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From mainland Africa to an Indian Ocean isle

I arrived at Julius Nyerere Airport, Dar es Salaam at mid afternoon. 

The sun and heat hit me like a hammer striking an anvil, looking around at the dishevelled travellers, drooping after nearly 12 hours on the aircraft, the dilapidated airport, the dust, the military guards in their land-rovers toting out-of-date assault rifles.  The atmosphere was one of exhaustion, excitement and uncertainty.

A short walk in the baking sun to the terminal, sweat already dripping off me, led though the doors into a blast of artic air; I shivered and clutched my passport. 

“Where’s your Visa, man” was the question from Immigration.
“Oh, sorry” I replied “It was a spur of the moment trip”
“Come with me”

We walked into a back office where I was told a Visa was no problem, they love the English (or, more likely, the money), it would be £50 for an immediate three-month Visa and could he have it now. Yes, I decided.

I passed over the cash and got my passport stamped, although it was my old one and he had to search a bit for a free page.  Official processes out the way I walked to the front of the airport.  All I had was my carry on, I always believe in travelling light.

In front of the airport was a collection of the most dilapidated and dangerous taxis I have ever seen.  As the first person out I was mobbed.  I broke away from the melee and found a quiet Indian gentleman with a car that looked at least reasonably maintained.  He smiled at me and I climbed in.

“Where too, Chief”
“A reasonable hotel, please”
“No problem”

And with that he took off like the proverbial bat out of hell.  Clinging grimly to the seat in front of me, I watched in awe and wonder as he managed to break nearly every road law in existence, the most frightening of which was driving the wrong way up a one way street, he tossed it off with the excuse that it was a short-cut!

We arrived at the hotel, a surprisingly modern affair, I gave him his $5, no doubt well over the odds, but it was still cheaper than a fun-fair ride, and nearly as scary.  I climbed out and walked into the lobby.

All marble and rattan, it looked like an ill conceived mixture of Roman villa and British colonial.  Fortunately they had a room, I hadn’t reserved one, but they’re not difficult to find.  I went up, took a shower and fell onto the bed, I was exhausted.  I can never sleep on planes.  With the air conditioning on full blast I dropped into an uneasy slumber. 

A couple of hours later I awoke, refreshed and ravenous.  I climbed into the shower then dressed in cotton trousers, walking boots and a light shirt.  Looking at my luggage I realised I’d forgotten to pack a hat, have to get one later.

I wandered into the restaurant and took a table by the windows, overlooking the beach and almost immediately forgot the menu.  There were dolphins playing in the surf!  I lost track of the time I spent watching them until there was a cough at my shoulder, I looked round and the Maitre D’ handed me a menu with a grin.

“Good entertainment” he said “they’re there nearly all the time”
“Excellent” I thought and started perusing the menu.
Hmm, interesting choices, I’d heard of jungle stew and wasn’t really in the mood for pot-luck, I’ve heard of what goes into them!  There were the classic American stand-bys, burgers and fries and there was no way I was going to go that route.

Ah, fish, oh my, what a selection, I called the waiter over and asked what he recommended, I was told the mixed fish platter was a good deal.  I went with that and ordered a beer to go with it.  Normally it would be wine, but wine just doesn’t work in Africa.

My beer arrived, still sealed in the bottle, which is the only way to drink it in Africa; the waiter opened the bottle and placed it on the table along with three others in an ice bucket.  It took a sip.  Ah, ice cold, yum, and turned back to the window to watch the dolphins. 

My fish platter arrived. At first I was sure they’d made a mistake; the last time I’d seen that much fish, I’d ordered for four in a Japanese restaurant in London.  Good grief.  The side dishes arrived as well; rice, plantains, bread, sauces.  How on earth was I going to manage this lot?  I was hungry, but my goodness!

An hour later  the Maitre D’ returned and asked if I wanted desert, I nearly laughed but just asked for coffee instead.  It arrived in a beautiful silver pot with delicate porcelain cups and he offered me a cigar as well, normally I don’t indulge, but I thought just this once.

I took my first sip, oh this was heaven, freshly roast and ground and straight from Kenya.  I couldn’t ask for any better.  With a sigh of repletion I leaned back in my chair and watched the dolphins play in the twilight.

Next morning, I decided it was time to acquaint myself with Dar es Salaam.  I rose early, grabbed breakfast, some more of that wonderful coffee and a few bread rolls, stopped by the gift shop to pick up a plantation hat and walked into town.

I was stunned.  I knew, intellectually, that Tanzania was a third world country, but it had never really occurred to me what this meant.  The dichotomy of seeing a family squatting on the pavement, filthy and sharing a battered tin of what looked like mud, but was probably water, their few pitiful belongings on a blanket, camped out in front of a shop that sold designer sunglasses was a shock.

Despite that there is an atmosphere to Africa which cannot be matched anywhere else in the world.  The sky appears immense, much bigger than in Europe or America and a bright, almost electric blue that was painful to look at, right, sunglasses as well.  And then there is the smell. 

Initially the severe dry smell of cooked air and sand with a smattering of wild animal but underlying this was the harsh smell of unwashed bodies, rotting meat, car exhausts and open sewers.  I said it was a third world country.

I walked around town, pleased I’d put my leather soled walking boots on, they were warm, but when you see a tourist step onto the road in training shoes and have the rubber soles melt, apart from the amusement, there is a lesson there.  I later learned that it hadn’t rained for 18 months and the tarmac was so hot it was almost liquid.

It’s a weird town, the modern next to the archaic.  A jewellers with guards at the door, selling $1,000 watches and camped outside an old man selling second (or third, or fourth) hand books, some of which looked like they’d been on the losing end of a fight with an elephant.

Mercedes and BMW cars and massive Toyota Land Cruisers jostling for position with cattle and as shabbily stately as ever, like a poor cousin in from the country, the ubiquitous Land Rover, its boxy shape standing head and shoulders above the rest of the traffic.

I wandered down to the docks – it seemed an interesting place to visit – and saw that there were trips to Zanzibar.  I’d heard stories of the Spice Island and it conjured up images of pirates, of spice warehouses and pepper factories.  I just had to see.

The next ferry left in ten minutes, so I joined the crowd.  An interesting mixture; the ubiquitous loud, overweight Americans, already scarlet in the sunshine with huge cameras slung around their necks.  The quietly studios Danes (hmm, a very pretty blond in rather tight shorts, oh, chatting to her boyfriend, ah well), Australians in their shorts and bush hats, and me.  I felt like a crow in the midst of birds of paradise.

Ah well, play the English gentleman to the hilt, when in doubt, resort to humour.

We all filed onto the ferry and had a very pleasant crossing to Zanzibar.  I must admit, the anticipation was there.  I love the new and interesting.

Stone Town; a maze of narrow streets in a jumble of closely built old stone buildings, shaded by elegantly carved balconies and verandas clinging precariously overhead – close enough to catch a whisper, or a kiss.

It was a romantic setting that exceeded all my expectations.  I drifted away from the tour group without them really noticing I had gone.  I heard the sounds of a market and wandered into it.  Strolling around the stalls I must admit I had something of a half smile on my face, tourist junk. 

Rubber Assegai, fake Rolex watches, second rate carvings and plastic from Taiwan, clothing and second rate batique were the main offerings but toward the back of the market, between a stall selling cheap sunglasses and one displaying cut-price Mexican flick-knives and martial arts weaponry, was an old gentleman sitting on a Zanzibar Chest.

There is a peculiar sheen and weight to Acacia that just cannot be faked.  There were masks from a dozen different tribes, fabulous wood spears and clubs and, of course, the Zanzibar chest.

It was beautiful, the wood so old it was almost black and the brass fittings gleaming.  The carvings deep and still crisp, despite the wear. The man saw me looking, grinned and beckoned me over and again local language skills put mine to shame.

At best my Swahili is pretty crude, his English was excellent.  He gave me a history of the chest, how it had been carved in the early 1800s for the captain of a Privateer operating out of Zanzibar and when the ship had been sunk; the chest had survived (see the bite marks, Mako Shark) and had been used as a makeshift raft where it had eventually wound up back in Zanzibar.

Oh, yes, it was only $100; he would take credit cards and ship anywhere in the world.  That last bit took the edge off the story, but it was just what I’d been looking for.

I haggled him down to $75, and then paid $25 to have it shipped.  I handed over my credit card, very happy with the purchase.

I waited for the ferry while sipping a bottle of cold water and reflected on what I’d seen so far.  My first full day in Tanzania had been a massive learning experience.  I was looking forward to the rest of my time here.

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