Fri 11 Feb, 2011

Well, after a two days of supreme inactivity on the beach, we had a whirlwind tour planned that would take us, amongst other dubious delights, to a spice farm. Now, this spice farm wasn’t exactly the Taj Mahal of agricultural experiences. Touristy would be putting it mildly. A chap with a smile that could sell sand in the Sahara walked us past various leafy things, then another fellow, with the agility of a particularly enthusiastic squirrel, shimmied up a coconut tree that seemed to have seen better days. All this, presumably, for our entertainment. Let’s just say it wasn’t high on the thrill-seeking scale. More interesting, by a long shot, were the people who worked the farm, particularly the kids. Wide-eyed and curious, they made the whole staged spice extravaganza seem even more, well, staged.

Stone Town, our next stop, was the labyrinthine old quarter of Zanzibar City. Imagine a place where the streets are mere alleyways and the buildings resemble crumbling wedding cakes. UNESCO, bless their heart, saw fit to declare it a World Heritage Site in 2000, which is fair enough, it is undeniably picturesque in a ramshackle sort of way. But this UNESCO designation doesn’t seem to be doing much to slow down Stone Town’s steady decline. It felt like the place was shedding bricks like a particularly flaky pastry.

We hired a local guide to shepherd us through the warren of alleyways. He showed us the Anglican Church, then right outside, we encountered a sight that cast a long shadow. A memorial, sombre and powerful, stood there, a stark reminder of a brutal past. It commemorated the horrors of the slave market that once thrived on this very spot. Shackles were etched into the stone, a chilling depiction of the inhumanity that unfolded here. It was a sobering moment, a necessary counterpoint to the vibrant chaos that surrounded us.

Our tour continued with the fruit and fish markets (thronging with life, thank goodness!), St. Joseph’s Cathedral, and the obligatory stroll by the Sultan’s palace. Our grand tour finally deposited us at Freddie Mercury’s bar, a lively joint on the harbor with enough atmosphere to fill a zeppelin. Lunch was, well, lunch. The food was decent enough, but the beer? Warm. Apparently, electricity was a rare commodity in Stone Town that day, a fact that takes the joy out of sinking a frosty beverage when the temperature is nudging 32 degrees and the humidity feels like a wet sock.

Stone Town also boasts the Sauti za Busara, a pulsating African music festival that explodes onto the scene every February. We weren’t around for the evening concerts, but even in the afternoon, the infectious rhythms were already wafting through the air. Bands were playing down by the port, their music drawing a small crowd of young people who swayed and chatted in a cool setup bathed in warm sunlight. It was a tantalising glimpse into a celebration of culture and energy.

After three hours of exploring, we beat a retreat back to Pongwe, our journey taking us through the villages on the outskirts of Zanzibar City. This, I’m afraid to say, was the bleakest part of the island. Poverty wore its heaviest cloak here, a sight that left a bit of a lump in the throat.