Thursday, August 21, 2014

Our Last Day in Stone Town – an expedition to Jozani Forest

For our last day on Zanzibar, our group had decided on an excursion to Kizimkazi, the site of a 12th century mosque, and to the Jozani Forest, notable as the one place in the world where visitors can be confident of seeing red colobus monkeys.  As the time approached, however, enthusiasm had waned for spending the time needed to travel to Kizimkazi, especially because several of our number wanted one last chance to do souvenir shopping in Stone Town.  Once again, we had turned to Hassan at Jojoba Tours, who had arranged our safaris to come as well as our tours and transportation to locales outside Stone Town; and he, in turn, assigned Juma, the same guide who had taken all of us on our Stone Town and spice tours as well as the trip to Prison Island.  When he came to pick us up, he disabused us of the notion that we could skip Kizimkazi, go straight to Jozani Forest, then head back to Stone Town for an afternoon of shopping.  The monkeys, he said, generally head to the tops of the trees at midday and are obscured form view.  We agreed, therefore, that we  remain in Stone Town for the morning, have lunch, and meet for the trip to Jozani Forest in the afternoon.

Nancy and I had very little in the souvenir buying to do, but we enjoyed browsing in various craft stores and I ended up buy a couple more kangas at a women’s cooperative.  We had a nice lunch at Buni Café, sitting outside on a small porch.  I particularly enjoyed a drink that theretofore had been unfamiliar to me:  called ginger juice, it was a combination of freshly squeezed pineapple, ginger and carrot juices.  Nancy and I shared a kebab of tuna and prawns that was quite nice.

At the appointed hour, the group gathered for the one-hour drive to the Jozani Forest.  Juma had barely paid the admission fees when he led us back to the road we had traveled to reach park entrance where several red colobus monkeys had gathered on a pair of trees by the side of the road; after a few minutes, they scampered down the trees and across the road to some bushes where they munched on some attractive food.

One of the monkeys was carrying a baby which can be seen here, peeking out near its mother's elbow

A beach vacation at Kendwa Rocks

The entire wedding party spent the two days after the wedding unwinding at a pair of adjoining  beach resort near the northern end of Unguja, the main island of Zanzibar.  Most of us stayed at Kendwa Rocks; most of the bridesmaids, who had procrastinated in making their reservations until Kendwa Rocks was fully booked, stayed at a place next door called Sunset Bungalows, the next resort up along the beach – and the beach was line with resorts, one after the other with no space in between. 

Kendwa Rocks was a nice place to stay even if a bit funky and disorganized.  When we arrived, it became apparent that the place had failed to keep proper track of our reservations; they maintained several different records of reservations but ultimately they are coordinated by being entered, by hand, on a large chart showing the various rooms and dates.  Although I had reserved two bungalows – one for Nancy and me and one of Joe and Avita, only one of those reservations was noted on the master chart.  Considering that the place was fully booked (thus the bridesmaids’ need to stay next door), we were rather alarmed.  Only after the staff, at our insistence, went through their outgoing email did they have to acknowledge that we had made two separate reservations for two separate bungalows; they said that we had not perfected the reservation because we hadn’t made advance payment as required (which I was certain we had done, although I did not have access to our charge card records); I remembered dealing with this issue while we were in Brazil, having just returned to Internet access in Salvador.  Somehow, the staff managed to shoehorn us into two separate bungalows (and, when it came time to check out, they agreed that we did not have to pay for the rooms, only for meals and drinks, because, they said, they rooms had been prepaid).

There was a wide range of different accommodations available – an apartment block on one side of the property, some thatch bungalows at beach level, directly facing the dining area and the beach, and then a series of stone and thatch dwellings along a set of steps rising toward the road

Our “coconut wooden” bungalow — just to the left of the steps  in the photo above — had walls made out of vertical logs, except for the bathroom area in the back which was made of concrete, with a thatch roof.  The bathroom was fine although we couldn’t get hot water for our showers.  The location could not have been better – ours was the closest to the beach of all the bungalows, and completely separate from all the other bungalows so that there was a minimum of noise from other accommodations (a serious problem for others in the group, we heard).  From our porch, which had both recliners and chair,  we looked over an expanse of sand toward the dining area and the beach beyond.

Dan and Chingchai’s bungalow, directly behind ours and a few steps up from the beach, was also the next step up in comfort — made of concrete, with pretty tiled bathroom and decorated beds and mosquito nets.

When we arrived, we were given yellow wristbands to show that we were guests at this particular resort, although it was not clear to me what function they played, because guests form any of other resorts up and down the beach were plainly welcome to drink at the bar,

dine at the restaurant,

or hang out at the resort’s beach. 

There was certainly a strong show of security:  there was a uniformed security service patrolling the steps and the beach; other resorts had Masai posted in their traditional garb – throughout Zanzibar and Tanzania, we saw Masai used as guards.   I was told that they were appreciated both for toughness and awareness.

Lodgings came with breakfast, but it was the weakest breakfast we had during this vacation— instead of a fruit buffet, we would be handed a plate with three pieces of fruit, and we had chance to place an order for eggs fried, boiled, scrambled or omelet, but only a plain omelette.  If we wanted an omelette with contents, that was extra, as was French toast (and it was the spongiest, least tasty French toast I can recall).  Along with the egg order came a small piece of tomato, beans, a small piece of pancake and a hot dog (called a sausage).  There was also spiced chai and hot water into which we could either place a black tea bag or a spoonful of instant coffee (but instant coffee was pretty common in Zanzibar), as well as juice.  Other meals, and well as drinks at the bar and indeed other goods and services the resort, could be had either for cash or charged to a card that was issued with each room upon registration.    Apparently, the card system was used to prevent employee theft, and this was taken to the point of metering the alcohol that was added to drinks – an electronic nozzle, connected to a computer, was placed on the bottle of alcohol before it was spritzed into a mixed drink.

Among the services that could be paid by the card was wi-fi access, also very carefully metered – it could be purchased only for various periods of hours, the maximum being 20,000Tshillings for a 24- hour period; we would be issued a simple user name and one letter password, but access could not be shared with someone else, and a new username and 24 hours of usage  could be bought after the first 24 hours expired.  And, considering how expensive the Internet access was – $12 per day is pretty exorbitant – the wifi was disappointing in that it was generally not accessible in rooms, but only out in the common areas.

Apart from the weak breakfast, the food served in the dining area was reasonably good (perhaps a response to the fact that lunch and dinner, unlike breakfast which had a captive audience, were sold in competition with all other resorts up and down the beach).   Still, it was a fairly limited menu and we got restive for some variety after the first day.   For lunch on our second full day at the resort, we walked up the road into Kendwa town itself for a nice seafood lunch;

 for our dinner that day, we hired a boat to take us to Nungwi, the town, the next town to the north.  Some of the party enjoyed diving off the upper deck of the boat into the water,

we enjoyed a pretty view of the setting sun from the boat

After we arrived in Nungwi, we had trouble finding a place where our large group could sit together, but we finally a table at the Amani Bungalows that was apparently served by two separate restaurants, the Marina Restaurant and the Sunset Grill. The food was quite good but it took an unusually long time for it to come, and they apparently mixed up their orders because some food came that nobody had ordered, and some people never got to pay.

The biggest problems came at the end.  We were running low on Tshillings and we wanted the opportunity to pay with a credit card and get cash from the others present, thus supplementing our cash supply for the rest of the trip.  After the waiters had added up and presented the bill, and we figure out how much each person’s total came to and a collection was assembled, I went to pay with one of our credit cards.  The owners, though, decided that the bill was not large enough for our group so they discovered some dishes that they said had be added to the bill. And then it turned out that although the place advertised itself as taking credit cards (there was a prominent VISA sign), the restaurant itself was unable to take cards because of a problem with its credit card machine; presumably, it was a problem similar to what other places on the island were facing – the main bank on which many merchants had relied for credit card services had been closed for undue links to an organization on the US list of terrorist groups; merchants were scrambling to find new banks to handle their credit card transactions; and those banks, in turn, simply did not have the bandwidth to handle so mush new business. 

In any event, I was directed the hotel’s reception office to pay.  There was another family ahead of us, paying for their own accommodations and having one credit card after another rejected; finally they agreed to try to deal with the problem the following morning.  Then it was our turn, and try after try, the credit cards were rejected.    Finally, Aisha and Nafisa participated in the discussion, pointing that the restaurants had advertised themselves as taking credit cards  and then demanding cash was unfair, but also, perhaps more important, making clear that they had local ties.  Finally, the hotel’s night manager said he would call the bank to try to get clearance for the credit card transmission; he came back a few minutes later and miraculously the credit card approval came right through.  Given that it was 10:30, I confess that I wondered whether the hotel staff had actually spoken to somebody, or had simply decided to out the transaction through.

These troubles aside, the two nights and three days were pleasant and relaxing.  We lolled on the beach, went swimming in the Indian Ocean, looked at souvenir wares and bought a few things, mostly kanga’s for a few dollars each.  There was a volleyball court and the play was almost non-stop from after breakfast until dark,  but the standard of play was so low that I couldn’t bear the thought of participating.

 In the late afternoon, boys and young men from the neighboring towns could be found playing soccer all along the beach

Nancy and I strolled down the beach past several other resorts, some considerably fancier, and some accessible only by stairs that were posted to discourage access by the hoi polloi.  Many of these resorts were owned by Italian operators and directed specifically at Italian tourists

A number of resorts featured local shops offering crafts, although some were labeled in imitation of well-known European brands.  One place offered works by the Picasso of Zanzibar; looing at a different sign, I wondered whether IKEA had visited Kendwa to enforce its mark

One resort had a very fancy dining area build on stilts in the water

The young folk in the bridal party spent some hours smoking shisha, pleasant for them but disappointing to me – after our children did so well avoiding the blandishments of the tobacco industry that they wouldn’t even consider picking up a cigarette,  that evil empire has managed to get its hooks into the next generation by persuading them that it is cool to smoke tobacco so long as it is embedded with flavor and filtered though water. 

For our final day, we arranged with a nearby PADI-certified dive operation, Scuba Do, for a joint snorkeling diving trip, in which Dan and Chingchai, recently certified divers, would get spend an afternoon dive, a few others of us would take the “discover diving” course in the morning and then dive in the afternoon, and the bulk of the group would ride on the same boat but only snorkel in the same general area.  We agreed to hold one of the rooms for an extra day so that everybody could shower and change after coming out of the salt water.

The trip, however, was disappointing.  Everybody but me who was planning to participate in the “fun dive” passed, deterred in part by the need to get up in time for a 9 AM class; and I myself came down with the runs early that morning and the dive instructors declared flatly that if I wasn’t feeling well they didn’t want me for the class because diving could be risky.  In the end, my loose bowels were fixed by lunchtime, but I had blown the diving opportunity tio which I had been looking forward for a year.  Several of the wedding party who had agreed to go snorkeling with us decided to go with a cheaper option after local guys using a wooden boat underbid the PADI-certified snorkeling price, offering a high-powered speedboat to reach the same destination, by nearly two-thirds.

And the snorkeling itself, off the far side of Tumbatu Island (known locally for witchcraft) was disappointing.  Although certainly more varied than the snorkeling off Prison Island a few days before,  the corals were the same pale yellow and greens that we had seen there; and although there were some brightly  black and white striped fish and a few pale blue ones, there was nothing of the brightly colored corals and fish that I remembered from diving off Barbados a few years earlier.  Nafisa had told us that we should aim for diving and snorkeling off Mnemba Island, off the eastern side of the island, but Dan and I allowed ourselves to be persuaded by the head guy at Scuba Do that we would find the reefs more pristine and less crowded with boats and divers (not to speak of not nearly so far a boat ride to reach).  Next time, though, I expect we’ll insist on Mnemba when we are diving or snorkeling off Zanzibar.

We returned to Kendwa and took showers; it was dark by the time we finished paying for the incidental purchases that had been recorded to out debit cards, and we boarded a pair of minibuses hat has been ordered to return us all to Stone Town.  There being no regular gas stations at this end of the island, the busses  stopped at a small shop along the road shortly after leaving the resort; the staff at the store brought out large containers of fuel, which were poured into the gas tanks. 

Nancy and I and Joe and Avita headed back to the apartment in the Victoria Flats; it was pretty late by the time we got back.  For dinner, Nancy and I chose to eat at a place very close to the apartment that was alternately called, on its various signs, Spices Rendezvous or Le Spice, serving Indian cuisine.  It was a delicious dinner.

Learning About Spice Horticulture in Zanzibar

On the evening after the first wedding luncheon, we were at loose ends for dinner and eventually settled on the Abyssinian Maritim restaurant (we took a look at Africa House but the “party” made it too darn loud).  We had a nice meal sitting on a patio near where we were staying in the Vuga neighborhood.  Ethiopian cuisine is a bit different here; not the same array of vegetables set up around the injera, you just get what vegetables you pay for, and the injera seems different; we wondered if it was made with tef or with wheat.  There was a fascinating coffee ceremony that involves smoking the beans before making the coffee, and it seemed to be served with popcorn; but nobody wanted coffee so we did not get a close-up view. 

On the way to Sea Cliff Resort for the final celebration of Sam and Nafisa’s wedding, we took a spice tour, the one nearly obligatory tour for visitors to Zanzibar.  Once again Jojoba Tours -- our reliable mainstay for touring in Zanzibar and indeed for our safaris on the mainland later in our trip -- assigned James as our tour guide, although we learned that his actual name is Juma, which means Friday in Swahili (he was born on a Friday).

Along the way, we learned about about Zanzibar’s socio-economic conditions; over the next fee days this information was supplemented by talking to some others.  Literacy is high and some 50-60% speak at least some English as well as Swahili; but the population  suffers from 30% unemployment.   There is a national minimum wage of 80,000 Tshillings per month, which comes to 4000 per day or about $2.50 per day in American currency.  The wages paid to government employees (and government is by far the largest employer) starts at 100,000 Tsh per month. Juma indicated, though, and one good source confirmed, that Zanzibaris are employed neither by the government nor by private companies, but rather are self-employed, thus placing them outside the minimum wage and social security umbrella.   And the minimum is so low that it gives one pause to quibble over prices for an advantage of a few thousand shillings, knowing what it means to local people (not that my competitive instincts did not take over when in bargaining situations).  During the course of our drive this day and the following day, when we headed up to Kendwa, we got a glimpse of roadside conditions reflecting the degree of poverty in which many Zanzibaris live. 

For the first several miles out of Zanzibar City, the roads were lined with shops of various kinds, with housing behind.  Although there were certainly cars on the road, most people were walking or riding bicycles, sometimes loaded with goods behind

We saw a number of horse carts in use between Stone Town and Sea Cliff,

and as we got further into the shamba, there were more bullock carts than horse carts.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Two Zanzibar Wedding Celebrations: first traditional, then western style

On August 8 and 9 were the capstone events that brought us to Zanzibar – the wedding celebrations for Sam and Nafisa. 
The Wedding Lunch

First, on Saturday, was a traditional lunch at the Bwawani Hotel, the first five-star hotel in all of East Africa although currently, under government ownership, my impression is that the hotel part of the facility has rather gone down hill – indeed, the review sites suggest that the hotel is a real dump.

But the party facility behind the  hotel has long been used for official receptions and receptions held by officials, and it continues in that function because the staff are used to the necessary security precautions.  At many Zanzibari parties among the well-off and well-connected, the tradition is to include entrance cards with invitations, and it is necessary to show the card to gain entrance through a gate at which a security guard is stationed.

The wedding reception actually consisted of two separate lunches, one for the men, held under tents outside, and one for the women, held inside.  Generally speaking, the men were not allowed to come into the women’s luncheon, but they had music throughout, which was piped outside on loudspeakers.  ALL the men wore traditional attire – canzu’s, a sheath covering the shoulders and arms and dropping to the shoes, over which the men wore a western-style suit jacket, with a kofia on the head — a hat with straight sides, no brim, and creased at the top so as to form a shallow bowl on top — and sandals rather than western dress shoes.  I had brought two suits for the two wedding events, but it turned out that I only had need of one.  But I had never owned a canzu or kofia, so I was taken on an emergency shopping trip the day before (discussed here); here is how Sam and I were attired for the day:

Friday, August 8, 2014

A Visit to Changuu Island and Wedding Rehearsal at the Sea Cliff Resort

Breakfast today was hard boiled eggs and toast; this was my first encounter with white egg yolks

Nafisa later told me that, when she first moved to the United States at age 12, yellow egg yolks came as quite a shock.

After breakfast, we headed out to Prison Island (Changuu), formerly the site of a prison for escaped slaves, later of a quarantine hospital where arrivals to East Africa with infectious diseases were confined to wait out the course of their disease before they were admitted into the general population.  Today, it hosts a colony of 100 Aldabra giant tortoises; this, and snorkeling on the reefs around the island, were the reason for our trip

Ten of us went out in this boat

which took about a half hour to travel out to the island, which is in the Indian Ocean a bit more than three miles from Stone Town.


Walking Tour of Stone Town -- and Our Zanzibar Wedding Celebrations Begin

The entire Levydicks family has come to Zanzibar to celebrate the marriage of son Sam to Nafisa, who grew up here; her parents are hosting the wedding ceremony as well as a series of parties (there will be a second celebration in DC at the end of the month).  Sam and Nafisa came here straight from the World Cup so that they could spend nearly a month preparing for the wedding; Joe and his girlfriend Avita flew in from New York (by way of Cairo, where their layover was long enough that they got to see the pyramids and tour Cairo); Nancy and I used frequent flyer miles to come by way of Addis Ababa and then Dar es Salaam (I do not recommend long layovers in either airport), from which we caught a short plane ride on a single propeller plane to cross the strait separating Zanzibar from the rest of Tanzania.  Nancy and I are staying in an apartment int eh Victoria Flats in the Vuga neighborhood of Stone Town, the older part of Zanzibar city, the very apartment where Nafisa grew up; her parents recently built a house in the suburban part of Zanzibar city, where many of the gatherings are being held.

We arrived at the Zanzibar airport in the late afternoon, whence we were picked for a first visit to the home of Nafisa’s parents, Mwanaheir and Mohammed.  We dined at Mercury’s restaurant (started by Freddy Mercury of Queen, who was born in Stone Town), a pleasant place which, amazingly considering that it caters to tourists, does not take credit cards (we were told that many places do not and, indeed, that those who do tend to tack on the sort of 5% charge that the credit card companies  forbid in their merchant agreements in the United States).  But we got to sleep pretty early, because it had been a long series of flights with not much sleeping on the planes.

A Walking Tour of Stone Town

Wednesday morning, we had a nice breakfast prepared by a part-time housekeeper who works at the city apartment, then headed out for a walking tour of Stone Town, which Mohammed had arranged through a friend who runs a travel agency.  The houses and shops of Stone Town date only from the early part of the 19th century, though it has the feel of a much older European or Arab community, with narrow streets and alleys.

It wasn’t at all clear to me how people navigate these alleys because I did not see any signs identifying the alleys by name

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Street art in Rio de Janeiro -- part two

Although our Santa Teresa neighborhood had the greatest concentration of murals, we saw a good number of them in the Lapa neighborhood just below

This mural was near the bottom of the tram up to Corcovado