A Talisman Surprise
Nairobi, Kenya / Thursday 14 September 2017
As our little plane flew over the Mara, I said goodbye to Paradise Plain and the various other territories that we too, like the Mara creatures, had ‘marked’. It felt decidedly strange, watching the images of giant animals and birds in the spotted plains give way to the houses, buildings and roads of Nairobi. I felt as if I were still wearing the cap that had been my constant companion the entire week, and it still felt as if my camera was in my hand…my fingers in camera-holding position. Ridiculous but true.
At Wilson Airport, it was a short wait for our pick up and a half hour or so drive to lunch. It was a bit of a shock to the system, sitting in a closed vehicle, with air-conditioning, and driving on relatively smooth roads (no more steps to be chalked up on the Fitbit). I missed the fresh air and the sound of silence.
Lunch was at The Talisman (‘Nairobi’s best restaurant’, according to The New York Times) – fortunately they aren’t too fussy about dress codes…we were the only people who were dressed for safari rather than lunch at ‘Nairobi’s best restaurant’. Penny said that Marius and a couple of other guests would also be lunching at the Talisman – I think they were returning from Namibia (‘Namibia with Marius’ – also on my bucket list).
The lunch menu was a rather eclectic mix – from Kung Pao Chicken to Moroccan Beef Stew (which I had) and Five Spice Yellowfin Tuna with wasabi croquettes. One of the starters was chicken wings with sauce that was either ‘mild, hot or taliban’ (we got taliban).
In the middle of lunch, Penny said that we were in for a surprise – in particular Greg, Shobs and I. We surmised that there was someone else coming along with Marius…Kirsty maybe (from the Oryx office)? But Greg didn’t know her. We then figured that Dale would be coming – all three of us knew him – Shobs and I from the Omo Valley trip and Greg from another Oryx trip. Penny refused to confirm this – but a few minutes later we were proven right when Dale walked in with Marius and their guests. It was great seeing him again, and Marius – what a bonus sighting… 🙂 And as a further bonus – malva pudding which was as delish as I remember it from the Cape Town holiday two years ago.
It was then back to the Ole Sereni. At some point at Nkorombo, I remembered why the security guard at the hotel had looked so familiar. He looked exactly like one of the Aerbore villagers I’d photographed on our way to the Buska Lodge in Turmi on the Omo Valley trip. Unfortunately he wasn’t on duty today so I couldn’t confirm this…though this would be a long way from home for him, if it were indeed the same man.
Goodbyes were said to Penny and Greg. Jon was leaving the next day like us. This time we got a park-facing room, though after the thrill of the Mara, this didn’t hold the same excitement as it might’ve if we’d got this room on our way to the Mara. We caught up with emails, and Whatsapps…the ‘joys’ of being connected again – and I had a shower that was probably at least 5-buckets worth. We met Jon for dinner and slept early in preparation for our 5AM pick-up tomorrow for our flight to Zanzibar.
Nairobi – Stone Town, Zanzibar / 15 September 2017
It was a surprisingly slow-ish drive to the airport despite the early hour. At what looked like a toll stop, and still quite a distance from the airport, we had to get out of the car and go through a metal detector, while our driver with tens of other vehicles crawled through the checkpoint. It was like crossing the causeway at Woodlands. We on foot were through long before the cars and buses – fortunately we recognised our car and driver.
Back in the car, it was a snail’s pace drive to the airport, where the Oryx rep was waiting to see us safely off. More security inside and a long queue to check in. The Kenya Airways flight left on time – and the biggest thrill of the flight was flying past Mount Kilimanjaro! The point and shoot V-Lux 40 with its crazy 40x digital zoom came in most useful. It was such a buzz seeing the top of the famed mountain…the only way I’ll ever see its top, I’m sure.
It was another very smooth landing at Zanzibar’s Abeid Amani Karume Airport. We piled into the coach that would take us to the terminal – but it didn’t move. One of the airport staff got on, and started proclaiming (loudly) – ‘This is Zanzibar not Dar-es-Salaam’. He then proceeded to check everyone’s boarding pass. Apparently, the count on our plane (which was going on to Dar-es-Salaam) was short of a few people – who must’ve got off thinking this was their stop. It was quite funny – the chap finally discovered the errant family on his second sweep of the coach. The family was escorted off by a rather irritated officer who looked like he had to do this for every flight that stopped in Zanzibar en route to Dar-es-Salaam; then someone discovered that a child’s shoe had been left behind, and someone else went running off behind the family, with the shoe. It was all quite Monty Python.
At the terminal, yellow fever vaccination certificates were checked and we jostled our way to reach the table with immigration cards which were duly filled. Immigration was quick, as was the bag collection – and we soon were in the car to Stone Town.
It was a delicious thrill to say, “We’re in ZANZIBAR!” – the place that occupied the last page of my stamp album in the days when I used to arrange and rearrange my collection at regular and frequent intervals… I can’t, for the life of me, remember how stamps from Zanzibar came into my possession. Zanzibar with its dhows silhouetted in the sunset (I’m sure I remember having a stamp with this image on it), men in white robes, the spice trade…and more recently, Eli Pope declaring that he’ll go to Zanzibar, where no one can find him (if you recognise this reference, you’re as ‘Scandal’-ous as I am).
It was a short drive to Stone Town where our hotel was located. First impressions – cleaner air here compared to dusty Nairobi, and it seemed much more laidback. Men (and kids) in robes – check!
Our hotel, the Jafferji House (and Spa), was on a little street in Stone Town – the streets (lanes, actually) of Stone Town are way too narrow for cars, so we had to get down and walk the last stretch, dragging our bags over the cobblestones. Jafferji House used to be a family home, and is now a lovely boutique hotel. Javed Jafferji, the owner, is quite a prolific photographer and his photos adorned the walls – he’s been around…there were images of wildlife and tribes, landscapes and dhows, royalty (British and Hollywood) and shadows and streets.
The front desk lady was surprisingly not very friendly. While we waited for our room, we asked about photography tours – we got a shrug in reply. On the flight here I’d read about where to eat in Zanzibar – Spice Route jumped out at me…the chef was described as ‘a biryani master’. We (I) had decided (very easily) on Spice Route for lunch. When we asked front desk lady where it was, we were again met with a shrug. I half thought she didn’t speak English, but she spoke it quite well to some angmoh guests. Hmm. Not good.
BUT our room – the Adnan Suite (they’re all suites here) – was fab. It was up three flights of stairs – our bags (all of them) were lugged up the narrow stairs by two giggling (very strong) girls – just as well…I certainly wouldn’t have been giggling carrying that load. The room was huge and very Moroccan / Middle Eastern…though the blurb at the entrance made reference to Pakistani influence. We freshened up and with the help of Google Maps found our way to Spice Route smoothly – it literally was almost just around the corner from where we were.
The mutton biryani was indeed fabulous, if a tad spicy…but only because Shobs had enthusiastically said ‘yes, spicy’ when we were asked if we wanted the biryani ‘normal’ or ‘spicy’. Anyway, it was still fab, as was the dal and aubergine curry – it all went very well with the banana daiquiri.
It was a lazy afternoon. We got a slight feel of Stone Town – narrow shop-lined lanes, men in robes touting colourful paintings and various souvenirs from fridge magnets with multi-hued Masai warriors and Freddie Mercury, to pretty shawls and spices that looked specially packed for tourists. We stuck to our lane (Gizenga Lane) and ventured down maybe just one lane off ours…didn’t want to risk getting lost, which I’m sure would’ve been very easily done.
On our way back from lunch we stopped at the Spa – of Jafferji House (and Spa) fame. As it turned out the spa was actually across the lane from us. The masseuse wasn’t well and they directed us to their branch ‘just down the road’. We made an appointment for later in the evening and retreated to our cool room. We did some online sleuthing and found a tour guide who seemed to have gotten rave reviews on Trip Advisor – and so I Whatsapped Yussuf Selemani, who replied very promptly, and plans were made to meet the next morning for a half-day walking tour around Stone Town..
Our massage that evening was a welcome indulgence; the sun had set by the time we were done and there was a slight moment of trepidation…would we get lost…but it really was ‘just down the road’ (and quite near Spice Route) so we got back without any drama.
Dinner was had at the rooftop restaurant of Jafferji House, looking out over Stone Town, where church spires and the crescent moons of mosques stood side-by-side quite companionably. It might’ve been peaceful with the good food, the Kilimanjaro beer, the lovely company…except that there was some very off-key singing (complete with disco lights) coming from another rooftop not far from ours.
Stone Town Strolling
Stone Town, Zanzibar / 16 September 2017
I woke up today to the call of the muezzin (no more grunting hippos to wake us up), and promptly went back to sleep for a bit more. While it was nice to ‘sleep in’, there’s something to be said about early starts to the day…
Breakfast was at the downstairs branch of the rooftop restaurant – it was laidback service and the usual eggs, sausages etc. – I wondered what Zanzibaris traditionally had for breakfast (I never did find out).
Slaves, Spice & Livingstone
I recognised Yussuf from his Whatsapp profile pic and he recognised us as we were the only obvious two tourists standing outside Jafferji House (and Spa). He was indeed a mine of information and I tried to keep up with his history and geography lesson as we stood under a tree in the courtyard of the old Fort…how Zanzibar was a British protectorate, and then for a short time a Sultanate (or it may have been the other way around) , before uniting with Tanganyika to become Tanzania… we were now on one of the two largest islands in the Zanzibar archipelago, Zanzibar (aka Unguja) – the other being Pemba…
Zanzibar is mainly Muslim with a small proportion of Christians and Hindus…Yussuf hastened to add that people of all three faiths get on well and religious tolerance is the norm. We saw this for ourselves yesterday at Spice Route, which was an obviously Hindu-owned restaurant with Ganeshas prominently displayed and a little Hindu altar near the cash machine (!) – a table of Muslim men in robes and skullcaps sat nearby tucking in to their biryanis…biryani, at the heart of religious tolerance…
Zanzibar was very much a centre of the spice trade, being a safe stop for the trading voyages between the Middle East and India. Its history involves the Portugese (yes Vasco da Gama, from the pages of my primary school history textbook), the Indians, the Persians, the Omanis and Arabs.
At some point Zanzibar became the centre of the slave trade too. David Livingstone, one of the most famous opponents of slavery had lived in Zanzibar for a short time before setting up a mission nearby (relatively speaking) at Lake Tanganyika – and it was there that Stanley’s famed “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” was said. We visited the site of the former slave market and the Anglican church that was built at the site after the slave market was ordered closed, and Zanzibar saw the end of slavery. The church, like many other buildings, was made of coral stone (thus Stone Town!). At the front and centre, the altar was built around the former whipping tree. To mark the site of this former whipping post there is a round marble piece with a red border (symbolising the blood of the slaves we were told) – a rather thoughtful architectural specification – with biblical connotations?
Less thoughtful perhaps were some of the pillars which were built upside down when the Bishop who was supervising the construction was called away to England for a short period – building continued and the local builders put in 12 pillars upside down, with the square bases at the tops of the pillars. A nice quirky touch! I’m sure the builders were so pleased with themselves – that they’d conscientiously completed the work by the time the Bishop returned; I can only imagine the Bishop’s reaction, though to his credit he let the upside down pillars be.
In the church too, hangs a cross made from the wood of the tree under which Livingstone’s heart is buried (in Zambia, I think).
Farrokh Bulsara Lived Here (aka Zanzibar – where a man definitely can’t live like a queen)
Stone Town’s other claim to fame (besides being a UNESCO Heritage Site) is that Freddie Mercury was born here; he lived here on and off with his family till they left in the 1960s during the political revolution in which Arabs and Indians were persecuted.
The family home was clearly signposted (Mercury House – not Bulsara House) with photos of the young Farrokh and the older flamboyant Freddie in a glass case outside. At various points of the day we saw ‘Mercury Bar’, ‘Mercury Restaurant’, and postcards and fridge magnets of Freddie Mercury at every souvenir shop.
With all the hype, it is easy to think that Freddie Mercury is a ‘beloved son of Zanzibar’. Quite the contrary, as at the height of his career he wouldn’t have been allowed back into the (still) homophobic Zanzibar. To underline this fact in thick rainbow-coloured marker, today’s news reported 20 people being arrested in Zanzibar “for homosexuality” while they attended a HIV/AIDS education programme run by an NGO. As the police chief said, “The police cannot turn a blind eye to this practice.” And so, Freddie smartly stayed well away, never returning to the place of his birth.
The Lanes & Doors of Stone Town
It was a day of walking today, through the narrow alleys of Stone Town – I just followed Yussuf. How easy it would be to get lost here. Though after a few hours, there were landmarks that began to look vaguely familiar. Every so often, Yussuf would ask, “Do you know where your hotel is?” Most of the time, Shobs and I would point in completely different directions – and would both be wrong. We eventually recognised the spire of the church near our street, and the rooftop of Jafferji House (and Spa), and then more or less, got our bearings.
Jaws Corner was the other landmark. It was sort of a ‘central (very small) square’, with lanes branching out from it in various directions. There was a shark mural on one of the walls – I don’t know if the ‘corner’ got its name from the mural or if the mural came later, with ‘jaws’ referring to the conversations that happened on this corner. Whatever it was, Jaws Corner was The meeting place in Stone Town – much like the ‘mushroom’ of Stockholm. While we stood at Jaws Corner, Yussuf said one could make free international calls in Stone Town. Huh? He pointed to a tall flag-decked wooden post – halfway up was a telephone and a sign that said ‘Make Free International Phone Calls Please’…for anyone who could climb up, stay up and make the call. The Telecoms people here have a sense of humour.
We walked past the National Museum – the sign in Arabic said ‘Beit Al-Ajaib’ – House of Wonders. The translation to ‘National Museum’ seemed rather inadequate. We couldn’t go into the museum unfortunately, as the roof had caved in and it hadn’t been repaired. While the front gate was padlocked and the front railings had suitably sharp tips, we later discovered that one of the side railings was non-existent and one could actually quite easily get to the front door of this House of Wonders!
The Forodhani Gardens at the seafront and the seawall were both empty and relatively quiet save for a few kids in bright white robes sitting on the wall. I’d seen photos of boys diving into the water and Yussuf said that this happens in the evening – which was also when the food stalls are set up at Forodhani – much like Gurney Drive?
Stone Town’s other claim to fame (yes, it has many claims to fame indeed) is its doors; these were quite beautiful – old, new-made-to-look-old and everything in between. Yussuf pointed out the differences between the Indian doors (arched) and the Arab ones (rectangular). There were brass studs on doors – which had sharp points (not so sharp now) to keep animals away; there were intricate carvings – some looked to have religious significance, others not so much. The oldest door we saw was made of solid Burmese teak. The newer ones we were told are mahogany.
The doors and their beautiful frames were the focus of life in Stone Town. Merchants sat just inside their doors, surrounded by their spices, teas and swathes of cloth. Women sat chatting on their doorsteps. Miniature door frames for sale sat next to the actual door frames of shops. Shopkeepers called out a welcome from their doors to come look at the art, shawls and other souvenirs within…”Karibu! Just see.” The doors that were shut were the centre of attention for camera-toting tourists like us; and when someone knocked or called to be let in beyond these closed doors, a key on a string would be let down through a window by someone on an upper floor. Many doors were gateways to further mazes – like one door which was supposedly an entrance to a Ganesha temple – we stepped in and found ourselves in another alley, with kids on bicycles racing about, and there was yet another ‘main door’ to the actual temple. At one of the shops selling art and artefacts, we chatted with the owner, a quite charming Eli Pope-lookalike who had lived and worked in Norway for 18 years before coming home to set up shop in Stone Town. We asked about safety in Stone Town and if it was safe to walk around alone – especially as we wanted to get some sunset shots. He said it was “very safe”, but after dark it was best not to walk around with cameras on display. He added that it was easy to ‘get lost’…hmm.
On the Edge (of Stone Town)
After a quick stop for a drink at the Kenya House (a Serengeti brew this time) with a view of the oh-so-blue sea, we were led by Yussuf out of Stone Town – to the wet market and the adjacent main road which marked one of the boundaries of Stone Town. The market was busy, despite the sun being high in the sky, with fish auctions underway, bargaining in full swing and cats waiting for scraps. Photography was difficult and not particularly welcome. One cheeky teenager laughingly pointed to a friend manning a stall and said, “Take photo of my friend.” – his friend was not amused and with a glare, shook his head. Okie. So – not many good photos of the market – it was more a sight, sound and smell experience.
We walked through the bustling port area too, where sacks of charcoal were being lugged on bent backs; fishing boats were coming in to dock and unload their catch, and every fence I touched as we made our way over the rocks next to the water, left my fingers black with coal dust. By this time, the heat was mercurial and there were times that I could see it rising from the road…or I may have been hallucinating.
It was way over the 4-hour ‘half-day walking tour’ that Yussuf had promised – we’d been walking for about six hours by now and were ready for lunch and something cold. We said our goodbyes to Yussuf at the Maru Maru, a hotel just down the road from Jafferji House and went to their rooftop restaurant for a late lunch. From the many (many!) photos that lined the stairs here, it was obvious that this hotel (and the restaurant we were about to lunch in) had played host to Bill and Chelsea Clinton during their Clinton Foundation work trips here.
We (ok, I) decided to check out the biryani at the Maru Maru – the verdict: good, but the one at Spice Route was better. We were really quite tired by this time and the rest of the day was spent back at Jafferji House, with a short walk (and no dinner) that evening.
Peacocks, Turtles – and Sunset
Stone Town – Prison Island / 17 September 2017
Lunch at Lukmaan
We hadn’t really made any plans for the next day, other than that we wanted to eat something local. At the front desk today were two very bubbly characters who enthusiastically approved of our choice for lunch venue – Lukmaan. They wrote down various dishes we had to try, including the famous octopus curry, that I’d read about.
But first we went on a bit of a wander, expertly maneuvering the alleys, going past Jaws Corner, calling out greetings to the Oslo-returned Eli Pope-lookalike who was sitting on his stoop…we were practically local (maybe only in my head). We made our way to Forodhani Gardens and looked across to Prison Island, home of the giant turtles. We were talking about ‘maybe we should try and visit the island’, and ‘maybe we should message Yussuf when we get back to the hotel’, when we turned a corner and there was Yussuf sitting on a low wall. Coincidence??
Anyway, plans were made to visit Prison Island later that day and Yussuf very kindly showed us the way to Lukmaan’s – he tried giving us directions but I suspect our reaction didn’t inspire much confidence, and he decided to walk us there, pointing out landmarks on the way. It was early and they were still serving breakfast so we decided to go back to Jafferji’s and return later for lunch.
Yussuf’s directions were good and we found our way back easily. Lukmaan’s is a nasi padang sort of place, tables arranged haphazardly and with table sharing the norm, especially a the larger tables – kopi tiam style – though I didn’t see any chope-ing of tables here. The octopus curry sadly wasn’t ready yet, but the rest of the food was fab – we were half way through when we remembered that food porn pics weren’t yet taken, thus the picture of our half-eaten meal below. It was all delish – the beef rendang, fried fish, prawn in coconut curry (like sothi).
It was a 30-minute boat ride to Prison Island. The sea was a brilliant blue, the sunlight sparkling on the water. As we sped along, a dolphin leapt out of the water right in front of our boat. I thought I was seeing things but the boatman saw it too and immediately shut off the engine. We caught a glimpse of it as it swam away. Yussuf said it was most unusual to see dolphins in these waters; it was our lucky day.
Prison Island was originally Changuu Island (the name of a fish I think was what Yussuf said) and the signboard at the little jetty used this name. It initially was used to keep ‘rebellious slaves’ before they were sold at the market in Stone Town. Subsequently, the Brits built a prison complex on the island – but no prisoners were ever kept here. The island was eventually used as a quarantine facility for yellow fever. Today it is a resort (mainly for honeymooners, said Yussuf) and home to the giant Aldabra tortoises which were a gift from the government of Seychelles. The age of some of the tortoises was written on their shells – the oldest was 192 years old!
There also was a peacock which put on quite a show for us – true to character.
We had to say we “went to the beach” in Zanzibar so we walked a bit on the Prison Island beach…soft white sand (marred by some broken glass unfortunately) and I got my feet wet in the clear turquoise water which was surprisingly cold.
As we left the island, Yussuf took countless photos of ‘us walking’…he seems to specialise in taking photos of his guests walking – which makes a change I suppose from ‘guests standing’ or ‘guests pointing’ à la Great Leader.
The sun was beginning to go down as we made our way back from Changuu, the sky a beautiful gold. We passed some dhows….finally, some dhows-in-the-sunset images! As we got to the jetty, we saw that the boys had begun their dives. Near the stairs where our boat was about to dock, some little ones (and one particular shivering boy) were doing little leaps into the water. I held my breath as one of them swam away just in time, our boat narrowly missing his head as it (the boat not the boy’s head) bumped against the stone stairs.
With Yussuf hanging around with us, we felt slightly less concerned about being out with our cameras as the sun went down. The bigger boys were doing the bigger dives from a higher wall nearby. It was all very exciting, the boys doing a run, cheered on by their mates, leaping off the wall into the water, the setting sun and silhouettes of fishing boats forming a backdrop to this spectacle.
As we lost the light, it was time to head back. The food stalls were up and running and doing a good business. Pizza with all manner of toppings seemed to be a favourite – much like the various versions of prata back home.
We said our goodbyes to Yussuf back at Jafferji and after a shower and change thought we’d wander down to the Maru Maru for dinner on our last night in Stone Town. The sign at the entrance said ‘Children’s Night’ and ‘Live Music’…enough to make us almost turn around, especially when we realised that the off-key singing and disco lights we heard and saw from the Jafferji rooftop restaurant the first night emanated from here. However, hunger prevailed and we trotted upstairs. Much to our relief it was quiet; there were disco lights though, but nothing too headache-inducing. The ‘live music’, when it started, was fortunately traditional fare and much more pleasant than the cover versions of retro stuff we’d heard the other day – we finished dinner before the singing morphed to anything else.
Home Again – Back Up the Wormhole
Zanzibar – Addis Ababa – Singapore / 18 – 19 September 2017
We spent our last morning at the (official) souvenir shop (by now not needing the help of Google or human directions), getting a few small gifts and a couple of books. Our driver was at Jafferji House to pick us up at the appointed 12 noon. We braced ourselves for a long chaotic check-in at the airport but to our pleasant surprise there was no queue. However, our names in our passports with the ‘d/o’ and our fathers’ initials was cause for much confusion and by the time that was sorted out there was indeed a long queue. Sigh. Maybe it’s time to seriously consider a deed poll name ‘correction.’
The flight from Zanzibar to Addis Ababa made a short stop at Kilimanjaro – which was cause for much excitement (on my part at least); I thought it terribly exotic and a big thrill to message the folks at home to say ‘Hello from Kilimanjaro’…nevermind that the half an hour or so in Kilimanjaro was spent on the plane.
Ethiopian Airlines maintained their perfect record of great service – this time on a brand new Dreamliner – which was very comfortable. And there was injera – which was had with much gusto. The stewardess seemed quite amused at the enthusiasm with which we greeted this meal.
It’s been an absolutely lovely four days in Zzanzzibarr – probably the most exotic-sounding place I’ve been to. I felt like I’d been down a wormhole – entering that postage stamp on the last page, that stamp with the dhow, and emerging in the bustling, narrow alleys of Stone Town with its air permanently spiced, avoiding carts and running children, jostling for space; its diving boys and perfect sunsets; its tradesmen with their smiling ‘Karibu‘s ; its beautiful doors, many of which had seen better days; and its seemingly seamless matrix of African, Arab, Persian and Indian cultures – which transcended to its (same but different) biryani.
For now, it’s back to the familiar and to family…until the next wormhole opens up.
For the Zanzibar gallery, please visit http://www.shyamalathilagaratnam.com/Zanzibar