Category Archives: East African Travel

The Spirit of a Volunteer

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Its one of those words that people utter with awe and amazement. “Volunteer”… Thats what a plucky band of us had the privilege of being called when we taught English and were thoroughly fulfilled with our lot.

It took place on the Island of Zanzibar and it was probably the best experience of my life. Getting to meet the other volunteers who came from all over the world was awesome.

These people chose to spend a chunk of their youth to assist another community, while, at the same time, learning and growing through an experience that will leave a mark for the rest of their lifetimes.

Their wisdom, even at their young ages, brought a sense of hope and joy to the East Coast of the Indian Ocean‘s Spice Island.

The project was teaching English and also at primary schools, along with various community assistance such as school DIY. I was one of the oldest volunteers at 23 years of age.

It is without a doubt that I mention that these most uncommon of people, combined with those we aided are a shining torch to future generations to carry on this tradition.

Lets meet a few of them. There was Manoel, an Economics student from Zurich University. He had studied there for a year and also was in the process of completing three weeks national service for the six years after his first year, when he completed nine weeks worth.

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He was completely different to me, money savvy. He advised me on more than one occasion. What about Aidan, an Irish bank employee who worked in Frankfurt.

His girlfriend, Catherine and himself gave us a great time for the first week. It was later understood that, after leaving us, they headed for the Maasai Mara on Safari and it was here that he proposed to her.

That was happy news, despite us having heard it second hand. They met at a Catholic summer camp, I’m not sure where.

Andre and Lilya, from Bulgaria? Andre had his Private Pilot’s License, something I hope to gain in the future. They had met and then been apart for two years before their relationship started.

This is what he told me, anyway. Lilya and I had some interesting conversations, namely about Shakespeare and the fact that she had formed the opinion that Romeo was on drugs. She may not have been wrong:)

What days we had together. Our free time was spent playing volleyball on the beach or at the bar sipping punches on those sensational white Indian Ocean sands listening to Reggae music from Culture and Tarrus Riley, to name a few.

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We’d buy ten drinks at a time and party till 1:30 a.m. with the same breeze of the Indian Ocean current from the south that cooled us during the day now warmed us. It was a tough life:) Also brutal was the fact that that we had to watch twenty-something women in bikinis.

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As for the people who we met at the bars, they would sit with us and talk all night on the beach. The night sky was like the heavens had been sown with white crystals that set your eyes alight. These were dazzling and we almost always had a clear sky.

Want to try some of their Stoney Tangawizi ginger beer. Its worth buying just for the name but the taste of the cool, fragrant liquid inside means you’ll buy it again and again.

These drinks can be found at almost any bar along the beach and you’ll generally pay between forty to sixty pence per bottle. As for the alcohol, there’s Havana Club and Black Vodka. Preferably you’ll have more sense than to mix these together.

One night a guy, thinking that my half-filled glass of rum had whisky in it, topped the other half off with that drink. Wow! I may be six feet five inches, but even I felt like my head was in the clouds after that one. It was the next morning that I went dolphin swimming at 6 a.m. What a rush!

Well, we bounced around in a ten foot boat the next morning. It was with great excitement that we saw these happy creatures in their natural habitat. They leapt out of the water, dove, swam away and were just fabulous! No decent photos, I’m afraid. I borrowed this one.

A dolphin leaps out of the water in the Indian...

A dolphin leaps out of the water in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Zanzibar, Tanzania. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Other excitements included the Spice Tour, which also takes place in Jozani Forest, the sanctuary of the Red Colobus Monkeys. Of particular interest is the mangrove swamp, where our guide showed us how the seeds fall off the mother tree and embed themselves in the mud.

Ecology is central to the Archipelago. We were given an eco-tour the first Wednesday after I arrived. This showed us much about the island and its delicate ecosystem.

This tour consisted of us visiting the seaweed plantation, going to a family’s home to see how coconut milk is made…by grating the innards of the fruit out… and paying a visit to Jambiani‘s much revered herbal doctor. These were useful chunks of knowledge tht we could gain an insight with.

Our guide told us that seaweed was the main cash crop on the Island and we were well-reminded of this every morning, when we would look out over the beach into the rising Indian Ocean sun and see handfuls of women and men toiling over their plots, trying to make a few pennies here and there.

They were the coolest people I’ve ever met. They were fun, smart, beautiful in the case of the women, and generally happy with their lot in life! What a place, where your heady dreams of fulfillment and paradise come to fruition!

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Spice Island Soaring

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I had booked a flying lesson the previous evening. Now, here I was up in the microlight, soaring like a young man dreams to from the age of three. How about that. How about flying high above the Indian Ocean‘s torquoise waters?

There was a deep blue, cloudless sky that Saturday and Cedric, my instructor, took me into the hangar where his Kitfox microlight was and he showed me around it before having some people roll it out onto the tarmac.

It was at this point that I was asked to take a seat in it. So I did and soon I heard the engine turn over.

The first thousand feet or so after takeoff was a bit bumpy. Its always a rush, though. Soon we started heading east and already could see the east coast where Jambiani is located.  Cedric asked me if I wanted to take the controls. I said yes, of course.

I handled it through a few shallow turns with the stick and a little bit of rudder. I was in paradise. What could be better for a young man like myself.

After we got on the ground, Cedric said that he thought it would be a easy for me to gain a Private Pilots License. This thrilled me! Wow! an instructor had just spoke those words to me!

The People Of Zanzibar

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If ever there was a truly tolerant and hard-working people, it would that of this pearl of beauty in the Indian Ocean. It lies approximately twenty miles off the coast of East Africa and fifty from Dar Es Salaam.  They work as hard as can be and the best way of thanking these people for providing me with such a rich, unforgettable and life-changing experience is to write this post and spread their wisdom, though, in truth, it should be kept a secret.

Coming up to two years ago in July of 2013, I embarked on a voluntary placement with African Impact; a project called the Zanzibar Rural Teaching and Community Project. The local people and other volunteers are some of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met. Take Dulla, one of the project managers.

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Seaweed (Photo credit: Horatiu Curutiu)

He would arise at three a.m. to tend to his mother’s seaweed plantation. This was the main cash crop in Zanzibar when I was there. That was at least two hours work. Then he would return home to cook breakfast at five. Another hour. Time to get his son up.

It’s at least twenty minutes walk either way. Next is lesson planning. Afterwards, it’s now eight-thirty. Hop on the bike now and its up to the Jambiani Tourism Training Institute.

Arrive at nine. Teach the class. Good. Ten-fifteen now. Over to the primary school for ten-thirty. Teach at the primary school, actually there were three, till twelve. Go home. Eat lunch. One o’clock now and lesson planning for the football boys’ lessons in English.  Three o’clock.

The kids are home. Head out to set up and undertake football practice. That means it is now four o’clock. After that, you have to teach them English until 18:00.

Then, and only then, does he go home and help his wife to cook and the kids with homework. What a day!! If anyone was forced to do that in rich parts of the world, people would tell them to get help. The seaweed workers could be seen when we woke up and gazed onto the beach at 6 a.m.in the morning, the the eastern sky the colour of a blood orange.

Lets take the inhabitants of Stone Town. Extremely resourceful in making money. They do it any way they can think of. Some will try to sell nice souvenirs such as very fine arts and crafts, music CDs and Zanzibar football shirts. Others will helpfully give you directions. But perhaps the most interesting and educational of these entrepreneur are the tour guides.

English: A food seller displaying his items at...

English: A food seller displaying his items at Forodhani park in Zanzibar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, once we were given a tour without being asked and were expected to pay afterwards. Its always wise to carry a bit more money than usual around the town. Just in case. Now, you won’t see many beggars, during the day. They only come out of the woodwork at the night market. They are completely harmless and won’t usually ask for more than a thousand shillings, or forty British pence.

Considerate? They are very much so. There is a Red Colobus monkey reserve in the middle of the island and, when we drove through this area, the drivers always slowed down and I never saw one of the creatures lying dead by the roadside. They are an endangered species and this area, plus the rest of the island, is their only known habitat.

Red Colobus monkey in Jozani forest. Endemic t...

Red Colobus monkey in Jozani forest. Endemic to Zanzibar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Want to have some fun and games? Why not see Makunduchi festival. The occurrence of this party is at the end of every month.

The idea behind it is simple. At the end of every month, all the men-of-age in the community gather into groups and are issued banana sticks. Then they gather in a large field with the women cheering on their partner.

It is up to the mayor to then to basically say “Alright, chaps. Any bad blood between you, take it out in three-two-one…NOW!”, at which point he blows the whistle and the men start whacking one another. One shouldn’t be alarmed,though.

The sticks hurt a little, but not for long. Its no worse than a bee sting.  The fight will spread all over the field and you should be prepared to leg it, quickly, lol:)

The point about these people is not the cliche that they have less and are happier for it.  Nor is it the fact that they work hard or that they have a permanent smile upon their face. It is the combination of all three.

Their strength is that, despite the fact that they desire better healthcare and education, they know enough not to complain.

“Gallantry and wisdom without knowing it”. That is the way I would describe the inhabitants of the archipelago. Their plight is not that of other countries in the area. They have thriving tourism and crop industries.

It is that most common of foes, environmental destruction and, on the part of foreign tourists, carelessness. The main perpetrator of these crimes are the large, global hotel chains that set up shop on the island.

The swimming pool at Baraza Resort and Spa pip...

The swimming pool at Baraza Resort and Spa pipes music into the water so you can hear it while you are swimming. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There was once a time when, on one of our week-end activities, we decided to attend a full-moon party in a place called Nungwi at the northernmost tip of Unguja, the main island of Zanzibar.

We came into the village in our minivan and I observed, in front of us, two children playing on either side of a brown puddle that straddled the road. I said “Look at those two kids playing in the mud”. It wasn’t mud.

Cute Young African Boy

Cute Young African Boy (Photo credit: terbeck)

The full-moon festival was great! Not for Manoel, a Swiss volunteer, though. He took one bite into his burger on the first evening and prudently chose not to eat the rest. However, that did not stop him from being violently sick.

It was also the weekend where I met Jennifer, my girlfriend of the time. She was a lovely person. She was from the mainland where her dad worked, or possibly still does, on the Serengeti as a park warden.

These people have resilience and humanity at every turn. They are quite happy on their little island. What a marvellous adventure!

Swimming With Dolphins In Zanzibar

A dolphin leaps out of the water in the Indian...

A dolphin leaps out of the water in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Zanzibar, Tanzania. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Would you like to swim with dolphins in the Indian Ocean? I can tell you that I certainly enjoyed it when I had the opportunity to do so in July of 2011. It was a truly wondrous feeling! We were taken out about a mile or so beyond the reef and were positioned so that the dolphin pods swam right through our group of small craft.

Its an amazing feeling! Once you’re out there, the boat skipper will say “get ready”. You all sit on one side of the boat. This sounds like a bad idea, and it is but, somehow, the boats manage to stay upright. As the groups appear on the horizon, he’ll yell “go!”. Thats exactly what you do. Into the water then.

What happens next, you’ll never forget. These lovely, intelligent creatures pass right between you and the next man, providing you with the most spiritual experience ever known to man. On their migration route too! I tell you, I came back with the biggest smile on my face. These happy souls show off as though they were in a fun park in the azure of the Indian Ocean.

 

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Swimming with dolphins (Photo credit: Krister462)

 

It was a really special day. It is one that remains in your memory, not because you did something unique, but because you connect with mother nature in a way that is impossible to describe to anyone who hasn’t done it. They have the tamest natures and the happiest smiles on their faces. Smiles all around!

And you can buy a bracelet of a little wooden dolphin off the vendors that are around:)

Venice and Dubrovnik

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Dubrovnik“. The name conjures up images of a city so beautiful, many respect it as paradise. The town, as you enter it, sets a sight that you’ll never forget. The entrance to the old town from the north is very quaint indeed.

You walk slowly down a windy, s-shaped street that descends gradually towards the water until you reach the shaded area that has a waterfront overlooking the harbour from the south.

The 'old town' of Dubrovnik From the photograp...

The ‘old town’ of Dubrovnik From the photographer: Canon 5d + 24-70mm @ 45mm Slik Sprint Pro 2 tripod Redsnapper RSH-61 ballhead (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many cafes stretch across fortified medieval city walls next to the water’s edge. It’s a lovely cool walk along the pavement down here and you may also find harbour tours. The sea was as turquoise as the word itself. The waters as calm as silk.

A brief pass through Bosnia and a small stop at a convenient store later and we pass back into Croatia again. The drive into Dubrovnik was eventful, as was negotiating who wanted to park where in the lot when we got there.

There, of course, was not much space between the mountains and the sea for a city, let alone a parking lot. It was here that we spent the day, drinking cold drinks, repeatedly saying how gorgeous it was and basking in the sun.

The drive home was uneventful. We dined eagerly by Split‘s Old Town harbour area and boarded the ferry for Ancona. The boarding process was long and laborious and the passage equally so.

 

English: Countryside along the Adriatic shore ...

English: Countryside along the Adriatic shore en route from Dubrovnik to Split, Croatia. June 2004. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The unloading process was dreadful. The cars were being brought off the ship at the same time the walk-off passengers! Ancona.

The town of seagulls! Not much to see here…just a dreary port and its docks. Full speed ahead to Venice!

There is one thing that I will never forget about the day we arrived. The rain. Boy it poured! It I stared deep into the blue. I was thoughtful.

Happy. Contented. Many good things. After all, maybe life had a calling for me after all. I was, of course, in Croatia.

A country that must have some of the most desirable coast in Europe. Our location, at that point, was a hotel just south of Split. We were situated by the sea as well.

Always a plus. We sat out on the terrace and had a scrumptious breakfast. We set out around eight-thirty.

A brief pass through Bosnia and a small stop at a convenient store later and we pass back into Croatia again. The drive into Dubrovnik was eventful, as was negotiating who wanted to park where in the lot when we got there. There, of course, was not much space between the mountains and the sea for a city, let alone a parking lot.

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As for the hotel, very posh. It was quite a walk from here to the train station. And the trains were crowded too, cattle class. In fact, I recall my mother saying that she was quite claustrophobic.

The train stopped at a lot of stations before reaching Venice and we passed Marco Polo Intl. Venezia Santa Lucia is the main station and you’ll have, at some point, to pass through Venezia Mestre station on solid land if you wish to see the island city.

 

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venice-grand-canal-from-train-station (Photo credit: hartingale)

 

Once you’re there, then the fun begins. You’ll be able to enjoy the famous “Vaporetto’s”. These famous little boats are the buses and life-blood of Venice.

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The Rialto bridge . My mother spent some time photographing this as I eagerly looked on. The rain had abated and I had removed my raincoat.

It was really magical, despite the smell of the brown stuff. The sun began to shine from behind those dark and brooding clouds above.

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How about seeing the Piazza San Marco. Thats a wonderful place. You pay a small fee to go up the tower and have the most wonderful view. The centre of the tower stretches high above the square and you can see the whole city from here!

I took the sight in really well, feeling slightly giddy because of the height, and returned to terra firma.

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After this, we felt like having a drink. Why not stop off in a Cafe? Well, I’ll tell you why. Because two regular-sized glasses of lemonade will set you back six Euros! Yeah, its expensive here. Next, the shopping district. After a happy hour here, we headed again for our water-bus Vaporettos and casually made our way back to Central Station.

During our stay, a cruise ship came into harbour. Sacrilege if you ask me. Why couldn’t that hundred-thousand-plus-tonne monstrosity stay outside the city and boat its passengers into the city. The passengers were quite irritating too. Loud. Smelly. Overweight.

 

At least we left the next day. I never thought I’d say that about Venice, but I’d had just the right dose of holiday…

Zanzibar

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Ah, this Island must be one of the best places on Earth! You can see sandy, unspoiled beaches where the seaweed workers toil, a bright sky, friendly, smiling locals abound! The reasons why people come are many and varied, but one thing is for sure…they’ll never forget it.

Take Stone Town, on the west coast and also the capital, for example. One may come by sea and be dropped of right in the centre of the capital of the Island.

Stone Town Alleyway

Stone Town Alleyway (Photo credit: fabulousfabs)

Here you’ll  find Forodhani Gardens, an open area that, during the evening time, comes alive with the hustle and bustle of the Night Market. This is one of the most interesting exhibits of Zanzibar.

You can try falafel from the Middle East, spicy potato, a local dish, and chapattis all in the same meal.

Oh, and don’t forget to try some sugar cane juice! Across the road from the gardens lies the old Sultans palace, now the Museum of Zanzibar. You’ll have an enlightening experience here. See it below.

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If you head inland you surely will come to the shopping district that is a labyrinth of small shops all lined up where you can buy clothes locally woven with beautiful African colours that are vibrant in the extreme, and lots of hand-made pots plus other souvenirs generally made from Malachite.

Be sure to ask if something is Ivory, which is illegal. If it is Ivory, don’t buy it. You can help to stop elephant poaching that way. A tour of Stone Town is easy…there are guides all over and will be willing to tell you all about the city and its past…including the Arab Sultans and the slave trade.

Ivory has always been a highly valuable materi...

Ivory has always been a highly valuable material for carving. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You can also enter the slave chambers and experience them for yourself, although this is not for the faint-hearted.

Now, heading east, you will find out why it is called the Spice Island.

Stone Town’s Spice Market is full of the smells of paradise; mint leaves and vanilla spice may be bought here for less than a pound.

Another advantage of Zanzibar: cheap, almost free living.

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Dalla Dalla‘s! These jaunty vehicles are the best way to travel around the island. With their lack of suspension, wooden crate-like structures for cabins that always find room for more people…

even if it means crouching down, not strapped down, in the seating area with fifty other people, a dead shark that stinks on top, tarpaulin mats over the side and sweaty bodies…you will find them charming.

Don’t forget that the drivers know the word “accelerator” from 150-yards away but don’t know “brake” even if you’re in the front cab and screaming it at them.

And that the roads are filled with potholes.I remind you of the lack of suspension in these vehicles. Does this sound like fun? If you wish to find the beaches of the Island, the east and north coasts are the best for this.

Azure skies, beaches almost bleached white by the sun, crystal clear water and bars where juices and ales may be bought for sixty-pence await you here.

You can spend many a day and night carefree, swimming at 6:00 am when the water is still warmer than the air.

These beaches, when full-moon parties are in swing, come alive with tourists and locals, vibrant with the lifeblood of their island…happiness and joy.

These parties usually include liberal amounts of alcohol, despite the island being 95% Muslim.

One should not travel alone to these parties, safety in numbers always. Remember, when travelling by taxi, to negotiate the fare before setting out.

The main tourist extra-curricular activities in Zanzibar include the must-do Dolphin Tour where you will head out beyond the Island’s coral reef about a mile or so…and do the unthinkable…swim with Dolphins in the open Indian Ocean!

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Dolphins (Photo credit: ryn413)

The Spice Tour is an exhibition of Jozani forest; an area in the middle of the Island, equidistant between Stone Town in the west and the east coast.

This is where the mangrove swamp is located and you may hire a guide here for a very low price.This area is also famous for its endangered but very cute Red Colobus Monkeys.

The Dalla Dalla and taxi drivers always use those otherwise-underused brakes here. There are many other tours that can be undertaken, it’s magnificent!

Red Colobus Monkey

Red Colobus Monkey (Photo credit: Adrian Maidment)

As for travelling to the island, Emirates Airlines have scheduled services from London to Nairobi or Dar Es Salaam, on the Tanzanian mainland, via Dubai where a very refreshing air-cooled terminal awaits. From either of these two cities, you may fly or, in the latter’s case, sail to Stone Town.

My personal trip set me back about £760. A more expensive option would be to fly direct to Nairobi and then on…you can expect to pay around 850 UK pounds in that scenario.

Flying from London is about a six-hour journey to Dubai, another four and a half to Nairobi and an hour and forty minutes to Zanzibar.

If you choose the Dar Es Salaam route then you should expect to pay about fifty pounds for the flight or ferry to the island.

Now thats about all but just remember to stay safe and allow the Spice Island to enchant you!