Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Stone Town

Zanzibar has a bizarre mix of compelling and sordid history and astounding natural beauty. The culture is Muslim, strongly influenced by over a thousand years of traders and travelers - Persians, Arabs, Indians, Portuguese, British and African.

For centuries the Arabs sailed with the Monsoon winds from Oman to trade primarily in ivory, slaves and spices (clove, cinnamon, cumin, ginger, pepper and cardamom.) The sultans that ruled Zanzibar used it as the central hub to rule much of East Africa. The legacy of the slave trade is still very present on the island, with the slave trading markets designated as historical sites.

At the ferry terminal in Stone Town, we hired a taxi to get to the hotel. The driver drove for at most five minutes before parking and guiding us on a 15-minute walk through alleys to reach the hotel. We learned that you don’t really need to use taxis to get around the town as they can only circle the periphery.

Stone Town is a place of serpentine streets, circular towers, elaborately carved wooden doors, raised terraces and beautiful mosques. It feels much like a medieval European town, but the roads are more narrow, allowing only pedestrians, bikes and motorbikes, and the city is more decrepit. Bodie quickly became adept at hearing the motorbikes behind us and pressing up against the alley walls to avoid being run over.

We stayed at a remarkable hotel that had been renovated by an American couple that has since split. Known for years eponymously as Emerson & Green, the hotel is a renovated 17th century building with towering ceilings, Moorish arches everywhere, day beds festooned with pillows and hanging tapestries, and old wooden stairs with each step starting at mid-calf, climbing up five stories.

After dinner, we climbed the stairs to our room on the top floor. Our canopy bed was draped with netting. A fan circled slowly in the center of the bed. The Muslim holiday Eid-e Milad is the celebration of Mohammad’s birthday. Coincidently, it fell on that Thursday evening, as marked by the full moon. The room was in a corner with windows on two sides, high up in the city. Rows of jewel colored red and green small windowpanes topping the larger windows glowed with the full moon. It was magical to look over the city in the moonlight and listen to the sounds of the muezzin chanting a call to prayer echoing from the mosques below.

We woke and went to the hotel’s Tower Top restaurant. It is an open-air restaurant perched on the second highest roof in town offering a panoramic view over Stone Town, the Indian Ocean on three sides, and dhows sailing in the distance. Bodie remarked on the birds flying below us.

We spent the day meandering through Stone Town, the many small shops selling locally made crafts, games of bao (an east African version of mancala with seeds or shells placed in scooped out holes), carvings, spices, and brightly colored khangas. Hillary and I tried to distract Bodie when passing potential toys, but the storeowners were faster and more clever than we were, circumventing us to show him a tin safari truck with an opening top and a drum. Leaving either behind was not an option.

Beating the drum, Bodie led us parade-like through the town, announcing our arrival. We wandered through an old stone fort, built in 1698. It is mostly ruins now, but has high stone walls topped by castellated battlements, with many small shops and an open-air theater. We wandered through the main market in town, teaming with local residents haggling for vegetables, spices, and fish of every size, shape and color,

I find it difficult to describe the varied mixture of sights – the women covered in long jibabs and brightly covered headscarves, many men in embroidered skullcaps or long robes, people greeting each other with “salaam aleichem”, winding alleys, but also run down with buildings, trash piled in corners, and most people evidently very poor.

That night, we climbed our five flights of stairs weary but exhilarated.

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