First trip to sultry Tanzania - work and play!
03.08.2009 - 10.08.2009
Monday 3 August
Okay, so this is how the adventure starts. I should have known that when it only took 34 minutes to travel from the CDC office to the airport that this was too good to be true. Check-in was another breeze – another clue. All is well in my world – I am in the SAA lounge, having a drink (water, thank you) and sandwiches. Then, a jolly stroll to the boarding gate. Aah, first hint – boarding is delayed. Then, we finally board, and the flight is PACKED! Can someone say global recession? I say to you: humbug!
Okay, then apparently SAA believes that having us on the tarmac for another hour would be a fun experience – umm, not so much. Anyway, we finally depart. Uneventful flight – as I believe all flights should be.
So, the flight finally arrives a little before 21:00. The opening of the doors remind me how far removed I am now from the freezing Gauteng cold. The heat and humidity (and this is the cold season) hits you squarely in the face. And then, the joy of the arrivals hall, and the chaos that permeates the air. So, here is the recipe for chaos: several flights arriving at the same time, an arrivals hall that does not exactly scream “international airport”, and health staff with masks on and a new H1N1 form to be completed. So, here is the funny part, you fill in said form, asking all sorts of important probing, public health questions, which you then hand in to a guy who merely takes it as you pass by. So, I could have answered the questions with the worst H1N1 profile in the world, and no one would have been the wiser to my dire condition. Anyway, thankfully getting through customs is a breeze, and then, joy of joy, my luggage arrives intact!
Then it is off to the Movenpick Royal Palm Hotel in Dar es Salaam, courtesy of my Columbia University friends Jagwer and Tshi, who give me a ride, saving me the misery of the shuttle bus. (For my US government colleagues reading this, I hope this does not constitute a “bribe” or undue influence. Better check my FY2010 funding decisions just to be sure!)
So, here is my first impression of dark Dar es Salaam: hot, humid, horrible drivers!
So, the Movenpick. First, at $195 a night, I expected at least gold lead on the walls, and other luxuries. Sadly, that is not the case. In fact, no better than the Holiday Inn. Oh well, another example of the judicious use of government funding. Here is my one complaint though – the squishy pillows. How I long for the pillow menu, and the option of swopping out squishy for firm. Oh well, 1 am – time for sleep.
PS: I neglected to tell you of my supreme stupidity. I very diligently locked my luggage, and then… left the key in the office. I tried my best McGyver/007/Alias/every spy movie ever manoeuvre to open the lock – using every sharp instrument at my disposal, as with recent travel restrictions, that is not a lot. Anyway, after my desperate efforts, I finally gave in and phoned maintenance – and here is the kicker, the maintenance guy had a key that opened the lock. Oh, imagine how much safer I feel now!
Tuesday, 4 August
Forget everything I said: I LOVE THIS HOTEL! Here is what I had for breakfast: hummus, tahini, babaganoush, falafels, and passion fruit! This has just become my favourite thing. Now – off to my meeting: Track 1 partners meeting – if you know what Track 1 is, you will know that this is way to boring for me to waste any blog space on. If you do not know what Track 1 is – count yourself lucky.
Meeting over (at 17:30 no less), and time to get to work. Yes, sucks to be me.
Wednesday 5 August
More meeting – but the only notable thing is that today I finally reached the end of my tether, and made a comment about the full agenda and the lack of discussion. Several people have come up to me and thanked me for raising the issue. The Straight Talk Express strikes again.
To cap off the day, I meet up with my old friend Svein for a drink – a gin and tonic – just what I needed, though I wish he could have stayed longer, because I actually needed another four of those.
After the meeting we are off to the Ambassador’s residence for a reception – finally I get to escape the Movenpick Hotel – though after being stuck in traffic for 40 minutes and only moving 2 blocks, I start to regret my decision to attend. Ugh. However, after arriving I feel much better – the house is lovely, the evening is sultry, and the (Kilimanjaro) beer is cold. No complaints!
Back at the hotel, I go for a swim in the massive hotel pool. The water is fantastic, but this is one of the strangest pools to swim in – the shallow end is REALLY shallow – only 80cm. So, when swimming a lap from the deep end, you suddenly hit your hands against the bottom of the shallow end. Uh, that’s my cue to turn around then. All in all, a great evening.
Thursday 6 August
Oh happy day – last day of this interminable meeting. I wish I could say the meeting was productive, but, not so much. I feel no closer to real solutions to the Track 1 transition than I was before the meeting. At least is was nice to see my friends Isaac (Zambia), Donna (Uganda), Ric and Charles.
The meeting ends at 18:30, and then it is off to dinner with Ric, Janna and a few other people. We go to a bar just a few blocks from the hotel, where the speciality is the meat – goat, beef and chicken. However, the meat was the least interesting thing about the evening. What was more entertaining (and not in a good way) is watching the “muscle” watching over a large number of sex workers plying their trade. Next to the bar is a “VIP Lounge” – where transactions end. These poor girls are desperate for business, but unfortunately the global recession is really now evident.
Oh, another thing. Two local singers are the entertainment for the evening. Apparently they are under the mistaken belief that what all tourists crave is bad lounge music. Despite their best efforts, they butcher Sacrifice, and Heal the World. I did have to ask a few time whether they were singing in English, because if not, it really would have explained the unintelligible words, but I kept being assured that indeed this was the English version we were being regaled with. Oh boy.
Friday 7 August
Well, it had to happen. What would travel in Africa be if I did not get ripped off? At the ferry offices, the person selling me the ferry tickets to Zanzibar very confidently that the cost (return) is $85. Like a fool, I merely handed over the money. Only later when I waited TWO HOURS for the ferry to actually arrive (departure time 12:00 – hmm, not so much, make that 13:00) did I look at the tickets, and there in big bold letters - $35 each way, plus a $5 port tax from Zanzibar. Well, I can do basic math (but mind you, just basic), and that comes to… $75. Nice. Thank you Azam Marine Company Limited. (TripAdvisor!!!) As my friend Abraham/Abdul-Rahman (you will meet him later) says: T.I.A = This Is Africa!
Anyway, finally on the ferry. Hang on, let me first tell you about the porters. Well, seeing as Zanzibar is an island, it obviously needs to import just about everything. How it gets everything there is via these ferries. How the goods get to the ferries is via the porters. These are guys that are clearly underfed and undernourished, and yet carry ENORMOUS (and might I add heavy) packages on the backs – up and down the ferry ramp. I have no idea what they get paid, but can you say EXPLOITATION? They must have such tremendous muscle pain – and if anyone says they are used to it, I may have to physically harm you!
Okay, so, the ferry crossing. Two uneventful hours.
And now, arrival in Zanzibar! Finally. First impressions: beautiful old buildings, crazy immigration process, hot and humid. I am through immigration, and am met by my taxi driver Abraham (not Lincoln, as he quickly points out). Abraham is a delightful young man, and as he is also a tour guide, he offers wonderful insights. Here are some of the things I learn from him:
1. Zanzibarians do not think of themselves as Tanzanian, and I would get in trouble if I dare suggest it.
2. The unemployment rate on the island is around 65% - and with the global recession and the downturn in tourism, the whole island is suffering.
3. The island has a long, proud history, and the phrase that keeps popping up is when they expelled the Portuguese. That happened in 1799. Good for you Zanzibar!
4. The island is mostly Muslim, though there are some Christians (5%) and Hindus too (about 1%), but, as Abraham points out – “we live in harmony”.
5. As there are so few schools and school teachers, children go to school in sessions, one group from 06:30 in the morning till around 12:30, and the second group from around 13:00 till early evening. And I thought my days were long – pity the poor teachers!
6. Zanzibar is only about 85km in length, and actually consists of two islands, the second one being Pemba.
7. The total population of Zanzibar is about 1.5 million, with 55% living on the main island.
8. HIV is a major problem, and in fact Abraham’s mother is HIV-infected, and is on antiretroviral therapy. Sadly she is also depressed, and has become addicted to alcohol.
Abraham is providing the sole income in his family (he is one of 6 children), and to supplement his income, he also teaches English and local history. His dream is to work for himself. Of the $30 fee to drive me to Nungwi, he will get $4. Exploitation is everywhere.
Okay, enough education. Just wanted to show I was actually paying attention.
Abraham arranged on the fly for me to go on a spice tour. My tour guide is Ali Baba (this does get better and better, not true?) It is 16:00, and I am their first visitor for the day. How sad.
I learn the most fascinating things on the spice tour, but I have to say, smelling vanilla still on the vine is one of the best smells ever. Also, cinnamon bark. What a fragrant delight the tour is. Capped off by a tasting of tea (ginger, vanilla, and mixed spice), and local fruits. All the fruits are of course wonderful, but I cannot stop raving about the grapefruit. First of all, I have NEVER seen grapefruit this large – think the size of a large pineapple. Secondly, it is sweet, not tart. Absolutely amazing. The other amazing fruit to have in such abundance is of course the passion fruit. It is everywhere – I love it!
Abraham and I finally reach Nungwi, and my accommodation – Smiles Beach Hotel. What a delight – it is basically right on the beach, and from the room you can hear the ocean. I race down to the water as soon as I have thrown down my stuff. The water is warm, and the scenery idyllic. Dinner next door is crab claws and giant prawns. Yum.
Off to bed with my book, and frankly, about a thousand flies and mosquitoes. Thankfully, for the first time on this trip, I have firm pillows, so, sleep is entirely possible!
Saturday 8 August
I wake up around 06:20 to a beautiful day, and immediately walk down the, oh, 25 meters to the beach chairs. What a sight. Azure water, floating boats, blue sky. What more could I ask for. After breakfast (fruit, toast, scrambled eggs, and here is a new one – avocado juice), I plant myself on a deck chair with my book and crossword. This day is bliss. And just what I need – no cell phone reception, no wireless, no work. I think I may have stumbled onto heaven. I have to come back here, and soon. Cannot let that multiple entry visa go to waste!
At around 11:00 the sky turns dark, and the temperature drops, which I take as my sign from the universe that I need to go to bed and sleep some more. Thank you universe!
After a very long nap, it is back to my deck chair, amazing views, reading my book, and filling out the crossword. If this is not bliss, tell me what is. Well okay Heidi, I know the fact that I have not done a thousand things by 09:00 disappoints you, and no, I did not explore anything beyond my deck chair, but I figured that is what the next holiday is for. Kanchan, at least I know you understand this.
Unfortunately the day ends way too soon, but dinner is a delightful fish curry, so, what is there to complain about? Oh, and a beer. I don’t know what has gotten into me – I never drink beer.
I lie in bed and finally finish my second book. This is a book written by my friend Tim about a year of volunteer work he did in Dharamsala, working in Delek Hospital, a facility serving the Tibetan refugee community. This happened in the mid-1990s, when he was a young doctor, and I have to say, an insightful and enjoyable read. (I am not just saying that because you will be reading this Tim).
Sunday 9 August
I jump out of bed at 06:21, throw on my bathing costume, and down to the beach I go! I have to wade through a forest of kelp, but finally I am in clear water. At this time of the morning, my only companions are the sun, the moon (still up), and a few fishermen in the distance. The current is fairly strong, but the water is amazing. How I wish this were not my last day here. I need to come back!
After breakfast (no avocado juice today – but my favourite, passion fruit!), I rush back to my deck chair. So, here I am, it is 09:13, and Abraham is picking me up at 10:00. I am writing this blog, and still staring out over the ocean, and wishing the time would pass slower. I am so sad to be leaving this ocean of tranquillity soon, though I am looking forward to going to Stone Town and taking a tour of it. My ferry back to Dar es Salaam is at 16:00. Too soon!
Anyway, I am back in Stone Town, with my taxi driver/tour guide. When I met him on Friday, he told me his name is Abraham (not Lincoln). Today I find out that is just to make it easier for tourists – his real name is Abdul-Rahman Kesi Ali. Now really, how hard is it to say Abdul-Rahman. I told him not to pander to tourists anymore – your name is your name – be proud of it.
So anyway, Abdul-Rahman and I went on a walking tour of Stone Town. He is incredibly knowledgeable, speaks wonderful English, and is a wonderful guide. I will definitely pass on his details to anyone planning to go to Zanzibar. He comes highly recommended. It is sad that someone so talented and bright should not be able to fulfil him real potential – remember that 65% unemployment rate!
After the tour we stop at Africa House for lunch (fish curry). The manager is a South African, but unfortunately not one I can be proud of – she is excessively rude to the Zanzibarian staff. Ugh – I hate that.
So all too soon I am back on the ferry, leaving beautiful Zanzibar. The people are friendly (though sometimes the way hawkers solicit you can be a little annoying), the beer is good, and the fish is fresh. Now for the two hour trip back to Dar es Salaam, and the joy that will be the Transit Airport Motel. I can just imagine how dismal this place will be, but seeing as I have to be at the airport by 05:25, I am better off staying 5 minutes away from the airport.
Oh yes, I forgot to say that I managed to buy one those enormous grapefruit, which will be my dinner. I cannot wait for it.
Sunday evening, this is over way too soon. About 24 hours from now I will barely be able to remember the beach and the fun I had.
I enjoyed my trip, and cannot wait to return! Asante sana!