Drawing Inspiration From Zanzibar!

We arrived in February during the Sauti Za Busara Music Festival, my two girlfriends and I. The hotel we reserved online was booked when we went to check in. All of the other hotels on the island were full. We overheard a South African man tell a Belgian woman about a beautiful hotel on the water at the northern tip of the island and thus began our two week improvised and utterly whimsical adventure in Zanzibar.  Everything worked out perfectly in the end and exceeded expectations. There was romance, there were encounters with wildlife, there were private beaches and music, savory food, perfect weather and more intended and unintended adventures than I can count.

When I think of Zanzibar, I am reminded of:

  • Rolling green spice plantations, the greenest, green, in vibrant bursts and dewy shadows. A cacophony of hues. A reminder to breathe, savor, and let go.
  • The deep and stirring sound of the Islamic call to prayer.  Everything would stop once the song rang out. The echo seemed to emanate from every building in Stone Town, reverberated off the fishing boats docked in the still water. Colorful mats were unfurled as around us, people dropped to their knees in ritual prayer.
  • The rich musk of the earth, the fragrance of fresh rain combined with the sweet crispy smoke of a wood burning stove. This scent followed us from the sprawling spice plantations inland, to the coral forests and even the white sand beaches along the coast.
  • Covering my head in Stone Town and feeling like I was in another world. My first time in a Muslim country, we followed polite protocol when wandering through the bazaars and markets in the less touristy areas. I was draped in a long white crepe scarf with blue and gold embroidery at the edges that I picked up in Ethiopia during an epic layover belonging to another adventure. Beneath that scarf, I witnessed the heartbeat of Zanzibar. So many wonderful smells, colors and textures were presented to me in the markets and bazaars.
  • Attempting to climb to the top of a palm tree and failing every time, but believing with each attempt that the next would be my moment of glory.
  • Hakuna Matata- really there were no worries in the Zanzibar of my memory. There was a care free charge in the energy in the air. The climate, mild, the people friendly and strikingly beautiful. A UNESCO world heritage site, the old colonial buildings of Stone Town, stood resplendent in the setting sun. Intricate Arabic architecture gave the space a distinctive charm and character. The happy hiccups of spoken Swahili, "Jambo" or "Mambo," or being greeted with the Islamic phrase "Assalam Alaikum." I found my land of Hakuna Matata.

Zanzibar, what a pleasure and an honor it was to be in your presence.

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Zanzibar On a Whim

We  arrived in Zanzibar without a concrete plan. We started off in Stone Town because being the capital, it was where the airport was and it was where the bulk of the music festival was. We booked our first night at a hotel and that fell through, so after securing lodging for the first few days, we became drifters, relying on the kindness of and tips from strangers.

We were not led astray. The people that we encountered, locals and ex-pats alike, were so friendly and super-accommodating.

While at dinner in Stone Town one day, we were approached by a South African man in town for the music festival. He joined our table, and happened to mention that he owned a beach front bungalow resort on the other side of the island. One thing led to another, and two days later, we were off to meet our new friend and stay on his resort to experience the ocean for a few days. We got a great discount and we were the only guests since it was off-peak season. It was wonderful.

While out at a bar, one night on the other side of the island, we connected with a friend of a friend of Shaka's who owned a kite-sailing business on yet another exclusive side of the island. One thing led to another and we were invited to stay with them for a few days. We were completely taken care of. He put us up in the spare bedrooms in his house, shared his pet dogs and monkeys with us, introduced us to his friends and took us out to his favorite bars and restaurants.

Had we followed a guidebook, we would not have had this experience. Guidebooks are great, don't get me wrong. I use them all of the time, but sometimes, you just need to follow your gut and soak up an experience.

In addition, while at the music festival, I met a dj from Kenya, Abdul, who also took the time out of his busy schedule to show us around Stone Town and introduce us to friends and family members of ours. We were able to gain an inside perspective on the culture, learn a few words in Swahili and got to see our new surroundings from a beautiful local perspective. The wonderful people you meet when you travel, can truly become some of your most respected friends.

me and abdul making faces

Thank you to everyone who made our trip to Zanzibar a journey to remember.

Eating out in Stone Town

Stone Town boasts a host of delicious restaurants. Remember that spice tour I was raving about? Well, the food in Zanzibar definitely benefits from the use of those spices as seasoning. Once again, I'm not talking spicy overkill, people know how to balance and blend spices so that they enhance the food naturally.

We had so many great meals!

By the way, vegetarians of the world, you'd be in heaven. So many of the dishes were meatless and full of beans, lentils and dark green leafy goodness.

Spice Island Spice Tour

Zanzibar, the hub of the Arabic trade route is known for its exotic spices. We took a guided group tour to see what all of this spice talk was about.

Our tour left from Stone Town and took us about two hours into the dense mountains of Zanzibar Island.

As an Ayurvedic practitioner, I was so excited about this tour. I couldn't wait to hear about the different spices grown here, their origins and the various ways in which they are used (in a culinary sense as well as healing).

Our guides were knowledgeable and led us through spice and fruit plantations, describing in detail each item as well as the origin and possible uses.

We also got to sample some great fruit.

At the end of the tour, we were welcomed by the people of a local village. We played with the children and did some spice shopping as a group of local women prepared a meal for us that incorporated the spices we learned about on the tour.

Our meal was delicious so amazing. The spices were subtle, not at all overwhelming, and blended together perfectly. This was not a spicy mystery curry moment, the food emanated gourmet goodness.

If you find yourself in Zanzibar, a spice tour is a must. There are many companies that offer these tours which depart from various points of the island. Go ahead, give one a try, you won't be sorry.

Chumbe Island Coral Park

The Island of Zanzibar rests on one gigantic fertile coral reef. We took a tour through Chumbe Island Coral Park to get a sense of the flora and fauna of this amazing island. *Note: If you are afraid of monkeys swinging in trees above your head, hollering loudly, this tour may not be fore you- lol.

"You will see Colobus monkeys in the canopies, but they can not hurt you." This is the first thing our guide said, and within minutes, I was snapping away like a national geographic photographer on assignment. Monkeys they promised and monkeys they delivered.

There was also a chameleon sighting.

The park was so lush and green. It was a magical experience. At one point we were so deep into the forest that all we could hear were the distant sounds of monkeys above us and the steady stream of water below us. At some point on the tour, I decided to strike a few yoga poses as we crossed a bridge. The funniest moment was when I attempted to go into crow pose. All of a sudden we heard the frantic screams of our guide "Miss, please, please miss. You must not do that. You will fall." I'm sure he thought I was insane.

This was a great day!

Sauti Za Busara

We are so lucky, our February break corresponds perfectly with the Sauti Za Busara music festival, a week-long festival celebrating the best of East African Music. The festival kicks off right here in Stone Town and then travels to various points around the island- hence the booked hotel rooms and heavy tourism.

Zanzibar has its own unique blend of music called Tarab music. It is a blend of Arabic and Swahili, very unique to the island. We were fortunate enough to see a concert by Bi Kidude, the mother of Tarab music. She reminded me of Nina Simone, the way she sauntered and swayed on stage. Kidude had to have been at least 90 years old and going strong. After this performance there were a series of films presented at a nearby cafe chronicling the music on the island as well as her life story.

The music festival was also a great way to support local artists and artisans. There were so many vendor booths set up with goods from jewelry, to carvings, to batik prints and clothes and artwork. Granted, yes, you will pay more considering the large gathering of tourists, but haggling is expected and at the end of the day, the American dollar converted so well, I didn't mind being taken from time to time, it puts food in people's mouths.

Discovering Historic Stone Town

Stone Town is a gritty urban hub seeped deeply in tradition. The Arabic influence is strong, and is reflected in everything from the architecture, the genetic make-up of many of the people, and Islam, the predominant religion.

A city situated right on the water, Stone Town was a major stop on the Arabic trade route hence Zanzibar's reputation as Spice Island, due to all of the trading and cultural blending that occurred on the island.

Why Visit Zanzibar?

February in New York is so cold, dreary and miserable. Memories of Mozambique have been creeping back, slowly luring me once again to Africa. This time, two of my co-workers Luisa and Shaka are with me. Winter break 2009- Zanzibar. We've got ten days and an entire island to explore. Why Zanzibar?

a) None of us has ever been

b) Ethiopian Airlines is running a buy one ticket get another free special

c) How romantic and amazing does Zanzibar sound, how could we not go?

Not a single one of us felt the need to purchase a guide-book. We didn't book hotel rooms because we wanted the freedom to travel around the island. Instead we booked our first night in Stone Town and are going to leave the rest up to serendipity.

Unfortunately, after excitedly clamoring out of our taxi, to our hotel, we were told that there are no rooms. No rooms?!? We reserved a room and paid in advance and everything.The man gave us a refund and wished us luck. This was not the note we had hoped to start our Zanzabari adventure on. It took us about three hours to find another hotel room. Apparently February is busy season in Stone Town (the capital).

Alas, several hours later, we had a room, had showered and changed, and were ready to hit the cobblestone road.