This month I would like to introduce a fantastic writer, Kyle Battisti, who came to me through our mutual friend and Seattle expert, Erik Waldorf. Kyle is a travel obsessive every bit as much as I am. He has recently left his two cats and comfortable home in Seattle, Washington to Discover Zanzibar. Like myself, he is also a lover of languages and history, and lists "spices, sultans and Soviets" as a few of his favourite things. He has yet to read of a place he wouldn't love to visit. When he is not staring slack-jawed and goggle-eyed at world maps, he cooks, eats, drinks, solves crossword puzzles and earns his travel money as a business intelligence wonk for a Seattle tech company. If we are very lucky, I can convince Kyle to become a regular contributor to the Discovered column. When you read this piece and see his photos, you will be begging for more as well! Take it away Kyle....
Nicholas Baker, Travel Editor
"London! Burkina Faso! Japan! Zanzibar!" shouted the emcee at the tenth annual Sauti za Busara music festival (Swahili for “sounds of wisdom”), describing the mélange of performers and attendees packing the seventeenth-century Arab-built fort in Stone Town, Zanzibar. East Africans in styles from Maasai to Islamic to urban street—along with European families, splinters of Asian tour groups, and young American backpackers swilling Kilimanjaro beer—all milled together happily at an event often billed as the "friendliest festival on the planet". And the venue is no accident, for Zanzibar was a melting pot well before pilgrims set buckled shoe on Plymouth Rock. I found myself there earlier this year, haggling over Tanzanian jewelry while musicians from Mali to Zimbabwe threw down rock, electronica, world and acid jazz. Timbuktu diva Khaira Arby singing Songhai between wild guitar solos? Yes, please!
Lying roughly twenty miles off Africa's eastern coast, at the western end of the Indian Ocean's trade-enabling monsoon system, the small archipelago of Zanzibar was an entrepôt between Africa and Arabia, Persia, India, and even Malaysia and China long before steamships and oil tankers hit the horizon. In addition to the trade in ivory, slaves and spices, culture itself—language, religion, customs, cuisine—was shared, intermingled and redeveloped into an ecumenical yet distinct Swahili style. Joining with the mainland in 1964 under the chockablock moniker United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar (mercifully abbreviated to Tanzania in years since), Zanzibar maintains this distinctive culture in the semi-autonomy it enjoys within the republic. An old postage stamp bore the words "religious tolerance," and God(s) bless them, Zanzibaris actually strove to achieve it. From my hotel in historic Stone Town, the largest city and the heart of the islands, I heard Hindu chants, Islamic call to prayer and Christian church bells, all between six and seven in the morning (which could be good or bad, depending on your sleep habits).
This long history of trade, plus a lush environment just six degrees south of the equator, has also made Zanzibar a paradise of fruits and spices. The islands' many guides offer half-day "spice tours" that lead visitors through plantations of banana, nutmeg, turmeric, yams and seemingly everything else that grows under a warm sun. Lemongrass in my hand, cardamom seeds in my teeth, and a fresh slice of cinnamon bark in my pocket, I could hardly finish one flavor before we stumbled upon another. Cloves, in particular, have dominated these fields since the Omani sultan strengthened his control over the coast in the early nineteenth century and insisted on clove production, soon bringing Zanzibar to the forefront of the lucrative trade. The tour concluded with a gluttonous serving of mango, rambutan and jackfruit (though sadly, the legendary and delicious durian was not in season during my visit). This great variety is also on display in the islands' cuisine, which mixes coconut, spices and the ocean's fresh supply of crab, lobster, octopus and fin fish into mouth-watering curries and salads.
I thankfully beat back the appetite and settled for just one delicious dinner a night, for Zanzibar is also very much a beach destination. Indeed, if you google Zanzibar, you might conclude it was nothing but. Images of white sand ringed by lazy dhows and insouciant sea turtles fill the page, and with good reason: Zanzibar’s beaches are gorgeous. Some cater to tourists and scuba enthusiasts, whereas others are left to the local women who tend the seaweed industry. I chose the latter and waded knee-deep at low tide among tiny crabs, sea snails and the slow, silent orbits of seaweed farmers. Cupping a large shell to my ear and squinting at the dive boats on the horizon, I was overcome by the insane beauty of it, that wonderful ass-end-of-everything feeling when "smartphone" becomes just two odd syllables. But it's not exactly the end of the earth: hours earlier the gregarious Italian proprietor of my boutique hotel had beamed, "Three minutes south along the beach they have free Wi-Fi in the bar." How convenient! He then added, "Up north they have machetes, and they mug you." Oh, how…not.
And it's true: it's not all carefree beach living, nor has it been in centuries past. Zanzibar's dark history as a slave trade hub is evident in its former slave market, now the site of an Anglican cathedral. The entrance sign incongruously bids you a warm "Welcome!" after which four US dollars admit you to dark basement cells with two small windows carved from the stone walls to permit a parody of fresh air. Slaves were crowded into these rooms to await being sold, some with fresh whip marks to demonstrate endurance and fetch a better price. My fellow travelers and I sat grayly in this ghost pit, no words between us. If you’re without a soul, you can regard it simply as an opportunity to escape the sun; otherwise, it's an obligatory stop to better understand the islands' history, and to not understand at all what men are capable of. The cathedral itself—constructed specifically in support of abolition—hosts a cross carved from the very mvula tree in Zambia under which the heart of famed explorer and erstwhile Zanzibar resident Dr. Livingstone was buried in 1873, the same year construction began. (The rest of him was carted hundreds of tropical miles to the coast and onward to London.) Livingstone helped popularize the British fight against slavery but did not live long enough to see the practice abolished.
Back in the sunlight, boats lolled about the beach, ready to ferry travelers on excursions to the smaller islands. My guide and I hopped aboard for the wobbly thirty-minute voyage out to Changuu, nicknamed Prison Island for its intended use to lock up runaway slaves. Abolition nixed that plan; it instead served the British as quarantine for lepers and other patients. Today it's the home not of lepers but of Aldabra giant tortoises, many dozens of them, a gift from the nearby Seychelles in the late nineteenth century. Despite a handful of “tortoisenappings” over the years, the sanctuary has had great success in breeding new generations, a small spectacle of which I had the questionable pleasure of witnessing. Are you familiar with the sounds of tortoise lovemaking? As it turns out, it's not Barry White; it's a series of dry, desperate grunts mixed with the jerky percussion of shells bumping and scraping, not unlike an old man with a bullhorn dragging his emphysemic body across a rock quarry. I snapped a photo of the crude dinosaur porn, hoping the actors wouldn't mind.
But please don't breach this etiquette elsewhere. Some Zanzibaris are camera-shy, being a little suspicious of foreign curiosity (or more specifically, of Western technology's capacity to render them naked in photos, my guide informed me). Foreign enthusiasm for the islands has not been without its downside. Italian companies have gobbled up significant beachfronts and plopped down hasty resorts. Bikini-clad yoga classes and beer-pounding holidaymakers in a majority Muslim landscape have bred some resentment. Most of Prison Island's beachfront, once accessible to all, is now privately (and controversially) owned. Despite being at the globe's fringes—or perhaps more so because of it—Zanzibar suffers the clichés of globalization. I swirled my cocktail, poked at my iPhone and pondered this thought, every bit the cliché myself. Meanwhile, local youths—not camera-shy at all—hurled themselves off the waterfront in wild poses, cannonballing nearly on top of one another before scaling the wall to do it once more. Whether to amuse the tourist crowds or as a daily affirmation of hakuna matata (“no worries”), I can't say. A little of both?
By and large Zanzibaris appreciate the tourism, and increasingly depend on it, as global competitors and flirtations with communism have chipped away at its once indomitable spice business. Like any self-(dis)respecting old town on the tourist circuit, Stone Town’s narrow alleys teem with indistinguishable souvenir shops and toothy assurances of good prices. I stumbled upon a promising storefront: "Everyone knows me," the proprietress shrugged. "I'm Mama Rose." The doyenne of the East African arts and crafts trade, it seemed, she pointed out carved wood dining chairs from a recent buying expedition in Malawi, perhaps the source of many of the smaller items stocked in the town's shops. In the corner was a six-foot wooden giraffe, similar to one she’d recently shipped to a California couple. Zanzibar is not home to giraffes, however—nor to hippos, rhinos and many other African species you'll see painted, carved, sewn or screen-printed on assorted souvenirs. But to quibble over that is to miss something fundamental: as far as trade is concerned, Zanzibar is Africa. Centuries past, mainland ivory was gathered here for export to the rest of the world. So too, Mama Rose now packages giraffes for well-heeled Californians seeking safari chic. I bought six napkin rings whittled into giraffe, zebra and cheetah shapes, convinced I'd throw an Africa-themed dinner party. I probably never will.
But there is a famous export native to Zanzibar: local boy Farrokh Bulsara, known to most as Freddie Mercury. Born in Stone Town to Parsi parents in 1946, reaching global stardom thirty years later, and dead from AIDS fifteen years thence, Freddie lived a life about as removed from the islands’ muezzins and tide-swept sea stars as one could imagine. But in the Zanzibar Gallery gift shop, promotional postcards of Queen hobnobbed among snapshots of colobus monkeys and coral reefs, the flashy spandex front man seeming right at home there to me. Because by then I had become accustomed to the uncustomary: slave prisons and dive excursions, machete muggings and beachside cocktails, mvula crosses and randy reptiles, far-flung cultures and disparate eras threaded together through a pinhole of sand and palms. So when Sauti za Busara’s emcee extolled the crazy diversity of musicians, guests, influences and experiences jamming together on goatskin drums and electric guitars there in the open-air festival, I nodded along—Swahili and spandex? Why not?—and took another swig of Kilimanjaro beer.