Zanzibari Dreams

Sitting on the old and squeaky chair in my tiny little room of my dorm, looking back at this summer feels like diving into a dream. If only I had words to describe how grateful I am for all the beauty and love I was able to witness this summer and for visiting places that looked like the tropical paradise described in a storybook.

Following the days we spent in Swaziland and South Africa, we boarded a Kenya Airways flight to Zanzibar Island. Ah, Zanzibar. Simply saying the name evokes images of white sand beches and warm tropical winds in me. Especially visiting Stonetown, the former capital of the Zanzibar Sultanate, and flourishing centre of the spice trade, felt like going back in time: hand carved wooden doors, spice bazaars, colorful garments and traditional wooden dows cruising on the calm waters under the sunset sky.

There is a saying that states that if Zanzibar Town is the archipelago’s heart, Stone Town is its soul – I could not agree more. Besides the stunning beaches and historical dhows, the houses in Zanzibar’s Stonetown conquered a special part of my heart and my memory. Not only were they absolutely beautiful with their white walls and oriental architecture, they also were living proof of Zanzibar’s past and reflected its particular culture which has brought together and homogenized disparate elements of the cultures of Africa, the Arab region, India, and Europe over more than a millennium. Stone Town carries its name for a reason: most of the houses were built from coral stone which the town its characteristic white and reddish warm colour. I fell in love with the island’s rich melange of culture that was particularly reflected by its architecture: Arabic-style houses with their recessed inner courtyards,with Indian-influenced buildings boasting ornate balconies and latticework, and bustling little oriental bazaars alternated with street-side vending stalls. Since most streets were too narrow for cars, the town was full of bycicles and motorcycles, and its magical jumble of cobbled alleyways made it easy to spend days wandering around and getting lost – although I did not manage to get lost for long because, sooner or later, I ended up on either the seafront watching the beautiful shades of blue that shimmer in the water. Each twist and turn of the narrow streets brings something new – a school full of children chanting verses from the Quran, a beautiful old mansion with overhanging verandas full of flower pots, or a street window with colorful scarfs and artworks.

While the town was famous for its houses, the houses were famous for their beautiful and hand carved wooden doors with beautiful and intricate designs. I did a little bit of reading about them after I returned home and my fascination for them simply grew more. The Arab influence in Zianzibar, for example, is seen in the older doors; they are square, like the houses, and feature geometric designs. The “newer” doors, dating primarily to the late 19th century, reflect Indian influence and have arched tops and floral designs. The most common elements we saw were passages from the Quran, fish (I later found out, that fish were epresenting the wish for many children), date trees (a symbol of abundance) and lotus flowers (signifying regeneration) At last count, thewere 560 carved doors in Zanzibar. The oldest door discovered in Zanzibar is dated AD 1694. When a house was built in Zanzibar, the door was traditionally the first part to be erected. The greater the wealth and social position of the owner of the house, the larger and more elaborately carved his front door. Many doors are studded with brass spikes. This may be a modification of the Indian practice of studding doors with sharp spikes of iron to prevent their being battered in by war elephants. In 915 AD, an Arab traveller recorded that Zanzibar island abounded in elephants, and around 1295 Marco Polo wrote that Zanzibar had ‘elephants in plenty’. However, unfortunately, there are no elephants here now, and the brass studs seen today are purely for decoration.

During one of our nights in Stonetown we decided to have dinner at the Forodhani Gardens, a seaside park built in 1936 to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of Sultan Khalifa (r 1911–60). During the day, it would be merely a park with locals and tourists sitting on the benches and enjoying the se abreeze, at night however, almost the entire would fill up methodically with chefs dressed in whites and tall hats setting up stands and grills. Row after row of grills with fish, squid, prawn, lobster, crab claw and seafood kebabs filled our view, the air wafting with hunger-inducing smells. I have not hd such a difficult time deciding on what to eat in a very long time! Walking along the different food stalls I quickly had to realize that it was not only the fresh seaood that was tempting:  chapatis, salads, beef skewers and falafel… and many more delicacies were waiting. Once we had chosen our local treats, we grabbed them on a paper plate or rolled into a piece of newspaper and joined both the locals and tourists on the benches to eat them, while simultaneously being surrounded by a lare group of stray cats that were waiting for leftovers.

During our days in Stonetown we stayed with probably the kindest and loveliest Airbnb host one could have the pleasure to be hosted by. So, let me introduce to you Benjamin Bink, or simply “Benj”: an Australian filmmaker and photographer with lots of awe-inspiring stories to tell. His apartment, located in the heart of Stonetown and just a few minute walks away from the beach and street-vendors quickly felt like home. When Ben was not working on one of his projects or when he was not out to meet a client, he spoiled us with delicious food and shared his previous works with us. If you are curious about Zanzibar and would like to see more photos of the locals and the incredible mix of cultures and modern-traditional lifestyle, then definitely go and check out his latest project: Zanzibar.Friday.1pm.  My favorite piece of work by him, however, is definitely “Mongolian Bling”: “a feature length documentary that explores traditions, culture, western influence, music, identity and what it means to be Mongolian in this day and age for the country’s youth. The story is told through the eyes of three of the country’s rappers with a colourful supporting cast including a shaman, a traditional musician, old rappers and everyday Mongolians.” If that caught your attention, simply click here and the link will take you to the documentary’s website. 😀

We spent our last few days in Zanzibar in Paje, a little coastal side town on the other side of Zanzibar island, away from the hustle and bustle of the city (and also as a little resting opportunity before heading off to busy Dar Es Salaam on mainland Tanzania) Paje is beautiful… a little dreamy and very peaceful (except for Friday nights when the beach would turn into a party venue for tourists and locals from all neighbourhoods around Paje – quite a spectacle! With bonfires and African house music) We stayed at a cute little place right by the waterside, named Jambo Beach Bungalows, that – as its name suggests – consists of bungalows build right on the white sand of the beach. These bungalows (traditionally called “bandas”) were made of palm leaves and reed – what else could one ask for? We fell asleep at night to the sounds of the waves gently reaching the shore and woe up in the mornings to warm white sand right on our doorstep.  🙂

Within one day of our stay at Jambo Beach Bungalows we quickly realized that Paje was also a prime location to witness the spectacle of incoming and outgoing tides. When the tide was high, the turquois blue waters did not even need to invite us to come and swim in them – and despite the fact that there is nothing more I love than swimming or being in the water, I must admit that in Paje I could not wait for the tide to be low. During these times, when the water had seemingly completely vanished, Jambo Beach Bungalows looked like it was located in a white desert, with nothing but blindingly white sand everywhere. We took many low tide walks, strolling out as far as we could and enjoying the beauty of little crabs and other invertebrates leaving their traces on the wet sand.

During low tide, we were not only able to witness the inhabitants of the ocean floor “in action” as I would like to call it, but also had the chance to see and tour through sea weed farms: rows and rows of sea weed planted on strings and collected by women when time had come.  Seaweed farming is the second biggest industry on the island of Zanzibar and Paje is home to Zanzibar’s biggest Seaweed Center.  It is a social enterprise that enables the women of Paje to not only harvest their seaweed – which is one of the biggest export products – but also make a healthy living out of transforming it into desirable organic soaps, scrubs and essential oils. It creates opporunities for female seaweed farmers to improve their standard of living and engage in economic development activities that benefit the whole community.

One night, when the tide was low, we decided to take another long walk and walk out on the exposed sand as far as we could. Over us, the sky looked like a painting: the midnight blue and black canvas reckled  by a canopy of luminous stars. Some were dull, merely flickering into existence every now and then, others looked like carefully placed diamonds waving at us. The milky way resembled the gentle haze of a whitecloud that was stretched thinly over the dark sky. It was the most beautiful night sky I have ever seen – I don’t remember the last time I felt like I was looking directly at the universe.

Asante Sana, Zanzibar, for welcoming us with such warmth and for bearing witness to unforgettable memories.