Zanzibar pizza, scuba diving, killer ants, booze cruises and other bits of Tanzania

After spending the night on a campground in the middle of nowhere outside Dar Es Salam, we departed early to catch a ferry to Zanzibar. There was no chance to visit the city, apart from a brief stop in a shopping centre.

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Dar Es Salam, like the other regional capitals of Kampala and Nairobi, is an abomination created by the God of Traffic. Traffic isn’t just slow; it will completely stop for 5, 10 or 15 minutes, about every 20 minutes. It is much easier to kill a charging rhinoceros with a spoon than to drive 2 km downtown in under an hour.

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While the exhaust fumes of catalytic converter free trucks will likely kill 1% of your brain cells every day, the positive thing is that cigarettes in Tanzania are perfectly safe, as you can tell by the complete lack of warning label. I was very tempted to start smoking, but soon realized I would run out of safe Tanzanian cigarettes and be forced to smoke the dangerous ones produced in the developed world. I erred on the side of prudence.

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A very comfortable ferry took us from the traffic jam to the Island of Zanzibar, about 2 hours away. It has significant regional autonomy from the rest of Tanzania, as one has to go through immigration to get there. Apparently some locals would like the island to gain independence, but the idea is not very popular. The possible impact of instability on tourism and the fact that all the army and police on the island come from the mainland make the prospect of a rebellion pretty gloom. Please take this with a grain of salt, as the depth of my research on Zanzibar politics is briefly talking about it over a beer with a single local.

As you can tell from the mosque, Zanzibar is predominantly muslim. It made the news the week before we arrived when two young female British volunteers had acid thrown on them. I was expecting to land in Afghanistan and dress code guidelines were provided for women by our guide. This was a bit of an exaggeration, as downtown Stonetown has enough Italian tourists with 6 inch long skirts to allow any normal casually dressed western woman with bare knees and shoulders to go completely unnoticed. I know nothing of the acid incident, but obviously it was not some random affair. In all likelihood, one of the girls either had sex with, or refused to have sex with, some local guy. After all, the main focus of most religions is on which women can have sex, or not, with whom and when.

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Internet after days without internet = this scene. I took only one picture because I needed my iPhone to go online.

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We had very little time in Stonetown and having been quite sick the day before, I used my one afternoon there for a shopping spree at the pharmacy and a nap, so not much Zanzibar culture for me. However, I did snap this incredibly memorable moment: Chris, myself, Katja and Melanie riding in Zanzibar’s only elevator. A truly memorable event! It took us to a nice roof top bar from which I snapped the minaret picture. The bar was a nice place to watch the sunset and featured a live band, which sounded a lot like elevator music, just less exciting.

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A great feature of Zanzibar is the daily night food market, visited by hordes of tourists and locals alike. Lit by naphtha lamps and powered by gas stoves, the market offers all manners of grilled fish, meat, octopus, kebabs, cakes and hand-pressed cane juice.

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My most interesting find was the famous Zanzibar pizza, which looks like anything but a pizza. A very thin layer of dough is spread into an 8 inch disk, and a smaller pre-cooked disk is placed in the centre for structure. On the one I ordered, the cook placed a pile of finely chopped onion, some tomato and herbs, flaked white fish and… an egg! The dough is then folded a bit along the edges and the whole thing is thrown on a hot plate. Once grilled on both sides, which takes a while (fast food in Africa means under half an hour), the thing looks like a big potato pancake and gets cut in little squares, then is served with cole slaw. It was unlike anything I had ever had, and was quite good. Most of the pizza counters offer a menu of savoury “pizzas” (minced beef, fish, octopus, etc) and another menu of sweet ones, with bananas, Nutella and the like. I didn’t try those.

On our second visit to the night market, we were offered a pamphlet promoting a big reggae party. We actually went and were welcomed by a clueless security guard. Granted, we showed up at opening time. After a few minutes, a guy speaking like a rasta caricature showed up and told us the party was booming and we should pay the cover charge and go in.

– Can we just go in to take a look first?

– [Long silence]… No.

I wish the scene had been filmed. It was so ridiculous we were all cracking up. Eventually, he agreed to let one girl in to check it out. That was obviously not happening, so we countered with both girls going in. He said that they would then have to pay half of one cover charge to take a look! After much laughter, we left and, incredibly, once back at the hotel, decided to go back and all pay the $3 cover. Eventually, the party picked up and we saw a crowd of about 15 local guys dancing with each other and playing pool. It is hard to describe how lame it was; I really regret not taking my camera. Eventually, 2 white women showed up, one normal looking one with a local boyfriend, and one dressed in a hijab, who sat alone at the bar, drinking nothing. It was the strangest scene I had witnessed in a while. None of our people watching speculation could explain it. I laughed so much discussing with Katja what the German word would be for a “sausage party”!

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The next day, we traveled to a northern Zanzibar resort, stopping on the way to visit a “spice farm”, which by the scale of it is probably not really a production farm, but rather a sort of spice botanical garden for tourists, which in no way means that it was not interesting. While the “farm” may not have been real, the ants were!

Listen to the voice of the local guy when he saw me filming the ants from up close “Danger!”, he said. If these things swarm you, you are in big trouble. One of the guys had a big one bite his sandal. He had to grab it between his thumb and finger and pull hard to dislodge the head from the rubber sole. They are called Siafu Ants, or Army Ants, and can travel in colonies of up to 20 million individuals. Here’s a crazy story from Wikipedia: “Such is the strength of the ant’s jaws that, in East Africa, they are used as natural, emergency sutures. Various East African indigenous tribal peoples (e.g. Maasi, moran), when suffering from a gash in the bush, will use the soldiers to stitch the wound by getting the ants to bite on both sides of the gash, then breaking off the body. This use of ants as makeshift surgical staples creates a seal that can hold for days at a time, and the procedure can be repeated, if necessary, allowing natural healing to commence.”

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The fun thing about the farm is how you get to see so many spices you are familiar with, in their original form. The pit of this fruit is nutmeg.

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Pepper.

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Photo: Katja Friedrich

And this being a tourist place, some guy climbs up a tall tree for tips and they give you silly hats and traditional face paint for the ladies. I’m a good sport with these ridiculous things, really.

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Katja totally pulled the jungle look!

At the North Beach resort, I went diving with my friend Chris and produced my first ever diving video. Honestly, that is why I bought the GoPro camera. They cost $200-400, depending on the model, while a diving housing for my DSLR costs $2,000. An easy choice. Unfortunately, the dive itself was quite boring, but here’s my best shot at a diving video anyways.

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Photo: Katja Friedrich

The resort was a nice place, although it’s certainly not worth travelling to Africa for it. The food is bad and expensive, and the service is horrible. The Indian owners are so afraid of being robbed by their own employees that they have a complex billing system involving triplicate bills and several people. Expect to wait 30 mins to get a drink and pay for it. Depending on where you live, go to Miami Beach or Barcelona, it will be nicer and cheaper. But, in the middle of a long road trip, it was a welcomed break. Our main guide, Vernon, organized a sunset cruise with local guys. As far as I know, this was not part of the program but his own initiative. It was the best part of that stop by far. The thing cost about $30, but included an open bar. I made sure to get a good deal out of it. It started calmly, as this picture suggests.

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Photo: Katja Friedrich

There was a big crew, including a drum band!

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Photo: Anna Sønderland

Then things went downhill fast, and any events after sunset are quite blurry. This was my biggest night of drinking since the $1.50 litre of rum in Myanmar.

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Photo: Anna Sønderland

According to my friend’s pictures, when things got boring, we could count on 19 year old Swiss girls to lift up the mood. And that was that. There was a weird show of acrobatics on the beach, followed by a fish BBQ (or preceded by?), and then I woke up past check-out time. Oh well; nobody got hurt, although someone did sleep on a balcony (not me).

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We crossed back over to the mainland and, driving around the Baobab Valley, I discovered that being a tree-huger is a little harder in East Africa than in North America. The baobab, which can grow to a ridiculous size, is called the tree of life by the locals, apparently because one can live his whole life and see a mature tree pretty much remain the same from one’s childhood to one’s elder years.

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The most depressing part of the drive through Tanzania was seeing the questionable decisions of their own government. The decision was made to enlarge a highway (a two lane thing which may one day become four lanes, thus allowing cargo vehicles and cars to more easily pass slow moving vehicles, such as G Adventure’s Indian-built overland trucks). The arbitrary decision was that anything 30 m on either side of the existing highway would have to be demolished. In many villages, this means most of the houses, as people naturally built close to the road, if they could. In places where structures exist only on one side of the road, no exception is made; the expansion won’t go the side of an empty field, they will demolish all the houses, restaurants and shops on one side and expand equally in both directions. Another ridiculous thing is that few people build houses 5 meters from the road. There is no way 30 m on each side is needed to add two 3 m lanes. Putting the limit at 25 m would have resulted in a massive reduction in the number of structures which had to be demolished, as you can see on this picture of a house about 1.5 m too close. And then we crossed into Malawi…

#Tanzania

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