One Month in Stone Town, Zanzibar

By Liza Nagode.

One year and five months have passed since I traveled to Zanzibar. The journey was part of the study abroad program I attended and during which I traveled around the world, to Tanzania, India, New Zealand, and Guatemala. I traveled to immerse and experience. I traveled to learn. Learn about the “other,” about myself, and about connections between us, the humanity. And so I lived eight months that profoundly changed who I am and the way I perceive the world.

Zanzibar was our first stop. The island reached its independence from Great Britain in 1963, which led to the bloody Zanzibari Revolution and, consequently, the establishment of the People’s Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba. In 1964 the republic joined Tanganyika, located on the mainland of East Africa, and the two came to form the United Republic of Tanzania, with Zanzibar being a semi-autonomous part with its own representative government.

During our one-month stay we were based in Stone Town, located on the west coast of the island. We had an opportunity to undertake classes that explored a great variety of topics focusing on political, economical, environmental, anthropological, and social aspects of the island.

Food Market in Stone Town | Photo: Liza Nagode

Food Market in Stone Town | Photo: Liza Nagode

Swahili culture and cuisine

Perhaps the most fascinating was to learn about Zanzibari turbulent history, which tells the story about an island that was strongly marked by century long trade. Its strategic position in the Indian Ocean allowed it to become a host of diverse cultures, such as Arab, Indian, European and African, which contributed to the creation of the unique Swahili culture.

The visit to the House of Wonders, a museum of Swahili history and culture, greatly contributed to my understanding of the island’s past, as I was able to connect all the facts learned in the classroom to the various historical artifacts. Located between the Old Fort and the Palace Museum and overlooking the Forodhani Gardens, the museum is known to be the tallest building in Stone Town and thus I was able to obtain a great view of the town from its spacious balcony.

Staying with host families further deepened my knowledge about the rainbow population of Zanzibar and its culture. Being a food fanatic, I particularly enjoyed the experience of the island’s cuisine that was strongly influenced by Indians, Persians, and Arabs. Every evening, right after daily one-hour electricity outage, our host mom, Mama Abla, sat my four “sisters” from the program, with whom I shared the home stay, and me around a large plastic cloth that covered the living room floor. Then she served us all kinds of homemade goods ranging from bananas cooked in a sweet coconut sauce to various curries that we were able to enjoy with a piece of chapati. Her recipes are probably the biggest treasure and the greatest souvenir I was able to obtain during my stay at the island.

Forodhani Gardens, sunsets, and dhows

I will never forget my first day in Stone Town. Our group was picked up from the airport by three Dala Dalas and I remember thinking: “what an interesting name.” Dala Dala is a small truck with an open back part that holds sitting benches in a shape of the letter U and is covered by a thin roof, where our large traveling backpacks ended up being placed. We were then crowded inside, each truck holding approximately 12 people. (A few weeks later I learned that our Dala Dala experience was actually not as authentic as I thought. In order to save some money, my friends and I decided to take public transportation, which is Dala Dala, to Jambiani, our one-week vacation destination. Just when we thought that absolutely no more people could fit in order for the ride to be safe, five more passengers embarked, with their large shopping bags, live chickens etc. We ended up sharing the small truck with about 25 other people, which was a unique experience indeed).

Breathtaking Zanzibari Sunset | Photo: Liza Nagode

Breathtaking Zanzibari Sunset | Photo: Liza Nagode

Upon the arrival to our hostel, Karibu Inn Guest House, where we stayed for three nights before moving in with our host families, we showered and applied a thick layer of mosquito spray in order to avoid bites by the malaria-infected insects. We were all starving and decided to explore the city in pursuit of some food. We weren’t searching for long. Just a few hundred meters away from the hostel laid Forodhani Gardens, where vendors started displaying their freshly caught seafood and other goods, such as samosas, cassavas, plantains, squeezed sugarcane juice etc., in preparation for the Sunset Food Market. The seafood ranged from octopus and lobster to all kinds of fish files that we ended up buying for no more than one euro.

I was enjoying my first Zanzibari dinner when I saw it… the most breathtaking sunset of my life. I was absolutely mesmerized as the whole sky changed its color to bright orange and I could feel the proximity of the equator. In combination with delicious octopus and samosas and sailing dhows, traditional wooden boats that in the past transported mundane goods, such as food and mangrove poles, and are today being used by fishers, I was in trans. The feeling of anxiety that I feel every time I travel to a new place vanished instantly. I was happy and I knew that I would grow to love my Zanzibari life.

Stone Town

Days in Stone Town were filled with adventures as I, together with my peers, always went about to discover new places. Stone Town was declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 and consists of a labyrinth of narrow streets walled by houses, shops, and markets. As all the streets look very much alike, getting lost was easy and yet very thrilling as we always came to discover something new, either be a shop selling all kinds of wooden souvenirs or a market selling fresh vegetables and still alive chickens waiting for their inescapable destiny of being slaughtered and eaten. We also came across a main town market selling great variety of goods ranging from toys and electronics to khangas, colorfully printed cotton garments worn by local women.

Sunset Food Market in Forodhani Gardens - Sugarcane Juice Squeezing | Photo: Liza Nagode

Sunset Food Market in Forodhani Gardens – Sugarcane Juice Squeezing | Photo: Liza Nagode

Lesson from Zanzibar

I believe that each journey you embark on should teach you at least one important lesson. During my one-month stay in Zanzibar I came to realize that my passion for traveling and the decisions I undertake abroad affect local cultures. Thus, I learned the importance of being a traveler and not a tourist. I came to see tourists as more unaware of their actions abroad, looking solely for a short-term experience of fun and relaxation. On the other hand, I started perceiving travelers as more aware, visiting places in order to immerse, learn, challenge themselves, and contribute to their personal growth.

So here is my question to you: are you a traveler or a tourist?

- Liza Nagode

Comments are closed.