Zanzibar: Spice Isle Rhapsody

Monday, June 19, 2006 | Zanzibar, Tanzania (map)

After a morning of fishing, the crew of a traditional local dhow ferries passengers along the north Zanzibar beaches in afternoon.
On Friday, June 9, after the calm early morning ferry ride to Zanzibar, we dropped our bags at our hotel, located in the center of the labyrinthine Stone Town, the island's modest "capital" and a tiny city, easily crossed by foot in its entirety within an hour. Weaving through the narrow alleyways, which reminded me quite a bit of the streets of old Damascus, we arrived at a small restaurant beside the sea called Mercury's.

Inside, once I had seen the shrine which the owners had created in one corner of the cafe, the origin of the restaurant's name was clear: it was named after Freddie Mercury, the Zanzibar-born lead singer of the band Queen. Who knew? Several decades ago, for a brief time the island's separatist movement leaders apparently even adopted as their motto the line "Bismillah, will you let him go?" from Queen's hit "Bohemian Rhapsody."

That afternoon we drove north to a farm near the island's western coast to get a local "spice tour." True to its historical reputation, Zanzibar is still a significant spice producer. On the guided walk through the forest, we saw and tasted ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, bananas, jackfruit, leche fruit, dorian fruit, breadfruit, cloves, vanilla, lemongrass, pepper, nutmeg and many others of which I had never even heard. Our visit ended with a local boy shimmying up a 50-foot coconut palm, a small machete between his teeth, and hacking off a few fresh coconuts for us to first dodge and then eat.

Dinner that night was a local treat—fresh seafood, bought at a lively strip of smoking grills parked along the ocean side in Forodhani Gardens, in the heart of Stone Town. A few of us spent the rest of the evening enjoying the World Cup at a small outdoor bar, drinking Kilimanjaros, Castles, Safaris, Tuskers and other East African beers and enjoying the highly entertaining British football commentators. That night one of them treated us with the hilarious line "Cote d'Ivoire has been written off more times than the Mexican national debt, but they're really holding strong in this match!"

The next day we drove (see video)to a beachside hotel on the island's northern tip, rightly famous for its picturesque coast. That day, we were drenched off and on by torrential rains, and under such cloudy skies the visibility for snorkeling wasn't superb. More than anything else, we encountered lots and lots of jellyfish, which sent us scurrying back to shore. Before more World Cup, we ended the day watching the last dhows (the local triangular-sailed catamarans used for fishing along the East African coast for centuries) come in for the night.

After heading back to Stone Town the next day, we visited Beit al-Ajaib, or the House of Wonders, an early colonial mansion built overlooking the sea in Stone Town. The house is now a museum filled with artifacts from all over the island—ivory-handled daggers, antique compasses, and many great specimens of the intricately carved doors for which Stone Town is most famous. Between more sporadic monsoon-like rains, that day's tour then took us through the tumult of the local fish market and produce markets, and we finished off our stay with more seafood and soccer.

The next morning's ride back to the mainland, made mid-rainstorm and in choppy seas, was as expected. If the boat's rocking wasn't enough to make them sick, many passengers succumbed to "sympathy sickness" once the smell and constant sounds of retching all around became too much to handle. I almost made it...

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