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  march 2, 2004 -> Dark and Lovely: Zanzibar

Zanzibar is a beautiful island with an ugly past. Today, it is known as a Spice Island, but it was Slave Island first. For several hundred years it was a sort of reverse Ellis Island: a place where thousands of Africans were brought to have their freedoms snatched away forever. The pitiful souls who had survived the forced march from the interior to the coast were crammed into the holds of Arab slaving dhows and ferried to Zanzibar for processing and eventual sale. The Zanzibari sultans (and Zanzibar) became rich on the customs generated from the slave trade.

The cloves and peppercorns that perfume the air and infuse the food are a substitute crop - planted hastily in the early 19th century by a far-sighted sultan to replace rapidly declining revenues from the slave trade. The British had taken it upon themselves to quash the abominable traffic; they forced the Zanzibari sultans to sign edicts abolishing the trade, and British warships patrolled the island and the mainland coast, seizing Arab slavers and their human cargo.

The history, though dark, is what makes the island special. Zanzibar would be a dream destination for its beaches alone, but it is far more than just beaches. Few islands have a history and culture and rich and significant as Zanzibar. Here is the location of the infamous slave market, quite literally the center of the east African slave market for several centuries. In the House of Wonders - once a Sultan's palace, now the Zanzibar Museum - sits the original register of the guides and porters that accompanied Stanley on his epic journey to find Dr. Livingstone. This is also where Burton and Speke embarked on the their journey to find the source of the Nile.

Swahili culture is unique and alive. The early Swahilis were traders, and their culture and language reflects myriad influences. The language (Kiswahili) - which borrows many Arabic words - is a pleasure to listen to and learn, and Zanzibar is where it is spoken best. The skin color of the children who spill out of the Islamic schools (Zanzibar is 97% Muslim) ranges from black to the lightest brown. Their faces are a beautiful mixture of African, Arab and Indian features. Spend enough time wandering the alleys of Stone Town, and you are sure to see dozens of the wonderfully carved wooden doors. Climb to the second floor terrace of the Africa House hotel to watch the sunset. As if on cue, a large dhow (another Swahili icon) with its triangular sail will undoubtedly sail past - an impossibly romantic silhouette.

Zanzibar is a medium-sized island. At 60 miles long and 20 miles wide, it is no claustrophobic Caribbean speck. Nor is it an unmanageable Big Island of Hawaii. No two places are more than a few hours apart, even if you ride in the slow (but airy and quite fun) public transport, the 'dala-dala.' The heart and soul of Zanzibar is Stone Town, a maze of tightly packed homes and shops that grew up around the harbor.

Stone Town looks old - even its Swahili name means 'Old Town' - but none of its buildings are more than 150 years old. The first British visitors to the island, around 1700, found only crude huts. Stone Town grew with the slave-based economy. Getting lost in its serpentine alleys is easy - maps are useless anyway - and thoroughly entertaining. Around every corner is something new: the sound of Muslims praying, shops selling bright yellow gold, a hurtling scooter to avoid, an amazing fruit and vegetable market, curio shops, kikoy saleswomen. We spent most of an afternoon in a fruitless search for a curio shop we had seen the day before. The next day we were led to it by a friendly shopkeeper, and learned that it had been closed the previous day.

At night, a rather seedy park near the harbor in Stone Town transforms into the lively Forodhani night market. The specialty is seafood: lobster, prawns, tuna, mussels, octopus, sailfish, any many other 'frutti di mare' - grilled to perfection on makeshift braziers, and drizzled with homemade chili sauce. The meal is cheap and delicious, and must be washed down with a refreshing glass of crushed-to-order, iced sugar cane juice. Zanzibar has many great restaurants, but Forodhani has atmosphere: garish lights, the smoke from the braziers, the smell of grilled meat, the shouts of the stall owners. And Forodhani is not just for tourists, locals love it too. They lay out kikoys (brightly patterned multipurpose cotton wraps) and have an evening picnic.

The almost obligatory Spice and Fruit Tour is well worth the US$10 per head. To see peppercorn vines snaking up a palm, or to smell freshly stripped cinnamon bark is to excite a youthful curiosity - when knowing where things came from was still important. Here are a few things we learned on the trip: cloves grow on trees, and are bright orange before they are dried. Vanilla beans grow on a vine. Turmeric is not really a spice at all; it is a purely a colorant. The delicate smell of ylang-ylang comes from an equally delicate white flower, which amorous African women would place on their bed to signal their sexual readiness.

Zanzibaris are almost too laid-back. It is wise to order lunch while you are eating breakfast; two hour waits are very common. Many of the "beach boys" who patrol the shore are perpetually stoned. It is hard to get things done in Zanzibar. No one gets up early, very little work gets done in the mid-day heat, and workers head home well before dark. This explains the hundreds of unfinished bungalows that line the beach. "Construction is going 'pole pole,'" a smiling resort manager explained. Come one o'clock, each coconut palm and mango tree seems to have a few people sleeping under it.

So which is the best part of Zanzibar? Depends on who is asking. Most backpackers head to Nungwi, a small village near the northern tip of the island. As anyone who travels soon learns, the backpacker hostels are always on the best beaches (because they got there first.) Nungwi is no different; the beaches are superb. There are several good restaurants with patios built out over the water - excellent places for sundowners. Just up the beach is Chollo's Bar, which gets my prize for best beach bar in the world (so far). If you want great beaches, and like to meet people, head to Nungwi.

Upmarket, super-luxe hotels (US$500 per person, per night anyone?) are generally located along the middle of the east coast. The facilities are excellent, but the beaches can be disappointing - you may have to walk a long way out to have a swim. Of course, spending the day in the hotel pool isn't bad either, particularly if someone buys all your drinks (thanks Ben and Jolene!) Further down the east coast, Jambiani and Paje offer crowd-free, tranquil beaches, but finding a decent place to eat (besides your hotel dining room) is a bit of a challenge - the distances between hotels and bungalows can be huge.

Scott

 

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