When we were on our way to Stone Town last month, I kept thinking about our trip to Zanzibar in February 2009, when we went with my parents-in-law.
My in-laws had flown to Tanzania to visit us. We met them in Dar and took the ferry to Zanzibar together. Our outbound journey to Zanzibar was in a first class cabin on a fast ferry. On this big, fancy catamaran everyone had his or her own upholstered swivel chair and a movie was showing on the wall-mounted televisions. I remember being delighted when my mother-in-law pulled out the butter cookies and dried figs that she had stashed in her bag before she left Germany. We had a wonderful breakfast snack and crossed the Zanzibar Channel in about two hours.
Fast forward through a few days of lovely beach vacation. Swimming in the Indian Ocean when the tide was up. Lots of reading. Visiting a village with my father-in-law to buy fruit. A few leisurely strolls on the beach. A crazy South African lush who invited us to stay in his hotel for free and we accepted the offer [another story altogether].
On the day we were to return to Dar, we took a taxi from our beach hotel to Stone Town. When we got to the ferry port at about 9 am, we found out that we had to make a decision. There were no fast boats going to Dar for a few hours, with the next departure scheduled for 2 pm. There was another boat leaving at 10 am, but we were told it was a slower boat.
We weren’t too enthusiastic about waiting around in Stone Town with all of our luggage, nor did we want to stand in the mid-day heat queuing to board the ferry. The ferry terminal on Zanzibar is a really busy, chaotic place. There are lots of aimless tourists wandering around, and touts jump in the minute any mzungu looks the least bit unsure of where to go. The touts want to carry your bags, get you a taxi, lead you to the ferry ticket agents, book you a hotel, take you on a spice tour, show you where you can swim with the dolphins… Once a tout has picked you up, it can be difficult to shake him.
We were still in our chilled out beach moods and didn’t want to put up with a whole morning of saying ‘no’ to touts. So we opted for the slower boat, thinking ‘How slow can it be? There’s only 45 miles of ocean between Stone Town and Dar es Salaam.’ After buying our tickets, we rounded the corner where the boat was docked and began to have our doubts.
The slow boat was not equipped with cabins, much less classes to distinguish amongst them. We found some bench space for ourselves on the top deck. From our seats, we had great views of the chickens and junk refrigerators in the cargo hull. There was nothing to snack on, but that was okay because the diesel fumes acted as an appetite suppressant. About four hours after setting sail, we spotted Dar es Salaam on the horizon. At which point, the waves picked up, and our slow boat capitan apparently decided to react the rougher water by reducing the speed down to about 2 miles an hour. After a while, we noticed a boat coming up behind us. Of course, it was the 2 pm fast ferry, cruising by at a good clip. It overtook us in no time.
We were grateful to eventually make it off of the boat and on to dry land. It’s one of the few times that I was truly happy to arrive in Dar es Salaam! I think I’ll always remember the lesson of the fast ferry / slow boat.