After a few days in Dar Es Salaam we were ready to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. Our next stop would be an escape to Zanzibar Island, the birthplace of Freddy Mercury. The trip is normally a two hour ferry ride from the coast of Tanzania. Elias again over extended his hospitality to us by offering the three of us travelers (us and Chris) a ride to the ferry with our big bags. This was both a time and money saver for us which we were extremely grateful for, as it would have been an absolute nightmare to try to take the local minibuses two hours into town with our bags, and rather pricey to take a taxi. Elias and his family had definitely gone above and beyond in many ways and we couldn’t be more thankful.
Once we arrived at the ferry terminal we soon discovered the 12pm ferry (which was half the price of the others) was not running that day because of technical issues with the boat. This left us now as an open target for the many touts that tried to pull us into their specific offices for tickets where they would factor in a ‘finders fee’ for themselves in the price we would pay for the ferry. While Ben and Chris followed one man into a small office, Amanda called our long lost Argentinian friend Alejandro (who was also supposed to take the 12pm ferry) to see what his current plan was. She then tried to chase down the guys in order to bring them to Alejandro. Instead what she ran into was the biggest surprise of the trip for her so far. Her former co-worker and good friend James was standing right next to them – apparently he was on his way to Zanzibar as well. It was probably one of the last people she would have ever expected to run into in Africa. Eventually after some bargaining the four of us now boarded the ferry, and entered the first class area – as we were not allowed to buy the normal price ticket as mzungus – which ended up being the same one Alejandro was on as well. As a group of five we sailed across the small stretch of Indian ocean to the island – with absolutely no plans, expectations, and ready for an awesome week ahead of us.
After de-boarding the ferry and going through customs… again (we really never understood why we had to do this since it was still Tanzania and even the paperwork we filled in said Tanzania), we escaped the madness of the ferry port and chilled in Forodhani Gardens. We were told that this park was ‘the place to be’ at night and also the location of one of the well known Stonestown food markets. From this point Alejandro departed us for the other side of the island and we headed into the heart of the town to find a place to stay for the night. After looking at a couple of places we ended up at Manch Lodge. This space was a pretty chill open area and actually had wifi (even if it was slow) which was a huge bonus. Together as four we had a nice cozy room that came with breakfast the next morning. Our lodge was located next to Jaws Corner, which was always bustling with locals playing a domino like game and drinking fresh cups of coffee or tea served out of pots on the street. It was supposedly the best coffee spot on the island – right in our backyard.
That evening we strolled through the small streets that in many ways reminded us of the allies in souks in the Middle East. Primarily in the sense of them being narrow and a complete maze. This was somewhat fitting since the island of Zanzibar is 99% Muslim. It is thought that Zanzibar was used as a stopping point for Persians working in trade between India, Asia, and Africa prior to the 1700’s, which accounts for much of its Arabic influence.
Eventually we found ourselves at the Darajani Market. This market is known for their fresh fruits and fish that are sold almost all day long. While browsing we spotted some fresh off the boat Parrot Fish for sale. We also managed to pick up some fresh mangos and avocados from local vendors. As soon as the sun began to set the street food vendors began to emerge. Curious, we did some street food hopping. The items available here in Zanzibar were surprisingly mostly different from those you would find on the mainland in Tanzania. That night we learned what a Zanzibar Pizza was and also sampled smoked octopus tentacles, and a variety of breads including Mkate wa Mofa, Mkate wa Ufuta (sesame bread), Mkate wa Chila (rice bread), and a coconut pancake bread.
Later in the week we explored more of the town admiring the colorful and unique architecture of the buildings and grubbing down of fresh fruits mixed with street food. We did find ourselves at the nightly Forodhani Food Market a couple times as well. The prices were slightly more than those of other street food vendors in the allies, but you could still get a variety of foods here for less than $5 a plate. The highlight at this market was obviously the seafood. Tables would be filled with displays of fish and meat skewers, seafood skewers, different breads, seafood treats, and more. The only downside to visiting this market was you immediately became a target (along with the many other mzungu tourists) for the chefs and fishermen to try to lure you to their table of food. People such as Curious Chef and Fisherman George would follow you and talk your ear off all in hopes you would choose their table to eat your dinner from. We learned to be straightforward (and this didn’t even help sometimes) with the creatively named food touts that swarmed around you like bees around a honey hive, as well as the more relentless crafts and CD sellers. Amanda discovered a coconut and fish soup here that became her favorite food item to get at night.
Other attractions in Stonestown included the museum about slavery – the slave trade industry was the third largest source of income on the island before it was outlawed under British rule. While we didn’t officially really go through the museum, we did enjoy learning a bit more this interesting part of history associated with the island.
On day two we were easily suckered into a $15 day trip which included a Spice Tour, trip to the beach, and local lunch. A spice tour is probably the top tourist activities on the island of Zanzibar. The Zanzibar Islands are often referred to as the ‘spice islands’ as they produce large amounts of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper (although some islands in Indonesia are also referred to as spice islands). The tour through the plantation was almost two hours and included a guide leading us through a sample spice plantation (with the many different spices grown on the island all in one area) and telling us about all the uses and cool facts of the plants. It was more interesting than we had expected to see some of these exotic plants. There are so many spices that we have used all our lives in powdered or flaked form, that we had no idea what the tree, plant or seed looks like as a whole. Perhaps our favorite was nutmeg, which we never could have guessed from its external appearance.
While learning about plants we were accompanied by other locals who tried to decorate us with woven bracelets, neckties, and other adornments. We both politely declined more than one try to put these items on us, knowing tips would be requested at the end. But the local kids were fun to talk to and at one part of the tour where we were shown ‘natural lipstick’ dove right into the orange dye of the seeds painting their faces with us.
After finishing the spice part of the tour, we went to a nearby village to have a locally cooked meal. Our tour group sat down together and had a tasty rice and veggie dish prepared for us with the spices we had just seen on the tour.
Beautiful Beaches on the West Coast
Our first beach time experience in Zanzibar was along the west coast of the island just north of the Coral Shores Slave Caves. We were taken here for an afternoon of swimming after our spice tour. First we had a quick stop over at the cave which we learned was used to hide slaves after the British had outlawed the ownership of slaves. As many other things that were outlawed in our history, this didn’t stop the market for theses items – slavery could be included on this list. So these caves became the underground market for slavery, where they would be held in these caves, hidden away, before being shipped off for sale.
After this quick little history lesson we made it to the secluded beach. Believe it or not, this was our first dip in the Indian Ocean! The beach was attached to a high-end resort, but you didn’t need to be a guest to enter. So we enjoyed the luxurious beach and scenery by swimming out, finding neat shells, and discovering random clothes and fishing baskets that had been washed up on shore. The tour guys knew what they were doing – one couldn’t go to this beach and not enjoy themselves. James, Chris and Ben had placed an order for some beers from a local back near the slave caves, and he pedaled over and delivered them while we were at the beach. Finding alcohol for sale on the island was much harder than on the mainland, so when they had the chance for a local to buy beers for them they decided take full advantage of it. Did we mention that Zanzibar is 96% Muslim? But the best surprise of the beach was encountering the monkeys of Zanzibar for the first time. The monkeys were having a blast on some of the locals’ cars when we arrived, and when we introduced a GoPro camera to the scene, they definitely had to check it out:
Our small time spent on this beach wetted our apatite for more beach and ocean time. While we were loving Stonestown, it would soon be time to move on and see the other side of the island.
After two nights in Stonestown, we decided to make our way over to the eastern side of the island to chill and check out the beaches. We decided to go to Paje, which was recommended to us as an affordable and nice part of the island on the east side. The day of our departure during breakfast it started raining hard, and did not let up for the next couple hours. So while we had been eager to try commuting the local way via daladala, we eventually opted to get a taxi rather than take the daladala adventure in the rain. We stopped on the way and grabbed a couple bucks at the ATM for the driver and the first night, and off we went.
Crossing to the other side of the island you go through a mini-jungle, and it was here that the rain stopped. After this, when we arrived in Paje, it was all sunny skies! Paje is a small town by any standards, but because of the great beaches here, it is a destination, and the beach is lined with lodging places of all tiers. Our driver dropped us off at Original Teddy’s Place as per our request, and after some negotiating, we got a place for $12 per person. Once that was out of the way, we were able to emerge ourselves in our new reality for the next few days. The backpacker’s haven had a Caribbean feel to it, with the four of us sharing a small chalet. There were several chill-out spots, a bar, and even a couple hammocks about 10-15 feet up in a tree, with views of the white-sand beaches.
Original Teddy’s and New Teddy’s (right next door) are both located 100m back from the beach, with a typical Zanzibar fortress wall around it. The two lodge/hostels are actually almost mirror images of each other. Apparently in the last couple years the co-founders had a disagreement and the German founder opted to build a competing lodge that looks the same, has the same name, and same logo – right next door. It was actually quite hilarious finding this all out. There were also rumors that one was really expensive and the other was for budget-backpackers’ , but we found out they were the exact same prices as well.
The town of Paje was pretty small with mostly stands selling veggies and fruits along with a few ‘restaurants’ (more like street food spots) and a couple ‘businesses’ (such as a small car repair spot). We soon learned that the only ATMs on the island were in Stonestown. This was a shocker to us and we were surprised no body had mentioned it before. We were lucky that uncle James was like a walking ATM and we could take a loan from the James Bank for the next couple days. Otherwise our Paje stay would have been cut short. We ended up spending a few days at Original Teddy’s. The atmosphere there could not be beat, the views were amazing, and we were comfortable in our little personal beach chalet. In the evenings we played cards and enjoyed $4 hookahs. We would make connections with other fellow travelers and shared laughs, drinks, and pineapple with newfound friends. The days were filled with watching sunrises, walking down the long stretch of white sandy beaches, swimming in the warm waters when the tides were in, and generally relaxing. We all managed to wake up for the sunrise one morning as well and Amanda took full advantage of this time to brush up on her yoga.
Since food in town was 1/10th the cost of any food associated with the lodges and actual restaurants we ate all our big meals from the local ‘restaurants’ set up on the streets in town. At night there was one particular spot that we became fond of. It would set up tables full of different kinds of fish, squids, meats, breads, salads, and chips. You then could choose exactly what you wanted on your plate and would be charged based on what you took and how much. We both stuffed our faces the first night with the tasty seafood and sides for only $5 each person (which was probably the most you would end up spending on street food).
Besides the evenings when some of the locals would buy food staples form the stands and children would play soccer, or the nights when tourists and locals alike would come eat tasty street food treats, the town itself didn’t have much going on. It was a quite and simple place of beauty which lended it the perfect spot to relax and start to really feel the vibe of traveling as a mini-group.
Sea Urchins and Tides in the Indian Ocean
One of the things that attracted us to Paje was the incredibly long tides that stretched along the beaches in this area. The water deepens very slowly, so when the tide is all the way out, one has to walk over two kilometers to get to the breakers. … When the tide is in, the beaches are breathtaking in a whole other way. The shallowness of the water makes for light-blue waves arriving on white sand beaches, just footsteps from the lodges. Fishing boats and small catamarans float just off shore. These same boats are also hopelessly beached for half the day when the tide goes out.
For one of our afternoon adventures Amanda wanted to wander into the deep ‘playa’ – literally that is what it was. The long stretch of sand left from the low tide was a site that was unmatched to anything else we had ever seen. The water flowing both outward and inward left patterns of tiny streams and pools of water in various areas as you got further out. Children would run across the streaches of sand toward the pools playing. Women would be gathering seaweed in buckets from areas that were more rocky. The scene was simple and beautiful. Walking and laying on the sands in these foreign low tide lands brought complete feelings of bliss.
During our trek this one particular day Amanda come armed with a plastic bag to collect sea urchins. With memories of catching sea urchins and eating them during time in the Greek Islands, she had plans to share the delightful taste of sea urchin with everyone else that evening. So with nothing but a plastic bag, flip flops, and our trusty GoPro we set out on our sea urchin hunt. We walked out for about 45 minutes, checking out the sea urchins, collecting some as we went by dislodging them with our room key, and admiring the starfish we found in the process.
When we were about 600m still from the wave break, and perhaps a full kilometer from land, Ben’s flipflop betrayed him under water, and he fell in the shin-deep water (at this point the tide had slowly began to come in), stepping on a sea urchin in the process, and putting his hand in another. Ben can tell you from experience that this is the fastest way to to stop any fun from being had. While sitting on his butt in the water, Amanda helped him pull the spikes out of his hand, foot and sandal. At this point, Ben was about through with the adventure, but the adventure wasn’t through with us. We started heading back now slowly, as it was painful for Ben to walk. We were also trying to be extra casious about stepping on any more sea urchin landmines (which there were loads of) now that the water was deeper and they were harder to spot underwater. The tide comes in very quickly on this beach, however, and as we walked toward the shore the water never got any more shallow, in fact the tide caught up to us. A fishing boat motored up to us and asked us if we wanted a ride back to the shore, that it was dangerous, but unsure about jumping in the boat and knowing we could swim we said we were fine. In retrospect, turning down that ride wasn’t the smartest idea. We were about halfway back when the water was up to our chests, and we knew we would have to swim.
We started swimming, but it wasn’t as easy as Ben was hurt and Amanda was carrying a plastic bag of sharp spikes – one that was thoroughly weighed down by the water that filled it. Ben at times had to calm Amanda down, reassuring here we really were getting closer to shore and we wouldn’t drown (especially if she would drop that god damn anchor of a bag full of sea urchins). Finally we did make it back – being greeted by Chris and James as we approached shore. For what was intended to be a quick trip to the edge of the water, we ended up having quite an adventure. Amanda had also managed to kick the bag of urchins while swimming and get a spike lodged in the top of her foot as well. And with all the work of carrying the sea urchins back – she never could quite figure out how to crack them the right way so the crushed spikes wouldn’t get in the inner goop. So our sea urchin feast was a bust, but being able to tell the story of collecting them and dragging them to shore while surviving the incoming tides will be something we have forever.
After a week on the island we were ready to head back to the mainland to continue our journey southward. The relaxing pace of the island and the amazing food had been refreshing and just what we needed before our long journey cross-country Tanzania.
Check out the beauty of Zanzibar with more photos HERE .
**We want to thank our good friend Chris Pitcher, who journeyed with us through parts of Africa, for his video of the monkey and photos he shared with us. Check out his inspiring travel photos at www.thepritilife.com **