Everything’s Better In Zanzibar

Zanzibar 03 – 07/06/2012

The Arab spring was bubbling and the architecture industry was tumbling into a new ice age. Meanwhile, 20 nautical miles offshore mainland Tanzania, in a tiny gulf in the Zanzibar archipelago, 36 years old Fatuma had woken up before 5 a.m. to work on her seaweed plantation. She had until noon to take advantage of the low tide, but she was in no rush.

We had arrived 2 days ago on her beautiful, but touristy home-island. Until the 1964 Revolution, Zanzibar was ruled by a sultan, overthrown in favor of an experimental union with the (then) republic of Tanganika. That abruptly ended the Omani influence and the archipelago’s heyday. Zanzibar had long been the centre of East Africa’s slave, ivory and spice trade, enjoyed economic prosperity and became the birthplace of swahili culture, a unique blend of African and Arab heritage. The largely conservative Muslim society is proudly distinctive from the rest of Tanzania, and Pemba island still dominates the world’s clove trade.

This is a  foodie paradise. For our first night out, Neyfuu took us to Forodhani (Jamituri) Gardens, for zanzibari pizza (a chapati stuffed with minced meat) and mishkaki (kebabs)

Many tourists mingled abut in skimpy clothing; it was the largest concentration of whites we had seen since leaving SA

For breakfast, Neyfuu and cooked Omani bread (resembles a French crepe) with clove honey from Pemba and ginger tea…

Everything tastes better in Zanzibar. We did don’t sample what proper restaurants – you the kind of places your order tilapia and they bring you embellishments of fruit and flower – have to offer. This is all street-side food. Locals start their day with a dose of carbs: usually Zanzibari bread (bolo), Pemba bread (like a double toasted bolo), maandazi (you may see it spelled andazi, and is a small doughnut which in Zanzibar is perfumed with whole cardamom), chapati or another variety (and there are dozens). Bread goes with spiced masala or ginger tea (chai rangi – simple, or chai maziwa – with milk). Sure, if you need to move some tons of charcoal and sugarcane with your bare hands, you might go for a hardier breakfast, like soup.

Top shelf: bolo. This is a typical village breakfast stall, unmarked, camouflaged behind a curtain. Hungry? See a curtain? Pull it, and there’s your food, man.

We’ve got one word for you: Darajani. This is the central market in Stone Town, where all vendors, flavors and temptations collide. We walked through, taking bits of everything. As usual in African rural communities or muslim countries, hospitality is key. Vendors were happy to refill our tea cup over capacity and street-side mamas frying fish to see us returning for seconds. Something caught my eye with this one mama. ‘It’s tuna’, she said. ‘Do you eat this?’

We did. Tuna is arguably an unsustainable fish, but it’s so good, raw or grilled, but fried? The perfectly crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside chunk of tuna swung a magic broom in our gustative memory, clearing an instant space, where sushi used to be.

Octopus soup

Beef liver in mango sweet and sour marinade

Oversized boflo

But there’s more: skewered scallop, squid, mussels; beef soup; potato dumplings… Even chinese noodles rolled by the chinese, drying on outdoor platforms.

To refreshen the palate between bites, there is a mind boggling variety of juices: sugar cane, passion fruit & avocado, tamarind

We pondered the time and effort needed to produce a 200 Tsh (10 Euro cents) glass of perfectly chilled sugarcane juice: the cane needs farming, harvesting and transporting to the juice stall; where a man would work for hours to clean it and cut it, then when the thirsty crowds gather, he will roll the cane through manually operated machine to squeeze the sweet liquid, which is mixed with crushed ice, and we haven’t even started about where does that come from. Now, we are not Gargantua and Pantagruel. To make space for more of the good stuff, we took a walk around Stone Town, the pulsating heart of the island.

Narrow alleys, double storied houses with diminutive spice & handcraft shops @ ground level and veiled women reminded us of the Moroccan medinas. Ana was toting the empty eco package from some fruit she had bough a few hours ago in a village, which kept instigating touts to ask if we were from the ‘spice tour’. It turned out that on these ‘spice tours’ tourists receive the most ridiculous woven hats that resembled Ana’s basket.

Zanzibar has around one million of predominantly Muslim inhabitants. Mosques, madrases and caravanserais blend harmoniously with churches and hindu temples into the townscape, with their simple white facades decorated with suras from the Quran and pavilions so typical of early Arab architecture. Since 2000, the capital of the small archipelago has been a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After looking like a miniature Djema El Fna last night, now Forodhani was quiet and sunny

In the heart of Forodhani lies the jewel of the late Sultan Bargash, the ‘Harun ar-Rashid’ of the Busaidi family. The monumental building with elements of Victorian and Indian colonial architecture was dubbed the ‘House of Wonders’, because at the time it was the only house on Zanzibar that had electricity and even an elevator.

Imposing gates, portals and shutters are a characteristic of the old quarter of Stone Town. Decorated with symbols of status and prosperity (lotus, water lilly, the sun), wood inlays and calligraphy (Quran verses), they are indicative of the diverse of Arab, Indian and Swahili heritage, providing information about the owner of the building, his origin and even his trade.

Even the newer doors bear an important significance, and make mandatory wedding gifts for newlyweds

Gujarati style doors at the main entrance of the Ismaili jamatkhana (mosque)

‘I’m ready’ I said, after a while, ‘let’s hit the fruit stalls’. Everything seamed to be miraculously in season: passion fruit, star fruit, banana, daf (young coconut), embe (mango), parachici (avocado), pawpaw (papaya), durian, bread fruit and anything you could possibly desire. But we knew what we were looking for, something we have seen before in Asia but had yet to try. The oversized testicle of the fruit world. ‘Nataka fenesi’, we asked left and right, and soon enough we had found our dealer. He quietly cracked it open. “Check this out,” he almost whispered. Inside, pearly yellow clusters of perfectly ripe jackfruit.

Isn’t it awesome to feel like a kid again, and eat something that tastes like banana custard with your hands? Sure, there will be some of that sticky stuff oozing from the center all over yourself, but dang, baby. Jackfruits, they is fine.

Now, it was time to see some island. One option was the inexpensive dalla-dallas, but I had to have an engine between my legs. Nassur called a chap who would give us a Honda for 2/3 of our daily budget. ‘Local price’, he said. After a moment of self doubt, we shrugged and said: hey, its’ okay. We could indulge in great food for under 3 euros for both per day and we would sleep al-fresco anyway. And this bike was light enough for Ana to also have a go. First, we headed to the northernmost point of the island, Nungwi.
Free feet, at last. We kicked off our suffocating shoes, peeled off our stinky riding socks and let a bazzilion molecules of mother earth massage and tickle our soul and our soles.

From Nungwi we rode south along the east coast to Matemwe, where direct weekly flights between Italy and Zanzibar had resulted in a eclectic scene: fishermen greeted us with a ‘ciao, come stai?’, Italian-speaking Maasai tribesmen (or people wearing a costume, who knows) stand guard by resort entrances, while local men and veiled women mended their nets. Some kids wanted to skanderbeg.

The more south we went, the more touristy it became. As a longtime cyclist quoted in his excellent blog, ‘there are certain places, surrounded by a halo of romance, to which the inevitable disillusionment which you must experience on seeing them gives a singular spice’(Somerset Maugham). Hectares of trees had been long wiped out, there is little, if any, wildlife left in the now ‘privately owned’ Joziani forest and there is a hectic display of real-estate bubble waiting to pop. Unfortunately many contend to enjoy their white beaches and turquoise sea, while whole communities are being disenfranchised and dispersed to make place for more and more buildings. (A note to fellow Romanians: we recently learnt that Vama Veche beaches have became so trendy that some streches have now names!). In Jambiani, we couldn’t enjoy our passion fruit snack, without constantly being offered ‘cheap’ accommodation, collectables and henna tattoos. Riding through coral stone settlements we found peace again.

We had spotted an empty compound where we could camp, but then we found an empty resort near Uroa, where they would allow us to pitch the tent and indulge in decent wifi.

We slept well, the roar of the waves splattering the reef carried ashore by the south east monsoon wind. In the morning, the dhows floated enigmatic on the rising tide.

Halfway between the southern and northern tip of Uguja island, the surf retreats every six hours many kilometers away. Great for beach riding.

At low tide, the wet mass of sand stretches naked. Small pools of water were busy with sea urchins and starfish.

This guy had a psychedelic glow

It is the ideal environment for aquaculture of red algae (Euchema spinosum and E. cottoni), used in the food & cosmetic industry. Seaweed farming is exceptional, because it is an environmentally responsible trade and because women famers can earn up to three times than what men earn in commercial fishing. In the village of Pongwe, a handful of locals had come out to work. Fatuma was among them, and soon enough she invited Ana to give a hand.

For a while, Ana fantasized about staying in this corner of paradise and work on the plantations for a few months.

Once harvested, the seaweed is sundried. The government has provided women with access to coastal waters, ownership of seaweed plots and negotiated on behalf of farmers a fairer harvest price with export-import companies.

An interesting fact is that algae could be an environmentally friendly source of bio-fuel, one that, unlike alternatives, does not compete for arable land. But transition to a bio-fuel revolution could be far from happening, because of the recent emergence of women as primary bread-winners in the conservative Zanzibari society. And maybe it would be better to stay this way, because venturing into the global market always has its negative perks. Anyway, after spending a few days in Zanzibar, it was time to go. Say good bye to the surreal seaweed fields and the romantic dhows.

Tenga, a woven fishing basket

We left Zanzibar with mixed feelings. We guess it could still be viewed as a relatively unspoiled paradise, but the tourism industry is striving to change that. Ordinary people born on Zanzibar or Pemba hardly reap any benefits and remain largely uneducated and poor, and younger generation is favoring a return to autonomy of the archipelago. But the culture, landscape, food and especially people of Zanzibar made us fall in love with this place, dreaming to ever return, and maybe stay.


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