A Touch of (Z) Magic

It’s hard not to fall for the lived-in, Middle East-meets-tropical-Africa charms of Zanzibar. Without romanticizing the poverty that many of the island’s inhabitants suffer, or overlooking the neglect that has caused UNESCO to threaten to remove the island’s historic old town from its list of World Heritage Sites, the island positively oozes a kind of otherworldly charm. It’s made all the more palpable by decades of decay and the sheer weight of the history the island carries; you smell it in the labyrinth-like alleyways of the old town after the rains, you see it in the peeling paints and crumbling facades of the buildings, and perhaps most arrestingly in the unusual ethnic diversity of this small island – from Arabs to Africans and all shades in between. You can also just feel it. It’s history you don’t have to read about or intellectualize – it’s just there, each and every day, staring straight at you as you stare back in awe.

Although the beaches are world-class and stunning (and bring in armies of tan-hungry Italians and Swedes every year), with layers upon layers of life, from the long-gone to the present, Stonetown is especially romantic. It reminded us of Havana, in smaller scale, and bit of Galle in Sri Lanka too. It also has a special place in colonial history – having been ruled or controlled by everyone who was anyone in the  Indian Ocean in the past centuries, from the Portuguese and the British to the Omanis.

As a result of this confluence of power and trade, it played an unusually ugly role in the oft-forgotten East African slave trade (vs. the better known West African one) that brought an estimated two million people from Central and South Africa to plantations around the Indian Ocean and sometimes via West Africa to the Americas. It was brutality at an unbelievable scale. It was also a form of sadism that nearly everyone at the time – from the ‘white man’ to Arabs and Africans themselves, took part in, as our (Swedish-speaking??) guide at the old slave market told us. The trade was so lucrative that it made Zanzibar a dominant force in East Africa for centuries and when it ended in the late 19th Century, the once-fabulously wealthy and ostentatious island fell into relative decline. That decline is, in many ways – and despite tourist developments in beach areas and the odd boutique hotel or two in Stonetown – still ongoing.

Our holiday was beautiful 70 percent of the time, hellish the last 30. The hellish part consisted of both of us getting food poisoning at our beach hotel over Christmas, ironically enough the only fancy stop during this entire six-month trip. I’ll spare you the details (if you’ve ever had food poisoning you know it feels like dying), but it took us a few days to get our beach mojo back. Our hotel’s response to our complaint didn’t help, but we were still lucky enough to squeeze out four full days of unadulterated beach joy from heavenly Nungwi – good food (bar that lunch that got us sick), a stunningly clear and perfectly cool ocean, and copious amounts of sunshine. We read, swam, relaxed, ate, drank cocktails and slept – in that order and on a 24-hour cycle of blissful repeat (again, bar those two days lost to vicious vomiting).

In some ways Stonetown was still probably the highlight. With a new-found respect for our once-again healthy stomachs we did our best to enjoy the town’s culinary spots – from the stunning Livingstone Bar/Restaurant to the Moroccan-style roof terrace bar and street food fair by the ocean. Zanzibarians – not as used to wazungus who speak some Swahili – were also unfailingly impressed when we tested our still-limited skills on them and on each other (with Swedish accents for good measure – believe me, it sounds damn funny that way). But I’m still far from where I want to be on that front and need to use the coming weeks to brush up – B is, as ever, much further than me. Anyway, I digress…

My dad’s coming tonight – or very early tomorrow morning – for a bit of Moshi exploring and a five-day safari after New Years. Swiss chocolate gifts await (yay!) and we’re really looking forward to showing our first visitor around our little hood and indeed the much bigger ‘hood’ of the safari plains.

See you in a few. Oh, and sorry for the almost week-long absence. Won’t happen again, promise. (I’ll do my best to fix the formatting of the pictures tomorrow but right now, WordPress ain’t cooperating.)

-K&B

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