Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I've Got a Tab at Zanzibar

My colleague Fiona and I arrived Friday morning to a miserable little airport in hot and humid weather. We then haggled with taxi drivers for a ride to Stone Town, the only city (I’m using that term loosely) on the island. The drivers were quite uncooperative and annoying, and one man who grabbed my bag to take it to the cab then demanded a tip. We were off to a bad start, it was raining, but we still had a good feeling about the place. Little did we know, that spirit of generosity was going to change quickly.

The drive to the city was about 15 minutes and the biggest difference from Kenya is that the roads did not have the massive potholes that Nairobi does. There were few cars and things didn’t look so bad. There isn’t much wealth along this part of the island, but it didn’t look as bad as some other poverty-stricken areas we’ve seen. We arrived in Stone Town and since the city is mostly a series of winding alleys and few roads, the cab driver stopped a ways away and we walked the rest of the distance. As we later found out, he could have driven us directly to the front door of the hotel, but chose to have us walk in the rain instead.

I guess the first trouble started at check-in. The lobby and common areas of the hotel looked fairly nice - authentic Zanzibarian furniture and architecture with lots of dark wood and tiles. Although our previously arranged room voucher stated we had booked a double room with two beds, we learned that the room only had one large bed. Luckily, we found that out before we trudged up the five flights of stairs. The front desk clerk was not at all accommodating when we suggested a number of options - a different room with two beds, putting another bed in the room and reducing our rate, or changing rooms for the next two nights. We finally got them to put another bed in the room - a twin bed set up in the middle of the living area. The suite itself was OK initially - a living area with a day bed, TV, fridge and one balcony looking out over the inner hotel courtyard and pool and the other looking out over the street. The bedroom was large with a four-poster bed (and requisite mosquito net) and another set of balconies. The bathtub was stunning - ornate cobalt tiles in a traditional design. As it turns out, function follows form in Zanzibar.
While the hotel staff was setting up the extra bed and figuring out how to rig up a mosquito net across the room, we decided to go for a walk and explore Stone Town. Unfortunately, it was raining very hard, leaving inches and inches of water (and trash and godknowswhatelse streaming down the street.) When the rain finally subsided, the city looked as though it might be interesting. As we walked down one of the larger streets, we were bombarded with vendors selling everything from CDs to bags of cashews. “Jambo Jambo mama. Welcome. Welcome. You will buy a CD,” was the constant cry. We stuck to the main road for a bit, then veered off to the Old Fort, a post-Portuguese occupation structure. Behind the fort is an amphitheater with merchant stalls lining the perimeter and an outdoor cafĂ©. After a rest and a cold drink, we continued walking around and had our first experience with the shop owners with their relentless, aggressive sales pitches. Some even grab your arm and try to pull you into their store. I can’t imagine why they think that it is an effective sales technique, but apparently, it appeals to someone, just not us. There were paintings, woodcarvings and other crafts for sale, but very little that was different from what is available in Kenya.
We continued walking to tour company for which we had a recommendation and sign up for a spice tour the next day. It was a bit of a hike, but we finally found the office, after being followed and harangued by men offering to take us there (for a fee, naturally.) The tour was to last most of the day starting with a tour of a spice plantation, then on to a beach for an hour, the slave cells and then back to Stone Town. We didn’t give it much thought and figured it was a good thing to do. We then zigzagged our way through the alleys, believing that following Muslim women through the passageways would provide a safer passage.

The reason for going to Zanzibar in the first place was to meet up with another Global Health Fellow, Naomi, who had finished her assignment in Rwanda and was on her way back home to Australia. She had planned a week at the beach with her friend Michele, who had just climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. We met Michele for dinner (excellent traditional fare and fresh seafood) then went back to our hotels while she waited for Naomi to arrive later that night.

The next morning we rose to see if our friends wanted to go on the spice tour with us. However, things were getting worse. Fiona had been sick all night and could not move from the bed. Naomi’s flight had been cancelled the night before and after a crazy night of travel, had arrived just that morning. No one was in the mood for heat, humidity and being trapped in a van all day. I left Fiona to stay in the air-conditioned comfort of our room while I hung out with the other girls. We walked around the town some more, had more encounters with aggressive merchants and finally called an end to the wanderings mid-afternoon. By then, Fiona was feeling a tad better and decided to rally and meet the others for a drink that evening. That’s when we found out that the beautiful bathtub only had a hand shower, virtually no hot water and absolutely no water pressure. There was no way one could get remotely clean in there. After a hot, sweaty day, there’s not much worse than really craving - and needing - a good shower when you can’t have one.

We met the gals for drinks, watched the sun set over the Indian ocean and caught up. Fiona was trying hard to participate, but she was clearly flagging, so we called it a night and went back to the hotel. By this time, we had started noticing how many ants, mosquitoes and other bugs were in our rooms. The nets had holes, the beautiful balcony doors didn’t close completely and all god’s creatures had free reign, including a rat scampering along the little snack bar by the pool.

The next day we thought we’d give the spice tour another try, but again, the idea of spending the day in a van full of strangers was very unappealing. Instead, we got a recommendation from the front desk of a resort nearby where we could get a day pass and spend the time using their facilities - pool, beach, restaurant, etc. Unfortunately, it was just all wrong. First of all, it rained for the first couple of hours. Then, when the sky finally cleared, it was incredibly hot and we realized that the pool was cloudy and looked too risky to swim without getting some sort of infection. The ocean was murky too, as it was low tide and there was lots of seaweed and a nasty stench.

We stuck it out for a while, and then went back to town for one last spin and an attempt to see some of the cultural sites. After pushing through the vendors one more time, we went to the House of Wonders, the local museum. One could see that during its heyday, the building itself would have been beautiful, but it was now decrepit, or as Fiona described everything we saw over the weekend, squalid. The “exhibits” were barely posters with some writing and Xeroxed pictures, and the smell of mold, dust and animal droppings permeated every corner. There was nothing wondrous about it at all. We then decided to go to the former slave market, now the site of a catholic church. We made our way across town (you now know the drill - navigating the vendors like a quarterback) and found the historical site. David Livingstone lobbied for an end of the slave trade in the mid 1800’s, but prior to that, Zanzibar was the hub where slaves were taken before being put on ships and sent to other countries. We went down into the basement where hundreds of slaves were chained in a tiny room with seawater and raw sewage running through it. Outside, there is a monument to the slaves. It was a very sobering experience.

\We decided to have an early evening as we needed to get up at 4 am the following morning to catch our plane back to Nairobi. We had a great dinner at the hotel across the street from our own, but then had a frustrating encounter with our front desk clerk yet again when he refused to acknowledge that the hotel was responsible for our ride to the airport (we had the paperwork to prove it), or even assist in getting it straightened out.

All in all, it was a very expensive, not very satisfying weekend I think one of the best things was the view of Kili on the plane ride home. And taking a shower with my sandblaster of a shower back home in Nairobi.


Meet Melida said...

that last shot of mt kilimanjaro is truly amazing, but the trip just does not sound worth it... How disappointing. Glad you didn't get sick though!

Denise said...

Hi Marge,
Sorry you had such a miserable weekend, but I did notice one or two positves in there. You know the "rat" would have done me in.

Gini said...

One can feel the vicarious grit and tugs. You really do have a way with description, Marge. Miss you a lot