Epic Trip Stop 4 – Yes, It’s A Real Place

Yup, there really is a real place called Zanzibar.  It’s off the coast of Tanzania.  In fact, Tanzania is made up of the mainland, unofficially still called Tanganyika (its name under brief British rule), and the islands of Zanzibar, Pemba, and other islands in the Zanzibar Archipelago.  My Tanzania host decided to join me on this excursion, which would last for three days.

We took a puddle jumper from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar.  I generally don’t like flying in such small planes but this flight wasn’t bad at all; there was a nice group of people on our flight and we got a few laughs in.  In about twenty minutes, we arrived at our destination and I had my first ever experience of culture shock.  For the first time in my life, I saw real live women in burka.  Just about every woman I saw who wasn’t a tourist was wearing one and all I could think was, “How are they not fainting from heat stroke?”  But I was respectful and tried not to stare too much.

After a delicious lunch with my Tanzania host at a local restaurant…

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Octopus…yum!

…I spent the first part of the afternoon on a walking tour of Stone Town, where I saw the famous doors of Zanzibar, influenced by the doors of Arabia (from when there was a Sultan of Zanzibar).  In Arabia, the doors were designed with studs to discourage elephants from breaking them down.  This isn’t a problem in Zanzibar because there are no elephants there but the doors have become iconic.

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Doors of Zanzibar, one well maintained and one not

Throughout our tour, we navigated some of the very narrow streets…

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Those aren’t alleyways and aisles…those are streets, and a bike or bajaj could zoom past at any moment

…and visited the Anglican church that stands on the site of the old slave market; Zanzibar was an important shipment point in the trade of slaves from central and east Africa.

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In the dungeon where slaves were held while awaiting purchase and shipment

Then we were off across the waters by a small boat to Changuu Island, also known as Prison Island.  It was built to be a prison but was never actually used as one.  Instead, soon after it was built, it was used as a quarantine hospital for ships coming from North Africa and Asia, to keep cholera and bubonic plague out of the region.  It’s now a restaurant, hotel and sanctuary for giant tortoises.  Generally speaking, I like animals but I must admit that I did not have warm and fuzzy feelings about the tortoises.  In fact, they straight up freaked me out because up close they reminded me of dinosaurs – no kidding, I’m totally serious.  Still, they’re an endangered species so I’m glad someone is looking out for them.  They live very long lives – it’s thought that they’re one of the longest lived of all animals on earth – and I saw one that was over 150 years old.

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This giant tortoise was 123 years old. That lady was petting him like he was a cute little kitty cat. His head is bigger than her hand.

The next day, I set off with my guide to see a bit of the island outside of Stone Town.  Our first stop was Jozani Forest to see red colobus monkeys.  We actually didn’t have to try hard to see them.  They came out of the trees, picked around in the grass for a little while, ate whatever they found, then went back to the trees and forgot about us.

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Red colobus monkeys, found only in Zanzibar…they acted like we weren’t even there and allowed us to get very close

Then we went across the way to explore a grove of mangrove trees.  I was assigned a forest guide and a trainee forest guide.  The guide told me a lot about mangroves that I’ve since forgotten and the trainee kept insisting on using my camera to take a million pictures of me admiring the forest.

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Me and my senior guide in the mangrove forest…the root systems are remarkable

Then we went back across the way for a forest walk.  I kept it brief because I was wearing sandals and hadn’t expected to be walking through muddy ground.  But mainly I kept if brief because, for the first (and only) time on my epic journey, I didn’t feel completely comfortable.  The forest guide and his trainee were slightly creepy to me for some reason that I still can’t put my finger on – I kept imagining them dragging me off into the bushes to do unspeakable things to me – so I didn’t go too far with them and after a few minutes, I brought the walk to an end by insisting that we go back to where my driver for the day was waiting.

Before long, we were off again to another part of the island, passing buses…

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Typical Zanzibari bus, a converted pickup truck

…and villages along the way.  Finally, we came to our next stop, a spice farm.  I went off alone again with my farm tour guide but I felt safe this time.  I saw plants whose names were common in my daily life but that I’d never seen raw or unprocessed before, like vanilla and lemongrass.  There was even a plant whose crushed berries can be used as natural stain, like for emergency lipstick.

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Vanilla pods, “lipstick” berries and lemongrass

As we walked around the farm, we passed traditional mud huts that were inhabited, and children playing and waving to me.

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Somebody lives in that mud hut
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A ring my spice farm guide made me from leaves and flowers…prettiest ring I’ve ever received, EVER

Finally, around early afternoon, my tour day was over and we were off back to Stone Town.  My tour guide dropped me off and I spent the afternoon wandering around Stone Town a little bit (I was sorely tempted to buy an absolutely gorgeous Zanzibar chest – is any Zanzibar chest not gorgeous? – but I managed to restrain myself) and relaxing at my hotel before meeting my Tanzania host for dinner at a restaurant overlooking the rooftops of the town.  She and I had a great time being food critics.  Surprisingly, the food wasn’t that great; the individual courses weren’t bad but they didn’t work well together at all.

The next morning before we left the island, we walked to the Old Fort and I had a tonne of henna done.  I’d never even considered getting it but the lady – her name was Queen – did my right arm and I liked it so much that I couldn’t stop.  Soon,  I had her do designs all the way up my right leg, some of my left leg and on the back of my right shoulder.  My henna lasted a good two weeks, so well done, Queen!

To be honest, I think that hour or so that we spent at the Old Fort with the henna ladies was the most fun I had in Zanzibar.  I was seriously underwhelmed by my entire visit.  Maybe this was because it came the week after my life-changing safari.  Also, I didn’t think I went with any particular expectations but in retrospect I think that the word “Zanzibar” conjures images of exotic locales, and maybe I had some expectations lurking in the back of my mind somewhere.  Still, I happily added it to the list of less-travelled places that I’ve visited.

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Queen did tonnes of henna on me…yay!

In the afternoon, we took a puddle jumper back to Dar es Salaam and a few days later I bid farewell to Tanzania, which had given me the best month of my life, bar none.

It was then that I realised that I was on an Eat Pray Love journey.  Since leaving home, I had unexpectedly engaged in gastronomic delights and deep spiritual experiences, and in just a little while I’d be in the arms of people who loved me.  My epic trip was blowing my mind at every turn.

What could be in store for me at my next stop, Istanbul?

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