The Warsaw Voice » Travel » Monthly - July 18, 2017
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Zanzibar: Spice Island
Just a few years ago, the remote island of Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean was largely an uncharted and totally exotic territory to Polish vacationers. But it has since become one of the hottest new destinations and one that many travelers from Poland can actually afford to go to.

Those who wanted to visit Zanzibar at the beginning of the decade were in for a complicated and costly process of finding a multi-segment flight and booking a hotel completely on their own. Zanzibar was a rarity among destinations offered by Polish travel agents. People were left to their own devices even on things like finding a local tour guide.

Things have changed dramatically and today, you can buy a trip to Zanzibar from most major tour operators. According to the Itaka travel agent, Zanzibar was a hit last year and indeed, I could not spot a single empty seat on my Itaka flight on an Airbus 330 chartered from the Czech airline Travel Services.

The Tanzanian island has all it takes to make a vacation perfect, starting with heavenly beaches with sand so fine it does not scour your feet and so bright it never gets hot from the tropical sun. That really makes your beach experience easier. When the Indian Ocean is at low tide, you can safely wade a kilometer or so into the water without losing ground and there is no better way to explore the local aquatic life. Just check out those starfish and water spiders, watch octopuses as they swoosh by, and you might also spot small moray eels hiding among corals. They will all make a long walk worth your while—just make sure you are wearing shoes with thick and hard soles, because sea urchins are everywhere. You really do not want to step on an urchin spike unless you want to have painful memories for months. The corals alone are dangerous enough: thankfully not the hard way, but I learned that they can easily pierce through a flip flop.

Nature on Zanzibar might not be particularly breathtaking, but if you like exotic plants, you will find plenty of those, spices in particular. Their abundance has earned Zanzibar its nickname of the Spice Island. To us Europeans, the place is like one big botanical garden with natural habitats of the plants species we only know as food on our tables. You will find it hard not to stuff your luggage with local delicacies on your way back home.

Like a vast majority of nearby countries, Zanzibar does not have much to offer when it comes to historic sites. That said, the one such site it does have is something to remember. When 28 years ago socialism ended in Poland, some still harbored illusions that the system had actually worked.

Stone Town, the historical capital of Zanzibar, is the ultimate proof socialism never works in practice. The town was listed as a UNESCO Heritage Site in 2002, after much lobbying by Italy, whose business finances a lion’s share of the local tourist industry. UNESCO funds started pouring into the island, but exactly where they went is anybody’s guess. But you could ask around haute-couture boutiques and car showrooms in Paris, London, Milan and other Western European cities: Zanzibar dignitaries, their wives and lady friends frequent those places a lot. One thing is clear: no money is ever spent on conservation on Zanzibar.

A stroll in Stone Town is a one-of-a-kind experience when you carefully watch the buildings around you not because of their historic beauty, but because they look like they could collapse any minute. Uninsulated power wires sticking out of the ground and walls are the norm here.

Near the local port is the House of Wonders, the first ever building in the whole of Africa to be fitted with electricity, running water, elevators and other such luxuries. It has long been closed to the public for high collapse risk. Still, $4 or $5 can easily buy your way in past the security guards, but few tourists decide to risk their own lives by exploring the decrepit structure.

The extent to which UNESCO funds get stolen and the organization’s recommendations ignored is so high that Stone Town may soon be taken off the UNESCO list. This would be the third such case in history after the government in Oman reduced the size of a local oryx reserve by 90 percent and the authorities of the German city of Dresden built a four-lane bridge cutting through a local scenic park. The final decision concerning Stone Town will be made this coming September.

The overwhelming mess and dilapidated buildings aside, Stone Town does have its charms, such as a Sultan Palace with sweeping views of the city’s port district, streets too narrow for cars to navigate in and a fish market with everything that lives in the Indian Ocean. Not recommended for the faint of nose.

A visit to Stone Town is also a reminder of the island’s dark past. For centuries, Zanzibar was the regional center for slave trade, which is well documented in a local museum. The building’s claustrophobic basement, open to visitors, was once used to “store” slaves before they were auctioned off. Tour guides will tell you that around 80-90 percent of the captives never lived to see the light of day. Given that around 45,000 people were shipped to plantations on Mauritius and Madagascar every year, it is a horrifying realization that the death toll reached hundreds of thousands. The museum has a world map identifying 10 countries where human trafficking thrives to this day. You will be dismayed to see that, along with countries such as Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia, the list also includes the European country of Moldova. “It’s the rogue state of Transnistria, a hub for trafficking in women,” our tour guide explained.

The local must-sees also include the Freddie Mercury House, where the 20th-century rock star was born as Farrokh Bulsara Sept. 5, 1946. An interesting but sad fact, the locals take absolutely no pride in Mercury. Whenever you bring him up, they will just ignore the mention at best, the reason being the traditional African resentment of any sexual minorities. As far as Zanzibarians are concerned, the megastar who died of AIDS 26 years ago was just a flamboyant homosexual.

Except for snorkeling cruises, Stone Town is probably the only reason to leave the safe confines of your resort. Thankfully, this section of the island can keep you busy all day and night. The local “beach boys” offer you boat rides to the coral, beach tours when the tide is low, and they are also there to sell you local goods and other attractions. I should mention that, unlike in Kenya, the Gambia, continental Tanzania and, above all, northern Africa, you only need to say “no, thanks” to a beach barker (you may still have to repeat it once or twice), and he will wish you a nice day and politely walk away. In other words, you do not need to negotiate your way between peddlers while taking a laid-back stroll on the beach.

Hotel staff on Zanzibar are a class for themselves. They will clean up your room at least twice a day, and the hotels definitely live up to European standards. Local restaurants serve African, Asian, Caribbean and Indian food, while European cuisine is mainly Italian food. Most waiters and other personnel excel in their jobs and are always there to answer your questions. My bartender Hussein made delicious cocktails of his own design (try the Hussein Sunrise!), but he was also a walking encyclopedia when it came to the local fauna, flora and traditions.

Given all of the above, the growing popularity of vacations on Zanzibar is only natural, especially because travel agents in Poland charge rather moderate prices. Mark Nellist, the general manager of the Sultan Sands Hotel, told me that more visitors come to Zanzibar from Poland with each passing season. “Just listen out to our personnel: most of them are now able to exchange a few sentences with our Polish guests in their native language, or at least surprise them with a Polish saying or proverb,” said Nellist. And so they did. Apart from the obvious Cześć! (Hi!) and Jak się masz? (How do you do?), I could hear catchphrases from Polish supermarket ads and things like Pić to trzeba umieć (You gotta know how to drink).

I regret to say that the latter holds true: many Polish tourists took the “all-inclusive” part of their tours way too far and became troublemakers. One even had the staff remove him from the hotel and call the police. “We regularly get complaints about Polish guests, unfortunately,” said Nellist. “Needless to say, we never consider quitting cooperation with Polish travel agents, but the problem is there. I need to ensure safety for my guests and for my personnel.”

This may be a bit of a nuisance, but it does not alter the fact that a vacation on the Spice Island is the next best thing to paradise.

Witold Żygulski