Pronounced “polay polay” this Swahili word perfectly encapsulates our time on Zanzibar. It means ‘slowly slowly’ which seems to be the mantra for island life around the world. We heard it often from the locals we encountered.
The phrase “hey, this is Africa, things take time” is ratcheted up on Zanzibar - especially during Ramadan. Nothing ever happens without a certain amount of patience. We’ve had to employ this virtue quite often in our travels but nothing quite beats the need for patience than Africa.
The other phrase that comes to mind is “you get what you get and you don’t get upset!” Don’t expect things to be the same as anywhere else and you’ll never be disappointed!
We had a number of moments on our trip where we inevitably compared our experiences to life at home and wondered with bewilderment why things are done a certain way - it’s so different, so foreign, so backward, so wrong! But with gentle and constant reminders that these episodes are part of the reason we travel, and just because we live a particular way doesn’t mean that others should, seem to help with the shocks - cultural or otherwise. I suspect if I ever again tell my family “ It’s all part of the adventure” I’ll be set up and beaten mercilessly.
That said, we are confident we had a full Zanzibar experience. From the moment we arrived at the port and walked the two blocks to our hotel we had an intense and visceral exposure to what life is like for the majority of people on the planet. Most live on a fraction of what Canadians would deem acceptable and people are constantly hustling for their next meal. As we walked to the hotel we were approached to buy trinkets, cab rides, excursions to other parts of the island and boat rides elsewhere. Not today, maybe later...turned out to be the most effective line of defence. Unless, they remembered you the next day and the dance began again.
It can be quite exhausting and saying NO! is not in line with our Canadian sensibilities. We didn’t want to be impolite or mean. However after a while, we certainly hardened to the point of feigning being unable to hear someone, avoiding engaging in conversation or, employing the nuclear option in our arsenal: NO THANK YOU!! If all else fails - let your passive aggressive tendencies take over...
It was quite the dance, avoiding all of the hawkers and storytellers and general “helpers”, all of whom wanted to separate us from our money. They are quite good at it too.
Rather than simply asking if you’d be interested in anything they’re offering, they would engage us in the most creative ways. Guessing where we were from, talking about the girls, commenting on our clothes etc... they would also think nothing of walking with us for 100 meters to build their case for our potential purchase.
A favourite seems to be talking about how much they like Canadians. We were surprised by this comment as we hadn’t seen any others. Apparently, July/August is the high season and we come over by the plane load. One gentleman said to me that we are his favourite people and when I joked back that he must say that to each nationality he meets, he was genuinely taken aback. I suggested that if we were German, he’d say he loves the Germans and they’re the nicest people. He said “No, they’re OK, Canadians are the nicest; Russians are just mean.” Well, alright then.
We did find that an interesting comment as we had just noticed the day before how many Russians were on the island. It was something we hadn’t expected. Afterward we watched Russian interactions with the locals. They had no problems ignoring, saying NO! or simply making demands of the individual they were interacting with - some of it was quite cringeworthy. Stone-faced and dismissive would be the best way to describe what we saw. Yikes! Not to paint an entire culture with one brush, this is simply based on our observations only.
For the five days we were on the island, we stayed right in the heart of Stone Town near the water. We wandered the streets, attempting not to get lost in the warren of alleys, imagining what it would have looked like in its heyday. There is incredible history there, and at one time, tremendous wealth based on the salve trade and the perfect climate to grow spices. We visited the old slave market, museum and the Christ Church Anglican Cathedral which was central in the story to end the salve trade. We were all shocked at the conditions slaves were kept in before their sale and that slave labour is still a significant problem today - especially in the garment industry. The girls were particularly taken aback to see it was a a problem in some of the places we’ve already visited (I.e., Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia).
We did a tour of the former Sultan’s palace, mysteriously burnt down a 100 years ago (potentially because the Sultan wouldn’t give up the practice of keeping concubines and his family wasn’t happy about it, his wife in particular). Then we toured the Big Body Spice Farm. Run by a local village, all of the proceeds are returned to the community and we saw the comparative affluence of these people versus what we saw elsewhere on the island. They grow all kinds of spices and organic foods - cinnamon, lemongrass, nutmeg, pineapple, coconut, ginger, pepper, bananas, etc. The most lucrative (and historical) spice was clove. The government doesn’t care much about the rest of the produce but does take a keen interest in cloves on the island and regulates the production and sale. In turn, also keeping the majority of profits from sales on a worldwide market!
There was also a fabulous day relaxing on a Zanzibar beach. It was nice to get away from the chaos and intensity of Stone Town and simply just ‘be’ for a few hours. The contrast from our time there and back in the community was striking. We also got a chance to visit the ‘Mercury House’; now a hotel, but the former home of Freddie Mercury before his family moved to the UK. The girls didn’t know who he was until we sang for them, both enlightening and embarrassing them at the same time.
We also just chilled in the hotel room. Truth be told, as much as I was looking forward to sharing my experiences on Zanzibar with the girls, they were almost completely finished with Africa. Being constantly engaged and harassed had gotten to them and, I think, they didn’t really want to leave the hotel unless they absolutely had to. So we split our days between a little bit of exploration and then hanging out in the 12’x12’ pool on the hotel roof top. They were happy and Jody and I were able to relax and make plans for the balance of the trip.
At the end of our time in Zanzibar, we were all ready to go to Europe. We finished our last few hours of the hotel doing some homework and booking flights and accommodation for almost all of Europe. The girls were very happy to make their way to the airport. Arriving a little too early, we gave the lone security the opportunity to give us a hard time about the contents of my bag. Having become quite good at the dance over five days, I played for time (polepole) and feigned ignorance before becoming more enlightened in his request of me. He claimed that others might have to seize items in my bag but he would be able to help me “in many ways”. As others started to show up to the security section, I took that moment to reach into my pocket and pull out some cash to say "how much will it cost to solve right now?” Upon that, he freaked and said that I couldn’t be doing that as there were cameras and people watching but if I wanted I could meet him elsewhere. With that he started to zip up my bag. I happily took it and we walked over to the check-in counter to see if he’d follow us. By that time, there were more people in the queue and he had a real job to do. We didn’t see him again and were no lighter in the pockets because of it.
That was it, Jody (in the moment) was completely finished with Africa and I had to explain to the girls what happened. It was a great opportunity to reinforce why paying taxes and having a professional, well paid public service was so important. It could have gone completely sideways on us, but in the end, was a fantastic life lesson.
I don’t know if our daughters will find themselves in Zanzibar ever again, but the experiences they had were incredibly eye opening. They gained a deeper appreciation for what life is like around the world and how much they take for granted living in Canada.
Zanzibar is the place where this idea of travelling the world as a family came from. I’m glad I could show it to all three of my girls; it was worth every minute.
We're the Danchuks - follow our explorations and family adventures in a wide world (2018).