Sunday, February 9, 2014

Zanzibar, you had me at Hujambo.

I have a secret to tell you all: I have a Zanzibar addiction. I fell in love last New Years, when I ate the delicious food, was entranced by its beautiful architecture, relaxed on white sands, and swam in its turquoise water. I drank the Zanzibar Kool-Aid, and there’s no going back.

When my sister Beth decided to come to Africa this year, I couldn’t resist the allures of Zanzibar any longer.

I’ve gotten to step one, realizing I have an addiction, but really have no desire to quit. Especially when THIS is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Rwanda:

            Zanzibar is a majority-Muslim island off the coast of Tanzania, in the Indian ocean. Well, actually two islands: Unguja, the main island, and Pemba, further north. Most tourists only visit Unguja, and I’m no exception. The word Tanzania is actually a combination of Tanganyika (the mainland) and Zanzibar. Cool, huh?

            Beth and I flew from Mwanza, on Lake Victoria, to Dar es Salaam on the coast on a new cheap airline called Fastjet. We said goodbye to our Swedish friends, Emmy and Josephine, and then met up with my friend Kristen at the Dar es Salaam ferry. Kristen flew over from New York for the week, and it was amazing to see her! We took the ferry over to Stonetown, and after checking into our hotel, we began to explore Stonetown, its windy streets, beautiful and sometimes crumbling buildings.

            In some ways, it was strange to be back exactly a year to the day I was in Zanzibar last year. I felt like a different person. Last year, I had eight months of service under my belt, and I was anxious about returning. This year, I’d finished twenty months in Rwanda, and 2014, which once felt impossibly far away, was the year I’d complete my Peace Corps service. I contemplated this as Kristen, Beth, and I roamed the winding, maze-like alleyways of Stonetown, taking pictures, visiting the bustling markets, dodging bikes with cheerful bells coming around sharp corners, and stopping in for smoothies, ice creams, and fresh coconut juice to beat Stonetown’s heat.

            In between our smoothie-sampling walking tour, Kristen, Beth, and I stumbled across a little open-air restaurant selling what seemed to be a soup with large chunks floating in it. Though it was probably 90 degrees out and the soup was not particularly appetizing-looking, locals crowded onto the benches, happily slurping from plastic bowls. Though the place was a bit of a sanitation nightmare, with dirty floors and a couple cats hanging around, my curiosity got the better of me and I ordered a bowl of the soup, called Urojo (also referred to as Zanzibari Mix). It was the best thing I’d tasted in Zanzibar. Make that the best thing I’d tasted in Africa. Bold but undistinguishable flavors confused and delighted my tastebuds. The soup was slightly sweet, tangy, salty, and spicy all at once. The cook added several ingredients, including little dumplings, crunchy cassava sticks, a hard-boiled egg, and chili sauce to the broth, almost like pho. The broth is reportedly made from mango juice, lemon, and turmeric. I am truly desperate for a recipe.

            The next morning, Kristen, Beth, and I got a taxi to Nungwi, in the north. It was New Years’ Eve Day, and our excitement was palpable. I think our driver, Bonge, must be a DJ on the side, and he blasted the latest hits from our car the whole time.

            Once we arrived in Nungwi, the first order of business was a swim in the crystal blue waters. Even though I’m from Nebraska, possibly the most land-bound state in the USA, I adore the ocean. We met some friendly Tanzania Peace Corps Volunteers, and compared and contrasted life in our countries.

            After a pizza dinner and some drinks, we showered and got ready for the big New Years party at Kendwa Rocks, about a 40-minute walk on the beach from our hotel. By the time we arrived, it was about 11:00, and the party was in full swing, with several hundred people on the beaches and dance floor. They had fireworks at midnight, and Kristen and I finally got back to our hotel after 6 am.

            The next few days were blissfully relaxing. My friend Andrew and his girlfriend Maria joined us, and our days were filled with working on our tans (well, sunburns), swimming in the Indian ocean, eating our fill of seafood, snorkeling at Mnemba atoll, and taking a sunset cruise on a traditional wooden dhow boat.

the whole group
            After five days at the beach, we spent a couple days exploring Stonetown again, and eating a bowl (or five) of the Urujo soup. I could not. get. enough. Our PC Tanzania friend (actually, his site is on the other Zanzibar island, Pemba. Rwanda is awesome and everything, but I’m SO JEALOUS) Son showed us an awesome spot called Six Degrees South. It was pretty fancy, but they had amazing cocktails, and we spent our happy hour trying them and watching the beautiful sunset. All too quickly, Kristen had to get on a plane back to New York. It was so wonderful to catch up, and I was so glad she made the long trip over! 

            On my last full day in Zanzibar, Son, Beth, and I took a spice tour. Zanzibar is known for its spices, and used to be part of the global spice trade. We took a van without about 10 other people to a spice farm. Our tour guide pointed out various spices, including peppercorns, cinnamon, vanilla, ginger, turmeric, and nutmeg. We sampled the spices right from the plant, which was a really fascinating experience. If only these spices would make it over to Rwanda…

             We enjoyed a lunch of curry, spiced palau rice, and chapatti while sitting on big mats, and then visiting some former slave caves and a secluded beach, which was unfortunately riddled with sea urchins. Several members of our spice tour group, including our friend Son, ended up with sea urchin spines in various parts of their body.

            After the spice tour, we headed back to Six Degrees South for a last happy hour together, and then headed to Dreamers Island, a floating houseboat owned by some Rastafarians docked in the harbor. Dreamers Island had a bar and restaurant, a DJ stall, rooms for a couple of the owners to sleep, and a little “swimming pool."

            The next morning, it was time to say goodbye to Beth and Son, who were staying a couple more days. At the airport, I had one last adventure: the plane I’d booked at the last minute from Stonetown to Dar es Salaam, was the tiniest puddle-jumper I’d ever seen.

The plane had a single propeller, and the passenger area fit six people. Total. Including pilot and copilot. It was smaller than the inside of a car. I nervously joked with the British pilot about whether there would be beverage services on our half-hour flight, trying to calm my nerves. He laughed, and then asked us four passengers to fasten on our seatbelts. The other passengers, all Tanzanian, seemed relaxed as we turned on the engine and sped down the runway. Two fell asleep.

I kind of wanted to scream, except that it probably would have caused the pilot to crash the plane. So I bit my tongue, tried not to lose my breakfast, and just watched as Zanzibar faded away into the distance. Crystal blue waters thousands of feet below filled the windows of our little plane, and I tried hard to avoid my mental habit of imagining worst-case scenarios (“Psycho Peace Corps Volunteer Screams During Plane Ride, Pilot Crashes Into Lovely Reef Below, No Survivors”).

 Thirty minutes later, we were in Dar es Salaam, a couple hours after that, I was back in Mwanza on Lake Victoria, and about sixteen hours and a bus breakdown in the middle of nowhere after that, I was back in Rwanda.

Until next time, Zanzibar!

Trip Details
In Stonetown, we stayed at Pyramid Hotel. Beautiful, good location, and affordable ($60 for a double, $90 for a triple; with AC and breakfast).

In Nungwi we stayed at the Paradise Beach Bungalows. The rooms were very simple but clean, and the ocean was at our doorstep. $60 for a double room or $35 for a single.

Also, consider taking a plane from Zanzibar to Dar, and vice versa, if you can swing it. The ferry is $35, and you can get a plane ticket for $59. But you'll have to pay for a cab to the harbor to get the ferry, and wait in traffic, and it ends up being about pretty even. 

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