Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Zanzibar: Wanderings, History, Spices

We arrived in Zanzibar after a week of various (mis)adventures, and we were ready to enjoy the little island paradise. Limited on the amount of time we could spend (we had two nights), we never had a chance to make it to any of the more remote beach resorts or dive locations. Instead, we were thrilled to spend our days wandering around the narrow alleys of Stone Town, also known as Zanzibar Town.

Our last morning in Cape Town, we had breakfast with a New York Times' photographer for West Africa. Upon hearing about our stay in Zanzibar, he commented slowly and mysteriously, "Zanzibar (deep breath). I would have to spend weeks there. (long pause, then spoken slowly like a kung fu master from a bad movie) So much light and shadow." While we instantly realized why he makes his living taking photographs and we do not, he has a great point. Stone Town is full of interesting architectural details and fascinating spaces. The influence of the Arab Sultans that ruled Zanzibar appears throughout the city, reminding Megan of the Moorish architecture in Granada, Spain.

Zanzibar also continues the fine culture of hilarious-looking beauty salon signs. In a previous post, I mentioned the G. Unit Hair Salons in Tanzania. Camera ready, we managed to document some similar establishments on Zanzibar. It was all Megan could do to resist a makeover, East Africa-style.

We also spent plenty of time on beachfront restaurants and bars with our eyes to the sea. From the boat below, bidding us "Jambo," to the sunsets at the Sunset Bar at the Africa House Hotel, we always associated the sea with relaxation. Quick note: in the second photo, I am not dying from a long-term struggle with some serious ailment, I'm just sweaty . . . . really sweaty . . . Zanzibar during the summer rainy season is humid and hot . . . really hot.

Our final favorite part of Zanzibar was the nightly fish market along the sea. Vendors would wander in with the day's catch and craft delicious skewers of spicy seafood. Others would provide dessert by frying up chocolate-banana crepes or fresh lemonade made with pure sugar cane. Our favorite fisherman, also Zanzibar's most devoted 50 Cent fan, Captain Salem, is featured in the photo below boasting about his product with kabobs of barracuda in one hand and a $4 lobster in the other. As Captain Salem would say: "Delicious is here!"

David Livingstone Returns

The modern tourist inevitably makes it to the above location: the birthplace of the lead singer of Queen, Freddie Mercury. That was exciting. But, given my particular obsessions, we were more excited when David Livingstone entered the scene again.

Leading up to Livingstone's arrival sometime near 1870, Zanzibar was ruled by Arab sultans who lived in utter luxury. The above photo features the ruins of a palace kept for the Sultan's 99 women. After maintaining a steady diet of ginger (Zanzibar's chief aphrodisiac), the sultan would request three different women a day to come over to his palace to satisfy his various pleasures. If a woman became pregnant, she was driven to the market, released, and another woman was selected to fill her place.

The sultans funded this lifestyle through the sale of spices and slaves. In fact, Zanzibar sat as a center of the slave trade throughout the region, a brutal trade remembered in this monument.

A staunch opponent to slavery, David Livingstone arrived in Zanzibar to try to single-handedly persuade the sultan to discontinue the slave trade. He moved into the house below and began his work. By the way, since our driver decided Livingstone's house was not worth slowing down for, I ended up a bit crooked in snapping this shot: the structure of the house is just fine.

Livingstone began his work upon arrival, and, after three years of heavy lobbying, he succeeded. After his success, Livingstone returned to Zambia where he died. His heart was buried under a tree in Zambia, and his body was returned to Westminster Abbey.

Thanks to Livingstone, the old slave market was demolished. In its place, an Anglican Church was built and stands today as a monument to the end of that particular oppression. In the corner of the church sits a small cross carved from the wood from the Zambian tree under which Livingstone's heart was buried: the plaque commemorates Livingstone's contribution to the freedom of slaves in Zanzibar. In the first photo, Megan peeks her head around the door of the church. In the second, the Anglican Church stands in the foreground with a minaret from a mosque in the background. In Zanzibar, Christians and Muslims have coexisted peacefully for centuries.

Initially, I had pictured Livingstone entering Africa with pith helmet and machete: the conqueror from Britain, ready to introduce the world to the glory of Empire. And, for all I know, Livingstone may have left for Africa with such intentions . . . but he certainly did not finish his time that way. Livingstone fell in love with the continent and spent his life working for the benefit of the people he admired. While we lost Livingstone's trail at the church, we hope to pick it up again in future journeys.


From the moment we knew we would be visiting Zanzibar, Megan became excited about the prospect of a spice tour. On the tour, we wandered through a government spice farm smelling leaves and roots and bark to guess what spice had been handed our way. Above, Megan enjoys the potent aroma of the bark from a cinnamon plant.

While we were satisfied with the idea of simply wandering around smelling leaves and licking roots, the tour just got better and better. A young man who worked on the spice farm would disappear from time to time and return with crafts he had made out of leaves. Below, Megan models a necklace, a small, green frog crafted from a leaf. Then you'll find me wearing an ever-so-stylish "King of the Spice Farm" hat.

Thus attired (okay, so the hat got itchy . . . ), we headed to a clearing for lemongrass tea made from lemongrass grown on the farm. The hot tea, made tastier with a drop of local vanilla extract, was accompanied by fruit. And not just any fruit but really, really delicious fruit. The fruit below is called jeck fruit, and while it looks like the flayed carcass of a sea urchin, the fruit tastes like some brilliant mating between a pineapple and a banana. And we liked it . . . a lot.

The trip was a feast for our senses and a feast in its own right. We had filled our noses with a wide array of spices before diving into the fruit. The concluding touch was a taste of rice palau, a rice dish cooked with many of the Zanzibar spices. So, we savored the dish while trying to sort between flavors of cardamom, cinnamon, clove, black pepper, green pepper, red pepper, and the Sultan's ginger. Then Megan visited the spice market for some goodies, and we were off for our last evening in Zanzibar.

Farewell to Zanzibar

Our last night in Zanzibar was bittersweet. We had barely tasted the island (rephrase, we had tasted plenty but barely seen). We found scuba and snorkel maps noting shipwrecks and large reefs, but we never got the chance to explore these treasures. We had wandered through the alley markets and still only seen a fraction of the small shops with the fascinating crafts and occasional prize antique. We had dined on seafood but hardly begun to make our way through the broad list of creatures enjoyed by the locals.

At the same time, Zanzibar kept us in mosquito netting and on malaria medication. Likewise, we had to continue applying the sweet honeymoon perfume: that magical combination of 100% DEET, sunscreen and sweat.

We spent our last evening at the Sunset Bar at the Africa House before wandering down to the fish market where Captain Salem stood, more subdued this night in a solid-black New York Yankees cap. Reluctantly, we strolled back up to the Zanzibar Hotel to rest up before two days of travel toward Cape Town. We wrapped the bed in mosquito netting for the last time and slept beautifully.

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