Zanzibar by candlelight

Monday, January 4, 2010

Zanzibar gets all its power through an undersea cable from mainland Tanzania. Wait, that’s not right – Zanzibar used to get all its power through an undersea cable from mainland Tanzania. On Dec. 10th, that cable broke. It had been guaranteed to last for 20 years and was, at the time it failed, 32 years old. Not surprisingly, there was no backup and no contingency plan in case of failure. And there’s no money for a replacement cable. As of Dec. 10th Zanzibar went dark, and it looks like it will be that way for some time.

It’s remarkable how well people are coping – certainly far better than we would in any western population centre of 1.25 million. There are a LOT of generators, though they’re usually only run for a few hours a day, and we heard that diesel to fuel them is becoming scarce. Thankfully, many of them are used to power coolers and refrigerators, so it’s still possible to get a somewhat cold drink. (Though strangely, in a land where the temperature regularly seems to approach that of the surface of the sun, coolers are generally kept much less cool than they are in the west. It’s just another thing that makes you shake your head and think, “… Africa…”) Our hotel ran its generator from 6pm to 9am every night, which meant we could sleep in relative comfort under a working ceiling fan, and not have to wear headlamps to the bathroom. Luxury indeed.

On our first night in Stone Town we all trooped down to the night market – an outdoor food fair set up in a nice park on the waterfront. We went as a group because we were told several times that it wasn’t safe to go out alone after dark – especially because the streets of Stone Town are a maze and there would (of course) be no working streetlights. No matter, because we’re a big group so the night market was great. There were dozens of tables set up with people hawking food falling into 3 main categories:

  1. Skewers of fish and seafood (tuna, kingfish, marlin, snapper, shrimp, scallops, mussels, lobster) with some side dishes like sweet potato and salad
  2. Freshly squeezed sugarcane juice
  3. Something called Zanizbar Pizza.

A fuzzy picture of one of the tables of seafood – they all had bright Coleman-style lanterns on them, which flummoxed the primitive camera on my cell phone.

There are touts/cooks affiliated with each table, and each tries to draw you in to his place. Once they suck you in, you get a paper plate and pick your skewers, which your man then puts on the grill to reheat. When that’s done he brings you your plate and you dig in. A skewer of seafood was 4,000 shillings (about $3.25) and one of fish was 1,000 (about 80 cents).(At least that was the price for 99.9% of the people in attendance. For Kerry and Bill – two of the Aussies in the group – it was 3,000 shillings for seafood. This is because Kerry is a champion at dickering. She can talk anyone down from anything. I strongly suspect that if it had been Kerry at the burning bush instead of Moses, we’d only have six commandments.) Laurie and I started with some fish skewers – she had scallops and I had one skewer of marlin and one of mussels. They were ok, but a bit dry, perhaps as a consequence of being cooked once and then reheated.

We also tried the sugarcane juice, which was quite tasty and not nearly as sweet as I’d expected. The best part was watching the guy feed the cane into the hand-cranked press. The press had one side that was sort of serrated – to break up the cane, and one side that was flat – to squeeze it. He’d feed a fresh two-foot long chunk of cane into the first side, then into the second, and then fold it in half lengthways and tuck a chunk of lime and a chunk of ginger into the fold. Then back into the press – left side, right side. Then fold again and press again. And again. When the piece got too short to fold lengthwise he’d fold it over sideways, because by then it was completely shredded. The juice ran down a metal pan into a little plastic pitcher with a chunk of ice in it (Ice! Hallelujah!), and after two chunks of cane the second guy at the stall would pull out the pitcher and strain the juice into glass and collect your 500 shillings. You had to bring the glass back when you were done because it was, well, glass.

But the highlight was certainly the Zanzibar pizza – an odd concoction that resembled pizza only in the sense that it was hot, circular, flat, and edible. There were sweet and savoury varieties – we tried both. The base was a paper-thin bit of dough stretched out from a ball about the size of a quarter onto which toppings were added. Savoury ones got a mirepoix kind of thing, plus chicken, cheese, mayonnaise and egg cracked and mixed in. Sweet ones got a smear of Nutella and then thin slices of banana or mango, and a second bit of dough on top. Each was then carefully slid onto a round, concave grill and cooked and flipped until it was hot and tasty. The chicken one was really nice, but the chocolate-mango was the clear winner, especially since it was finished with a drizzle of chocolate sauce and sweetened condensed milk. Chocolate-mango is clearly the apotheosis of the Zanzibar pizza form.

The next day we had a full schedule of touristy things including a visit to the former slave market. Thankfully there’s not much of it left, though we did see an example of the subterranean holding pens into which they used to cram 50-70 people for two weeks at a time while they were awaiting sale. It was cleaned up but still pretty awful, and unbelievably tiny for that amount of people. We also visited the local food market, which had sections for fish, meat and veggies. It was probably the most… raw market I’ve been to so far. There’s nothing like walking past a guy hacking a skinned cow’s head in half with a cleaver to make you seriously consider vegetarianism (The other thing to make you consider it would be the quality of the beef in Africa, which has been uniformly awful so far. Our cook does his best, but the steaks we had one night were so tough and sinewy I found them inedible. Bring on the veggies!)

Picturesque peppers, instead of cow’s heads.

After the market we went to visit an orphanage with which Dragoman tours have started to develop a relationship. We brought a few bags of school supplies with us – workbooks, colouring books, posters for the walls, coloured pencils, markers, paints, and a new soccer ball. It was a bit awkward, and sort of fun, and sort of sad too. The kids ranged in age from about two to fifteen or so, and they greeted up at the entryway, among their strings of drying laundry.

The kids and the laundry

All of us – kids and tourists – were ushered into a small classroom, and each of the kids had to stand up and tell us his or her name. They did this in an unbearably cute sing-song fashion, ending each introduction with “Welcome, welcome!”. We introduced ourselves too, and then some of the kids sang for us, and we sang for them (They did “If You’re Happy and You Know it” and we did “Eensy Weensy Spider” – with actions – though for reasons passing understanding the Australians know this as “Ipsy Wipsy Spider”.) Soon enough it was time to go, and we left. I felt like we’d done very little for this gang of kids who clearly need so much – their building was sad and grey and hard, and is scheduled for demolition. The bit of dormitory I glimpsed was similar. And the excitement they got from a short visit and a bag of colouring books was heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. It was unsatisfying.

The orphanage visit was followed by a tour of a spice plantation north of Stone Town. It was interesting trooping around in the forest looking at the different spices in their natural habitat. (Hands up anyone who knew that vanilla beans grow on vines that have to be supported by another tree…. yeah, I thought so.) We had a “Spice Boy” who came with our guide and dug up chunks of turmeric and ginger, and carved off bits of cinnamon bark, and even climbed a terrifyingly tall coconut tree so we could sample dafu – the juice of the green coconut. Our Spice Boy had even made some lovely handicrafts of woven leaves – a sort of origami frog necklace and shopping basket for the ladies, and a lovely hat and tie for the gents.

Bill, modeling his New Year’s Eve finery.

Best of all, the spice tour ended with a sampling of a load of different local fruit – star fruit, passion fruit, bananas, custard apple, jack fruit, pineapple, mango. The fruit here really is brilliant – tiny ladyfinger bananas (I think of them as “two-bite” bananas), warm, fresh pineapple, and the best mangos I’ve ever had. It’s brilliant.

For New Year’s Eve we booked a big table at an Indian restaurant in Stone Town – one that had a nice big generator and reasonably cold drinks. And as midnight approached we made our way to Freddie Mercury’s bar (he was born on Zanzibar!) and sat on their beach and chatted and had some drinks and waited for midnight. It came and went with relatively little fanfare (though the DJ at the bar started counting down from thirty), and at 12:02 we all headed back to the hotel. We had a big day planned for January 1st.

Bright and early the next morning we all got on a blessedly air conditioned bus and rode for an hour up to the famous beaches of northern Zanzibar for a bit of snorkeling. For a mere 15 USD we each got a mask and fins and a trip out to a reef for half a day of snorkeling. It was a lot more fun than the snorkeling in Spain. The water in Spain was clearer, but there was a lot more to see in Zanzibar. There were clown fish (like “Finding Nemo”!) and lots of sea urchins, and, er… shiny blue fish, and larger grey fish, and… well there were fish. (What do you want from me? I grew up on the prairies for God’s Sake! Ask an Australian if you want to know the stupid names of the fish). In any case it was fun, and I even managed to avoid getting a sunburn, unlike Laurie, who baked the baked of her legs until they were the colour of a cherry tootsie pop. Ouch.

The bow of our boat, with anchor rope, and an errant knee, bottom left.

After the snorkeling we spent the rest of the day lounging on the beach and trying to stay in the shade. When was the last time I mentioned that it’s hot here? Not recently enough, that’s for sure. Let me just say it again – it’s really hot. I keep remembering a tiny bit from the movie “Biloxi Blues” when Matthew Broderick goes off to basic training in some steamy southern state and complains to one of his mates about the temperature. “This is, like, AFRICA HOT.” he says. Standing with your back to the sun in mid-afternoon feels like someone is playing a blowtorch across your neck. There have been times when I think I was sweating from my eyeballs. So all I can say is, it’s AFRICA HOT

And that was about it for Zanzibar. Before we got the ferry on the last morning I finally managed to locate a working internet café and blast through my email, and a blog post and a Pic of Pics, and that made me feel much better. My distress at being cut off from the internet has become a source of bafflement and amusement for the group, but I am unapologetic. It’s what I do. Well, that, plus I sweat.


Unknown said...

Your blog continues to entertain & educate me. Thanks for updating when you can! You wouldn't be the first to feel helpless when it comes to children of developing countries; many schools & water wells were built because travelers like yourself passed through places, and just had to help.

Be safe, stay cool, and have fun!

Unknown said...

Sounds like fun. Back home it is cold and rainy and we have to go to WORK every day and deal with idiots. When you get back you will not believe how pointless normal life is compared to all this travelling and adventures. Keep on truckin'

Anne said...

Your blog is getting funnier all the time. Keep it up for those our us chilling in the canadian deep winter.

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