Zanzibar City

Zanzibar City

Two minutes into our walking tour of Stone Town – Zanzibar City's historic old port – it started to rain. Just a few drops at first, then a light drizzle, then a solid shower. Our guide led us under a nearby awning and said he'd come back for us in five minutes after the rains have passed. 

Within seconds of his exit, the solid shower became an all-out downpour. We were joined under the small shelter by a few locals as the rain bucketed down and filled the narrow streets, which became flowing rivers in the blink of an eye. 

Five minutes became ten, became twenty, became half an hour. A few brave souls walked or cycled by, soaked to the core, but mostly the streets were empty, people were just waiting it out.  

Like tropical rains the world over, the water falls hard and fast in Zanzibar, so people just stand under any available shelter and wait. It's the kind of downpour where you could tell your boss, “Sorry I'm twenty minutes late, it was raining,” and it would be more of a reason than an excuse. 

But after nearly forty minutes it was still pouring, so our guide returned with umbrellas for everyone, saying he's never seen rain this long at this time of year, and that it was only a short walk to the first attraction – a restored 19th century hospital originally built by a wealthy Ismaili Indian to serve as a dispensary for the island's poor. 

As the story goes, Tharia Topan was the 12-year-old son of a poor Indian vegetable seller, and he was accused of theft in his coastal village back in India. He ran to the shore and hid himself on a dhow to escape the hunting party on his tail, fell asleep, and awoke at sea to find himself en route to Zanzibar. The dhow's captain apologized to the terrified Topan, but said there was no turning back now. The industrious young boy would only return to India decades later, as a very wealthy man, having enmeshed himself fully in the life and commerce of the East African island. 

We hid under the shelter of the Old Dispensary as the guide told us this story and various other interloping tales that weave the fabric of this unusual archipelago. 

Zanzibar is made of two large islands, Unguja and and Pemba, and a series of smaller ones. The larger of the two, Unguja, is where Stone Town was settled and went on to become Zanzibar City, and Unguja itself is now colloquially referred to as Zanzibar.

The history of the islands is a long entanglement of cultures, languages, religions, and dark economy. Arabian merchants sailed down on the monsoon winds as far back as the 11th century, taking advantage of the islands' sheltered bays to access goods from the coast. They married the natives, mostly Bantu people, and set up shop for the long haul.

The Portuguese stormed in and demanded taxes from the now-mixed locals during the Age of Exploration, holding fast to power for two centuries until the Sultan of Oman took over and developed a highly lucrative trade in elephant tusks, cloves, and slaves. The Germans were there briefly getting up to something-or-other. And then the British rolled in in the late 19th century, as the British are wont to do, and went to war with the sultan for 45 minutes over a disagreement about his chosen successor to his throne, giving the Anglo-Zanzibar War the title of the The Shortest War in History. 

The UK held control of the islands until granting them independence as a constitutional monarchy under the Sultan in 1963. That system lasted only a four weeks before the African-led Zanzibar Revolution overthrew the government and murdered thousands of the island's Arab and South Asian residents. 

The newly-formed People's Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba merged with the mainland colony of Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Which is obviously way too long to say regularly, so eventually they were all like, "Fuck it, let's just call it Tanzania." 

Despite the merger, you still have to show your passport and fill out a "Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar" immigration card to get on and off the island. 

In its 19th century heyday, Stone Town was one of the wealthiest cities in East Africa. The Arabic ruling class built grandiose mosques and luxurious homes, carving elaborate stone doors interlaid with tortoiseshell and coral rag, and clothing their wives in the finest imported cloths.  

Each year, traders would sail in on the monsoon winds, on dhows laden with cloth and iron, and return North on the reversing wind with the same ships loaded down with rice, cloves, coconuts, and ailing human cargo. 

The island's history is one of sultans and slaves, spice plantations and ivory traders, religious harmony and colonial wars. 

It is at once romantic and deeply sinister. 

But when the global tide of opinion began to turn against slavery, the island's economy began its slow decline. First they tried to replace slavery by ramping up the trade of something less insidious, like elephant tusks. But tusks are cumbersome, and required hard human effort to carry them from inland to the coast. They tried cloves, but the plantations were hot and vast, and the work – exhausting. Unable to find free people willing to break their backs for the labour at a low enough price, the champions of the ivory and clove trades only inadvertently increased the underground demand for the human commodity they had initially sought to replace. 

An Arabic-style door on a former mansion. 

An Arabic-style door on a former mansion. 

Today, the economy has wound down to a comparatively slow trickle of tourism and local trade - fishing and fruit mostly – with a small spice and raffia-palm export industry. Most of Stone Town's buildings have lost their polished grandeur to the ravages of time, poverty, and the coastal climate, but the island's historic precedent still exists in the intricate facades of the crumbling buildings, and the island's multi-cultural history can still be seen in the faces and customs of its residents.  

Indian teenagers cycle down the street speaking slangy local Swahili. A man selling jackfruit at the central market has the deep complexion and kinked hair of a sub-Saharan African but the facial features of a peninsular Arab. Light-skinned women with henna-painted hands scrawl Hindu blessing across their doorways while African men in taqiyas and kaftans relax on the front steps of Portuguese-style buildings. 

I asked our guide where the non-Muslim residents eat during Ramadan, and he explained that there are a few restaurants owned by non-Muslims which have special licenses to remain open, but they bring their chairs in from the street so nobody is visibly eating outside. “They have far too much respect for each other to do that.” 

He shared an anecdote about a Catholic pastor who came over on an evangelizing mission some time around the 1950s. But upon his arrival on the island, he found religious harmony between Muslims, Christians, Hindus and other spiritualities unlike anything he'd witnessed anywhere, and promptly abandoned the entire mission. He wrote home to his church in South Carolina to say that evangelizing in this context would be “unconscionable,” and he had decided to just stay and live on the island instead. 

As we continued our walking tour, the rain subsided and was instantly replaced by a blazing, suffocating heat. My dress, previously kept dry by the umbrella, was soaked through by sweat in minutes. Our guide walked us through Stone Town's crooked maze of backstreets and alleyways, pointing out which type of door implies which religion for the family who lives inside. 

We saw a few more main attractions, including the childhood home of Freddy Mercury (who knew?) before saying goodbye to our guide at the waterfront, then we retired to the shaded rooftop bar of our guesthouse to plan the next step of our trip while we waited out the worst of the afternoon's heat. 

A mosque and a church share a parking lot. 

A mosque and a church share a parking lot. 

When I left Tanzania a few months ago, I was immediately ready to return. So a few nights after I'd left, I found myself sitting in a pub in London with two very dear friends, who were meeting each other for the first time that evening. Emma, who I grew up with in Vancouver and has since moved to London; and Will, a Brit who I know from the few years we both lived in Montreal at the same time. 

I mentioned to them that I was thinking of going back in November and that they should come with me. Somewhat to my surprise, they agreed. 

So that's how we found ourselves reconvening three months later at London Heathrow for the 11-hour flight to Kilimanjaro. From Kili we went back to my old stomping ground in Arusha to start a four-day safari in Sylvester's brand-spanking new safari truck, and then hightailed it for the coast. 

From Arusha you can get to Zanzibar by air, or by land and ferry. It's around an 8-hour bus ride from the mountains to Dar es Salaam, then an hour-long ferry ride from Dar to Zanzibar City. Since Emma was on a time crunch, we took the air route and grabbed a one-hour flight from Kilimanjaro straight to the island for 300, 000 Tsh, around 150 USD. 

We checked into the Warere Town House, a friendly, casual, and mercifully air-conditioned guesthouse hidden down a winding walkway behind some buildings just a few blocks from the ferry terminal. In the mornings, the competing scents of cloves and fish float into the building from the market across the street. 

As the port of entry to an island economy that thrives on tourism, Stone Town has its fair share of flycatchers – dudes who hang out at tourist hotspot corners and stick to you as you walk past them. You stroll by on your way to wherever, you don't even have to make eye contact with them, and before you know it they're attached to your shoulder like you're made of flypaper, selling you a painting, a scuba trip, transport to the beach. 

Sometimes they'll peel off after a block or two once it's clear you're not buying anything; but sometimes you're stuck with them until you arrive wherever you're going, or run into a local you know by name. So when we set out for the slave museum in the late afternoon, we ended up with an escort for the entire journey. On the bright side, Stone Town's streets are the urban planning equivalent of a plate of spaghetti, so there's no way we would have found our way there on our own. On the downside, we failed to communicate between ourselves about who would tip the dude and how much, so we paid him roughly the equivalent of his usual week's earnings for the 20-minute walk. 

So after two nights and a day exploring the alleyways and dodging flycatchers, we were ready to leave the simultaneously lazy and hectic bustle of Zanzibar City for the island's main attraction: beaches. 

A 60,000 Tsh ($30 USD) van ride in any direction from town will land you on a beautiful white sand beach with the turquoise Indian Ocean lapping at its shores, and the relaxing can really begin. 

Sweatin' the Swahili Coast.

Sweatin' the Swahili Coast.

Eating in the Street

Eating in the Street