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Spice of Life in Zanzibar and Dar Es Salaam

Spice of Life in Zanzibar and Dar Es Salaam

Dar Es Salaam is big and dirty. Cars and motorbikes swerve around pedestrians. Potholes fill with murky puddles. Parts of the sidewalk by our hotel were taken up by people welding a variety of metal contraptions. But the city is also a vibrant mix of peoples and cultures. Mosques, churches, and Hindu temples can be found just a few minute walk from one another. A variety of tea shops offer masala (chai) tea and an assortment of delicious snacks. There’s at least one sprawling vegetable market that wraps around two sides of a large city block and some of the best Indian food we’ve ever had. Coming from Malawi, Dar seemed like a return to civilization, but it’s also the sort of place that can tax your energy just getting from one place to another.

Most people come to Dar Es Salaam on their way west to do Safaris in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro crater or to take the ferry to Zanzibar. Dar doesn’t have any ‘attractions’ per se, but it’s definitely an interesting place to explore for a day or so. And, seriously, if you’re there, find some Indian food.

We stayed at Safari Inn. We had our own room. No frills but affordable.

Ferry to Zanzibar

The Ferry is pretty straight forward, but follow basic travel advice when buying your ticket. 1) Ignore the people who are telling you they’ll take you to where the tickets are and just go in the building that’s obviously marked as the place to buy tickets. 2) There are a ton of porters who will ask to help you. Our taxi driver emphasized that we should not let them take our bags.

Stone Town

stone town square

Some people go straight to the beach and only do Stone Town as a day trip. This is a mistake. Stone town in unlike anywhere else in East Africa. There are narrow streets, a variety of stores selling clothes and spices, and an outdoor eat-on-the-spot seafood market that makes for an unforgettable experience. There are ‘sights,’ like a couple palaces and museums but they’re pretty run down and not really worth the effort. The church where the old slave market used to be makes for an interesting and powerful visit though.

The real joy of Stone Town comes from wandering the streets, buying snacks from local shops, and perusing the textiles and crafts, before heading to the seafood market for dinner. The hidden treasure there though isn’t the seafood at all, it’s the Syrian kebab stand on the edge of the market. Delicious.

night market zanzibar

We also took a day trip to a spice plantation from Stone Town, which surpassed my expectations. We walked through the forest and our guide pulled spices and fruits from the trees around us. Black pepper, bark from a cinnamon tree, cardamom, roots for turmeric, and several fruits whose names I’ve forgotten. We got to taste it all. You don’t see the manufacturing side but I preferred the hands on, spices-in-mouth approach much more.

zanzibar spice tour

We stayed at Zanzibar Lodge. At first we thought we walked into a woman’s home but we had the right place. Free breakfast, affordable private room, and great location.

The Beach

Zanzibar sunset

There are several ways to do the beach in Zanzibar. The northern part of the island has a reputation for being more developed and having a better nightlife. We didn’t stay there. Instead, we opted for the undeveloped east side. And that’s what we got. There really isn’t much here at all, other than a few hostels and one mid-size hotel. We could walk for a mile in either direction on the beach and only see a handful of other people. There are a few options for activities. I took a traditional sail boat to go snorkeling one day, which was awesome. Other people at our hostel took day trips to Stone Town and to the jungle in the middle of the island where you can see red backed monkeys. One night there was a birthday party for a guy who works at the hostel and we were invited to take shots and eat a goat they roasted, but I don’t think that’s a common thing. Mostly we just lounged and relaxed at the back and in the hammocks around our hostel. It was perfect for what we wanted. But if you’re looking for more of an active scene you may want to check out other parts of the island.

swimming zanzibar

Tips: check the tides before heading to the beach. At low tide the water slinks back behind the seaweed and it’s pretty tough to get to.

We stayed at Sagando Hostel. It was nice. Sand floors. Lots of hammocks. There’s one local restaurant on the other side of the dirt path, where you can eat for a bit less but options there are limited. We ate most of our meals at Sagando where the food was a bit more expensive but outrageously delicious.

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This two week stint in Tanzania was the final chapter in our Africa adventures. At the airport, I began to feel a premature nostalgia for the continent we were leaving behind. But once we got to Italy that feeling quickly slipped away. Stay tuned for more.

  • Will
Triumph of the Human Spirit – A Visit to Robben Island

Triumph of the Human Spirit – A Visit to Robben Island

The line for the ferry to Robben Island snakes back and forth to fill up nearly an entire room and then continues up a ramp, across the lobby, and out the door. Along the walls are large boards that chronicle the history of apartheid and the struggle against it. They talk about how black people were moved from their homes to designated townships and denied citizenship. They show images of people marching against ‘pass laws’ and the armed response that left dozens dead in the streets. There are pictures of Mandela at the time of his arrest and stories of the student uprisings of the 1970s. Above all of this is a quote about Robben Island itself. An ex-prisoner calls that this place should not be remembered as a place of pain and brutality but rather as a symbol of “the triumph of the human spirit over adversity suffering and injustice.”

Heading to Robben Island, Cape Town grows smaller but it never fully disappears. According to Nugugi Wa Thiong’o this ever present reminder of the people they were struggling for helped prisoners resist the island’s attempts to rob them of their spirit.

Robben Island

Perhaps the most powerful story we heard on the island was when we stopped in front of this stone quarry. The leaders of the anti-apartheid movement (like Nelson Mandela) were kept apart from the other prisoners and made to work here. During their labor they were not allowed to speak but once a day they were allowed to sit together for lunch. The leaders of the resistance huddled together in the small cave on the left and talked about what they could do to improve conditions at the prison. They also spoke about what a democratic South Africa could look like. Years later, these same people would find themselves in the halls of power in South Africa. The contrast between these images, the same people with the same ideas, delivered from bondage to power, left a strong impression on me.

Robben Island Stone Quarry

After driving around the island, our bus guide left us with someone different to take us through the prison itself. All of the guides for the prison are ex-prisoners and his constant use of ‘we’ to describe the living conditions underlined this fact in a powerful way.

We learned how the prisoners who were sent in the 70s were more radical than those who came before them, like Mandela. They refused to do hard labor and were tortured for their insubordination. The torture eventually got the attention of international organizations and resulted in some improved conditions. The mats prisoners were made to sleep on were replaced by cots. Hard labor was suspended.

Prisoner dorm Robbe Island

We walked through the prison fairly quickly. We saw where Mandela hid the pages of his autobiography as he wrote them. The big photo moment, of course, is his cell. I was also just as interested in the cell next to Mandela’s where a former professor of mine, Dennis Brutus, was imprisoned for 18 months.

Nelson Mandela's Cell Robben Island

Mandela’s Cell

Dennis Brutus Cell Robben Island

Dennis Brutus’ Cell

There really isn’t much to see at the prison itself. The stories are much more powerful. The most surprising story we heard is a modern one. There’s a still active church on Robben Island where, every Valentine’s Day, a series of couple line up to get married. The weddings and festivities are broadcast live on television. The island morphs into a place of joy where new memories are born to balance the others. But the most impressive sight, by far, isn’t even on the island. It’s the image of Cape Town across the bay.

View of Cape Town from Robben Island

Til next time,

  • Will