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Top 10 tips for backpacking in Zanzibar
1. Daladalas. Save money (though certainly not time) by navigating Zanzibar via its cheap and pseudo-efficient public transportation system. Daladalas are converted pickup trucks with cramped bench-style seating and a seemingly limitless capacity for people, bags and chickens. Nowhere on the island should cost more than a couple of US dollars.
2. Street food. African street food can sometimes be a bit repetitive, but Zanzibar's tumultuous history has done plenty for spicing up its street cuisine. Keep your eyes peeled for French fry omelettes (chipsi mayai), samosas, fatcakes (mandazi), chicken and beef skewers, freshly squeezed sugar cane juice, scalding hot coffee and local favourite urojo - a mango and ginger-based soup with a bit of everything thrown in.
3. Dress conservatively. With beautiful beaches (and bikinis) lining its coasts, it's easy to forget that conservatively minded Muslims make up an estimated 99% of Zanzibar's local population. Bare knees and shoulders can be embarrassing and even offensive, so cover up when you're walking around town.
4. Learn some Swahili. Although people trying to sell you things will undoubtedly speak fluent English (or even Italian), the best way to get the real Swahili experience is to learn the language. Get to know the basics to improve your people interactions and reduce hassling - a simple hapana, bwana ("no, sir") can be much more useful than saying "no" in English. Besides, if you're backpacking East Africa, your newfound vocab will come in handy elsewhere: mainland Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, and even Northern Malawi and Mozambique are all Swahili-speaking regions.
5. Bargain for… everything. Although it goes without saying that prices in Africa are negotiable, the Arabic market influence gives Zanzibar a particularly thriving bargaining culture. From souvenirs to market vegetables to hotel rooms, there is usually some flexibility in every price - just keep a smile on your face and don't take it too far. Bear in mind what saving a little money means to you compared to what the extra money would mean to the seller.
6. Don't get ripped off. With Zanzibar's popularity comes the inevitable influx of touts looking to make a quick buck. While buying overpriced cashew nuts and "Jambo, Jambo" CDs is innocent enough, be wary of strangers offering you tours and snorkelling trips off the street. Also, most people who help you navigate Stone Town's alleys will expect a sizeable tip for their guidance.
7. Stock up in Stone Town. Zanzibar's majestic beaches are fully equipped with everything you could ever need, but the prices are exclusively for tourists. Save yourself some serious cash by hitting Darajani market in Stone Town to stock up on water, snacks and anything else you might need for exponentially lower prices than you'll find on the beach.
8. Small change. Bank machines generally only dish out bills in increments of 10,000 Tanzanian shillings, and most locals hate getting stuck with "big money" like this. Hoard smaller change whenever possible, and break big bills at bigger establishments so that you can pay for coffee, street food, transportation and souvenirs with "small money". In addition to making life easier for merchants, bargaining over a few cents will look petty when paying with a huge bill.
9. Get lost and found. Stone Town's chaotic labyrinth of alleys can be nearly impossible to navigate at times, so the best solution is to get yourself purposefully lost early on. Remember key landmarks or shops, and the next time you find yourself here, you should be able to catch your bearings. If not, no worries - getting lost in Stone Town is part of the experience.
10. Pole pole. Nearly every popular Swahili proverb preaches a single message - pole pole (slowly, slowly). Island life everywhere tends to slow down, though Zanzibar has a particularly lax and forgiving vibe when it comes to being "on time" - a shrug of the shoulders is usually as angry as anyone gets. Try to expect unforeseen delays and screw-ups in any situation: when things go smoothly, it will feel like a bonus. As the Zanzibaris say: haraka haraka, haina baraka ("quickly quickly, and there will be no blessings")