Zanzibar – a slice of paradise (I)

Zanzibar… the destination I’ve been obsessing about for the past two years. It felt surreal when I finally bought the tickets, it felt surreal while I was there and it still feels surreal even now after it actually happened. I find it’s always hard to write about places that I really liked, as it just seems like there aren’t enough words to describe what I’ve seen and felt, and the photos just won’t do the place any justice. At the same time, the experience feels so personal that I kinda don’t want to share it with anyone else.

However, I also want to inspire others to travel, to step out of their comfort zones, and to follow their hearts. If by sharing my stories I inspire at least one person to dream bigger, get out of the rut, get over their fear and do something they really want to do, then the struggle will have been worth it. Because trust me, if I can get over my fears (and there’s many of them!), so can you!

As a side note, if you’re reading this and I ever did inspire you to travel somewhere or to do something, my ego would love to know about it, so don’t be shy and slide into my inbox 🙂

Zanzibar in a nutshell

Before I dive any deeper into details and how this experience was like for me, I want to go over some general information about Zanzibar that I think is useful.

First of all, let’s clarify that Zanzibar is not a country in itself. Zanzibar is an autonomous territory that is part of the United Republic of Tanzania. It’s an archipelago just off the coast of mainland Tanzania, formed by the two main islands, Zanzibar and Pemba, and a few smaller ones. The capital of the island is Zanzibar City, also known as Stone Town, though that’s not 100% accurate as Stone Town refers only to the old town.

Religion – It is a predominantly Muslim country, so you will see most women wearing the hijab. That does not affect tourists in any way, you can wear a swimsuit on the beach and wear pretty much whatever you feel comfortable in. However, if you want to be respectful of the locals, try to wear decent attire in the villages and around Stone Town.

Language – The official language is Swahili, an African language widespread across East Africa, but most of the locals speak a little bit of English. All the locals will great you with a big smile and a ‘Jambo!‘, which means ‘hello’. The two other words that I managed to learn in Swahili (shameful as the linguist that I am, I know) are ‘asante sana‘ – thank you and ‘karibu‘ – welcome. Oh, and ‘pole pole‘, which is also their life philosophy. It means ‘slowly slowly’.

Currency – The local currency is the Tanzanian shilling, but in most places they also accept US dollars. Credit cards are also accepted in some places, but it’s best to carry cash. You should always have one dollar bills on you for tips and for the children(I’ll explain more about this in the next post). There are two ATMs on the island, one in Stone Town and one in Paje.

Electricity – They have UK type sockets, but most hotels have adaptors. It’s best to check with your hotel beforehand if you’re unsure what to bring. There are power cuts quite often on the island and they can last through the night. Most accommodations have back-up generators, but as they are very noisy they might turn those off overnight.

Wi-fi – Wi-fi is provided by most accommodations and restaurants, but the quality is pretty low. You can check your emails and post stuff on Facebook, but if you try to watch Insta stories it will take forever to load.

Vaccinations – The island is considered safe from malaria and other tropical diseases, so no vaccinations are required. There are a few mosquitoes here and there, but nowhere near as bad as I imagined. In fact, I only used Autan twice during my stay, once for myself as there was one mosquito in the room and once when trying to kill a cicada in our room that wasn’t letting me sleep.

Why Zanzibar?

I honestly don’t know. Out of all the exotic destinations, this one appealed to me the most. I love the way it sounds, I like that it’s not (yet) very touristy and crowded, it’s still somewhat wild, yet civilized enough as to feel safe. But bottom line, it wasn’t a very thought out choice – I just followed my heart, as I usually do.

How to get there?

The island has its own airport, operating international flights. There are a lot of airlines flying to Zanzibar, so depending on where you’re flying from you can choose what works for you. From Romania, the most common option is Turkish, it has flights from Bucharest (I think also Emirates, I’m not sure). However, if, like me, you decide a month before that you want to go on vacation, you might not find any decent priced flights from Bucharest. In that case, another good option is Milan (or any other big Italian city) that has reasonably priced Emirates flights. From Milan, there is also a direct flight with Alitalia, but it’s pretty pricey.

There are other somewhat cheap options from various places in Europe, but they’re operated by companies such as Kenya Airways or Precision Air, which, based on their reviews, I personally wouldn’t trust. I’d say it’s not worth the bother for a few euros.

We chose to fly with Emirates from Milan and I flew for the first time on the Airbus A380. Now, for frequent flyers or people who have been on large planes before, I’m sure that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but for me, being on this type of aircraft for the first time ever, it was an incredible experience. I actually liked flying, whereas before I dreaded it. It just feels so safe and you don’t even feel the take-off and landing. If you’re terrified of flying, I highly recommend flying with Emirates!

The second leg of the flight, however, was operated by flydubai. Not such a pleasant experience anymore, as we had a 3-hour delay, but in a way, maybe it was better like that because we got to Zanzibar after dark. Had we gotten there while the sun was still shining, I don’t think I would’ve gotten off the plane. Here’s the thing that nobody explained properly: it is HOT! Yes, I know, you look at the forecast, and you can see it’s 30°C and humid and bla bla bla, but trust me, nothing prepares you for that type of heat. Not when you’re a person that has only traveled in Europe and not when you’re coming from the -8°C at home. So brace yourself for that!

Procedures at the airport

Anyway, I stepped out of the plane and it felt like stepping into an oven. Initially, I said to myself that it must be from the engines and air will come at some point as I step away from the plane. Well, I was wrong! Things got even hotter once we got inside the airport to pass through immigration. Once we got there, we had to fill in a form with our personal information, how many nights you’re staying in Zanzibar, where you’re staying and such. You then take the form to one of the immigration officers and they will stamp your passport. If you are Romanian, you do not need to pay for a visa! They will just take the form and stamp the passport, the whole procedure takes a couple of minutes. Apparently, we owe that to Ceausescu, who once gifted their president some Aro cars.

We then collected our bags, we passed them through an X-ray machine and stepped out of the airport and into a sea of ‘airport staff’, all wanting to ‘help’ you carry your bags to the parking lot. They are very pushy and they will literally yank the bag out of your hand, so it’s best to just let them help you and give them a few dollars. Our driver was waiting for us outside and, much to our surprise, the car was actually very clean, modern and had life-saving A/C.

Transportation on the island

As I said, a driver waited for us at the airport. The ride was arranged by the accommodation. That seems to be the preferred option of transportation on the island. They have some public buses, but the timetable is chaotic, they are crowded and just not reliable. I don’t know if renting a car is possible, it probably is, but with the police checkpoint stuff that I’ll explain below, I’m not sure it’s a very wise idea.

The ride to our accommodation took a little over an hour and along the way we were stopped several times at police ‘checkpoints’ aka we were stopped to give money to the police. This felt a bit unsafe to me at first, but apparently it’s something very common on the island and it happened every time we traveled by car. The ‘road tax’ seemed to be included in the previously agreed price of the transportation, as we were never asked any extra money when we were stopped.

The roads are in pretty bad shape, though nothing us Romanians haven’t experienced. The main roads are paved, but they have a lot of holes, thus making the ride a bit bumpy at times. Secondary roads are not paved, but all the drivers we had drove really carefully so it wasn’t that bad. The traffic didn’t seem very hectic, I expected way worse, but I think that’s probably because most of the cars were driving tourists and they understand that scaring tourists off with crazy driving is not a good idea.

Food and water

The food, oh my God, the food! And the fruit! And the fresh juices! I have never in my life tasted food like this. I liked everything I ate, I even liked bell pepper and I freaking hate bell pepper!

The cuisine is a mix of Indian/Arabic/African styles, but there are also Western-style options, such as pizza or pasta. There are a lot of seafood dishes and curries.

I mostly ate seafood, like calamari, octopus, prawns, lobster etc, which were usually served with a side of either fries or rice (can you guess which one I opted for?) and salad or grilled veggies.

All restaurants serve fresh fruit juices, such as mango, passion fruit, pineapple, hibiscus or lime. I tried them all, the lime one is nice, but the passion fruit is to die for!

The prices are ok if you eat at locals’ taverns, a meal for two people will be around 20-25 USD. At the fancier restaurants it gets up to 40-50 USD. My favourite place to eat in Paje was The Fisherman’s Tavern (I think that was the name). You can find the location pinned on the map here.

In terms of health and hygiene, the only things I didn’t want to eat were eggs and that is because I saw how they store them out in the sun for who knows how long. My friends did eat egg however and she was fine. Apart from that, I wasn’t really curious how the food is prepped and handled because, ya know, what you don’t know doesn’t kill you. I didn’t get food poisoning and I didn’t feel bad from anything I ate (and I even ate street food), so I’m guessing as long as you don’t eat from places that are blatantly unhygienic, you should be fine.

The fruit are out of this world – they don’t taste anything like the fruit we have in Europe. Mango is super ripe and doesn’t taste like dirt, pineapple just melts in your mouth and the avocadoes are super creamy and don’t have that unripened taste. You can buy fruit from the stalls in villages and in Stone Town, or from people selling them on the beach. They will rip you off on the beach though, as they ask 5000 TZS whereas in the village it costs 1000 TZS.

Tap water is not safe to drink, though I used it to rinse when I brushed my teeth and I was fine. You can buy bottled water at any shop. I don’t remember the price, but I’m sure it wasn’t expensive. Soft drinks are also available at shops. As for alcohol, with it being a Muslim country, it is not available at supermarkets, but they serve it at most restaurants and bars.

As I’m writing I realize there is sooo much information I want to give you, that what I thought would be one article, will turn into 2 or 3 or even more. I’ll wrap it up here for now and I’ll come back soon with the next one, where I’ll tell you all about accommodation, beaches, tide times, day-trips, the people and many more. Stay tuned!

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