During January and February, given our northern longitude we are fearfully starved for sunlight and warmth. So each year I (Brent) plan a trip to the sun as somewhat of a surprise destination. Ruth is generally the travel planner for the family so this is my chance to treat her by doing the bulk of the work. And since my idea of vacation is to lay on perfect white, soft-sand beach hearing nothing but crashing turquoise waves-it's a treat for me too. But this year it was time to go a bit off the beaten path, with Zanzibar being the choice.
For all who suffer from a compulsion to travel, there is a thrill from a name that seems as far-fetched and faraway as Zanzibar. Known as the Spice Islands, it gained this name during the rule of the Sultan of Oman in the 1700's when traders would come for gold, silk, spices, and slaves. The Swahili people of Zanzibar have been ruled through the years by Greeks, Arabs, Persians, Portuguese, Indians, and Chinese; American and British ships have anchored offshore in the centuries since. It still has the remnants of an old slave market and underground chambers in which slaves were kept and forced to crouch on stone shelves less than two feet high. Zanzibar has this mix of African-Indian-Muslim influence that seems uniquely diverse. Nowhere is this diversity more evident than the food where traditional Indian dishes are served with a side of African red beans, with fresh-caught fish as only a tropical island can deliver.
Stone Town is the main hub of Zanzibar and we spent some time wandering it aimlessly. It’s beautiful in its decay; picturesque ruins now crumbling and winding alleys- similar to what I imagine Venice to be like. Lots of arched windows with shutters to capture the breeze. Stone Town is a famous for their old wooden doors which are often older than the building around it. Many of them date back to the 17th Century.
So far they seem to have been able to maintain the country’s natural beauty and their local culture. We didn’t see any women without headscarves anywhere on the island. It’s 98% Muslim, but we dressed modestly while in town and didn’t have any problems.
There is absolutely no rhyme or reason to how the city is laid out so you get lost almost immediately. I think that’s part of the charm though. It was incredibly hot while we were there, so we took refuge in a hotel with a fabulous outdoor patio on the third story to just sit at sunset and watch the world go by below. I felt like the character of a Graham Green novel.
One of our favorite activities was taking tour of a private spice plantation. It was a great way for us to see the countryside and rural communities. Our guide took us to a plantation where he would pick bunches of leaves, fruit and twigs from bushes then invite us to smell or taste them to guess what they are. Cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, garlic, chilies, black pepper, nutmeg, mase and vanilla: the list goes on and on. I was fascinated to learn how they harvest all of them. I guess I should have known this, but I had no idea that nutmeg was the dried pit of a fruit –similar to a plum. I always thought that is was just a nut! A local teenager seemed to be one of the “caretakers” for the farm and he followed us around, making us hats and a purse for me out of palm leaves. His friend then shimmed up a 7 story coconut tree with only a rope tied around this feet and brought us fresh coconut to drink. The watery coconut milk is very sweet and they call it Zanzibar-cola. We purchased some spices from them and one I'm curious to try is a mixture of coffee & cinnamon, sounds great!
Our next favorite memory was hiring some locals to take us out in a traditional Arab dhow –it’s a type of sail boat that traditionally is made without nails. With a sail in the shape of a crescent moon they are very picturesque and ingeniously crafted. We went out a sunset and it was incredible peaceful - except for the end when 8 foot swells battered us as we tried to get out of the boat at high tide...definitely a comical sight!
Despite its beauty, Zanzibar is still off the beaten track, I think in part because it is really remote. No matter where you come from, it’s not easy to get there. We flew from Amsterdam to London to Addis Ababa to Dar el Salem to Zanzibar. Phew! On the way back I think we realized our limit of how far are we are willing to go to feel the sun. In times like that I'm tempted to agree with the saying "Travel is a form of punishment".
Our hotel was fantastic, but as they say, this is Africa. The power was out in Zanzibar from early December until March 9 while the islands’ undersea power cable connecting to the Tanzanian mainland was repaired. Residents were without electricity and running water for more than 90 days. Even though most hotels had generators, the impact to the local economy and residential life was severe and may not be completely known for some time. Despite the smell of diesel throughout our time in Stone Town and a few other minor things, it was the African adventure we knew it would be. Almost nothing can dampen the beautiful sun and immaculate beaches. Residents here were among the friendliest and most welcoming we've ever met. There is a reason that the Swahili say "Hakuna Matata", 'No Worries'...they mean it. After returning home to Amsterdam from a holiday in the sun, our memories were singing the same refrain.