Brian Oh: {food, travel, photo}

Africa (ii): Zanzibar, Stone Town, & Markets

I'm getting a bit of a late start on my Africa posts. The result of a combination of fatigue and being fairly busy. Better late than never. I'm going to save a post about the things I actually did in Nairobi for later because that actually isn't the first thing that comes chronologically in my notes or pictures. The entire first week in Nairobi I really didn't do anything besides go to the office and eat mediocre food at the mall near my apartment. The first picture I took on my camera was at the airport on my way to fly to Zanzibar.

The first weekend I had in Kenya, I actually decided to fly to an island off the coast of Tanzania. It's about an hour flight on a tiny plane, on which I was the only passenger. Zanzibar is known for having incredible beaches, but I chose to spend most of my time in Stone Town. It's more of a cultural center than a beach town. It's 99% Muslim and has a really interesting ethnic history, so the architecture is very diverse and creates a lot of interesting visual contrast.

I arrived in Stone Town at right around sunset on a Friday evening. After getting myself situated in the hotel, I wandered around a bit as the last of the sunlight slipped out over the ocean. I stopped into a few shops as they were closing up in the alleys. I found myself at the beach where I found a large group of locals playing soccer. Before long, I headed to the Forodhani Gardens square where a bustling market is set up after dark. All along the square, fishermen set up tables loaded with their catches of the day. Octopus, tuna, barracuda, even some shark. Basically every table is the same and everyone fights hard for your attention. They're all very used to tourists and can tell exactly what ethnicity you are. As soon as I approached anyone, they'd immediately yell out "Ahnyounghaseyo, Rafiki!" (Rafiki means friend in Swahili) They'd all tell me that "photo and information are free" and just ask me to let them tell me about all of their food and then maybe buy something if I was impressed. I fell for this a couple of times before I just started ignoring these calls. Other tables sold strange Nutella, meat "pizzas." There was one shawarma guy. Several stations churned out a local specialty: a pressed, sugar cane juice flavored with lemon and lime. I circled the whole market a couple of times before I bought a plate of octopus and a variety of fish for about 20,000 Tanzanian shillings. Remember this number.

After dinner at the market, I wandered around Stone Town a bit more looking for where the night life was. There were a few places that I had read about, but I wasn't finding any of them. I was eventually approached by two locals, named George and Faheem, that informed me that those places had all closed within the past year. Basically everyone in Stone Town, which is very small, is a tour guide. Everyone wants your money in exchange for showing you around. George and Faheem volunteered to show me to some hot spots in exchange for a couple of beers. This seemed reasonable, so I agreed and they led me through the dark catacomb of alleyways to a few bars and clubs. They commented that my name did not sound very Asian. I countered that George did not sound African. They conceded the point.

Eventually they pointed me toward the Livingstone, which is by the beach and a popular tourist watering hole, but asked me if I could buy them a beer at their local shop. The reason being that the owners won't let them in because they know they'd only be there to sell tourists weed. Slightly bemused, I agreed and they led me down even darker streets to some undisclosed location. After a week of not going out at night in Nairobi, I was sick of being concerned with security, so it may have been out of defiance that I followed them so blithely. I did at times wonder if they were going to turn around and murder me, but fortunately I survived. We came to what was little more than a literal hole in a wall bodega. George and Faheem held an oddly long conversation in Swahili and several minutes later produced three beers, one for each of us. I paid, said my goodbyes, and headed back to Livingstone.

At Livingstone, I met a Danish girl, named Ingeborg, in her early 20s. She told me she basically quit work and university to come live in Zanzibar. She taught me some Swahili, of which the only word I remember is "kumamayo." That's Swahili for mother fucker. She often used the expression "TIA," which stands for "This Is Africa," and was used as justification for doing something ridiculous. The African YOLO. She told me that people there often do shots of vodka mixed with honey and lime. We had a couple of them and, with the local honey, it was pretty delicious. I ended up telling her about my experience at the Fordhani market and how I had paid 20,000TZS for a plate and she laughed at me and told me I was a moron. Apparently a plate could have been had for 2,000TZS. It was only the difference of about $12 and $2, but I learned my lesson.

After a while there, at about 2am, we headed to the only other spot open that late in Stone Town. A small club 3 stories up in a tiny space in the middle of the network of alleys. It is the only source of noise that late at night and can easily be found by following the echoing bass beats through the streets. I was there for a short time, but I was getting tired. I ended up talking to an African girl briefly before she asked me to buy her a drink, which, mind you, is only about $3 there. I said I would, but instead of going to the bar, I just left. Don't judge me. It was near 3 or 4am and I was extremely tired.

The next morning, I set out to explore Stone Town in earnest. The back streets weren't nearly so ominous during the day. Every travel guide for Stone Town urges travelers to "get lost in the maze of alleys and side streets." So, I did exactly that. I wandered the narrow corridors peering into shops, schools, and homes along the way. Some shopkeepers would call out to me like so many others, some were simply going about their lives and paid me no regard.

In the mornings, at the far end of town, there is another market, called the Darajani central market. This one's much less for tourists, but seemed basically like where the locals come to do their grocery shopping. Long stalls of vendors selling things from spices, fruit, to small bottles of shampoo. It was like a dollar store spilled out into a small stretch of alleys. I came upon the meat market, which was mercifully held indoors within a small concrete room. In this cramped space, six or seven vendors displayed freshly butchered, fly covered carcasses with organs and entrails alike spread out over their concrete counters. Back out on the street different kiosks sold fabric, piles of unmatched shoes, or loaves of bread. It was chaotic and fascinating. All my senses were assaulted by so many different stimuli, some slightly more nauseating than others. 

Once I decided to make my way back to the hotel, I happened to pop into one other room I came across. At first I didn't know where I was, except that it was a comparatively larger space filled with woven baskets. As I looked closer, I realized I was surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of chickens. I then realized I had walked past buckets full of dead, plucked chickens. I actually attempted to find where they were butchering the birds, but I didn't see it. I was pretty glad I didn't.

I made my way back to the hotel through the labyrinthine streets. I picked up a few samosas from a street vendor for my lunch and ate them on the roof of the hotel. Later that day I'd be taking a car up to one of the nicer beaches, but I finished up that morning with a nap.

I'll pick up here next time, but I need to crash. The rest of my time in Zanzibar involved beaches. But here in the present, there's a whole mess of snow expected for tomorrow. I'm hoping to wake up to a nice OPM announcement.