Sunday, June 30, 2013

And the Travelling Begins... Zanzibar -> Moshi

After being dragged out of our beds at half past five in the morning we bundled onto a minibus and drifted into a calm world of sleep only to be essentially frightened awake at Zanzibar port with the chaos of immigration and boarding. Not really aware of what was going on we were rushed onto the boat which was more than full and we all sat on the floor of the upper deck. The boat ride was spent partly trying to stay awake and partly failing at that. I managed to fall asleep in a pretty impressive -yet comfy- position just hanging off the side of the boat. I woke up just in time to see some dolphins as we approached Dar es Salaam. Arriving into Dar you are always taken aback by how built up and commercial it seemed as all you see on TV from Africa is a mud hut and the cast of the Lion King.

We were shuttled into a dalalala only to be taken to Dar es Salaam bus station to be loaded onto a public coach - a somewhat luxurious experience compared to the rest of our transport experience. For example not only was there air conditioning but also a TV showing films but a lack of legroom that we had become accustomed too from our folding seats in the dalalalas. The lunch break offered a super spicy chilli for 5000tsh but only if you could eat it in under five minutes. Once the films had ran out we were given the joy of some strange Tanzanian Wife Swap, singing hotel owners and music videos with grown men bashing their heads on each others bums. Only in Tanzania. The view out the window was at least a lot nicer with the sun setting alongside Kilimanjaro creating those long shadows and the moon appearing at the other side.

My attempt at recreating the view with a camera
Our coach dropped us off somewhere in Moshi at around 8pm under the cover of darkness where we were bundled back into a beloved dalalala. We were taken back to our Tanzanian base, and normality, at Midlands Lodge and fed some classic Tanzanian cuisine for the last time. Since it was our last night we had to frantically pack and get our bags under 23kg and charge our ipods for the long drive to Kenya.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Stone Town

Africa House
We bundled back into our dalalala and met other members of the group in Stone Town and went for a spot of lunch - not that most of us needed it. Now, trying to find something to eat in Zanzibar during Ramadan is something incredibly hard to come by but there are one or two restaurants catering to holiday-making westerners. Although restaurants were far to come by, the Zanzibar food market was bustling as ever and tlthough the smell of the fish market was pretty unappealing, the endless counters of spices and fruits made up for that. Mohammed (our guide) took us through the infamously winding streets of Stone Town to the famous sites such as Tipi's house (a notorious slave trader and plantation owner), Africa House (now a luxury hotel which used to be a members club for British expats) and Freddie Mercury's house - which was a person pilgrimage of mine. The central market of Zanzibar is essentially rows and alleyways of curio shops and souvenir shops but it still hasn't "sold-out" like other tourist trap towns. We rounded up the tour with a visit to the Slave Chambers before looping back to the coast to the House of Wonders. By the name it is not a surprise that you would think that the house is some kind of house of mirrors but actually it is only called House of Wonders because it was the first building in Zanzibar with electricity let alone a working lift (which ironically is now out of service). Nowadays it is Zanzibar's 'National' museum which is rather minimal except for the massive boat parked in the foyer. One of the best treats is the balcony on the third floor which offers wonderful views over Stone Town and the Indian Ocean.

Freddie Mercury's house
The Narrowest Street in The World (I presume)
House of Wonders

A group of us decided to stay in Stone Town for the evening while the rest went back to the hotel as we were promised a lift back at 8pm. Since we were leaving Zanzibar at 5am tomorrow with no chance of breakfast we planned ahead grabbed some mangos and ridiculously cheap spices back at the food market. I was under the delusion that I knew where I was going but this is Stone Town - no tourist knows their way around Stone Town. In the end you just have to follow your feet and see where you end up. The sun was setting but the smell of amazing food was rising from stoves set out in the street. Our feet began to respond to our stomachs as we searched for something to eat. We decided to follow the sunset as we knew that would take us to the sea and our pick up point but we ended up in the complete wrong direction. Serendipitously though we stumbled across an Ethiopian restaurant which looked very civilised for Stone Town but was just as welcoming as the rest of Stone Town. The menu involved choosing a selection of vegetable or meat stews which were served with a large pancake called an injera. The moment the food arrived was a special one: on the table was a wicker tangine and the waiter came along with a massive plate with the injera and several bowls of mystery stews we had ordered which he poured out one by one. The waiters then washed each of our hands by pouring warm water from a clay jug and handing us a glass of Tej which is a delicious honey wine. The injera was used instead of cutlery to scoop up the stews and we were all virtually silent until the plate was scraped clean ten minutes later. As a final courtesy the owner called our driver to get us picked up from the restaurant as the sun had set and we had no idea where we were. We paid and left a very large tip feeling very satisfied with life. The sad thing about finding a great restaurant in Stone Town is that you will probably never find it again but if you want to try for me it was called Abyssinian Maritim!
The Tej

We spent the drive home on the bus in awe of our day - well mainly our meal. Our driver joined in on our conversation and told us about himself and how he was about to get married as well as telling us facts about the area - such as the town of Tutu which served a short railway line between the Sultan's home and a spice plantation. I spent the rest of the drive gazing at the full moon out the back window before stretching out and falling asleep on the back seats taking a major swadge [Orcadian word for the rest after a big meal].

Back at the hotel we felt smug about our life choices and even more so when the rest of the group told us of their mediocre day and disastrous dinner at the hotel. The evening was a bit of a come down as it was spent packing and sorting out our hotel bills before getting back to our 5am time schedule.

View from the 3rd Floor

Friday, June 21, 2013

Spice Tour - Zanzibar

A ten hour sleep had become somewhat of a rarity in Tanzania but thanks to my agonising sunburn and an ibuprofen I managed to catch one. This morning was another busy day: we were off to a spice plantation and a tour of stone town. Our group of eight managed to get our own mini bus (dalalala) and a nice guide Mohammed and Muskim was there too but who knows where he was going.

The spice plantation was essentially a massive community garden for the village and Mohammed was joined by a younger guide who couldn't have been older than 18 but knew his way around the plantation. We are all used to seeing spices dried and bottled but this tour allowed us to see all kinds of spices in their wild form. First we had to guess the spice by smelling the leaves but I can tell you that black pepper leaves don't smell much like they taste but trying peppercorns through any doubts out the window. Our young guide had made us cups out of leaves to keep our spices on us as we collected more and more: coffee robusta, lemongrass, cocoa and jackfruits. Cinammon was initially given to us as a bark which smelt just like Vicks vapour rub and that is exactly what it is used for. It is the bark that is actually used for  making cinnamon sticks and powder.

As we were guided towards a coconut tree a man was climbing up the tree using just his bare hands, some rope made from coconut husk and his own singing voice as encouragement. He climbed up to the top and grabbed some of the biggest coconuts I've ever seen and started throwing them down to the ground forming a big pile. As he hopped backed down he offered anyone from the group to have a shot
only to fail quite miserably - at least I made the photos look like they got somewhere. After that exertion the coconuts were cut open and I was transported back to a beach in Brazil some years ago as we drank the real coconut juice. The flesh of the coconut was very, well, fleshy and didn't taste like those back in the UK.

Lipstick Plant
After the first necessary tip to our impressive coconut guide we were handed bracelets and ties made from leaves - I think you can guess where the next tips were going. The next stop was vanilla pods which smelt gorgeous and are the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron. Zanzibar used to produce 80% of the worlds cloves but that has decreased dramatically but there is no escaping the spice as it is found in all of their food and drink - I swear it was even just pumped through the air. The following two plants were an example of the natural brightness of the natural world; the first being tumeric which was hard to miss and the lipstick plant which produces a red wax used in lipsticks.

Near the end of the tour we were taken to a little stall with bags of spices neatly stored and we were told - in classic African style- that we can choose what we want and then discuss a price. For us westerners shopping without a price was hard! There were all the spices you could imagine and packaged into beautiful wooden boats and butterflies full of spices. There were of course several  I'd never seen before and a personal favourite was banana essence. There were also familiar spices but under an alias - Nutmeg for example was advertised as a female aphrodisiac "to make woman not shy on wedding night to fulfil man's desires." At this point we had also acquired bags, frog necklaces and crowns made of grass and leaves.

Our final stop was with a man with a table of fruits and a man with a bucket who handed us several fruits. Some were familiar like mangos and lychees but others didn't even sound real. Take 'soursop' for example which was a spiky fruit with a taste somewhere between grapefruit and banana and a texture just as hard to describe.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Chunder Snorkel

After getting to bed, well Kyra's bed as she passed out in mine, there was a mere four hours of bliss sleep before breakfast at 8am. Today we were going snorkelling - probably not best for our fragile bodies and let alone Kyra's still drunken body. I wandered along the beach to the snorkelling office in the hope that Emma and Kyra would manage to fall out of bed and stumble along here. No later had I arrived did I turn round and see Pasty and Edina came crawling along the beach.

The snorkelling boat was a traditional Dhow and we joined another group who scowled at us for being in Africa time. To the relief of the crew and our already pissed off fellow passengers none of us threw up over the side of the boat. However we all had lost more of our sea legs than usual but there were plenty of places to curl up and sleep alongside the sound of the waves and gentle rocking of the sea.

We parked up next to a private island so we were allowed to swim around but couldn't actually go to the shore. We donned our flippers and snorkels and got an hour and a half in the water to play with the fluorescent fish and test the ability of my waterproof camera. Surprisingly, most of the boys went back onto the boat to do a spot of sunbathing while the girls stayed to be not-so-graceful mermaids in the sea. If you have a hangover and a lot of money I can highly recommend coming to Zanzibar and going snorkelling as in banished all of our hangover woes - well except Emma who added a bit of Scottish class to this paradise. After a few leaps off the top of the dhow - and leaps of faiths from bikini tops - we were taken to a nearby beach to have lunch. This was one of those beaches you think of when you say paradise with white beaches and turquoise sea. The crew had prepared us freshly caught barbecued tuna and kingfish which was combined with a dip in the hot-bath-like ocean waters -bliss.

The trip back to the hotel was relaxing for everyone as the sail was taken out and we just drifted back to camp. Well, this was true for everyone except Sara who made the mistake of saying she needed to pee and so had to jump off and awkwardly float in the water in front of several boats while she did her business. Also by the end of the trip I was battling with some pretty severe sunburn I had picked  up while snorkelling which was making it's way down the entire back half of my body.

After relieving myself with slopping on the cocoa butter we headed further along the beach - which was how to find cheaper food in Zanzibar. By now my sunburn was screaming and I had to resort back to my room to have a cold shower before crashing on my bed lying on my front in my underwear in an attempt to cool down my back. Typically, at that point everyone decided to come into our room for a chat but I was in too much pain to notice. Two hours later I got up from my sun-coma and thanks to an ibuprofen I felt fine so headed to see everyone around the campfire. As idyllic the scene was, everyone started to head to bed as a group of us were off on some tours around Zanzibar so had to set our alarms early once again.

Thursday, June 13, 2013


Almost ten years ago now my Grandpa ,Ian MacInnes, died and I wrote the following passage for a school task. On Thursday his wife and my Granny, Jean Park Buchan, passed away and since it is often hard for me to express myself verbally I thought it was appropriate to resurface this fond memoir I have of them. 

Thistlebank is the home of my grandparents and has been for decades. It overlooks my hometown of Stromness and is one of the elegant houses hidden from the harbour behind a wall of trees. You walk in through the red gate and are greeted by the massive garden with a vast lawn on the left surrounded by trees and rose bushes which served as  my childhood playground.

In the summertime the whole family arrive in from exotic locations as far as Poland and even Lincoln. My cousins and I would play capture the flag in the garden while our  parents would all be on the patio at the top of the slope in the garden enjoying some homebrew. A giant tree on sat on the slope with a rope swing attached and it became a popular attraction in Thistlebank from the early 1960's. The tree acted as a huge parasol protecting our fair skin from the midday sun; cowering over creating a cave of leaves and timber. When on the swing we had to slowly walk backwards gaining height making sure that there were no branches peering out waiting to catch a victim before you let go and flew into the high branches.

A concrete stairway split the grassy slope into two and I would attempt to make my way up the stairs before Grandpa would swoop down collecting me as well as  empty pint glasses. He would drop me at the top of the stairs and his familiar smell of heather ale lingered in his woolen gansey[jumper] as I followed him into the kitchen. Grandpa had been bald for as long as l could remember; though his favourite blue flat cap would often cover it up leaving just a few whisps of white hair on his neck. I was told that he used to have a head thick red hair like mine but it was hard to believe as it had disappeared long before myself or a colour camera was brought into the family. Grandpa's other prominent features were his sticky-out ears and were constantly the punch line of his jokes if he wasn’t just wiggling them to make us laugh.

A large bucket of brewing heather ale was propped up on a stool and the flowery scent became stronger as I stretched my legs to let my nose touch the brim. Grandpa always let me do the job of dropping in the hydrometer and watching it bob up in the flowery froth as if a boy at sea. Grandpa would look over me cautiously as he filled up the beer mugs. He knew all too well that alcohol and small children is never a good combination - especially when the child is accident prone and the alcohol is filling a ten litre bucket.

The kitchen had a glass window looking through to Grandpa's studio. Every visible (and some no longer visible) storage space was taken up by art materials and half-finished paintings. Grandpa would often let us use his paints and those tall enough, his easel. After retirement he continued to teach, maybe not officially but he taught us as his grandchildren and was always proud when we brought home some artwork our teachers commended. On the floor of the studio there were three floorboards that had been loosened and could be lifted. Underneath there was a gateway to the house foundations and those who were small enough got the privilege of climbing around in this chamber. Soon it grew into a small underground maze, as we discovered  more than one area with loosened floorboards. It soon became a hiding place when we were told that we had to go home in ten minutes; though it took a couple of attempts to work out how long we could stay in there before a serious search party was about to be called -or so we thought.

 Across the hall from the studio was the living room. The furthest wall from the door had a fireplace in the centre with bookshelves of equal size set symmetrically on both sides. Granny spent a lot of time in this room, she had her seat next to the fireplace with the best view of the television and Grandpa sat in an armchair across from her. She sat next to the telephone as she liked to be in charge and know what was going on. Grandpa had painted a portrait of Granny in the 1940's and she was very elegantly dressed, thin, with black waved hair, Mediterranean skin tone and her hand on her hip. The only thing that had changed was her hair, it was now paper white and everything else was the same. She still carried an air of grace and class than I didn’t inherit a single drop of.  She had smoked for most of her life and was told to quit when she was eighty, though the smell of tobacco still clings to the walls if only slightly. Granny spent most of her time in the chair by the fireplace armed with the remote ready to control the telly at 6pm to start the soap marathon for the evening. With a crossword and toffees to keep her amused she would happily spend her days talking to the endless stream of visitors that came to the house - as long as it wasn’t during quiet time or the soaps. A tame seagull appeared at the living room window almost everyday, it was a mystery whether it was the same seagull or one that had heard there was free food going around. It would come and knock on the window with its beak and grandpa would greet it with his leftover toast from breakfast. The bird was aptly named Checkov after my Grandpa’s love of Russian literature.

As well as in the summer my Polish relatives would come and stay for Christmas each year.
The night before would usually consist of us all watching re-runs of Christmas specials while
begging if we can open one present since it was Christmas Eve. Once it got late we pretended to sleep though we could hear our parents being merry downstairs drowning out the sound of Santa Claus' reindeer trotting on the roof. Grandpa created the rule that we must have breakfast before opening anything but since the four of us woke up about five hours before anyone else, this rule was often breached.

New Year was also spent up at Thistlebank and there was a routine that was carried out every year. My parents, my sister and I would go up at about ten and the first hour would be meeting and greeting with a constant flow of relatives. At eleven Esti and Maria would phone their Dad in Poland and send him their "Szczęśliwy nowy rok!" Granny would greet the New Year by opening the back door to let the old year out and then the front door to let the New Year in. Everyone knows what comes next, the multiple kisses being flung in your direction from people who once knew you and you still don't know.

My memories at my Grandparents house are some of the fondest of my childhood. Both of them influenced me in obvious ways from my Grandpa’s skills with a paintbrush to my Granny’s skills on the ivory keys. They also have influenced me ways I could not have seen coming and ways I am yet to realise. They helped to reach for my dreams and let me do everything I have been so privileged to do in my still young life. However they never let me forget the importance keeping my feet on the ground once in a while. I will always wish to have spent more time with them but their influence and memories will always stay with me and I can only hope I can make good use of them and make them proud. 
If you still have Grandparents go visit them. Ask them about their life, where they grew up, their first love and their own grandparents. You'll unlock a fascinating key to a simpler time which is now so distant and forgotten. Where communication was always real and personal, broken things were fixed and cherished - not thrown away. Please, you'll regret it when it's too late.