We knew were meeting other travel mates to take the 4:30 shuttle to our hotel. We walked out into the Zanzibar air, and glanced around for somewhat familiar faces and/or the driver we were expecting holding a sign. The area to the sides of the walkway, exiting the airport was almost like a mini amphitheater, minus the major slopes. With its rectangular concrete features for you to sit or lean on, it was a natural gathering spot. It didn’t take long to notice two young women who we assumed to be with the group. We walked over to ask, and they were. We introduced ourselves and settled in. The two new travel mates were very friendly. They were from Philadelphia and San Francisco. Talking about our journeys, and such followed until we saw a person with a sign for our group. Besides the sign, in his hand was a list that had all of our names for the pick-up, and after a roll call, he informed us that we were waiting for one more person. As soon as she walked out the airport and up the steps we knew right away she was with us. I think because in this short period of time we recognized how much we stood out as Westerners, and now it was just as easy for us to do the same. Another intro was made with our newest travel mate, and our driver escorted us to the shuttle van.
The shuttle van was parked nearby in the parking lot. Our bags and bodies were loaded up. I saddled up to a window seat. The driver handed out bottled water along with nicely rolled, cold wash clothes that we didn’t quite know how they were to be used. Once we were all in our seats and the driver was making preparations to leave, we began to notice the small swarm of tiny mosquitos that were making sure we were aware of their existence. The driver quickly became annoyed, and I was already glad that the Malaria pills were in my bag. Some of our cold wash clothes were now being used as bug beaters. The driver made a call to someone that had the shuttle last, and he expressed his frustration verbally. A window was opened to encourage the mosquitos to leave, helping them to exit before they met their potential swatted death. The driver started up, and off we went. My glimpse outside of the airplane window on the descent was my only true point of reference for the island I will reside in for the next week. Our first half of the trip was scheduled for the city of Stone Town. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, it’s known for the unique mixture of Arab, Persian, Indian and European elements, evidence of its spice and slave trade in the 19th century. I decided to set my phone in the window and hit start on the video in order to use my own eyes to look while everything I was seeing was being captured. Every ounce of the hustle and bustle of the city was accentuated by our speed as it whizzed by. People were on bikes, motorized and foot powered, in cars, buses, trucks, and on foot. It was a hum of controlled chaos, all on the opposite side of the road than I am used to.
The buildings were a mix of architectural influences, from the ornate to the fundamental basics. Our scenery changed from the broadly open roads of the city into a smaller, tighter condensed version. Multi-lane roads with cars that dodged and dashed turned into single lanes that narrowly squeezed between parked cars, or the sides of stone buildings. To drive here, you would have to have your reflexes and accuracy on point, along with a working horn or bell. As we got closer to the hotel, the roads were now practically alleyways with the buildings dominating the space. The driver pulled to an intersection of two narrow lanes and parked. In front of us was a street of white and tan plaster buildings, stores with doors wide open, showcasing their wares. Another larger white plaster building with a scalloped awning, big hand carved ornate wooden doors, and steps with large potted plants standing as sentries, was our hotel. The male hotel staff was at the door fresh in their bright, white, ankle length kaftans, with smiles just as bright. Our experience designer, who would lead us on our journey, was waiting for us. Everyone introduced himself or herself as she explained the check-in procedure. Each of us gave our names to the staff at the counter, and we were given our paperwork as they made copies of our passports. The process was smooth. Everyone was given a welcome packet that included a kanga (colorful fabric), a schedule, a roster, house rules, and a pledge. Before now, I had not thought about the possibility that I would have a room to myself, but I was not upset to find out that I did. I chalked it up to my age; I figured as the potential old head of the group, it was a courtesy given to me to not have to share a room with a youngster.
Hands down, the hotel was divine. The modesty of its outside was no indication of the gem inside. With its shiny floors, high polished wood, and open atrium, I was blown away. The door to my room was opened, and it was remarkable. Picture perfect to say the least. The bed was practically, but beautifully dressed in sheer white mosquito netting, tied back by turquoise bows that coordinated with the pillows and throw. On the bed sat a towel masterfully shaped into a butterfly. Deep blue stained glass dormers sat above the windows with ornate wrought iron, looking onto the city. Even the bathroom had a hanging glass star pendant that was worthy of being considered art. I took some time to be present in the moment. This was the true start of this journey. For about an hour, I rested, let people know I arrived safely, and I unpacked a few things. Tonight, we were to meet upstairs for our full introduction before heading out to dinner. I freshened up and went upstairs to the terrace, our meeting place at 6:30 pm. This place kept getting more amazing. The view on the rooftop gives a bird’s eye view of the city; 360 panoramic views and you could see the Indian Ocean, the roofs of the city, and the minaret of the nearby mosque. Everyone was there, known travel mates and new. As the sun began to set, changing the colors of the sky, we all introduced ourselves and discussed our awaiting experience. From this initial meeting, we discovered that some of the travel mates knew each other from a past trip; some were college friends; and some co-workers. No matter how or if our paths had crossed before, it was clear that we were all there at this moment to have a new experience together. There was not much time to spare before our dinner reservations at a nearby hotel. A cheers was had with drinks we ordered at the bar to mark the start.
We walked in organic groups of two and threes, alternating here and there. By now the sun had set as we walked in the warm glow of the streetlights. The area we had reserved was a room off to itself; it was large enough to accommodate the group of 13. It was mostly crimson red, with a view right into the kitchen. Our dinner was a family style meal with way more food than we could eat. The friendly staff kept pouring out the large epicurean delight of food, meats, curries, salads, seafood, almost everything and anything, with bowls and large platters in front of everyone. I tried to eat all I could, out of gluttony, and a sense of obligation, but somewhere along the way, my stomach tapped out. During our meal, we participated in icebreaker activities where we were asked to get to know our neighbor, and share their story with the rest of the group. By the time we finished, it was time to settle any outstanding bills only for those of us that purchased alcohol. Otherwise, this was one of the many meals to come included in our trip. Tanzanian Shillings, US Dollars, and credit card were all accepted.
Nobody does it better - Courtesy of CNN, Anthony Bourdain's "Part Unknown."
On the walk back to our hotel, we took a quick nighttime tour of Forodhani Gardens. Located near the seawalk of Stone Town, this main square by daytime transforms into a popular food street market square at nighttime. This is extremely popular place with everything imaginable. So much so, that when I did my research, I discovered that Anthony Bourdain had a “Parts Unknown” episode filmed there, where it was shown that pizza was one of the specialties! Strolling around there was where it clearly became obvious that we, the group of Black Americans, were quite the spectacle. As a majority Muslim island, we stood out since the women in the group were not covered. Another observation was that majority of the tourist were White Americans or European, which made us even more obvious. A lot of locals practiced their English with us as they asked questions, wanting to know where we were from. One enthusiastic chef even ran back to change his music at his stall for us, and created a rap about having the best pizza. You had me at pizza! Seeing this many people of color, but still standing out was a new experience for me. It opened my eyes to the rest of the world, and how everyone has a different perspective. After we zig zagged through, we made the hard right out of the gardens, and up the street to our hotel. It was a long day for us all, and we had a full day ahead. Just as easily as we met up, we all went our separate ways to our rooms. Goodnight Stone Town. Till we meet again in the morning.