Beer in a Zanzibar Prison, Petting Tortoises and Spice Haggling

Even though we had 12 days of excessive lounging at Kichanga Lodge, it took some will and mutual prodding to journey southwest to Stone Town for a day. We knew it would be hectic and congested but less grating than the commotion of Cairo (where pedestrians are advised to find local “human shields” to help them cross roads) and Kampala, Uganda (where the main transit hub consists of seemingly a thousand, honking minivans crammed into a dust ball of a football field). Still, we were slightly resistant to abandon our bikini attire and paperbacks for the bombardment of touts.

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In 2000, Stone Town was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The decaying core was once a hot bed of slave trade and lucrative spice trading centre. The Arab and Persian influence is obvious in the design—and the ‘doors of Stone Town’ are Zanzibar’s equivalent of a Big 5 safari. In 1866, Livingstone prepared for his final expedition into the interior of East Africa in Stone Town.

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The narrow alleys are like a rabbit’s warren. Many of the roads are nameless and too narrow for cars to travel through, though mopeds and bicycles tear through the maze at lightning speed. Many of the buildings are constructed from coral and have long stone ‘barazas’ at the base that act as benches or, when necessary, elevated sidewalks during the monsoon season.
The carved wooden doors are both medieval and outlandish with big brass studs that served as deterrents to elephants. Indian-designed doors are rounded at the top while Arabian style is defined by a rectangular shape. Doors with chains carved into the length indicated a slave chamber, while others with Indian lotus flowers hoped to channel prosperity.

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We decided to visit Prison Island before venturing into the hamster’s maze. Finding a boat captain involved simply taking one step on the beach. Negotiations were quick—for $35 we booked a dhow (with a motor) and would be free to return to Stone Town (a 25 minute, nearly 6km ride) at our leisure. The ride across the Windex-blue waters was smooth and not the white-knuckler warned about in the guide books.

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Some reports say that the prison was home to rebellious slaves in the 1860s, other references say it was never used—and, though it was designated as a quarantine station during a bubonic plague and cholera outbreak, it remained vacant. Nowadays you can now stay on Prison Island at the posh Changuu Private Island Paradise Hotel for $300 a night.

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Here, Zanzibar’s colony of Giant Aldabran Tortoises roam about at a carefree centurian pace. Imports from the Seychelles in the 19th century, tortoises were a pirate’s idea of take-out. The tortoises could survive on boats for long stretches with very little food, and provided valuable meat when necessary. The tortoises of Prison Island were gifts from the Seychelles government in 1919. For $4 US visitors can share space with the ancient and docile creatures. I was surprised at how mobile and active they were. The Galapagos tortoises that I had seen before seemed to be more like stationary sculptures. Here at Changuu, they are in slow-mo road races, often resembling bumper cars as three tortoises vie for one narrow opening between the trees.

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I was hoping to find a good tortoise postcard or two to fire off to our parents back in Canada (an unlikely proposition as the African postal system is as reliable as Rob Ford), but when we asked for directions to the “Prison Boutique” we were told, “it is there (pointing to the right), but, there are no things.”

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Indeed, the Prison Boutique was long, and possibly forever closed. However, wandering about the ruins was a neat exploration. Especially when we realized that we were drinking beer, in prison. The prison bar (a new addition) was registering sauna-worthy temperatures, so we took our tall Serengeti’s to the edge of the water. If you ever want to have a staring problem, do it here, facing the Indian Ocean.

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After our fill of historical jailhouse enlightenment and tortoise intimacy, we went for a dip in those tempting waters. When shiny brochures say “powder white sand beach and bathtub warm waters”—it can be a true. We found tangible proof.
We didn’t return to Stone Town until 2:30. Aside from the House of Wonders, buying some saffron and curry, lunch at Mercury’s and a sundowner at the Africa House Hotel, our agenda was rather loose.
But, do you think we could find The House of Wonders? Freddie Mercury’s father worked in the old Sultan’s palace as an accountant. It was the first place in Eastern Africa to have an elevator (thus, the House of Wonders!). Martyna, the manager of Ras Mchamvi resort beside Kichanga gushed about the rooftop view and how we MUST go to enjoy the suspended view of Stone Town.
Despite our efforts to walk with conviction, we did appear lost in the alleys as I was trying to look at our tiny map on the sly. Nailed. “What are you looking for?” We hoped that we would get a simple answer and a pointed finger south or west.
“House of Wonders.”
“It is just to the right. And then left. I will show you.”
Kim and I rolled our eyes in tandem. In Egypt, no one gives directions, they must physically show you, which also means they would like a tip for their time. Innocent offers to take our picture in front of the pyramids or the Sphinx were disguised as money grabs. “Now you pay me for my time.” We had an all out battle of profanity with one hothead Egyptian who insisted on spouting off all the history of the Sphinx despite our insistence that we didn’t want a guide. “No, no, I am just a friend. I am just telling you as a friend.” Riiiiiight.
So, we had a new “friend” in Stone Town. The right turn, left turn, turned into nearly 30 minutes of a condensed tour of Stone Town that went in a crazy, convoluted circle BACK TO THE EXACT POINT WE HAD STARTED FROM. Oh, and the House of Wonders wasn’t right and then left—it was immediately in front of us. Fenced off, and looking closed and/or under construction, the building itself said “National Museum” on the front, not House of Wonders.
We gave our friend a few dollars, though we were ready to strangle him. Kim gently accused him of taking on a wild goose chase (entirely true). “Why would I do? I take you where you say.” Which, in his apparent direct route went by a restaurant his cousin owned, Persian baths where we could go for a tour, a coffee shop we should stop at (he likes the vanilla milkshakes there—hint)…Kim and I came to a dead stop a few times and communicated via our eyes to each other “should we ditch him?” He was like static cling though, and he had wound us around the alleys so deep, we were like spun tops. I had no idea which way the ocean, our western landmark was, anymore.
“You said you were going to show us where the House of Wonders was.” Kim said directly and exasperated.
“Why are you so tough,” the guy replied and at that point, in the deserted, sketchy alley we were in, we thought we might be snuffed, mugged or defriended. “I take you.”

*Lesson: if you ever find yourself in Stone Town, unable to find the House of Wonders, or whatever, don’t ask directions.
We quickly renamed our venture The House of No Wonders. We had to wake up the three security guides sitting inside. Though the museum was actually closed for “refurbishment” (probably 10 years in the making), they still wanted to charge us $12 US to enter. I said we just wanted a photo from the rooftop. I’ve seen elevators before, that wasn’t a huge deal.
Though I shouldn’t admit this, we were feeling a bit ripped off from our “friend” and the admission fee to a closed site. I stuffed two folded up dollars into the donation box. We took the winding stairs to the top which, at 140 degrees felt like the staircase to Hell. The security guy was right on our heels and when we got to the third floor Kim realized that there was no rooftop access. We told the guard we wanted to see the rooftop and he shouldered a door open for us after unlocking the bolt.
The roof was ready to collapse. We followed make-shift cement block steps to the edge and could hardly embrace the moment with the toe-tapping guard waiting at the door behind us. Kim shook her head—“not worth $12. What a joke.”

I said, no worries, sharing with Kim that I had craftily only put in $2. We enjoyed the view a little more knowing it was at a discount.
I snapped a few shots and we agreed we’d had enough of the city. “Let’s grab a beer and something to eat.”
As we reached the main floor of the empty, cobweb-clad museum one of the dozing guard’s cleared his throat and said, “You only pay $2. Price is $6 US, each.”
Still annoyed from the House of No Wonders Kim played nice and said, “Oh, sorry, we misunderstood—I read the child’s price here which is $1. So sorry.” I fumbled in my pockets trying to find more dollar bills and tried the trick again, adding another three. I stuffed them in the box and we hurried out.
“Let’s go!” Now we definitely couldn’t walk anywhere in the radius of the House of No Wonders for fear that we might be sent to Prison Island for real.
*Lesson: Colossal rip-off even at $5 US. Here’s our $5 picture instead:

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We found solace and genuinely good thin-crust banana and pineapple-topped pizza at Mercury’s. Cashing in on Freddie Mercury’s fame, the seaside resto near the ferry dock was not the big tribute I thought it would be. They had maybe a dozen framed photos of Mercury and Queen, a little blurb in the front of the menu and a few cocktails named after songs, but, that was the extent of it. No non-stop Queen blasting from the speakers. Still, as a rabid fan of the group, I felt it was a necessary place to see. And, after House of No Wonders, we could find wonder much easier, elsewhere.

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Like, the Big Tree on Mzingani Road. The massive fig is actually marked on the map. I thought it might be a bar or cafe, but, no, it’s a really big tree. It provides shade for over a dozen vehicles and I’m certain a hundred people could circle its base. Now there’s a wonder.

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Our last Stone Town goal was to find spices (and avoid museum security and our dear friend). After about 5 minutes of walking down the alley the demands by shopkeepers “Where from? Come look. Looking is free!” almost put us over the edge. Though we were interested in finding some silver rings, it wasn’t worth the battle. I accidentally touched an item and it was an instant attack of “How much you want to pay for this? How much?” The calculator was pulled out and nearly stuffed in my hand. I wasn’t even interested in the carved giraffe or whatever it was, but, the vendor was right on the back of my flip flops. “I’ll make you special deal.”
Kim was ready to make tracks to the Africa House Hotel and claim early seats for the sunset. “Let’s forget about the spices.”
I begged to try just to the end of the alley—we had already gone to Grenada, the other “Spice Island” and come home empty-handed. We couldn’t travel 17,000km to this Spice Island and have no curry to show for it.
I found a spice display and the vendor quickly handed me a basket. I found some ginger tea for my sister, vanilla beans for Dax and my mom, paprika and curry for Kim’s family and saffron for us. The guy hurried the full basket inside and punched away on his calculator. “Euros or US dollar?”
“US.”
“Forty-five dollars.”
“WHAT?”
He showed me the calculator screen and I was flabbergasted. “No way.”
Kim and I laughed at the outrageous amount. Had we thrown in a bag of panned gold as well? I know saffron is expensive, but, c’mon. We did not have $45 of spices.
“No thanks.”
We did the ‘walk of instant negotiation’ and headed to the door. “How much you pay then? How much? How about $40.”
We kept walking.
“What’s the most you pay?”
“$15.”
He let all the air out of his lungs and huffed. “No. $40.”
We resumed walking and were back out in the alley when he shouted, “Okay, $15.”
He still tried to push us into paying $15 in Euros and then conceded. But, he also made use of another nervy tactic by holding our $20US bill, handing us the bag of spices and saying, “okay, and $5 more for me. I keep change.”
We got our five dollars change back and instead spent almost $45 on cocktails at the trendy ex-pat watering hole, The Africa House Hotel.
We eased back into a more relaxed state knowing that we didn’t have to haggle anymore. We found primo seats on the deck for sundown and watched the park below fill with muscle-bound boys practicing a form of Thai martial arts. Another group kicked a soccer ball around barefoot.
We sucked back pina coladas in coconut vessels and I tried the much-publicized Dawa (local gin, honey, lime juice). The drinks are super overpriced at the Africa House, but, it is the best vantage point for sunset. And, the sun put on a blazing, brilliant show. If you’ve never seen an African sunset, you can almost count the seconds and see it dropping—much like the apple at Times Square on New Year’s Eve. It is a true marvel. A wonder, even.
We waved to our driver below and were happy to drive out of Stone Town and back to Kichanga under the spell of sensory exhaustion from warding off touts,  local gin, spice procurement and the rigours of sunsetting.

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Categories: Into and Out of Africa, Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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