The island Zanzibar was our park today and we drove all over it. We toured villages for culture and photographs, had lunch on a deck by the Indian ocean in a remote village, dad and I prayed in a tiny congregation in a tiny village mosque while the rest consulted the village medicine man and finally we made our way up to the Ras Nungwi resort on the NW shore of the island.
Last night we took a walk thru Stonetown, Zanzibar which is the old historic city. Only one single distinctive feature separates old town Zanzibar from old-town-india or old-town-most-3rd-world-
oldcities. The doors. The
entrances to many ordinary homes are of beautifully carved wood with
depictions of gardens, flowers, animals, crests, symbols and Arabic
prayers. There are metal plated knobs on large doors to prevent them
from being rammed by elephants. These were created by Indian artisans
who didn’t know that Zanzibar had no elephants! In fact some of the
homes are old, broken-down and decrepit
However the thing that hit me hardest was the material poverty of these people. As we walked the narrow stone-paved alleyways, there were living rooms and kitchens in plain view and it didn’t take much to see that neither money nor comfort was making it into those lives. Kids smiled and appeared to be innocently leading a communal battle against hopelessness. Our eyes and cameras captured laundry drying, furniture staining, grain being sold by the gunny sacks, tea shop displays encroaching upon the small alleyways, garbage waiting at corners for pickup, cat-fighting, a motor being disassembled, a coil being wound, fritters protesting in hot oil, women in niqab buying Qurans and lots and lots of children posing for us with big uninhibited smiles while a few shied away. Old city Stone town in Zanzibar is like inner Ajmer, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Karachi… a deep and layered display of life and people…one that is great for the camera shots and National Geographic and even for the movies. But none of this poverty, inadequacy, impoverishment, limitedness, paucity … lack of the necessary minimum ’stuff’ to live-by is good for those who are living it. Kids, animals and adults all stunted by this deep poverty. I can’t photograph this.
Zanzibaris are a little different from their mainland Tanzanian counterparts in that many more of them are muslim. Zanzibar is a muslim city. The Adhan (call to prayer) is spilling out of mosques along our route, multitudes of Hijab wearing women and children are swarming in and out of schools along the way and the greetings of salaam-aliakum are exchanged at every introduction. This is very interesting to me, because the moment we say As-salaam-alaikum to one another we proclaim a spiritual brotherhood, we establish the baseline of respectable interaction and open this wifi connection that wasn’t there previously. The shy start taking, the intimidated find courage and the uninterested are suddenly mindful. They want to know who and how this foreigner looking person shares their faith. Most are gleeful and happily shocked at this new I-just-found-the-wierdest-
One such emaciated old man (must have been my age) told me he had typhoid several years ago and asked for my money and prayers, a street sweeper looked up and shook my hand as the dust of his disbelief settled, two schoolgirls looked the other way perhaps recognizing it as a pickup line and a few looked at me with their I-know-that-gimmick expression. I felt at home in Zanzibar in that once introduced I felt safe from getting ripped off in any exchange. Not logical…just a blind faith.
At dinner last night on the rooftop of the double tree hotel, Chef Shafeek surprised us with a coconut soup that was out of this world. Crab meat had sunk to the bottom of the coconut in which this lovely elixir was served. I was happy, a meal that starts well has at least one good course! Next came the Zanzibari Fish curry loaded once again with coconut and spices. It felt like a bit of Indian cooking blended with a little Carribean flavoring, a pinch of Spanish spices and some African herbs and masala. Superb.
Dessert this afternoon on the shores of the Indian ocean was served on the 2nd floor of the ‘Peace of Mind restaurant’ on the waterfront of the most rundown seaside village you have ever seen. Yes this overripe plantain covered with coconut milk and little bits of magic was by far the culinary home run of Zanzibar! I can only imagine what Anthony Bourdain would have proclaimed after eating this beauty!
Mr Haji our guide then took us to his home where 5 photographers crowded at the base of a tall palm tree pointing their lenses upward like hounds pointing their snarls and fangs at the mountain-lion they had just run up the tree. A young boy was climbing the tree and I am not sure if the photos of his athletic frame sliding up the tree or the coconuts he threw down were the real attraction to the the crew assembled below. Nevertheless Mrs Haji shaved the coconut from the shells and passed around the fresh coconut water to drink and cream to eat. Heavenly! I must get more tomorrow before the clock strikes midnight.