Posts Tagged With: Africa

Stone Town

Zanzibar City, the capital of Zanzibar, consists of the new area, simply called “the other side” and the old one: Stone Town. Stone Town was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2000.

Forget New York, Stone Town is the true definition of a melting pot. The Persians were the first to establish a trade base here back in the 3rd century amidst the local Bantu people. The first mosque in the Southern Hemisphere was built by these traders right here.

Trade attracted merchants from India, Indonesia and China and the local culture incorporated these new elements. The Indian culture is evident in the exquisite wooden balconies of many buildings.

In the 1500s, the Portuguese took over control of the island but with a very hands-off approach to its administration by putting in place Arab sultans and giving them wide latitude. In 1631, the Sultan of Mombasa killed off all the European settlers after which act the Portuguese decided to bring in European rulers to Zanzibar. The people of Stone Town grew dissatisfied with this development and invited the Sultan of Oman to help them overthrow the Europeans. The Sultan gladly did this and kept power for himself of course. Stone Town came to be ruled by the Sultanate of Oman until the death of Said bin Sultan in 1856 which caused his two heirs to quarrel. Britain saw the opportunity and stepped in to settle the dispute by dividing the area to be ruled among the two sons: Majid then became the Sultan of Zanzibar while his brother Thuwaini became the Sultan of Oman.

Majid bin Sultan made Stone Town one of the wealthiest cities in East Africa by promoting the trade of, unfortunately, slaves. These slaves were “bought” from their villages in East Africa for almost nothing and employed in carting ivory into Stone Town. Once the ivory had been sold off, the slaves were next. It was a no-losses business model. Stone Town had become the epicenter of the slave trade.

Slaves were sent from Stone Town into all corners of the world: Arabia, Oman, Persia, as well as the new continent. Both the slaves’ and the traders’ cultures came to shape Stone Town’s culture and made some merchants very wealthy. At this time, slave traders were proud of their trade and built their houses to reflect this. Look closely at the edges of this intricately carved door, notice the chain links? That meant the owner of the house was a slave trader.

Tipu Tip was one of the (if not THE) richest such slave trader, although as you can read from this sign and observe from the covered edges of his door, his history has been cleaned a bit.

In 1842, the British decided to end the slave trade and applied pressure on the Sultan to do this. While the trade towards the East was diminished, the British found it almost impossible to stop the slave trade to the Americas as France, Spain and the United States continued to engage in it. In 1873, the British threatened the Sultan of Zanzibar with a blockade if he didn’t stop the trade in slaves to these nations finally forcing the slave market in Zanzibar to close down for good. The Cathedral was built on the very site of the former Slave Market with the altar incorporating the base of the whipping post.

Zanzibar became a British protectorate in 1890 and remained so until 1963. In 1964, Zanzibar and Tanganyika came together to form the United Republic of Tanzania.

Stone Town is rich in history and flavor. Unfortunately, they don’t have the means to invest in preserving it and most buildings seem to be crumbling. Houses in Stone Town were traditionally built from coral and this material does not weather well.

That white building in the background is “The Palace of Wonders” called thus because it was the first building in Stone Town to have electricity. It is the largest building here and one of their most important historical sites. It was built in 1883 by Sultan Barghash bin Said as a ceremonial palace and it is said that he kept wild animals chained in the front yard.

Sadly, while one can roam the front “yard”, the museum is permanently closed as Zanzibar simply doesn’t have the resources for the upkeep.

Even with the decay, Stone Town is a wondrous place full of twists and turns to lose oneself in.

It is very safe as far as crime goes, Muslim nations usually are. Traffic is a whole other story. Most of the streets in Stone Town are too narrow for cars and one must walk everywhere which is actually a delight. The locals though employ motorcycles to get around and you can imagine the fright one gets when turning around a corner puts you in the direct path of one of those speeding locals.

Freddie Mercury, lead singer for Queen, is the most famous son of Stone Town and our guide took us to see the school he attended

as well as the house he allegedly lived in. His fans might be disappointed as there really isn’t much to it but hey, taking a picture of his door is free.

On the day we were here, a street food fair was taking place on the square across from the Palace of Wonders. Families were out in droves and people were enjoying the pleasant weather.

Food smelled delicious and even though there was a cholera outbreak, we decided to risk it telling ourselves that no germ could survive frying.

The food was indeed delicious and no, we did not get sick. We only wish we had had more time to enjoy lovely Stone Town at leisure.

Categories: Africa, Tanzania, UNESCO site | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment


We had arranged for a Spice Tour on our way back into Zanzibar City for our night flight. Our ride back seemed just as interesting as the tour itself but unfortunately our guide discouraged any stops along the way.

What is wrong with this picture? Zanzibar was under British “protection” from 1890 thru 1963.

Always from the vehicle, we got to see

Children during recess:

The young people wearing black & white are high-schoolers and the ones in blue & cream, middle-schoolers.

Mothers waiting for public transportation:

People doing their shopping:

People come from all over the countryside to shop at these roadside markets

and then head home.

Public Transportation, called “Daladala”, is a bit tight but efficient.

The guy riding in back collects the fare. Sometimes, the truck doesn’t even stop and it’s up to the passengers to catch it.

The Spice plantations of old have metamorphosed themselves into tourist destinations as Indonesia has surpassed Zanzibar in the spice trade. One of these plantations was our first stop. These were the quarters where slaves to work the plantations were kept.

These now house plantation workers and their families

but are in the process of being taken down, not because nicer houses will be built but rather because the plantations don’t have a need for workers anymore. These people will need to find something else to do and somewhere else to live.

Zanzibar Island lies just 46 miles away from mainland Tanzania and as such it was the perfect headquarters for explorers and traders in the 600s. Local Bantu people served as go-between with Persian, Arab, Indian and Chinese merchants. This trade brought spices such as cardamom

and nutmeg

from Indonesia; and black pepper from India.

Zanzibar’s fertile soil and mild weather were the perfect environment to grow these plants and thus spices quickly became a major export. Persians are believed to have been the first explorers to settle in Unguja (Zanzibar Island) but the Portuguese took over control in the 1500s. Exploration in the Americas was in full swing by then and this enabled the Portuguese to bring with them seeds from Mexico such as vanilla,


chili pepper,

and achiote (used in Tacos al Pastor, yummy!).

In 1698 the Sultan of Oman threw the Portuguese out and established trade in slaves and ivory, brought from the mainland; as well as clove, brought from Indonesia.

This made Stone Town (old Zanzibar City) one of the wealthiest cities in Africa. When the slave trade was abolished by the English, who had by then taken over control, in 1897 Zanzibar came to rely mainly on the clove trade for which they once were the world’s major producer. Clove was more precious than gold due to its medicinal properties as it was used to freshen the breath, relieve pain, particularly toothaches, and to conserve meats from spoiling. It is now also used in cuisines the world over. Zanzibar began to lose control over the clove trade just recently in the 1970s and hasn’t been able to recover from this economic downturn since.

Another ubiquitous fruit in the island is coconut. Since it grows everywhere without any human tending, it is common practice for young people on their way home from school to climb a palm tree for a quick snack as our guide demonstrated.

Our tour ended at the gift shop (of course) where we bought some spices to bring home.Somehow our dishes don’t come out tasting as good as the ones we had in Zanzibar, may be that’s a sign for us to go back?

We continued on our way to Zanzibar City and begged our guide to let us stop at the market.It would seem that all those trinkets we simply throw away somehow make their way to this place.

We wandered into the market where I was struck by how merchants arrange their wares for sale; for an onlooker with a bit of OCD, this was pretty neat. The stench was powerful

and locals made it clear that they didn’t approve of us being here so we made our way out and continued on to Stone Town.



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Paradise Found…Maybe

We had decided to end our African tour enjoying the Spice Islands. Zanzibar is made up of several islands, the largest of which are Unguja (commonly referred to as Zanzibar Island) and Pemba. Zanzibar belongs to Tanzania but is clearly proud of its independent history. Swahili is spoken here and although we didn’t have time to learn much, “Jambo” (hello) and “Asante Sana” (thank you very much) were easy enough for us. Everyone here is so warm and easygoing, it was a delight to visit.

The capital of Zanzibar is named, appropriately enough, Zanzibar City. We arrived late that night and didn’t get to see much of it. The hotel we stayed in for the night was beautiful and when we had this view in the morning from the restaurant while having breakfast,

we were saddened at not having booked at least one more night here. Unless your flight gets in early in the morning, we do recommend staying two nights in Zanzibar City in order to enjoy it. Zanzibar is a mainly Muslim country and thus women cover most of their bodies even while taking a stroll on the beach.p1200026

As soon as we were done with breakfast, our guide carted us off to the northernmost tip of the Island where we were booked to stay at “La Gemma Dell’est”, which translates to Jewel of the East. We soon learned why. It took our breath away!

This all-inclusive resort caters mainly to Middle-Eastern tourists. We met tons of Israelis although there were a few Italians thrown in for good measure. The all-you-can-eat meals were fantastic and having a waiter bring drinks made from hibiscus and lime to you while lying by the pool is heavenly. The resort brings in different acts to perform nightly and these can be enjoyed at the “Sunset Lounge” while listening to the waves lap calmly underfoot.

Zanzibar has the cutest crabs: white and very shy.p1200126

They didn’t even try to pinch us when we grabbed them.p1200124

It also has gorgeous, and humongous, starfish but you won’t get to see them because…I lost all my pictures! It happens. Not to worry though, Fernando’s survived. The sand is soft and the water clear and calm. On our second day here we were talked into taking a snorkeling tour over the coral reefs by one of the many peddlers walking the beach. While it might get tiring to have to say “Asante, no” over and over again to the many people trying to sell their wares, they are only trying to make a living and it’s a small price to pay for the privilege of enjoying their beautiful beaches. Who can be unhappy here?

We took off early the next morning in order to beat the “rush” of all the other visitors to the reef. It was only a short ride in a small boat to a secluded area between our resort and Tumbatu Island right across. To my untrained eyes, the coral seemed a bit run down but fish were plentiful. If you go snorkeling here, make sure to bring some bananas with you. Turns out Zebra fish LOVE bananas!


As beautiful as this all looks though, it wasn’t enjoyable due to some small and almost invisible beings. Can you spot the one lurking in the video? When at first I began to feel tiny electrical discharges on my arms, I convinced myself that I was imagining it. The guys were happily swimming around so it had to be me, I thought. When one of those stings got me right across my lips, the pain literally took my breath away. I had had enough; it forced me out of the water and back onto the boat.  Soon enough the guys got stung too many times as well and also decided to bail.

Our guides then took us to a deserted and beautiful beach for lunch where Alejandro got buried so deeply in the sand, he had a hard time leaving when it was time.

All in all, Zanzibar Island was beautiful: water is clean, sand is soft, food is delicious, people are nice but…I’d rather go to Mexico for beaches. What can I say? I am a beach snob. Haven’t been everywhere yet but as of today, I still prefer Mexican beaches to any others I’ve been to, although Zanzibar is an incredibly close second on my list.

We’ve got Thailand on our radar though and I’ve been told I will change my mind. We will just have to wait and see.

We enjoyed a beautiful couple of days here but now it was time to get going again to our next and last stop before heading home: The Spice Plantations and Stone Town – a World Heritage Site.


Categories: Africa, Tanzania | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

From Kenya to Uganda

Before coming to Africa, we knew next to nothing about this continent. After all we’ve seen, now we know next to next to nothing; but at least we know our preconceptions have all proven wrong. I don’t know why, when traveling, it always surprises me so much to find cities, shops, cars exactly the same as I am used to where I live. It’s as if I know with my conscious mind that of course these things are common everywhere but then there’s a tiny unenlightened tenant in the corner of my brain that goes: “whooaa”.

This is what Nairobi looks like from the air:

That big stretch of savanna you see in the background is Nairobi National Park, a 45 sq mile reserve at the South edge of Kenya’s capital city.

It is surrounded by an electrified fence in order to keep wild animals and people separate but that doesn’t always work. Lions sometimes escape the fence and then panic ensues in the surrounding population. The lions leave the park usually following prey like warthogs and suddenly find themselves in the midst of an apartment complex. Nairobi’s population has been growing greatly and conflict between these two resident groups has intensified in the last decade. During these encounters, it is usually the lion who fares worse. As if that weren’t bad enough, the Chinese, as part of their aid to Africa, are building a rail line straight thru the park in order to connect Mombasa with Nairobi. While the rail line is expected to alleviate traffic, one can only sigh at the thought of its effect on the wildlife. Unhappiness with Chinese people, be they entrepreneurs, tourists, or poachers, is a common thread thru the African nations we visited. Mombasa Road is the main thoroughfare in Nairobi and divides the populated area from the National Park.

We didn’t actually get the opportunity to visit Nairobi: we were here three separate times but only to take connecting flights. During one of these trips, we had to spend a night in a hotel since our next flight didn’t leave until the following morning. It was an odd experience. Kenya depends heavily on tourists for its income and thus can’t afford to be thought of as “dangerous”, therefore it takes incredible precautions to provide safety for travelers. For instance, our escort from the airport to the hotel was not allowed inside the airport, we had to walk outside to meet him. He then walked us at a brisk pace for about 5 mins away from the mob of people waiting outside the airport doors simply to separate ourselves from large groups of people. Here we waited for what seemed to be forever for our driver, we found out why it took so long the following morning since we then had to do the entire process backwards. Drivers are not allowed near the airport. In order to pick up or drop off passengers, cars must go thru a checkpoint. All passengers must exit the vehicle and walk thru metal detectors. The car is inspected by security personnel as well as all luggage passed thru big scanners. One waits for the car to pick one up again on the other side of the checkpoint. The car will drop you off far from the airport itself and then you have to walk thru a tunnel and another checkpoint (with its luggage and people scanners) just to get inside. Once the luggage is checked (going thru yet another scan) you walk thru (you guessed it!) another scan into the waiting area. At check-in, you and your hand luggage will be scanned once again before you walk out on the tarmac to your plane. Here, you will be subjected to one last scan with a hand held device before climbing the stairs to your airplane. Pilots, flight attendants, and even the personnel bringing in the food trays are scanned as well, no one goes un-scanned.

While driving us to our hotel the previous night, which was only 10 mins away on Mombasa Road, we went thru about 5 checkpoints with humongous cameras with blinding flashes. Our guides explained that these are meant to see into the innermost corners of every car. They gave me a headache. Our hotel was surrounded by a 10ft fence and our car scanned with mirrors by AK47-wielding guards before being allowed inside the gate. Once inside, dogs sniffed our vehicle before they allowed us out. Our luggage was sent thru a scanner at the steps of the hotel and we also had to walk thru one before entering. Hallways in the hotel had doors not only at the end points but also midway which were unlocked with our key-card and guards could be seen thru our windows walking on the roof. While we never felt even the tiniest bit unsafe, we did feel a little sad about the need for this extreme security. However, everyone in Nairobi was wonderfully kind to us. Next time, we will be staying a bit longer to get the real Nairobi experience and visit Nairobi National Park where our guides assured us, Cheetah are so plentiful, they even climb on top of your cars!

From Nairobi, we flew into Entebbe, Uganda on the banks of Lake Victoria: Africa’s largest lake, second only to Lake Superior in the USA.

Unfortunately again, we didn’t get much of an opportunity to visit Entebbe as we were led to our very cute hotel for the night and picked up early the next morning for our connecting flight to Bwindi. Security measures in Entebbe weren’t as strict as in Nairobi but still more than we’re used to which again made us sad. Turns out that Entebbe is the departure point for bird-watching tours in Uganda which has been named bird-watching capital of Africa: over 600 species have been recorded here. Our tiny hotel had a huge tropical garden where people would assemble to begin their tours. We have a newfound respect for bird watchers as they require enormous amounts of patience and a very steady hand to be able to photograph those flighty beings! Our pictures were mostly blurs.


We came all the way to Uganda in search of a much, much larger animal though and we were not disappointed.

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Victoria Falls

We bid goodbye to South Africa and landed in Zambia, home of Victoria Falls (shared with Zimbabwe).

welcoming committee

David Livingstone, in 1855, was the first westerner to see the falls and named them after Queen Victoria. The locals knew about the falls since much before though and had their own name for it: Mosi-oa-Tunya, the smoke that thunders. Today the area is part of the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We began our exploration of the falls by taking a “sundowner” cruise along the mighty Zambezi river.


This is the fourth longest river in Africa and it begins its life in Zambia from where it curves into Angola, Namibia & Botswana only to end up in Zambia again before cutting Mozambique in half and dying in the Indian Ocean.

The cruise was a totally turisty thing to do but still quite enjoyable and we saw an incredible number of hippos in the water



and even some elephants.


The falls are 1,708m wide and 108m tall.

view from the airplane

The combination yields an astonishing 625 million liters of water PER minute going over. At times, the water spray from the falls rises more than 400m and is visible from kilometers away.

double rainbow

Bring a raincoat for the walk to the viewing area if you don’t like getting soaked.


Otherwise, the sun will dry you right up once you get there.

Beware the baboons at the entrance to the park.


While the boys were so enthralled by the little ones


that we spent over an hour watching them, their elders are not cuddly creatures and we saw them attack people and steal purses and hats.


In the afternoon we took a more adventurous excursion to Livingstone Island by boat. This is the site which made Dr. Livingstone exclaim: “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” The guide walks you out to the edge of the falls and holds you by your hand while you peek over.


There are no rail guards here and you can easily imagine yourself falling over. In fact, our guide asked us if we’d like to take a dive as they do at La Quebrada in Acapulco. Nope. He then helped us maneuver ourselves into “Angel’s Pool” for a short swim in the frigid water at the very edge of the falls.



We ought to give a mention to our very cute hotel situated right outside the park: Avani Falls. Zebras

“not going to pose for any more pictures!”

and giraffes


roam the grounds as do the more bothersome Vervet Monkeys and apparently even crocodiles


although we saw none.

Victoria Falls are twice as high as Niagara Falls and a sight worth seeing.


We came, we saw, we loved them; we’re off to Kenya next!

Categories: Africa, UNESCO site, Zambia | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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