Zanzibar had been high on our must-see list right from the start of planning our trip. We had heard so much about the place, the name nearly had a magical touch, and somehow we were convinced it had to be a paradise island. Which it also is, in part and at times. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, Zanzibar is also a very, very touristy place. When we first arrived, we were lucky to start at the airport, which seems is more the port of entry for business people than for tourists. So apart from our taxi driver, who soon offered us his services as a tour guide, we did not feel that touristy yet. But soon after we reached Stone Town, the famous historical center of Zanzibar Town, we got a true taste of it. Our last month of travel, the friendly chats with people on the road and in the places we stayed in had made us so easy and relaxed and interested in people that we were badly prepared for what hit us. The friendliness of the Zanzibari working in tourism (and in Stone Town there are very few who are not) is the same as we experienced all over Tanzania. But behind it lurks a mixture of a Turkish carpet seller and an Egyptian beach boy. Arriving at the brink of low season into high season – with lots of people depending on their income from a small group of tourists – might well have contributed to this.
Our first one and a half days on Zanzibar therefore made us question our good sense to come here and ultimately changed our behaviour towards anyone who approached us. After two more days, we were slowly able to find a way around without being abominably unfriendly to everyone or being persistantly hassled if we weren’t. To be sure, Zanzibar is a beautiful place: the beaches are postcard pretty, the spice tours are great fun, and stone town is as pretty as old decaying houses and tiny streets can be. But when we compared the beaches to the Southern beaches in Dar, we actually found the latter better (cleaner, better for swimming). And Stone Town, once you go off the very touristy streets and explore the small quarters and alleys (which is the interesting part) is so incredibly dirty that it spoils some of exploration fun. We are no cleanliness sissies – how could we, with the way we travel – but the smell and the dirt on these streets and in these houses, combined with the heat and humidity, made us sometimes long for the open road again. Also, in the harbour of Stone Town you see many nice old houses being torn down and incredibly ugly, big hotels built in their place. The mistakes of the mediterranean coast come to ones mind. In addition to all this, Zanzibar is incredibly expensive for someone on the road and on a tight budget like us. We found some cheap accommodations sometimes, but it is impossible to camp (apparently it is even prohibited – because you can’t get much money out of it). All in all, we enjoyed our stay here, but we would probably not go back to Zanzibar for a holiday – rather pitch our tent at Kigamboni in Dar again. Maybe excluding our Snorkeling experience – that was amazing! We sailed out to the reef on a tiny little boat, saw lots of corals and colourful fishes and witnessed our captain catching an octopus (you see a picture of him lying on the bottom of the boat somewhere in the gallery).
So what to make of Zanzibar? It is a strange place, somehow fallen out of time and place, and sometimes very much in our time (very good and free wifi available in two spots in Stone Town!). Some of the stories and histories we learned:
The variety and quality of fruit and spices you get is unsurpassed by any other place we know, but all the fruits and spices that the island was – and is – famous for never grew here before the Portuguese, the Arabs and the Brits introduced them from India and America (hence why our spice tour guide called it “nothing-island”).
The American Mercury space mission had built an observation station on the island which was in use until the 1964 revolution, when a certain Farrokh Bulsara of Stone Town was just 18 years old. Some time later, this young man left the island and became the lead singer of the rock band Queen – Freddie Mercury (yay, coincidence!)
Zanzibar was also famous as a centre of the slave trade. But the legend goes that Zanzibaris were never enslaved – only people from the mainland. The slave trade was abolished by the British in 1873. We figured that the industrial revolution made steam machines cheaper compared to human labour and that the Brits wanted to keep this advantage by the abolishment of slave labour. Still, it took till 1907 till the last Arab traders stopped exporting slaves and gave in to the British blockade of the island and the coastal regions of Eastern Africa.