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Published: January 6th 2009
I had a unique Christmas this year. Katie, Alisha and I managed to find transport to Lilongwe on the Thursday before Christmas. On the way we saw these guys standing on the side of the road with what we thought were umbrellas. Alisha finally told us they were actually mushrooms and we pulled over and bought a few. That evening dinner was amazing, and I am still shocked at how enormous mushrooms get here.
Anyway, that is beside the point. You want to hear about my vacation I am sure. So that Saturday our bus from Lilongwe to Dar es Salaam was scheduled to leave at about 7pm. It would take us overnight to the Malawi border way up north, and then in the morning when customs opened we would pass into Tanzania. At around lunch time is when Cathy discovered that she had left her passport back at her house a good 2-3 hours away (with decent transport). She had thought that she had left her passport safely locked away in the safe in Lilongwe, but when she got to the office it wasn’t there…If it was me I would have curled in a ball and stayed in Malawi
for Christmas. HOWEVER, Cathy is not me and she followed us a day later by herself.
So, Jen, Katie, Jillian and I boarded the night bus to Dar. Jen and I sat in the very back seat, and Katie and Jillian sat in the very front. Travel through Malawi was at night, so I did not see much, but we arrived at the boarder early in the morning. The girls and I paid 50 kwacha to use the toilets at the border, and then we sat and waited for immigration to open. When it did we hopped in line, and it was relatively easy to get through the Malawi side. My friends and I decided it would be a good idea to exchange money, but it was definitely an hour ordeal. There was one kid behind the counter, and he was taking his time exchanging Malawi Kwacha (MK) to Tanzanian Shilling. Of course, I brought most of my money in American Express Travelers Checks…and even though there was a big poster on the wall saying that they did indeed exchange traveler’s checks, I was annoyed to find out that the person who signed for them was away.
as that was, my friends exchanged some kwacha over then. We then crossed a river on foot (we had discovered that our bus left with our luggage while we were inside sorting out customs/immigration. Good thing I had my valuables on me). Katie had gone ahead to watch our stuff since everything she owned was on the bus, which was good because the bus driver and his “henchmen” (best term for it in my opinion) were anxious to leave us there. They actually pulled away while we were paying the 100 US Dollars entry visa fee at immigration. The guy behind the counter was trying to small talk with me about Obama, and I was just like, “Sir, that is great but my bus is leaving us here!” The customs officials did stop our bus, and we boarded to spend the next 12+ hours costing through Tanzania.
Tanzania is very pretty. However, this bus line was stopping every 30 minutes or so in order for the drivers henchmen to run personal errands. Irritating. We DID drive through a large game reserve, however, and it was like a safari. Unfortunately on the way to Dar it was getting dark so
View from the bus
Too bad it was too dark when I saw the elephants...
my pictures of the animals did not turn out at all. I did see giraffe, wildebeest, antelope, warthogs, and even a baby elephant and a mother one. It was neat.
We arrived in Dar past dark and managed to get a taxi. Although I think we were all in agreement that we got ripped for the ride…Katie wanted us to check out the YWCA, but it was full, so we decided to go to the Holiday Hotel. It was relatively affordable, only about $12 a night. So that was great. Katie and I had double beds and a shower and toilet, and Jillian and Jen stayed in the room below us.
The following day we traveled the city, but not on purpose. I, being broke except for about 80 USD (that Jen said we would need to pay the hotel in Zanzibar), had to exchange these travelers checks… Let me just say I almost had a meltdown. First we arrived at one exchange place and they wanted to see my receipt. Well, I did not have it. So while the others were exchanging money I was freaking out because I thought that I was supposed to keep the
This is not an ad for Lonely Planet.
receipt and the checks separate, and therefore I was positive I did not bring them with me. So, we walked all the way to the American Express building and after a long lecture about how incompetent I am I was issued a new receipt for my checks. We then walked across the street to a swanky German hotel so that I could exchange them and they refused my checks! They said that my passport signature and the signature on my checks did not match because of my MIDDLE NAME. Ugh. They then told me to go back across the street and get new checks issued.
Let me just say that the woman behind the counter was not very friendly. I went in again and told her what happened, and then she looked at my passport and checks and then said that they indeed did not match. Then she tried to say that even my signature from one check to the next did not match up because there were subtle differences in each one. Here is where I had to use every bit of self control I had not to completely flip out on this little lady. Jen then stepped
in because she also did not have her receipt for her travelers checks and asked her if we needed a stamp or something to make sure our signatures were exactly the same.
Long, frustrating story short, the lady was giving us crap because they DID NOT EVEN HAVE TRAVELERS CHECKS AVAILABLE TO ISSUE ME. Good thing I did not lose my checks or I would have been completely out of luck.
My friends and I, dissatisfied, wandered around Dar until we found an exchange building that did not care about the fact that I had included my middle name on my passport. SO, warning to all travelers to Dar, travelers checks are not the best form of currency.
We did all this exchanging of money because we were under the assumption that Zanzibar would not have any ATMs, Western Unions or places to exchange money…
We did manage to get Subway sandwiches though. And Pepsi. Not bad.
When I finally had money we went down to the ferry station to see departure times and buy our tickets. At this point we knew that Cathy had indeed found her passport and she was somewhere in Tanzania
heading toward Dar. What we did not know was that it would be $35 USD a ticket on one of the speed boats (so that it took 2-3 hours instead of 6-7 hours). We also did not know what an ordeal it would be. We were constantly hassled by the guys at the docks, and one guy tried to take our passports from us in some sort of scam to make us Tanzanian residents? When we finally did buy our tickets and Cathy’s for the ferry at 7am the following morning the guy behind the counter told us to hide our tickets so that the scavengers (that is my word for these people) would not take them from us.
So, that being done we ate Indian (I ate Chinese because I LOVE Chinese food) that evening, and the others bought Obama chitenjes. Things had settled down that evening when we found out that Cathy’s bus had broke down. Poor Cathy. If I had to cast her as any character in the world (besides Templeton, which is the name the others in Zuze gave her related to her eating habits) it would be the Little Engine that Could. Like I
said, I would still have been in that ball in Lilongwe. Cathy, determined, told us she would definitely make it before the train.
I was not skeptical that she would indeed arrive. I was just worried she would not make it before the ferry. The others were a little more optimistic and believed she would arrive sometime around 2 or 3am so they set up a room for her so she could shower and take a short nap before we boarded the ferry. I went to bed expecting to have a phone call wake me up to let her in the hotel.
I did not. Katie and I woke up, got ready, and as we were walking downstairs Jen poked her head up the stairwell to tell us that Cathy was not yet in Dar. We were supposed to arrive at 6:30am to start boarding, and it was 5am and she was not there yet. So we ran to an ATM to get some money out for Cathy and headed to the ferry. We literally were walking in at 6:30 when Cathy appeared out of a cab just in time. She had red eyes from lack of sleep,
and she was slightly disheveled, but she had made it. Yeah, it was crazy. I think I will leave the story of her bus breaking down in the middle of that wildlife reserve (with Tanzanians telling her to stay near the bus because of the lions) and how she arrived in Dar for her to tell.
So, we gave Cathy her Subway sandwiches that we had bought her and boarded the ferry. Unfortunately, Cathy then spent the entire ride retching in the toilet. Bad luck.
We arrived in Zanzibar to a bright sun and sandy beaches. In Stone Town Jen had an agent who set us up with our beach hotel. We paid him USD and he provided us with a van to our hotel. After a 45 minute ride north of Stone Town we could finally relax. Our hotel was gorgeous. And affordable. $50 a night on the whitest beach I have ever been on in my life. I wish I had a better camera.
So we arrived at the hotel around lunch. In the frenzy we had not eaten yet. Unfortunately it took over an hour (maybe 2 but I am not sure if that
was the hunger that made it feel like FOREVER) to get our food. We placed our orders for dinner and hit the beach. Jen, Cathy and I went straight for the water. It was surprisingly smooth, but way out on the horizon we saw a break in the waves. Cathy and Jen decided they wanted to swim all the way out there. I was going to join them but I noticed the creepy dark seaweed and decided I would rather sunbathe.
I guess it was a good idea because Cathy and Jen only made it about halfway because they realized that the dark seaweed was peppered with sea urchins. Cathy got a few in her foot. When they returned we walked down the beach and ran into another hotel that actually took VISA. We looked into their snorkeling and meal prices and they were reasonable, and they had lots of fruity drinks. Yum. We booked ourselves a snorkeling trip and a picnic for Christmas.
We came back and told Jillian and Katie the news. They were excited for the most part. Then we ate dinner at our hotel.
The following day we woke up and walked down the
other hotel and a van picked us up and took us to a boat. The boat dropped us in the middle of this beautiful coral reef where we snorkeled for a few hours. It was my first time and I am REALLY afraid of things in the water with me. It was cool though. I saw all the fish from Finding Nemo, and even eels.
We came back to the hotel after lunch. Katie had bought like 10,000 Shillings worth of fruit so I ate a few bananas. Then Jen and I got ready for dinner. We had found out that the hotel next door would be having an all-you-can-eat buffet of seafood. Jen had bought us all tinsel so we dressed up and walked back next door (it was scary because there were hundreds of ghost crabs under our feet). The food was delicious.
Christmas day was also eventful. We got up again and me the van at 9am. They again drove us to a beach were we got on a boat and drove around the island. They dropped us at a beach that was very secluded and not quite so peppered with sea urchins. Cathy and
I explored and found lots of shells. We even stumbled across a large nest of crabs, which was a little frightening. After sandwiches and fruit on the beach, we decided to do some more snorkeling. The water was a little cloudy but it was still cool.
When we returned, I talked Cathy and Jen into building a snowman on the beach while Jillian and Katie talked and enjoyed drinks. We then went back to our hotel, showered and changed, and ate another buffet-style meal at the hotel. It was nice but we were exhausted, and our backs were all toasted from floating on the surface of the water for 2 days in a row. I went to sleep relatively early that night.
The day after Christmas Cathy and I got up and walked around outside a little before the others got up. Jen, Jillian and Cathy had booked massages with our hotel that day, so I waited for Jen to get out and we hiked out to the “middle beach”. Every time we were at our hotel it was in the afternoon and we did not know that when the tide was down it was possible to walk
all the way out to where the break in the water was. Jen and I thought there may be some decent shells there; we did not know that it would take us nearly 2 hours to get there and back. First, the floor was infested with sea urchins, so we had to watch our step. It also was A LOT farther out than it looked. When we reached the middle it was completely filled with rocks and sea plants, but no shells, so we took a few pictures and headed back. When we got back the others were ready to leave so we loaded our stuff in a van and headed back to Stone town.
We were staying at a hostel called the Flamingo, which was only about $10 a night. It wasn’t bad. That evening Cathy was adamant about having chapatti and beans, and I am glad she was because it was really good. Until Sunday we spent our time wandering around the markets and streets of stone town. It was beautiful.
Sunday, Cathy Jen and I got on a ferry at 4pm back to Dar. The only options were a fast ferry at 4pm or a
night ferry at 9pm (Jillian and Katie took it and they got to Dar at 6am). The 3 of us stayed at the Holiday Hotel again and watched X-Files on my ipod. The others met us Monday and we spent the entire morning trying to get transport. It was frustrating. We had just missed the buses and the train wouldn’t leave until the following day. Defeated, we bought the train ticket for 3pm the following day (Tuesday). When we arrived, however, the train was delayed until 8pm. We waited in the train station with hundreds of others. At 9pm they let us board and it was really scary because everyone was running to the train in the dark. Jen actually said that she felt like Mufasa in the Lion King (we all had Lion King in our heads because of the Swahili language).
THEN we got about 20 minutes out of Dar and the train started to go backwards! Not only was it delayed but now it was going back to the city! Then it broke down. We had our own compartment that we were sharing with a woman going to Zambia so we closed the window, locked the
door and went to sleep. We awoke in the same spot.
Eventually we made it back to Malawi though. Even though we spent New Years on a train 😞 So, I would recommend, if you can afford it, traveling by plane.
Anyway, I hope everyone is having a great New Year! Hope to hear from you soon! (and I hope you will excuse my spelling)
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Kristen, I feel like I know you, Thank-you so much for informative blog on your Christmas Vacation. We miss Jen so much and are so happy to see pictures of her having fun with her new life-long friends. Peace to all, "Nubbs" (ask Jen)