I got so used to seeing amazing beasts from the car on safari that I was still looking for cheetahs when we drove from Zanzibar Airport to Stone Town! Alas, no! The traffic jams were no longer a sign of wild animal sightings but the real thing. However, if there is a city vibe that will spark up the senses, it is found in abundance in Stone Town, the old quarter of Zanzibar City. Some places just have it. Kathmandu, Bandaneira, Jodhpur, Cochin, and Mrauk U immediately come to mind.
Welcome to Zanzibar
Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania, a small archipelago in the Indian Ocean. The main island, also known as Zanzibar, is famous for its white sand palm fringed beaches, the atmospheric historic city of Stone Town, and competes for the title of Spice Islands with the Maluku islands of Indonesia. It is a center of Swahili culture, the mingling of Bantu, Arab, Persian, and Indian people on the Indian Ocean trade routes. Sounds like a place we would love!
The taxi dropped us off at the edge of Stone Town and we wound our way through the alleys among the hustle and bustle of a place that may have looked the same a hundred years ago. Elegant women clad in astonishing colors, the smell of the spice markets, piles of yummy tropical fruits, and coffee.
Our hotel, the Zanizbar Coffee House, was one of those heritage hotels that Zanzibar does so well. A restored Swahili house in the heart of Stone Town with creaky wooden charm and a rooftop with a killer view, it would be our home for the next four nights. It’s also the home of Stone Town’s best coffee shop. We threw down our bags and were invited in for a welcome cup of Arusha’s finest dark roast. Bliss, even in a hundred degrees of heat and cloying humidity.
We had a pretty packed schedule to get through. I figured we would probably need a lot of coffee.
Laura’s sister, Kelsey, had stayed in Zanzibar eleven years ago on a study abroad program. She was hoping to meet up with her host family again and say hi. Although she didn’t have an exact memory of where they lived, it didn’t take too long to find them. We were getting lost in the back streets when we turned a corner and Kelsey immediately recognized the ‘papa’ of the house. She must have made quite an impression back then, since he obviously knew straight away who she was. A few hollers up the stairs, and a minute later we were in the lounge of the house surrounded by an excitable group of folks.
Kelsey’s Swahili lessons back in the day paid off since she managed to converse pretty well. We had learned a little Swahili in the months before the trip, so we could chime in with the odd civility here and there. The family had a fruit stand out front, and we were treated to some of the most divine mango I have ever had. I made a mental note of the durian for another day! It was great to have genuine interactions with Zanzibaris outside of the business of travel and transaction.
The Streets of Stone Town
The main joy of Stone Town is simply wandering around the streets and checking out the amazing architecture and rather splendid doors. Once in a while you push one of those doors open to check the local artisans at work, drop into a cafe for thirst quenching juices, or partake of a local snack or two.
Kelsey had waxed lyrical about one of her fave eating houses in town, a humble place called Lukmaan. Back in the day it was a mere hole in the wall and Kelsey typically took a take out. Business must have been good in the intervening years, since Lukmaan was now a thriving two-story cafe. It was a place for spicy curries, tandoori-style bread, and ludicrously tasty smoothies. We tucked into a delicious smorgasbord of fish, cassava, bean and vegetable curries, two types of tandoori bread (the sesame was particularly wonderful), and some of the best smoothies ever (soursop, passionfruit, mango).
The World Cup was in full effect, and like the world over, the streets came to a stand still around small screens with crowds of men howling, cursing, and, occasionally, cheering on one team or another. They obviously gave me goodhearted shit for being an England supporter, but the evident lack of booze made it a less threatening affair than back home!
Whipping the Octopus
The fabulous food continued at breakfast. The breakfast room was at the top of the hotel with wonderful views over the Stone Town roofs. Breakfast included insanely good homemade bread, more fine coffee, and mango & black pepper am. Yes, you read that correctly. Mango and black pepper jam. Incredible stuff. The humble jam transformed. I suppose if you live in a place of abundant and cheap spices, you can experiment all you like with improbable sounding concoctions.
We planned on a fairly mellow day starting with a walk around the Darajani Market, as colorful a market as I ever seen anywhere. You probably want to give the meat section a wide berth if you are a vegetarian. Mind you, meat eaters probably wouldn’t get much joy here either!
The temperature was rising, so we headed down to the harbor for a little sea breeze. There wasn’t too much of that around, but at the fish dock we wandered into one of those chaotic and colorful scenes that aren’t in any guidebook. Men waded shoulder-deep into the ocean, hoisting loads of fish off the waiting boats. Traders were doing a brisk trade on the beach. This is the place to come if you want to see burly men whipping octopus on stone slabs. I am sure they do this with good reason but I like my ocean dwelling eight-legged friends so I vowed never to eat one again.
Dinner at the Emerson On Hurumzi
Swahili chic to the max is the vibe at the Emerson on Hurumzi, a posh boutique hotel where we had reservations for the five-course dinner. This was Mama’s belated Mother’s Day treat and thank-you for the vacation. We peeked in at the unoccupied rooms on the way to the rooftop restaurant. Understated is clearly not the Zanzibari style. Each room was decked out like an Ottoman Sultan’s harem!
We took our seats on cushioned benches on the rooftop and sipped cocktails while we watched dhows sail past the setting sun as the call to prayer rang out. Dinner was a multi-course, elaborate affair with traditional taarab music to occasionally drown out the annoying utterances of fellow tourists. We sat with a couple of nice fellas from Europe. They had made many trips to various parts of Africa and were engaging and charming company.
The food was really fabulous. This being the Spice Islands meant that bland food was very much off the menu. Fish balls with turmeric dip, spice-laden pilaf, beetroot hummus, fish with preserved lime (my fave), pumpkin curry, breadfruit curry, and a pavlova that somehow transcended the tasteless fluff I had had at home. The cocktails made from local gin hit the spot too. It’s making my mouth water thinking of it now.
Tangawizi Spice Farm: Jiggy Jiggy Bunga Bunga
The next day, we jumped into a cab to take us to Tangawizi Spice Farm to learn all there is to know about spices. It’s easy to take spices for granted. They’re colorful, pungent powders in jars to most people. It’s fascinating to see them before they are ground up and chucked into large sacks for market. The farm was set up to extract every dollar it could from tourists. After every explanation, up popped someone with the finished product for sale. However, this never distracted from the experience. In fact, on the contrary, it was quite good fun!
At the end of the tour, all the spices were available for purchase. Some of the bagged spices had amusing descriptions of their medicinal effects. Nutmeg is supposedly the aphrodisiac of choice for women. Ginger is for the lads. I enquired further from the teenage boy running the spice stall.
“So, er, if I give nutmeg to my wife and I eat this ginger, what will happen?”
“Jiggy jiggy, bunga bunga, sir!”
A few hand gestures and mildly obscene hip wiggles from me led to mass hilarity and whoops from the young lad. I grabbed many packets of both and threw them into my basket. The guy could barely stand up he was laughing so much! When I called Laura over, I think he ran off and hid wondering what I would do next!
Aside from that, we learned that turmeric is great for aching joints and guts, fresh peppercorns are hella spicy, henna root is the go to for abortions but you have a 50/50 chance of dying, cloves are anti-bacterial and are put in lotions ‘to make you attractive’, vanilla is labor-intensive and takes two years to get from seed to market (now, you know why it is so expensive), and cardamom grows on creepers on the ground.
We finished the tour with a huge tasty lunch, which was topped off with tropical fruit and durian (at last!). We gathered up our spices, soaps, and various potions that these canny folks had managed to sell to us and headed back into town. For more conspicuous consumption. Helps the local economy, right?
Hanging in Stone Town
The intense heat and humidity of Zanzibar put to bed any ambitions of strenuous excursions that afternoon. Luckily, Stone Town is one of those places that is endlessly interesting. It’s intensely atmospheric and surprisingly low on tourist tat. Every twist and turn down a narrow alley reveals glimpses of local life: kids playing in the doorway of a crumbling Swahili mansion, a vendor selling fried snacks, or a woman feeding a family of cats.
The fabric market and khanga store were big hits for local color. Khangas are a cool tradition of gift-giving in Zanzibar. A khanga is a big piece of fabric with bold prints and Swahili phrases around the edges. Some of them have nice proverbs about love and friendship. Others are not so nice. For example, a woman with nosy neighbors might wear a khanga that says, “Mind your own business.” Or, a wife who’s mad at her husband could buy a khanga with some sharp words and spread it on the bed at night.
Be careful if giving gifts of khangas to local friends. ‘Congratulations on your pregnancy’ might not be great for a six year old. Google Translate helps immensely to avoid this faux pas!
Old Slave Market
One tourist sight was worth mustering the energy to visit: the Old Slave Market museum next to the Anglican cathedral. Many of those once-grand mansions of Stone Town were built on the profits of the slave trade. Zanzibar was a hub of human trafficking between the African interior and the Persian Gulf, and this museum does an admirable job of explaining the history and eventual abolition of the trade.
Everyone knows that the ivory trade decimated Africa’s elephants, but we learned that it was a huge contributing factor for slavery. Ivory traders used slaves to carry tusks to the coast, where they were shipped to Europe and America to make piano keys and billiards. In Zanzibar, slave traders had to pay a tax on slaves who arrived in the port, so they dumped sick slaves who wouldn’t get a good price into the ocean to avoid paying that tax. One account of a former slave was particularly revealing of human nature. When asked what she would do with her earnings, she replied, “Buy a slave.”
The next morning Laura, Kelsey, and I headed off to Chumbe Island, a speck of a coral island west of Stone Town, for a day of snorkeling and eco-tourism. Mama decided she didn’t have the sea legs and went for a tour of some spots outside of Stone Town. Mama made the right choice. The wind kicked up and the voyage was extremely choppy and seasick-worthy.
Chumbe is not easy to visit. They will only confirm day trips if they know that all their chalets will not be full the next day. They limit numbers since the environment is particularly fragile.
The island and its eco-resort really are stunning. We were shown to a chalet that was to be our base for the day. A cute two story bungalow made from local materials. The resort is part of a conservation project to preserve coral reef and rag forest. Kelsey had spent a few weeks on the island counting cockles as part of her study abroad some years back. She was excited to go back and show us around.
The resort kitted us out with wet suits, masks, snorkels, and fins and before long we were back in the ocean. Sadly, the choppy waters hadn’t calmed, so it was a short but beautiful snorkel. There was some fairly decent coral and plenty of fish life. We saw unicorn fish, potato cod, butterfly fish, and batfish. Nothing too out of the ordinary for a healthy reef, but good to see so close to a busy island with a lot of inhabitants.
Back on land, we were treated to a fabulous spicy lunch before a nature walk with an engaging guide. The forest floor was alive with an incredible amount of hermit crabs, the local trees oozed toxic latex, and we even saw a couple of magnificent coconut crabs. Our guide explained the uses of the various plants and insisted that we put the leaves up our noses for the full medicinal effect.
The climb up to the top of the lighthouse is not for the faint-hearted, but the views were absolutely magnificent. By this time, the weather had cleared and we had magnificent views over the island, reef, and Indian Ocean. Trips out to these conservation resorts are never cheap, but if your budget can cover it you are guaranteed a magnificent day and feel good about helping save this small corner of tropical wonders for future generations.
We were dropped off at the edge of Stone Town outside a kid’s school with some colorful murals. We strolled over to take a look. English was taught at the school and they decorated one wall with the A-B-C’s and some appropriate pictures. A is for Apples. B is for Banana. C is for Cock. Not sure how that version would go down in an American school. It amused puerile Buxton though.
Onward on the Indian Ocean
Zanzibar would probably reward a few more days of exploration, but sadly this was the end of our stay here. A few more curries, naans, and smoothies at Lukmaan; a final taste of fabulous durian; lashings of mango and pepper jam; a slug of feisty Arusha coffee; and, we were out of there. One last stop in Tanzania remained. The ridiculously splendid eco-resort of Chole Mjini a short flight away.