Saturday, May 26, 2012

I'll come back to Zanzibar...

“Our ancestors came from Zanzibar; we are spice traders for generations,” said Riyadh a shop owner inside the famous Muttrah Market in Muscat, the capital city of the Sultanate of Oman.

Being a history buff, I knew that as early as 8th century AD, Arabs from present day Oman migrated to Zanzibar, an Indian Ocean island near mainland Africa, to grow and trade in spices. Eventually the island became the hub of global spice trade, drew attention of other Arab, Asian and European traders and after many fiery encounters among themselves, the Omani Sultans, towards the end of the 17th century, established claim to the land and ruled from there for the next 200 years.

While buying some cloves and cinnamon from Riyadh, I decided to visit Zanzibar one day to see for myself the growing of spices that ornament our kitchen shelves and aromatise our food.

And the opportunity soon knocked my door when planning a trip to Kenya and Tanzania for a wildlife safari.
“Travellers to east African wilderness often cool off their mind-blowing safari experience by taking it easy for a few days in Zanzibar,” said my travel agent with a sales pitch, not knowing I was already sold on this one.

So when my eight-seater plane from Serengeti National Park in Tanzania touched ground at Zanzibar's Kisauni Airport, I felt happy to tick off another item from my bucket list.

Living as a partner state of Tanzania, Zanzibar comprises two main islands — Unguja and Pemba and a chain of tiny land masses, Unguja being the main population centre and entry point for most visitors, either by sea or air. At its heart lies the UNESCO World Heritage listed Stone Town, the cultural and historical epicenter of Zanzibar, from where once the Omani Sultans and European colonisers thrived. Most of the hotels for modern day visitors are also located here.
Unique character

Located almost 35 km away from the mainland, the island presents a picture of an old waterfront settlement in need of tender loving care. Its character doesn't match with the rest of Africa; appears more like the old time Middle East or may be India with a strong spirit of cosmopolitanism emanating from the different races and cultures that have lived and survived on its soil.
Recorded account says that quest for spices inspired the Assyrians, Sumerians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Indians, Chinese, Persians, Portuguese, Arabs, Dutch and English to mark their footprints on Zanzibari soil at one time or another.

As the hot and humid conditions perfectly suited growing spices, the Arabs got straight into this but soon added ivory and humans in their list of exports, the latter two having no less demand than the spices. They obtained ivory by killing elephants found in abundance in the mainland forests; captured humans as slaves from neighbouring regions and established power from Zanzibar over 1,000 miles of the mainland coast from Mozambique to Somalia. Later on they were joined by traders from India, most of who eventually made Zanzibar their home.

European flavour swept the island when Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, on his way to India in 1499 stopped at Zanzibar and consequently established a colony, which lasted for the next 200 years till ousted by the Omani Sultans. During their time, trading of spices and slaves boomed to such an extent that the Sultans didn't even hesitate to shift their capital from the Persian Gulf to Zanzibar. Several entrepreneurs like Riyadh's ancestors, moved in here to make money. A majority of land ownership came under the Arab and Indian merchants, whom local Africans who were descendants of African slaves pitched as nothing but plunderers. The regime continued with flying colours, later under a British protectorate, till 1963 when Zanzibar became fully independent as a constitutional monarchy.

However, local Africans didn't favour this and a bloody insurgency followed. On one fateful night the rebels killed over 10,000 Arabs and Indians and formed a new republic which a year later joined mainland Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanzania.

I got this background information from omniscient guide Mark while on our way to a large spice plantation where we saw the growing of a diverse range of familiar species, such as cloves, nutmeg, vanilla, ginger, chillies, black pepper, turmeric, cardamom and cinnamon. The aroma and taste of all of them are familiar, but I didn't know how they actually grow and land on our kitchen table.

Spice world
It was a discovery to find nutmeg is like the pit of an apple-like fruit, vanilla is a vine, cinnamon sticks are barks and pepper is hot, green and fresh-tasting before it is dried and ground to become black pepper. Spreading much of the inland area, there are several plantations that are said to be growing almost 50 per cent of the spices, particularly cloves, the world consumes.
Fresh spices and abundant seafood obviously make Zanzibar a haven for foodies. A great place to be gastronomically satisfied is at the open-air street food market in the waterfront Forodhani Gardens in Stone Town. Soaked in a magical twilight atmosphere, the precinct comes alive after sunset with several food stalls serving grilled seafood and meat, the quality and taste of some of which can put many a five star hotels in shame. My freshly grilled crab, lobster and prawns, satisfactorily spiced, were cooked to such perfection that it's thought still waters my mouth.

Stone Town justifies a visit on its own. Clustered with decrepit sites of great historical significance, this fabled quarter of winding alleyways, bustling bazaars, mosques and temples and impressive architecture, reveals a mystical journey into a world of another time. Visitors spend time at the former Sultan's Palace, now a museum exhibiting memorabilia of the Omani rulers; House of Wonders, the National Museum portraying the island nation's history and culture; an ancient Omani Fort with an amphitheatre; Anglican Cathedral built on the site of the former slave market; four-storey Old Dispensary building reminiscent of British-India colonial architecture, Mnara Mosque, decorated with double chevron pattern and Tippu Tip's house, Tippu being East Africa's most notorious slave trader.

The aqua fanatics head off to one of many beach front resorts where the serene ambience promises rejuvenation of mind, body and soul, while incredible underwater scenery makes snorkeling and diving popular among the adventure minded.

Source: The Hindu

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