Welcome to Stone Town
My first and lasting impression and thought of Stone Town is how it smelled. What I saw from the air the first time we flew into Zanzibar and our first experiences of Stone Town will always stay with me. First you see the azure blue sea. The next moment you fly over what you assume are spice farms and then a confusion of roofs without a space in between came into view and everywhere you will see one of the more than 50 mosques.
Our first view of Stone Town from the air …
Roofs as far as you can see …
Lots of coconut trees and spice farms
One of the more than 50 mosques in Stone Town
You will always be attracted to something or a person if you like their smell. Stone town smelled stuffy … of the sea, of spices and of something rotten. Its natural smell was of heavy decay, something that you cannot bottle and sell as a perfume, yet the smell took hold of me and I liked it, I fell completely in love there and then because of the right smell and pheromones, I started to romanticizing about the town.
Old decaying and dying buildings
The first time we arrived on Zanzibar, we were picked up by a very friendly Shakur, a taxi driver for the hotel where we stayed and also a registered town guide. We immediately arranged a Spice tour for the next morning. Five years and many trips later, Shakur is still our driver and by now has become a good friend to us.
Shakur our friendly
On our first trip to Zanzibar we stayed at the Beyt al Chai on the border of Stone Town on Kelele Square. It was a fairly newly renovated Botiqueish place. Originally it was a traditional Zanzibari house and tea house, from which it gets its name. Management and reception was very friendly and helpful. There was a whitey called Paul who was originally from Kenya, who met us with cool drinks to save us from dehydration. The other manager was Pius, not the pope, because this Pius is black and speaks Swahili, who offered to keep some of our shopping in the safe at the hotel until we got back from safari. Apart from these two, there were two very tall and very friendly and shy Massai guys who carried our bags up to our room and who were always very friendly. They hung around at night, supposedly to guard the hotel against unknown evil that lurks around at night. Maybe the ghosts of slaves from the past.
The Beyt al Chai Hotel
The Beyt al Chai was a nice hotel, there were only six really massive rooms. In our room, the Beyt al Ajaib, one of the de lux rooms, the bath and toilet were built into the corner of the room like a Turkish bath house.
Our room name
The rooms were richly decorated with furniture dating back to the days of the Sultans and the windows were covered with richly coloured organza and silk curtains.
Some of the furniture in the room
Some of the furniture in the room
To get to our bedroom, we had to climb very steep staircases, eighty steps in total, because the room was on the third floor. With the humidity already high, it felt as if we were climbing up the Eiffel Tower.
A part of the many steep stairs waiting to be climb
The most outstanding feature of the room was its very high Swahili bed. When I stood next to the bed, it reached to above my waist, I had to pull myself onto the bed! If you are short like me, a stepladder would have been a big help.
Our imposing bed
As first time visitors, we threw our luggage down, changed into cooler clothes and went off on our first Stone Town discovery experience. Afterwards, when we went for a drink at Livingston’s Bar with its shutters closed in the middle of the day, we realized we were in the middle of Ramadan.
My first Konyagi ever
Kallie enjoying a cold Tuskers
Inquisitive girls looking into the darkened Livingston’s Bar
Only after half past six that evening Livingston’s opened the shutters and we could go and sit outside on the beach with our feet in the sand. The shutters are closed because it’s a bar and it is out of respect for the people who partake in Ramadan. Muslims do not drink alcohol. Kallie had a baridi (cold) Tuskers beer and I had my first Konyagi, bitter lemon and Tabasco. It all went down very well after an exhausting afternoon running around after all the exciting things to see. Needless to say, the next night we were back at Livingstone’s for supper where we had a far better experience than our first supper. Maybe it was just sitting there on the beach watching the sun set that made it more pleasant, we both agreed that evening that we want to come back to Zanzibar to do more exploring.
Sitting around on the beach at Livingston’s
Kallie enjoying the cool breeze on the beach
A beautiful beach scene
Locals doing what locals do on the beach.
Sunset in Zanzibar
Our first supper on the island was at the hotel, because all the guidebooks rated the restaurant as one of the best. We were really tired after the excitement of the day, the initial adrenalin rush was busy working itself out of our systems. What a disappointment! The menu was extremely limited and when I asked for a Konyagi, they told me that they do not keep cheap alcohol, and Konyagi, according to them, is a low class drink. The food was so unappetizing that neither of us can really remember what we had. The service was slow, really slow.
We went to bed early and fell asleep quite quickly. At exactly 4.30 the next morning we were woken by the most unholy and monstrous scream right there in our bedroom! I thought all the evil Arabian djinns that are still alive and well in the whole of North Africa and Morocco came down the coast during the night to scare the holy crap out of us. It was only after a while that I realized that we were only about 50 meters away from a loudspeaker on top of a mosque and it was the muezzin doing his first call of the day to get the people to come and pray. Believe me, after such a hullaballoo we couldn’t sleep again because our hearts were racing so hard. Afterwards, when quite reigned again, we had to laugh about our ignorance of being in a Muslim country.
The Aga Khan’s apartment and there were definitely somebody staying there
Our bedroom looked down onto Kelele Square, one of the towns more peaceful areas, but its name, which mean ‘shouting, noisy or tumultuous’ and tells a different story. It tells a story of a terrible past when this square was the main slave market. The building just to the right across the street from the hotel is called the ‘Mambo Misiige’ or the ‘Inimitable Thing’. This describes the extravagance of the construction, for which thousands of eggs and allegedly the bodies of slaves were used to strengthen the mortar. It was built as a private residence dating from 1874-50. The building later served as headquarters for the Universities Mission to Central Africa. A huge irony is that Sir John Kirk the abolitionist lived there from 1874-87 as the British Consul General. Later it became a European hospital and in 2009 housed a number of government departments, a rundown building with soot coloured walls (the colour is because of the eggs u se during the construction).
Mambo Misiige’ or the ‘Inimitable Thing’ house… today incorporated in the new Hyatt Hotel they are busy building.
Kelele Square, is a green grassy square lined with Hibiscus, Tamarind and Flamboyant trees. The Flamboyant tree originally comes from Madagascar, a sure reminder of colonial times because you find them wherever the British have colonized a country.
Flamboyant, Tamarind, Hibiscus and many more trees always offering some shade to passers-by
While we were staying in the hotel there were always three very strange-looking roosters with their chicken families in tow rooting around in the grass. They declared ownership of the square by crowing their hearts out. When I say strange-looking I mean really strange-looking chickens, with tall legs, thin as bean sprouts and no drumsticks of note, scruffy looking necks so unimpressive that I actually told Kallie that I will not eat chicken while we’re in Tanzania because those were authentic Tanzanian chickens.
The rooster looking for a good place to do his crowing
There were always very noisy crows, called ravens in Tanzania, in the square as well. They are smaller than our crows with greyish heads and necks and very talkative in their own language. I believe there is a competition between the muezzin, the cocks and the crows to see who can make the loudest and the most noise.
The raven trying his utmost to outdo the muezzin
Breakfast was yet another first! Again we were the only people in the dining room. Again there was a lack of service but nevertheless, I ordered macon and eggs and when the food arrived on my plate there were these two funny looking white stuff, apparently eggs. I could not agree because there was no yellow or yolk, the yolk was the colour of a bad margarine, a very pale yellow and I swear not fit for human consumption. I could not eat it and immediately the Tanzanian chickens came to mind, it was revolting and I felt sick. Fortunately that did not last long because we had to get ready for our Spice Farm trip.
A lot of changes have happened since our first trip in 2009. In 2014 the ‘Mambo Misiige’ building changed its name and it is now part of the nearly finished brand new Hyatt Hotel. The Beyt el Chai has also been sold and underwent a lot of renovations and is now a real boutique hotel with the name Beyt el Salaam, highly priced.
The slightly better dressed rooster, still with snap stick legs and his harem of hens …
More tales will follow soon …