Zanzibar, another world

My sun-drenched hours dissolve away
Like semolina sand in turquoise sea
I wade through liquid glass
And chase the horizon
Where else, oh where else would I rather be?

Zanzibar was the farewell holiday we took before saying “so long” to Africa. Big mistake! If this were our first, we’d have visited again and again and again during our two years. The most remarkable thing about our stay in Zanzibar was that we did not step into our shoes for a week! Our room opened on a beach so we could walk straight from our bedroom onto the sand. It was lovely letting the sand tickle our bare feet as we made our way to kite-surfing lessons at the other end of Paje beach every day. When we had to finally put on shoes on the last day, the whole concept of footwear seemed unnatural.

Zanzibar is a world on its own, a place where timepieces seem unnecessary and technology superfluous. Yet within itself, it houses so many different microcosms. There is the historic and culturally rich capital, Stone Town; there is the oceanic ecosystem of corals and rich marine life that beckon as you fly low over the coastline and of course, there is the pristine serenity on the countless white beaches.

When at the beach, I often mused why people come to Zanzibar. We met such diverse people here — volunteers from Doctors without Borders based in war-torn Congo who were spending their vacation here, climbers who were winding down post-Kilimanjaro, a German navy family spending a month here with two kids during off-time, surfers who were here as instructors and to enjoy the wind in their kites, retirees who had come for the trip of a lifetime and “explorers” like us. What is it about Zanzibar that draws such diverse people here? I hear that the idea of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation was also born while Bill and Melinda walked along a beach in Zanzibar. What is it about these journeys that transports us to another world?

People have lived in Zanzibar for nearly 20,000 years. Zanzibar had trade links that date back to the ancient Sumerian civilisation. Known as the Spice Island[1], traders from the Indian subcontinent established a strong presence early on, which is unmistakable many centuries later in the Indian flavour of Zanzibar’s social fabric. We spent some time chatting with Manish who runs a shop on Gizenga Street, an expensive touristy locale, right behind the Arya Samaj temple and the Fort. His ancestors came from Gujarat in India but he was born and brought up here. There are Indian temples, Gujarati speaking people and Indian restaurants offering delicious cuisine. I had not imagined that I’d be eating hot, off-the-tawa rotis in a restaurant on an exotic island in Africa.

One day, we walked into a random cultural centre simply because the door looked fascinating (read on for more on Zanzibar doors). On a terrace on the second floor, as we dreamily watched a romantic sunset over the harbour, stood the founder narrating to another visitor, the story of how he came to Zanzibar for a vacation 19 years back and just stayed on eventually making this centre for the promotion of Zanzibar art and culture the mission of his life. Stories like these are not uncommon in Africa, and you can guess why, when you immerse in the charm of Stone Town.

Stone Town is the perfect place for a kitten. Full of curiosities, intricate Omani wooden doors hiding the promise of a new duniya behind each. The best way to see this UNESCO world heritage site is by losing your way and letting the labyrinth of little gullies take you on a tour of this city lost in time. The storeyed buildings of Stone Town are built from coral rocks and it is the only ancient city in Africa that survives intact since the 1400s.

Stone Town has some of the most intricately designed boutique hotels. Every door knob and every lamp, every window and every drawer is usually wood carved with the traditional Islamic lattice work. Yet the most amazing thing is the series of centuries-old Zanzibar doors — massive and carved intricately in wood. I really felt like Alice in Wonderland here, always chancing upon another gem in this maze. It is difficult to explain in words the beauty of these ancient but long-lasting creations that adorn every important building as well as some of the ancient coral-stone houses in Stone Town. We spent a lot of time in a wood carving workshop learning about the differences in the Arabic vs. Indian door designs, fascinated with sandooks (trunks) with secret compartments and of course, negotiating a bargain on a painting I fell in love with. The traditional Zanzibar patterns in wood are an ode to the living history of this archipelago.

The seafood scene especially during the month of Ramadan is something special. At Iftar each evening, people gather in hordes at the Forodhani gardens. Tandoori lobster, queen prawns, king fish…you name your seafood and you’ll have it on a skewer, nicely marinated in Zanzibar spices. The evening was a vibrant riot of flavours. Fancy buying some of these authentic and aromatic spices of the Spice Island? Just venture out to the Darajani market to buy them by grams and kilos instead of little, over-priced packets for tourists. Far away in the distance, dhows lazily make their way across sea in the setting sun and Stone Town falls asleep.

Before Zanzibar, I was an eager traveller. I wanted to see the whole world, and still do. Yet, Zanzibar made me feel like this is it. Once here, there is no need to go anywhere else. Travel nirvana?

[1] And unfortunately, centre of the slave trade too.

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