spices, slaves and giant tortoises

Zanzibar. Just the name evokes images of spice traders, slave ships, Arab sultans, and palm trees shading white sand beaches. These are all accurate — or were at one point in time.

beach bum on Prison Island

Zanzibar has been on my life list for years, and I finally crossed it off last week. I had an amazing time there… although surprisingly not because of the beaches. I don’t know if it was just because I visited in the rainy season, but I was underwhelmed by the shoreline of Unguja, the main island in the Zanzibar archipelago. Don’t get me wrong, it was absolutely beautiful, but I wouldn’t say the beaches I saw were a cut above Kenya or Sierra Leone.

Stone Town, however, blew my mind. Navigating the maze of alleys, shaded from the sun by crumbling coral stone buildings, it feels like a slave trader or Persian prince might be right around the next corner. Breathing deeply, your lungs fill with hundreds of years. I spent hours just getting lost and found in the narrow streets.

the alleys of Stone Town

Second highlight: I gorged on seafood. Lobster, tuna, shark, octopus, squid, king prawns…

nightly seafood BBQ in Forodani Gardens = heaven

My second night in town I had a memorable birthday dinner at Swahili House, a rooftop restaurant on one of Stone Town’s tallest buildings. As the sun sank over the ocean, we could hear children playing in the streets and the call to prayer echoing over the rooftops. There was a warm, dusky breeze and a full moon. I’m still not convinced it was real.

looking west over Stone Town from Swahili House

My friend/guide/host in Stone Town gave me a trip to Prison Island for my birthday. The giant tortoises who live there are pushing 150 years old, which made me feel better about slipping another year closer towards infinity.

I also took a spice tour. I thrive on making a mess in the kitchen, and I tend to be heavy-handed with the seasonings. Learning about spices in their raw forms gave me a whole new layer of enjoyment when I pop the lid off a jar of cinnamon.

red ribbons of mace wrapped around nutmeg

cocoa comes from a pit inside each of those white.... globs.

fresh peppercorns -- still pack a hell of a punch

the cinnamon tree: roots, bark, branches and leaves all have different (delicious) tastes and smells

a spice trader in Darajani Market

My last afternoon in Zanzibar, I rode out the rains in the slave chambers at the old slave market. After the abolition of slavery the British built a church on the site of the market, but a couple holding cells remain. Although few Zanzibaris were sold into the trade (their labour was needed on the island), Stone Town was a hub for the East African slave trade.

a cell designed to hold 50 men for 3 days... those that lived were deemed strong enough to be sold as slaves. That canal down the middle would be full of sea water and poop.

slave memorial: the chain is one of the originals used to bind slaves in Z'bar

church built on the site of the slave market after the British abolished slavery in the 1800s. On this spot, the slaves were whipped to test their mettle. Those who cried out in pain were sold for a lower price.

the abolition of the slave trade just meant that it went underground -- literally. Slaves were hidden in caves with channels to the ocean, and ferried on and off of the island in the dead of night.

After a glorious week, I flew out just as the sun was sinking on the horizon. As we cruised north-west at 31,000 feet, I had a perfect view of Kilimanjaro almost directly below my window.

the sun setting over the mainland

Zanzibar was wonderful, but descending into Nairobi’s web of light pollution (you can see the traffic jams from a remarkable altitude), I realized I really missed this city. Yeah we don’t have white sand beaches or the catch of the day, but there’s something to be said for reliable electricity, grocery stores and, most of all, the sleeping temperatures at 5000 ft.

z’bar

sunset from Africa House, first night in Zanzibar

it’s the end of the world as we know it

I got really quite horrifyingly ill last week. I will spare you the details, but it involved undercooked chicken and the digestive tract equivalent of Fukushima Daichi — your personal experiences with salmonella poisoning can fill in the rest.

As I laid in bed on Wednesday contemplating the sweet release of death, the sky outside my window increasingly darkened. A huge clap of thunder shook the walls, and then it started hailing. Yeah. Like, ice falling from the sky. Pea-sized chunks of frozen water pummelled the earth, mixed with rain and general atmospheric chaos. Keep in mind Nairobi is just a few latitude south of the equator. It’s supposed to be summer here.

I stared in disbelief out the window. Then I thought about the plague infesting my body… and all I could think was, “Yup. It’s the apocalypse.”

Talk about pathetic fallacy. I managed to struggle out of bed and get my camera soaking wet, just to document the moment — for future proof that I hadn’t been delirious. In the end, I was spared a hospital visit by my travel medicine doctor in Montreal… more specifically, the little bottle of miracle antibiotics she prescribed in May. This was not the first time I’ve found myself deploying 1000 mg of cipro-fury on a stomach bug, and I never cease to be amazed at the effectiveness. I may name my first-born Ciprofloxacin.

Anyway, don’t feel too sorry for me. I’m better now. And a week from today I’ll be waking up here. Jealous? Distract yourself with this crazy story [via Goulet]. Or this awesome element of American society. (The whole rice and curry thing is getting old. I could really go for some grippachos or alligator jerky.)