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2010-03 Zanzibar

a column written by James for the Sligo Weekender

 

My Grannies drawing-room bookcase stored the ideal ingredients to while away a rainy afternoon in Cartron. On one of the upper shelves, below a significant collection of The Illustrated London News, was housed a beautifully bound gold-leaved set of the Enclyclopedia Britannica. In the XYZ Volume I was repeatedly drawn to a photograph which seemed a million miles away from the dreich conditions beyond those large sash-windows on the Rosses Point Road.


Bags of spices heaped in the foreground beneath an elegant coconut palm, an oversized orange setting from pink to blue, an Arabian dhow drifting on the still warm waters of the Indian Ocean&I frequently revisited that backdrop throughout my Model School days, and longed one day to penetrate that picture, to savour that perfect paradise.


Zanzibar  the very name spelt exoticism to me.


In January of this year, following a breath-taking flight past the iced summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, then twenty-five miles from the Tanzanian coastline, the plane touched down on the island of my childhood reverie, and the birthplace of the late great Freddie Mercury!


But my bubble was abruptly burst on entry to the Arrivals hall, when I was asked for $100 (US) in cash for an entry visa. Other European countries were charged much less, but because of an arrangement between Ireland and Tanzania, an entry visa for an Irish citizen costs $100. I tried to pay in Tanzanian Shillings, but the exceedingly discourteous Visa staff only accepted US Dollars. A month-long power-cut on Zanzibar (the whole island) meant all ATMs were out of order. As I arrived at the Bureau de Change, they put up a hand-written sign saying Closed. A lady in a burkha gestured to me and asked if I needed US dollars. Id no choice. I averted my gaze as she reached inside her burkha to unearth wads of dollar bills. I bought my Visa. Not happy.


At the car hire, my international Drivers licence was insufficient  I needed a Tanzanian Driving Permit, which cost a mere $10 but took another hour to acquire. An antiquated map of Zanzibar, not showing any of the newer roads, as well as a total lack of signposts and an unnerving dearth of petrol stations, meant that for the first three hours on Zanzibar I drove around in never-ending circles, getting to see Stonetown about five times.


Eventually, I arrived at the Cristal Resort in Paje on the east coast ( www.cristalresort.net ). My hellish first  hours on my paradise island were history.
Pristine white beaches, warm turquoise Indian Ocean waters, elegant coconut palms with hammocks suspended between, and splendid sunsets all contribute to make Zanzibar the number one beach location in East Africa. At the Cristal Resort, where a perfect pool is poised a few feet above the powdery white sands of Paje, an Eco-beach-bungalow (breakfast included) cost around ¬25 a night! Eco simply meant that some rather alien creatures had free access to the area surrounding your mosquito net. On one occasion I removed a horrid hopping flying Coconut Crab from my bungalow before I could drift into Dreamland. The Cristal Resort had a generator and electricity was restricted to a few hours a day, but who needs electricity in paradise?


Sixty miles long and twenty miles wide, Zanzibars population (around 1 million) is primarily Islamic. Endless villages with basic dwellings, amidst lush plantations, show that the islanders for the most part have a relatively simple way of life, which appears unchanged for centuries. Zanzibar is notoriously a spice island, particularly famous for cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper.


Swimming alongside dolphins, wild and free in the ocean, was a life experience never to be forgotten.


The coral reefs are some of the finest I have witnessed via snorkel and mask. Jozani National Park with its colobus monkeys, sea turtles and mangrove boardwalk is well worth a guided tour.


The best way to see the crumbling capital of Stonetown, with its many magnificent doors, is to explore it on foot. Remnants of Zanzibars chequered history under Portugese, Dutch, Omani, British and Tanzanian rule mean that the history and architecture are fascinating. A Slave tour, showing a part of the  islands disturbing past is definitely well worth experiencing. The evil trading was finally abolished in 1873, and the impressive Anglican Cathedral was built on the site of the Slave Market. 


After an unsettling arrival on the island of my childhood dreams, it was quite something to have been able after all those years to finally penetrate that encyclopedia photo.