Friday, December 14, 2018

Nights at the Dhow Palace Hotel

Exploring Zanzibar

I quickly established a routine at the Dhow Palace Hotel in Stone Town.  Every morning, I opened the shutters to my tiny corner room and then went downstairs to a sumptuous breakfast buffet.  I was never in a hurry.  I started out with coffee and a croissant and then went back for fruit, scrambled eggs and pastry.  One final cup of coffee and I was finally ready to face the day.

Before heading back to my room, I walked up the stairs to the rooftop garden and here, while soaking up the views, I planned my day.  Although I missed my travel buddy, I also loved that feeling of being able to do whatever I wanted with no compromise whatsoever.  The days were mine.  And mine, alone.

After five days of such self-indulgence, it suddenly dawned on me that my travel buddy was arriving the next day and my sweet little corner room was not going to be big enough for the two of us.  I called reception and asked if I could get a double room for my final night because my husband would be joining me.   "Can I move in by noon?"  I asked.  "He's going to be exhausted from climbing Kilimanjaro and in dire need of a shower."

"No problem, madam.  I will send up a porter around eleven to help you move."  Then he paused and with an apologetic voice, added, "But it will be twenty dollars more than your current room."

  "That will be fine," I said.  Really?  That was all?

The next morning I received a phone call.  "We have a surprise for you, madam.  Are you ready for me to send the porter?"

Well, happily, my travel buddy walked into the lobby exactly at noon and I was waiting for him.  Everything had miraculously worked out.  I hated to tell him he had to climb up four stories to our room because I could see he was completely wiped out, but he forgave me once he opened the ornate mahogany door.  "My god," he gasped, "This is straight out of the Arabian Nights. It's amazing."

The wonderful staff at the Dhow Palace Hotel had given me an upgrade.   A suite of rooms with a living area, two balconies and a king size bed.   For only $20 more!

Zanzibar will always be one of the most romantic places we have ever traveled to.

Thank you, Dhow Palace!

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Palace Museum Reflection

Exploring Zanzibar

I had hoped to step inside an Arabian Nights world, but instead of fantasy, I was hit with a massive dose of reality.  This museum on the waterfront of Stone Town is a supposed reconstruction of the 19th century palace which housed the Omani Sultans and their harems.  The original was destroyed by the British in 1896. 

Its white washed exterior is blackened with mold; its interiors are shabby and bare.  My normal overactive imagination failed me this time.  I could not conjure up gilded furniture, polished floors and a palace brimming with servants.  I could not picture a turbaned richly dressed man sitting on the throne with minions at his feet.

Walls were water stained.  Paint was peeling.  Not even Princess Salme's room was filled with any opulent objects.  I'm sorry, but there's no way Sultan Seyyid Said would have lived in such threadbare and soiled rooms.

  Clearly, not a lot of money or effort was put into this project.  But then it struck me--should this era in Tanzanian history be exalted?  

Probably not.

During the age of the sultans, 50,000 slaves were sold in Zanzibar's markets and thousands of elephants were slaughtered for their ivory tusks.  It is something that the museum does not gloss over; it is a part of East African's grisly history.  

Maybe . . . some day . . . a rich benefactor will step in and donate money for a make-over.  It is important, however, to keep things real.   If I want fantasy, I should go to Vegas.

I had a blissful few hours in this place.  I lingered longer than necessary for the simple reason it was so peaceful.  After being constantly bombarded on the streets of Stone Town, the dark quiet rooms of the palace served as a sanctuary for this stressed out tourist.  There were no guides.  No other people.  Period.

Only the ghosts of a tortured past.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

A Zanzibar Spice Tour

Zanzibar is known as the "Spice Island" and plastic bags of colorful spices can be bought on every street corner in Stone Town.  I had been enjoying the rice pilau, flavored with cumin, cardamom and cloves all week.  How could I not book a tour to a spice plantation?

Because I talked to a few fellow travelers who told me it wasn't worth it.  "It's a tourist trap," one said.  "The tour is rote and boring," said another.  But . . .  but . . .    I had never seen the bark of a cinnamon tree.  Fields of lemon grass.   A turmeric bulb. Vines of vanilla beans and black peppers.  Spices, to me, were powdered confections in small glass jars.

  I was going . . . no matter what.  I had been forewarned.

The plantations aren't far from Stone Town.  In my youth, I would have rented a bike and pedaled out to one, but this old gal hired a private guide with a car.  The price was $50.00.  "Now, there's no hidden fees, right?" 

"No, madam.  That includes the car, entrance fee and lunch.  A very good value."

But, like I said in an earlier post, this old gal had made peace with the ways of Zanzibar.  I knew my $50 dollar bill was only the tip of the iceberg.  Sure enough, by the time my tour was over, I had given out another twenty dollars in tips to all the "assistant guides" along the way.

I had been forewarned.
Cinnamon Trees

Lemon Grass

But you know what?  I didn't care. I was having the time of my life.  I think my childlike enthusiasm gave my two guides motivation to give me an extra long, extra good tour.   They filled me with so much information that I couldn't take it all in.

We walked and walked.  Through spice plantations, fruit orchards and fields of yams and cassava.   Everything was lush and green and dewy from the "short rains" this time of year.  Indeed, while we were walking, a sudden downpour caught me by surprise.  My guide reached up and pulled a leaf off a banana tree.  "An umbrella for you, madam."

 We took a few short breaks along the way to sample the tropical fruit and to see a "coconut climbing" demonstration.   My favorite activity was smelling the aromatic perfumes they produce here.  I bought a small vial of fragrance made from the ylang ylang tree.

And, yes, everyone expected a tip.

Our tour ended with a lunch of grilled fish and (Yeah!) spicy rice pilau.  My guides all ate with their fingers but I was given a fork.  A pot of hot tea and cookies ended the meal.

 To me, this tour was worth the expense.  I'm not sure I will have another opportunity to see a spice plantation.  Was I lucky?  Maybe. But I don't think the tour was boring at all.  Far from it.  My guides were funny and extremely knowledgeable.  I was treated with respect and kindness.  I even had one very amusing moment when we turned down a dirt road and ran into a large bull mounting a cow.  My guide gently took my arm and turned me around without saying a word.  Clearly, this was not something a lady should see!
Black Pepper

Clove Tree
Vanilla Beans

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Zanzibar Sunsets

The streets of Stone Town on the island of Zanzibar empty at dusk.  Tourists are packed on the balconies of bars and restaurants.  Locals are walking along the beach or sitting on the seawalls. Everyone's eyes are focused west.  On the setting sun.

During my week long stay in Stone Town, I made my way over to The African House every evening around five.  I got there early so I could grab a premier table with a view of the golden sky.  For the next hour, I nursed a couple of beers and munched on a bowl of peanuts.  Sometimes I had other tourists join me; sometimes I remained alone.

I was reminded of another time and another place.  Mallory Square at Key West.  Where the watching of the sunset is a celebratory experience.  A ritual.  And for me (dare I say) a Rite of Passage.  This is the place where the wanderlust bug took hold.  I vowed that travel would be a way of life.  I vowed to follow the sun around the world.  Watch it set on every continent and every sea.

Here I am, forty years later watching the sun set over the Indian Ocean.  I am in Africa.  And far from being jaded, I watch it bless the earth and fade into darkness as though I have never seen it before. I am filled with awe.  And gratitude.

On the balcony of the Africa House I renew my vow.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

A Walking Tour of Stone Town

Exploring Zanzibar

Everyone in Zanzibar called me old.   Was it my silver hair?  My wrinkles? What?  I don't feel old.  I feel pretty darn young, in fact.  Far from being insulted, however, I was flattered because that comment always came with a backhanded compliment.  The guide I hired my first morning in Stone Town was a little concerned about my stamina.  "We will be walking for two hours, madam.  Are you able to do that?"

Three hours later, he was shaking his head in wonder.  "You are so fit for your age," he said.  "The old people around here sit in a chair all day."

We covered the entire area of Stone Town that morning.  From my hotel, through the narrow streets, to the historic Slave Chambers, bustling fish and spice markets, then back to the harbor and old fort.  I followed my guide like a little duckling, soaking it all in.  He talked about the savage history of this place with unabashed nonchalance, having recited the stories of slavery and ivory trade a thousand times.  As we walked, he pointed out the best restaurants, bars for sunset viewing, and shops that I might be interested to go back to later.  (If I could find them!)  The pace was fast, but the time went by even faster.

Zanzibar is utterly fascinating.  The following are highlights of my walking tour:

The Slave Chambers

Prepare to be horrified.  And take kleenex.  Touring the slave chambers and walking through the museum is an emotional experience.  It's hard to believe such inhumanity happened and that our country, at one time, condoned such treatment.

The Fish Market

This is where I was glad to have a male escort by my side.  I don't think I would have felt comfortable coming here by myself.  I didn't see another female.  Only lots of fish, blood, guts and sharp knives!

The Old Fort

My guide let me wander through the grounds of the Old Fort by myself while he sat under the shade of a tree and rested.  Ha!  Who's old?  Not me.

The old stone ramparts and tower are all that is left of the fort that the Omani Arabs built in 1698.  Although it was meant as a defensive structure, it was mostly used as a prison and place of execution.  I thought it funny that the British turned it into a tennis club for ladies in 1949.  Today the inner courtyard is lined with vendors.

The famous Stone Town Doors

The Beach and Harbor

We also walked to Freddie Mercury's old home (now a shop), to the famous Emerson Spice Hotel, House of Wonders, a tanzanite shop where the sales associate patiently explained the color-grading system and different values of this rare and beautiful gemstone.  I know my guide was hoping I would buy a $2,000 ring (and he'd get a nice little kickback), but I made it clear I was just looking. He shrugged and we carried on.

On the way back to my hotel, he pointed out the good restaurants I should try for dinner.  He warned me not to go to the evening market at the Forodhani Gardens.  "The fish is not fresh," he said.  "You might get very sick."

I was happy with this guide and hired him a second time to take me out to a spice plantation.  He also arranged a driver to take my travel buddy and I to Jozani National Park and then out to the west coast.  

You will be bombarded by guides on the streets of Zanzibar.  Some of them are official; others are not.  It is best to book one through your hotel receptionist.  There are pros and cons to hiring such a service.  The pro is no one hassles you when you are being escorted by a local guide.  On my free days, I was constantly shooing them away.  I learned quickly to be polite, but firm.  Even so, I had a few follow me around.  "Are you ready for a guide now, madam?"  Shish.  Some of them were relentless.  The con is the money.  Not only do they demand a fee, but then there are the tips.  Not just for your guide but for anyone else who happens to be a part of the "tour".

I had to make peace with this.  And let it go. I had brought fifty dollars in ones, knowing beforehand that tipping is expected.  I kept reminding myself that these people relied on tips for their income.  Wages in Tanzania are among the lowest in the world.

I always enjoyed my conversations with the guides.  They were curious about life in the states.  Politics was a big topic of interest.  "Why can't you get rid of Trump?" everyone asked me.  "He's a bad man.  He hates black people."  Yikes.  

They also showed me things I wouldn't have seen otherwise and shared with me their own lives and dreams.  Talking to the guides is often the only interaction you have with the locals.  Therefore, a combination of guided tours, followed by independent travel seems to be the best course of action.