Apparently there is a lot to do on Zanzibar, the Swahili island enclave off the coast of Tanzania. There are a slew of museums as well as dolphin tours, sunset cruises, snorkeling and diving trips, spice tours, and more. But don’t ask me for any recommendations on which of these are worth your while; we didn’t do any of them.* In our five days on Zanzibar, we did nothing but walk, walk, walk. When the touts on the street asked what tour we wanted to book with them, we said we were just going to spend the day walking around. When the taxi drivers asked if we were ready to go for a ride, we said we’re rather just walk. And we weren’t just giving them the shrug off; for us, the magic of Zanzibar was uncovered by walking.
Stone Town, the heart of Zanzibar, is a maze of tiny alleys, none which are signed, some of which end abruptly, and all of which are full of wonders waiting to be discovered. Down one you might find a madrassah, or Islamic school, from which the sounds of children chanting verses from the Koran or simple math equations emanates. When school lets out, the children flood the streets, kicking balls, licking ice cream cones, giggling with friends, and doing the things that children everywhere do. Turn down another street and you’ll find one of the island’s many mosques, all well-equipped with megaphones so that no one misses the 5:15 a.m. call to prayer. Choose another path and you might end up in the market amid tables of spices and men neatly cutting the peels off oranges.
In every alley, you’ll find architecture to marvel over: intricately carved doors and balconies and colorful plates of glass in the windows.
Time and again as you make your way through the maze, you’ll have to hug the wall so a man in a robe and skull cap on a mopedÂ or a boy on a bicycle can speed past, and you’ll want to stop repeatedly to say “Jambo” to the children peering at you, watched over by mothers in brightly patterned kangas or black robes and head scarves.
If you’re out after dark and play your cards right, the alleys will lead you to the night market, where you can gorge yourself on local delights—Zanzibar pizza, kebabs of every type of seafood you can imagine, samosas and spicy potato balls, glasses of sugar cane juice with lime and ginger, steaming cups of spice tea–while enjoying the ambiance of lantern light and the lapping of waves against the shore.
Sometimes an alley will spit you out by the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. You’ll see little boys swimming butt naked, the bright colors of cargo containers loaded on the ships in the harbor, dhows passing with the wind filling their ragged sails, fishing boats returning with their nets held high, and the sunsets that in Africa are truly worth watching. On the beach, you might find a furious soccer game underway or witness kids practicing to become acrobats.
You might, like me, feel for a moment as if you’re back in Greece as you stumble upon a concert at the Old Fort and sit in the crumbling ruins of the outdoor stage and remember seeing the Oedipus Trilogy at the Parthenon. Or maybe the million and one store owners begging you to enter their shop and promising you the best prices will remind you of shopping in the labyrinthine Khan el-Khalili market in Cairo. Though not exactly like anyone you’ve ever been, Zanzibar invokes the spirit of a million places through which you’ve passed. And tt’s the kind of place that will stay with you long after you’ve left, especially if you allow it to reveal itself to you slowly, one step by one step.
*Pole Pole is a Swahili saying that means “slow down” or “go slowly”.
*Okay, so that statement wasn’t entirely true; we did do a Spice Tour. Our verdict: not bad but not great either, which seemed to be the consensus of everyone we met.
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