanzibari kids, and I LOVE it.

The only problem is that during the day every street looks the same to me, so I have a hard time getting places when I DON’T have a couple hours to spare. I’ve managed to find a few landmarks to help me navigate—things like “the old man I bought bananas from that one time” and “the place with the G Unit graffiti”—but most of my landmarks are completely transformed after dark. Chips mayai (potato omelet) vendors and chai carts replace the old ladies doing henna and the fruit stands, and suddenly I find myself completely disoriented. Some nights, it’s taken me as long as 2 hours to find my house; I just keep wandering around thinking, ‘wait a minute, I’ve been here before,’ but without the slightest idea of where I am in relation to my house. The last two days I’ve made a conscious effort to practice a few direct routes between my house and various places of interest (the market, my classroom, the local yogurt vendor, my favorite chai place, etc.), and I’ve done pretty well not getting lost. But if ever I stray from those paths, all bets are off.

Being here during Ramadan has also been a pretty unique experience. Ramadan is a sort of holy month for Muslims, and it is VERY much observed here in Zanzibar. The vast majority of the over-five population is fasting between sun-up and sundown, and things like smoking and drinking are extra haram (prohibited) in public. This means that 99% of the restaurants are closed, street food is only available from 6:30 to 11:00pm, and I’m not allowed to eat or drink in public places, while walking through the alleys, or in my classroom. (That includes water. Need I remind you that it’s like a million degrees here?) If you don’t count water, I’ve managed for the most part not to eat during the day in observance of Ramadan, but sometimes I still cheat a little in my house when nobody is around to be offended by my munching, and every day I eagerly await the sundown call to prayer that signals the opening of the markets. Fortunately I’ve only got about one more day of Ramadan to survive because Eid (which they call “Sikuku” here) is coming either Friday or Saturday, depending on the visibility of the moon and the whim of the Imam. (Apparently the end of Ramadan is different in Africa than elsewhere, and especially in Zanzibar, so when Ramadan ends elsewhere it doesn’t affect Zanzibari Ramadan.) I’m not sure exactly what to expect from the Eid/Sikuku celebration other than a wide variety of delicious foods that I currently smell cooking in houses throughout Stone Town (including the chickens that are currently hanging out on my landing awaiting their deaths…it’s funny that I still have to walk through chicken poop to get to my house), but the promise of fresh pastry alone is enough to keep me from going to the beach this weekend.

But, to be honest, I’m kind of beached-out already after only a week here. I’m the kind of person who gets bored and whiny after lying on the beach for more than an afternoon, and there’s only so much snorkeling, sunbathing (and sunburning), overpriced beer, and sandy-floored beach bungalow I’m willing to pay for. That combined with my (completely justifiable) fear of the brutally fierce sun is enough to keep me in Stone Town for the majority of the week. Seriously, who wants to sit through a 4 hour Kiswahili class with a painful, itchy sunburn? Not me.

The girls (Jenn, Victoria, Laura) and I DID take a pretty fantastic trip up to Kendwa Beach on the northern tip of the island last weekend. After spending the afternoon sunburning and building sand castles with very curious locals, we hired a dhow (traditional Swahili sailboat) to take us to Mnemba Atoll Marine Reserve for snorkeling, which was absolutely INCREDIBLE. There was at least 40 to 50 meters of visibility in the water (which is unreal) and a wide variety of colorful tropical fish to swim with (sometimes into…they don’t move), tons of starfish, a school (?) of squid, and lots of little tiny jellyfish that left welts all over my bare stomach. Plus the guys sailing the boat caught a big tuna on the way out to Mnemba and cooked it up with coconut rice and vegetables for lunch after snorkeling, all of which was incredibly delicious. (Even the fish eye they made me eat in exchange for a second slice of watermelon. Totally worth it.) We also went on a spice tour through the spice farms in the central part of the island, which was both educational and tasty. I learned that black, white, and red pepper all come from the same plant, and got to taste raw cloves, curry leaves, cocoa, nutmeg, and a whole bunch of other delicious things that I’m now trying to learn how to cook with. Zanzibar is a foodie’s paradise!

I also took a non-food related trip out to Changuu Island (aka Prison Island) with Tim, Jamie, Jason, Erica (all PCVs from Swaziland) and Laura on Wednesday afternoon to see (and touch!) a colony of giant tortoises (kobe in Kiswahili). Changuu is a privately owned island originally used as a quarantine station for ship passengers suspected of having cholera or bubonic plague, but now it’s home to a big resort (“Changuu Private Island Paradise”) and about 100 giant land tortoises. Aldabra Giant Tortoises are, quite logically, endemic to the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles and were brought to Zanzibar as a gift from the Seychelles Government to some British military officer in 1919. After 90 years of breeding, there are just over 100 tortoises on the island, including three of the original four shipped over from the Seychelles (they’re each 125 to 150 years old). On average they live to around 100 years, but most of them on Changuu are between 25 and 40 because it took a while to get the colony well established enough to get them to breed (and secure enough to keep people from stealing them to sell their shells). It was kind of surreal being there and getting to walk with them and touch them and feed them spinach, and thinking about all the things that have happened in the world in their lifetime…150 years is a really long time! Also, their skin feels like I imagine a dinosaur’s would, which is really cool. (I guess that’s what 150 years of Zanzibar skin does to unprotected skin. Let this be a lesson on the importance of sunscreen…)

Fishes and tortoises aside, the bulk of my time in Zanzibar has been spent learning or practicing Kiswahili. That is, after all, why I’m here. Zanzibar is such a cool place to study Kiswahili because the language basically originated from the archipelago and, due to the isolated nature of island culture, it still remains more pure (less adulterated by English or tribal languages) here than elsewhere in East Africa. My class, which I’m taking through a language institute called Kiswahili Utamaduni (KIU), is four hours every morning and consists of three students (all American) and two teachers, which means that it’s really intensely interactive (and perfect for attention span-challenged people like me). In my first four days of class I honestly think I’ve learned as much as I did in four months of Kiswahili class in Nairobi, and being in Zanzibar gives me ample opportunity to practice everything I learn in class with everyone I meet on the street or in the market or wherever. As soon as I start TRYING to speak Kiswahili everyone is really excited and helpful and patient with my slow and labored sentences, but practice is definitely doing me good and I find myself much more comfortable using Kiswahili than I was just a week ago. There’s a Dutch girl in the advanced class who has been here for 6 weeks and speaks Kiswahili convincingly enough that I thought she’d been here for YEARS, so I’m pretty excited for the future of my Kiswahili language proficiency.

I’m also LOVING the class and the language. Obviously, I came here because I liked Kiswahili and wanted to learn it, but now I’m remembering exactly why: it makes perfect sense. There are 7 noun classes, 4 completely logical tenses, a total of 4 irregular verbs, and grammar rules that explain the structure of the language perfectly to my rule-oriented mind. It’s not like it’s a SIMPLE language to learn, but it seems to work the same way my brain does so, compared to when I was learning SiSwati, I feel like a genius.

In learning Kiswahili, though, I’ve come to realize just how much SiSwati I actually have in my head. I find myself THINKING in SiSwati and spelling words in slightly complicated SiSwati-esque ways (like adding H’s where they don’t belong) and, occasionally, slipping a SiSwati word into my sentences. It’s kind of annoying (and very confusing for the teacher), but it makes me feel confident that I won’t lose my SiSwati even after being here for a few months. And that’s comforting.

Anyway, I’m supposed to have two more full weeks of Kiswahili here and then move onto the town of Iringa in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania to do an intensive Kiswahili course there, but I’m thinking maybe I’ll see if I can extend my stay here for another month or something so I can stay for longer. I mean, I already have a cheap and convenient place to stay, I like my teachers and the format of the class, and I’m getting increasingly competent at navigating the streets of Stone Town. I’m comfortable and happy here and, increasingly, I’m thinking maybe I should trust that. (Plus when will I ever have another chance to spend a random extra month in Zanzibar??) But maybe I’m just trying to rationalize staying in the land of fresh chapattis and cheap seafood…

Nimemaliza. Baadaye.

(I’m finished. Later.)

The night market at Forodhani (the water front). It's very touristy but still super delicious. I had a wide assortment of grilled fishes, lobster, calamari, and some Zanzibari soup. All for about $10, which, by Zanzibar standards, is super expensive. We've since found the same places way cheaper elsewhere, and I've learned how to argue with the sellers for "bei mkaazi" (the resident price).

Friday, September 3, 2010

Hello, Zanzibar.

After an emotionally draining last few days in Swaziland and many hours in transit, I FINALLY arrived in Dar Es Salaam last night. I waited an hour in a line full of impatient South African fishermen to get my visa, had a nice but unsuccessful evening drive through Dar in search of a working ATM, slept a peaceful (but very warm and humid) night at the Safari Inn (I'd recommend it), and then took the 90-minute ferry over to the island of Zanzibar this morning.

As the ferry pulled into the Zanzibar harbor, all my memories from my last trip to Zanzibar (seafood and Fantas from the night market, nearly passing out from the heat on our spice tour, Persian baths, stepping on a sea urchin, more seafood) came rushing back, replacing any apprehension I had about leaving Swaziland with the excitement of getting to spend nearly a MONTH in this island paradise.

I spent my first few hours in Stone Town (the old part of Zanzibar Town) dragging everything I own (literally) through the cracked and puddled cobblestone streets, looking for a backpackers for less than $20 a night. I'm staying here for 3 weeks...I really can't afford $20 a night! So I begged and pleaded and finally found a room to rent in a house near a backpackers for $7 a night. I have my own room with a sagging, grass-filled mattress, a small school desk with an attached chair, and a shared kitchen, bathroom, and living room. (Although the kitchen has no stove because I guess somebody stole it.) Apparently my house mates are a Portuguese couple and a Tanzanian man, but I haven't met them yet, and the other apartments in the building are all full of Zanzibari families that, so far, have been very welcoming.

The one thing I HAVEN'T yet figured out is food. It's Ramadan on the predominately Muslim island of Zanzibar, which means that there's not a whole lot of eating going on between sun up and sun down. Last night I was too tired (and only had $100 bills!) to hunt down food, and today I've been traveling and so preoccupied with finding housing and working ATMs and getting a new sim card and informing people that I'm alive (that's what I'm doing now) that I haven't actually eaten anything since the beef and potatoes on the flight. 19 hours ago. But is it disrespectful to eat in public in front of people who are fasting? Dilemma.

Anyway, I'm off to find a plug adapter for my computer and phone and camera (they use the British 3-prong one here and all I have is the EU one), to find (sea)food, and to find my friends from Swaziland if/when the phone network magically starts working again.

I'll try to make it back to the internet to post photos and whatnot sometime this weekend...If, in the meantime, you need to contact me, my new number for Tanzania (which SHOULD stay the same until December) is: +255 686 205 710. (If you're dialing from the US, you can either dial the + or 011 before the 255. 255 is the country code for Tanzania. Sometimes there's a 0 before the first 6, sometimes not.)

I love my life.