'The island... is safe: too far from the mainland for Africans to reach in their unstable boats carved from tree trunks, yet close enough for the (Arabs and) Europeans to establish and maintain contact...'

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Zanzibar. Just the name conjures up exotic images of Arabic influenced Swahili culture, the spice trade from centuries ago, elegant dhows arriving on the trade winds from up the African coast and across the Indian Ocean, and white sand beaches. I had left the bike in the YWCA guarded carpark in the centre of Dar es Salaam, walked the ten minutes down to the ferry and four hours and 35 kms later we were docking at Stone Town, the main settlement on this legendary spice island known by ancient Arab traders as the Bahr-el -Zanj, the Sea of the Zanj.

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Stone Town
Stone Town, a World Heritage Site and “probably the most fascinating and atmospheric African city south of the Sahara” (Rough Guide) was mainly developed in 19th century when Zanzibar was the most important commercial centre in the western Indian Ocean. Based here, the Sultan of Oman grew very wealthy controlling East Africa’s slave trade and through the boom in the clove trade - the island had the largest clove production in the world - building opulent palaces and mansions.

Wandering through these narrow winding alleys, the word that kept coming up for me was ‘exotic’. These mansions and houses are built so close to each other to provide shade and coolness in the hot tropical sun. As there weren’t forests nearby, the only timber available was mangrove poles which meant the rooms are narrow, giving a certain character to the style.

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Men gathered in small groups chatting, some traditionally dressed in long jellabas and skull caps, leaning against tiny shop counters, others sitting on steps; women covered in black, only their downcast eyes visible shining through the ‘chador’, hurried past, (how can an exposed ankle be so alluring!); bicycles weaved their way through the busy alleys bells tinkling. The faces betrayed the island’s mixed heritage of African, Arab and Indian.

A glance into a tailors shop, the size of a cupboard, brought back a scene from childhood, watching my mother at work making dresses. Surrounded by plastic bags stuffed with brightly coloured off-cuts, two men hunched over their old buzzing Singer sewing machines pushing through lengths of material - the evocative
chaka, chaka, chaka sound speeding up and receding as they pedalled - maybe hemming curtains.

Emerson and Green
Rounding a corner, an impressively restored mansion before me stopped me in my tracks (below), a modest wooden sign ‘Emerson and Green’ over the door, and I stepped through the high timber ceilinged entrance. The guide book describes it as ...’one of Africa’s most magical hotels: a wonderful blend of classic Swahili style and romantic modern imagination...” and I was curious. The following passage gives an idea of the place...

‘Emerson’, an American, apparently only known by the single name,’had studied the local building methods, and from there had improvised boldly. The resulting hybrid of style was not only Indian, Arab and African, but Emersonian... There were deep shady divans and alcoves; carved wooden bridges trimmed with bouganvillia; sunken baths poised over perfect vistas of the town.
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One room - The Ballroom, as it was called - stretched the entire length of a building, with a grand marquee of a bed at one end and a tiled octagonal bath at another. The distance from bed to bath was so impressive, one might have asked room service for a bicycle.

Each room had a colour scheme: peacock blue; Maharajah pink; emerald. And the tones were picked up in the floors, tiles and trimmings. Each room housed an antique four- or two- poster Zanzibari bed, trimmed with grand, satin- edged mosquito nets. Then a writing desk, a plantation chair perhaps, or some elaborate Venetian chandelier left over from the days of the sultanate.’
- Adam Levin. ‘The Wonder Safaris’.

Up balustraded timber stairs I climbed the four stories to the top of the building - the second highest in Stone Town - to the hotel’s showpiece, the tiny restaurant. Open on four sides, gathered veils in place of walls, the evening view across the town to the dhows and ships moored in the bay was beautiful. Shoes are taken off and the diners sit on cushions at low tables. I didn’t eat - a feeling of regret there wasn’t ‘someone special’ with me to share the experience, it was that kind of place.

Though a bit on the ‘camp’ side of exotic, I found myself grinning at the indulgence of the decor and design of the hotel. When I was grown up and had money, this is where I would visit! For the present - accommodation was at a bit of a premium it being high season - I was happy to find a cheap room ($8) at the Pearl Guesthouse near the market. On the top floor of an old (unrenovated!) townhouse, the room was basic, had a fan, and was (fairly) clean.

I wandered down to Forodhani Gardens, an open park area at the seafront. Evening crowds were strolling and socialising, children dashing around. Dozens of stalls were set up each illuminated by yellow lantern light, the smoke from fires rising into the air. Kebabs of fresh seafood were being cooked to order over charcoal grills - crayfish, barracuda, snapper and many other names I didn’t recognise. A meaty tuna kebab, wrapped in pita bread which had been toasted briefly on the grill - with a splash of chili sauce - was damn tasty. Another favourite was the ‘Zanzibar pizza’, an elastic golfball of dough stretched out and patted between the hands until flat, a mix of mutton, onions, chili and an egg mixed in, then griddled on a hot plate. With a garnish of tamarind sauce. I ended up returning for one a few times over the days. And we’re talking a couple of dollars for a feed!

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The quest for spices had fueled European sea voyages of discovery, as the Arabs had the monopoly of the Western end of the Silk Route across northern Asia. The Portuguese discoverer Vasco da Gama in rounding the Cape of Good Hope in the late 15th century, opened the sea route to India. But long before that Zanzibar had traded spices with Arabia, India and China - Omanis had recognised the hot and humid climate of Zanzibar suited the cultivation of spices.

Signing up with Mr Mitu’s Spice Tour, I joined eight other tourists in a minivan for a tour of a large spice growing area an hour from Stone Town. Zanzibar grows ninety per cent of the world’s production of cloves - the sun dried flower buds from clove trees. There was a huge variety of other spices - cardamon; cinnamon bark and leaves; ginger root (a native of SE Asia); cumin; colourful nutmeg with its outer shell of mace (together with cloves, native to Indonesia); lemongrass, and its steam distilled oil, citronella; peppercorns, which are the tiny berries from climbing vines and originally from India’s coast of Malabar; and the very valuable vanilla, a tropical climbing orchid from South America. A simple lunch of scented rice, fish stew and vegetables included many of the spices we’d seen and was so aromatic and tasty - offering us a chance to identify the various flavours, some very subtle.

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Life’s a Beach

I hopped on a shuttle for the hour’s drive across the island to Jambiani, a quiet fishing settlement on the east coast of Zanzibar, and found a room on a terrace looking out on the exposed Indian Ocean. With very little in the way of distraction, I settled very quickly into the lifestyle of not doing much. While catching up on website updates (I had to justify this time not traveling, passed on an idyllic beach) a number of times every day I would find myself being drawn irresistibly out to just gaze, through the few coconut palms at the beach’s edge and past the white sand, at the unbelievable milky turquoise colour of the sea. The figures of local women, stooped over harvesting seaweed, were dotted around the shallows at low tide.

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My day was spent going for a long stroll down the endless beach. Or swimming - twice a day when the tide allowed. Or deciding what to eat (huge grilled prawns, fresh fish). Or chatting to the odd tourist. Johan (not his real name) was a Dane and owned a holiday house on the beach. A retired teacher in his fifties, he spent five weeks at a time here - his wife this time still in Denmark. He would spend the day, from when he awoke until he went to bed, stoned. (“I can get it here now, but at first I would bring the smoke with me. And because they have sniffer dogs in Copenhagen airport, I would wrap it up and put it at the bottom of a jar of coffee!”)

One vivid memory I have is of the full moon rising, directly east from the edge of the ocean, casting its sheen on the sea, and the ghostly white line of the breakers on the reef a kilometre out. One day, after a mistake I lost a days work on the laptop, which was so disheartening, it was time to leave. Otherwise I don't know how long I would have stayed!

Stone Town’s Distractions
Back in Stone Town, I checked back into the Pearl, $6 this time. I caught three Taarab musicians in a restaurant playing their very Arabic influenced music on an instrument that appeared a cross between a zither and a harp, an oud - precursor to the guitar - and hand drums. Time was also spent in the ‘Gallery’, the best bookshop I’d come across in Africa (by a slight margin over ‘A Novel Idea’ in Dar es Salaam), leaving with Philip Marsden’s ‘Chains of Heaven’, ‘Masai Dreaming’ by Justin Cartwright (my new favourite author), and ‘The Wonder Safaris’ by Adam Levin - managing to offload a Mozambique travel book, and ‘Zanzibar’, a novel by Giles Foden, which despite not featuring much of the island, was enjoyable and I thought well written. The last thing I needed was extra books to add to my luggage, but these did seem really necessary...

In certain coastal resorts in Zanzibar I had heard, where Europeans fly in for a sun holiday with little interest in an authentic local experience, the effects of mass tourism were glaringly apparent. Money indiscriminately thrown around had a predictable effect on inhabitants exposed to the chance of a quick and easy buck. White person = tourist = naive = money. In Stone Town there were indications of this catering for the mass market. At the southern end of town near a few large hotels, every second shop sold souvenirs, postcards and curios. Walking through this part of town meant having to ignore the constant attentions of touts and salesmen. I did though enjoy a huge range of restaurants to choose from, most very affordable with imaginative seafood based ‘Swahili cuisine’ - using some of the local spices.

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And the tourist money draws Tanzanians over from the mainland. Chatting with one shopkeeper as I waited for my photos to be backed up onto cd, he became agitated on the subject, complaining about the increase in “thievery”. “It is not safe anymore to leave your bicycle, just there,” he pointed outside his door to the alley. “If it is not locked it will be gone before you go out!” He regretted his parents’ generation voting in 1964 to join with Tanganyika to become Tanzania. (There is still some degree of autonomy. Passengers leaving Dar es Salaam are searched by customs before boarding the ferry, and my passport was stamped on arrival in Zanzibar.) “They made a mistake. We need to become independent again. And restrict movement onto the island.”

Dollar a dog biscuit.
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My breakfast was taken in a small cafe near the guesthouse - two samosas and a cup of spiced ginger tea for 50c (ginger tea alone at a tourist restaurant was a dollar). BBC World was being broadcast from a television set on the wall, and as in eateries around the world the passing trade payed various states of attention. Pavarotti had died, and a tribute was being shown with cameos from his career, including a brief shot of Bono (short hair, cloth cap and stubble chic) sharing the stage with him, looking suitably deferential and awkward in the presence of the great man. Directly after that, a magazine item detailed a patisserie for dogs in Paris! Glancing around me at the market traders and labourers grabbing a spot of breakfast, (Muslims, and most I imagine - from the regular (from 5am) and pervasive wailing/ calling to prayer throughout the town - probably devout), I wondered just what the Third World must make of Europe when they see a Parisian lady, toy poodle tucked under her arm at the counter display, paying a dollar a dog biscuit. Satellite television is what is changing the world.

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The Slave Trade
Underlying the whole experience on Zanzibar is the uncomfortable history of the island. Although the sordid story of slavery is well known, reading the following passage by Ryszard Kapuscinski, a renowned Polish reporter (recently deceased), brought home to me a bit more the reality of the trade...

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The slave trade... occupies a central position in African history. Millions (the estimates differ - fifteen to thirty million people) were captured and shippped under horrendous conditions across the Atlantic... The slave traders (mainly the Portuguese, the Dutch, English, French, Americans, Arabs and their African partners) depopulated the continent and condemned it to a vegetative apathy: up to the present day, large stretches remain desolate, transformed into desert. To this day Africa has not recovered from this misfortune, from this nightmare.

The slave trade also had disastrous psychological consequences. It poisoned interpersonal relations among African inhabitants, propogated hatred, inflamed wars. The strong would try to overpower the weak and sell them into the marketplace, kings traded their subjects, conquerors their prisoners, courts of law those they had condemned.

On the psyche of the African this trade left the deepest and most painfully permanent scar: the inferiority complex. I, a black man or woman: i.e. the one whom the white merchant, occupier, torturer, can abduct from house or field, put in irons, herd aboard ship, sell, then drive with a whip to ghastly toil...

In this trade ... Zanzibar is a sad, dark star, a grim address, a cursed isle. Towards it, for years - no, centuries - drew caravans of slaves freshly seized in the interior of the continent, in Congo and Malawi, in Zambia, Uganda, and the Sudan...

Dar es Salaam
Back in Dar es Salaam (though hardly the ‘Haven of Peace’ it may once have been, certainly the dismissal of it by one writer as “the worst hole in Africa” I thought unfair), it was good to see my bike again. This was the longest we had been apart!
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The Al-Urubi, where I had stayed on first arriving in Dar and with which I was very pleased, was full and I managed to get a room at the YWCA for $6, as far I was concerned the best deal in town - clean (crisp cotton!) sheets, my own room, and breakfast. The ladies Bernadita and Acquamarina (much sweeter than the severe presences they liked to portray!) even let me off most of the price of parking the bike over the ten days, which meant the askari got a decent tip.

Loaded and geared up, it was on the road again north. Pulled up at a busy intersection on my way out of Dar es Salaam, anticipating a green light I moved into the turn lane prematurely. Looking over his shoulder and seeing this, a traffic cop in his white uniform with clipped moustache left his position directing the traffic and strolled over. “What is your hurry?" He demanded, adding, "This is Africa time,” sternly admonishing me. I contritely apologised. “You're not in Europe now,” he muttered walking away.

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