Sunday, June 1, 2008

Guest Blog: Surviving Stone Town

While I slaved away researching hotels in hot and humid Dar, Dan set off to Zanzibar for a few days of diving and exploring Stone Town. Here's what he had to say about his adventure:

Stone Town, the main urban settlement on the island of Zanzibar remains a top Tanzanian tourist attraction as travelers seek to revisit the history of slaves and spices of the island and wander the maze of narrow streets that comprise the old town. The history of African, Persian and Asian influences on the islands are evident throughout the town in the range of food available. Twists and turns in the maze of backstreets reveal hundreds of stalls and shops, craft vendors and craftspeople, the sound of the ocean rapidly replaced by a school-room of children reciting Arabic verses, and pedestrians, bikes and motorbikes jostling for space on the narrow alleyways.

My visit to Stone Town left Kim in the sweltering heat of Dar es Salaam as I took an early morning ferry across the water to Zanzibar for a few days of scuba diving. Whilst the neighbouring island of Pemba is touted as the better destination for diving, time constraints kept me to Stone Town.

For three days a small hotel in the heart of the Shangani district of Stone Town was my home as I set out each morning on Bahari Divers' dhow and explored reefs and wrecks in the Indian Ocean. Amongst the nudibranchs, clown fish, puffer fish, lion fish, ramoras, trigger fish and parrot fish, the highlight was at the end of the third dive: a close encounter of the turtle-kind.

Where guidebooks and tourists talk of the sound of Zanzibar being taarab music, for me the audio accompaniment for the trip was the noise of hundreds of petrol generators. An ongoing powercut (9 days and counting by the time I left the island) meant businesses were reliant on petrol generators for power, and the constant chatter of these engines was the soundtrack of the visit. A side-effect of this was for hotel, restaurant and shop prices to increase dramatically as operating costs rose due to the cost of generating electricity.

Sadly, all diving trips must come to an end, and after my third day on Zanzibar the afternoon ferry brought me back to Dar es Salaam.

Tips to surviving Stone Town:
Touts: As soon as you set foot off the ferry you will be beset by porters, taxi drivers and ‘guides’, some offering their services outright and others making conversation before guiding you to a hotel or guesthouse. Stone Town is a maze of streets so unless you know exactly where you are going, a guide may be of use to show you the way – but be aware they will expect payment for this and will likely loiter outside your hotel until you reappear and then attempt to guide the rest of your visit. Trying to shake these guides loose can be tiresome and some tourists opt to retain a guide as once you are ‘spoken for’ the hassle from other touts disappears. If, as I did, you walk alone then be prepared for a near constant bombardment of people offering goods and services. If you do ‘retain’ a guide, treat their claims and advice with a large amount of caution – one tourist I met on the boat back to Dar was left furious and distraught by the lies and claims made by the tout she had used for two days.

Losing your cool: In hot weather and with constant attention from touts, it is easy for tempers to become frayed. Rows with touts and pan-handlers will not get you far; try to keep your cool. On the two occasions when touts became overbearing and forced me into confrontations, a simple but firm re-assertion of your refusal of their services/products sufficed to put them off and to gain the attention of and support of locals who were visibly annoyed that these touts were acting in an aggressive manner.

Eating and drinking: The fish market, now based in a street between the Old Fort and the Zanzibar National Museum, is a great place for good quality street food (especially sea food and sugar cane juice) from about 6pm until 9pm. Watch out for overcharging and take a bit of time to look at the different stalls before being pressured into eating from a particular one. Expect a degree of hassle from pan-handlers and guides if experiencing the market alone. There are numerous cafes, restaurants and shops selling food and drink during the day, but a quick way of cooling down is from the street vendors who ply the streets with handcarts laden with oranges or coconuts. For a few hundred shillings a handful of oranges or a coconut-milk will provide a quick and mobile pick-me-up (and amusement to small children as you, the crazy mzungu, inevitably spill half the coconut milk down your shirt).

Streets of Stone Town: Stone Town’s charm is the maze of alleys and streets, but it is easy to get lost amongst them. Try to keep an idea of your general orientation, but if all else fails and you find yourself lost, just head in one direction until you reach the edge of the old town, work out where you are and carry on from there.

Learn some Swahili: A few basic words and phrases in Swahili will serve you well. Being able to work through greetings and declining offers of help (Hapana, asante) will help with shaking off touts and with getting assistance from staff and locals.

Dress appropriately: As with many other parts of Tanzania, dressing conservatively with long trousers and long sleeves is advisable – not only is this culturally sensitive, but it does seem to reduce slightly the hassle from street touts, and helps prevent sunburn!

Find a reputable dive company: There are numerous companies offering scuba diving and snorkeling in Stone Town and across Zanzibar. Seek recommendations as to reputable companies before booking and diving with a company, and check they are appropriately certificated by the government and the diving industry. Bahari Divers and One Ocean in Stone Town have very good reputations.
The passport stamp/port tax scam: Con artists working at the Dar ferry terminal will say you need to pay them or a colleague money for your passport to be stamped back into Dar (it doesn’t) or for the port tax (you don’t, buy your ticket from a ticket office and the tax is included in the total price). Ignore such people and don’t pay them anything. There is little point reporting such activities to the local police as they are unlikely to do anything about it.

Remember the good things: Despite the hassles and heat, try to remember the good times and positive experiences. Would you rather be being hassled to buy a bracelet by a beach on Zanzibar or to take part in a piece of market research on a rainy afternoon back home?

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