Zanzibar Pole Pole* Style

Apparently there is a lot to do on Zanzibar, the Swahili island enclave off the coast of Tanzania. There are a slew of museums as well as dolphin tours, sunset cruises, snorkeling and diving trips, spice tours, and more. But don’t ask me for any recommendations on which of these are worth your while; we didn’t do any of them.* In our five days on Zanzibar, we did nothing but walk, walk, walk. When the touts on the street asked what tour we wanted to book with them, we said we were just going to spend the day walking around. When the taxi drivers asked if we were ready to go for a ride, we said we’re rather just walk. And we weren’t just giving them the shrug off; for us, the magic of Zanzibar was uncovered by walking.

Stone Town, the heart of Zanzibar, is a maze of tiny alleys, none which are signed, some of which end abruptly, and all of which are full of wonders waiting to be discovered. Down one you might find a madrassah, or Islamic school, from which the sounds of children chanting verses from the Koran or simple math equations emanates. When school lets out, the children flood the streets, kicking balls, licking ice cream cones, giggling with friends, and doing the things that children everywhere do. Turn down another street and you’ll find one of the island’s many mosques, all well-equipped with megaphones so that no one misses the 5:15 a.m. call to prayer. Choose another path and you might end up in the market amid tables of spices and men neatly cutting the peels off oranges.

In every alley, you’ll find architecture to marvel over: intricately carved doors and balconies and colorful plates of glass in the windows.

Time and again as you make your way through the maze, you’ll have to hug the wall so a man in a robe and skull cap on a moped or a boy on a bicycle can speed past, and you’ll want to stop repeatedly to say “Jambo” to the children peering at you, watched over by mothers in brightly patterned kangas or black robes and head scarves.

If you’re out after dark and play your cards right, the alleys will lead you to the night market, where you can gorge yourself on local delights—Zanzibar pizza, kebabs of every type of seafood you can imagine, samosas and spicy potato balls, glasses of sugar cane juice with lime and ginger, steaming cups of spice tea–while enjoying the ambiance of lantern light and the lapping of waves against the shore.

Sometimes an alley will spit you out by the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. You’ll see little boys swimming butt naked, the bright colors of cargo containers loaded on the ships in the harbor, dhows passing with the wind filling their ragged sails, fishing boats returning with their nets held high, and the sunsets that in Africa are truly worth watching. On the beach, you might find a furious soccer game underway or witness kids practicing to become acrobats.

You might, like me, feel for a moment as if you’re back in Greece as you stumble upon a concert at the Old Fort and sit in the crumbling ruins of the outdoor stage and remember seeing the Oedipus Trilogy at the Parthenon. Or maybe the million and one store owners begging you to enter their shop and promising you the best prices will remind you of shopping in the labyrinthine Khan el-Khalili market in Cairo. Though not exactly like anyone you’ve ever been, Zanzibar invokes the spirit of a million places through which you’ve passed. And tt’s the kind of place that will stay with you long after you’ve left, especially if you allow it to reveal itself to you slowly, one step by one step.

*Pole Pole is a Swahili saying that means “slow down” or “go slowly”.

*Okay, so that statement wasn’t entirely true; we did do a Spice Tour. Our verdict: not bad but not great either, which seemed to be the consensus of everyone we met.

The Train To Dar

The trip north from Likoma Island involved a full day and a whole lot of minibuses. Nothing terribly exciting about that. Lots of little nuances and slices of life that were pleasant or irritating, or both depending on your mood. We crossed the border into Tanzania and pulled into Mbeya just before dark after nearly 24 hours of travel pretty exhausted and sick of buses, minibuses, shared taxis and daladalas (swahili minibuses).

And so while we could’ve hopped on a bus any day and gotten to Dar 12 hours later, we just couldn’t do another bus. Instead, we waited around Mbeya three days in order to take the “express” train to Dar. It’s a 20 hour journey … if there are no delays. Also, there was the issue of finding two other people to share our compartment as people of the opposite sex are not allowed to travel together unless they have booked an entire compartment. For us, this would double the cost. Now that said, there are plenty of reasons for taking the train. For example, its not a bus. First class contains relatively comfortable four person compartments with beds. You can walk up and down the train to your hearts content and not be squished into a tiny chair for 12 hours. There are bathrooms on board … go whenever you please (except in the stations of course!). And we ran into a couple we’d met in Likoma that we managed to cajole into taking the train with us and sharing a compartment. So all was set!

So off we headed to the station, ready to catch our 2:30 train … only to have a sign meet us at the door to the train station announcing the train would not arrive until 4. Oh well, hey, its Africa. We sat and chatted with our friends and a few other travelers with whom we’d share this journey. And lo and behold, around 4, the train rolled in. We boarded, settled into our small but comfortable compartments and then, waited. After an hour and a half waiting for nothing in particular that we could figure, we finally took off just in time for sunset.

We chatted and relaxed, read and ate, had a beer in the dining car and shared our stories of our African adventures, enjoying a comfortable evening before settling to bed, all the while the train rattling along and the dark countryside passing in the background. Far, far better than a bus.

Of course, all couldn’t continue this rosy. The next morning, we pulled in with a jolt to Mangula station, about halfway to Dar, at around 10 am. But unlike the other stations we’d stopped at, we didn’t leave this one. Eventually, we got to inquiring about why we weren’t moving and we were duly informed that the locomotive died and we were being sent a new one. Estimates on arrival varied from 45 minutes to 3 hours. So what can you do? We waited. We walked around town. We watched the citizens of Mangula and tried out our phrasebook Swahili on them. We took photos of all the interesting things the locals were doing.


We got the updates hanging out in the dining car. But, and this was discussed when deciding on train or bus, being on a brokendown train is infinitely better than being on a broken down bus. We sat and waited, and eventually, after about four hours, the train sprang back to life and off we were again, rattling along.

On the upside, all of these delays meant we’d hit one of the highlights of the train journey at just the right time. The train tracks slice right through Selous National Park, and we’d pass through just before sunset, when the animals would be coming out from the heat of the day. And we saw large herds of zebra, wildebeest, and impala, a few giraffes and warthogs and a single elephant. Still no leopards though. But hey, free safari!

We pulled into Dar Es Salaam around 8 pm, after 28 hours on the train. But its a journey I’d be happy to do again. The view was infinitely different and better than a bus. The locals were friendly and interesting. Our fellow travelers felt like good friends as we left. And we managed a pretty good nights sleep in transit. It was a great culmination of the “journey” from South Africa.