Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Australia - Canberra, Home again.

Dedicated to all future Grand Tourists

Finally, I'm back home, and the GT has ended.

Dad met me at the Jolimont centre, and we headed straight over to my grandmother's for a long-missed lunch. That evening was celebrated with a sensational family feast, with 16 of us gathered at Karmen and Wayne's house (my sister and brother-in-law). It included my grandparents from Brisbane, and my cousins Grant and Louise with their gorgeous new baby Elliot, whose well-illustrated blog is listed in my links to the right. It was like Christmas, and unusual to have so many of us all gathered simultaneously. It was a superb evening, with lots of stories from everyone and plenty of items collected overseas being passed around.

It's wonderful to see my dog Assad again, illustrated in the very first test post of this blog. Likewise our very affectionate cat Bits, and my three housemates, two of whom I hadn't met before leaving Australia. All the other administrative matters are being smoothly sorted out, and I'll be resuming work in a couple of days.

The last few months seem unreal in light of how easily I'm fitting back into Canberra. Things have changed here, but simply remembering how vastly different the last few months overseas have been is a big task. I still have to review the second half of the photo archive, and assemble the hard-copy photo albums, but that's really it. There's a few important people I want to stay in touch with, and several "Grand Tour Resolutions" have been determined.

Then there's the biggest question, the PhD. It's been on my mind for a very long time now. These experiences overseas have helped raise a multitude of topics, each dutifully recorded in my diaries. They've also helped me identify subjects I have no real interest in pursuing any further - such as my theories on African Airport Art and cultural mirroring. But each new topic aside, I still haven't cut them back to a sharp and targeted question. At some point I'll collate all the topics, lay them out on a table, and network them into a overriding and precise question. That's what I did for my honours thesis, and it certainly worked then.

There may be a few more posts to come. Highlights, lowlights, and an inventory of the items I've collected. But that's really it for day-by-day content.

The diary ends here.

Thank you for joining me.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Australia - Sydney

Dedicated to those nice people at Customs

Finally, I'm back in Australia. The cleanness of the air is conspicuous - I find myself taking deeper breaths than I'm used to, because it seems like they just aren't filling my lungs the same way as Cairo's air does. I've decided that Sydney's air is perfumed with the scent of glossy magazines. It's only a tint, but if you were to distill Sydney in a small bottle, it would smell like a fresh Vogue opened for the first time on a beach. You can see it in the forms of consumption plugged here from the moment you leave Passport control - trendy bars, stylish places, elegant home interiors, designer clothing, all totally vacuous but made to look so utterly desirable.

Also conspicuous, much more so than the air, is the number of western teenagers dressed up to party in Sydney's nightlife. That's something I really haven't seen for a very long time. You wouldn't be caught dead dressed like that in most of the nations I've been travelling through for the last few months. It's a refreshing reminder of how Australian cultures are so curiously different to those of the Middle East and Africa.

Everything in my luggage seems to have arrived intact, and the Customs people didn't have any issues with my stuff. Indeed, some of it they found intriguing (in that positive way which means they'll let you actually keep it). It's a bloody pain to lug around, but only a few minutes of lugging lies between getting it out of the hostel and into my home.

I'll be arriving at the Jolimont Centre in Canberra around 11.30am Sunday. Might just see you there!

Singapore - In Transit

Dedicated to Ibraheim, the wise, and taxi driver par excellence, for starting the journey home.
This is the second post from Changi International, and the muzak isn't as irritating as I recalled. Maybe because it currently consists of identifiable jazz instruments, and I've only been here five minutes. The skies are a grey overcast dawn, as it is about 7am here, but 1am on my body clock.
Aside from being able to see outside the windows now, just about everything is as I left it eight months ago. It reminds me of a story about a Japanese garden whose wealthy owner maintained it so exquisitely that the passing of years would hardly change it. The intention was that each time he visited it, he would be able to reflect on not how it had grown, but on how he had become different since last entering the garden.

Of course, he didn't have free internet six seconds' walk from the entrance. That doesn't help with meditation on the nature of personal experiences.

But that being said, there's been a lot to consider since I was last here. The 130-ish letters home posted here sum it up. So do two volumes of tiny handwritten diary pages, and a box full of photographs on CD. I started jotting down a list of things I regarded as particularly memorable here, but realised it was getting cumbersome as a paragraph. And those of you who have been reading this correspondance from the start will have been with me through it all anyway - pick your favourite place!

I have another hour here, roughly. Next post, Sydney, in god knows how many hours.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Egypt - Leaving Cairo

Dedicated to the Vocabularist and Tabbi - good luck on your travels, and gule-gule.

I stayed up "stupid late" last night with a "stupid heavy" suitcase. Party next door was "stupid loud" until 4am. But most of the night was actually spent with Tabbi and Peter playing Bookworm and drinking Amarula to lighten my luggage. Bookworm's an online game that requires you to spell words from scrambled letters, requiring a sharp eye and some tactics. It's also terribly addictive. I will not give you the URL because I think you all deserve productive and happy lives away from the computer monitor. And there are few things pettier than becoming incensed with rage over the injustices of a game that lets you spell "Qua" for points but not "Monday".

The luggage came in at 41kg total. Apparently this is illegally heavy for any international airline. It has now been split to two bags - one, the unweighed hand luggage, contains all my more suspect customs-declarables and heaviest items. This tactic should work - it's reduced the weight of the big bag to around 27kg.

Looks like most things will be coming back with me. These include the hard copies of the best photographs, unfortunately, as 800 prints weighed 2 kilograms. (This really put something into perspective for me - if I printed all my photos, they'd weigh around 60kg! But it only takes 15 minutes to view the best of the first half on CD).

The next 40-odd hours will be spent making may way from Cairo to Canberra, via Singapore. I'll aim to write another blog post from Singapore airport, just as I did on my way out of Australia. Inshallah. I am looking forward to reaching home again, and very excited to hear that several family members who normally live interstate or overseas will be in Canberra when I get there. Thanks so much guys! See you soon.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Egypt - The Secret World that takes Visa

Dedicated to Tabbi, for her ruthless photo editing,

And the good people of Visa card, who have helped me fulfill their motto.

The hidden community within Cairo that takes Visa card is a world unto itself.

It's not as chaotic or overpowering as the Junk Souq, nor as secluded as the regions East of Bab Zweylah. It lacks the timeless qualities of the City of the Dead, and it isn't very dangerous.

But it is very pretty. And glossy. And thankfully, I'm only here for a few more days, because it's gradually getting expensive.

My normal ATM cards don't work here, and I haven't been able to withdraw cash using my Visa either. My supply of cash sourced through the social banks has dwindled to my necessites, so the few remaining things I desire have to be sourced through places that take credit cards. In Egypt, that's a big deal. The tiny "Middle Class" demographic between the poor and the very wealthy in Cairo can be identified by one main characteristic - they own a bank account. Subsequently, most businesses here function strictly on cash transactions.

The Visa world consists of the more elegant shops in the Khan. They're places that have elevators, and electric lights. By that I mean neat ones that consistently work. Their cash registers often look like real computer monitors, but one had a nifty retro machine that clicked up numbers like a sideshow shooting game. These shops don't usually advertise their status, like any good secret society. Others will merrily display the Visa stickers on their doors, then proclaim them to have just been there when the shop opened years ago. It's idiosyncratic, but so is most of Cairo. There's a curious lateral logic at work throughout this city. Once you've cracked it, it feels like a second home.

I've now concluded my purchasing, and it has been fun shopping with Tabbi. She knows when to point me at something and when to shove me out the door. I don't want to spoil suprises by saying what I bought yet. And I'm not yet sure what'll actually be coming home with me, as it collectively takes up most of the master bedroom floor. And here in the Residence, that's a serious floor. Expect no fewer than two huge suitcases at the airport.

The last few evenings have been spent with Tabs, finally getting a grip on the Grand Tour photos, diaries, and backgammon. It's been really pleasant just to see her again, and we've been taking the mickey out of numerous movies as we work. Shaun of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Anchorman, Airplane II, Love Actually, etc. She's off through Turkey, Russia and Eastern Europe for the next few months, so this has been a great opportunity to catch up.

Expect one final post before the Grand Tour concludes. As you can no doubt tell by the exciting material of this post, it's all coming to a close now. Administrative matters are taking over, and the real world is slowly seeping back into this distant and exotic life.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Egypt - Friday Morning Junk Markets

Dedicated to Jenna. Happy Birthday!

The world's greatest trash and treasure is held in Cairo every Friday morning, on the edge of the City of the Dead, where an archaic railway line cuts a thin flat strip around the perimeter of the Islamic tombs.

People who sift through untold mountains of landfill every other day of the week bring their choicest finds together for the admiration of the teeming swarms of people. Their audiences grind through densely packed pathways between stalls, ground blankets, or benches propped up by fragile timber bird cages. Like in the touristy Khan and other major souks across the Middle East, the stalls are divided into regions for specific products. Ceramics, toilet bowls, and incredibly manky urinals plastered with scunge of the most abominable composition are isolated along one dusty street. Old metal "antiques", notably baroque-inspired clocks, mirrors, incence braziers and dishes, are neatly displayed in well-built taurpaulin shelters alongside the carpet sellers. Book, coin, bead and jewellery stalls pop up amongst anything. A long promenade in the open sunshine hosts plastic items - dolls, toys, plastic bottles for water, shampoo, or detergents - piled in mounds like scrap metal.

The men's underwear souk is the most frenetic, with only a tiny walkway divided into two directions, and heaps of men shouting out for attention as they jovially waved pirated brand name products at passers-by. Maybe we received particular attention as the only non-Egyptians in the entire market. (It is definately "real Cairo" in terms of lack of tourist interference). More likely, we were there with my sister Tabbi, who was unquestionably the only woman in the entire area.

I bought several odd things - a handful of beautifully patterned Middle Eastern coins (nothing old but dead cheap), a school atlas labelled in Arabic, a gorgeously worn cigarette tin with fragments of text in French and Arabic amongst street scenes of Cairo in the 1940s, and a visa pass book, deteriorated from use and laden with exotic official's stamps and handwriting, for an Egyptian who appears to have travelled often between Egypt and Libya. It's a great piece of traveller's ephemera, but its appeal is most apparent when held than simply described.

The afternoon was spent in a western-style cafe in Zamalek. I was very suprised to discover it existed! It felt very cosmopolitan for a change to have real iced Thai coffee with great company, talking about all manner of travel-related topics.

Now the Grand Tour is slowly running to an end. Only a week to go before I arrive in Australia, and I've been liasing with family already for my exact arrival plans. I'm getting to a stage now of writing inventories for things collected, making lists of the best moments, remembering people I've met, and STILL ploughing through the 23,000 (12.2GB) photographs taken while travelling since August. I can feel the real world getting inexorably closer, and I'm doing what needs to be done to meet it head-on.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Egypt - East of Bab Zweylah and Beyond

Dedicated to Young Mohammed of the best carpet shop in Egypt.

Although I've been exploring some of my favourite areas of Cairo over the last few days, we've been moving into new discoveries each time.

In the City of the Dead we climbed the minaret of the Ma'a Azan mosque, overlooking the second half of the vast modern tomb complex which I never realised existed. Some day I hope to explore that area on foot, to find out if there are any more monumental Ottoman necropolises out there. Since I last visited, our friends who run one of Cairo's last glassblowing workshops near the Quaitbey mosque have branched out into a new showroom, and fortunately remain without signage or tourist prices.

We ate huge serves of incredibly cheap koshari as we drove to the Khan. Spiced, complex, and loaded with carbs in the form of fuul (lentils), chickpeas, pasta and rice. We dropped by a few shops to pick up items our friends had been eyeing earlier, then trekked through to Bab Zweylah, the most spectacular of Cairo's three remaining medieval gates. We climbed one of the twin minarets to the very highest extremity, just in time for the late afternoon call to prayer to ring out across the city, like ripples from a handful of stones in a pond.

Undoubtedly the highlight of the day was meeting our friends who run a carpet shop near the tentmaker's souk. After from the jovial banter and swapping of news that fills in the time between choosing carpets and agonising over excess baggage, Mohammed and his younger brother took us on an impromptu tour through the region east of Bab Zweylah. This took us through all kinds of "real Cairo" streets, through people's houses and apartments, via a seriously disorienting network of courtyards, subterranean passages, and sheds of craftsmen building things for the tourist markets. Our mates couldn't have asked for a more immersive experience, seeing the types of things kept well backstage from the conventional tourists of the Khan el Khalili!

We bought inlaid boxes from the craftsman who makes them in a closet-like shed for the five star hotel giftshops. We found the men who sit at machines that lathe walking sticks, cobbler's lasts, embroidered leathers, and make intricate game boards that can cost up to US$1000. We were led to the carvers of bone chess pieces, the parquetry chair makers, and the one-crowded-room factory responsible for a great deal of the pyrex perfume bottles found in all the souvenir shops. We saw the lantern workshops, where men with green fires welded ornate sheets of incised metal together, and we encountered purveyors of black market counterfeit and smuggled socks. Our mates stocked up well on these - how often does one get the chance to buy black market socks anyway? It was a seriously fascinating evening, led by a hilarious local friend, and I hope we can find these places again next time.

This morning, Valentine's Day, was spent out at the Camel Market again. It was very similar to my last blog post on that topic, expect that our racing camel Shakal (now the first place champion of the Sharm el Sheik race) was in an exceptionally nasty mood that morning. On the other hand, it was good to meet my lovely Morroccan girlfriend again, she has such sublime eyelashes and long dark hair. The afternoon was spent on a whirlwind spin of the Egyptian museum, in which I was shown rooms I had not realised existed, and proudly sought out my favourite oddities for our mates.

Tomorrow is going to be spent catching up on various tasks I have been replacing with far more exotic time consumption strategies. Should anything interesting happen, I'm sure you'll hear about it soon.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Egypt - Back to Cairo

Dedicated to Emma, Yi-Hua, Pete and Tabs.

It feels like home to be back in Cairo. The traffic has long ceased to faze me, the dust that burns the back of your throat is a familiar sensation, and I comfortably recognise individual streets. Arriving at the airport, I was driven to the Residence under leisurely Friday morning conditions - the equivalent of Sunday morning traffic in Canberra. Furthermore, I was browner than the Egyptian taxi driver, a tan that ellicited a dramatic response from my sister Tabbi, whom I had not seen for around six months.

It has been great to catch up with her again. She's here now before heading off on her second Grand Tour, going up through Egypt, Turkey, Russia and down again through Eastern Europe. Three mates of hers are staying at the Residence for a little while, so we've been exploring the city together.

Yesterday was spent in the Coptic Quarter of Cairo - the Hanging Church, and several other Christian structures in various states of use, reconstruction, and restoration. There was miscellaneous shopping in the Khan to follow, and a riotously colourful Sufi concert late that evening. Today was "Pyramid Day", much like a previous blog post but in reverse order. Tomorrow looks set to be one of my favourite itineraries - the City of the Dead and a walk through Islamic Cairo, although we haven't decided on which part yet. Since Mum and Dad are in different countries right now, Tabs and I are running the show, which has been great fun.

The last few days have been busy, but finally you're up to date here. Only a couple of weeks remain on the Grand Tour, and there are several interesting things ahead. You shall hear about them in due course.

Kenya - Nairobi, and Dedications

Dedicated to...

Matt - the outstandingly fit numismatologist who flew over Mount Kilimanjaro to have his wretched appendix wrenched out, without painkillers.
Ili - Dreadlocked and debonair, our media magnate with a sharp wit and fascinating sharehouse history.
Erin - The other half of the Zanzibar dreadlocked duo, late night philosopher, and damn tough iron woman.
Magnus and Rachel - Our favourite Norwegian medics, a veritable Viking and extrovert Ethiopian.
Nick and Kaylea - Our English rugby lad and his Kiwi trainer,
Cam and Jenelle - The guitarist geologist with a contagious curiosity for all things African, and the patient patient of improvised bush camp surgery,
Kylie - Biochemist and beauty therapist, world traveller in style, and one of those lucky people who has found what she loves to do with her life,
Anet - Our dear Armenian darling, and one of those rare people who can support anyone through any manner of difficulty,
Sarah - The most dedicated runner of the truck, a gorgeous inspiration, and steadfast support for Matt during the appendix coup of Arusha,
Nicole - Our Canadian truck saint, traveller's social conscience, leaner-upon during evenings of overindulgence, and source of countless stories on all range of topics,
Kristen - Remover of thorns from feet, shark bite restorer, doctor without borders, scaler of Kilimanjaro and especially well-organised traveller.
Helen - Our indomitable truck leader, sous chef, Encyclopedia Africana, designator of nicknames, and CEO.
Vesal - Our driver, a South African with the whole of Africa deeply ingrained in his veins.
and "Modest" Nick.

Nick being born in the year 1987, an event duly recorded in the annals of world history for the life that was to follow. A man of great, if not yet fully defined, vision and ambition, he stems not only from a family of great wealth and royal connections, but from a battler's background of arduous legal conflict and real personal tragedy. Although noted by some for his risque taste in vintage liquor, he will be undoubtedly recalled by others for his tenacious but ultimately harmless domestic disputes with his nearly inseparable travelling companion. A cross dresser, contributor to the overfishing of Lake Malawi, mountain runner, air force supremo, ferocious haggler, generous loaner of five star couches, and wheeler and dealer in black market laundry services, Nick is a man without equal.*

(*Life story may be based on unconfirmed hearsay. All facts stated, if any, are entirely true.)

Thanks to everyone I have travelled with over the past month. It was a wonderful experience, and a real privilege to have met each one of you. Needless to say, if you ever pass through Canberra - or Australia for that matter - please let me know, and I'll be looking forward to catching up with you again. There'll always be a couch at my place for you.

Nairobi was a city of reputed thuggery, extortionate taxis, and highly professional hospitals and hotels.

Our truck mates finally separated, cumbersome luggage was unloaded, and Matt was torn away from his much-maligned appendix. This was particularly interesting as it occurred the day before he was due to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with Nick, Ili and Kristen. Foot worms aside for their exotic novelty, this was a real medical emergency, including airlifts! Several of us were able to visit Matt as he recuperated in hospital, accompanied by Sarah who rearranged her travels for him. It was a great show of truck commaderie.

It was also wonderful to spend most of the night dossing on a couch in a five-star suite at the Safari Club Hotel. Real showers! Real soap! Clean towels! Sheer bliss.

My flight left for Cairo at 5am, and with a huge cargo of African artifacts, I arrived in Egypt five hours later.
There I learnt that Tanzanian schillings are completely impossible to exchange for any currency, anywhere in the world. I'm sharing this as it was an expensive lesson that very few people get the opportunity to learn.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Tanzania - Serengeti and Ngorongoro

Dedicated to Magnus and Rachel, Ili and Erin - who shared my 4WD through these adventures.
And also to Steven, for keeping us way out in front, spotting everything first, and leaving the others eating our dust.

We left the dusty snake park of Arusha to the chicken-eating Gaboon vipers, and began the five hour drive out to the infinite plains of the Serengeti National Park.

The drive led us past the jungle-edged crater of Ngorongoro, a captivating view into a vast circular natural history theme park. It is a breathtaking vista, dotted with incredibly tiny wildebeest, buffalo, and elephants - although the zebra herds were invisible from this distance.

Our 4WD held a great selection of people, and we enthusiastically composed spontaneous songs for sightings of various animal species. The open road, dead straight, unlined and dusty, took us through scattered herds of Thompson's and Grant's gazelles, all lingering by the roadside for ease of tourists and possibly for their own safety as the cars scare away predators. (Except that on our way out we passed three lions by the roadside, so clearly that theory was bunkum). Magnus our keen feline finder located hunting servals, lazy lions, and cheetahs sillohuetted amongst rocky islands or "Kopjes". Vivid pink and purple Agama lizards scuttled through these rock eruptions like plastic dinosaur toys.

Over the rest of day we saw timeless single-file queues of thousands of wildebeest, proceeding south from the Masaai Mara in Kenya on their epic Migration. I had not actually planned this trip around this momentous natural event, but felt incredibly lucky to be able to witness it. You've probably seen them on TV before - it is seriously magic to see them raising dust around you, bleating like donkeys (zebra) or whinneying (wildebeest), and fighting for space at waterholes diminished by heat and the aggressive defences of hippopotamus pods.

We camped overnight amidst wild creatures which moved through our tents under darkness. Clomping hooves, whooshing sounds, odd grunts and rustling sounds permeated the still and cold air.

The next day was equally spectacular. Sunrise while standing up in the 4WD thundering along the incredibly broad open spaces of the Serengeti. Hyenas with cubs fascinated by our tyres, two male lions chewing at half a wildebeest killed hours earlier. We competed with maybe 40 other vehicles to snatch the tiniest glimpse of a very well-hidden leopard - a tacky, paparazzi experience. It was improved by the sighting of a second leopard later in a much more accessible pose. Incredibly, we passed by this leopard again to find it had acquired a live baby wildebeest, which it taunted for twenty minutes before suffocating. It's seriously unusual to see a leopard kill, as they are elusive creatures at the best of times. Our driver had not seen one for nearly six weeks previously - and he drives almost every day.

The Ngorongoro Crater was a truly "Land Before Time" landscape, but perhaps not as entrancing as the overwhelming Serengeti. We descended into the flat caldera and found large herds of various game animals, crowded waterholes flooded with birdlife, and a pride of lions devouring a fresh buffalo kill. The herd of that creature returned as we watched, and developed the courage to chase away the remaining lions. This was a dramatic moment even though the odds were seriously weighed towards the massive buffalo. Later, two male cheetahs climbed beneath our 4WD to rest in our shade - another superb moment, arm's length away from such elegant creatures.

There are more stories of these days to recount, but there are still other travels to describe, and I intend to place them online this evening.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Tanzania - Arusha

Dedicated to Erin on her 20th Birthday

I'm writing from Arusha, a bustling and dusty town that lies precisely halfway between Capetown and Cairo. They've even marked the exact spot with a Coca-Cola Commemorative Clock in a roundabout.

We've been sleeping in a snake park, with my tent pitched against a low wall that divides me from seven large Nile crocodiles. There are Masaai guards in colourful robes reclining in the shade, and scanty-brained guineafowl that chase each other around the grounds, leaving trails of dust in their wake like a Warner Brothers cartoon. The truck mob is aware that we're only going to be together for another few days, and there's a combination of regret, simmering tensions, and anticipations of future travels in the air. The ascent of Kilimanjaro being undertaken by three or four of us is a particular favourite topic, and one I would have loved to participate in had I not required a return to Cairo on a specific date. At least this way I have a good reason to return to Africa one day in the future.

Tonight we're celebrating Erin's birthday, which may end up as another drag costume party like the one we had in Malawi. (and I'm totally aware you've heard nothing about that one...) There's also likely to be a lot of shopping for Masaai beaded jewellery and textiles, plus a visit to one of their local villages.

Tomorrow we're off bush camping an game viewing in Serengeti and the Ngorongoro crater for a couple of days. There will be no internet, and I doubt I will be checking it again in Nairobi before I fly out to Cairo. This could be the last blog post for several days, just like I said last time.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Zanzibar - Lurching along the Indian Ocean

Dedicated to Abdullah, who spoke schway English.

Today was spent riding and snorkelling the Indian ocean.

It began as a grey morning with light rain and reasonably choppy water, through which we lurched in a long coconut wood boat with an orange tarpaulin. This was Kikepea, "The Butterfly", and it was piloted by Abdullah, a wiry dark little Zanzibarian boatbuilder.

Although the seas were not comfortable, I've sailed through much worse on fishing trips in Australia. We even once had to deal with more adverse conditions while dragonboating on Lake Burley Griffin! Unfortunately, the two other mates I was with hated it. They claimed to be "in fear of their lives", and ended up making a loud string of complaints to the manager about it afterwards. I hung around afterwards to explain that we clearly had different expectations for the daytrip, as I had a lovely time.

We landed upon an isolated sandbar, where I built a tiny sandcastle to raise its altitude and thus aid the fight against global warming. Not much to see there underwater due to poor visibility and generally sandy conditions. A bumpy ride later and we were immersed in spectacularly colourful fish and corals off Bawi island. There were several types of starfish jellyfish, soft corals, and luminous small fish of too many varieties to list. (Not least because I don't actually know what most of them were called).

At the third island we walked amongst giant tortoises up to 175 years old. They're suprisingly interesting creatures to watch. They don't do much, but they lead you to ponder interesting questions like "How many people could that one feed?" "What's the easiest way to cook something that bloody big?" and "How common could these have been before Humans started eating them?". After that we had a well-earnt lunch on the beach.

I'm back in Stonetown now, as the tortoises didn't provide us with an internet cafe. (Hate to think of their connection speed). Tomorrow we're back up to Dar es Salaam, hen travelling on through northern Tanzania to the Serenget and Ngorogoro Crater. By the end of the week we'll have passed through Kenya's Masaai Mara, and I'll be flying back to Cairo from Nairobi. I'm telling you this now because much of this travel will be done in bushcamps, and there's not likely to be any internet access for a while. But don't forget to send me emails please!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Zanzibar and I

Dedicated to my Family

The last couple of days on this idyllic and decaying island have been superb.

I don't recall if I mentioned it here before, but the primary reason why I'm travelling across Africa now is to make it to this place. It's a pilgrimage that began five or six years ago, when working as the Curator of Stationary in nightfill of Big W (an Australian discount department store, and a convenient and popular student job). One night I found the word "Zanzibar" written in a silver font on a scrap of labelling cardboard. I thought it was an evocative word, being only vaguely aware of what it was, and I stuck it over my name badge since the relevant people there knew who I was anyway.

The name literally stuck for three years. New staff began calling me "Zan", interpeting my name from overheard conversations. I even replaced it a couple of times as it became tattered from wear. It wasn't until my very last evening that the Manager noticed and asked me to remove it.

In those days I had no immediate desire to reach this African island, because I was focussed on Uni and life in Canberra. I wasn't even until halfway through the Grand Tour that it dawned on me I could actually do it - so here I am now, somewhere distant and exotic.

There is actually one other island I now must visit one day - Tristan da Cunha in the south Atlantic. One of the most isolated spots on earth, and not much really going for it unlike Zanzibar. I imagine it as like a micro Scotland with lobsters and a volcano. It's appeal ties in to my Art History background and the life of Augustus Earle, but that's another story.

Yesterday was spent exploring the island with a tour organised by the truck mob. It focussed on the spice plantations, now more for tourists than export, and reminded me very much of that experienced in Sri Lanka at the beginning of the GT. Some of us stayed on to see the "slave caves" 20km north of Stonetown, which have a better documented history of use in the slave trade than the famous ordeal rooms near the Cathedral. The Cathedral is itself a fascinating place - a European room with few concessions to the locality, except the marble columns at the entrance that were installed upside-down by confused local builders.

The afternoon was spent much like the previous one - wandering, taking photos, and idly investigating prices for "stuff I want". I've not actually taken that many photos of Africa in general, but Zanzibar is up there with Damascus, Santorini, Naxos, Ghadarmes, Siena and Istanbul for photogenic opportunities.

Today is a chilled day for shopping and writing in Stonetown. There are a couple of museums to visit as well. Most of the truck mob has headed north to a beach, but I'm passing that up to go snorkelling around three reef islands tomorrow. The evenings have, and will continue to be, spent at local live music performances.

I'll try to write again at last once before I leave.