Sunday, May 20, 2012

Flavors of Zanzibar

          Upon conclusion of an academic semester spent scoffing at tourists, trying to distinguish ourselves from them, we decided to do the most touristy thing of all: head to Zanzibar for the week.
          Following a teary-eyed goodbye with many of our classmates, seven friends and I woke before sunrise on the 10th for a ten-hour bus ride to Dar es Saalam, the biggest city in Tanzania. We spent the night at the Salvation Army Hostel where we were joined by our new travel companions, itchy bed bugs, just in time for the ferry across the Indian Ocean early the next morning. The boat ride turned into an exciting rescue mission as we picked up a fisherman who’s boat had sunk.
Dar es Saalam, the biggest city in Tanzania
Zoe hiding from the insects in the room at the Salvation Army Hostel
          With street lights, guaranteed electricity and air conditioning, it is hard to believe Zanzaibar and mainland Tanzania are two parts of the same country. The narrow, windy roads give the island a European feel rather than an African one. Though Serengeti safaris attract copious visitors every year, the tourism industry of mainland Tanzania is dwarfed by that of Zanzibar. Tourists in summer clothing and skimpy bikinis stand out like sore thumbs among the local women, the large majority of whom are Muslim.

Since our time in Zanzibar was limited, our days were jam-packed with activities, hitting all the main tourist attractions: a spice tour, snorkeling on Prison Island, hanging out with Red Colobus Monkeys in the forest (which are endemic to Zanzibar), petting sea turtles. We laid on a beautiful, white-sand beach with pina coladas in hand and spoiled ourselves with nightly happy hour cocktails. We walked into a cave where slaves were hidden after the abolition of the East African slave trade, visited a community butterfly project, and watched tortoises mate (quite the spectacle!).

          Zanzibar is a beautiful place, perhaps one of the most beautiful I have ever been, and it would be hard for anyone to argue differently.

          I could easily spend weeks just walking around the shops where craftsmen carve wooden chests and remarkable, intricate doors seen throughout Stone Town, artists paint inside their shops, and the clothing and fabric selection is endless and reasonably priced if you know how to bargain. The streets smell of fresh cardamom, nutmeg, vanilla, lemon grass, saffron, cumin, and cinnamon, sold at prices that would make any serious cook high off excitement. Every evening from 6 PM until midnight there is a seafood market at a park nearby the port where local fish, shark, and shellfish are cooked in front of you. The people of Zanzibar are incredibly friendly and the salespeople not overly-pushy. I left Zanzibar thrilled that I decided to extend my stay in Tanzania, invigorated after an exhausting last week of presentations and goodbyes, and smelling much better than I had when I arrived thanks to warm showers and the spices I acquired.

Vanilla bean!
Cinnamon sticks are made from pieces of bark 
          After spending four months in a only a small portion of northern Tanzania, I realize that it is impossible to truly understand a place, especially an environment so rich in history and culture, in just one week. Simply put, Zanzibar was a vacation— a great one at that! I could not have asked for a more exhilarating destination or better company. At the same time, it was a preview of the culture shock that I anticipate will soon come.
Zoe, Kate and I. The cleanest we've looked since January
          As we cringed at shops with set prices and the inflated costs of food and taxi rides, Addie’s dad, who joined us from the US for the week, could not believe the bargain. When prices were given in American dollars, we found ourselves converting the amounts into Tanzanian shillings in order to determine the real cost. The hotels, restaurants, and shops lining the streets all seemed luxurious. For the first time in months, we saw people sporting designer clothing, were expected to tip, and were able to count on the lights in our hotel room turning on. None of these things were necessarily good or bad, just different.

          The last of my classmates to present his Independent Study Project, did his study on the power dynamic of studying abroad, using our program as a case example. At the end of his presentation, he concluded that each of us must make the choice of what to do with this semester-long experience— how we want to incorporate it into our lives and allow it to affect our futures.
          In Zanzibar, we were confronted with the choice to use our spotty Swahili or resort back to English. We had the choice to splurge on fancy American foods or continue eating local dishes. We had the choice to pay $200 per night for a four star hotel or $10 per night for a local one. Although these decisions seem trivial and one, two, or even 100 of them will have no significant affect on our lives (aside from our wallets), this semester has made me well-aware of the nuanced undertones of such choices.

          While there is no right or wrong answers per se, as my classmate eloquently put it, how we allow awarenesses to affect our lives is up to each and every individual. Zanzibar was one glimpse of this challenge.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Abby,

    I love all of your photos from Tanzania! Would you be interested in sharing them with other travelers? I recently launched a digital-only magazine called Native Foreigner, which is a way for returning travelers to share photos, stories and more. If you're interested, please email me at