The year 2020 has just began and it already gifted me with the wonderful,magical, turquoise filled week in Zanzibar. Turned out celebrating New year in Moscow had many benefits besides spending time with my family, 9 hour direct flight to Zanzibar - new and off the beaten path location with white sand beaches and palm trees, what can be better? So when choosing where to start New Year it seemed like a no brainer.
Quick researched showed that we would not need any shots to visit Zanzibar. Now if you are traveling to or from mainland Tanzania, or crossing border to Tanzania from say Kenya you would be required to provide yellow fever vaccination certificate, but if you are going straight to Zanzibar, there won’t be any questions, also the last registered case for malaria was years ago, so most of the people opt out of taking malaria pills, since they can have side effects and overall take a toll on your health. With this sorted I grabbed my organic anti mosquito stick, ton of sunblock and started packing for the trip. Besides your usual swimwear, floppy hat and sunglasses, swimming shoeswould make a valuable addition, since sea urchins are common and you wouldn’t want to step on one and ruin your trip. An important note for packing, on June 1st 2019 Tanzania banned plastic bags, more specifically it banned it's use, production, import and export, violators would face a fine of up to $ 2,000 or up to 2 years in prison, so no plastic bags while packing to Zanzibar.
Swinging on a Bwejuu beach
The day has come and 9 hours later we swapped cold and somewhat grey Moscow skies to hot and bright Zanzibar. The adventure begins with crossing the border and I gotta tell you this was the first time when the plane I just stepped out of turned out to be bigger then the airport building… Immigration is relatively easy, you pay 50$ visa fee at the border and get a 90 day tourist visa, all seams pretty straight forward, but somehow crossing the border was kinda of a mayhem… People from the plane all rushing in at the same time, not knowing where to go and what to do and who to give forms too … The whole process seamed to be poorly organized, coupled with long trip, lack of AC and lingering dehydration it made the experience a little lacking… The good news is that this is the most stress you will ever face in Zanzibar, because after this it is all smiles, sun, palm trees and ocean so gentle, you think you are being hugged by your mother.
We opted out for staying in a small village of Bwejuu on a east coast of an island, quiet and somewhat secluded it was ideal option for us. There are plenty of hotels on a east coast and plenty of beautiful beaches, however the most popular beach is Nungwi, which located on a north of the island and is said to be least affected by tides. Keeping an eye on tides is really important, I have never seen anything like this in my life, the difference between low and high tides is drastic, water will go back for miles and miles, as fas as the eye can see, almost to the horizon - creating tide pools what you can explore, many people see colorful starfish and other marine life, sadly I wasn’t one of those people. High tide will give you the most beautiful scenery - shades of blue, turquoise and indigo, sky resting on a wide shoulders of the ocean, gentle waters embracing you, letting you know that you are where you need to be. Then the same exact spot during the low tide would be completely different, no more blue… no more water. You will see new landscape, boats are no longer floating but haphazardly “sitting" on a sand and even though the change is graduate it is so complete, that you would feel like you were moved to a different planet. Tides are controlled by the moon and would happen at the different time of the day, so the your best bet is to download the tides app on your phone, so you are always in the know, we arranged our whole schedule around tides, to make sure we get the best out of our vacation.
Low tide, Jambiani beach
We didn’t want to be tired up to our hotel so we rented a scooter to explore beaches around us and venture out on a big road to get a taste of real deal, not just hotel grounds. Renting one out was relatively easy, once you show up on a beach you would be greeted by smiling locals, who would always ask you where are you from and then will say few things in your native language. These guys serve as tour guides, car rental dealers, fruit sellers, basically anything you can possibly need, they are there for you. They come by every day and always offer their services but never in an invasive way, which is really nice. You will need to bargain, it is almost expected of you. After some negotiation we settled on a 15$ a day for a scooter. To rent in Zanzibar you would need international drivers licenseand a special permit, that coast 10-15$, the last one is really important. The very first day we went to the neighboring Paje beach, which is much livelier than ours, it is know for kite surfing and is home to lots of kiting schools and laid-back beachfront cafes, perfect for lazy lunch. Few days later we decided to drive further away, hit the road and ventured out and hour and half away up north for a lunch at the small restaurant in Uroa. We drove by famous Jozani forest home to a Columbus monkeys and saw some real Zanzibar flair, some local shops, which are basically stalls by the side of a road, full of character. While in New York it’s not unusual to see a bodega cat leisurely stretch it’s body over the loath of bread, in Zanzibar the local shop clerk will play the role of said cat, curling up next to a pile of bananas and mangos. Driving around, peeking into day to day lives of people was an adventure in itself, but we also got a bit of excitement on a way back, we were stopped by local policemen, who got real upset once he saw, that we have all the paperwork straight, remember the special permit I told you about before, and had our helmets on, so he had no choice but to welcome us to Zanzibar and let us go on our merry way, so remember - helmet and permit and you’ll be fine.
Most of the people speak english, at least in the touristy places, but you will undoubtedly hear few Swahili words. First of all “Jambo!” - a friendly greeting always followed by a big smile. Which I gather roughly means hello and how are you all at once. The other greeting you might hear is “Habari”, I only heard is once or twice tho … you could also hear a traditional muslim “Salaam Alaikum”, which is obviously not a swahili word,but is used as a greeting widely in Stone Town or city of Zanzibar. Circling back to swahili - the next important one - “Pole pole”, which means “slowly-slowly” it is principle that rules life in Zanzibar and celebrates slow passed life, savoring the moment, enjoying the now. “Pole - pole” means you should leave your jittery New Yorker behind, it means that a cup of coffee could take a half an hour to make, it means letting go. Next up is one of my favorites “Hakuna Matata” which we all know from Timon and Pumba “means no worries, for the rest of your life, it’s a problem free philosophy”. This is basically what was happening in my head every time I heard that phrase, nearly breaking into the Lion King dance/singalong.
The word that I used most often - “Asante” and “Asante Sana” which means "thank you” and “thank you very much”. It is the littlest thing, but every time people heard it, their faces would light up and I would hear back a beautiful melody of “Ka-Ri-Bu” - “you are welcome” back. So take it from me “Asante Sana” is your ticket.
I found that people in Zanzibar are filled with kindness, at least the once I have met, nowhere else in a world I smiled so much and so intensely to everyone around me, because when you are greeted with smile, you can’t help but smile back. People, who work in our hotel were the nicest ever, it felt like they genuinely wanted to make you feel welcome and comfortable, it felt like you are being greeted by distant family members, who haven’t seen you in a while, but so happy you finally made it. So even the power outages, spotty wi-fi, none existent water pressure - nothing tarnished our mood,we never called to complain about these things, well even if we wanted to, we couldn’t call, because the phone wasn’t working as well, but really we never wanted to, would you really complain to your family about slow wi-fi? I guess the hardest part was water shortage. In Africa you start to feel that the running water in fact is a miracle and you learn to treat it as such. I have been an ambassador for Georgie Badiel foundation for many years and know a lot about clean water access in african countries (Georgie is working on providing clean drinking water for people of Burkina Faso and you can lear more about her work here - https://www.georgiebadielfoundation.org/about-gbf/.
Approaching the Prison island
While there are many activities you can do in Zanzibar like visiting the Stone Town, which is listed as a UNESCOheritage site, going on a "Blue Safari” to explore the marine life, seeing dolphins, visiting spice farms (spices are one of the main exports of Zanzibar) we decided that we want to have a relaxing slow passed vacation so we only got around to taking one tour - the Prison Island, romantic, right? Now despite what the name suggests the Prison Island or Changuu Island - never held any prisoners on it, even tho it was built as such and the main reason to visit it is to see new inhabitants - giant tortoises from Seychelles, that were gifted years ago and been living on that island ever since. The oldest one I saw was 134 years old, but I have heard that there are 190+ years old ones somewhere out there. Meeting these giants was an incredible experience and for someone who is over hundred years old those guys moved pretty fast, especially when they wanted to munch on greens you get when you enter the tortoise part of the island.
To get to the Changuu Island you would need to take a boat from Stone Town. The thing to remember here is that Zanzibar is predominantly muslim and while hotel areas and beaches are not restricted or censored in what tourist would wear it is advisable to keep certain dress code in mind of you find yourself walking around in Stone Town, if you say decided to visit former flat of Freddy Mercury, before he was Freddy. Of course no one would cast a stone at you if you show up in booty shorts and tank top, but I think it is important to be respectful to people who’s home you are visiting and it wouldn’t kill you to cover up for a few hours, general idea is no open back, crop tops, tank tops, basically make sure that your knees, shoulders and belly are covered and you are good to go. We paid total of 70$ for 2 people for a private tour, which included the transfer from our hotel to Stone town and back (about hour and half by car one way), boat ride to and from the island, a tour guide and admission. All in all well worth the money.
One more touristy thing we did out there was getting lunch at the famous “The Rock” restaurant, perched atop of a rock on a Pingwe beach. During the low tide you can simply walk up to it, but during the high tide it becomes an island of its own and you will need to use a boat to get to it. The scenery changes with tide and guarantees a unique experience every time. The place is beautiful and otherworldly, but this is the only restaurant in Zanzibar, where “pole-pole” principle seemed to be missing, the food came out with lightning speed and unless you ordered lobster you were not guaranteed a smile. You could really feel that you were just a number at the table, the “noon” sitting, soon to be replaced by the "2 pm’ sitting. Food is what you would expect it to be at the "restaurant with the view” and the price tag comparable to New York restaurants, all priced listed in USD, having said all of that - the place itself is worth seeing and it is definitely an experience.
"The Rock" with tide coming in
Last few things about our trip. There are many concerns surrounding trips to new, unknown locations, safety being the main. Here I would say the good rule would be - “Don’t be stupid” aka don’t flash your money around, don’t leave your stuff unattended, don’t walk around alone after dark ( the sun sets around 6.30 p.m and its pitch-black soon after), pretty much the same rules I listed for visiting Cape Town - here is the link if you want to read more about my trip there - http://www.dinarachetyrova.com/blog/exploring-cape-town
Hygiene - water in your faucet is not suitable for drinking, even after boiling so always drink bottled water. Wash your hands often and carry around a sanitizer for those instances there is no running water, also bring along the tissues, because toilet paper is scares some places, bring along the mosquito repellant, there might be lots of them in the evening, I used an all natural, organic, herbal stick for kids and it seemed to do the trick.
Cash - change money at the airport, before your transfer to the hotel. Currency is Tanzanian shilling but often enough locals would list prices in USD and would gladly take them as well.
Sunblock - use sunblock, even though temperatures are really high the breeze from the ocean makes sure you are never uncomfortable or sweaty, my main concern, because I despise being hot to be honest. But even if you don’t feel like you are hot, the sun is really strong, so use sunblock, wear hat, seek shade and stay hydrated.
Keep and eye on tides, while water comes in gradually it comes in strong, so you might all of a sudden find yourself far out in sea.
Last advise - smile! You will get so much further ahead if you embrace the experience and smile.
Despite the fact that after I came back from Zanzibar my mum said to me the same thing she said, when she found out I went skydiving - “Okay, so you did that. It is done, you don’t have to do it again, right ?”
Despited the long way home, which included basically being 20 hours on a road, long delays and sweaty mess of an airport unable to fit in all the passengers Zanzibar was amazing! The most unexpected and thrilling adventure of 2020 (so far) with colors so vibrant - even I am still not sure they were real. Zanzibar was a dream! and I hope you will get to live it.
Happy "Hakuna Matata".
"The Rock" during low tide
Kite surfers at Paje
Low tide at Bwejuu