Zanzibar: A Kind of Magic, innit

Waiting for the ferry to Zanzibar, we had time to wander to a nearby commercial centre to escape the scorching heat and indulge in our first urban retail experience. It was pretty much like a Western shopping mall (with Western prices), including a supermarket (Spa!), pharmacy, various cafes and fast food outlets. It was strange being in a relatively familiar environment in such an unfamiliar culture. Overall, Dar appeared industrial and bustling, and I was glad to get on the ferry bound for the more relaxed shores of the ‘spice island’, Zanzibar.

We arrived in Stone Town and ambled (as best one can with a backpack) through a maze of narrow streets and alleys to our hostel. Zanzibar’s residents look very different to mainland East Africans because the island is predominantly Islamic, so most people wear traditional Muslim clothing and headdresses.

The town appeared quaint in a rather shabby way, with its white-washed ancient buildings and mosques standing alongside bustling bazaars and restaurants catering for the tourists. The food we had on Zanzibar was delicious, mainly Indian which made a change from our diet on the tour so far. The popular night food market on the waterfront was definitely worth a visit, and we sampled chapati, a tasty East African and Indian flatbread eaten with grilled meats and salad – basically a kebab!

Strangely, I was the only one who was excited about being in Freddie Mercury’s birthplace! I managed to find a small window in our hectic schedule to sneak off and visit the house where his family used to live (sad, I know). Disappointingly, it has been turned into a museum totally unrelated to the musical legend and only a cheap plastic notice on the wall outside testifies to the significance of the house! For geeky fans like me, I’m sure they could make more of this marketing opportunity.

One of the (only) must-do’s in Zanzibar is the Spice Tour, which is a guided bus tour of the island’s highlights. For me, the most interesting part of this was visiting a spice plantation and seeing how cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger are grown. You know that things are a little desperate when a tour is padded out with such ‘sights’ as a windblown tree! We trailed around a few other supposed landmarks but really Stone Town is the cultural centre and other than that, beaches are what draw people to Zanzibar. Just a shame the sun wasn’t out!

Actually, our guide himself was rather more memorable than the tour itself. We had a sinking feeling as he introduced himself as ‘Ali T in the Bus’, and launched into a bizarre half African, half Ali G routine, peppered with rhyming slang and ‘innits’. His disconcertingly dead pan delivery gave a few of us the giggles (well, me anyway) which was a bit embarrassing, especially in a church we visited. I’m sure the Zanzibar tourism authority wouldn’t be best pleased at the guide’s description of the Sultan of Zanzibar having frequent “comfortable times” with twelve different “Me Julies”! This surreal tour was topped off by his sidekick hissing random questions about Britain at me - “Manchester United, they’re from London, right?”

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