Vanilla Extract

When Kenny and I were in Zanzibar last August, we enjoyed a spice tour and made a trip to the market the following day to purchase fresh spices, including vanilla beans. Since then, we’ve enjoyed using the vanilla beans in cooking projects at home, my favorite of which has been our homemade cinnamon vanilla bean ice cream (to die for – good thing we ditched the leftovers of our last batch at a friend’s house, otherwise I’d probably be gorging on it right now).

But the beans won’t last forever, so we decided that it would be a good idea to use a few of our remaining beans for homemade vanilla extract. Recipes and instructional videos abound on the interwebs; I ended up choosing this one because I liked the easy-to-follow steps with illustrative photos.                 

Of course, Kenny and I can’t do anything without creating photo documentation of our own, so here are my versions of the instructional photos – strikingly similar to those in the recipe, but featuring my kitchen!

Step 1 – Collect ingredients: vodka, vanilla beans, and a jar to store them in

Cutting the beans lengthwise
Step 2 – Cut the beans lengthwise, leaving them attached by an inch at one end

Step 3 – Measure 1 cup of vodka into the jar

Adding the beans
Step 4 – Submerge the beans as well as possible – I wasn’t able to get them fully covered immediately because they were a bit firm

Ready for storage
Step 5 – Cover

Two weeks later
Step 6 – Wait. Here’s my concoction after 2 weeks of rest time. Supposedly 8 weeks of infusion is best, so ours should be ready by mid-May.

The Road Home

We are leaving Uganda in a few hours. Between facilitating the JAMS workshop at Makerere University and various emotional good-byes, it’s been a busy final week. We’re going to be off the grid for 10 days in Tanzania, and then we board a plane bound for Seattle. For those who enjoy details, here’s the breakdown:

  • Today: fly to Kilimanjaro
  • Sunday-Tuesday: Hike Mt. Meru
  • Wed-Mon: Safari in Tarangire, Ngorongoro Crater, central and northern Serengeti
  • Tues-Wed: JRO->DAR->DBX->SFO->SEA (i.e. long slog from Africa to Seattle, but at least we’re flying Emirates)

It’s been a great three months in Uganda; an inspiring conclusion to an unforgettable year. We’re leaving with countless memories and have many stories to write up when we get home. Seattle crowd, see you soon!

View from our apartment
The view from our apartment this morning

The large birds that protect our apartment
The large birds that protect our apartment building

Top 10 Beaches of Our Sabbatical

We wrote this list while lounging around on the beach in Zanzibar, just to make you hate us. The criteria are totally subjective and not documented anywhere, but involve some combination of most beautiful setting, best food, best amenities, and best overall vibe.

In order from most to least amazing:

  1. Mandrem, Goa, India – we spent a week on Mandrem being beach bums at the end of our stay in India.
  2. Nai Yang, Phuket, Thailand – Nai Yang was so beautiful we had to go twice, first at the beginning of our Southeast Asia jaunt in January, and then for a long weekend trip with Seema and Mark in April.
  3. Galu Beach, Mombasa, Kenya – an extremely laid-back spot to kite surf – or not – and enjoy beautiful water and endless soft sand.
  4. Long Beach, Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam – we spent four nights on Long Beach in February, before we started our volunteer assignments in Thailand, and we ate chili lemongrass shrimp every day.
  5. Khlong Nin, Ko Lanta, Thailand – we spent four nights at Khlong Nin beach on Ko Lanta in January, directly after our stay in Phuket. It was a beautiful setting, but not quite as amazing an overall package as Nai Yang.
  6. Kendwa, Zanzibar, Tanzania – it wasn’t easy to get there on foot from Nungwi, but it was worth the trek, as it offered a beautiful stretch of relatively-secluded beach.
  7. Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania – we spent four nights on Nungwi, in a hotel room with an incredible ocean view. Unfortunately there isn’t much beach to speak of at low tide, but Kendwa and East Nungwi, nearby, offer good swimming opportunities.
  8. Khlong Dao, Ko Lanta, Thailand – we finished up our January visit to Ko Lanta with two nights at Khlong Dao, which was nice but not as secluded or as pretty as Khlong Nin. We did find one of my favorite Thai restaurants in the world at Khlong Dao – Thai Is-San.
  9. Nha Trang, Vietnam – the beach was not as nice as we remembered it from our first visit in 2007, but the tropical fruits are still the best I’ve ever tasted.
  10. Matemwe, Zanzibar, Tanzania – fascinating tidal flat landscape at low tide, pretty (but skinny) stretch of beach at high tide. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as a place to stay, but it’s certainly worth a day trip.

If it makes you hate us any less, our tans will most certainly have faded by the time we arrive back in Seattle on September 22, and we do not have any more beach time scheduled between now and then.

Little Vid Goes to the Beach

Little Vid enjoyed our 10-day beach holiday almost as much as Kenny and I did, especially because we got to celebrate her namesake’s birthday in Kenya.

Little Vid at Kenyaways
Little Vid enjoying the beach at Kenyaways

Camel transport
A little French girl on the beach tried to steal Little Vid when she saw her perched on the camel’s head

House red
Enjoying a glass of the house red for Vidya’s birthday

Stone Town
Lounging on our rooftop deck in Stone Town

Enjoying a vegetarian lunch thali in Stone Town

Somewhere over the rainbow is Nungwi Beach, Zanzibar

Checking out the strange environs at Matemwe Beach, Zanzibar

As always, you can follow Little Vid’s adventures here.

Day Trip to Matemwe

For our final day in Zanzibar, we struck a deal with Langi Langi’s driver to combine a morning outing to Matemwe Beach, on the east coast, with our airport transfer. The LP had described Matemwe as a peaceful, secluded stretch of sand with beautiful water. Based on our Zanzibar experience thus far, we also assumed that the beach itself would change drastically with the tides, and we were not mistaken. We arrived at low tide, when a vast stretch of tidal flat was exposed and the water was between knee and waist deep. Behind the tidal flat, about 500m away from the beach, was a long skinny sandbar, where the waves were breaking at low tide.

We decided to wade out to the sandbar, which looked like a nice spot to sit and have a game of Scrabble. It turned out to be a slightly difficult slog, as the ocean floor was littered with obstacles such as rocks and sea urchins, but it was also surprisingly rewarding. Along the way, we observed women harvesting seaweed and tending their seaweed farms, and saw a beautiful red starfish below the water’s surface. The locals seemed impressed that we expended the effort to cross, and on a few occasions attempted to communicate with us, albeit with very limited success. Unfortunately my Kiswahili is a bit rusty.

On the other side, we saw locals collecting sea creatures, and experienced a dramatic other-worldly landscape, with exposed rocks, coral, and spongy seaweed growing on the surface. We shot a few photos, relaxed, and played Scrabble until we feared that the rising tide might strand us. Besides, our stomachs were starting to rumble in anticipation of lunch. So we commenced our trudge back across the shallow water to the main part of the beach, where we sat down for lunch at the posh Sunshine Hotel, as recommended by our driver. While we lunched, the tide came in quickly, and the entire tidal flat, seaweed farms and all, was completely submerged before we finished.

After lunch, it was onward to the airport, and goodbye to Zanzibar. But we’ll be back in Tanzania in exactly one month.

Harvesting seaweed
Harvesting seaweed

Wading at low tide
Wading out to the sand bar at low tide

The sand bar at low tide
The sand bar at low tide

The sand bar at low tide
The sand bar at low tide

Red starfish
Pretty red starfish

Typical Zanzibari wooden dhow, seen from lunch at high tide

White Sands Beach Hotel


While we ate quite well in Stone Town, most of our meals on Zanzibar’s beaches were somewhat mediocre. The one major exception was a beachfront restaurant in Kendwa, at the White Sands Beach Hotel. The atmosphere at the restaurant is pretty basic, but the location is excellent, with nice views of the Indian Ocean from the outermost tables (where we were sitting).

On the waitress’s recommendation we ordered the prawn coconut curry, which was stupendous. The prawns were by far the largest we had in Zanzibar, and the tomato-based coconut curry was spicy and reminiscent of south India.

We also had the catch of the day, red snapper, which was seasoned with local spices and grilled. The fish was tender (not overcooked like much of the fish we had this week), and served with rice and tomato chutney.

If you’re on Kendwa beach (or at nearby Nungwi and sick of the same-old, same-old), definitely stop by the White Sands Beach Hotel and sample the coconut curry. Your tummy will thank you.

Prawn coconut curry
Amazing prawn coconut curry

Grilled snapper
Grilled red snapper

White Sands Beach Hotel
Kendwa, Zanzibar, Tanzania
+255 (0)777-411326


For the final segment of our East African beach vacation, we’re camped out at Langi Langi Beach Resort, at Nungwi, on the northern tip of Zanzibar. Langi Langi came highly recommended by our good friends Brian and Kara, who spent a few days here during honeymoon #2.

There isn’t much “beach” to speak of around our hotel, except for a small stretch that disappears after low tide. However, at high tide, the ocean is like a vast swimming pool, accessible from our hotel’s deck. If only we had a diving board. And the views from our hotel, especially the balcony of our sea-view room – apparently the best room in the house – are absolutely stunning.

For more traditional beach lounging, we’ve been taking walks to nearby beaches, like Kendwa to the south, and East Nungwi, around the island’s northernmost point from here. Kendwa is a long, beautiful stretch of sand (Kenny wrote a few thoughts about it here). East Nungwi is a bit easier to reach, although the beach itself all but disappears at high tide. We had a nice walk there yesterday, a wonderful swim in the jewel blue water, and a delicious lunch at the Tanzanite Beach Resort.

Dining options here at Nungwi are a bit limited and service seems to be universally slow. However, the food at our hotel’s restaurant is good, and we had one good meal at the Armaan Bungalows restaurant next door (although our repeat visit was a disappointment). The village of Nungwi is a stark contrast to the posh resorts on the beach, with a small school house, and a cluster of tiny shops and residences along a muddy road. We’ve taken a few strolls through the village to purchase water and bread, and use the internet cafe, and we enjoyed watching the local kids play football at dusk.

Tomorrow is our last day on Zanzibar, and we are hoping to check out Matemwe Beach in the morning before we begin our journey back to Kampala.

Morning rainbow, viewed from the breakfast area at our hotel

View from our room
The view from our balcony

Sunset from our balcony

Fish trap
Catching fish in a trap

Low tide
Nungwi Beach at low tide, before it disappeared completely

Journey to Kendwa

We took a walk today down to Kendwa Beach, one of the “gems” of the Nungwi area according to the Lonely Planet. Kendwa is only two kilometers south of our hotel, but the journey is much longer than it should be due to a few obstacles.

The first obstacle is the tides. Most of Zanzibar has very “tide-dependent” beaches. While Kendwa is renowned for being the only beach on Zanzibar unaffected by tidal shifts, the same cannot be said for the northern waterfront approach, which would require a full-on swim at high tide. We headed to Kendwa during low tide, which was a pleasant walk along the beach until we reached an outcropping whose beach is only accessible during the lowest of tides.

Obstacle number two: the “Royal Zanzibar” hotel, which blocks your path and is built on top of the aforementioned rock outcropping. The @$$holes who run the Royal Zanzibar do not let non-guests walk across their property, even though they completely block the north-south coastal path. To enforce their policy, the beachfront entrance to the hotel is manned by Maasai warriors who don’t speak a word of English. They simply shake their sticks at you and yell at you in Kiswahili until you go away. It’s an extra two kilometer detour around the hotel that involves walking inland to the main road and then down a sketchy dirt path through the bush that is infamous for muggings.

On the plus side, you are amply rewarded when you arrive. Kendwa has a beautiful, long stretch of white sand with calm, very swimmable (though not particularly warm) water. The area is sparsely developed and has minimal touts. We spent most of the morning on the more remote southern end of the beach, which we had completely to ourselves. The weather today was variable, with on and off showers, but that also made for some very dramatic landscapes.

After a delicious lunch at White Sands Beach Hotel and more swimming, it was time for us to head back to Nungwi. At this point it was high tide, and when we reached the Plan Hotel at the northern end of Kendwa, one of the security guards flagged us down and told us that three men would escort us along the path back to Nungwi. We were completely sketched out by this. One of the men showed us his police officer badge, but we were still skeptical. We had no choice but to follow along, keeping a little distance and hoping that we would simply have to pay a bribe and wouldn’t get mugged, maimed, or worse. As we entered the main road and civilization, we got more comfortable and the man who had flashed his badge engaged us in conversation. Turns out that the men were all special investigators who were in the area specifically to address recent concerns about tourist muggings (whew).

Overall Kendwa is a beautiful and relaxing beach, though quite a challenge to visit on foot.

Lauren chilling at Kendwa
Our sunny morning was very enjoyable and picturesque

The brewing storm
…then the clouds came in

Self-portrait under our rain shelter
…we took shelter from one of the storms under a straw umbrella

Mzungo getting braided
…where mzungos were getting braided

Dhow ferrying snorklers around the bay

Spice Up Your Life

Armed with our newfound knowledge from yesterday’s spice tour, we spent the morning in Darajani Market acquiring some take-home scents of Zanzibar. The first few shops we walked by were staffed by aggressive hawkers that were all selling the same touristy-labeled packets of ground spices.

Further away from the market center, on a quiet street far removed from hawkers (and bloody cow parts), we stumbled across a shop with barrels of ground and whole spices available in bulk that reminded me a bit of Roopak in Karol Bagh. We were able to browse in peace, and then put together a small stash of coffee, vanilla, whole nutmeg, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, and ground chilies (which was nothing compared to the local who arrived just after us with a long shopping list of large quantities to fill).

Now all we need to do is think of the best uses for these spices when we get home…cardamom-vanilla bean ice cream anyone?

Kenny with potential purchases
So many spices…how to choose?

Bulk spices