Zanzibar: it makes me want to break into song and scroll endlessly through google images of perfect white sand beaches disappearing into an aqua blue ocean. It also makes me want to buy a plane ticket, which I did, and fly to a sleepy island of reggae loving Muslims and spicy food. This is what a week in Zanzibar looks like.
Get vaccinated, sleep at the airport
We flew from Nairobi, Kenya after going on safari in the Masaai Mara. Our flight landed shortly after midnight and was greeted by boarder patrol asking for yellow fever documentation. My choice to get vaccinated, despite the slightly confusing information on embassy websites, was a good call. A vaccination clinic at the airport looms in the distance threatening anybody without a little yellow book.
Sleeping at the airport wasn’t a problem, in fact it was enjoyable. Exit the airport, wave on taxi drivers, act like your going to a 5-star hotel, head up towards the parking lot and turn right. There are a couple open areas covered by tin-roofs. The rain hitting this at night will put you right to sleep. We weren’t alone, there was another local man and maybe another solo traveler. A man sweeping and singing Bob Marley awoke us. He smiled, almost saying I hope you enjoyed your sleep.
Get lost in Stonetown and smile at people
We took a local dala dala from the airport into Stonetown. It’s a 15 minute ride and should cost about 300 TZS per person ($0.17). I forget which number it is, but just walk off the main zone of the airport and look for others gathering at something that resembles a bus station. Yes, it’s that easy. No, you really don’t need to pay a taxi $10 or $20 to take you around the block.
We got dropped at the main dala dala station on Creek road and proceeded to twist through the narrow streets and scope out the hotel scene. There are fancy hotels in Stonetown that were beyond our budget, but nice if you want to drop some cash. Hotel staff are friendly and if you ask them to recommend something more in your price range they will have someone walk you there. The hotel receiving you will usually pay a small commission for your business, but it should not hurt the price you negotiate. For $15 per person we got a nice double room, breakfast included.
People are friendly in Zanzibar. The women wear colorful dresses, children are playful and people really do hum Bob Marley a lot.
If there’s a line for food, get in it
Street food is where it’s at in Zanzibar. It’s called spice island for a reason. A man down a small alley grilling chicken was gathering quite a crew. Combined with the smell of lemon grass and an array of random boiling pots, we obliged. Patiently waiting at the edge of the grill, we nudged our way to the coveted spots as turners of the skewers. It made us feel special. The product of our wait was this incredible creation called urojo. Spicy broth over grilled chicken, with lemon grass, kachori (spicy potato) and badias (falafel-esque balls).
Take a spice tour and eat off the trees
Unsure if going on a spice tour was just a cheesy touristy stunt, we hesitated to add this to our itinerary. When we were able to arrange this through our hotel for a good price ($12 per person including transportation, guide and lunch) we decided to go for it, and we’re happy we did. A short drive north of Stonetown on the eastern side of the island we toured Kizimbani Spice Farm. Our guide pulled a number of spices and roots from the forrest and I demonstrated how terrible my sense of smell is. Cinnamon bark, cocoa bean, vanilla bean, curry, ginger, peppers. The forrest is overflowing with tastes.
Go north to Kendwa, but only pay 2,000 TZS
The island is small and easy enough to get around on by dala dala. The only scam to watch out for is when a whole group of people convince you that the price of the dala dala is more than it really is. This happened to us once on our first longer distance trip from Stonetown to Kendwa – and because I travel with a feisty Czech man who doesn’t tolerate being ripped off, even for dollar – this little incident landed us at the police station. The night ended with us 6,000 TZS short and the bus conductor without his cell phone (if you must know, my crazy Czech ripped the conductor’s phone from his hands when he refused to give us change and created a stand off until both parties agreed to go to the police station, at which point the ENTIRE bus off loaded to be part of a sing-song jury right out of a movie). All of this was followed by a long (silent) walk back to Kendwa village (they took us to Nungwi instead). After a few miles of walking we passed the same police station and asked the officer if we could use a phone. After all, we were now at least an hour late meeting our couchsurfing host.
Convinced he lived on a very dangerous island, the chief officer refused to let us walk the rest of the way even though we were 3/4 of the way there. His insistance in “protecting the foreigners” led us to jump in the back of his truck and get a ride to the top of the road. Perhaps the funniest part of walking along the road in the pure darkness of night was the reaction from locals when they realized we were foreigners.
Lesson learned? Don’t pay more than 2,000 TZS for a dala dala ride from Stonetown to anywhere, pay at the END OF YOUR RIDE ONLY (never in advance), and don’t rip off a Czech. They will make you pay. Even if that payment isn’t in the form of cash.
Couchsurf in Zanzibar if you can
At the top of the road, surrounded by curious locals awaited Antje, our amazing couchsurfing host. She and her boyfriend Philipp have an awesome project that has taken them across Eastern Europe, the Middle East and now Africa connecting local artists with buyers online. Their apartment was a short walk down a dirt road without house numbers. They opened their home to us without hesitation and we swapped adventures over joints and conyagi (local gin).
Philipp really believes in the value of a good breakfast and never let us leave the house without a feast. It’s these people I meet while traveling who invigorate my believe that the world will sustain itself on random acts of kindness.
Go for a boat ride and spy on Bill Gates
OK, so Bill probably wasn’t home, but we took a day-trip boat ride out to his private island. We checked up on his coral reef and ate coconut fish on the beach. For an all inclusive day we paid $17.50 per person. I think this is only the price for Czechs though, so come prepared. For every 5 feet of sand between Kendwa and Nungwi you will be asked by a local beach boy if you want to buy something. So think about what you want and have a price in your mind that you will be happy to pay. Negotiate everything. The Norwegians on our boat paid $40 per person and the Algerian paid $25.
Stare at the ocean and dream about dreams
There’s enough sand on Zanzibar to house all the sand crabs and give me infinite ways to build a sand castle. The lapping waves are therapy for all ailments and the color itself will make you believe mermaids.
Become friends with the wind and get time warped in Paje
I love Paje. This is perhaps my favorite place on the island. Stormy, mysterious, quite yet active, Paje is the place to go if you want to the ocean and the island to become a part of you. The wind kicks up in the afternoon creating ideal conditions for kitesurfers seeking the perfect gust. We strolled along the beach checking accommodation prices and settled on Ufukwe Bungalow ($15 per person/night). Clean room, nobody else there, breakfast included, friendly host and a cute cat named Jolly. What’s not to love?
Farm for seaweed and pray for Octopus
Seaweed farming in Paje was created through a micro finance system as a way to create jobs for the local women. The ocean currents and relentless tide create ideal conditions for seaweed farming. Two wooden stakes set opposite each other, about 10 feet, connected with rope act as the frame for the underwater gardens. Women tend to their patches and bring their collection in for bulk export sale.
Ondra got a little bit creepy out there with his binoculars, but it sure was spectacular.
Eat french fries covered in sweet sauce and hope for octopus
At the recommendation of Philip and Antje we stopped by Life Steppers, a community center in Paje created by a French expat named Remi. He brings a much needed sense of purpose to the children of the village and uses football, education, language, entertainment and work opportunities to create a community. The lovely octopus was cooked up by Captain Kitete.
Leave on the night ferry with a bag full of shells
So, I went a bit shell crazy in Paje. The shores are so plentiful it’s hard to stop yourself. Set a limit. If the shell is not different and perfect, leave it be.
We left Zanzibar for Dar es Salaam via the night ferry. The foreigners fee is set by the government at $20 per person. You have no other options and must buy the VIP ticket. This is a good option if you want to maximize your days (travel by night), save on the cost of accommodation (VIP room has long, comfy couches) and pay a lower fare (day ferry is $35, but only takes 90 minutes).
If there’s one thing I learned from Zanzibar, it’s that everything is going to be OK.