Saturday, February 16, 2013

African Adventure Pt 3: Jo'burg and Zanibar

If you missed the first two rounds, part one is about Capetown, and part two is about our safari at Mala Mala.

Since our safari was cut short we had an extra day in Johannesburg to bop around. (Side story: We tried to get on an earlier flight to Zanzibar, but it didn’t work out. The frustrating part about trying to make these arrangements was that no one at the Kenya Airlines service desk was answering the phones. Their customer service line was only open Monday through Friday and no one ever answered the main phone at the airport. With the little internet connection we had, we frantically emailed my father, the hero, to call the US support number. I know my dad is so busy and calling any service number takes so long. He was able to get some help, but the only other option involved a 12 hour layover. Needless to say, we really appreciated it even though we didn’t end up switching our flight.) After leaving the rental car, Mala Mala had arranged for a driver to bring us and a few other stranded people back to Johannesburg, or Jo’burg as they say. As someone who likes to have a plan when we visit someplace, usually with a plan B and C as well as all our meal and snack options figured out, a day with nothing researched was a little unusual to me. (By “unusual” I mean something that normally makes me panic.) Thankfully, some local filmmakers evacuating Mala Mala were on the ride with us and gave us some ideas on what to do in the city, as well as what part of the city to avoid.

I gotta be honest… most of what I’d heard about Jo’burg involved carjackings and muggings that leave you dead, so it was not my city of choice to spend an extra day in, but after hearing enough from the locals and reminding myself (er.. Jason reminding me) that we live in one of the higher crime areas of DC no problem, I was ready for an adventure. After a restful night at the Premier Hotel we took the free shuttle to the train station. The gautrain, as it is called, was apparently built for the world cup. South Africans told us it was pronounced with an “H” sound, like “hout train”, so we had a lot of fun pretending we had local accents while pronouncing it.

We stuck to the tourist areas in Sandton and Rosebank where I think all we did was eat, take goofy pictures, and explore the wine selection of the local grocery stores. Because we didn’t really know what else to do, we saw a movie called “Searching for Sugarman.” It is a documentary partially set in South Africa, which made it extra fun to see there. And if you ever go, take a peek into a boutique called The Space, because, you know, the exchange rate is so good, and you definitely need that dress.

After the movie, we made it back to the hotel in time to pick up our luggage (we couldn’t take anything valuable with us onto the streets!), and head to the airport for our red eye to Zanzibiar. Are you exhausted yet? Or just bored? Let me tell you, I was tired and grumpy, especially during our layover when Jason was supposed to be reading my mind but didn’t. I apologized and a few hours later we were in Zanzibar, driving to the most beautiful ocean I think I’ve ever seen. (Side note: since our layover was in Kenya, we got a pretty awesome view from the plane of the snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro - shout out to Hemingway fans!)

Kilimanjaro, or "Kili" as the cool kids call it

Hashtag, no filter. The water was just that blue.

We stayed on the north part of the island in a town called Nwungi at the Langi Langi Beach Bungalows. The hotel itself was in a great location with the restaurant and sun deck right on the water. The rooms were pretty sparse and simple, but the grounds were nice with a pool and good beach access. Plus, it was one of the cheaper places in the area. From what I could tell, it was a good part of the island to be at, with tons of other restaurants, hotels and water sport shops in easy walking distance. We usually ate at our hotel because it was reputed to have some of the best food around, and I am still a paranoid traveler who didn’t like to be too far away from our hotel at night. Because it wasn’t a resort with a private beach, locals merchants usually tried to sell their wares as soon as you set foot on the beach. They were friendly, but it wasn’t like the US in that respect.

View from our hotel restaurant

We did our dive with Zanzibar Watersports, which turned out to be the building right next to our hotel. The guides were really friendly and knowledgeable, and diving at the Mnemba Atoll itself was by far the best dive we’ve ever done in terms of the colorful wildlife. Our highlights were seeing a sea turtle, blue spotted stingray, lionfish, and a few fish that had me wishing I had paid more attention to the National Geographic videos my sister watched weekly as kids.

On many parts of this trip it felt like to really “experience” the area, you have to be on the go: looking at something, walking somewhere, cramming in as much as possible. I love how at the beach though, just sitting around and soaking in the view is experiencing where you are to the max. Man, and this place was beautiful. We dove through schools of colorful fish in warm, clear water the color of seaglass. We watched amazing sunsets from the hotel deck, glass of wine in hand. We ate the same fish for dinner that we saw local fishermen catch that morning. Jason and I repeatedly said to each other, usually with said glass of wine in hand, “We have amazing lives.” It’s actually something we say often to each other both as a way to just enjoy the moment and to remind ourselves not to take for granted the undeserved blessings God gives us.

We do our best when traveling to get a finger on what the pulse of the city is really like. We wandered a bit one afternoon into the area away from the hotels where we bought cokes and fabrics from local shop vendors. It was an odd contrast to walk from the beautiful beach to dusty roads, cinder block homes, and chickens running around. We also got a pretty good dose of what the area was like when we spent a night in Stone Town. We stayed at the Zenji Hotel, which was nice, and the food at the cafĂ© was delicious. But the spice market, that was something else. Way back in the day when trade routes were being established in Europe, the spice market in Zanzibar was where all the action happened. And let me tell you, it was still a happening place. I don’t think I’ve seen any other markets with so many people milling about, pushing their way through fruit vendors, and clothes vendors, and meat vendors with flies landing on rows of meat, weaving through a maze of covered tables while everyone is calling at you to look at what they have to offer and that they love Obama. It was like running through a gauntlet; trying to take pictures without being a flashy tourist, hoping to not get suckered in while also keeping an eye out for something I might actually want, bartering for a reasonable price while keeping in mind the extra dollar probably means more to them than it does to us. It was crazy and once we made it out of there in tact, we were so glad we experienced it.

So I feel like Batman, but, “stay tuned for our next adventure. Same bat time. Same bat channel.” This one will be Ethiopia, where even people who love Addis will tell you it is crazy. Anyone else traveled recently or have trips coming up? Do you know that I’m a crazy- travel-planner so probably have an itinerary of where you should eat that you can probably sort by location or price?

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