The stair steps topped out at a restaurant and breakfast. Open-air dining reminded me of the rooftop restaurants in Istanbul. Since the population of Zanzibar is 97 % Muslim, Zanzibar felt familiar in a Turkish sort of way. The air moved with the ocean breezes, refreshing and moist as we sat down to oversized cups of dark roast coffee.
The rooftop view ends at the surrounding ocean. I have trouble with ocean views if they include rusting metal roofs, discarded, forgotten parts of machinery. I’m picky. I like my ocean views uninterrupted. As I dig into a plate of passion fruit, papaya, watermelon, and strawberries, the fruit sweet and juicy, I look down into the window of what appears to be an artist’s studio. I can’t help it, well I suppose I could, but I didn’t want to. I was curious. Large canvases leaned against unpainted walls. When the inspiration arrives, what lines and brush strokes will the artist paint today? A grey striped cat snoozes in a crooked window. I look for the cat every morning, the way I look for the artist. I see the cat, never the artist.
Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania. Also known as the Spice Islands, Zanzibar grows cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, turmeric, vanilla along with coconuts, papaya, and jackfruit. For years Zanzibar led the world in the production of cloves, but the island has lost its peak status, in part due to smuggling. Slave trading used to be big business. As many as 50,000 slaves a year passed through the slave market in Stone Town until threatened with bombardment by the British navy in 1873. The slave trade is over, tragically the trade in elephant ivory is not.
I joined Dennis on one of the walking tours. Our young guide, Abdul, was deeply distressed by the graft and corruption of his government. We have these discussions often, with Blacks because it’s the Black people who guide us, drive us, laugh with us, sing to us, teach us, cook for us. Usually, I empathize, but on this particular day, I was sinking into a funk listening to Abdul. Considering how the morning had gone, I figured we’d be hearing more of the same in the afternoon. I begged off the tour of the markets. I needed to be still, not push my physical and emotional limits.
Before leaving Stone Town, we took a side trip to a spice farm. We had visited one in India, but I don’t recall much, as I was far more interested in the elephant whose mahout (handler) offered us a ride. We fed the massive beast fruit and treats, a feeble offering for a sentient being enslaved by man. Rather than an elephant at the Zanzibar spice farm, we were met by a tall, slender guide paired with a small man, James, whose strength and agility might have earned him an Olympic medal in gymnastics. The tall guide whose name I’ve forgotten talked and explained, snapping branches, peeling bark, pinching berries, teaching us how to identify various spices.
James shimmied up and down palm trees and wove palm fronds into unexpected shapes: a bracelet, men’s tie, crowns, even a purse. The children we eventually adorned with his palm creations were delighted. Adorable and perpetually smiling I found James company refreshing. I expect others did as well.
Cinnamon is my all-time favorite spice. Its fragrance evokes winter afternoons in Northern Iowa when the cloud cover hung low—a snow sky. Bursting through the door from school, I was treated to the smell of yeast and cinnamon. Homemade rolls cooled on the stove top. I could barely get my coat and boots off fast enough before I pulled a roll from the cluster of buns. Warm, with a soft texture, not gooey, just right I unwound the pastry the way mother had rolled them up to place in the pan to rise. Unlike my brothers who plowed through the rolls like a horse up to its’ forelock in a bag of oats, I wanted to make the experience last. My mother and I may have had a difficult relationship, but when it came to her cinnamon rolls, we were in agreement, hers were top-notch. The cinnamon I bought in Zanzibar was flavorless. Like some wines, the nose was far better than the taste.
Memories attached to cinnamon were brief as we passed the spice farm the following morning. The further we distanced ourselves from Stone Town the better. We were on our way to Matemwe Eco Lodge stretched along a coral rag cliff next to the Indian Ocean. First, we had to drive through New Town. As the name implies, it is newer than the city, but new doesn’t mean better. It would be a stretch to describe New Town as anything other than rickety shacks. One room houses provided a roof over the heads of many but I expect would leak or collapse if the ‘long rains’ of March, April, and May were intense. The houses stretched for miles appearing to be only a few blocks deep on either side of the road. Furniture and brick makers, industries associated with the building trades, predominated. Gobs of people swamped buses or rode three at a time on small motorbikes and bicycles. It was commerce Zanzibar style. Once free of the black-top, we turned onto a kidney-shaker of a dirt road for the last few miles to the lodge.
Our villa, like all eleven villas at Matemwe, was secluded among palm trees. The Indian ocean stretched before us under a softly clouded sky. A few dug-out canoed islanders paddled by; fishing is over for the day. I liked Stone Town, but for me, it was a one-time visit. I’m a fan of wide open spaces whether they be wet or dry. I don’t care for the crush of people, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars, buses, and the accompanying noise and smell. I am not energized by city life.
For three glorious days, we rested, soaked-up the laid-back lifestyle of an island paradise. A snorkeling excursion near an island not far from our villa was just okay. I struggle with swim fins. Maybe it’s because my legs are long. The addition of another eighteen inches of fin is supposed to give me a more powerful kick. With a 34-inch inseam, I now have two 52 inch legs to manage. I have fin-envy as I watch people glide through the water like fictitious mermaids or graceful dancers their flippers an easy extension of their legs. In spite of my floundering, I saw a few dolphins. Mostly what I saw was a reef void of color much like what I saw snorkeling in Cancun, Mexico. There, the dying reef is due to pollution and global warming. Off the coast of Zanzibar, it is attributed to blast fishing.
Easy days ended in tropical evenings, a glass of wine, meals noteworthy for seafood, the air fragrant with flowers. At night, housekeeping draped mosquito netting around our bed and burned mosquito coils. I drenched myself in mosquito repellant, but still, they came. Maybe they had grown bored with the blood of the natives, finding our red cells especially tasty. As Abdallah, our Ugandan guide, would teach me on our next trip, the first thing he inspected when he checked into a hotel was the mosquito netting. I never felt them bite, nor heard them. What I heard were galagos or bushbabies, nocturnal and noisy, scampering through the trees calling to one another.
Late afternoon of our last day, I saw the sign in the open-air bar: bushbaby feeding 7:00 pm. We arrived long before 7:00, as I was determined not to miss the show. Bananas were cut and plated for the small primates. I stared at the tree trunk from which they would descend, excited like I was awaiting Mick Jagger to take the stage, rather than a bushbaby scooting down a tree limb for bananas. Not surprisingly, I heard them before I saw them. The human baby-like cries and their stuffed-animal size are the reasons they are commonly called bushbabies. Enormous, orange-gold eyes dominate a diminutive face topped with sensitive, whippy ears capable of detecting insects at night. In addition to insects, they eat fruit, leaves, flowers, acacia gum, and small lizards. I was surprised at the size and length of the bushy tail. Further surprised by the soft feet, the slow, controlled reach to lift banana slices from my fingers. When we ran out of bananas, we ran out of bush babies.
Initially, I thought the touch of a bush baby was an endearing farewell to Zanzibar, but that was before I learned of their technique for marking territory, urine washing. They pee on their hands and feet leaving sticky footprints for others to acknowledge. If that doesn’t work, they do what most species do when territory is threatened, they fight. Considering their agility and pint-sized strength, I suspect a bushbaby fight is bloody ugly. Still, to be close to these cuddly looking sprites was a thrill, urine markings and all.