Sunday, June 6, 2010


The morning we left Stone Town for the legendary beaches of Zanzibar's east coast, it rained. For the next three days, it rained. On the fourth day, the sun shone through and we caught a glimpse of what we were beginning to think we might only see on postcards, but mostly our beach holiday was characterized by rain, at times heavy, giving way to light showers and drizzle in the afternoons, with a 90% chance of an evening thundershower. Or y'know, just plain old heavy rain.

Needless to say, there was a lot of Toto singing going on.

We had known going into this that we would be visiting Zanzibar in the low season, a period known – quite aptly as we would find out – as 'the long rains'. Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, we figured we knew what rain was and how to deal with it (brellies, wellies, Gore-tex and the like), but I think it's safe to say that Africa has redefined our concept of wet weather. When it rains, it pours. And as for that rain jacket you've been toting around for three and a half months thinking that you can't send it home because you'll be happy you have it when the rainy season comes? The fact is that no matter how water-proof you manage to make yourself, when the rains come, there's really no avoiding getting wet, soaked, saturated to the bone. This is no pina coladas and getting caught in the rain, this is a tall glass of more-than-you-bargained-for and getting caught unprepared.

Jambiani village is stretched over a few kilometers of coastline, and is described by Lonely
Planet as “a sunbaked and somnolent collection of thatch and coral-rag houses”. (The writers of Lonely Planet seem to have an affinity for the word 'somnolent' and will use it any chance they get, regardless of whether or not it actually applies – in this case, unlike Dar Es, it does). Arriving in Jambiani in the rain, we were met with the definition of somnolence: boarded-up shops, empty streets, women and children huddled under leaky awnings – everything wet, everything grey, everything not looking at all like the postcards.

We had hired a car and driver in Stone Town to tour us around our beachfront accommodation options in Jambiani, and hopefully score us a deal. The first place we went was a lovely 2-bedroom suite, with bathroom, kitchenette and private yard that usually went for $80/night. It was offered to us for $40, but as we didn't really need that much space, and $40 is still a little more than we're used to paying, we decided to move along. In total, we visited five places, two of which were closed for the season, two of which were open for business but completely vacant, and one of which won our vote with free breakfast, wireless internet and imitation Vache Qui Rit cheese. I'm pretty sure I can withstand just about any meteorological condition nature can conjure up if there's cheese to be had – especially if that cheese is packaged in cute little wedges and contains what is probably 150% of your annual recommended intake of saturated fat.

Despite appearances of being shut for the season, on our walk through town we met numerous people who invited us into their homes/restaurants and offered their services as tour guides, dhow captains, taxi drivers and in the case of Mr. Fruit, deliverers of fresh Zanzibari produce. In search of a place to eat lunch one afternoon, we passed the 'Karibu Restaurant' – a pile of saturated plywood and moldy thatch topped by a family of goats. Naturally, we figured Karibu Restaurant was no more, and continued along on our search for food. It was only on our way back to our hotel that we met the restaurant's proprietor, Hassan, who informed us that he was very much open for business and urged us to let him cook us dinner. Unable to say no to home-cooked fish masala, we gave him a few dollars to buy seafood, and promised to return at seven.

As it turns out, Karibu Restaurant is undergoing an extensive renovation thanks in part to the generous donations of travellers from all over the world who have eaten Hassan's food over the past 15 years. Therefore, we were welcomed (or Karibu-ed) into the family home, and seated in a makeshift nook decorated with faded photos of satisfied customers and a deflated beach ball inexplicably hanging from the ceiling. Unusually for Africa, the food was delivered to our table very promptly, and in copious quantities. We had each ordered a serving of curry, one with rice, one with chapati, and Hassan had cooked us an additional eggplant dish “as a gift” – he did not want us to leave hungry. The food was delicious, but far too much for two people, no matter how hungry. Apparently, huge portion sizes are a point of pride at Karibu Restaurant, where you eat, as the sign states, “antil you say Hassan please don't kill me with food”. Hassan is also quite proud of the fact that a photo of his sign exists somewhere on the Internet, and I suppose I should write to tell him that now it exists twice – with all this publicity, he should expect a big turn-out for his re-opening.

The following day, we awoke to a welcome change of scenery: what once had been dark and grey and dismal had given way to vivid blues, greens and the whitest sand I have ever seen. The Lonely Planet is in fact spot-on with their description of the sea's “ethereal shade of turquoise” and with the sun finally shining, we hurriedly pulled on our swim suits for the first time since Likoma and made a beeline for the water. Unfortunately, the ocean we encountered was not at all like the ocean we were expecting – at home, you are rewarded for a bold dive into the depths with invigorating refreshment, in Tanzania, you just end up feeling sticky, and even more uncomfortably hot than before. It's not luke-warm, it's just plain warm, and with the long tides, getting out to dive-able depths would likely take you hours of wading through thigh-deep bathwater. It was probably one of the least satisfying dips I've ever taken, but the scenery was indeed some of the most memorable.

So that was our vacation from our vacation – a little disappointing, slightly more indoor reading than we may have counted on, but enough colourful characters and subtle adventures to make the rather expensive cab ride worthwhile. Plus, being the only patrons to an entire stretch of resort accommodation, willing to brave less-than-ideal conditions for the promise of cheaper prices and an empty stretch of sand, we were made to feel like the intrepid travellers we like to imagine we are. And there's no shaking that feel-good feeling of being someone's first customer in weeks – never a waiter more happy to see you. Of course, we tipped generously, our travel egos reaching critical mass.

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