August 21, 2011

Stone Town

Every vacation we go on at least one excursion that according to our kids is incredibly stupid and unnecessary. In fact, we probably violate the Geneva Conventions with the kind of torture we inflict on them. Last time around when we were in George, our crime was The Very Boring Hike. This time, in Zanzibar, we decided to explore Stone Town.

It looked very inviting and picturesque, according to our hotel brochure, and there is only so much diving and sitting on the beach that you can do over the course of a week, so we signed up for an excursion to Stone Town on our third day. Back we went the same way we had come from the airport a few days earlier, an hour of skirting potholes, donkey carts, and bikes, with good glimpses of a world entirely different from ours. Veiled women (95% of Zanzibar is Muslim), colorful clothes hung out to dry, animal carcasses hanging in butcher shops, and most often people just sitting around. Especially the men. That is the one lasting imagine I will take from Africa with me – people sitting along the road doing nothing. Maybe they’re waiting for a taxi, or waiting for a job to come find them, or waiting for better fortune. I don’t know, but sit around they do.

Our bus ride was a bit longer than anticipated because we had to pick up the guide who would walk us through the alleys of Stone Town. He was supposed to meet us there but missed his bus, so we had to go to his village to pick him up. But we barely shrug anymore at these changes of plans. This is Africa, after all. And it gave us time to make sure everybody had one last dose of water and Yogi Sip to fortify themselves. Once out of the car, we weren’t supposed to eat or drink, as it was the holy month of Ramadan (they pronounce it something more like Ramazzan here), and it would be disrespectful to show any food in the face of people who are fasting.

The outskirts of Stone Town

Every day is market day in Zanzibar

Bikes are the main form of transport in Zanzibar

Stone Town has an interesting history, shaped as much by the Arab and Persian traders who started coming to Zanzibar around 150 AD as its native people. The Portuguese briefly ruled in the 15th century and built a small settlement which later became Stone Town. Then the Omani Arabs took over and started trading spices, ivory, and slaves, even making Zanzibar the capital of the Omani empire. The British made Zanzibar a protectorate in the 1890s and held onto it until 1964 when a revolution led to independence and subsequently to the joining of Zanzibar and the Republic of Tanganyika into Tanzania.

Anglican church in Stone Town

Inside of the Anglican church

Cross connecting Zambia and Zanzibar
via Livingstone's heart - a bit creepy

Monument at the former Slave Market


There are other interesting tidbits as well. When the “House of Wonders” was built in 1883 by one of the Omani sultans, it was the first place in East Africa sporting an elevator, which I thought was the most interesting piece in the rather dilapidated and sad-looking museum it has since been converted to. When you visit the Anglican Cathedral at the site of the old Slave Market, you will find a crucifix in honor of David Livingstone, which was carved from the tree in Zambia where Livingstone’s heart is buried. There is really nothing in Africa, it seems, that David Livingstone did not somehow touch. I didn’t know this, but he lobbied the British government very hard to put an end to the slave trade, which is why he is still revered in Zanzibar to this day. And finally: Who knew that Freddy Mercury was born and raised in Zanzibar, where you can still visit his birthplace?


I loved how the merchants built orderly mounds with their fruit

The griping from our kids about the smell was harder to endure than the actual smell




I love markets in exotic countries - they give you an
appreciation for where the food comes from

If this all sounds very exotic, it is. You will see as much in the pictures I took. However, what you will not really see in the pictures are the dirt and poverty everywhere around you, and the one thing you definitely will not get a sense of is the smell. Just imagine a heavy dose of BO and freshly-slaughtered meat and chicken shit and fish market, and you might get an idea of what it was like.


Typical Zanzibar door


Supposedly the brass studs are there to keep away
elephants - perhaps this is an Indian custom?
Swahili House, Stone Town's premier hotel

We passed many little shops where you could buy everything - from the Obama bag...

...to sandals made from bicycle tires
I was fascinated by the people more than anything else
in Zanzibar...

...and the people were fascinated by my camera!

Our tour would have included an extra hour of wandering through the alleys of Stone Town on our own before returning to the hotel, but our kids put a quick end to that notion with four very murderous looks and determined strides toward our air-conditioned bus back to the oasis of La Gemma dell’ Est.

More on Zanzibar:

4 comments :

2summers.net said...

Great post! Also very interesting that you weren't allowed to eat or drink in Stone Town during Ramadan. I never would have thought of that.

Sine said...

Thanks! To be honest, I wouldn't have thought about it either, I'm not really the culturally sensitive type by nature, but the tour guides brought it up, as well as the dress code - I suffered through an entire day in a long dress just to be decently covered.

W. A. Jeffrey said...

Tanzania is the same way during Ramadan, BUT if you are in the more urban areas or areas where there are fewer muslims it is much more tolerant. And in Tanzania you can usually go inside a café or hotel to get a drink; it is just out in the street that you can get into trouble. I've heard it is a tad dicier in Zanzibar. Muslims are super sensitive about this stuff. The travel website for Tanzania warns you that you could get assaulted if you don't respect these customs. I've made a mental note not to go during Ramadan as I like to drink steadily throughout the day so as to make it easier on my sinuses and digestion.

As to the smell, I suppose you get used to it after awhile. My cousins grew up on a farm and when I visited them the animal and manure smells were almost overwhelming at first but after a couple of days I got used to it. With pig farms it takes me a week or more.

Sine said...

Yes, I think it would be more fun to travel outside of Ramadan. Mind you, it wasn't an issue in our hotel, but walking through Stone Town was a bit boring with no restaurants open. Although not sure our kids would have been to enamored with what might have been on offer. I however would have loved that.