According to our very informative guides, Spice Island was once one of the richest nations in the world, due solely to its spice exports. Spice Island, aka Zanzibar, Tanzania was the place we chose to explore this last Christmas. Actually, to be more accurate we spent it on Unguja, main Island of the Zanzibar Archipelago.
Traders brought spices from all over the world to Zanzibar, of which most still grow in plantations in the central part of the Island. As we wandered mud-lined avenues, our guide George would pick a leaf, a pod or slice bark off a tree and our senses were filled with these exotic aromas. Think heady scents of cinnamon as you twist the bark in your hands and hold under your nose; the zing of ginger as it tingles your throat; the vivid yellow fingers you hold up from examining a piece of turmeric root; the sweet and slightly spicy scent of the mace and fresh nutmeg as you crush it between your fingers.
Young Black Peppercorn vines and seeds (who knew pepper grew on a vine?)
Cloves (top), Black Pepper vines (middle), Nutmeg surrounded by mace (bottom)
Ginger and young Vanilla Beans
Jackfruit and tree (tastes like a cocktail of pineapple, banana and passionfruit, yum!)
Bilimbi (very sour, but apparently good for you)
All of these spices and fruit, together with vegetables and seafood are sold in the markets that have existed here since trading began. As my guide hurried me through a maze of narrow aisles, I still managed to catch the distinct sense this place does not want to change either. Despite all the plasticware from China it was encouraging to see most people still used the same methods to present and package their wares since before the time of plastics. A man selling chillies had a beautiful and simple way of presenting these hot and spicy numbers. I couldn’t leave without a photo.
Arab traders were among the first to establish strong ties to the Island, which means many of the Islands inhabitants are muslim. The arab influence also spills over into the architecture and detail of the main town. Stone Town is a rabbit warren of narrow winding streets, where houses are adorned with ornate carved wooden doors and fretwork balconies. I am told it looks much as it did 200 years ago.
All the doors in Stone Town tell a story. A history really. The style of carved door originated from India, my guide continues, where the brass spikes were used to stop people crashing their doors down using elephants. The carvings surrounding the doors tell of the owners wealth, rank and occupation. Leaves denote farming (usually from spice and trade). A chain denotes a slave trader (as 2 below). I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable standing out the front of that door, contemplating what life was like for so many back then.
Zanzibari chests were used as safes. They are designed with secret drawers, where the real valuables are hidden. The large padlock is just a distraction.
Exploring Stone Town and the central spice plateau were highlights of our trip to Zanzibar. It was an intoxicating peek through a window into another world.