Zanzibar! The exotic spice capital of East Africa, homeland of Freddie Mercury (I see a little silhouetto of a man, Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?), and tropical paradise is our home for 6 weeks.
Zanzibar is a unique Island – on its own, it was colonized by the Portuguese and British of Europe along with the Omans of the Middle East – sprinkle in some Indians and SE Asians for the spice trade and mainland Africans for the slave trade. Everyone's had their greedy little fingers on this strategic port and everyone’s left their mark.
The architecture is heavily Arab, Indian, and British (based on no facts, just cause I says), and the food, deliciously so, seems to pull roots from India and SE Asia for the curries, Africa for the stews, Portuguese for the golden-fried balls, and the Indian Ocean for the oh so delicious fresh seafood.
The people are 99% Muslim and probably a similar ratio of African decent vs. the Arab, Indian, and European populations. Swahili is the primary tongue – Hakuna Matata anyone?! Yup, “No worries” is real, and everyone says it. Also Rafiki’s “Squash banana, Asante sana” is “Squash banana, thank you very much.” Fortunately for us, most everyone speaks pretty good English here. One Swahili phrase that I've learned "Lala Salama" means goodnight, or literally, peaceful sleep and since I haven't learned "Goodbye," it's how I saw goodbye to everyone. Middle of the day to your waiter? Yup, "Sweet dreams!" I recommend that you part ways with a "Sleep well" every now and then...people will think you're REALLL weird, and it's good for the soul. I love getting their bewildered looks, or whatever the equivalent to "WTF?" is in Swahili. It's my special moment.
There’s only one city on this island – Stone Town, which is right in the center on the Western coast, and the Island spreads out about an hours’ drive North, South, and East from there.
Now, I kind of glazed over it, but given that this is a Muslim society – the women here are covered from head to wrist to ankle. Most leave their faces uncovered, but every now and then you’ll see nothing but a thin streak of exotically styled eye shadow atop of a majestically flowing floor-length dress. It’s mysteriously elegant. In Stone Town, most of the women wear all black with some bedazzles here and there, but in the villages, almost all of the women wear these incredible colorful, printed fabrics from head to toe. Seeing a group of 10 women walking down the road is like eating a 64-box of crayons while riding a My Little Pony over a rainbow to hang out with the Care Bears. Color explosions and I love it. Of course, fitting-in makes quite the wardrobe challenge for Adrienne – as you know, we live out of little backpacks. Yay, shopping!
Stone Town is a winding maze of alleyways no more than 6-7 feet in width, full of walkers, bicyclists, scooters, and tiny cars (one direction at a time) zipping by that you constantly have to dodge for fear of murderation. It really made me feel like Aladdin, hopping through the bazaar running away from the police for an apple…an apple.
One jump ahead of the hoofbeats, One hop ahead of the hump, One trick ahead of disaster, They're quick, but I'm much faster!
Many of the men wear Shalwar Kameez (I bought one, photos coming soon :) ), which is proper Arab attire (primary dress for Afghanistan and Pakistan, but worn throughout the Middle East and North Africa) and the women, as noted, are all covered – save the 2-3 tourists that you’ll bump into. For the first time, we REALLY feel like this ain’t Kansas anymore, and I fit in WAYY too well with my massive, perfect, not weird at all beard.
Stone Town is electric – constantly abuzz with great energy, and everyone’s on their game with something to sell. Supermarkets, department stores, and really stores in general are an obscure concept here. This place is for hangling, this place is for street sales. You buy fresh fruits, next to cigarettes, next to shoes, next to fresh fish, next to cell phones, next to toys, side by side on blankets on the ground or small tables on the side of the street. Ohh the mad, mad, chaos of the market – hundreds of people elbow to eblow, touching skin, wheelin’ and dealin…my personal nightmare. This is nothing like Amazon.com.
We’ve discovered the best soup in the world here – Urojo, or “Zanzibar Mix,” and best juice – Sugarcane Ginger Lime (freshly pressed street-side of course). Urojo ruined my life. It’s like Chinese hot and sour plus Japanese Ramen, plus Brazilian-spiced grilled beef, plus the water left over from a crawfish boil, plus tortilla soup. Tangy, salty, meaty, liquid paradise. It’s the only thing that I couldn’t resist eating crazy fast that it got all up in my beard, and I just didn’t care. Long (beard) hair, don’t care! (Apparently beards have poop in them?)
Once you leave the little city, you get an instant taste of rural Africa. Teeny tiny little villages dot the pseudo-highways where people live off of the land – literally, just what they farm or fish. Most people have no electricity, running water, or for that matter, rooms and doors in their homes. Cinder blocks are the primary building material, coupled with sheets of corrugated steel or thatched palm leaves for roofs. Most of the people here survive off of around $3 per day, and eat the same simple foods for every meal. We’ve seen a lot of city-poverty in our lives and travels, but it was a completely different experience to witness rural poverty. The people seem content with their lives – it’s how they’ve lived forever, and maybe they’ve never even been to the city and they have no idea what else is out there?
White sand beaches run the lengths of most of the coasts here and the handful of resorts that dot the coast are dwarfed in number by the little huts of the local villages. If you want a real beach holiday escape that isn’t gentrified and Disneyfied – you’ve met your match. On Zanzibar, you get raw, real life.
Our hotel sits on a little cliff and our 150-yard walk to the beach cuts directly through one of these villages. Dirt floor homes, no doors, a single well where water is gathered by dangling a bucket down with a rope, and unsupervised infants playing with sharp objects everywhere. There’s almost nothing inside of these little houses, I know for a fact, because there are mostly no doors and I have wandering eyes. Sorry I’m not sorry fo creepin’!
We’ve been fortunate enough to connect with half a dozen of the locals that live in this village – only men, oddly – which may be a cultural thing, but they’ve been wonderfully welcoming to us. We’ve gone sailing on their hand-carved 30 year old wooden boats, watched them making crafts, learned about their families, and even got a sneak peek (from afar) at an awe-inspiring wedding celebration.
We’ve had many an excursion here, from snorkeling to walking on coral reefs, to monkey spotting in the rain forest, to mangrove swap wandering, to Giant Tortoise touching, to perma-culture farm exploration, coral-cave wandering, bat-dodging and textile shopping – Zanzibar is full of stuff to do. Oh yeah, and I can’t forget – eating coconuts every day and drinking exotic fruit juices that only grow here! Coconuts is my JAMMMM.
Zanzibar, you’re a really odd, spicy, mixed up, beautiful, and mysterious place. It’s African, and Muslim, and Western, and Middle Eastern, and Christian, and Indian, and Asian, and English, and Swahili, and Rural, and Urban, and Impoverished, and Paradisey. It’s like someone took the soft serve ice cream of life and rolled it in all the toppings before covering it in maple syrup and taking a bite. Like, you know how sometimes you’re craving chocolaty, so you get cookies n cream ice cream, then add Butterfinger, graham crackers, and chocolate syrup, but sometimes you’re feeling fruity, so you get Cotton Candy ice cream and add gummy bears and Sour Patch Kids? Yeah, Zanzibar is all of the toppings on all of the ice cream. Weird and mismatched, you never know which flavors will come in the next bite, but all together it’s oddly delicious.