Pining for Zanzibar

I began composing this post over a month ago, just after Faith and I had returned from our Easter holiday in Zanzibar and just before the craziness of the last month intervened.

Although Zanzibar seems very distant now, it’s nice to reminisce, and indeed pine for that tropical paradise.

In case you’re not already aware, Zanzibar is the “zan” in Tan-zan-ia, and is an island in the Indian Ocean, not too far from the African mainland. I”ve already talked about the adventure of getting there, but once you’re there it is an absolute delight. For me, Zanzibar has three elements that I prize in a holiday, but very rarely find in one place:

Yeah, it’s kinda like that

1. History

2. Natural beauty and wildilfe

3. Delicious and interesting food

Let me recount the wonders in that order:

First of all, Zanzibar has an intriguing and dark past (perhaps redundant?). It is the  birthplace of Swahili (a melange of local languages, Arabic and Portuguese), which is a reflection of its variegated and multi-cultural history. Nearly every sea-faring people of the 11th-19th century had some sort of presence there.

In a walk along the waterfront, one can see the Beit Al-Ajaab (House of Wonders) which is the former palace of the Omani sultans (Zanzibar was their capital), guarded by Portuguese cannons that were captured by the Persians. Walking further up, one might see the Old Dispensary, which was commissioned by an Ismaili businessman in 1878 and constructed by Indian craftsmen.

The diverse cast of competing characters in the history of Zanzibar lend it its intrigue. The dark bit comes from Zanzibar’s central role in the East African slave trade. There are reminders of this dark past scattered around the island, like a cave by the sea where slaves were hidden after the British abolished the slave trade; or underground chambers where slaves were kept in cramped, squalid conditions before being brought to market.

On to happier things…

Streets of Stone Town

Traditional sail boat that took us snorkeling

By the beach on Chumbe Island

Chatting with the locals in Jozani Forest

The seafaring fare at Forodhani Gardens

It goes without saying that Zanzibar has rather stunning maritime scenery: the water is alluringly turquoise, the tidal pools created during low tide contain all sorts of interesting creatures, and the coral reefs further offshore are otherworldly. We were lucky enough to book a day on Chumbe Island, a protected conservation area containing probably the most spectacular coral reef in the Indian Ocean. The island only allows 14 visitors per day, and with good reason: not only is the nearby reef massively important for biodiversity, but the island itself is a geological wonder, composed as it is, of fossilised coral. Most of the island is covered in what is called a “coral rag” forest. Because there is no fresh groundwater, the trees have adapted to absorb humidity from the air. Thus, all their roots are above ground, creating a twisted and tangled forest-scape .

Unfortunately, we didn’t have an underwater camera while snorkelling at Chumbe, but even if we did, you might not believe that the pictures were real. The various coral formations looked like abstract representations of textures and shapes that might be found on land, and different fish were glowing colours that I didn’t believe existed in nature.

But underwater beauty isn’t the only natural sort in Zanzibar. We also stopped by Jozani Forest Reserve. You might be thinking to yourselves, “Why waste time in a forest when you’re on a tropical island?” Simlpetons! In this case, it would be foolish not to.

You see, Zanzibar is home to the Kirk’s Red Colobus, an endemic species that can only be found in Zanzibar. These wild-haired monkeys were almost hunted to extinction by a team of Brits in the 19th century, but are remarkably comfortable with humans nowadays. Fortunately, when we were there, it seemed to be their lunch break. Shortly after our arrival, we saw several colobi (?) swinging and sliding down trees. Dozens more joined them over the course of a few minutes, as they all foraged around the ground for acceptable leaves on which to munch. These cheeky fellows weren’t bothered by us in the least, and some of the more voracious among them didn’t even seem to notice us, even though we were only a few feet away.

This brings me to Zanzibar’s most excellent and unique cuisine. We not only swam among the fishes, but devoured many of them as well. At various hotels and street vendors we enjoyed lobster, crab, octopus, calimari, cigale, shark, and prawns. All of the seafood was cooked to perfection with the aromatic spices of the legendary Spice Islands. We took a spice tour, seeing firsthand how vanilla, cloves, cinnamon trees, turmeric root, annato, lemongrass, mace, and nutmeg grow. David was beside himself with glee in purchasing spices which have since been incorporated into lovely masala pancakes and vanilla tea, reminding us of our exotic Zanzaibari days.


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