musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Sunday, November 8, 2009

November 8 - Stone Town

Just before leaving for Africa, I found out that our Kenya Airways flight from Mombasa to Zanzibar was canceled. Naturally this happened while on Skype with my mom, so she undoubtedly worried the entire time we were there. Instead of re-routing us through Nairobi on the same day, someone had thought it would be a good idea to book us two days later, apparently assuming that having a direct flight was more important than arriving on the originally-planned day. Well, we all know what happens when you ass-u-me...

In any case, we were able to re-route through Nairobi and we arrived in Stone Town, Zanzibar's only 'city' about four hours later than we should have. Zanzibar is a tropical archipelago off the coast of Tanzania. Although technically part of Tanzania, Zanzibar boasts relative autonomy and a mostly independent economy based on tourism, fishing and... well... tourism.

We dropped our things at the basic but clean Hotel Kiponda and promptly got lost in the windy and unmarked streets. We should've turned right when leaving the hotel, but luckily for us, even to the left Stone Town is a small and, during the day at least, safe place. It wasn't long before we were on the right track and thanking our lucky stars that we hadn't taken the ferry from Dar es Salaam. The port was a muddy madhouse and would've been a nightmare with our bags.

First stop on the Lonely Planet-inspired walking tour of Stone Town was the Forodhani Gardens in the shadow of the old fort and adjacent House of Wonders - basically Stone Town's two main historical attractions (unless you're a Queen fan and want to make a pilgrimage to Freddy Mercury's house). The Gardens had been recently redone and had obviously become the gathering spot for tourists and Zanzibarians alike. The Aga Khan Foundation had contributed heavily to the renovation.

I first heard of the Aga Khan from a nice man visiting Iraq who had done some work for his foundation in the past. Super rich and not lacking in the ego department, the Aga Khan owns (among other things) the Serena hotels in which we stayed on safari and spends much of his time gallivanting around the not-always-Islamic world.  A lover of all things Muslim - not to mention greatly revered in the Islamic world for his 'enlightenment' and no doubt check book - his foundation spends millions of dollars every year renovating buildings and other things of import to Islam around the world. Thus the work in predominately Muslim Mombasa; and thus his focus on Zanzibar.

Neither Lauren nor I had realized it before arriving, but Zanzibar is an almost 100% Muslim island. Almost all women covered themselves and tourists are even advised to dress conservatively in the urban areas (i.e. anywhere not near the beach). Not really a problem for us, just an interesting culture clash: think Bob Marley meets the Aga Khan.

Next stop was the old fort. For some reason, if there is an old fort somewhere, I want to see it. Stone Town's was a bit weak on the history side - no one offered it up and I was too lazy to look at the guidebook - but had been converted into an overpriced restaurant and a series of trinkety shops selling the traditional African knickknacks.  The only time we stopped was to admire (and consequently purchase) some island jewelry. We discussed maybe attending the reggae concert inside the walls that evening then, when the time came, conveniently forgot all about that conversation.

By far the most interesting stop on our mini-tour was the Beit el-Ajaib, or House of Wonders. Despite the cheesy name (and possible bad translation), this was not a ride at Disneyland or a haunted house at the state fair; although the house - built in the late 19th century - could've easily been haunted. It just had that feel. In essence it was a museum giving visitors small glimpses into the history of the Zanzibar Archipelago.

Quite influential in the Indian Ocean trading scene back in the day, Zanzibar can trace its history to the first millennium after Christ and has seen Arabs, Persians, Omanis, and Portuguese rulers (among others) over the years. As mentioned before, Islamic (I hesitate to use the word Arab since it was quite different than traditional Arab culture - Africans, it seems, always take outside concepts and make them uniquely their own) culture survived and that is what one sees.

Wandering through the mansion's four floors and countless rooms, we stopped occasionally to look at exhibits like most humans do in a museum, although two points stuck out for me. The first was a journal written by members of the Sultan of Zanzibar's voyage to Washington, DC in the late 19th century. The journal was flanked by several fascinating black and white prints of the arrival in Georgetown harbor.

The second was an exhibition on a Zanzibari princess, Salme, who had escaped her life as a member of the royal court (including living in the House of Wonders) to live in Germany. There she married a German, had several children, and became the first teacher of Swahili in Europe having secretly taught herself to read and write while in Stone Town. Zanzibari Swahili is generally accepted as being a very pure form of the East African language. Never allowed to return to her native Zanzibar in her later years after willingly 'disowning' it by leaving, it was a positive sign that she was being revered in her native land as a figure for young women to look up to.

The 360 degree upper patio of the elaborately decorated, and entirely wooden, palace was a welcome relief from the stuffy museum rooms. The breeze, combined with a wonderful afternoon view of the old fort, Forodhani Gardens and the ocean, created an atmosphere that was tough to leave. Finally we did and, after another stroll through the Garden and a lovely rooftop dinner (complete with the clumsiest waiter in history), we called it a night.