Central Africa remained a blank spot on Western maps of the world well into the 1800s. The explorers who eventually filled in the empty spaces – famous names like Livingstone, Stanley, Burton, and Speke – typically launched their expeditions from the island of Zanzibar, a cosmopolitan center of trade and commerce since at least the 8th century. But on the mainland across from Zanzibar, along the coast of what is now Tanzania, the 19th century explorers found nothing but small fishing villages.
Not until 1860 did Sultan Sayyid Majid, who ruled Zanzibar at the time, decide that an inland harbor on the mainland should be developed into a port city. He named his project Dar es Salaam, “Haven of Peace” in Arabic. From humble beginnings Dar es Salaam quickly grew into Tanzania’s largest metropolis, the country’s economic and political heart.
Assuming that any country’s economic and political heart should be worth a visit, I stopped at Dar es Salaam on my way to Zanzibar. After wandering around the city’s dirty, crowded streets for two hours I was ready to leave. As early as 8am I began sweating in the steamy tropical heat. Aggressive touts harassed me with a variety of sales pitches. The area around my hotel, right in the middle of the city center, could have been used for the set of a post-apocalyptic movie. My one entertaining moment came at the fish market, where, as the only mzunguin sight, I was singled out by a joking teenager who pushed an embarrassed woman in front of me and yelled, “You marry my sister!”
Saturday Morning at the Dar es Salaam Fish Market (Video)
I escaped the next morning on a ferry to Zanzibar. I’d recently finished a book called The Impenetrable Forest, written by a former Peace Corp volunteer who helped develop the mountain gorilla tracking program in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The author writes that his story “ends, as any African journey should end, on the palm-shaded beaches of Zanzibar.” I wasn’t quite finished with the entire continent, but Zanzibar did seem like the right place to wrap up my journey through East Africa.
The ferry dropped us off on the northwestern edge of Stone Town, the island’s largest city. The mix of Arabic, Indian and Swahili influences reminded me strongly of Lamu, Kenya. Women walked by covered in the black, burqua-like bui-bui, and men wearing kofiahats and loose white kanzu robes sat in the shade of palm trees. Crumbling buildings formed a labyrinth of narrow alleys, with mosques and local bazaars squeezed alongside tourist shops and Internet cafes. I never would have found my hotel if a tout looking to score a commission hadn’t led me through the unmarked, twisting streets.
That evening I sat at a waterfront restaurant drinking a Kilimanjaro beer as the sun vanished behind a veil of clouds. On the beach in front of me, Zanzibar children took turns performing backflips from the edge of an old tire embedded in the sand.
Zanzibar Kids Doing Flips Off a Tire (Video)
The next day I explored Stone Town. Beit el-Ajaib, the city’s most distinctive building, now houses the Zanzibar National Museum of History & Culture. I love reading history books, but most museums bore me senseless. I went anyway, thinking there might be some interesting artifacts related to Burton or Livingstone. Beit el-Ajaib did have one small exhibit dedicated to the European explorers – a glass case containing the logbook Stanley used to record the names of the porters on one of his expeditions, a medicine chest used by Livingstone, and an amateurish replica of a medal awarded to Burton.
From Stone Town I caught a ride north to the white sand beaches of Kendwa. For two nights I stayed in a bungalow right next to the intensely colorful water, cerulean blue striped with turquoise, glowing under the equatorial sun. I tried my best to relax but quickly succumbed to the boredom I usually feel at the beach. I swam, snorkeled, dined on seafood cooked in Swahili spices, and said goodbye to East Africa.
From Kendwa I rode a shared taxi back to Stone Town, took the afternoon ferry to Dar es Salaam, and spent many long hours at the airport waiting for my 2:30am flight to Johannesburg, South Africa.