Tuesday, April 25th:
Woke up to the humidity and street noises of Stone Town, Zanzibar. The historic part of this city is always alive with people. We had a few tours booked for the day to explore Stone Town in the short time we had there. Sher is not really a fan of tours but he booked them to try it out and because he knows that I love to learn the history and stories of a place from a local.
We started out with a spice tour. Zanzibar is an archipelago of islands that collectively are called Zanzibar (the second largest of the islands, Pemba, is our next destination) but the large island is commonly referred to as spice island or clove island. So it seemed important that we check out where all these spices come from and what they are used for.
Our guide on the spice tour had a very dry sense of humour and never laughed at his own jokes…. he was entertaining us the entire time with the different unexpected uses that people have for certain spices but he told it all with a straight face. I won’t list everything here since there was a lot of info but some of the most interesting things we learned were about vanilla, ginger, and nutmeg. Vanilla- the bees for pollinating vanilla flowers are only in Madagascar and they wouldn’t survive in Zanzibar so people have to hand pollinate them. If the local bees try, the plants will dry up. Ginger is used by men sometimes as a “natural Viagra, especially when they are old with several wives”, as our guide put it. And I thought it was known mainly for sore throat and nausea! Nutmeg is the woman’s version of ginger, apparently a powerful aphrodisiac. Our guide said that women grind and consume it to get over their shyness when they want to dance. Hmmm. And we learned that menthol actually comes from the roots of a cinnamon tree. Sher tasted some aloe (good for heartburn) but it was a lot more bitter than he expected. We bought some pure fragrances and soaps during the tour which Sher bargained hard for. But later we realized that we could have bought the soaps in the city for approximately 1/8th of the cost he was telling us on the spice tour! Ouch! We also slightly overpaid for the spices that we bought but not by as much.
After the spice tour, we went back to Stone Town for our walking city tour. I was excited to learn about the blend of Persian, Indian, African, and Arab influence that all came together in one place.
The tour was mainly a summary of what I had read on Wikipedia but the guide did show us some of the differences between the famous Zanzibar doors of Indian origins (rounded at the top and brass studs for elephant charging back in India) and Arabic origins (square top and usually mahogany wood).
He led us to the old slave market which was the most memorable part of the tour. Another guide took over there (you could easily find this place on your own and hire the guide) who brought us down into the very claustrophobic stone holding chambers underground underground where the slaves were kept for days, after their long journey from central and east Africa and before being put for sale in the harbour market. The low ceiling meant we had to stoop to walk in and couldn’t fully stand once in the rooms. There were two tiny rooms that looked more like walk-in closets, one unbelievably held 50 people and the other 75. There were slender vertical slits for windows at the far end of each room. My fear of small, especially underground, spaces was rampant and the heat made it hard to breathe. I did want to hear what the tour guide had to say so I stayed. The slaves were bound in the rooms by chains at the at their feet with not enough food or water but especially a lack of air. Many people died of suffocation but their best chance of survival was if they were lucky enough to get a spot near the slit windows. All these physical trials- the impossible journey on food from their homes to the harbours, the inhospitable storage rooms, the whipping and chains- were a way of weeding out the weaker people because only he strongest would usually survive. We finally left, to my relief. Even just ten or so minutes in that space was too much for me. By the time we got to the church built after slavery was abolished, I was already feeling nauseous. The church was built as a hopeful message, on top of the old market and whipping post (still marked off). I was enjoying the stories in the church and the cool air from the fans but I still felt pretty ill.
The rest of the humid afternoon walking on our tour was painful- especially the fish market! After I eventually ran back to the hotel to be sick, I washed my face and changed to cooler clothes so that Sher and I could continue on with our own touring.
We had read in the Swahili culture airline magazine about a historic public bath in Stone Town. It took a while to find but it was well worth it… for a few dollars entry fee, we got a FULL tour of the baths (who knew there would be so much to see) that are now no longer in use but are still the largest in Stone Town. They were built mainly for the sultan, his family, his guests (often foreigners), and wealthy locals. The guide forced us to sing in the echoing room (bad memories from the mehndi!) and then he showed us how advanced the plumbing and steam room system was for the sultan’s time. Sher climbed up the dome on the roof that the sultan used to love for the breeze and views but I opted to stay down since the steps were tiny and my dress could trip on them. He said the view was incredible up at the top, though. If you’re ever in Zanzibar, I recommend checking the Hamamni public bath out!
Later, we eventually found a tea house rooftop that Sher had read about and we booked a sunset dinner reservation. They were very strict about the time but we later found out that it makes sense because dinner was a coordinated event. We did a little shopping and then went back to our rooftop to relax for a bit until our reservation. I though it was odd that we didn’t just stay and eat at our rooftop but Sher was right in booking the reservation.
We went back to the other hotel (Emerson Hotel) by 6:15pm and walked up SO many stairs to arrive at probably one of the tallest rooftops in Stone Town. We could see the harbour with boats coming in and out, church tops, mosque minarets, and pretty much all of Stone Town. The seating was all cushions and we made it in time to watch the sunset while our appetizers arrived. They make guests feel like royalty at the restaurant, coming to wash your hands and attending to you while you feast. It’s a popular spot- lots of tourists plus one Arab couple celebrated their anniversary there and shared their cake with us all. We spent about three hours there and came to our hotel room at Mara Mara (did I mention, the same room that Bill Clinton previously stayed in?) to head to bed early since we have a busy travel day tomorrow.