Zanzibar – Heaven on a cinnamon stick

Full set of Zanzibar photos here

Zanzibar’s Stone Town is like a good blend of spices.  Its narrow twisting streets have been influenced by Indians, Arabs and of course mainland Africa but the result is something different to all these cultures.  Black Africans have become Muslim and blended with Indian influence, notably the food, to give the place a unique feel.  It is not a multicultural paradise.  The Arabs were long involved in the slave trade, including illegally once it was outlawed, and continued to pay black workers a pittance until a revolt against the Sultanate in 1964.

The best way to get to Zanzibar is on the Australian-made fast ferry from Dar es Salaam which takes under two hours.  The water is a startling blue colour as you slip past small islands with glistening white beaches and bandas with woven palm leaf roofs.  As you reach Zanzibar the water takes on an unnatural turquoise hue in the shallows.  It’s a stunning location.

In Zanzibar Town the old town is called Stone Town.  Despite the name it is not made from blocks of stone stacked on top of each other like a Byzantine ruin, they simply used a lot of coral and limestone in their buildings.

The small area of Stone Town is contained within the larger Zanzibar Town.  Although there are plenty of tourists, it is full of local life with old men drinking coffee on old stone benches, cats wandering by, worshippers at mosques, women in burkas, local markets and kids chanting their timestables in school – all of which is made much more atmospheric by the narrow lanes in which scooters are the only mechanical noise to break the sound of footsteps.  It’s a great place for wandering aimlessly.  Even when you get hopelessly lost the old town is bordered on all sides by major roads and the sea, so in this small area it’s impossible to be lost for long.

We were in town to see the Sauti za Busara festival (which means sound or voices of wisdom).  It is a festival of African music focussed on Swahili culture.  It is held every year in the old fort in the evening of four days and is a lovely place to catch the evening sea breezes while listening to some drumming – well, quite a lot of drumming actually.  It will come as no surprise to learn that the drum is central to African music.  They came in all shapes and sizes and were slapped and bashed with abandon.  This got on my nerves a little bit on the Friday night when there was a good three hours in a row of drumming and dancing.  I reached my drumming threshold and was in dire need of any other form of musical sound to break it up.  In general the acts were really good with a lot of traditional Tanzanian performances and some excellent acts from other countries including Nneka from Nigeria and Tumi and the Volume from South Africa, both of which are well worth looking up if you haven’t come across them before.  Also good was Bi Kudude, still rockin’ it Zanzibar style in her 90s.

Other entertainment at the festival included two accidental fires.  One night as we strolled out of the fort to get some dinner we heard an explosion come from the harbour.  One of the ships anchored there had exploded for reasons unknown and was now burning in the distance as the crowd on the shore cheered.  We found out later that people had been on the boat but managed to jump to safety.   No-one seemed to know the cause.  It made a nice backdrop as we sucked down a fresh cane juice.  The other fire happened early one afternoon inside the fort.  The first I noticed of it was a bunch of people rushing towards one of the stalls selling ethically-made trinkets.  It was unusual to see people rushing towards this stall.  It was only then that I saw a merry fire blazing away which people were busily pouring water onto and covering with dampened slabs of cardboard.  I’m not sure the band on stage appreciated it.  The small crowd at the start of the day was apathetic enough in the afternoon heat without being given another distraction.

The night before the festival we went to a free sideshow being held in a small madrassa school.  We met with the other attendees outside the old fort and milled around until a young lady took charge of the group and led us on a night time excursion through the streets of Stone Town and across the boundary of Creek Road into Zanzibar town proper, which in this case was just as maze-like but featured ugly modern one storey constructions.  The performance was incredible.  The audience sat on straw mats on the floor of a small classroom while on the other side an Islamic group sang with accompanying beautiful movements in a hypnotic rhythm.  It was an enchanting experience which I’m sure had religious meaning but I prefer to take the beauty of humankind as the lesson.

We also went on a free tour associated with the festival which focussed mainly on the doors of Stone Town.  This is not as absurd as it sounds.  Zanzibar is famous for its ornately carved wooden doors which reveal a lot about the culture.  By examining the doors you can see Hindi influence or Arab designs that make up the cultural mix of the place.  Some doors have rounded metal spikes on them which apparently prevent elephants from knocking them down.  The tour guide was a local historian with a regular TV and radio slot about Zanzibar.  He didn’t have great English and talked too fast when over-excited, which was often.  It was a strange tour, 70% of which went right over my head, anywhere it seems but into my ears and via that conduit into my brain where it could be converted to comprehensible thoughts.  It was also too hot to think straight.  Given a chance to be anywhere in the world in February to escape the worst time of year in Sydney, we managed to end up in a place which is hotter.

No matter.  We sheltered from the fierce midday heat in coffee houses imbued with incense and ate delicious somasas and the best passionfruit juice ever.  Almost everywhere sold amazing passionfruit juice, fresh and sweet with a sour tang.  The food in general was fantastic, especially after the culinary desert we experienced in most of Africa.  Coconut curries, fresh tuna burgers, carrot and bean salads and beautiful fresh seafood.  We had two especially memorable dinners.  The first was at a place called Two Tables.  We got lost trying to find the place and had to be led by a kind gentlemen to the door, which was lucky because we never would have found it ourselves.  We clambered through a construction site to the door of a two-storey family home.  An old man opened the door and asked us to wait downstairs for a moment as he was expecting another guest and wanted to wait for them.  The high-ceilinged reception was filled with a jumble of objects you normally associate with a shed: piles of tools and nails, bits of old clocks scattered around, dress-up jewellery and photos.  We were joined by the owner’s young grandchildren, two girls who were fascinated by Sarah’s freckles and the bandage on her elbow which was covering the wound received from falling over while jogging through the millet field in Mikumi.  The older girl settled down with a pen and paper to practice writing the English alphabet with Sarah’s guidance. The younger granddaughter was a wild child.  She picked up a screwdriver and experimented with what happened when she poked it hard into her forearm.  When Sarah exclaimed the granddaughter showed Sarah the pointy end of the screwdriver, and by show I mean thrust it vigorously towards Sarah’s eyeball.  Sarah chuckled nervously and suggested the little girl find something less malicious to pass her time with.  Over to the table she went and rummaged around, eventually coming back with a mean-looking pair of pliers.  Later on she found a pin and was busy assessing what it felt like to poke this into her own skin in between leaping from chair to chair and dancing.  We were eventually rescued by the grandfather and led upstairs, through the living room and onto the enclosed verandah where it turned out we were the only patrons.

Cuba had trained us well for the experience of eating at a home restaurant but luckily the food here far surpassed the standard of Cuban food.  Mainly Indian in flavour, we had several small courses, vegetable soup with freshly made flat bread, daal soup with a slightly sweet bread accompaniment, kingfish croquettes with coconut relish, and for the main course a mound of rice and fresh tuna coconut curry with lime juice and chilli.  It was all very tasty and we wandered home well satisfied but lost again.  We got so lost that we had to circle back around to the starting point by which time our restaurant hosts were on their way to the hospital to donate some food and jauntily mocked our walking speed.

The other memorable meal was at Emerson Spice, possibly the fanciest restaurant in town and I think the only time we’ve eaten in the top-rated restaurant on Trip Advisor, but at only US$25 per head for a five course degustation it seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up.  After some early confusion over the fact that they thought we had booked a table for two adults and two children, and overlooking the worst fresh passionfruit juice in Zanzibar, the rest of the meal was amazing.  The restaurant is located on the roof of a tall Stone Town building with seating for about twenty people.  You climb up four flights of wooden stairs around an inner courtyard, overhanging with plants, from which you can hear a faint trinkling of water as it falls into the small pool below.  Emerging on the roof you are greeted with a graceful breeze and a fantastic view of the harbour and other rooftops of the city.  The food was fantastic, each dish using local fresh ingredients in clever ways.  It could not be faulted.  We even got an impromptu drag queen show from a couple of the guests which would have gone down a treat at the Sydney Mardi Gras: some Edith Piaf style songs and a quick strip tease which the local staff seemed to enjoy, although it’s hard to tell whether they knew it was a guy stripping to his lacy underwear.

One of the highlights of Zanzibar for me was the spice tour.  The plants are not native but were imported from India or Indonesia.  They thrive here to the point that cloves have long been Zanzibar’s biggest export.  For the tour they take you to a special tourist plantation where they grow all the varieties together.  Much as we have become removed from meat production and the butchering process, it is easy to view spices as a product in little glass bottles in a supermarket rack without understanding where the spice comes from or what the plants look like.  We were given a sample ‘container’ made of palm leaves which was quickly filled up by a lad cutting and digging spices from the jungle as a guide explained everything on our thirty minute walk.

We nibbled on fresh pepper which grows as a vine on other plants.  Different colour peppercorns all come from the same plant but are harvested at different times.  Vanilla is also a vine.  We saw the green vanilla stems which would be harvested in a month and then dried.  Nutmeg, as the name implies, is a nut growing on a tree.  The kernel is nutmeg but around the outside you get mace.  Fresh nutmeg when sliced reveals a cross-section of white flesh streaked with light brown.  Turmeric and ginger were dug out of the ground and sliced open for us.  The bark of the cinnamon tree was peeled off and smells fantastic, much more lightly perfumed when fresh but somehow all the more delicious for it.  You can imagine fresh cinnamon bark infused with cream tasting amazing.  Despite not being clove season we were shown the clove tree and an over-ripe clove seed which when dried becomes the black stud we’re familiar with.  There was the plant that is used to give the bright red Hindi tilaka mark on the forehead.  A small fruit with soft spiky red spines contains seeds which, when crushed, instantly create a fantastically red pigment which can be smeared at will.

Fresh jackfruit was sliced up for us.  It looks a little like durian but tastes like a combination of banana and pineapple.  It has a dry flesh to it.  We also tasted the leaf of the quinine plant which has a strong bitterness that you could overlook if overcome with malarial fever.  Nothing a bit of gin can’t solve.

One of Sarah’s favourite parts of Zanzibar were the beaches.  They are truly spectacular and coming from an Aussie that is saying something.  The beach at Matemwe has incredibly fine sand and I speak from wedding cake making experience when I say that a footprint left in the sand at this startlingly white beach leaves a texture identical to running a finger through a block of marzipan.  At the end of the day brushing your feet is like running flour through a sifter.

Unfortunately for Matemwe we were there when the tide was at its lowest, behind the reef, which just left a shallow pool filled with seaweed being harvested by local women.  It was deep enough to lie in, but only just.  Poor us, we had to content ourselves with swimming at beaches on other days that burst from brochures of tropical paradise straight into our reality.  After the spice tour we were taken to Mangapwani, which is described as “small and unremarkable” by the guide.  Perhaps this is so when compared to the other beaches but I’ll take crystal clear turquoise waters with matching white sands any day of the week.

Sarah also took a trip up to Kendwa beach in the north which left too early in the morning for my festival-ravaged sleeping pattern, so she enjoyed that tropical paradise on her own.

The good effects of the beach were somewhat undone by the transport options.  Taxis were too expensive so going to Matemwe we crammed in with the locals in a dalla dalla, the Tanzanian equivalent of tro-tros and bush taxis.  The Zanzibar version of this is a formerly open-roof light truck which has had a metal frame and canvass roof bolted on as well as wooden benches running down each side, made especially short to fit a seated person inside.  Our dalla dalla could comfortably hold six people down each side and one sitting with their back to the cabin, so of course a lot more than this were crammed in.  There were nine people on my side and seven on Sarah’s side with an additional three with their backs to the cabin.  It was literally impossible to move.  I had to keep jiggling my feet to stop them going to sleep.  Even when someone jumped off there was always another person waiting at the side of the road to jump on.  At two hours each way we were not exactly refreshed by the experience.

As you walk along the streets of Stone Town people greet you in pidgin Swahili with “Jambo”.  You then reply “Jambo” if you’re a honky to show that you don’t know any Swahili so any future conversation should be conducted in English.  Walking back from the festival one night after midnight we went past the shop where they sell watching football.  They have about five TVs tuned to different games and a games console setup to play virtual football as well.  This was shut for the night but people were gathered around a TV out on the street watching a current affairs program.  We said “Jambo” in passing and got the reply “Jambo, do you want to book a tour for tomorrow?”  They’re keen, I’ll give them that.

As if that wasn’t enough action for one week we also went on a tour to Prison Island.  The island is like the Port Arthur of Zanzibar, where slaves who refused to work were sent.  Once on the island they were generally tortured to death and thrown into the ocean.  The slave trade was controlled by the Arabs who ran it for four hundred years, even trading in secret once the practice had been banned. Like Port Arthur, Prison Island is a beautiful spot with crystal blue waters behind the former slave prison which has now been turned into a restaurant.  The main attraction of Prison Island today are the Giant Tortoises, a gift from the Seychelles government.  We arrived just after feeding time so they were in a slow-motion feeding frenzy, plodding over to the piles of cabbage and steadily chomping it down.  There was not much chewing, just a slow and steady chomp and swallow.  Everything a Giant Tortoise does is slow and steady.  To be fair they are weighed down by a massive shell.  Sadly there is a sign up warning people that it is not allowed to ride on their backs which is one experience I was really looking forward to.  Instead Sarah got in the enclosure, which no-one has a problem with, and after navigating through the giant piles of poo gave one tortoise a neck massage as shown by our guide.  Sarah obviously has a knack for rubbing leathery skin (it really does feel like an old leather sofa) because the 102-year old tortoise that she was showing some attention to then went over to a female for some slow-motion jiggy-jiggy.

It sounded like a huge effort and I guess it was for an animal passed the century mark.  It was kind of inspirational.  We then went over to the baby pen where they keep the young animals to stop them getting accidentally crushed by amorous adults.  The three-year old was hefty already.

We went snorkelling afterwards in choppy water just off the island and saw a few fish but mainly just got a bit seasick.  Our transport was a dhow-like boat with a canvas roof rather than a sail.  It rocked and rolled on the way back through the currents.  Waves going faster than the boat passed underneath  us,and I think it’s this motion that really did us in.  We just kept looking at the horizon and hanging on until we reached the shore.  We virtually kissed the sand, landlubbers that we are, then sat at a beachside cafe until the rocking wore off.

Zanzibar was brilliant.  With the great food, music, beaches and ocean we could have spent a lot longer here.  The island is very relaxed as has such an interesting culture that just wandering around is an interesting experience.

Full set of Zanzibar photos here

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>