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Trip 25 -- Zanzibar Walk

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Two scenes remain vivid in my mind from my first trip to Zanzibar, almost 20 years ago. One was the night food stalls at Forodhani Gardens. Amidst the sweet smoke of seaside seafood grills, a skewer of octopus never tasted better.

The other, perhaps the same night, was my attempt to return to mainland Tanzania on the overnight ferry. I'd walked up and attempted to purchase a last-minute deck ticket.

"Hakuna!" came the bellowed reply. I had virtually no Swahili, but if "hakuna matata" meant "no problem," then either of those words by itself couldn't be good. I slunk back into town and found a hotel.

The rest of Zanzibar -- the old buildings of Stone Town, a swim in the Indian Ocean, a tour of the spices for which the island is famous -- barely remains in my mind. Apart from the grumpy ferry guy, I remember a friendly bustle, refreshingly calmer than the mainland. That trip, however, was a fast-paced six-week overland journey from Kenya to South Africa, and I allotted but two days for Zanzibar.

This time I'll have almost three weeks on the island, most of which I'll spend walking counterclockwise around it. The airport is not much more than an hour's walk from the triangle that points out of Stone Town midway down the western coast. That's where, this weekend, the Sauti za Busara music festival will take place at the old fort, hosting musicians from all over the continent. After attending the festival, I'll begin the walking on Sunday.

The trip was almost too easy to plan. Zanzibar does not require a Covid-19 test for entry; reports suggest that life goes on as usual. The View from the Wing travel blog posted an entry in September titled "Tanzania Is Open To Americans, And Life Is Normal There. Should You Go?" The country stopped counting virus infections in May, and a traveler indicated in the blog entry that hospitals were empty and life proceeded in ways that now seem foreign to me: without masks or social distancing. I'll assess the situation on the ground and keep my supply of masks handy, especially with the new virus variants, but if the situation is the same as in September I am eager to experience it.

It's possible to get a Tanzanian visa on arrival, but I submitted for an e-visa. Never has a government authority been so eager to communicate. In the two weeks after my application I received 26 messages from the Tanzania Immigration Department, 21 of which explained how to log into the site and check on the application's status. Thirteen of those arrived after the five messages telling me the visa was approved and how to go about downloading it.

Then flights and hotels -- it is now, of course, just as easy to line up accommodation on Zanzibar as in New Jersey -- and a message to the author of the Zanzibar Insider Buzz Web site, to ask a resident whether I was naive to think that I could safely walk around the island. She did not consider my plans too dangerous; there are sometimes robberies but they overwhelmingly occur at night or on isolated stretches of beach, neither of which fits into my walking intentions.

She emphasized that I should keep my money and passport well-hidden, and to that end I purchased a pair of Clothing Arts Pick-Pocket-Proof Convertible Travel Pants -- the legs zip off to change them into shorts. The first pair impressed me so much that I ordered another, and apart from a bathing suit those will be my leg coverings for the trip.

Up until last night I was still discovering zipped pockets, some of which are hidden inside other zipped pockets that are blocked on the outside with a strap and a button. By way of a rehearsal yesterday I stashed my passport, cash, and credit cards in various places, and by the end of the night I could not figure out how to extract them all. These are some secure pants.

The other new gizmo in my life is a phone. I discovered in Aruba, when I failed to roam on the Digicel network or use a local SIM card, that something was wrong with my phone's GSM radio. The phone still works just fine in the United States, but I need a reliable means of communication when I'm out and about. (You don't want me to wait until I'm in my hotel to Tweet that octopus skewer, do you?)

Of course, that meant giving up that erstwhile pinnacle of prudent technology, the swappable phone battery, about whose phasing out I have already ranted on my walk to Boston. If I was parting ways with that, I was hellbent on finding a feature at least as useful. Enter the LG V60, with its detachable second screen. In Aruba I found myself constantly switching among the camera, the map, and the note-taking app. Well, now I can have two of those open at once, each with its own real estate.

Zanzibar's modern history started in the 1960s. From 1890 to 1963, Zanzibar was a British protectorate, following a few centuries of Omani rule. On December 10, 1963, Zanzibar became independent, ruled by Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah.

The legitimate but contested election sparked a violent insurrection just a few weeks later, early in January -- how history repeats itself! A Ugandan named John Okello declared himself field marshal and instigated a revolution on January 12, 1964. The revolutionaries had had enough of Arab rule, especially after centuries of slavery (which had become illegal in 1897). Zanzibaris of Arab descent were attacked; thousands were killed. A regime of fear and torture supplanted the elected government. Property was confiscated and businesses were nationalized. Many fled.

The Zanzibar revolution sparked a coup attempt on the mainland, in Tanganyika, which had become independent in 1961. President Nyerere of Tanganyika collaborated with the installed postrevolutionary president, Sheik Abied Amani Karume, and the two united in 1964 to form Tanzania, a portmanteau of "Tanganyika" and "Zanzibar." Zanzibar continued to operate largely independently from the mainland.

Anne Chappel's "Zanzibar Uhuru" is a work of historical fiction about two families, one British and one Arab, fleeing the revolution and coming together half a century later. It's easy to flit among the few paragraphs of a history book and get through a revolution and its effects in a few minutes; it's another matter to read of people's coping through the events as they took chances, not knowing what was going on or whom to trust.

Many of the book's chapters begin with a proverb in Swahili. "Kupoteya njia ndiyo kujua njia": "To get lost is to learn the way." Not a bad philosophy for a walker -- though I don't mind a little help from Google Maps.

Go on to day 1