A solid coat of humidity hit me as soon as the airplane doors opened and a lush green view of Zanzibar came into focus. While technically a part of Tanzania, the island, I knew, is vastly different in its history and culture so I excitedly hopped on a dala-dala, a coaster van used as a public bus, for Stone Town and wasted no time in exploring the center.
A historical stroll through Old Town Stone Town
The most eye-catching testament to the influence of the Asian, African and Swahili cultural mix was the beautifully detailed doors carved out of wood. One guide pointed out that many of the carvings invoke nature, such as vines and flowers, as well as the history of slavery, like threads of chains. The idea for brass spikes protruding out came from Indian wood carvers where the doors back then needed to repel elephants, and sadly, nowadays many of the doors had these spikes stolen off them by thieves.
As I joyfully got lost, I popped in and out of souvenir shops, cafes with local Tanzanian coffee and pharmacies, admiring the high ceilings that the guide mentioned indicated wealth in the times of rich government workers and merchants. I chuckled recalling how the guide was confused at the group’s laughter when he talked about CBD, not realizing that the Central Business District acronym popularly used there also had another meaning.
I took a shortcut and found myself inside the historic fortress with rows of shops and galleries as well as an amphitheater for performances back in the day. Trying to beat the heat, I emerged out the back entrance and found the Forodhani open air market. I slowly took in the sights of the vendors setting up their fresh catches of oysters, dried fish and kebabs on huge skewers as the dinner rush was just starting. I opted for a Stoney Tangawizi, a deliciously refreshing ginger beer, and some corn soaked in honey, lemon, butter and chili – all for 3,000 TZS ($1.30 USD)!
I grabbed a refreshing sugar cane juice with ginger and lime as I moved curiously to see what was happening at the pier with a growing crowd of onlookers. As I pushed through the mix of locals and foreigners, I heard splashing and cheers from the primarily young and male crew closest to the edge. Grinning at the contagious excitement, I watched as the local teenagers took turns sprinting from one end of the walkway towards the stone edge and posed in whichever way they could twist their body. I peered over the edge, and saw a half dozen other boys paddling around towards the steps on the far side of the pier or climbing up a shortcut involving a protruding pipe. They never seemed to get tired of coming up with as many possible jumping formations as they could, and I lost track of how much time I spent there, taking in the sunset until it was too dark to see much.
Up close with massive land tortoises
The next day, I booked a Prison Island visit, which ended up being just 30 minutes by boat. Only two other men were on my small motorboat, and while the guides offered us a short snorkeling stop, we all passed, eager to make it to the island’s top attraction there – the turtle sanctuary, home to the second largest land tortoises in the world, just behind the Galapagos tortoises. Hopping off the boat onto a small sandy beach, I leapt up the stone stairs and forked over a $4 admission to the former prison. The stone walkways led to various parts of where the slaves used to live, but I took a sharp turn to find a man at the entrance to the tortoise sanctuary handing out large leaves of lettuce to visitors.
Clutching my slightly damp but fresh leaves, I stopped dead in my tracks. Just a few feet from the muddy entrance were three enormous olive green tortoises relaxing in the sun. Before I could process the size of these dinosaur-like reptiles that resembled boulders blocking the walkways, I glanced up and spotted dozens more scattered throughout the sanctuary. I carefully stepped around and over the tortoises, and the aftermath of eating lettuce all day, and headed off the path into the tree-filled dirt patches where more of the tortoises were soaking in the water.
Another pen, around a separate walkway carrying me over the mud, was, to my delight, packed with baby tortoises. One could surely have fit in the palm of my hand, but signs warned visitors not to pick them up so I just watched for a few blissful moments as they bumbled around, knocking into one another gently like adorable bumper cars. When I finally found a calm adult tortoise to feed, I remembered the advice of the guide at the entrance to hold on loosely and let go when it came down to the last bits of the leaf, otherwise the tortoise beak could cut me. I thanked my lucky stars I didn’t have on long sleeves that day. My chosen tortoise seemed well-behaved, though, and I leaned down to massage it the way I saw other guides doing it, towards the bottom of their neck, with a firm touch rotating in circles.
A traditional dhow ride to catch the sunset
I was reluctant to leave the peaceful creatures, as intimidating as they initially were, but I had to catch my sunset cruise on a traditional Arab boat, called the dhow. When I climbed aboard the wooden vessel, I saw that others had spread out on the two levels and I immediately grabbed for the ladder to head up. The guides explained that when they were younger, their parents would always allow them to choose if they wanted to be the ‘lion of the land or shark of the ocean’ – for a Zanzibar island local young boy, the choice was obvious.
As a violinist, decked out in local white robes and a kofia, the rounded Muslim hat, began singing an old Swahili song and playing simultaneously, I hungrily watched the set up of Swahili snacks being displayed across the deck. Smells of lentils and beans, chapati, fried potatoes, and fresh passion fruit juice wafted up to my nose, and I climbed down immediately to help myself to the spread. With the sun gently beating down on my back, delicious warm food heaped on my plate, and the silhouette of a mosque over Stone Town in the distance, I took a deep breath and mentally committed the moment to memory. One of the guides looked over at me, scooping up some greens hungrily, and laughed, “Pole pole, rafiki”. I grinned back at the meaning – slowly, slowly, my friend.
Written by: Annie Elle
Annie is originally from Los Angeles although she’s worked and lived abroad for the last 10 years. Currently living in Kurdistan, northern Iraq, she’s traveled to over 100 countries and enjoys playing ultimate frisbee and volleyball when she can.
Follow Annie on: Instagram: instagram.com/chennanigans01
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