Zanzibar. From the winding narrow streets of Stone Town to the turquoise waters off the northern coast, from villagers hawking a local fruit known only by the name ‘purple’ to the hum of food stalls that pop up in the sea-front Forodhani Gardens every evening, the island exudes a unique atmosphere that personifies its location in the Indian Ocean. Located about 40 kilometers from the Tanzanian mainland, the combination of Arab, Indian, and mainland influences is even more pronounced than in Dar es Salaam. And going through passport control upon arrival at the ferry port gives you the feeling that you have entered a new country entirely.
Indeed, before 1964 the mainland (then known as Tanganyika, after the lake on Tanzania’s western border) and Zanzibar were separate political entities. Although both controlled by the British during the colonial era, Zanzibar had been under the rule of an Omani Arab sultanate for centuries. Following independence from Britain the local African population overthrew the sultanate in a revolution and unified with Tanganyika a few months later to become the present-day United Republic of Tanzania. The island maintains a level of autonomy (hence passport control) and theoretically elects its own president in addition to the President of Tanzania, but tension still simmers beneath the surface between the Zanzibaris and the more powerful mainland politicians.
However this tension can be difficult to find in the laid-back and friendly attitude of the islanders. After meeting my girlfriend Meredith in Dar, we hopped on the midday ferry for the two hour journey to the island. Due to its long history of interaction with Arab traders and sultans the population of Zanzibar is predominantly Muslim, which could immediately be observed in the multitude of white hajj caps and beautifully colored headscarves among the passengers. Earlier we had been warned about the twisting maze of alleys that constitute Stone Town (the historic section of the main city on the island) and the associated difficulty of navigation. Sure enough, as soon as we walked out of the port we became hopelessly lost. Circling the same streets several times in the search for our hotel, we were eventually saved by a helpful local who led us in the right direction.
We took the next few days at a slow pace, soaking in the island atmosphere, enjoying delicious seafood (octopus stew and grilled kingfish – I also tried caviar for the first time; it was ok), and simply getting lost in the labyrinth of streets. We also met up with Meredith’s college friend Megan, who is currently leading a study abroad program in Tanzania and happened to be on Zanzibar at the same time. It was great to learn about the culture and politics of the region from someone who had studied it for so long. Megan also introduced us to some of the local specialties at Forodhani Gardens, including “Zanzibari Pizza” and a tasty stew of many ingredients known as “mix”.
On our final day on the island we took a dalla-dalla (local minibus with more people than you think possible crammed in) up north to the beach at Kendwa to help achieve my dream of swimming in all of the worlds oceans (you’re next, Arctic!). About halfway to our destination the bus stopped briefly in a village and we were immediately surrounded by vendors selling grilled corn and ‘purple’ fruit, shoving bags full through the open windows. The bus let us off on the side of the main road and a dusty two kilometer walk later we were at the ocean. The turquoise color of the water was surreal, and a few hours swimming and relaxing at the beach with a local ‘Tusker’ beer was the perfect end to our time on the island.