Stone Town

Zanzibar, Tanzania

At the bus stop in Nungwi I hop onto a waiting dalla dalla, the surprisingly comfortable local minibus. I'm the first person on board and they are changing a tyre. I can see I'll be sitting here for a while.

 

In the end it's less than 10 minutes, but one minute down the road we stop again, waiting for more passengers. This process repeats several times. I'm grateful there is a one person per seat policy, not 10 people jammed into a row meant for four. That doesn't mean that the aisles can't be crammed, and they are, with adults, children and squawking chickens. I guess there's a point where we are deemed full, and we start speeding down the highway.

 

In the entire the trip takes only 10 minutes longer than the taxi ride took to reach Nungwi, but costs just 4% of the price (even though I'm sure I am overcharged, given the way the attendant laughs at me when I pay the price he pulled out of the air). I fight the taxi and accommodation offers and walk 15 minutes along the congested, hectic main road to my hotel, an old-fashioned but calm oasis on a quiet street. Once again I am the only guest staying here and the Wi-Fi isn't connected. It is coming, the receptionist promises me.

 

A miscommunication and a faulty A/C sees me change rooms three times, and I end up on the highest floor with only stair access. I just dump my bags and hit the streets, in search of lunch.


Stone Town is beautiful. The old section is full of twisting laneways, white cement buildings, Arabic/Islamic architecture and little traffic. Hotels and souvenir stores dominate the streets, but the majority of eateries are closed. I'm gutted that the pub, the wine bar and the restaurant offering falafel are all shut, and I have to settle for a waterfront bar offering samosas. I love samosas but I've seen plenty of them in the last three weeks and I'm craving something different. They are served with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, two condiments I have never paired with samosas before (and for good reason, it turns out).

The weather is wet and windy, forcing me to shelter way back from the ocean views. At least their drinks fridge is fully stocked. My first drink is a local cocktail, and once that has disappeared I order a glass of wine. I'm offered a glass from the bottle or the box. Definitely the bottle, please. I don't know what the price difference is but I'm willing to pay more for the bottle.

 

Once the rain eases, I spend the rest of the day wandering around the old town. I pass roughly 20 souvenir stores that are all open, every single one selling the same prints, magnets and wooden sculptures. Touts line the streets, and it is impossible to walk for more than a minute or two without being offered some unwanted product or service. I check out a couple of restaurants that are open, offering non-African non-Indian cuisine, but they are remarkably expensive and offer little for vegan eaters.

 

For dinner I dine at a completely vegetarian Indian restaurant, where I am the only customer but I have multiple reasonably-priced options. I choose the spicy curry with roti, asking for extra chilli that unfortunately isn't delivered. The taste is fantastic regardless. They do, however, deliver on their wine, pouring me a glass that's full to the brim and costing less than half the price of any other bar I passed by today.

 

The receptionist at the hotel is a kind, nervous man, whose command of English is good but not great. I had paid for the room earlier in the day, and we agreed that he would give me my change later. When I return after dinner, he announces to me,  "I have your remains". I try hard not to laugh. If you have my remains, you can keep them, I think to myself.

Good sleep, bad shower, the way it seems to go in Tanzania. This time the water pressure is acceptable but the temperature is far below tolerable (the opposite problem to Nungwi). I can't seem to win on the shower front. Over the course of the last month I've had a total of three satisfactory showers. It's one thing I won't miss when I leave.

 

Breakfast is provided on the rooftop terrace, overlooking the neighbouring houses. While I'm eating the cook tells me that today is a major Muslim holiday, eid al adar. Given that the vast majority of the population on Zanzibar are Muslim, I don't like my chances that there will be much open around town.

 

I head off in search of a minimart, on the non-touristy side of the highway. I find one, but of course it's closed, as is almost everything else. Locals dressed in colourful garments mob the streets in this part of town, clearly enjoying the festival and the day off work.

 

With not much to do I return to the strangely deserted old town, taking photos while there are relatively few people (and touts) around. The market is the busiest area of town, and I try to move through here quickly to avoid the hard sell. All I see are fruits and vegetables on display, nothing that entices me in. Once I leave I become lost in the twisting laneways, happily exploring new places until it's an acceptable time to start drinking.

Around lunchtime I discover that the wine bar is open today, so I take a peek at their menu. I am disheartened to find expensive food and only two sub-par wines available by the glass (one being Chilean - I am not paying high prices for Chilean wine). With not many other options available I return to the waterfront bar I visited yesterday, ordering reasonably-priced vegetable soup and wine (from the bottle). 

 

Much of the afternoon is spent here, making my way through their drinks list and munching on fries. I try to ignore the large crowd of locals that have gathered and are drowning out the sound of the waves. It has turned into a beautiful day weather-wise, I just wish the atmosphere was more peaceful.

Several drinks later I stumble back to the hotel, mainly for the bathroom, Wi-Fi and water. I watch a little TV but become bored quickly, so I leave again. The town is much livelier late afternoon, although not much more is open. I purposely try to become lost in the warren of narrow streets, going in directions I know I haven't been, but I quickly pop out at familiar places. My travels eventually take me to Forodhani Gardens, which earlier was a dead zone but now is packed. Food stalls have been set up, selling Zanzibar pizza (with all manor of sweet and savoury toppings), an assortment of meat and seafood on skewers, fries, and sugar cane juice. Stall owners try to lure me in, but there is nothing that tempts me.

 

Another wander through the maze takes me back towards my accommodation, where I walk by an Ethiopian restaurant. I decide to give it a go, hoping it will be different to the abundance of Tanzanian stews and Indian curries that I've consumed in the last few weeks. Surprisingly, the menu has a large vegetarian section, and I randomly choose a spicy lentil stew. It's also happy hour, and I happily indulge. 

 

My waiter walks over to my table with a large basin and silver jug, and asks me to wash my hands. He pours liquid soap into my palms then, over the basin, I rinse off the soap using the water he pours from the jug. A towel is provided to dry off my hands. I've never experienced such a hygienic ritual at a dining table in a restaurant before.

 

Dinner is huge. A large, round plate, bigger than the largest pizza size at the local takeaway joint, arrives at my table. It is filled with a rice-based injera (pancake-like flatbread), a few grilled vegetables, and a bowl of the lentil stew. The waiter theatrically pours the stew into the middle of the injera and tells me to enjoy. After he leaves I realise there's no cutlery and I'm expected to eat this with my hands. The hand-washing procedure suddenly makes sense.

 

In a word: amazing. The lentils are one of the best dishes I've tasted since I've been in Tanzania, and the injera is a perfect scooper for the stew. I devour the entire thing, although I'm sure it's meant for two (or more), and my stomach expands exponentially. The hand-washing routine is conveniently repeated after eating. Now I'm keen to travel to Ethiopia to see what other culinary delights they have to offer.

The day starts with my fourth decent shower in a month. I've had roughly 20 cold, trickling or bucket showers, but today I'm treated to heat, water pressure and a wide shower head. (I've had a few non-shower days too, which were mildly better than the terrible showers). While chatting to Danny on the phone, he asks me what I am looking forward to about coming home. I immediately respond "our shower". I probably should have said, "seeing you, of course", but 'shower' was the first thing that popped into my head.

 

Breakfast is a huge spread, twice the size of yesterday's. Toast, chapati, curried beans, fruit salad (with cucumber - weird), grilled tomato, spinach, and fresh mixed-fruit juice. One thing I am not looking forward to back home: cooking my own meals again.

 

For the millionth time I walk through Stone Town, down yet more lanes I haven't explored yet. I see nothing new other than a few charming but crumbling buildings in-between the numerous date stalls, orange carts and cashew sellers. The touts are as infuriating as ever. The one thing I hate when I travel, more than mosquitoes, weather extremes and being ripped off with exchange rates, is touts. Don't tell me to smile, don't call me beautiful lady, don't follow me down the street trying to make conversation. I just want to walk in peace - is that too much to ask?

 

My plan for lunch was to order a thali from the vegetarian restaurant I visited the first day here, but the fond memories of the Ethiopian dinner last night are fresh in my mind. I can't resist another injera, and this time I order one topped with a red lentil stew that has an uncanny resemblance to curried sausages. Again, it is outstanding. Again, I leave with an overly distended stomach.

 

A convoluted walk brings me back to my favourite waterside bar, whiling away the hours until my plane leaves. I make my way through a couple of drinks, plus a plate of complimentary peanuts (although I am not at all hungry after my massive lunch). Children scream and splash in the miniscule beach below the bar's balcony, enjoying an afternoon respite from the blazing heat. I will miss the seaside location, the lack of responsibility, having no pressure to do anything or be anywhere. But it's time to head home, to endure a two-week isolation before entering the real world once again.

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© 2017 Kim Matthews. All Rights Reserved

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