Wednesday, 3 February 2010

January... Part 2 - On Earth as it is in Heaven

Mum arrived on January 17th. It felt strange meeting her at an airport in a hot country - normally I'll collect her from the perpetually freezing arrivals terminal in Manchester, on a dreary, drizzly day. We had an overnight stay in a motel in Entebbe, since we were leaving early the next morning for Zanzibar, and after introducing her to the local beer we hit the hay. Fearing being bumped off the flight - flights to Zanzibar are routinely overbooked - we decided to head to the airport early, only to find that we couldn't check in until an hour before the flight. This meant we had to settle for 'coffee' - lukewarm brown liquid with no flavour - and a 'croissant' - stale butter infested bread - in the only cafe before the departure lounge. Not the ideal introduction to the culinary delights Uganda has to offer, but we were hungry. Check in was smooth in the end, and we began an epic 9 hour journey, flying to Nairobi, then to Dar es Salaam passing Mount Kilimanjaro en route, and finally making a 30 minute leap across the ocean in yet another plane to Zanzibar itself. The airport at Dar provided a few comedy moments, since we had to check in again here. After having our passports and $100 taken from us by a man in uniform who then disappeared into a throng of people, we were a little bit concerned we would be stranded in no-man's land, however they were returned pretty swiftly. We then spent 15 minutes being passed from one person to the next to try and get our boarding passes. After confirming 4 times that our luggage definitely hadn't come off the carousel, we were shepherded down a narrow corridor to a desk where we were presented with boarding passes, only to be shepherded back the same way, bypassing security altogether. When we finally made it to the gate, they scanned our bags, producing a few suspicious looks from the woman operating the x-ray machine. It turns out that Mum had a cigarette lighter in her bag. What was amusing about this, was that the bag had been scanned at Newcastle, Amsterdam, Entebbe (twice) and Nairobi, and no-one spotted it. What was even more amusing, was that when we finally arrived at the hotel, she found another one in the same bag!

Having left our hotel at 7am we finally arrived at Coral Rock Hotel in Jambiani, Zanzibar, following a hard sell 'I'm a tour guide too' taxi ride across the island, at 7pm. It had been a long day. And what a wonderful place to end it. The evening was warm, the sun had set and there were a pleasant breeze wafting from the ocean, towards our beach front cottage. We met Daniel, a South African who had gone travelling, and never quite managed to leave Zanzibar behind, who showed us around. Mum and I ended up in the honey moon suite - a little incestuous, I know - but it was nice. We headed to the restaurant, desperate for a proper meal, after our last in flight gourmet offering of Spam and mustard in a flat bread. The fish, bought on the beach that morning, and served up with a Zanzibari sauce, was phenomenal, and the atmosphere great - the sea lapping onto the rocks below and that warm sea breeze blowing in through the window. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. I sort of hoped I had! After dinner we were invited to join a group who were embarking on a drinking game - flipping a coin into a glass. It's not often that you meet hotel staff that truly interact with their customers, but Neil, Daniel and Sibs were up there heading the stakes. It was a late night.

We decided on a chilled out beach day for the next morning. I love arriving somewhere after dark, so that the next morning, after you've rested and you can take everything in, you really appreciate what is in front of you properly. We opened the cottage door to the most stunning view. Crystal clear sea, with every shade of blue, turquoise and green imaginable, on a bed of white rock and sand, as far as the eye could see, punctuated occasionally by a Dhow, or a fisherman wading out with his sails and nets on his back, or a woman going to check her seaweed harvest. We spent a number of hours sitting by the pool, absorbing this view, reading, relaxing and in traditional Alldred style, getting sunburned - despite the factor 40, I hasten to add!

After more fish for lunch, we decided to walk down onto the beach, and out for a kilometre or two to the channel which had revealed itself at low tide, protected from the ocean proper by a coral reef. The sand was blindingly white, the landscape surreal in its piercing clarity, and vast. Absolutely colossal. There were shallow pools of water, heated by the sun, and small plots where women had set up seaweed farms made of sticks and twine. It was almost lunar. As the sun beat down we eventually found the water's edge, and had to wade a further 200 metres until it was deep enough to swim. The sea was beautifully warm, but the current too strong without fins, so after a very quick dip we beat a retreat back to the hotel, followed by the rapidly advancing tide.

The next day we went on a boat trip. After all, what is a holiday without a boat trip? We drove to Fumba, a group of 12 people in the bus, armed with snorkels and fins, high factor sunscreen and plenty of water. Told we would arrive at the beach at high tide so the boat would be almost on the shore, it seemed that there had been some mistake, and we waded out for about 400 metres across sharp bits of dead coral, navigating round jelly fish and all manner of other plants and creatures, to the boat. We cut through the water for around an hour before stopping to snorkel. There were shoals of hundreds of brightly coloured fish - black and white striped, electric blues, yellows and oranges - with a wall of several thousand sheltering behind a huge hunk of coral, avoiding being washed towards the shore by the tide. There were huge urchins, anemones and brightly coloured coral. The visibility was perfect. And of course after an hour of snorkelling, I had gained a branded back.

We continued our journey around the bay, stopping on a sand bar in the middle of the water for fruit and beer, where we got chatting to a South African couple, Jen and Alan. It turns out that Jen was bridesmaid for the sister of a guy we know in Hartlepool. As they say, it's a small world. We sat and watched crabs dig sand out of holes, got back on the boat to the next island where we ate yet more seafood, climbed a Baobab tree and then got the boat back to Fumba. Back at the hotel, the party was just warming up as we arrived, and many shooters, including the local spirit, made for a bunch of merry travellers who danced until the small hours.

The next day we had opted to take a guided tour of Stone Town. Normally we'd explore a city with the help of a map, but given the state of the pair of us, hungover and sleep deprived, it was better to do it this way. We drove to Stone Town and were met by Abdul, the most acharismatic tour guide I have ever met. It was going to be a long afternoon. We wandered through the narrow streets and passageways, lined with crumbling whitewashed buildings, and weathered ornately carved Arabic and Indian doors. Women in headscarves and kids in Kaftans weaved through the streets, while guys on bikes and scooters dodged pedestrians around blind corners. The sheltered maze provided welcome relief from the baking sun. We visited the local produce and fish markets, seafood festering in the heat of the mid-afternoon sun while locals bid for it at auction. The spice market was a bit disappointing, everything having been pre-packaged for tourists, and I suspect not where Zanzibaris buy their spices from.

From here we went to site of the old slave market, functional right up the abolition of slavery was effective here in 1873 - although there was continued illegal trade from the island after this time. We visited two small holding cells, the cell for women and children having a capacity of 50-70 people, in what must have been a 15 by 10 feet in maximum dimension, with two small slits allowing in tiny shafts of daylight. It was harrowing. In the old marketplace itself there now stands a statue to commemorate those sold into slavery, next to the site of the old whipping post, where slaves were flogged to determine their worth. The thought that this barbaric practice had ever been acceptable is sickening. From here we visited the Fort, and stopped for a drink at Africa House, which had been the British Club in colonial times. It made the visit to the slave market all the more sobering, to think that we had probably followed in the direct footsteps of British perpetrators of slavery - from the market to the bar.

The evening was spent watching the sun go down, and sampling the wares of street hawkers selling barbecued seafood at the night market, while watching kids pull somersaults off the seafront into the water. Stone Town had been interesting, but there wasn't anything that made me think 'Wow!'. Perhaps if we had had the time to explore it at our own leisure, I would feel differently about it. Our final morning on Zanzibar felt a bit strange, we said our goodbyes to the staff who felt almost like new friends and headed off to the airport to make our way back to Uganda for the next leg of our journey...

(Photos can be seen here...)

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