Sugar, Spice and all things Nice

Zanzibar provided a welcome change from the East African interior. Eating fish meant proper fish, not the Nile Perch or Talapia we had been having, which normally sourced in Lake Victoria, had a slightly muddy taste; the breeze was cool, and it was nice to kick off the jeans and boots, and put on the shorts and jandals. Although now known largely for it’s idyllic beaches, Zanzibar had as tumultuous history like much of the Swahili coast. The island was first used as a Persian trading settlement before the arrival of the Portuguese with Vasco de Gama in 1498. Two centuries of being part of the Portuguese establishment ensued, before falling under control of the Sultanate of Oman, who later moved his parliament from Muscat to Stone Town, the historic centre of the island. Trade in ivory, spices and slaves became the bread and butter, until the glorious British colonisation mechanism added it to the list soon after the abolition of the slave trade. In the post WWII period of transition to de-colonialisation, Zanzibar gained independence in 1963. The post independence vacuum led to the bloody Zanzibar revolution, where the African majority led an uprising over the Arabic minority that had gained control. With control of the country brought back into African control, the next year the country was later merged with mainland Tanganyika making Tanzania.

These days, Stone Town provides the cultural heart of the island, with crooked alleyways filled with ornately carved wooden behemoths acting as doors to hotels, souvenir shops, restaurants and houses. The beckon of the vendor with the lure of carved wooden animals, Masai paintings and other local goods is never far away. As the birth place of Freddy Mercury, an enterprising individual has established a spot ready for revellers to have a beach side beer and feed in a bar bearing his moniker and resonating the well-known tunes. Touts line the exit from the ferry terminal, ready to accompany you to your pre-organised accommodation with the hope of being perceived as bringing new business to the place, and with it earning a small commission. The Forodhani gardens on the waterside promonade features an assembly of hot plates, illuminated by gas lanterns, full of todays (or maybe earlier in the weeks) catch, with marlin skewers, fried crab, roasted octopus or other seafood ready to be purchased and washed down with a glass of freshly squeezed sugar cane juice. Sitting on the seawall, the steam of locals ready to sell you spices or other herbs, find you some Konyagi (Tanzanian nondescript fire water) or organise you a shuttle was at times relentless. But at least many of them were ready to sit down, bust out some reggae tunes for us on the phones or laptops, and have a yarn. And we did need a shuttle after all, so in exchange for a bit of Bob Marley, we’ll give you business of three of us to the top of the island tomorrow morning. Cheers.

The island is dotted with white sand beaches, ginormous resorts, secluded honeymoon getaways and simpler beachside villas. Phil and Claire who I had climbed Kili with were already in the north, at Kendwa, one of the more popular beaches, especially with the younger crowd. So off we trotted, and found nice air-conned villas in a simple place, adjacent to one of the bigger places that was the place to be that weekend. The Full Moon was rising, and with it came a Full Moon Party, transcribed pretty much verbatim from Ko Pha Ngan, albeit on a bit smaller scale. Plenty of others were descending on the area that weekend. After heading through some pretty remote parts of East Africa, it was good to get back into the thick of things. First a bit of time in the sun, then lock in a dive for the next day, followed by a beer in the sun with a good book. I have a penchant for work focused literature (which is something I am keen to break) interspersed with the eternally easy-read of Jack Reacher (don’t get me started on the movie…). Generally the only time I find (or make) time to read is when on holiday. It is therefore a bit incongruous to be reading about the plight that the HIV epidemic has been riddling the world with, or about Lassa fever in remote corners of Sierra Leone, whilst sitting on one of the more idyllic beaches around. The diving proved to be decent, but not amazing, probably a result of a steady stream of visitors and the inevitable attrition on the coral that is the backbone of these ecosystems. Kendwa Rocks seemed to be the place to be, bumping in to a few travellers that we had met on the way south, Dale from the night out in Kampala, some Israelis from Lake Bunyonyi, as well as Kai – a fellow Otago grad who I’m sure we were destined to meet, as that eternal friendship predictor of ‘Facebook friends in common’ was 16, well over some arbitrary threshold that makes human interaction likely to occur. On reflection, I’m sure we had run into each other at some charismatic (read dingy) Otago Flat 21st or other haunt. We had also met a couple of English blokes, who although qualified professionals – one was a botanist and source of countless interesting tidbits about the environment around us – had given up on their regular gigs in the UK, to make job of being resort photographers. They were following the tourist trail, with a swag of camera gear ready to provide high class photographic portfolios of new resorts to the owners, for a decent fee and with free accommodation at these 4 or 5 star resorts thrown in. Not a bad way to work. The festivities progressed well into the night with several of the crew having to take breathers due to over exertion on the sandy dancefloor. It was a relief to be able to spend a few days in the same place for once, rather than a relentless routine of get into town – find accommodation – see the sights and book a bus – leave the next morning. But it wasn’t long before our time there running low, with a train to catch, so with one last dip in the Indian Ocean, we were back on the road. Zanzibar was known for its spice produce for centuries, supplying trade routes into Europe, Asia and the subcontinent. Although there still are commercial operations, these days, they are a ‘growing’ source of tourism, ready for harvest. At times very gimmicky, with coconut tree climbing guides and palm woven flax headresses for us all, it was nonetheless fascinating to see where many of the spices we use every day come from. The creeping vines of vanilla pods, the chilli shrubs, the strong taste of cinnamon bark which gives the spice, or the cinnamon tree root which is a traditional version of Vix, the budding bushes bearing cloves, the swathes of lemon grass, the small fruit of the nutmeg tree with the lace like pattern of mace that surround the nutmeg core, the root of the ginger plants, the dark brown sap of Iodine that weep when the stalk is cut, and the changing colours of peppercorns during the 4 different stages of development and harvest. It gave me a deeper recognition for what we chuck in our food everyday, and added to an appreciation for food that is cooked from scratch, rather than prepacked seasoning or canned goods which sadly seem the norm is society today. As a child growing up, I was eternally frustrated that we couldn’t have commercially produced jam, tomato sauce or pre-made meals like everyone else, and never understood why mum insisted on making goods from scratch. But my time travelling (as in the time I have spent travelling, as different from my hobbie of going back in time) has created a longing for the ability to cook authentic foods from scratch. So a stash of spices were bought at the bustling market in preparation for my time in Zambia.  The next morning, we were back on a ferry – this time an express catamaran, blazing across the smooth Indian Ocean into Dar, ready for the next instalment and a new form of transport.

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