Zanzibar

September 2011

Zanzibar, Spice Island! It sounded so far away and so mysterious. All I knew of it was that it is in the Indian Ocean and that tour operators often suggest it for some R&R after safaris.
Well, after going I can tell you that it is indeed far away for a North American but is a lot closer and more popular with Europeans. It is actually an archipelago off the coast of Tanzania. It is west of the Seychelles (another dream destination) and north west of Mauritius and the island of Reunion.
The two main islands that make up Zanzibar are Unguja and Pemba. There is also a smaller one called Mafia. We only visited the first one, where both the capital Zanzibar city and Stone Town a World Heritage Site are located.
I read up on the history of Zanzibar but it is too complicated to summarize in a few words. Let’s just say that it was first used as a trading post by the Arabs and Portuguese, was later controlled by the Omanis before passing to the hands of the British and finally became a republic in 1964. Ivory, gold and spices as well as slaves were sold and transported through there. All this explains the composition of the population: mostly Africans of Bantu origins and Muslims some of them of Asian origins. When you drive through the island what is striking is the number of people riding bicycles, sometimes on the same one! The other painfully obvious reality is the poverty of the people, yet the women wear very colorful, and to me, joyous clothing: mostly long robes and hijab. Only a few wear the niqab. I did not take photos of any of them, as I would have felt intrusive doing so.
Having said all this the main attraction of Zanzibar for tourists is the beach! It is gorgeous: white powdery sand beaches washed by turquoise and very warm water.

Lots of things here remind me of Lamu where we stayed last year including the dhows, sailing along the coast. Although they are not the sole mode of transportation in Zanzibar as they were over there.

The other striking similarity between Lamu and Zanzibar, which are both world site heritage, is the abundance of old wood doors specifically in Stone Town. This name comes from the buildings that were made of coral rag and lime mortar. We took a guided tour and walked by several gorgeous ones. These doors tell a lot about the owners. We were told that the blue ones were painted that color to indicate that a sailor lived there.

The square ones are of Indian origin while the rounded ones are referred to as Arab doors. Some are adorned with verses of the coran and flower or fruit motifs, others have chains. These was said to protect the entrance from evil spirits.

The custom of putting brass knobs on the shutters comes from India, where the knobs were said to prevent elephants from crushing the doors. Since there have been no violent elephants in Zanzibar the brass knobs were simply but there as a decoration and to show the wealth of its owner.

We visited the market where fruits, vegetables and spices rival with fish and poultry.

The other attractions included Dr Livingston’s house, where he allegedly lived before commencing on his last journey to the mainland interior. Also an Anglican cathedral built on the site of the former slave market. A troubling memorial to the slaves trade stands next to it.

Our final stop was the House of Wonders that now houses the National Museum. It was built in 1883 as a ceremonial palace for Sultan Barghash and was the first in Zanzibar to have electric light and an electric lift. Not surprisingly, the local people called it Beit el Ajaib, meaning the House of Wonders.

The other visit of the day was to a spice farm. We were shown how several of the spices cultivated here are grown and processed before reaching out tables and pantries. I was fascinated. Our guide was charming, allowing us to touch, smell and taste everything. His helper was a young boy always ready to climb up a tree to get us a fresh sample.

We were shown how cinnamon is harvested as strips of bark from a tree. It curls up and darkens as it dries. But even fresh it already has the unmistakable smell of cinnamon

 

Next our guide made a citronella bundle

 

The following stop was at the foot of the passion fruit tree. It is interesting to see what a pretty looking fruit it is when fresh while what we get here is always so ugly looking, but thankfully still nice tasting.

The following plant had unusual fuzzy looking fruits. When squished, the seeds produce a bright red color used in cosmetics.

We next saw some pineapples at different stages of development. They are harvested once a year. Who knew they could be so cute?

And bananas called elephant bananas because of their size

And papayas

We of course got to drink fresh coconut water, picked for us by our young climber

Next was the chocolate tree or cocoa plant, which looks nothing like the chocolate we end up with… The pod is harvested, then the seeds or beans need to be first fermented, then dried in the sun before they are roasted and finally ground into usable cacao nibs. These are in turn ground into chocolate liquor out of which cacao butter can be removed to obtain cacao powder.

We then pulled some ginger and curcuma, which is a bright orange color, from the ground as they are both roots.

We were next shown the shell of a fruit I had only seen once in a store here. It is called the Durian fruit and has a very strong smell but is prized by a lot of communities. The odd thing about it is that it grows inside a very hard and prickly shell that could certainly rip your head open if it fell on it…

In the chapter of unusual fruit, should also appear the Jackfruit that has a bumpy rough skin and an almost football shape and size. The juicy pulp around the seeds have a taste similar to pineapple, but milder, it also makes nice sweet chips.

We then came to more familiar territory with the pepper tree. Yes pepper grows in a tree! We were told that green, black, grey, white and pink pepper all comes from the same plant. The difference between them is the way they are processed.

From pepper we moved to vanilla. The flower was in bloom and ready to be pollinated so no vanilla beans to look at yet. We will need to come back in a few months.

In the nice smelling variety we were also shown the ylang ylang flower used in so many perfumes. The flower is very modest for something so fragrant….

The next stop was my favorite! Nutmeg! (And mace). Nutmeg is the actual seed of the tree, roughly egg-shaped dried, while mace is the dried "lacy" reddish covering or aril of the seed. This is the only tropical fruit that is the source of two different spices. I never knew they came from the same place!! Did you?

We finished with the star of the island, what Zanzibar is most famous for: cloves!

We were sent home with banana leaf baskets to hold all our samples… just like Halloween

The rest of our stay was spent enjoying the beach…. and what a beach it is! Miles of powdery white sand, warm water…Happiness to me!

The hotel guards are made to wear a massai costume, totally silly and anachronistic but it makes for nice photos….