An index to this series appears at the first post.
Today’s adventure in Zanzibar started off on uncertain footing as a key problem with Tanzanian Tourism took center stage: How could we pay for stuff on an island without reliable ATMs or credit card networks? We began our day by running over to Eco and Culture Tours, a company that previously operated as an NGO to build economies in smaller towns of Zanzibar. We scheduled a half-day tour for tomorrow that would take us to three key sites in the southeastern part of the island. The cost, however, was higher than all the Tanzanian shillings we had on hand, and our credit cards were not usable. We paid approximately the first half of the bill, and then we headed out for an ATM.
One might be excused for thinking that acquiring local money as simple as walking up to an ATM, typing in a PIN, and selecting an amount, but this was sadly not the case. We tried multiple ATMs (including Barclays Bank) near the Darajani Market without success. We trundled down to an ATM for CRDB that had been reliable for us on prior days, but both ATMs were out of service. We walked to the heavily touristed west side of Stone Town to use the Barclays, National Bank of Commerce, and Diamond Trust ATMs. Barclays was entirely out of operation, NBC threw a system error when I tried to specify the amount of money, and Diamond Trust could only operate with Visa cards.
Natasha and I resolved to break into our supply of dollars quite sparingly until we could find another option. We walked up the beach road to the Palace Museum, which occupies a prime location on the beach front between the Arab Fort and the Custom House where we had attended a concert the preceding night. Our bottle of water cost a dollar, and the admission to the museum was only $6 USD for both of us. We dismissed the guide, explaining that we had no shillings.
The Palace Museum is really something to see. The ceilings are tremendously high, and some of the items in the building are truly one-of-a-kind. Natasha found that some of the objects that were not highlighted were in fact hugely remarkable. A display cabinet on the first floor used a layer of crystal rather than glass. Some of the tables holding artifacts incorporated hand-painted tiles. In particular, the Chinese vases found in several rooms were likely to be extremely valuable, dating from the late 18th century. These vases, however, were frequently covered with a substantial layer of dust on every upper surface. Because the palace was occupied by the royal family until 1964, the museum also contains items of furniture from the 1950s and 1960s, eras that struggled to produce a “stately” look.
I appreciated the museum tale of two people, in particular. The first was Said bin Sultan of Oman, who moved his court to Zanzibar in 1828. Arab traders had a substantial footprint on Zanzibar for centuries before that, but the first Sultan of Zanzibar decided to invest all his efforts in transforming this island into an economic powerhouse. Much of the stone construction of Stone Town dates from 1830 and onward, reflecting his decision to make this island his capitol. Sayyid Said apparently once claimed, “I am only a merchant.”
The second noteworthy person highlighted by the museum was Princess Salme (Emily Ruete), a daughter of Sayyid Said bin Sultan, born in 1844. Having spent her first seven years at the Mtoni Palace to the northeast of Stone Town, she moved to the Beit el Sahil palace (the one in which the museum stands today) for her later years. It was while she lived at this palace that she met and fell in love with Heinrich Ruete, a German merchant. She was baptized as a Christian and married him in 1867. Her autobiography, “Memoirs of an Arabian Princess,” was one of the first glimpses into the lives of Arabian royalty for the Western world.
The Palace Museum reinforced the message that the United States was key to the rise of Zanzibar. The United States signed a “Most Favored Nation” treaty with the Sultan in 1833, the first of many such treaties by an interval of six years. Similarly, the United States established the first consulate on Zanzibar in 1837. Even this early in its history, the United States had demonstrated that it had an unquenchable thirst for luxury goods.
I was glad that the Palace Museum was open, given that its next door neighbor, the House of Wonders, was closed for entirely necessary repairs. The Palace Museum is about the same age as South African democracy (1994), and it is clear that every bit of investment there will make a difference in telling the story of the Sultans of Zanzibar!
Natasha and I attempted two more ATMs at the northern side of Stone Town, but we were again stymied. At each bank machine, we encountered other tourists who were frustrated at how to get local currency. We were glad, however, to find the Passing Show Restaurant near the latest ATM. I enjoyed vegetarian ugali with two cups of tea, and Natasha went with the chicken curry ugali and a Stoney Ginger Beer. We wandered through the maze of back streets behind the Darajani Market until we reached the New Mkunazini Road. Happily, the ATM that had been out of service in the morning had returned to life! We refilled our wallets and acquired another 1.5 liter jug of cold water.
Natasha decided to rest for a while, so we agreed to meet at 6PM at Mother’s Restaurant (we had enjoyed it a couple of days before). I wandered back to the shoreline along the northwest side of Stone Town and shot photos of the buildings. I was happy to find a high vantage in a pedestrian walkway leading up to a former orphanage, and I shot some panoramic photos there and along the beach.
I was glad to get the chance to visit Tippu Tip’s house a bit further south. His life story showed an incredible tenacity to accumulate wealth for himself at the expense of others. Today his once glorious mansion stands in ruins.
I joined Natasha at the restaurant and we enjoyed our rice, beans, and spinach with fried snapper. I tried to ignore that the fish head kept staring at me.