PHOTO: 2017 in Review - Zanzibar, Tanzania
At the end of every year I do a look back at all of the trips I've taken and share my favorite photos from each location. I've typically made this as one gigantic post but for 2017 I'm moving in another direction and will be doing each destination on its own. I'm doing this for two reasons, the first being that logistically the omnibus post was horrible to work with due to the number of photos in the post. The second is that I want to give a fuller recounting and depiction of my experiences and thoughts from each visit, which lends itself to individual posts.
So let's kick off this year's look back with the very first destination I visited - Zanzibar, Tanzania!
Prior to this trip I had only traveled to Africa once when I made a swing through South Africa, Zambia, and Botswana. I loved my time in those three countries and I was eager to get back to the continent and branch out to explore other areas. Africa is a vast place with hundreds of cultures, climates, and customs to experience. Where would I go for round two? I settled on Zanzibar for perhaps an silly reason, though was valid enough for me nonetheless - when I was a child I remember my mother reading me a story that took place there. I don't even remember the plot of the story, I just remember the name Zanzibar and a deep desire to go there. What use is travel if you can't fulfill your childhood dreams, right?
With a ticket booked for as cheap as I could find I showed up with almost no plans and very little idea of what to expect. Often times I overplan my trips but for Zanzibar I wanted to show up with no expectations. I split my time on the island by taking my first few days in Stone Town and then the remainder at a hotel in the small town of Matemwe on the island's northeastern coast. I know many people spend their time in Zanzibar at an all-inclusive beach resort from the start and head into Stone Town as a day trip, but I was keen to spend multiple days exploring the life inside the ancient city. For my time at the beach my goal was simply to unwind, though as a solo traveler on a budget the all-inclusive resorts were well out of my price range. I had a stressful final few months in 2016 and I very rarely take time when traveling to sit still and just relax. I was able to do just that in Matemwe, but being me I still ended up exploring a little bit each day. Even if it was just a look at life along the beach.
So here you have it. My favorite photos from the historic island paradise off the Tanzanian coast called Zanzibar!
The sunsets in Zanzibar were, almost on a daily basis, some of the most stunningly gorgeous pieces of natural art I've seen in all of my travels. My first evening on the island I wandered through the narrow roads of Stone Town and made my way out to the shoreline where it seemed half the population had congregated to frolic in the water. I loved the graceful poise of the young woman sitting on the wall looking out over the silhouettes of people and boats.
Architecturally Stone Town is a very interesting city with its mishmash of Arab, African, and Indian design all melding beautifully from one building to the next. Some of the most stunningly gorgeous pieces you'll find in the city as you wander from street to street are the elaborate doors that pop out like stationary fireworks against the dusty, battered beige walls. I was drawn in to take this photo due to the brassy horns and colorful pendant banners over the motorcycle. The two boys walking to school give a fun sense of movement to the whole thing, in my humble opinion.
Stone Town is the biggest city on Zanzibar and consequently it's the transportation hub as well. One of the things that caught my eye so frequently was the constant low humming buzz along the shoreline coming from the straining motors on boats as they ferried people to and from various points around the island and even to the country's biggest city, Dar Es Salaam, back on the mainland some 45 miles away.
The Beit al Ajaib, also called the House/Palace of Wonders, is one of the most recognizable landmarks along the Stone Town waterfront with its large steeple tower and wide balconies. First built as a palace and official reception hall for the Sultan of Zanzibar, the building was most recently used as the home of the Museum of History & Culture of Zanzibar & the Swahili Coast. Sadly the building has fallen into disrepair and the museum has been moved to another site, leaving the beautiful building closed and inaccessible to visitors and locals alike.
As a predominately Muslim island, the residents of Zanzibar largely abstain from drinking alcohol. Instead many local residents enjoy cups of coffee or tea as their go-to beverage for relaxation. Here a group of men partake in a little break at the end of the day with tiny cups of tea and idle banter in one of the crowded alleyways of the city.
Though Islam is the religion of the vast majority of residents on the island, there is a very small Christian population as well. I wasn't able to go inside Saint Joseph's Catholic Cathedral while visiting Stone Town, but I did manage to hop into the Anglican Christ Church twice. During my second visit the sound of a choir could be heard from the front gates, so I quickly hustled my way into an almost empty mass service and found a quiet pew in the back where I was able to snap a few pictures and then enjoy the sound of musical worship.
Helping Mom grocery shop is one of those universal chores that children across the globe are familiar with, though what "helping" looks like often takes different forms. Here a young girl helps her mother carry a box of fresh vegetables from a corner store in the labyrinth of Stone Town back to their home.
When it comes to Zanzibari doors it's hard to beat the imposing frame and structure of the entrance to the Aga Khan Mosque. I wandered past this beautiful piece every day while exploring the city as it was along the most direct path (and for Stone Town that's still a rather circuitous routing!) from the shoreline to my lodging. Without fail there were always people gathered outside the door sitting down and chitchatting. What a lovely place to build community and friendship.
While the historic core of Stone Town is beautiful and entrancing, there's actually a much larger town to explore and experience if you have the time and interest to get out to the edges a bit. The streets become wider and the confusing whip and twist of your exploration is but a distant memory. There isn't much to see in the way of sights (though there are a few) but it's a good way to get some insight into how every day Zanzibari life operates when you're not isolated in the beautiful but admittedly touristy subsection of the city.
Day two and yet another jawdropping sunset along the Stone Town coastline. See, I wasn't lying.
If you do even the tiniest bit of research into Stone Town before visiting you'll likely see a lot of information explaining how to navigate the narrow streets and alleyways that can often times feel like one of those puzzles you worked on as a kid where you needed to find your way through a winding, vertigo-inducing maze. I can tell you that the rumors are true - the historic core of the city twists and turns with seemingly little concern for rhyme or reason. But ..... it's not that bad. You will quickly get the hang of making your way from point to point and if you do get lost it's easy enough to wander aimlessly until you land on a section of the map that you recognize. Throw any idea you have about using addresses or street numbers away though - it's useless.
While perhaps seeming a bit out of place in the middle of an African island, Jaws Corner is actually a relatively well-known gathering place within Stone Town. Sitting at the intersection of alleys a bit off from St. Joseph Cathedral, you'll almost always find Jaws Corner filled with men sitting in the shade and quietly chatting while sipping tiny cups of ginger coffee. Bitter and tangy, the coffee lacks the sugary sweetness many have come to associate with coffee after years of Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. If you absolutely need a bit of sugar with your java, there are small pastries and treats for sale as well.
After a long day of wandering through the city under what felt like an unrelenting sun, I found myself sitting along the side of a road trying to squeeze my body into the tiny little corner of shade I managed to find under an awning of a shuttered store. I watched as this man slowly rolled his cart down the street and stopped in front of this woman's store. She came out to greet him and they proceeded to chit chat about something or other for a few minutes before they both returned to their days. A dance that's performed in every little neighborhood across the globe - "hello friend, hello neighbor. the weather is good, and I hope you're well."
While still no match for the likes of Bangkok or Delhi, one of Stone Town's defining characteristics for me was the seemingly endless web of electrical wiring that criss crossed the alleyways all throughout the historic core. This particular knot of wires caught my attention because of the addition of the bright pop of color coming from the artwork for sale and the two little boys on their way home from school. The imminent danger of an electrical fire suddenly seemed a bit further away.
The legendary doors of Zanzibar aren't limited to the winding confines of the city's alleys. This gloriously thick and intricate handcrafted wonder sits at the entrance of Christ Church, the Anglican house of worship I mentioned earlier with the boisterous choir. The church was constructed to mark the end of (legal) slave trade on the island and built over the city's former slave market. The altar is said to have been constructed on top of the location of the whipping post and the courtyard of the church holds numerous monuments to the memories of those whose lives were stolen over the centuries on that very ground.
Zanzibari Muslim women almost never seemed to wear veils or full body coverings like you may find in other Muslim nations, but they still do cover their heads and bodies for modesty. The colorful, vibrant clothes you see as you wander the island is a constant reminder of this tiny speck of land's history as a crossroads of the African, Indian, and Arab world.
While Zanzibar's House of Wonders is currently closed, it seems the building is still staffed by a few people to make sure no one wanders into the facility. Here you can see three men sitting at the building's front door patiently awaiting the end of the day. I snapped this photo from the locked iron gates at the front of the building. It's such a shame that this is as close as people can get to admire the grand doorway, antique canons, and stunning architecture of one of Zanzibar's most iconic buildings.
Like anywhere, food plays a big part in the life of people living in Zanzibar. As you wander the streets you will constantly find little corner markets like this set up for people to browse and pick up little tidbits. Sure, there are much larger venues for food like the famous Forodhani Gardens or the Darajani Bazaar. But I found those to be be either quite difficult to navigate without being harassed (Forodhani) or overwhelming due to the lack of space (Darajani). Yes, I managed both of those venues just fine on my own and you could too if you wanted. But if I had my choice, the smaller markets were the place to go for a calm and satisfying shopping experience.
This was actually the very first photo I snapped when I arrived in Stone Town. My taxi driver drove as close as physically possible to my hotel's location and then parked the car and said I'd need to make my way on foot for the remainder of the way. It was just too small in most parts of the historic center for a car to even consider driving through. So I grabbed my bag, said a little prayer that I had memorized the location of my hotel correctly, and made my way forward. I was quickly enthralled with the friendly greetings tossed out as I walked by and the dusky glow the setting sun cast above the scene. A quick stop to snap a photo and onward I went. I have to admit I was pretty happy with the result, and this is one of my favorite photos from my time in Stone Town.
Of course my last photo from Stone Town is another look at those amazing sunsets! If you find yourself down by the shoreline around sunset and start to make your way along the coast you will inevitably run into various bands of young men engaging in that time honored tradition of putting their physical health at risk for the sake of fun and thrills. One by one they run across the walking path toward the sea wall and then acrobatically leap through the air and into the water. A few of the boys can pull off some rather impressive aerial acrobatics, though most seem to simply enjoy the thrill of jumping into the likely refreshing water at the end of a hot day.
While I saw the occasional motorcycle zipping along the sandy edge of the shoreline, most of the locals in Matemwe made their way up and down the beach by foot or with a bicycle. Of course the sand off the shoreline was too soft and supple to get anywhere on a bike, but the hard packed sand close to the water was ideal for those who wanted some pedal-power mobility.
If you know me at all you'll know that I spent a lot of my time when not traveling the world playing volleyball. Three to four times per week for most of the year in fact. It's my favorite sport by far and internationally is ranked in the top 5 of sports with most players. Of course nothing compares to the juggernaut that constitutes football (soccer to my American brethren), and Tanzania is no exception to that rule. Every night as the sun began to set young men would gather along the shoreline and start impromptu games of football, using small wooden posts to denote the goals.
Every day while I was relaxing on the sand reading a book this group of young girls would saunter down the beach playing some sort of game that I never quite understood despite trying pretty hard to figure it all out. There was clearly some sort of tactical aspect to their adventures, as they were often grouped into smaller clusters and carried a variety of sticks and branches as if they were weapons. The tall girl with the yellow head scarf was clearly the ring leader, commanding attention and respect as she gave instruction and the other girls followed with giggles and glee.
Not to be outdone, the boys of Matemwe were out in full force on a daily basis as well. Wearing white shirts and bright blue pants, they roamed along the beach each day in loud groups on their way to and from school. Unlike the girls they never seemed to be playing games and instead seemed content to simply go from point to point chatting with one another. After a few days of passing by me this group of boys started to greet me each day and eventually I snapped this photo of them. My favorite part is the boy on the far left with his ear to ear grin.
While the buzz of motors ferrying locals to various points near and far was the soundtrack of Stone Town, Matemwe's beaches were filled with the rhythmic crash of waves and the occasional motorcycle's squeal. Sure, there were still boats plying the waters, but these were powered solely by wind.
No matter where in the world you are, the big brother or sister is always looking out for the younger ones. These siblings were gleefully dashing through the sand and water when the littlest one suddenly took a tumble. Unharmed but now caked in sand, big sister ran over and immediately took charge of the situation, dusting and cleaning her brother before sending him on his way back home.
One of the things that drew me to Matemwe was the fact that it had relatively few hotels compared to some of the other beach towns along the Zanzibari coast. I was looking to get away and unwind during this time, and the fewer people around the better. It turned out to be an excellent choice. Wandering up and down the coastline near Matemwe every day there were often times when I was the only person within sight. Solitude, tranquility, and peace were immediately at my fingertips.
Four friends sit casually on the edge of a boat watching a football match and chatting. Another one of those moments that reminds you that no matter what our difference are, often times we all want the same simple things - good friends, good conversation, and somewhere to relax.
When I first saw this little boy approaching me on the beach, I thought he might be trying to sell me something. Unlike other beaches I've visited around the world, Matemwe's residents largely kept to themselves and rarely approached me to ask me to buy things . Still, there were a handful of entrepreneurs that would stop by to ask if I needed anything. I never really was interested in what was offered, but a very polite "no, thank you, I'm good" was sufficient for everyone and no one pushed any further than that. This young man wasn't interested in selling me anything though. He simply paraded past me with his grin , all while holding up his coconut like he'd won it at the Olympics.
Every day while walking the length of the beach during low tide I would notice women out in the water walking to and fro with baskets, searching through the sand. It was clear they were looking for something but I couldn't quite figure out what until almost the end of my trip. Turns out many women in Zanzibar supplement their income by collecting pearls from oysters. The tide retreats quite aggressively in Matemwe so it's an ideal location to try to pick up some pearls and hopefully a little extra cash.
Women weren't the only ones on the beach day in and day out trying to make a living. Small groups of men would come in from the sea at regular intervals and jump up onto the shore with baskets filled with fish. They'd then empty the baskets into the sand and start dividing the catch up between them, often times filleting the fish right then and there.
Another day, another round of Zanzibar Army Tactics with the school girls. still no clue what, why, when, where, or how the game was played.
And of course Stone Town didn't have a monopoly on beautiful sunsets. Matemwe was on the eastern side of the island though, so sunsets were overland and often times a little more difficult to see due to the trees and buildings. They still produced some lovely, tear-inducing visions though.
Well that's a wrap on the photos from Zanzibar. I hope you enjoyed them! If you've been to Zanzibar before or have any questions about my time there, feel free to leave a comment below or contact me through the link at the top right corner of the page (or drop down menu if using a mobile device).
And as the final bit of traditional, I've spliced all of these photos into a montage video as well. Feel free to enjoy the music and photos again by playing the video below.