Nov. 16, 2007 - Zanzibar

Egypt Travel Blog

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Zanzibar! Ash and I wanted to go to Zanzibar because the name evoked the sound of a mysterious, sexy and inviting island. It is also the name of one of my favorite music clubs in Santa Monica. What we imagined and were looking forward to was exotic night clubs, relaxed people looking for fun, the heady aroma of spices scenting the air, intriguing cuisine (I love the African restaurants row on Pico Bl. in LA), fabulous white sand beaches and awesome African music being piped through the streets.

Now, after having spent some time in Zanzibar, I’m sad to say the name also invokes images of filth, insects, bats, and the most pungent, awful body odor you can’t imagine. The people we’ve encountered so far don’t seem to have the magical element that I have witnessed in so many other underdeveloped countries. Another disappointment is that they have no magical rooftops with fabulous views and great music, no dancing ‘til dawn, in fact very little partying at all (due to the majority Muslim population). Ash and I were both in the mood for a weekend getaway to let down our hair and move our bodies ’til dawn. We quickly got that it is not going to happen here.

On the bright side, there is very little crime. What crime exists is usually committed by cab drivers, who all seem to think they have been hired as tour guides. You ask them to take you to one place and they insist on taking you to another – a more historically significant monument that doesn’t actually exist anymore, but they want to show you the ruins (or piles of bricks to you and me). For example, we asked to be taken to a hamaam for a traditional Turkish bath. Instead of the bath that we were so looking so forward to, we were taken to a building where a hamaam once lived. Our driver thought it might be insightful and a better use of our time to learn about the history of this particular ruined building and to tell us about fabulous baths that once were – instead of actually receiving one.

The next day, we asked our cabbie to take us to the famous spice market (Zanzibar is known as the “Spice Island”). As we drove to what we thought was the spice market, our cabbie began to point out the historical buildings we MUST see. We politely told him we were on a really tight schedule as were leaving the island early the next morning, and to please just take us to our destination. Again, we never made it to our destination because our “guide” decided we needed to go to a spice farm instead! It was tremendously important that we see where and how the spices were grown. Finally, in defeat, we acquiesced. Certainly, if he had more time we could have indulged in such time-consuming activities but our cab driver couldn’t understand our time predicament. He was focused on us not leaving the island without a deeper understanding of how things worked and their history, which he was understandably proud of.

Of course, we ended up buying spices from this farm (from a long table set up in the middle of a forest of pepper trees with a variety of packaged spices displayed), which was probably the real reason for our being brought there (the cab drivers get a cut of the sale of the customers he brings to the farm). So, for 17,000 Zanzibar schillings (approx. US$18) we can boast that we bought our spices right from the source in Zanzibar. And all said and done, it still was an interesting shopping experience, certainly one of the most exotic that I’ve had.

Politically and religiously, Zanzibar is a Muslim country (it’s actually part of Tanzania). Therefore, we got a daily dose of the Koranic call-to-prayer five times a day. It’s an interesting experience listening to the muezzin’s cry while you’re sunbathing in a bikini and drinking a beer. Approximately 90% of the hotel/service industry workers, however, are Christians. Everyone is black and African, of course, but they have English names like Michael, Vincent, Susan, and Jonathan – all were very nice, friendly and curious about us.

As far as eating and sleeping goes, those may be the most dangerous activities on the island. Apparently, Zanzibar has the second highest malaria rate in the world. My masseuse called it the mosquito capital of the world. She said that six months ago they just started a new program where each house is sprayed completely every two months to help stop the increasing spread of malaria. She said it is working and there have been less deaths since the program was implemented. There are millions of mosquitoes and other ugly, awful hungry bugs/animals constantly searching for fresh blood! We always ate our meals accompanied by swarming mosquitoes attracted to the lights above us, bats on the window frames and ground, worms on the walls next to us and hundred of annoying gnats and other small bugs constantly coming and going – mostly coming.

We slept with mosquito nets fully covering our beds. And it was interesting to note upon arrival, that our hotel room came with a complimentary can of bug spray. Despite these defenses, the mosquitoes here are far more determined and clever than you can imagine. I am convinced they hold conferences and summits to figure out how to get around all the mechanisms we silly people use to try and keep them from their God-given right to our blood. A Mosquito Repellant Counter-Intelligence Think Tank if you will. Evidence of their guerrilla warfare is present everywhere. Ash and I would wake up and first thing in the morning compare ugly bites. We’re sure there are also hundreds of bedbugs so tiny they are difficult to spot. After a while you begin to wonder if you are actually being bitten or if it’s in your head. But the physical evidence shows we were clearly not imagining the bites. Ash won this morning with seven bites on her right butt cheek and six in one ugly cluster of carnage alone.

Today, we bid adieu to Zanzibar and its bugs on a high note, smoking hookah pipes lodaded with apple tobacco and drinking delicious, spicy tea.

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