Stone Town, Zanzibar in 48 hours

Approaching Zanzibar for the first time I almost cried. Right below me was an expansive coral reef with ocean water so clear I could practically see straight down from my window seat of the plane. I was in one of those tiny, probably decades old airplanes, with the insanely noisy propellers, which just happened to be right in my line of phone taking making every photo blurry. But that didn’t stop me from trying. Trying to hold my mouth from dropping open in awe, I sat there, coming to the realization that this tropical island was going to be my home for the following two months. I felt at home before the plane even touched land.

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Once I landed I was shuttled off the airplane onto the tarmac – I got to walk down those royal steps like you see in old movies, I think I was way more excited for that than I should be, but whatever — judge me. The “airport” looks like a doctor’s waiting room where I picked up my suitcase and searched through the crowd of locals waiting for my friend Ulrica. Tip: Don’t let locals carry suitcase unless you want to give them some money, it only has to be like 500-1000 shillings (less than $1), but don’t fall for their friendliness if you want to hold onto your cash!

Just a little background on the breath-taking island that is Zanzibar. It is a small island off the coast of East Africa and it is an autonomous region of Tanzania. It’s a tropical island known for it’s spices, fruits, and beaches. Zanzibar is a mix between African and Arabic culture, making it a really unique destination. The population is split between Tanzanian nationals and people from Oman. Ninety-nine percent of the island’s population is Muslim so make sure your wardrobe is ready for that. May to August is the best time to travel, during their winter, which is fairly convenient for many tourists as that’s summer in many parts of the world and time for vacationing. November to Feburary is the hottest time of the year during the dry and summer season. The rest of the year is still hot, but it marks their wet season in which it rains for days at a time. Almost everyday of the year you can be guaranteed temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, because if it went any lower than that every local would be wearing a winter coat (which they still do even at 80).

Stone Town is the biggest and only city on the island making it the ideal location for any tourist. Many honeymooners head off to the remote beaches on the east coast where everything really looks like it could be on a screensaver, but I highly recommend Stone Town as the best spot especially for backpackers.

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Alright now for the fun part —– What to do in Stone Town, Zanzibar:

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Day One – Things start really early in Stone Town as it is an Islamic city so everyone is up at dawn for prayer, so finding things to do early in the morning is not hard. If you’re an early riser this is a good place for you. My favorite thing to do when I woke up early was go to the main square, Forodhani Gardens, and enjoy the view with an omelet and a masala tea. Forodhani Gardens overlooks the ocean offers a wide array of small food stalls and free wifi. These mini-restaurants are a step up from street food and usually open at around 8:00 a.m. I’d go there regularly for breakfast and for my breaks during my school day (as stated in previous blog posts I taught English in Stone Town).  One of my favorite parts about being up and around that early was that I really got to know the locals as no other tourist was awake during that hour. The waiter and I got to know each other very well to the point where my omelet and tea were already there waiting for me at opening. I got to watch all the local Zanzibari women sweep the streets before all the tourists fill the streets.

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After an hour or so of taking in the early morning sights and of course a full breakfast a trip to the beach is a must. Luckily it is only about a two-minute walk from the main square. The Stone Town beach is small in comparison to the rest of Zanzibar’s beaches, but is still equally gorgeous on my standards. I’m also a city-girl at heart so I like the idea that I can walk to civilization if needed. The beach is an advertising hotspot with every local in town wanting you to get on their boat. These boats are generally safe and reliable, taking hourly trips to and from the other nearby islands namely Prison Island (I’ll get to that later). For now, ignore all those tourist traps and set your eyes on the prize – swimming in the Indian Ocean.

A great spot to relax is at the Tembo Hotel, they have chairs free to use for the public except during tourist peak season, which is mostly just June and July (although Zanzibar’s tourism is way down so you could lucky). I used their chairs probably forty times over two months and only had to pay maybe ten times, probably less than that. Of course it is always polite to purchase something – they have a great selection of different drinks, but I do not recommend eating there. Their food is very overpriced and from my experience not very good. Stay there as long as you so please because odds are it will be beautiful all day long. Tip: I recommend lying on your bag (using it as a pillow) especially if you plan to take a nap because there are some sticky fingers of young locals around.

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If you’re looking for more of an adventurous beach time there are some beautiful sights if you keep walking down the coast line mostly old stone walls that barricade the city from the ocean. There are no chairs going this route, but still a great place to spread your towel out and relax.

By this point you’ve probably spent about $5 on breakfast, $6 if you had to purchase something to use the chairs. Now it’s time to roam around. The streets of Stone Town are really something out of this world. They’re the perfect place to get lost because no matter where you end up eventually you’ll recognize something and be able to get yourself back. Right off of the beach and Forodhani Gardens is the main shopping area for tourists perfect for any souvenir shopping complete with the town’s only liquor store (this is important if you plan to drink, although I don’t really recommend it – the liquor store has extremely random hours so plan ahead). Truly exploring these streets can take hours and with some really beautiful handcrafted items except to throw down some cash if you want some of the classic tourist items. Still, compared to anything in the Western world, souvenirs are extremely cheap and if you know what to say they can be even cheaper with haggling.

Let’s say you spend about $10 on souvenirs, so now you’ve spent about $15. Shopping is tiring and in effect you may have worked up quite the appetite. There are so many delicious places to eat, and I recommend sitting down for lunch over a sit-down dinner. Check out Lukmaan’s for true Zanzibari cuisine.

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On average you’ll spend about $8 on lunch, but let’s say you spend $10 so that brings your total cost for the day to $25. After lunch head back to the beach and this time take one of those friendly locals up on their offer to take you to Prison Island. A boat ride should only cost about 20,000 shillings (approximately $12) and they will wait for you at the island. Once on Prison Island head over the main visitor’s center to purchase tickets to see their world-famous turtles, they’re huge and worth the cost to see them. This “cost” is only about $2, but watch out because they do sometimes overcharge tourists. I had my resident permit with me so I got in everywhere dirt cheap, but even without that the tourist attractions are still extremely cheap. Prison Island is completely self-guided and has a presently un-operational hotel so the pool is up for grabs, as far as I could tell (no one told me not to…). Prison Island also features a gorgeous beach that overlooks Stone Town. I was on the island during peak tourist season and I think there were maybe four other people on the island. It’s very open and a delightful little island.

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By now it should be about 4:00 p.m. as you’re coming back to the main island. To round up your touring activities for the day head over to the House of Wonders and the Old Fort for tours of both. House of Wonder’s has a small fee to enter, but the Old Fort is self-guided and free. If you want a real adventure to end your first day of tourist activities walk over to Mkunazini (a seven minute walk inland) – note: this is where I lived – and squeeze your way through the market place. How long can you stand in the fish market? I think I made it twenty seconds. Smells horrible, looks really cool! This a real local place making it an awesome attraction to check out. Be prepared for stares though, make sure you’re really covered up when going through areas like this. At this point you should have spent about $45.

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If you get hungry stop for some street food – my favorite snack is what I call “mango fries” – essentially mangos shaped like fries. They’re probably like $0.50 so I’m not even going to count this in my total…

Head back over to Forodhani Gardens in time for the sun to set. All the local boys do quite a performance off the stonewall into the ocean – flips and backwards somersaults. On the other side of the park, while the sun is setting, all the food stall operators are getting ready for dinner leaving the park smelling delishly fishy. Get ready for dinner. Go all out with seafood anything; I’ve never had a problem eating any of the street-food here, but definitely be precautious. Everyone comes out to Forodhani for dinner in the square, especially during Ramadhan – it’s one big party. Street food will cost you about $3-5 depending on how much food you want. Now you’re at about $50 for the day.

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To end your day do as the locals do and walk around a lot, just be cautious once it starts to get really dark particularly if you’re a single female. If you’re not tired by that point there’s a couple options. One – go to a hookah bar or two – go to a bar and smoke hookah. The nightlife in Stone Town is centered around hookah, or shisha in Arabic, as Muslims traditionally don’t drink alcohol. Because of Stone Town’s status as a popular tourist destination, there are still plenty of places to grab a drink, but I do not recommend ever being publicly sloshed. It’s technically a crime there. One of my favorite hookah bars and also one of the most expensive places in town is the Livingstone Bar. The hookah waiter, I call him, there is super friendly. You might spend $10 here, but if you share with other people you may only spend $2, so let’s say you share because us nomads tend to be fairly social.

You may ask where do I sleep? I stayed in an apartment for the summer, but I had plently of friends that stayed in guesthouses/hostels and said they were all clean and affordable. For backpackers you can get a decent room in a hostel with a private bathroom in some cases for $30, even cheaper for a shared bathroom (that’s usually $20). So let’s say you spring for your own bathroom. That brings your grand total for the day to $82. Not too shabby for a day jam packed full of stuff.

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Day Two – You can’t go to a tropical island without snorkeling! Snorkeling in Africa is even cheaper than anywhere especially in Zanzibar, where they’re actively trying to boost their tourism. Safari Blue is the highest rated and most popular tour out there, and also the one I took myself. It was top notch I must say. Because it’s so highly rated, the price is jacked up to about $100 per person varying slightly based on the season. This price includes basically a full-day excursion snorkeling the coral reef, lunch, tropical fruit tasting, drinks (beer included), and relaxation. I’d say well worth it. The tours start at 9:30am so as far as breakfast goes I’d just snack on a granola bar and drink plenty of water because the tour will provide lots of food (trust me, you want to save room – some of the best seafood I’ve ever had!). The takeoff point is in a small town called Fumba and that taxi ride is also included in the cost (from Stone Town).

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By the time you get back to Stone Town (the takeoff point is about 30 minutes away from downtown) it should be around 3:30p.m. so I’d recommend doing an excellent slave trade tour at Saint Monica’s, which includes a town of the adjoined Catholic church  (one of the few Christian places of worship on the island) and a former slave market. Just a couple bucks for entry and you get your own tour guide! This should take about an hour or so.

Following the slave market tour, which is in Mkunazini, you should check out the surrounding area – Mkunazini as I stated earlier is home to the market. In addition to the market it holds all of Stone Town true local stores; they have a store for everything – clothes, hijabs, jewelry, tuxedos, watches, DVDs, etc. It’s a really cool site to see. Essentially Mkunazini is one big outdoor mall hidden amongst Stone Town’s narrow alleys.

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After some shopping/people watching head to the Green Garden for dinner, which is just a few blocks away, also in Mkunazini. This is my all-time favorite place to eat in all of Stone Town. I went here so much that I started getting free stuff! The owners and the waiters are some of the friendliest people I have ever met. The whole restaurant is outside, but there are covered parts in case of rain. They also have free wifi and delicious freshly squeezed juices, which everyone needs to try once in their life. So amazing. My favorite thing to order here was any of their curries —- literally to die for. Also their tomato soup is spectacular if you’re looking for something on the cheaper side. I’d say an average meal here costs $8, but the juices can be a little pricy so maybe you’d pay $10. If you didn’t spend any money while shopping that brings the total to $113 for the day so far, and $195 for the weekend.

I’d suggest taking another walk around town after dinner and definitely treating yourself to some dessert for your last night in Stone Town. For dessert I recommend either Mercury’s for some ice cream that is not made with powdered milk (yeah… all the other stuff is gross, don’t buy the ice cream unless you like the taste of fake milk, which I gotta say I kind of got used to) or head over to “Mr. Nutella’s” pizza place in Forodhani. First off, the ice cream at Mercury’s is expensive because it’s really the only place in town with real ice cream, but they have some really cool tropical flavors – worth $3! Then “Mr. Nutella’s” pizza is basically a crepe stand where they’ll make the crepe with whatever you want on it. This is about $3 as well. Whichever you chose it’s going to be great. Or go for both — I won’t judge ;).

Lastly you have to pay for another night in the hostel so add $30. Your final total for two days and two nights in Zanzibar is $128! If I would add anything to this itinerary, especially if you’re into nightlife I would take a taxi to Kendwa Beach because this is where the tourist party is every weekend. It’s a fun time, but also fairly expensive – probably costing you $50 for the night if you didn’t go too hard with the drink purchasing, $70 if you did.

Above all have fun and do what sounds good for you. If you want to just soak up the sun all day long, for 48 hours straight – cool, live it up. I love Stone Town and I hope you do too!

Chlorofluorocarbons and Best Friends

IMG_1214I met Ruhaila on my first day of teaching. She was sitting quietly, arms wrapped lovingly around her dictionary, with a sassy smirk across her face. She was intimidating and looked like she was not being challenged. Great, I thought. Here I was, my first day, teaching a class not even listed on my schedule with a know-it-all sitting front and center waiting for me to teach about environmental degradation.  As I am neither an environmental studies major nor studying education this all came very naturally.

I saw her judgmental glances; they made me want to run to the ocean and swim back to the comfortable shores of Delaware. She was on to me – she knew I was clueless.

After hopelessly reading the textbook for thirty minutes I gave them an exercise. Of course she was the first to raise her hand.

“Could you explain chlorofluorocarbons?” she asked.

No I cannot. Seriously girl – figure it out. This is what I wanted to say, but instead I put on a smile and told her I’d do the best I could.

After this question we began talking. Her ambition was to be a doctor and her English was one of the best I had heard thus far. Ruhaila’s smile stopped looking so intimidating and transformed into a kind invitation for friendship. I accepted.

The next day I lent her a Time magazine placing posted it notes on every article medicine related. I knew that even if she couldn’t understand everything, she could see that becoming a doctor was possible. In return for the magazine she invited me to her home. Again, I accepted.

Forty-eight hours later bread was being shoveled down my throat and headscarves being delicately wrapped around my sweaty forehead. Ruhaila proudly introduced me to all the people around her village. She taught me Swahili and orchestrated a full-blown photo shoot with the rest of her family and I.

Hours passed of talking about boys and running around the house giving piggyback rides to her nephews. Ruhaila, a seventeen-year old Muslim girl, had her entire career figured out and she would consider boys after she achieved that.

Somewhere along the five weeks I knew Ruhaila we became best friends. On my last day of school I was given a small party where the school selected a representative from every class to give a speech looking back on our time together. I prepared myself and stashed some toilet paper in my back pocket. I didn’t bring enough.

Ruhaila gave one of the speeches and she was already crying before beginning her speech. After I started crying all the teenage girls in the room started dropping like flies leaving the one male administrator in the room to deal with fifteen teary-eyed girls on his own.

I can’t even remember what she was saying in her speech, maybe because I was so focused on trying to hold back my tears.

Ruhaila and I may come from completely different backgrounds, but our silent thoughts at that moment were identical I will never forget you.

Ave Maria Grotto, Cullman Alabama

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Even if you’re not religious in any way I still recommend this ornate and calming grotto. I’m not a practicing Catholic, but religions fascinate me. The Grotto, created by Brother Joseph, is in the middle of nowhere Alabama about an hour in between Huntsille and Birmingham, located at a Catholic prep school.

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It was a mere $7 for entrance and completely self-guided. The statues were decorated with basically anything BroJoe (as my friend and I liked to call him) could find – seashells, broken glass, rocks, even mud. He created sculptures of mostly holy related places, but it definitely took you on a journey all over the globe from Portugal to Japan to Ireland.

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For me this was one of those places that I just wanted to pray at. Even though I can’t remember the last time I prayed I just wanted to. There was this overly Catholic music playing in the background that reminded me of my wretched time in Catholic school for elementary school, but it was oddly beautiful. Maybe because no one was trying to jam religion down my throat it was just simply playing quietly in the background. I really liked that.

Lastly they had some of the cheapest souvenirs I’ve ever seen! $0.25 postcards and $1.50 magnets (of every state) – I went crazy buying up all the magnets of states I love.

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Hunting With the Power of Weed

At the crack of dawn I ease my way out of my tent, wrap my dusty hair into a tight braid trying to forget that my last shower was three days ago, and slither into my guide’s faithful Landcruiser. I feel uncomfortable and dirty, only thinking about the glorious shower I will be taking this evening once my group reaches the hotel. In Tanzania everything is a four hour drive away. Lots of roads are paved, but they’re always magically “under construction.” I see so many idly unchanged roads, that look perfectly great to drive on, but they’re blocked off and we’re forced to drive on the treacherous side roads with bumps so large I frequently hit my head on the roof.

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Needless to say it wasn’t a great start to my morning as it was also still only 6:00am – way too early for a college student to up during the summer… But I was excited and anxious for my next adventure – hunting with the Hadzabe tribe. Excited because my anthropological juices were flowing, so eager to experience a completely different way of life. But anxious because I was going into wild animal territory to hunt with a tribe that doesn’t even speak Swahili, the main language in Tanzania.

This was one of the shorter drives, only 50 km, and after about 30 minutes, we pull off and head down this street sign-less road containing the wondering eyes of locals. My anxiety picked up when the convenience store huts stopped popping up on the road. Then our driver stopped and asked someone for directions. Children ran up to our parked car and held their hands out. How could I say no? I distributed a cookie in each child’s hand and then four seconds later those same hands were back. It’s so difficult to say no, but then when you say yes it then makes it impossible to turn back and make any form of restrictions.

The engine rattled back on right as I gave away my last cookie. Twenty minutes more into the middle of literally no where, we stopped, staring straight up a steep rocky hill/arguably a mountain. Our guide pointed for us to somehow get up the steep rocky exterior. Hah! I thought – don’t get me wrong I’m always up for an adventure, but I’m no rock climber! Problem was he was serious. We struggled up the hill until we found flat group at the top along with the drifting, subtle smell of marijuana.

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I laughed to myself as we walked closer to the cloud of smoke and the scent became more intense until I felt I might actually get high just from this air. I guess yolo? Well these friendly dudes were really serious about their weed because even though they wore nothing but a thin sheet of animal hide covering their packages, they were dedicated to this practically hallucinogenic pot – that’s how good it was (or at least that’s what I was told).

In order to smoke without the modern amenities like lighters and rolling papers, the tribesmen made their own fire and breathed in the straight harsh smoke of the drug. Heavy coughs followed, but they continued on a few more rounds. Only men were huddled around the fire, barely acknowledging our presence. One boy looked only six or seven was also participating. About a dozen hits later they were ready and with the power of Mary Jane they took us along on their hunting excursion.

Since they didn’t even have lighters you can be sure they didn’t have any modern weapons either. It was all bow and arrow. After walking aimlessly following these high tribesmen through the bush and watching them miss a few small animals, they decided oh I guess we didn’t smoke enough… and then they got high. More.

Eventually we come across a pile of large rocks and our guide translates and says that hyenas often live under rocks like these. The tribesmen inspect the rocks hoping that there’s a hyena sleeping while I bite my lip bloody wishing that I chosen to sleep in. Five minutes pass of quietly waiting – watching my high homies use the weed to lead them to a hyena. Then suddenly they shoot multiple arrows into a crack. A squeal follows. Then I feel like throwing up, but I stuck it out because you know.. for the adventure, I guess?

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They pull their prize out of the rocks and do some gross and unspeakable things to kill it completely. I can’t even talk about that part! The one shining moment in this capture is their faces – they were just so proud and happy to have dinner, I was almost supportive of their merciless killing of what turned out to be a baby hyena. What surprised me the most was their commitment to weed. Who knew that marijuana would help to guide them to a prize, and maybe it did or maybe it didn’t, but they sure thought that that pot was their key to success.

So can how can something illegal on American standards lead other’s to enrichment? The simple answer is that cultures value things (ugh I couldn’t find a better word so sue me) differently. But really there are so many levels to this… maybe weed isn’t so bad? I’m not going to say hey go smoke weed because it is illegal (in most US states, or at least the ones I’ve lived in), but I will say don’t knock it til you try it (cough cough US government). Hallucination, for the Hazadbe, brings them closer to the earth and helps them find essential food so that their way of life will endure the overwhelming technology period we all live in. Weed is the norm for them… a method of survival more importantly; don’t we all have something that we need for survival? For me it’s a pen – I don’t think I could survive without the primary tool for writing. Sidenote: it can be used to save someone’s life or to end someone’s life, so there’s that. Maybe I’m taking this too far? Or maybe not. I believe it’s worth recognizing the pure necessity of marijuana for the Hazadbe tribe and how, cross-cultures, tools can be used for many different purposes that one may have never considered.