I first embarked for Zanzibar in the early Spring of 1987. I finally arrived on September 24, 2017. And even though it took 30 years to land on the island, I only had four hours to explore it. The problem, back in 1987, was that Zanzibar was “closed” for unknown reasons. I ended spending a raucous week in Dar Es Salaam, instead. That week comprises a chapter in my book DRYLAND.
I arrived at the ferry dock in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania (where I was part of an international recruitment student fair) at 6:30 a.m. just as the sun was just coming up over the Indian Ocean.
I joined a couple hundred East Africans boarding the “Kilimanjaro IV” for a 7 a.m. departure. Although my $100-round-trip ticket allowed me entry into the air-conditioned “VIP” room, I chose to sit on the top deck to see the sea. Throughout the two-hour cruise, I was mesmerized by fishermen sailing their dhow across the bluest water in the world.
At 9:01 a.m., I landed on Zanzibar. I didn’t have time to marvel at the fact that I’d been trying to get here for decades. I had to get through immigration before celebrating. In line for my visa stamp, I realized I didn’t have a plan for sightseeing. No Lonely Planet guide. No map. No clue. No idea. I was so excited at the prospects of finally visiting Zanzibar that I never actually considered what I might do upon arrival.
Outside the port, I started walking like I was born and bred in Zanzibar, as was Freddie Mercury of Queen. An aggressive freelance tour guide walked with me for a bit, offering to show me around for $20.
I finally stopped, stared at his face, and said (in my best Kenyan Swahili which is different from Tanzanian Swahili): Okay, here’s the deal: I’ll give you $20 but I want to go to a coffee shop and then to the East African Slave Trade Museum and then back to the ferry. That’s it! I also want to take a picture of you and your credentials. No funny business!
He looked surprised, but agreed to my terms and conditions. I needed his expertise as much as he probably wanted my cash. “Eddie” as he calls himself turned out to be a good escort through the twisty-turny alleys of Stone Town and right into the Zanzibar Coffee Shop.
I let myself relax in the coffee shop, with a latte and a date pastry. Two other travelers — a couple from Cape Town — joined me. We swapped stories and they seemed tickled to be part of my “Finally Made it to Zanzibar” tale. They said that if I ever came to South Africa with my family, they’d personally show us around.
Suitably coffee-ed up — and giddy with Zanzibariness — I joined back up with Eddie for the walk to the East African Slave Trade Exhibit. En route, I watched kids playing in the streets, and saw the shops starting to open up. The big deal around here is the doors. Each a work of art in wood and metal. A story behind each one, too, some of which you may not have intended to see or hear.
At the entrance to the Slave Trade Exhibit, my own story shifted yet again. I hadn’t actually given the Museum much thought — the same way I’d approached visiting Zanzibar. But once inside both places — the country and then the museum — the weight of Zanzibar’s history woke me up from my pseudo-Zen stupor. (Read more about the former slave market site here.
The Museum was one of the most solemn displays of suffering and sorrow I have ever seen. After visiting the slave chamber and the slave monument, I was beside myself with grief.
I never expected to actually step foot in Zanzibar, and I never ever expected to walk in a place where generations of slaves moved along in shackles.
And here’s what I know as a result of having gone: Even if it takes three decades to get there, you should go for a few hours, too.