Connect the dots

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Indian Ocean Island Gems: Zanzibar

The name alone is inviting. Say it a few times and you can imagine what it was like here in the 18th and 19th centuries when Swahili life was at its peak: spices, sultans, dhows, and lots of wheeling and dealing.

It’s cultural heart and capital lies on the more popular island of Unguja: Stone Town, a narrow maze of bazaar filled streets where bicycles ring for you to move aside, lattice balconies hang high, craftsmen still carving wooden furniture, doors and brass lamps and people around every corner ready to greet you with a “jambo”. Many of the buildings underwent renovation in the 80’s when a movement to preserve its unique architecture took place. We were able to stay in the Shangani area where many of the restored buildings turned into hotels are neighbors with multigenerational Zanzibari family homes.

We were told over and over again how quiet it was since we landed on the island with Ramadan in full swing. Most restaurants and shops were closed during the day, only open in the evenings.

A former volunteer visiting gave us the Zanzibari Ramadan recipe: sleep in until mid-afternoon/wake up a few hours before sun down, break the fast with family and friends with a feast, return to sleep after the meal, wake up again around 3am for dinner, and return once again to sleep at sunrise. Repeat for one month.

Alex's first henna

Speaking of food...So delicious, we ended up dining there twice; Beyt-al-chai or "house of tea" prepared exquisitely simple, fresh and local foods.

Slipper lobster with avocado

Passion fruit can be found everywhere, all the time

Homemade vanilla ice cream, cashew crisp and rum soaked cardamom

And for dining on the cheap, head to Forodhani Gardens along the water for Zanzibar's version of "pizza". What you actually get: a meat/veggie/fish omelet filled crepe. Don't forget to wash it down with some freshly squeezed sugar cane/ginger/lemon juice!

Many to choose from but the locals go to him

But it wasn't just good food and relaxation. There was reading, studying and tests to take. I finally got certified to dive.

Although we loved Stone Town, we decided to explore the Northern beaches with its white sand beaches and swimming at all times. And although we were warned about how touristy it was going to be there, we still decided to go to Kendwa...

"Buon giorno!" was the initial greeting from the Zanzibari vendor on the beach. Where were we again? Were we mysteriously transported to the Amalfi coast?

It seems that the Italians have taken the all-inclusive and brought it to the beaches of Zanzibar. Every lodge and resort on the beach was Italian owned, run and filled with tourists from Italy. Lingua franca: Italian. You barely heard Swahili. At first it appears positive with resorts filled to capacity, but in reality, the money goes right back to Europe with many not spending a single shilling in the local economy.

Nevertheless, you could see why it was so popular, the beach stunning and the water crystal clear and calm for swimming.

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