EcoTourism EXPERT continue talking about Tanzania with Denis Bogomolov, Ph.D. in Biology, travel photographer and traveler, who spent over two years working in the African country. This time our ‘journey’ is to the Zanzibar, the island of pirates, white beaches and whale sharks, the birthplace of the legendary lead vocalist of the rock band Queen (Zanzibar is an archipelago of 75 islands, part of the semi-autonomous state of Tanzania. The island of Zanzibar is the largest island in the archipelago).
- Last time, you talked about Tanzania in general and its beautiful national parks. Today, I would like to talk about the Zanzibar Island. Did you like this mysterious island?
- I have been to Zanzibar several times. This is actually a ‘state within a state’, with its own parliament and rather strict laws - in fact, the Sharia laws. Zanzibar is the island where the trade in slaves and spices was rampant, it is a sultanate and the island had been a ‘haven’ for Arab pirates for centuries. The Zanzibar Island became part of Tanzania in the middle of the last century and is still semi-autonomous.
The Zanzibar Island is famous for its beautiful beaches, so the beach tourism infrastructure is very well developed there.
There is the purest white sand, eye-catching blue sea and blue sky on the horizon, as well as the very famous palm trees leaning over the shore that we see on postcards or in advertising. If you travel to see this beauty, of course, it is better to go to the Zanzibar Island because it is more exotic than the Maldive Islands, just less popular. The Maldives does not have such a history as the Zanzibar Island, where you can, for example, walk around Old City, drop into an antique shop, bargain, buy some kind of handicraft, and if you’re lucky, buy a really antique piece. You do not have a chance for this on the Maldive Islands.
- What can you tell about local hotels, is there a choice in Zanzibar?
- There are hotels to suit every taste and budget on the Zanzibar Islands. Many of them are located inside historic buildings of the colonial period. They are beautifully combined with the surroundings of the buildings, the hotel apartments are with mosaic bathrooms and four-poster beds. But there are also ultra-modern buildings.
I don’t know why, but there are a lot of Italians there. There are quite a large number of hotels in Zanzibar, which are either owned by the Italians or are part of Italian holdings.
The best and more expensive hotels are on the east coast where the ocean is open. The water and beach are cleaner there, but the weather is very changeable. It is less clean оn the Zanzibar’s west coast, closer to the mainland. The west coast is not as good an the east one, and often there are corals near the beach and not sand. But it’s cheaper to spend vacations there.
Ferries sail from the mainland to the Zanzibar Island and back, but keep in mind that they are very different. There are old ones that can break from a wave, and a huge number of people can die. And there are high-speed catamaran ships with good service like on transatlantic airplanes. I sailed on such a catamaran ship in business class and everything was excellent there, including well-trained stewardesses. There are also flights to the Zanzibar Island.
- Is diving developed on the Zanzibar Island? What entertainment is offered to tourists?
- Any whim for your money, including scuba diving and snorkeling, of course, because there are coral reefs in Zanzibar, many varieties of fish and starfish, as well as other underwater inhabitants.
On the Zanzibar Island, travelers can watch manta rays - are largest rays (Batoidei) with a fin span of up to 8 meters. They jump out of the water and flop flat to get rid of parasites. Tourists like to watch this.
Whale sharks, the largest fish on earth, inhabit this area. They are harmless and you can swim with them, but this is a very expensive pleasure.
Other activities include jet skiing and canoeing.
Not far from the Zanzibar Island, there is the so-called Spice Island, where the main market for all kinds of spices and flavors is located, and excursions are offered to go there. My friends who visited the Spice Island told me that they could not even imagine that there is a huge number of varieties of cinnamon and other cloves.
There is also a Turtle Reserve located on the Changuu Island (also known as the Prison Island) in the Zanzibar archipelago. Once upon a time, there was a prison there, and then the island was used to isolate people during quarantines. Today, it is a reserve where tourists can watch Aldabra Island giant tortoises and this island is popular among tourists.
And in Zanzibar, you can watch local fishermen fore-and-aft sailing on the azure waters of the Indian Ocean using a classic Arabian gaff-sails. The gaff-sails are unique in that their shape has not been changed for many hundreds of years. And the boats in Zanzibar still do not have any motors.
By the way, the travelers can enjoy your dinner at good fish restaurants in Zanzibar.
- What can you tell about the Zanzibar’s historical places and attractions?
- Among other things, the Zanzibar Island is known in the world as the birthplace of one great, iconic musician of our time. His name was Farrokh Bulsara and he is better known as Freddie Mercury. The future leader of the Queen was born in Old own, Zanzibar, in 1946. And the tourists visiting Old Town are divided, conditionally, into two categories. The first group consists of those who decided to combine sunbathing on the famous white sand beaches and looking at the ancient architecture to feel the spirit of antiquity. And the second group is the admirers of Freddie’s talent. His fans from all over the world flock to the house where he was born to honor the memory of the cult-singer. We are used to be surprised about the long queue to the Lenin Mausoleum, and there is also a long queue to the entrance of a residential building!
As for the historical attractions, it is worth visiting Old Town (also called Stone Town) included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. The Old Town’s streets are narrow, there are two- or three-storied houses, beautiful carved doors that are a special feature of Zanzibar, the wood is very old and really ‘salted’ and stained.
In Old City, you can see the so-called Slave Market, the place where slaves were once brought and where they were bought by slave-dealers. It looks like an amphitheater, there are rooms with bars where slaves were kept.
Old city was formed quite chaotically, and it so happened that several oncoming streets met at one point. This is how the Shark Jaws Corner (Shark Jaws) was formed, a tiny square between houses, like ‘quadrangles’ (the courtyards looking like wells) in St. Petersburg. This is where the locals gather in their leisure time. For a real Zanzibar man - in the prime of his life - work is an extremely annoying misunderstanding, so there are always a lot of people at the Shark Jaw Corner.
The Shark Jaws Corner is also known because all avid bao players are fond of gathering there. Bao is a tabletop game, also known as the “grain game”. It is one of the oldest on the planet and is of African origin.
Those who are interested in antiquity and want to purchase a truly valuable and authentic souvenir should definitely drop into some antique shop in Old Town. When traveling, I really like to bargain with local sellers, as this is a very exciting ‘intellectual competition’. Therefore, visiting one of the antique shops at the Shark Jaws Corner, I received a great pleasure as I had a real ‘battle’ there.
- Can you tell in more details?
- Rashid met me at his shop. I told him that I was interested in figurines made of wood or clay. “Oh yes! I just have some great voodoo-dolls for you! They are antique and definitely were used in rituals,” he replied. Rashid rushed to the ‘bowels of the shop’ and returns with two frightening dolls. Rusty nails and needles were driven into them, and some stains were on their heads - most likely, the blood of a ritual rooster, I thought. With emphatic caution, he handed me the voodoo-dolls and said, “Very, very old!”
I played into the hands of the seller, looked at the dolls, loudly clicked my tongue, raised, without knowing why, the figurines to the light, then put them on the table and said, looking into Rashid’s honest eyes, “Now let’s get serious.”
The fact is that the cult of voodoo is as popular in Tanzania as in Russia, that is, not popular at all. Voodoo is the official religion of West Africa, it is also the religion in some Caribbean countries, and has nothing to do with Tanzania at all. But tourists don’t care about that: since it is Africa, it means voodoo-dolls should be popular. Well, the local enterprising guys, realizing what exactly is in demand among ‘mzungu’ (wanderer/travelers, foreigners, white people), quickly created an exclusively marketing story about ancient mysterious rituals and began to make voodoo-dolls.
Rashid understood that he had picked on the wrong person, grinned, put the dolls aside and left the room with the words, “Now you will see what a real blackwood is.” He brought a bucket of water, gave me two chocolate-color wooden bars and said, “Throw them into the water. A blackwood will surely sink, and a painted one will keep on floating.”
I threw the bars into the water. One of them, after a little time, sank, and the other, slightly submerged, still remained afloat. Rashid took out a sunken one from the water, saying that this was the true blackwood.
But it so happened that I also read something about the ‘blackwood’ that was sinking. In fact, valuable grenadill (African blackwood called ‘mpingo’ by locals) is dense and heavy and really sinks. But I decided to check something and asked Rashid for a knife.
I heard that tourists were cheated this way. A tourist looks at the figurines, wants to know the price, the seller asks an unduly high price that the tourist’s eyes pop out of his head. And the seller tells him, “What do you want, white brother? This is the natural blackwood. And then he does a trick with the wooden bars. The tourist is delighted, the seller gives him an ‘exclusive’ discount, and the satisfied buyer leaves with the ‘blackwood’ figurine in his hands. And he does not even suspect that he has become the victim of an clever and, one might say, ‘high-tech’ deception.
The trick lies in making a painted piece of wood sink in water look like a real blackwood one. A wooden bar is just sawn into two parts, a nut or bolt is placed in the cavity, the bar is filled with glue, the halves are glued together, polished and covered with several layers of shoe polish. Voilà!
Having asked for something sharp, I hinted that I was going to scrape over the sunk piece of blackwood to check for a trace of gluing. As a result, I passed the test. Rashid respected me even more and brought two figurines, immediately warning that they were made not from blackwood, but he could guarantee their age and origin.
I would politely call the price he asked ‘unacceptable’. I asked to divide it by three, and Rashid, in the most diplomatic terms, asked me not to be impudent but gave a twenty-percent discount. I sighed heavily with the clear intention of leaving the shop and told Rashid my sad story that I was short of money and could only spend half the amount he asked for the item. He clasped his hands and rolled his eyes up. It seemed to me that at that moment, an ‘honest’ merchant Rashid was fighting with a decent man Rashid.
As a result, he made another thirty-percent discount and said that he was putting his business simply on the verge of bankruptcy. I was in no hurry to agree. We had already discussed all world affairs, and the figurines were still on the table. I said that I was late for the ferry and regretted that I could not buy such expensive figurines from him. I slowly got up from the bench, slowly put my backpack on my shoulders, straighten the straps, put on my cap. “Okay! That’s a bargain! But only for the sake of the Russian-Zanzibar friendship!” Rashid finally said.
He packed the figurines in a canvas bag because plastic bags are illegal in Zanzibar. We shook hands, I went to the door, but suddenly, I decided to buy something else from him for twenty thousand shillings. Rashid’s eyes lit up, he was looking for some items around the shop and finally handed me a charm - a string of beads threaded through a hole in an old coin. It turns out that the East African cents of the early twentieth century had a hole in the middle. I got a ten-cent coin dated 1936. Rashid and I parted like best friends.
- What is so special about blackwood?
- In general, the concept of blackwood is quite broad. This is a general designation of different trees; in particular, it can be ebony, grenadill (African blackwood) or different varieties of acacia. It is very dense dark wood that sinks, of colors from coal-black to coffee-colored and blood red, sometimes with purple inclusions. It is valuable because there is very little of blackwood left in the wild since these trees were mercilessly cut down earlier. In Tanzania, for example, they grow on special plantations that are well protected. And such a tree grows for a long time, it is an analogue of junipers in Russia. It will be possible to use it to create art pieces only after decades.
As a rule, pieces of folk arts and crafts, which are supposedly made of blackwood, in fact, have nothing to do with that most expensive blackwood. Blackwood and ebony items are valued primarily by foreigners, especially by the Europeans, simply because they are rare. In Tanzania, somewhere near Dar es Salaam, there are two villages specializing in blackwood carving. They make pieces of furniture, interior or sculptures. All this has been purchased for many years to come by fashion houses, European manufacturers of accessories and furniture, and by art galleries.
Therefore, it is almost impossible to just walk into an antique store and buy some item made of blackwood. Dar es Salaam has a large souvenir market where it is possible sometimes to find some valuable items. And if you still find items made of real blackwood in any reputable store, it will cost you a great sum of money - thousands of dollars - depending on the size of an item. Some small brooch can cost seven hundred dollars, and a more significant piece or a big-size one can cost tens of thousands of dollars.