After three days alone in any hotel, I begin to feel strange, as if I live here. And men who live in hotels are creepy. Maybe spending an hour trying to time this Ballerina shot in the hotel aerobics studio had something to do with it? Hard to say…
Patrick, my driver, is outside worrying that I’m late, which I am. Not by much, but Nairobi traffic is so horrible that a 30 minute drive can be two hours for no reason. If I make it, I rejoin the family today in Zanzibar, Tanzania where they have been staying for the past five days.
Zanzibar is like Timbuktu and Shangri-La, places that people vaguely associate with exotic adventure but don’t know much about. Timbuktu and Shangri-La are not that amazing (so I understand, anyway) but Stonetown, Zanzibar deserves its reputation as a classic city of history.
Few places have had as many different rulers as Zanzibar – Germans, East African tribes, English, Persians, Gulf states Arabs, and also heavily influenced by Indian traders. And they didn’t just occupy it, they mostly stayed there because it’s so damn nice.
Well really it wasn’t just because it was nice. It also was the economic center of the spice trade, and more grimly, the Eastern (Arab mostly) slave trade. Zanzibar changed hands frequently, once in the space of 45 minutes, when the British gunships parked in the harbor blasted the shit out of the Royal Palace, home to a short-reigned sultan-king not of the Brits choosing.
It’s economic power has ended, of course and in 1964 after brief independence, they joined together with mainland Tanganyka to form the state of Tanzania. The marriage is somewhat contentious, and there remains a strong independence movement on Zanzibar. But for the last half-century it has held.
As far as tourism goes, the two are a magical pair. How many millions of tourists have done the rough safari and afterward relaxed on the beaches of Zanzibar? It makes Tanzania an amazing one-country vacation destination.
Back in Nairobi Airport, where I spent 8 hours just a few days ago, the immigration and visa lady is turning my passport around and flipping through all the pages. She has a puzzled look. I was worried about this.
I try to explain what happened – I was turned back at the gate of my flight to Congo last Firday, and had to ‘undo’ my Kenya exit visa. I did that part. But now that I had to stay in Kenya for 2 extra days, the original visa is invalid.
She takes pity on me and stamps my passport a few more times as if adding more ink makes it more acceptable. The Nairobi airport is one of the worst in the world, but it has a great restaurant for basic American style food. I eat fluffy pancakes.
The Fly 540 flight is straight to Zanzibar and passes Kilamanjaro. The first discoverer of Kilamanjaro sent word of a snow capped mountain in the Serengeti, and the Europeans laughed at him. It’s amazing from the air.
Omar picks me up. The arab influence on Zanzibar is noticeable immediately with people washing feet before daily prayer, lots of scarves and the habib-like mens garments. ‘Welcome to the Spice island’ Omar says, warmly. But it’s clearly his only English.
Like Old city Jerusalem and Marrakesh, other cities of Arabic origin we have visited, the streets narrow to the point where only motorbikes and pedestrians can walk. Omar wheels my bag to our hotel for the next few days, The Emerson Spice hotel.
Emerson Spice has great trip advisor reviews, but a horrendous website, but I am immediately gratified by my choice. This is a special place. The interiors are arab-themed, but the rooms are each painted in the honor of an opera. Our is Aida. The windows are covered in stained glass, and most rooms have some kind of beautiful balcony. Our does not, but we have a spiral staircase to an upstairs that the kids will love.
Something about airplane travel is exhausting. Everyone has their own explanation – air pressure, stress, low oxygen levels or just boredom. Even after a short flight from Kenya to Zanzibar I’m tired and fall asleep on the poster bed with clean sheets.
‘Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!’ Lily jumps on me and squeezes my tightly. The girls and Trish have arrived from the other side of the island. It took them almost the same amount of time to drive 75 miles as it did me to fly an international connection because their driver was lost much of the way.
I really want to hear from Emma, who did her first scuba dive this morning. But as usual, it’s Lily who insists she talk to me first.
“I tried to go snorkeling but there was a whole bunch of scissor tailed striped sergeant fish in the water because they kept feeding them and I was scared and I cried so I stayed in the boat and then they let me feed them and that made me happy. I liked the Bolognaise noodles at the resort but Emma couldn’t eat anything. I usually eat more than Emma because I’m a better eater and she doesn’t like many exotic foods like I do. When are we going to Dinner?”
There’s more from Lily, but she’s had enough of a turn. I quietly turn to Emma and grab her tightly. I’m so proud and excited that she did her first scuba dive.
She tells me about going down 30 feet, and having a little trouble staying down. That’s normal for anyone. She’s got confident, joyful smile on her face. Your oldest daughter is always special. It’s so amazing to see her grow up and get closer and closer to being an adult.
She and Lily talk more to me about their time in Mechamvi resort. Trish is lying on the couch trying to stretch her back, which has really been aching a lot. She’s really happy with the Emerson Spice. “It’s a memorable place” she whispers.
And it is. We have a balcony where they will serve us breakfast and tonight we are dining at the best restaurant in Stonetown, on the roof of our hotel in cool Indian ocean air, with a sunset and the sounds of Oldtown below. (Stonetown is called ‘Old Town by locals.)
On the roof we meet a dutch couple that has been travelling with their three year old around Southern and Eastern AQfrica for the past six months. Of course they switch to fluent English immediately and we have a fun chat. They joke about having ‘only six weeks’ left of their trip and how hard it will be to re-enter society. We can only imagine. Four weeks seems like an eternity to us.
Time slows when you are traveling – especially adventure travel I think. On a beach resort I find the week flies by, but when I’m shivering on the back of a land rover looking for giraffe in the dark, everything slows. Life expands. I get younger.
The dinner is scrumptious, gourmet and exotic – easily as good as any major restaurant in Washington D.C., except for slight presentation details that would be added there and the price tripled. (Although at $25 a person, this still isn’t budget pricing.)
There were about 10 different items served including King Fish – Passion fruit ceviche served in a clam half shell, Fish cakes and sauteed banana with avocado, baked tomato with cheese, shredded duck in a carved cassava cup, mango sherbert, and several more. It’s all quite tasty, although a few miss the mark. But it has the excitement of a tasting menu – lots of flavors and textures to explore.
The chef did it all on a small propane stove only a few feet away. Lily likes a lot of it. And best of all, they had no ego issues making noodles for Emma like the Fairview Brasserie in Nairobi did. And they didn’t even charge us for Emma to eat, which is very gracious. Lots of places would have charged us full price even though she didn’t eat anything.
After dinner we take a quick walk down the darkened narrow streets, with shuttered stores that will open up with souvenirs and markets in the morning. Stone town is easy to like, and we’ve only been here a few hours.
The problem with Shangri-La is not that it doesn’t live up to its rep. The problem with Shangri-La is that it doesn’t exist. . . . Though for trivia-niks, some of the Frank Capra movie’s outdoor scenes were shot near Ojai, CA (including, I think, the nude swimming scene) — a lovely location.
Congrats to Emma on her magnificent scuba dive!