Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A Farewell to Monsoons

It’s my last day in Stonetown, and on Zanzibar. It’s been raining for the last 13 hours straight, which makes me think we got lucky for most of the trip, where we’d get the standard 2 hours of monsoon rains each day, usually in the afternoon. Today, though, it’s pouring buckets. I know this to be a fact because last night the ceiling in my hotel room was leaking, so I set out a bucket and went to sleep. In the morning the bucket was full and my room was flooded.

Today was supposed to be a curio-shopping day, but now it’s a test-out-the-cool-Arabic-style-cushions-in-the-hotel-lobby day. More notes on Zanzibar:

Coffee. Excellent Kenyan coffee is world famous and impossible to get in Kenya. Coffee in general is not very popular in Kenya except among wazungu, and most of the coffee sold in supermarkets is of the instant Nescafe variety. On Zanzibar, coffee is sold on the street in small teacups, for a few cents. Locals drink it black, unlike in Kenya where every hot caffeinated drink is drowning in milk and sugar. (My tribe, the Nandis, like to brew tea leaves in whole milk, and skip the water altogether.) Tanzanian coffee is thick and robust, without that thin taste of tree branches, and every morning you’ll see coffee vendors shuffling kettles and teacups around as fast as they can to keep up with the crowds of thirsty men gathered around their stand. Coffee drinking is apparently not a very womanly thing to do on Zanzibar.

Mosquitoes on Zanzibar are the worst in the world. I have a mosquito scale that goes like this:

Houston, TX – rabid, responsive to Deep Woods Off (30% DEET).
California Sierras – very rabid, move in black clouds, responsive to Jungle Juice (100% DEET).
Malaysia – very rabid, responsive to Jungle Juice.
Kisumu and Lake Victoria – extremely rabid, will find a way into your net, responsive to Jungle Juice.
Zanzibar – extremely rabid, cross-eyed and drooling; will find a way into your net even if you tuck it into your mattress; especially fond of knuckles, toes, bottoms of the feet, and bum; unresponsive to Jungle Juice.

Seafood. Zanzibar has the best seafood in East Africa!! We stayed in a guesthouse* next to the big fish market in Stonetown. Being in the same neighborhood as the fish market was interesting, to say the least. In the mornings, from the rooftop café of our hotel, we could watch fishing boats unload their catch, but afternoons were more interesting. Loud arguments would break out in the street over fish, and a crowd would gather that sometimes included someone waving a fish around.

There’s a seemingly endless variety of sea creatures to whet your non-vegetarian appetite, most of which would make up-country Kenyans shiver and gag: octopus, squid, barracuda, red and white snappers, kingfish, lobster, crab, mussels, clams, tuna, shark, rays.

You can try many of these (grilled on a stick) at Forodhani Gardens, a grassy plaza along the waterfront with no actual gardens, where a modest row of food stands – and their annoying vendors – pop up each night at sunset.

The fresh-off-the-boat seafood, fresh-pressed sugar cane juice (served ice cold with a generous hint of lemon and ginger), Zanzibari pizzas, local dishes like urojo (potatoes, bajias and fried cassava in a cold coconut-lemon-chili soup), and relatively cheap prices make this popular eating destination worth a trip – or several.

But it’s not exactly “a good place to soak up the local atmosphere,” as Lonely Planet inexplicably describes it, unless your idea of soaking up the local atmosphere means being constantly harassed by drunks whose English vocabulary consists of, “Why didn’t you buy me the beer you promised?” and, “Fuck you!”; “artists” hawking ugly paintings that they didn’t paint; vendors trying to sell you the exact same stuff on a stick that the guy at the next table just sold you; and lots of tourists just like you being harassed for stuff because they’re tourists.

We also made friends with one of the cooks at our guesthouse, Salma. We bought a large snapper and squid at the fish market, some oil and lemons, and asked her to prepare a Swahili-style meal for us. For a 5,000 Tsh tip, she deep-fried the fish, and served it with a simple lemon-coconut-chili sauce, which is found in a lot of the local food here. It was one of the best meals we’ve had on Zanzibar.

Today I’ve commissioned Salma to teach me how to make urojo. It’s usually eaten for breakfast or dinner, the light meals of the day.

Vegetables. Leafy green vegetables aren’t very common on Zanzibar, but it seems like the Zanzibari equivalent of Kenya’s sukumawiki (a type of kale not so dear to my heart) is closer to spinach, which is quite palatable.

Swahili. Our guide for the spice tour, Abdul, told me this joke about the prevalence of Swahili in East Africa:

The Swahili language was born in Zanzibar, lived in Tanzania, got sick in Kenya, died in Uganda, and was buried in the Congo.

So I told him a joke that Kenyans love to tell:

In order for East Africa to develop, Ugandans need to learn Swahili, Tanzanians need to learn English, and Kenyans need to learn manners.

Supposedly Zanzibar Swahili is the most proper Swahili. I definitely had to clean up all the village Swahili I’ve been using (which I apparently contaminated Brady with). So instead of speaking like a caveman: “Chakula iko?” – Food, it’s there?

I have to say, “Kuna chakula?’ – Is there food?

And instead of using the imperative Swahili that makes Kenyans so famously rude:

“Nipe chai” – Give me tea

Or, “Letee chai” – Bring tea

I’ve learned to say,

“Nisaidia na chai” – Help me with some tea

Or, “Naomba chai” – I request tea

As much as Swahili is widely and properly spoken in Tanzania and especially Zanzibar, English by contrast is almost non-existent. Which has been great for me, as my Swahili has improved by leaps and bounds in the last ten days. Unfortunately, being a nerd and knowing I’d be traveling in Swahili-land for over a week, I brought all my language notes from my lessons with Nick, and promptly left them in a tour van that I was never able to track down again.

Okay, Fish Market. I just went down to the beach where they sell fish straight off the boats. I was looking for a nice white fish for Salma to fry up for my last meal here. It was raining so I wrapped up my head with a scarf like a local woman, which didn’t fool anyone, judging from everyone’s eagerness to repeatedly announce to each other that I am from “Cheena, Cheena.”

There were all kinds of crazy fish whose names I’ll never know because the vendors only knew the Swahili names for them. Cats of every size, shape, and disease prowled for fish parts and licked at puddles of fish juices. I came up on two men enthusiastically hacking away at large white rays the size of endtables. I stared for awhile, watching them make fillets, until another guy slapped a three-foot shark onto the table in front of me. I left the market with two fillets - a shark and a ray.

Yard Sale On Zanzibar! It’s like becoming a human snowball on the slopes of Tahoe, then face planting several hundred meters downhill. Or maybe it’s more like Hansel and Gretel leaving a trail of crumbs so that I can find my way back here one day. Either way, this was a vacation of losing stuff all over the island. I lost my Swahili notes, a bandana, a pair of sunglasses, my leftover kachori from lunch, and a $100 bill.

Well, I didn’t lose the $100 in the sense that I left it somewhere and forgot where. It was actually stolen from me by one of the staff at the guesthouse where we stayed. First I feel compelled to explain why I was even carrying a hundred dollar note. Before this trip I went to get USD at my bank in Nairobi, but they were reluctant to give me anything smaller than a hundred. In the States, a hundred dollar note is pretty obscene. I don't think I've ever carried one before. In Africa, it's unthinkably obscene, which is why it seems like people (or at least bank tellers) can't comprehend exactly what it means to be carrying that much money in a single bill. So the teller grudgingly changed one of the hundred dollar notes she gave me, and I was stuck walking around Nairobi with three one hundred dollar notes, quite a security concern in Africa's most crime-ridden city.

Anyway, before the money was stolen, I had really wanted to write a glowing review of the guesthouse, because it was a great place to stay. But after this betrayal, which really felt like a betrayal after I thought I’d made friends with all the staff, I now really want to use this forum to trash that guesthouse into the deep blue Indian Ocean. I will, however, do neither.

8:49pm. After seething about it all the way back to Nairobi, I came to the conclusion that this is East Africa. Duh. Even if I were staying at a five-star hotel, there would be people working there who would happily and without hesitation steal my money, even if I was exceedingly kind and generous to them. That’s how things work much of the time.

I'd let my guard down. I was tired of being cynical of people’s motivations all the time, and knowing that it’s the only prudent way to be. I was being naïve and I knew it, in wanting to trust people who were so friendly to me, and wanting to prove wrong all the assumptions about Africans that wazungu and Africans both embrace. I’ve stored up two years of negative perceptions about East Africans, but it’s exhausting to constantly see the world around me this way. At some point I just wanted to assume that people are essentially honest, good and caring. But in Africa, things don’t work according to a mzungu’s assumptions.

(Photos by Brady Zieman)


Post a Comment

<< Home