Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Zanzibar, Tanzania

We landed in Dar Es Salaam and then took the smallest commercial plane ever (an eight-seater with a single propeller)  for the 20-minute hop across the Indian Ocean to the Island of Zanzibar.  Just as we were dropping our bags in our steamy hotel room, the skies opened up and a soaking deluge began that lasted the rest of the day.

The rain turned the streets into gushing rivers and mocked our useless umbrella and poncho. At first we thought we'd wait it out before venturing into town but after awhile our hunger won out and we waded through the streets (knee-deep in water) to find lunch.

By dinnertime the inundation had settled down to a light drizzle.  We found a lively smattering of food stalls set up in Forhani Garden, a park at the ocean's edge.  We sat on a stone wall to eat a dinner of lobster skewers, toasted onion bread, grilled plaintains, and a dessert advertised as "banana chocolate pizza" that was more like a nutella-stuffed spring roll grilled in butter over a charcoal fire.  We fed our scraps to the kittens sitting attentively at our feet.  One of the local men kept shouting at us (and the other white tourists, who were British) "Yo!  Welcome to all you Obama people!"

Zanzibar reminded me of southern India.  There’s the hot steamy weather, the palm trees, and the muddy streets.  There are tons of Indian families on the Island, so many that Mohit kept getting mistaken for a local, and our lunch was delicious channa and saag paneer with homemade lemon pickle and sugary thick chai.  We could see the colorful rooftop of a Hindu temple from the terrace of our hotel.

The mosquitos thrive in the rainy season weather, so we were extra diligent about taking Malarone pills, smothering ourselves in DEET, and tucking in the mosquito net around the four-poster bed.  There was a green lizard watching us from the ceiling of our hotel room, and I hoped he was filling his belly with bugs after we turned out the lights.
Our second day in town Mohit ventured out in the rain with a British guy we met at our hotel.  They hired a wooden boat to head out to Prison Island to do some snorkeling around the coral reefs and to hang out with giant tortoises.  

I opted for a relaxing (and drier) morning on the rooftop terrace of our hotel, reading and catching up on email.  Even as it rained, I listended to little boys on the street below riding their plastic big wheel back and forth, giggling and shrieking.  The boys were wearing long white shirts and caps on their head- a uniform for their madrasa school, I assumed.  The people who live on Zanzibar are predominantly muslim.
I decided that the island must be beautiful in dry weather.  Richly vegetated with plam trees and tropical flowers, the water was clear and a perfect turquoise blue when it finally reflected the sun.  The mildewy old buildings looked tropical and exotic once they started to dry out.  

Mohit returned just as the skies were finally clearing.  We settled in at an open-air restaurant overlooking the beach and decided to order the Swahilii dishes on the menu.  Mohit’s yummy grilled kingfish was topped with a spicy mango salsa and my prawns were served in a tasty tomato and coconut broth with rice pilau spiced with cardamom and peppercorns.

In the last few hours of rain-free daylight we wandered the streets dodging puddles and mud.  All the doors that had been shuttered to the rain were thrown open to reveal shops selling colorful fabrics, carved wooden animals, and bowls made from tiny glass beads and wire.  We stumbled upon a thriving local market and then ended up at a waterfront bar for dinner named after Freddie Mercury, who grew up on the island. We watched boys playing soccer on the beach until the sun faded into darkness.

Our visit to Zanzibar, was short, wet, and steamy (and itchy! So many mosquitos!), but definitely memorable.  I’d definitely recommend a stop if you’re visiting Tanzania, but would think twice about returning during the rainy season…  

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