I didn’t quite know what to expect upon landing on Zanzibar Island, even though I had read its entries in our Lonely Planet guide. I had long dreamed of visiting this romantic-sounding place with its exotic name. And Stone Town, the historic part of the island, sounded appealing, too. I was to learn that that name was not historic at all, having been suggested by the World Bank in 2006 to appeal to tourists.
These days Stone Town is nearly all about tourism. The small shops that line its narrow streets sell similar varieties of shirts, handicrafts, fridge magnets, etc.
While walking those streets and along the esplanade that fronts the sea, we were constantly approached by peddlers of sun glasses and t-shirts, and by licensed guides looking for customers or by young men wanting to take us by boat to Prison Island, which we could see a mile or two off-shore. Because of the off-season timing of our visit, there were fewer tourists to sell to and we got more than our share of attention. Lest I give a wrong impression, I can say that those locals who approached us were friendly to a man and accepted our refusals graciously.
Our introduction to Stone Town was the Zanzibar Palace Hotel, a short walk inland from the broad esplanade and nearby ferry and small container port. Kay had found the Zanzibar Palace on the internet and chosen it based on positive customer comments. What it lacked in comfort and amenities, it made up for in excellent service and historic atmosphere. It was far from a modern hotel, occupying a four-story wooden building at least 130 years old that had been abandoned and neglected for years and then restored by an owner with antiquarian tastes.
Our room on the top floor was large and well furnished with a four-poster bed whose high surface was at least a meter from the floor. A wonderful feature were two large and comfortable easy chairs that allowed us to read during the hours when daylight filled the room from large, lattice-covered windows. Arched doorways lead to a washroom area, containing an open shower, a bath tub, and two wash basins. That room had a double cabinet with plenty of room for our clothing. I used a second cabinet in the bed-sitting room to keep my camera equipment at arm’s reach.
The only drawbacks to the room were low water pressure in the shower and the flight of sixty-four wooden stairs that we had to climb to reach it. Kay was thankful for the strong handrails, and commented that she felt as if she were doing a Pilates session as she ascended and descended. Because of the effort it took to climb those steep stairs, I nicknamed them Mount Kilimanjaro. I don’t think the hotel owner Daniela found this amusing.
The small staff that ran the hotel, from the young man who carried our cases up the stairs to the women who served us in the dining room, couldn’t have been friendlier or more helpful. We learned pretty quickly that what was served was, for the most part, not as flavorful and interesting as we would have liked. When Kay and I travel, we often have to make allowances for this, as we are fussy eaters accustomed to tasty cuisine. The fact is that except for a single meal, we had the dining room to ourselves. Other than us, the hotel seemed completely unoccupied.
Our five days on Zanzibar occurred during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which when at home in our secular Turkish neighborhood, we are hardly aware of. On Zanzibar, however, whose population is ninety-five percent Muslim and mostly devout, a more traditional Ramadan obtains. Where nothing was to be eaten, smoked, or drunk between the hours between sunup and sundown, our refuge was our hotel where meals were served and where we could have beer for lunch and gin and tonics at cocktail hour. In Istanbul, the call to prayer is recorded and blasted from loudspeakers, whereas on Zanzibar, it is chanted live by muezzins from the minarets of many mosques. Our hotel was right next to a mosque so we all-to-clearly heard the calls to prayer, in addition to special prayers and sermons related to Ramadan.
Kay and I found navigating Stone Town’s narrow, unmarked streets to be so confusing that we booked a guided walking tour for the morning of March 24th, our wedding anniversary. Even though it was raining at the appointed hour, we started out under hotel umbrellas led by our guide Khamis (who was born on a Thursday, and whose name translates as Thursday), a knowledgeable man of long experience whose well-spoken English made him easy to understand.
Of Zanzibar’s political history it sufficed to know that the islands were settled by the Portuguese who over the centuries grew unpopular and were replaced by the Sultans of Oman. During the colonial period, they governed Zanzibar under the British who gave the island its independence in 1963. What happened next is a little confusing, but after a short independence, Zanzibar united with Tanganyika to form the country of Tanzania.
As we walked along the esplanade by the sea, we learned that the dozens of small boats with strange names I had wondered about are used to take people to offshore islands. Zanzibar is an archipelago with two principal islands and many smaller ones.
When I asked about the many seemingly idle men I had seen lounging on the waterfront, Khamis informed me that some worked as fishermen at night while others worked around the port and in tourism. In short, they were not necessarily as idle as I had thought.
In the Forodhani Gardens that Kay and I had seen on an earlier walk, we looked at the ceremonial arch near the water’s edge that had been built to welcome England’s Princess Margaret on a state visit in 1956.
The Gardens and its surrounding structures were built on landfill. Khamis said that before, the sea water came right up to the palaces along the esplanade.
We went into a street containing shops selling tanzanite, a blue-purple gem stone said to be one of the most expensive on the market. It is scarce and mined only in one small area in Tanzania. Kay wanted to buy a pair of tanzanite ear studs so we stopped at a lovely air-conditioned store so she could give herself an anniversary present. It took her a while to settle and negotiate on a pair to her taste, with smaller stones that she had originally hoped. As I said, tanzanite is an expensive stone. According to what I read online, she got them for a good price. She made a friend of the store’s owner, too, who asked her to return after our walking tour.
Across from the shop is the house where Freddie Mercury, the world-famous lead singer of the rock band Queen, had lived when young.
Khamis was careful to point out some of Zanzibar’s beautifully carved wooden doors. Those that are arched are of Indian design; others have flat tops that Khamis said were Arabic. Both types have conical metal protrusions said to recall a time when sharp spikes were added to doors in India to prevent elephants from breaking them open.
A sad lesson that morning had to do with the prominence of Zanzibar in the slave trade. Thousands of men, women, and children were sold on the very spot where the altar of an Anglican cathedral now stands. They were sold to buyers from the Middle East and as far away as Brazil and the Caribbean islands to toil on sugar plantations. Khamis led me into two low, scarcely lit rooms where once seventy-five slaves at a time, including children, had been imprisoned. The fact was horrifying to contemplate. This slave market – one of the last, until it was closed by the British in 1873 – is infamous for its violence and cruelty. I will never understand how they could have been treated so badly, worse than people treated their animals.
Near the cathedral is a pit ten feet deep in which stand five sculpted figures of rough-hewn rock. Four of them are chained together by the neck. The fifth is also a slave, but is not chained because he represents a boss among the slaves. Trapped in the pit, they are in despair. We were very much moved by this memorial.
Next to the memorial is the East Africa Slave Trade Exhibit, a museum with a number of informative panels about the extent and conditions of slavery during the first half of the 19th century and before. I appreciated reading what time allowed of those panels. The texts were interspersed with photographs. In one, a British sailor is seen cutting off the steel leg iron of a large black man. Another depicts a village of huts freed slaves built for themselves. Slavery was officially prohibited in the 1860s, yet it existed illegally until 1910. The British navy was charged with interdicting slave vessels in the Indian Ocean, and the fights that ensued were dangerous for the seamen. Many were killed in the process. I read that in the half-century after slavery officially ended, the British captured and destroyed one thousand dhows, freeing many slaves in the process.
The problem for freed slaves in Zanzibar was what to do with their freedom. Some continued to work for masters who had not treated them too harshly. There were even some who wished not to be freed.
The last spot on our walking tour was Zanzibar’s main market where in the meat section, men were cutting and hanging meat in conditions that were far from sanitary. What impressed me most were the very large fish, mostly yellow-fin tuna and king fish of a size I had never seen before.
We said goodbye to Khamis during the mid-day call to prayer and made our way back to the tanzanite shop where Kay had some unfinished business. We spoke with the owner who belongs to the fifth generation of an Indian family of jewelers. The occasion for this second visit was for Kay to receive the gift of a ring with a small tanzanite stone that Mr. Ishaq generously bestowed on her to celebrate our wedding anniversary.
On our own, Kay and I, with the help of a local man, had already discovered the Princess Salme Museum whose collection memorializes the daughter of a woman kidnapped by Albanians and ultimately sold to a Sultan of Zanzibar in the early 19th century.
Princess Salme (1844-1924) was that daughter, and she grew up in the Sultan’s court where women were taught to recite the Koran but not much else. Rebelling, she taught herself to write and, at age 22 became pregnant out of wedlock by a German merchant. The resulting scandal caused her to flee to Germany with the merchant who became her husband. Tragically, he died after only three years of marriage, and although Salme tried twice to return to Zanzibar, she was refused. Under her married name of Ruete, she wrote a book entitled Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar.
The Hakuna Matata Spice Farm at Dole is not terribly far from Stone Town, but the drive felt long because of the morning traffic, consisting mostly of commercial vehicles and public busses that all seemed to be crowded. We had booked a tour of the farm through our hotel and discovered that it is only one of several in its forested area.
The guide for our visit, whose name was Shawal, was accompanied by an assistant and a third man studying to become a spice farm guide. We learned about cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon grass, vanilla, pineapple, turmeric, ginger, black pepper, cloves, cardamom, lichee, jackfruit, and starfruit. Shawal’s approach was to first have his assistant crush the leaves of a spice plant and ask us to identify it by the smell. Kay was quite good at this.
Cinnamon comes from the inner bark of a certain tree, and when the bark dries, it shrinks and becomes the cinnamon stick we’re familiar with.
Nutmeg is the hard seed of a spherical fruit growing on a tree. The seed has a pretty red skin that when scraped off and dried becomes the spice we know as mace. Beneath the red skin is the nutmeg seed that we recognize in our spice cabinet. Lichee is the sweet white flesh of a hard reddish-colored fruit.
Another similarly colored fruit is called lipstick because when its seeds are crushed, they yield a red paste that can be applied to the lips, as Shawal’s assistant demonstrated. Vanilla grows on a vine that is symbiotically attached to a tree. The vanilla bean has to be propagated by hand, which is why that spice is more expensive. A fresh pineapple grows from an older plant which has to be replanted to a slightly different location where the soil is more nourishing. Ginger root growing naturally underground is small and strong in flavor compared to what we buy in the market.
In addition to the spice lessons, we watched a young man climb a tall coconut palm like a monkey, showing-off and singing “Hakuna matata” (“No problem” in Swahili) as he did so. Then we were given various decorations fashioned from leaves and flowers, including bracelets, rings, and crowns, along with fresh coconuts so that we could drink their water.
While seated on a bench under a thatched roof, we were provided lunch, consisting of a large bowl that the chef filled with seasoned rice, a pungent sauce, some salad, a green banana, and a piece of chicken. We tasted many of the spices we had just learned about. Kay pronounced this the most flavorful meal she’d had in Zanzibar.
Our visit culminated with the opportunity to buy packets of various spices and flavored teas laid out on a table. We bought several, including hibiscus flower, whole coffee beans, ginger tea, coriander seed, banana tea, lemon grass, and a spice mix called palau masala.
We were tired by the time we returned to the hotel and both took naps and showers before dinner. That evening while we drank our pre-dinner gin and tonics, we spoke with the young man who arranges the nightly mosquito netting around our bed. His name was Mbaye, and he taught us to say “pole, pole cama kobe,” meaning slowly, slowly like a turtle. In fact, he nicknamed Kay, Kobe, because she took the stairs so slowly.
Our comfortable room at the Zanzibar Palace was furnished well enough for me to be able to write my journal notes and for us both to do some reading in the fine easy chairs. It was there that I finished Colm Toíbín’s wonderful The Magician about the life and times of novelist Tomas Mann and his family.
In the late afternoon of our final day on Zanzibar, I went to the waterfront with my long lens and took a few photos. As I stood with my camera on its monopod, a young man approached and wanted to talk. He said he’d been coming there every day for three months to practice his English. He said that he has trouble understanding the speech of some international travelers. Although Swahili is the first language of the people of Zanzibar, most try to speak some English.
Leaving the Zanzibar Palace and the lovely women who served us so well was an emotional moment. Just before 11:30, we followed two young men carrying our cases on foot to the nearby fast-ferry terminal where we boarded a sleek modern seagoing catamaran for the crossing to Dar es Salaam on the mainland. On arrival, we encountered a scrum of porters, taxi drivers, and peddlers vying for our attention and custom. Two grabbed our cases and a third grabbed Kay’s hand as we navigated out of the terminal and crossed the busy road in front of the terminal to the newly-built 5-star Johari Rotana Hotel where we spent our remaining days in Tanzania.
The Johari Rotana’s spacious lobby was extravagantly elegant, full of marble, high ceilings, and large metallic-looking art elements on the walls. Once registered and assigned our room on the 25th floor, a young man in livery named Norbert accompanied us, rolling a cart with our luggage. Our room with white walls and twin beds was comfortable if a bit sterile. However, the bathroom with tub, shower, marble vanity with wash basin, toilet, and bidet was very large. It was such a pleasure to shower there after the poor water pressure at the Zanzibar Palace.
The most extraordinary thing about the room was the view of the natural port below. Around its edges were ship terminals and industrial structures. Various kinds of boats plied its waters. Fascinating! It’s rare to have a hotel room with such a view.
The hotel was nearly our sole attraction in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest and most important city. It was begun by one of Zanzibar’s sultans who chose the spot for a summer palace and gave it the name that means Haven of Peace. We had seen and done so much since our arrival at Nairobi for the safari that we were tired and just needed to relax for a time before heading home. Johari Rotana was just the place to do that. While I sunbathed and swam in the large outdoor pool, I also worked out in one of the loveliest and most well-appointed gyms I’d ever been in. The high-end exercise machines of the brand TechnoGym were beautifully designed and manufactured. On my first visit, I was astonished by the others working out. All were American men, very strong and fit-looking. I learned later that they were there in connection with Vice-President Kamala Harris’ state visit that occurred two days later.
Breakfasts were the highlight of the hotel’s dining offerings. I don’t exaggerate to say that we were floored by the enormous buffets that contained nearly everything we could have wished for and more. The first morning, I began with a plate of fruit and went on to scrambled eggs, baked beans with brown sauce, a pork sausage, sauteed mushrooms, and a cinnamon roll. Back at the table, I added a plate of cheeses with some delicious brie and drank juice and coffee. Kay was pleased to add Chinese pork dumplings to her breakfast mix.
A thing about Johari Rotana was the large number of staff it employed. Every area of the hotel was staffed with helpful men and women who would answer questions and provide service. The trainees, in particular, enthusiastically initiated conversations.
We were less thrilled with the hotel’s evening meals. Ordering a double shot of whisky barely covered the bottom of the glass, and most of the dinner entrees were only so so. (Kay doesn’t fully agree; she ate some delicious fish & chips.) The lesson is not to come to third-world countries in search of haute cuisine.
One morning I went out at 6 o’clock to take a walking tour described in our guidebook. (Kay opted to stay at the hotel.) I left that early to escape the heat that would build up later in the morning. Exiting the hotel’s driveway, I turned left and walked to the roundabout at Askari Centre, a roundabout built around the small monument of a soldier poised to fight. I walked northeast along Samora Avenue to reach the National Museum. My mistake was choosing to wear sandals and not shoes. Along that stretch, there were no sidewalks per se and only beaten earth with many puddles from the previous day’s downpour. I didn’t enter the museum and only took a photo of its entrance. Continuing to walk along the same avenue, I passed the botanical gardens on my left and a large building named Karimjee Hall behind a tall fence on my right. The hall is a former house of parliament where Julius Nyerere was sworn in as Tanzania’s first president. The gardens hadn’t had much love and attention; they were not inviting.
The tour led me past the grounds of something called the State House, forbiddingly guarded by soldiers with guns. The tall surrounding fence had opaque material on its inside to prevent passersby from looking in. At one point I took a photo of the avenue I was walking along. I was summoned by a guard who accused me of photographing the wall. I argued that I was a tourist and only wanted to photograph the roadway. In the end, he let me go on my way.
I was finding the atmosphere of Dar es Salaam quite different from that of Zanzibar. Here was none of the friendliness we had experienced on the island. People didn’t seem as happy and acted more suspicious. Also, I hadn’t heard a single call to prayer; a man I asked about this said those on Zanzibar take their religion more seriously. Dar felt like a big city without much charm. My walk should have led me to a fish market, but somehow I missed a turn and walked too far before realizing my mistake.
A man pointed me back the way I had come and, following my nose, I reached the market very close to a busy local bus terminal.
By that time of the morning workers and students were pouring out of ferry boats and filled the sidewalks so that I had to fight my way against the flow.
The fish market smelled strongly. I was surprised to see so many people eating. In dark crowded enclosures, women were heating things in large pots.
I approached a woman, making chapatis and paid a small amount to have her pose for a photo.
Young men wanted to talk to me, and I used the opportunity to take a photo of a young man holding a fish for the camera.
As for photography, people were not happy with me taking photos without permission, and I paid for the privilege several times. I photographed a ragged man carrying a load of cardboard on his head.
I became confused about how to leave the market area, and I was getting tired and hot after having walked more than two hours. I hopped in a tuk tuk that brought me back to the hotel for 5,000 shillings ($2.13). It felt wonderful to be back inside and off the crowded streets.
We left Dar es Salaam for Istanbul on March 31st, a long travel day. Arriving at the airport at 5 a.m., passport control was quick, and we were able to use the CIP lounge where we had coffee and some poor breakfast offerings. At the gate we didn’t have to wait long to board our Boeing. Flying economy for nearly eight hours was not fun. The guy in front of me leaned his seat far back and we had young children ahead and behind us. Both babies screamed at times, and the one behind kicked the seat without the parents doing much to control him.
At the Istanbul Airport things went smoothly and our trip ended when a taxi deposited us at our front door in the early evening. East Africa’s Swahili Coast had provided some splendid adventures, and it was good to be home.