Saturday, January 12, 2013

My Visit to Zanzibar

            Christmas 2012 marked a unique milestone for me: the first time I’ve been sunburned on Christmas. I spent Dec. 25- Jan. 2 on the tropical island of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean. Zanzibar is a really unique mix of Arab, African, and Indian cultures, and I’m pretty sure it’s Swahili for “amazing paradise that you’ll never ever want to leave.”

            Some Peace Corps friends and I flew into Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on Christmas Eve, and I went to Christmas mass the next morning at a beautiful Cathedral near the harbor. When I arrived, the lines were out the door and the sun was blazing. I stood there sweating with my backpack on, trying to comprehend any of the Swahili. A few minutes later, a man who must have taken pity on my suburnt self ushered me inside and gave up his seat for me. I almost lost it then and there. It was a really beautiful mass, surrounded by strangers, and in a language I couldn’t understand.

 Afterwards, my friends and I took the ferry over to Stonetown, Zanzibar, the main city, and I instantly felt all the stress and frustrations from my Peace Corps site drift away. Stonetown looks like a blind architect designed all the roads. The streets form a maze, and I found myself getting lost multiple times in a single day, even with a map in hand. 

While Stonetown isn’t big, there are no street signs, and I still remain convinced that the only way to try to find something there is to simply stumble upon it by blind luck. 

Despite difficulties in navigation, I really loved the city’s beautiful architecture, laid-back attitude, and friendly locals, who greeted us with a wave and a “Jambo!” at every turn or read our lost faces and offered to help us find whatever we were looking for.

  I especially loved seeing all of the interesting Zanzibar doors, which were incredibly ornate.

 My good time was marred a bit when a friend and I were walking back from a delicious Ethiopian dinner. It was the evening of Christmas Day, and I was skyping with my family on my phone while walking. Suddenly, a moto drove up behind me and a guy grabbed my purse. He managed to rip it off my shoulder and drive away. I went a bit hysterical while my friend tried to calm me down. Luckily, I had left my credit card and passport at our hotel, and my phone was still in my hand. While I gave my family quite a fright (all they heard was me screaming and then the line go dead), in the end, I only lost money (quite a bit for me, especially on a volunteer stipend), but I was grateful not to have been hurt.

I managed to track down Santa Claus in Zanzibar!
We visited the Old Slave Market in Zanzibar, where African slaves were held en route to being sold, mostly to the Arab world. 

A church was built over the spot, and I got chills thinking about how humans could have EVER seen one another as a piece of property to be bought and sold. 

My friends and I stayed in Stonetown for a few days, soaking in the sun and culture and enjoying the plentiful food options. 

In particular, Stonetown has a night market where vendors sell grilled fish and lobster on sticks, Zanzibari pizza, fresh pressed sugarcane juice, tropical fruit, and many other items.
So many options, so little time!           
Then three other volunteers and I headed north to the beach town of Kendwa. Minus the fact that our hotel had the worst service I have ever encountered, it was pure and utter bliss.

Traditional Zanzibar Dhow boat
Every day was filled with an extremely taxing schedule of eating delicious food, lazing around, reading in hammocks, swimming in the warm turquoise Indian Ocean waters, naps, drinking margaritas and various East African beers, long walks on the beach, snorkeling, dancing, and a Dhow boat sunset cruise.

I lost track of the days of the week, and before we knew it, New Year’s Eve was upon us. Our hotel threw a big New Year’s Eve party, complete with acrobats, fire-eaters, and even a Michael Jackson impersonator.
MJ Lives!
I met quite a few other Peace Corps Volunteers from other African countries, and it was interesting swapping stories and comparing our joys and frustrations. We all had a great time, and it was sad to have to leave Zanzibar back to being landlocked and a steady diet of cooked cabbage and beans. But after a long journey home, I'm back at site and ready for whatever 2013 may bring.

Recommendations/advice in case you're going to visit
-Pyramid Hotel in Stonetown was gorgeous, family-owned, accommodating, and affordable. 
-Lazuli has mind-blowingly delicious smoothies (Stonetown)
-Abyssinian Maritimes was a great Ethiopian restaurant (Stonetown)
-The beaches in Kendwa (in the north) were awesome, but Kendwa Rocks Hotel has some serious staffing issues. Go to their parties but stay elsewhere.
-Essence Restaurant in Kendwa was AMAZING. Everything on the menu anyone tried was killer. 
-The island has very few ATMs, and almost zero outside Stonetown. Bring dollars (as crisp, new, and large as possible) to get exchanged (you can also pay in dollars most places), and hit an ATM to take out money as soon as you get there (I sometimes had to walk to three or four different ones to find a working one). 


  1. That sounds like an awesome trip! I'm planning on hiking Kilimanjaro the end of this summer to raise money for a volunteer organization and thinking about heading to Zanzibar because I've heard such good things!

  2. That looks amazing! I don't know much about Africa so I didn't realize Zanzibar looked so beautiful -- definitely on the travel list now!