We were awake at sunrise to take the ferry from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar. We were told to get to the ferry office early to ensure we’d get seats even though we had booked our tickets online. Even with our good timing, the line at the office was hectic, but not only did we get seats, but the woman checking passports and selling the tickets bumped us up to business class! I’m not sure why, but I wasn’t complaining. As we left the mainland, we passed so many boats: ferries crammed with impossible numbers of people, ships, dhows, and wooden speedboats.
Stone Town, Zanzibar was unlike any city I’ve visited before, but bits and pieces reminded me of other places. Some of the balconies reminded me of New Orleans – especially the green and brown ones decorated with twisting ivy, the mosques reminded me of Tunisia, and the beachfronts reminded me of ritzy tourist destinations in the Caribbean. Stone Town was a maze of alleys and narrow streets and many of the roads were too narrow for two-way traffic. The old-world architecture made me feel like I had been transported back in time.
Bicycles swerved around pedestrians in the vein-like alleys and splashed through puddles, mopeds honked, demanding room. Women fried chapati on the stoops of doorways, filling the air with the smell of oil and dough. Children chased each other, kicking balls around with their bare feet. Laundry hung wetly above us on strings and over balcony railings. A rat dashed across on of the lines at night, its contour going into a performance like an acrobat. In a small square, men sat on wooden benches, playing dominos. One man sat nearby, scooping freshly brewed coffee out of a steaming pot into china cups. Men pulled carts stacked high with bundles of fresh firewood and sacks of grain. Men sliced mangos and jackfruit to sell. Men sold t-shirts and sunglasses on the beach. Men tried to convince visitors to hire them as tour guides. Men were everywhere. I often wondered where all the women were, because I didn’t see nearly as many out and about.
After checking into our hostel, Manch Lodge, we enjoyed their complimentary breakfast and a guy staying there told us about a full moon party up on a beach in northern Zanzibar that night. He said he was going to go with some friends he had met while backpacking and he planned to sleep on the beach and return in the morning. We had only heard of full moon parties before, so we were all intrigued and we filed that information away as we headed out to explore the city. We looked in the countless tiny shops full of crafts, carvings, jewelry, ornate wooden boxes, candle holders, masks, toy boats, toy cars and planes made out of old soda cans, scarves, bags, dresses, sandals, paintings, journals, spices, and baskets. Many of the shop owners sat outside on the stoops or on small chairs, beckoning tourists into their shops.
As we walked through the streets, well over half the men would say things to us as we passed: “jambo,” “mambo,” “hello beautiful girls,” “hi,” “how are you,” “where are you going?” I got “black beauty” a lot, which seemed weird coming from African guys. You’d think just “beauty” would suffice. Every time a guy said that, all I could think of was the children’s book about the horse, which made me want to neigh at them, but i doubt the reference would translate culturally. It wasn’t terrible or anything, but it did get annoying and frustrating at times. Especially when the guys would keep yelling “hi” over and over again or start walking with us. Male shopkeepers would often try to get female tourists into their stores by paying compliments and insisting upon their beauty. After the umpteenth man did this to us, I couldn’t help but say, “Hear that, guys? He called us beautiful. We should give him our money now.”
From what I saw, men largely left the local women in peace. We only got so much attention because it was clear we were foreigners. Nearly all of the local women were fully covered and wore hijab or niqab, but some just took care to wear long skirts and have their shoulders covered. We weren’t dressed as conservatively, but we made sure to follow advice and usually kept our knees and shoulders covered. I had been nervous before we arrived, but the de facto dress code wasn’t too strict for tourists. As it turned out, I felt fairly comfortable.
As we browsed through the stores, we found a curio shop that I fell in love with. They had tons of unusual jewelry that gave me “temple of doom” vibes, a glass display case of daggers, stacks of decorated trunks and spice boxes, old picture frames, malachite animal carvings, little dhow replicas made from coconut shells and wood, chests, compasses, telescopes, old oil lamps, chess sets, a section full of antique silverware, and gorgeous tea paraphernalia. There was so much to see there that I couldn’t even bring myself to choose and buy anything. We all planned to return to the store another time.
We found our way to a major street that led to the beach. We had iced coffee at a beachfront restaurant and then went to a restaurant named Lazuli that was known for using fresh, organic food from around the island. The meal we had there was absolutely delicious and I highly recommend Lazuli. They had an extensive but not overwhelming menu that included plenty of fresh seafood, Indian food, and vegetarian food. They also had many fresh juice choices and spiced coffees and teas.
After lunch we went to get gelato before heading to a former slave market for a tour. I had learned quite a bit about Zanzibar in my UB history class on eastern African trade and slavery, so I was interested to see what the slave market tour would reveal. Though, part of me didn’t want to go at all. Our tour was very informative and we went inside the church where enslaved people had been held and separated. The irony was staggering.
We headed back to our hostel to rest up a little, because we still had the whole night ahead of us and a full moon party to attend!