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Zanzibar: Stone Town, Spice Island

BETWEEN FACT AND FICTION

In my mind, Zanzibar had always been located somewhere between Timbuktu and Xanadu, or to put it another way, midway between fact and fiction. But the Air Kenya flight from Nairobi touched down on a real island, 25 km off the coast of Africa, six degrees below the equator where a real rain was falling and real palm trees blowing in the softly scented air.The Serena Inn, where I would be staying, had sent their minibus to meet me.

 

For ten minutes or so we bumped through a muddy suburb of makeshift shelters, shops, and garden patches. Briefly, we skirted the waterfront where, offshore, the stiff sail of a small dhow sped through the bright water like a white bird in a blue sky. The hotel stood with its back to the Indian Ocean. A doorman in turban and long white robe stood by the massive brass-studded teak door. In the foyer, a fountain played into a tile basin, sharing the space with a curving carved staircase, sculpted mouldings, rich wall hangings, antique grain chests. One flight up, off an open verandah,my room and its balcony looked out over the turquoise sea.

Fore-warned by ‘Zanzibar – an essential guide’I changed into flip flops.Then I went down to meet my guide for a tour of Stone Town in the rain. Guide Muhara rolled his trousers to the knee and we began our walk, down streets so narrow we had to flatten against a wall for the occasional bicycle to splash by. There are 1500 buildings in Stone Town, in varying stages of dilapidation.A number of these coral rag structures, for the most part built by wealthy Zanzibari merchants in the 19th century, still have their carved doors and elaborate wooden balconies.

The United Nations has named Stone Town a World Heritage Site and efforts are being made to save the historic Muslim city from crumbling into dust.The restored Apothecary House is an outstanding example of what can be done. This eye-popping structure of green and white fretwork now houses a French restaurant and an antique shop. For the most part, though, Stone Town remains in suspended animation, waiting for the touch of a magic wand.

Through the streams of ankle-deep brown water which sluiced off the roofs and into the street, we sloshed to the fish market. Here I was told, and promptly forgot, the names of a wide variety of glinting gray and pink fish. I remember squid, octopus and a pewter-coloured marlin which lay beached on the wet cement floor . But I had come to Zanzibar for fantasy, not fish, and one of the ex-Sultan’s palaces was our next destination. In 1840, Sultan Sayid Said had moved his court to Zanzibar from Muscat, the better to oversee the enormous wealth generated by the ancient trade in slaves and spices. The palace which housed his wives and children and subsequently those of his descendants, became a museum when the last Sultan was overthrown in 1964. It was not a palace in the Thousand and One Nights tradition, however.

In the Sultana’s drawing room the sumptuous black ebony and red velvet furniture clustered around a black formica coffee table printed with yellow and red boomerangs.The Sultan’s massive bed, surmounted by a verdigris crown, was set off by a suite of imitation blonde wood formica furniture with apple green plastic legs.

The Sultan’s riches, it appeared, were the bodies of the African men, women and children who were landed in Zanzibar in their thousands every year either to be put to work on Zanzibar spice plantations or auctioned to other slave owning countries. My guide seemed anxious to introduce me to slave history, running into some resistance from me from time to time as the stories became more horrific. I did not, for example, peer down into the pit (the Anglican church now stands above it) where slaves were stored before sale but could not avoid hearing that where the altar now stands slaves were once flogged to test their endurance. More slave stories concerned nearby Prison Island, which we reached in a dugout with an outboard motor. Recalcitrant slaves were disciplined here and the cells can still be visited, though not by me. Instead I fed leaves to the vaguely threatening giant tortoises which, in their vast enclosure, are the island’s current prisoners. And I collected shells on an already tiny beach which shrank markedly as the tide came in. On a slave-break, we travelled by car to Jozani forest, the home of the red Colubus monkey, an endangered species unique to Zanzibar. Big-eyed monkeys large and small hung from leafy branches, the babies sometimes crashing through the foliage to drop like ripe fruit to the ground.

Nearby, a Spice Garden Tour has been developed which proved to be less a garden, more a jungle. I followed my all-knowing guide down a muddy path laced with spider webs and crossed by columns of biting ants, keeping a wary eye out for snakes. At the same time, I sniffed and nibbled berries,roots and leaves pepper and turmeric, nutmeg, vanilla and cloves.which were picked or dug up by Mr. Muhara. He even snipped off a bit of an iodine plant so I could apply the thick white sap to a cut on my foot. Somewhat to my surprise, I still have the foot.

The last day we drove to Mangapawni, the Serena Inn’s resort on the Northwest coast. It’s a short stretch of sand backed into a forested cliff, with 16 or so rustic beds in the shade of reed-roofed tables. An attentive staff shuttled back and forth with cold drinks while the hotel chef, at his massive stone grill, prepared lunch of lobster, prawns, kingfish, steak and chicken. The shaded dining terrace overlooked the inlet and the stretch of beach where fishermen were mending their boats in the sun. I could have trekked through the forest after lunch to visit the underground bunker where slaves were hidden after the trade was officially outlawed, but instead accepted the offer of three fishermen to go for a sail in a belem, a small dhow. In fifteen minutes they had rigged and raised the lateen sail and we headed out into the jewel-blue Indian Ocean in perfect silence. There was no creaking, no flapping, no water lapping, just the sensation of being drawn onward by the wind as if on the end of a string.Then it was back to the Serena where, while I was at dinner, the shutters of my room would be closed over the view of a moonlit sea, the netting drawn around the four poster bed, and the coverlet strewn with jasmine blossoms.

Rather like a night in Xanadu.

If you’re going there: the 56 bedroomed Serena Hotel is one of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. It has been  meticulously converted under the auspices of the Aga Khan from two historic structures, the colonial building in which the explorer Livingstone stayed, and an Arab building called the Chinese Doctor’s House.

Contact central reservations in
Nairobi, Kenya by telephone +2542 2 717077;
Website: www.serenahotel.com

Top buy: Antiques and hand-made reproductions.You will need a guide to find the shops, and possibly to translate. Prices are quoted in US dollars. I saw several original Zanzibar doors( from $1,000) and antique brass-studded chests (around $250)Add the cost of shipping and customs clearance.

Credit cards: The Serena and some restaurants take credit cards.The antique shops I visited did not.There are Bureaux de Change and ATMs in Stone Town.

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