Zanzibar (1): How far would you go to protect a secret?

   Watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.
― Roald Dahl

Zanzibar is an island, that allures travellers for so many reasons. To start with the name — it works like a magic trick. Whisper slowly Z a n z i b a r and you have everyone’s undivided attention. There’s something sexy, exotic, hypnotizing even in the name of the place. Well-known for cloves, cinnamon, ivory and slave trade, it is also a birth place of Freddy Mercury. Did he have Zanzibar at the back of his mind writing Crazy Little Thing Called Love? Who knows. Zanzibar is warm all year round due to its position near to the equator, so yes beach lovers, it’s a place for you to go! Not interested in pristine beaches? Really? Still I have something for you: In 1896, there was the Anglo-Zanzibar conflict in the capital lasting around 40 minutes, which was apparently… the shortest war in the world’s history! Is it funny or amusing? I still can’t decide. Zanzibar has so much to offer, it has a real potential to make everyone happy, and that variety is the biggest asset. I’ll take you around few places, please sit back, relax and enjoy the journey!

STONE TOWN

The House of Wonder – checked. Old Fort – checked. Anglican Cathedral and former slave market checked. Temples, mosques, palaces, museums. Checked, checked and checked. Usually I promote dynamic sightseeing and active exploring, but Stone Town is a place to slow down. Running around magical old town is one of the worst mistakes you can make, wander instead and get lost, slowly but surly, in a maze of narrow, esoteric streets full of exotic architecture. Feel the rhythm of the place, smell the spices, talk to people and focus on details — they will tell you the real history, because Stone Town is the heart and soul of Zanzibar, where beauty is hidden in unimposing ordinariness.

Let me give you an example: meander around and marvel at the artistically refined doors. Stone Town is well-known for its elaborately craved doors, an unusual form of a ‘business card’ of the house owner. There were two schools of decoration: Indian, with Taj Mahal-style minarets and heavy brass studs (in India to protect from aggressive elephants, in Zanzibar purely for aesthetic purpose), and Arabic, with arabesques and quotes from Holy Koran. Looking at the door not only can you guess the cultural background of the owner, but also his profession and whether he was involved in a slave trade or not. Symbolic meaning behind the design is truly compelling. How should you read it? Here’s the clue: a chain-like ornament around the frame: I am a slave trader, vines: I am involved in spice market, geometric figures: I’m an accountant, pineapple: welcome to my house, date palms: I am rich. Are you ready to play the game and guess the secret messages behind each door?

You might wonder, where that variety has come from. Stone Town was an ancient trading hub, a crossroad between Arabs, Persians, Indians, Europeans and East Africans. Nowadays, it’s mainly Muslim by religion, Swahili by food and culture, a true melting pot that still echoes past influences at every turn. Wandering around Stone Town is a true history lesson. Sometimes bitter and heartbreaking, like visiting the slave market, a stark reminder of island’s past, but many times also cheerful, like browsing though the art world of Tingatinga paintings.

PRISON ISLAND

Take a deep breath and relax for a while, it’s a beach time! We’ll leave the busy life of the capital to escape for a half-day tour to the nearby island. Prison Island, known also as Changuu Island, is a quick gate-away to a little paradise. Regardless the name, no prisoners were ever kept there, instead it was converted into a quarantine station for yellow fever cases. Nowadays, it has only positive reputation and it is such a joy to be there. Just 30 minutes away from Stone Town, there’s no hassle of getting there. If you catch a sunset, it is a real treat! I had a pleasure to travel with a group of wonderful people, who made my stay truly unforgettable. Once we reached the island, a tour guide explained us the history behind the place. The island still belongs to the government, but now it turned into a guesthouse resort with the one main attraction: giant tortoises from Seychelles. There is a dedicated foundation, which takes care of tortoises’s well-being, feeding them, monitoring their health and providing a general welfare. Adding to that, the island has a lovely white beach for sunbathing, making it a perfect place to rest from bustling streets of Stone Town.

JOZANI NATIONAL PARK & THE ROCK

Zanzibar is famous for spices, vanilla, clove, cinnamon, no doubt about that. However, I wasn’t much interested in doing a spice tour. If you did the tour, my dear reader, please share your thoughts with us in the comment below. I decided to travel to Jozani National Park instead. The little forest is known mainly for Red Colobus monkeys, which are unique to Zanzibar. This species of wild monkey can’t be found anywhere else and it is fun to watch and feed them! The whole surrounding is rather quiet and peaceful, again a nice break from the busy capital. The park is also on the way to the most famous Zanzibar restaurant – The Rock. A little architectural gem in the middle of nowhere. The middle of nowhere in that case was conveniently located on the south-east cost of the island, precisely in the middle of the Indian Ocean. For me, an art and architecture lover, it is a must to go there. As per the relevant name, the restaurant is indeed located on the rock, which customers can reach by foot with low tide or by boat with high tide. In design it is tropical, rustic and lovable. The Rock is charming, very romantic to my taste, the food flavourful and the overall experience very delightful. If you have a chance: go!

Zanzibar has so much to offer, but it also has some secrets, the places unobtainable for tourists. You might be surprised, but there is an island called Tumbatu, just few kilometres off the west coast of Zanzibar, where population drastically cut themselves off from the tourism industry, not allowing any foreigners to enter the island at all. Uninviting character of the place is quite intriguing for me. Do they hide some secrets from others? Do they really feel such a need to protect their heritage from outsiders? Is it their choice or an obligation? They’ve made a great effort to isolate themselves, they went an extra mile. What about you, how far would you go to protect a secret?

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