Zanzibar, Tanzania’s and one of Africa’s most famous islands, is as expected a big tourist destination and I was there around New Years, one of the busiest times of the year with holiday goers from across Africa and Europe.
I caught a ferry from Dar Es Salaam to Stone Town. Due to the increasing number of tourists every year and the rapid development on the island, Lonely Planet said that the island’s “magic” is becoming harder to find, but I still thought it held a lot of charm.
The town still has most of its old, original buildings and I spent most of my three days just wondering the cobbled alleyways getting lost and walking up and down the same path a number of times until shop owners started recognising me despite the number of tourists there were. Down most of the paths you find little shops full of souvenirs and clothing and people standing out the front saying, “Jambo (hello)! Please come into my shop, sister. Looking is free. Just five minutes.” The clothes were beautiful and you didn’t really fit in unless you were wearing some brightly patterned harem style pants and a loose shirt bought from one of the shops.
I had been warned about the annoying tour touts roaming the beaches and the alleyways constantly trying to sell you snorkelling tours or historical walks. I was hassled by 10 of them between getting off the ferry and arriving at my guesthouse. By the second day I’d lost count until one walked up to me on the beach and said “Jambo. I’m an official tour guide for the….” as he flashed some sort of ID card at me. When I didn’t respond he said, “Now I know I’m the 100th person that has said this to you today but…”. I’m sure he was close and I was really getting tired of being hassled. He soon realised he wasn’t going to get anything out of me and went to the next tourist on the beach.
The beaches are what attracts people here though, with the white sand and clear blue water making snorkelling popular, but I decided to explore more in-land and went on a spice tour with a group organised from my guesthouse. It was extremely interesting. We got to see the original plants and leaves of lemongrass, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, vanilla bean, cacao and curry leaves. All of these spices that we buy in a little jar at the supermarket already dried and in powder form and yet you never really know what they look like as a plant . We had an included spice-filled lunch with fresh coconut water and then went back to town.
Of course, history can explain a lot and Zanzibar has a lot of it. Originally, Persian traders settled on the island until the Portuguese arrived in the sixteenth century. Arabs routed the Portuguese by the middle of that same century and the Sultan of Oman loved the island so much he relocated to Stone Town. His original palace is still standing and was a beautiful museum to visit to understand the history. I also visited the old slave market area where you can still see the underground cells where they kept the slaves before selling them.
All in all, despite the tourists, it’s still an amazing place to visit. It’s a weird and wonderful mix of Arab, Portuguese and African culture evident in the architecture, food and clothing. I only had time to explore the small main section of the island, so I’m sure there’s many more coconuts, pesky tour touts and colourful fabric to discover in the less visited areas as well.
*post adapted from my trip here in January 2015 and from my original blog site elishasbigtrip.wordpress.com