The ferry from Tanzania’s largest city, Dar es Salaam, to the archipelago of Zanzibar takes about 2 hours. We choose this mode of transportation over the plane, which is only 15 minutes, but doesn’t allow the pleasure of a slow reflective journey. As non residents we pay 40 USD each for the ferry ticket and we categorically refuse to be ripped off by the ticket officer who sneakily adds 5 USD to each fare.
We wait in the harbour in humid, sticky heat, surrounded by a colourful crowd of people who are running around, bags in tow, shouting out to each other and generally adding to the omnipresent noise and confusion. Our first-class ticket (the only option available to Westerners) offers us access to an air-conditioned cabin with no view, dominated by tourists and a few affluent locals. We quickly move to the more welcoming economy, where people are sitting on their bags or sleeping on the floor among constant chatter of voices and bursts of laughter.
There is access to an outside deck where we decide to spend the rest of the journey enjoying the breeze and the sun on our faces. The waters are crystal clear and of an unbelievable turquoise blue.
We are on our way to Zanzibar, a semi-independent part of Tanzania headed by a revolutionary government (as it describes itself). The population is just under 1m, 99% of who are Muslim. As we disembark among the usual chaos, fish out our luggage from a pile of other bags and locate the car sent by our hotel, we see a very different picture from mainland Tanzania. Most women are wearing black burkhas with a face cover or at least a hijab.
The road takes us from Zanzibar Town to Pongwe on the East coast of the island. We pass by sleepy villages where houses have roofs covered with tin or palm and banana leaves. Some are brick and some are made of a combination of wooden sticks and clay.
Zanzibar is famous for spices, its main export product, and for tourism. With miles and miles of pristine white-sand beaches and azure sea it is a tropical paradise tourists the world over dream of. Zanzibar specialises in high-class tourism: boutique beach hotels with exquisite food and discreet, highly trained staff, attract wealthy families and honeymooners ready to splash on a holiday of a lifetime. We are there to celebrate a double anniversary and we generally fit with the stereotype of a typical Zanzibari visitor: a couple of young professionals seeking a romantic escape from the city somewhere in Europe or US.
Our resort in Pongwe consists of 10 luxury Zanzibari-style bungalows perched on a dazzling beach of fine white sand dotted with palm trees. The staff, far outnumbering the guests, are smiling, super professional and ready to fulfil our every wish before we can even voice it. It is here that we will spend Easter eating fantastic food, sipping cocktails by the pool and snorkelling in sapphire waters on the coral reef.
We are experiencing Zanzibar of the wealthy 1%. We try not to think about it and just enjoy ourselves, but the nagging thought that this is not quite right remains. Half of the population of Zanzibar live below the poverty line. Along the road behind luxury resorts sits the fishing village of Pongwe where men go out to sea at night to catch fish and sought after delicacies like lobster, and in the early morning women collect mussels and later make beads jewellery for tourists, while barefoot children in ragged clothes are running around among modest leaves-covered huts. We console ourselves with the thought that the village lives off the hotels and we hope the locals get a fair price for their produce.
At night the sea retreats leaving miles of shallow waters abundant in seashells and seaweed. Each morning I take a stroll on the beach before breakfast. I leave behind the immaculate stretch of white sand that belongs to our resort and soon I reach the part that is accessible to the villagers. The fishermen are back already with their catch and their colourful wooden boats are drying in the sun. The morning during low tide is the time when women go out to pick up mussels and crabs, as well as seaweed that, as one hotel security guard explains to me, are exported to China as a delicacy. I watch women carry buckets full of seafood on their heads. A smiling young man passes by showing me an enormous fish he has just caught.
Our short stay is concluded in Stone Town, the old part of Zanzibar Town. It is a city haunted by its past, where you can see a faint reflection of the former glory in magnificent stone buildings with peeling plaster and heavy sculpted doors on which you can see the fading beauty of ornaments left by long-gone foreign masters of this land.
Speaking of foreign masters, our route takes us to the old slave market. A Christian church now stands in its place, but a part of the dungeons has been kept intact. We enter the tiny dark room that smells of mould and we contemplate its horror in heavy silence. The two of us and our guide barely fit in the space that once was the miserable dwelling of 20 slaves, chained to the wall with no possibility of movement, no fresh air and no light.
As we walk on the mood lifts slightly. We briefly stop by the birthplace and childhood house of Freddie Mercury, Zanzibar’s most famous son.
It is so hot that even a short walk takes its toll on us. We flop on a bench next to the harbour, watching fishing boats swim by and young boys dive happily in the dirty waters. Two fully veiled Muslim women perch on the bench next to us, silently like ghosts, so close and yet so distant.