Island of Spice: R&R in Zanzibar

Travel in Zanzibar - Just off the Tanzanian coast, Zanzibar treasures a slow, relaxed way of life.

It’d been the trip from hell, stuck for two weeks with an incompetent sociopath punishing his passengers and beat-up Land Rover from South Africa overland through Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi, into Tanzania. By now I was stark raving tired of waiting eight hours between meals and dodging ambling highway hippos after dark in torrential rains.

I had found Mr. Strange (his actual name; I should have known …) over the Internet. The former Baptist minister who looked like actor Leslie Nielson was traveling with his two adult kids from South Africa to Kenya. I got along famously with his offspring, and pre-paid for the ride after meeting with them because the father seemed quite all right at the time as well.

Then we hit the road and he revealed his true self. When we arrived in Dar es Salaam I grabbed the chance and left our too-strange driver behind, jumping on the ferry to Zanzibar, hoping for some solitary R&R.

Travel in Zanzibar
Just off the Tanzanian coast, Zanzibar treasures a slow, relaxed way of life.

The word Zanzibar is magical, but how does reality compare? Picture an exotic, remote and largely unknown island of spice, the tail that wagged the dog of a vast continent for centuries, the stronghold of sultans and the central shipping-off point for Africa’s infamous slave trade from 1822 through the 1880s.

Today, Zanzibar (in the local dialect of Swahili known as Unguja) has morphed into East Africa’s party central, with its fine white beaches fronting a paradise for snorkeling and diving, picturesque sailing dhows and atmospheric architecture with a genuine African flair.

After ping-ponging between colonial powers during the Great Wars, Zanzibar and Tanganyika finally grabbed independence in 1964 and merged to become Tanzania (the name is a composite of Tanganyika and Zanzibar).

Today, Zanzibar is an autonomic part of the Tanzanian union, and actually consists of two islands: the smaller Pemba (380 square miles; 984 km²) to the north and the main island of Zanzibar (640 square miles; 1,658 km²), separated by a 22-mile–wide (35 km) channel from the mainland.

As the ferry scraped the dock, a Rastafarian guy buttonholed me, introduced himself as Boniface, and asked what hotel I was off to. Right away I saw a scam coming, the sort of tout that leaches on tourists worldwide. Yet I was leery of awakening a sleeping sociopath, so I answered kindly, “The Haven,” pointing to the guidebook entry.

Boniface did a double take. “That’s my hotel,” he said. “I run it.” “Get out of here,” I said. Boniface looked twenty-something and raggedy, and I hoped he’d take my request seriously. But then a tout never accepts the hotel you pick, instead, steering you to the one offering him a kickback gratuity.

“Serious, man. I’ll give you a ride over. And if you don’t like it, though you picked it out, I’ll find you another hotel. Here are the guys riding with me.”

He introduced me to Joey and Justin, Americans serving the Peace Corps in Zambia, teaching the locals to plant fruit orchards for self sufficiency. Justin said, “Nothing like R&R in Zanzibar.”

Zanzibar Travel - Sunny beaches grace Zanzibar’s shores.
Sunny beaches grace Zanzibar’s shores.

I didn’t like The Haven and, sure enough, Boniface found me another hotel. I felt welcome in Zanzibar, with R&R instantly seeping into my veins.

R&R was everyone’s story as they frittered away sultry holidays kicking back in the island’s cosmopolitan capital, Zanzibar City, with its world-famous old quarter called Stone Town, and soaking up rays on the endless pristine beaches.

I took a more proactive approach, giddy on being AWOL from a certifiable nut case. I explored the labyrinth of Stone Town’s narrow, winding alleys overhung by balconies; investigated the colorful bazaars; took the famous spice tour raved about in all the guide books; and glanced at a couple of beaches and coral reefs.

Zanzibar City

Zanzibar City (population about 160,000) is a World Heritage Site with ancient Moorish buildings dating back to the 1100s. Arab traders began swooping down the African coast in the 8th century, riding the northerly winds for thousands of kilometers in billowing dhows.

I sipped exotic juices and watched similar dhows spooling past my outdoor café fronting the uncannily blue water, surrounded by history. Zanzibar was officially founded as a Portuguese trading depot in the 16th century. It remained fairly insignificant for the next 300 years, until the Sultan of Oman decided to move his court from Muscat, Oman, to Zanzibar in 1832.

The Arab influence grew steadily, and the strategically important island flourished to become a major center of the East African ivory and slave trade. United States, British and German trading vessels visited regularly. It is estimated that between 6,000 and 10,000 slaves were traded daily in the early 1800s.

I wandered over to Creek Road, bisecting Stone Town. To the east of the road sit brutal stone blocks with rusty eye rings for tethering human merchandise. The main slave market was a few blocks to the west, crammed between a massive stone church and a multi-pointed mosque.

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