Tales & images from life as me…

Archive for October, 2013

Shopping in Zanzibar

Last week was quite an adventure so I’m going to share it in two parts. The first installment being an antiques hunt in Zanzibar!

Damien and I had decided it was crazy that we live here, in this beautiful country but owned none of the incredible furniture that the Spice Island is so famous for – teak wood carving, brass work, glass lamps and mysterious old items brought in on the endless cargo ships from Persia, Arabia and all sorts of exotic sounding places. It was time to explore the other side of shopping in Zanzibar.

One long-suffering friend (Nina) volunteered to come with me – It may not sound too tough being asked to go shopping in Zanzibar for two days, but this wasn’t just any shopping trip! Plus it was definitely not going to be a boys’ trip! We hopped on planes and crossed the country to reach the magical, weaving streets of Stonetown.


This bustling town is a well known tourist spot and there are several main streets full of curio shops selling carvings, art, kangas, masks and much more, but we glossed over those this time and made our way into the less well known areas with our friend who owns one of the shops, and – as it turns out – several warehouses! As we began to dig around in the endless rooms of dusty furniture, dangling lamps and giant old doors the rich and elegant past of the island came alive in the gloomy light. It was a mad treasure hunt of peering through piles of items trying to imagine what each piece might be restored to once it was polished here and fixed up there and all the while being told tales of each item – where it came from, why it’s decorated like that, what the materials are and how it came to be in Zanzibar.


This was all encompassing, captivating and completely exhausting! It was actually hard work! On day one it was 4pm before we realised we needed to eat! We headed to the House of Spices, a place Damien’s family used to own and he had spent much of his teenage years. It seemed only right that the history of my new family and the furniture we were buying should intertwine.

At sunset we headed back to our hotel only to be greeted by the world’s worst band! Not only were they singing the ‘Jambo, jambo bwana…’ song which anyone who has visited will know, but it was out of tune out of rhythm and had us chortling into our gin and tonics as we tried to keep straight faces! Luckily the sunset more than made up for it.

photo 3

photo 2

That evening we were exhausted and, after dinner at the hotel, we fell into bed, psyching ourselves for another big search and some decision making the following day.

Day 2 saw us up early (we’d forgotten to close the shutters in the room, but – more importantly – my brother’s twins had been born in the night!) and back in the warehouses (‘I just need to see that one again’ and ‘can we measure this?’ and ‘how much did you say that was?’). After a lunch of crab spaghetti and discussions with Nina as we reviewed iphone photos of hundreds of items, my decisions had been made and we trotted back for total price negotiations.

Now you’d think we’d be all shopped out by then wouldn’t you? But no, there were still back streets to explore where the real artists work and I wanted some photographs of the amazing doors and little nooks and crannies of the town this time – I have avoided taking them in the past for fear of seeming too much like a tourist! How ridiculous!

It was here we discovered a little shop filled with master carvers, making miniature Zanzibar chests as jewelry boxes and striking dark wood frames in swirling patterns; found a man painting tinga tinga art in a quiet little corner; and listened in on guides as they explained the history of Zanzibar’s great doors. Everyone wanted to talk, to help, to share, especially when they discovered we spoke Swahili, and we found kind and generous characters at every turn.

The kindness even extended to force feeding me cake! My pregnant bump is now quite obvious and the mama in the café couldn’t believe that I wouldn’t want to eat whilst having my smoothie!

All shopped out, Nina and I hit Livingstones for a sundowner, a wander around the famous fresh seafood market at Farodhani Gardens, photo 4 …and my favourite restaurant for dinner – Beyt al Chai, or ‘house of tea’. Anyone would have thought we’d been drinking heavily, but it must have been the shopping high because we laughed ourselves silly all the way through a delicious sea food dinner!

The following day there was time for a swim and a final wander before we returned to Mwanza feeling thoroughly rested and all shopped out. I bought a crazy amount of things, all within the budget, and can’t wait until they’re shipped to Mwanza! I can’t believe we didn’t do this sooner, it’s such a great place to spend time and we have come away with unique pieces of furniture that each tell a story and which we will own for the rest of our lives.


Finding Nemo (the turtle)

Green Turtle march 06 P Shepherd
An adult Green Turtle just so you have something to compare the little ones to!

There’s something inherently cute about the word ‘hatchling’, and what’s not to like about a miniature sea turtle? For months I’ve been trying to time my trips to Dar for baby scans to coincide with a turtle nest hatching, but I just couldn’t seem to pull it off… until now!

Authentic Tanzania runs a brilliantly organized trip in partnership with Sea Sense (the turtle champions) and almost half the profits go to Sea Sense for the continued protection of the turtles, their habitats and their nests. (to join the mailing list for notification of hatchings email info@authentictanzania.com).

So I was up at 5am, on a plane from Mwanza by 8, in Dar by 11 and squeezing through the city traffic to meet the Authentic bus by 12.30. I made it by the skin of my teeth and hopped on board with a friendly looking group just as they were heading out towards the ferry that takes us to South Beach.

It was a long and bumpy ride for a pregnant chick who likes the option to pee every hour or so, but I was kept well entertained by plenty of banter from the girls sitting near me in the bus and we were rewarded with arrival at Skippers Haven – a stunning little eco-lodge with fantastic raised sea views… and toilets! We ate our picnic (I hadn’t been that organized and was generously adopted by the rest of the group and fed like a queen) as wales flicked their tales in the distance.

We were so relaxed by this point that we had almost forgotten the purpose of our quest, but luckily our guides were on the clock and knew precisely when the time was right to take a short ride down to the beach where they had been keeping a special eye on the nest that was due to pop today.

A ten minute walk along a curving bay backed by baobab trees and a small fishing village ended in an abrupt halt – one of the girls almost stepped right on the nest, there was no way to know it was there! But by the magic of Sea Sense one of the conservation officers began to dig.

It all happened so quickly after that, as though tiny sleeping dragons had been wakened. First one, then two, then five, then fifty, one hundred… little sand dusted shells erupted out of the ground and, in an awe-inspiring Darwinian rush of instinct, made for the sea as fast as their tiny new flippers could carry them – which is incredibly fast!

little turtles emerging from the packed sand

The Sea Sense staff pour dry sand over them to stimulate them and help them get moving.

Climbing over the sands undulations is no mean feat when you’re that tiny!

I snapped as fast as I could, but with a short focal range for beautiful close-ups they just kept moving out of range and the challenge was on. It was like some insane video game trying to catch a sharp shot as the little ninjas made their escapes!


As I backed up and backed up again, I found myself suddenly at the water’s edge, and so did they. It was such a magical moment to see the salty, frothing waves touch them for the first time and watch them take their first strokes in the environment where they would now spend almost the entirety of the rest of their lives (except for the females who will return to this very beach in adulthood in order to lay their own eggs).

There was something very touching about seeing each little turtle make it to their destined starting point and disappear into the waves. But the very last little one to emerge that day, had us all feeling emotional. Several minutes after all his siblings had run their gauntlet, one final hatchling popped his head above the sand. But it was quickly clear that something wasn’t quite right… only one flipper was working properly. He was a real life Nemo and he had all the charm and personality of the fabulous little clown fish, too. He was determined to make it to the sea, in spite of his disability, and dragged himself over the peaks and troughs of the sand with inspiring tenacity. We were unable to help him for fear of causing further damage and could only cheer him on as he made his slow and painful marathon. But he make it he did, and the ocean rushed suddenly to meet him. Somehow his weak right flipper didn’t seem so damaged under water and we trudged back to the bus with a sense of hope, honoured that we had witnessed such a special moment.

I’m not sure why I glanced up before jumping on the bus, but I did. In doing so I witnessed a large bird of prey, wings spread in silhouette against the bright evening sky… with a hatchling gripped tightly in its beak, little flippers flapping in distress. It was a poignant reminder of the tough odds these little sea turtles face. It is estimated that only 1 in 1,000 will survive to adulthood and with marine debris, climate change and fishing they are in serious danger of extinction. That’s why they need the help of NGOs like Sea Sense and of individuals like you to support the actions being taken to save these beautiful creatures. Visit Sea Sense online or email info@seasense.org for more details of how you can help.


Some amazing sea turtle facts:
• The tiny hatchlings will never meet their parents and spend the first 10-30 years of their life alone at sea.

• Only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings are thought to survive to adulthood, against all the odds, and find their way back to the same beach on which they hatched so many years earlier to start the cycle all over again.

• In Tanzania in 2012 the Sea Sense nest monitoring and protection programme ensured that 305 sea turtle nests hatched successfully and that 29, 757 sea turtle hatchlings emerged from their nests and safely reached the sea, which represents a hatching success rate of 77%! Considering the 1 in 1,000 survival rate, it is possible that only 30 of the thousands of sea turtles born in Tanzania last year will reach adulthood.

• Sea turtles spend almost their entire lives at sea, only the females ever come ashore, and that’s just a few times every 2 to 5 years to lay their eggs. This presents a huge challenge to sea turtle researchers – without knowledge of movement patterns and the location of important feeding grounds, it’s difficult to protect sea turtles.

More than half of all green turtle nests laid in Tanzania are laid on Juani Island, Mafia District – and it’s only 9km long!