A Spicy Island

20 Oct

Zanzibar is an archipelago of tropical beaches and history off the coast of and semi-autonomous from Tanzania. To me, Zanzibar sounded like such a glamorous and mysterious place. To those in the know, Zanzibar is notorious for its spices and historically for its slave trade. To visitors, it is charming but undeveloped, culturally rich but economically poor, moderately posh and clean in resort areas but dingy and unkempt in local neighborhoods.

A street in Stone Town

The main island of Zanzibar (called Unguja but usually referred to as Zanzibar, a much more fun name to say) is accessible by a two-hour ferry ride from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest – and from what I could gather during our short time there, dirtiest and smelliest – cities. We disembarked the ferry in Stone Town, the center of Zanzibar’s government and history, a picturesque and lively town with buildings of cool architecture lining curving cobblestone alleyways.

Getting from the Serengeti in northern Tanzania to the Dar es Salaam ferry dock took two days’ worth of driving and camping, first in the foothills of Kilimanjaro (which we didn’t get to see due to the cloud cover) and then on a beach right outside of Dar es Salaam (which we didn’t get to enjoy because we arrived after dark).

Drinking an overpriced sunset cocktail at The Africa House

Because of the long and tiring journey to Stone Town, we were given our first afternoon on the island off to just hang out doing whatever we wanted. It was pretty exciting to be staying in a hotel with actual walls, a roof, beds, and a bathroom with hot water. After an afternoon of rest, Adam and I met up with our group at The Africa House, a swanky hotel with a balcony bar overlooking the Zanzibar Channel, to drink overpriced drinks and watch the sunset.

Fresh fish for sale at the night market

Dinner was at the neighborhood night market, a huge courtyard area filled with stalls and stalls of fresh seafood and local dishes. We had “Zanzibar Pizza” – basically a fried crepe with a choice of toppings (I picked tomato and cheese), sugar cane juice (freshly squeezed with lime and ginger right in front of us, a very labor-intensive drink for only 500 shillings!), and caught-that-day, fresh and delicious shrimp skewers. Tusker beer (the Bud Light of Kenya) at a bar on the water, then we were ready for sleep – yes, in a REAL bed!

The Anglican cathedral built at the site of the former slave market

The next morning we packed ourselves and all of our stuff into a van for a tour around Stone Town. We first visited  the Anglican cathedral, which was built on the site of an old slave market to celebrate the end of slavery in Zanzibar in 1897. Then we had a quick tour of the bustling local produce, grain, meat, and wares market, a hurried tour because of the unbearable stench of raw meat pervading the entire maze of market stalls.

By this time we were starving, despite the unappetizing raw meat smell that still filled our nostrils. Luckily, it was time for lunch at a local family’s home. We sat in a circle on a mat on the floor and passed around bowls of rice, beef pulao (made with an array of Zanzibar spices), steamed spinach, and bananas and watermelon for dessert.

It was fascinating – and a bit heartbreaking and eye-opening – to see how a local family lived. The kitchen was an empty stone room centered around a fire pit, the laundry room was buckets of water in the hallway, the bathroom was a bug-swarming hole in the ground, floors throughout the shack were cement, and the living room was the furniture-less, mat-covered room where we ate. I felt spoiled and guilty for not appreciating enough the cushy life and home I’ve had.

Spices at the Spice Farm

After I finished about my tenth piece of watermelon, we headed to the Spice Farm, a huge woodsy farm area with tons of different spices growing wildly. We got to smell and even eat a bunch of them – clove, cinnamon, tumaric, cardamon, ginger, cocoa, coffee bean, jasmine, lemongrass.

Our van then dropped us off at Nungwi, a resort-y part of the island. We were super excited to be staying in huts at a “resort” on the beach, but we were quite (okay, incredibly) disappointed with both the room (it was grossly filled with bugs, dirt, and rust) and the beach (it was covered in slimy green seaweed).

Despite our initial disappointment, we had a very fun two days relaxing in Nungwi. We swam in the turquoise water (avoiding the mass of thick seaweed floating near the beach).

The beach is beautiful in Nungwi despite all the seaweed

We explored the “town center” (a huge dirt square with cows and goats milling about, surrounded by a few shops selling a hodgepodge of Western merchandise and local clothes and handicrafts). We ate a fresh seafood dinner on the beach with some locals and watched the neighborhood kids perform an impressive gymastics-type dance routine (man could those kids MOVE!).

Beach volleyball

We played beach volleyball with some locals (who were waaaaay better than us and didn’t appreciate our amateur skills). We drank cheap wine and watery beer as we sunset booze-cruised around the sea.

Today we head back to Stone Town to catch a ferry back to Dar es Salaam, where we will meet back up with our truck and tents and prepare to make the trek to Lake Malawi.


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