Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Spice Island, 1984.

The Spice Island

Not having sea legs, sailing is the least acceptable way of travel for me, especially when you are getting coated in salty spray accompanied by the searing African sun beating down on you. Our travelling quintet consisted of my two Aussie mates Phil and Michael, the California surfer gal Loy, Lars the Swede and me. We were sailing to Zanzibar. None of us had been here before so this was terra incognita.
Most of us had sought the shade of the sails but there was no comfortable place to sit except for some rough-hewn wooden planks. The trip was monotonous and the only diversion was a school of flying fish and a pod of porpoises that accompanied us for a brief part of the voyage. Nevertheless, between the antibiotics and the fresh salty sea breeze, my sinuses and chest had cleared and I felt my old self again—ready for another adventure.
     After two hours on the choppy sea, there it was in front of us on the horizon, the outline of Zanzibar's  
 fabled Stone Town. An hour later, we docked but we would not be allowed off the boat for another hour. Finally, like a bunch of rats we scurried off the boat  and headed towards the Customs Office to get our passports stamped. Amazingly, we were told to come back tomorrow. What a contrast to the surly, drunken Tanzanian customs officer we had encountered earlier on our train ride at the border.
What a relief! We were finally on the island of Zanzibar.
Zanzibari kids
The island of Zanzibar, or Unguja as it is in Swahili, and sister island, Pemba, had their own distinct history. They were part of the Zanj, "the Land of the Blacks" that included the Swahili Coast that stretched from Mombasa down to the Zanzibar archipelago.This was the foremost Swahili town on the southern end of the Swahili Coast. I had already been to the northern towns of Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu. Having said that, the Islamic islanders have always fancied themselves as a separate entity from mainland Africans of Tanganyika. Even today the islands are considered as a semi-autonomous region. 
 From 1698 to 1890, the Sultan of Oman ruled both islands, controlling their lucrative slave, spice, and ivory trade. All commerce and travel by sea into this part of East Africa originally came through the port of Zanzibar where many foreign consuls had located. John Kirk, the British consul , was one of the first to hear of Doctor Livingstone’s abhorrence of slavery and his subsequent damning reports that were sent back to the British parliament. No doubt these reports hastened the end of slavery. In 1873, the Sultan was finally persuaded to ‘close’ the slave market in Stone Town’s main square after Britain’s Royal Navy threatened to bomb the his palace on Zanzibar. In 1890, Zanzibar officially became the British Protectorate of Tanganyika.

Doctor Livingstone at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
When the ‘winds of change’ swept through Africa in the 1960s, this former protectorate gained independence under Julius Nyerere in 1961. In December 1963, Zanzibar prematurely gained independence from Britain with the Sultan forming a short-lived constitutional monarchy. One month later, African insurgents, led by mainlander John Okello, overthrew the monarchy and formed the Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba. Okello, who was supported materially by East Germany, wanted to end the Arab-Indian control of the islands and its politics. According to some accounts, as man as 20,000 Arab and Indians may have died in the ensuing conflict.

The island enjoyed this brief independence from the mainland but then pressure from Britain and Tanganyika’s mainland political party, TANU, weakened the new republic. Eventually, Zanzibar succumbed to Julius Nyerere’s socialist party TANU and formed Tanzania in 1964. The word TANZANIA is a portmanteau of the former British Protectorate of Tanganyika and the islands of Zanzibar.

Despite being part of the ‘new’ Tanzania, Zanzibar still remains a semi-autonomous region beholden to no one, especially to mainlanders and their African-dominated politics. Truth be told, Zanzibar’s roots are in the Islamic sultanate of Oman. Zanzibari families, the ivory and slave trade are historically tied to Oman rather than to the Christian and animist African cultures of mainland Tanganyika.

It was into this rich history that we first stepped off the ferry and onto the fabled island. Accommodation in historical Stone Town was minimal. We thought we had lucked out when we found Malindi Guest House, but all the rooms were taken? I think the hotel manager took pity on us as it was getting dark so he said that we could sleep on the marble floor in the lobby for a small fee.

We dropped off our gear then enjoyed a local favourite, mishkaki or sticks of BBQ meat, as we walked around Stone Town where we ran into a local guy named Zakwan. We mentioned to him our fear about getting stuck on the island. In conversations over a warm beer, he told us that he had friends at customs and the port authority who might be able to arrange our later transport back to Bagamoyo.

*            *            *

Stone Town kids
Many Zanzibaris we met still perceived themselves as separate from ‘those mainlanders’ primarily because they were Muslim much like their distant cousins on the Islamic island of Lamu in Kenya. Like Lamu, Zanzibar was a polyglot of languages and people: Omani, Shirazi, and Yemeni mixed with their former African slave’s bloodlines from the mainland. Perhaps this individuality accounts for them wanting us travellers to have a separate entry visa for this island. Zanzibar’s famous son, Freddie Mercury of Queen, was also born here in Stone Town.

The islands of Zanzibar and Pemba are also known as the Spice Islands because of the abundance of cloves, pepper, cardamom and nutmeg plantations. At one time, Zanzibar controlled 90% of the clove trade in the world. As we were walking around Stone Town, depending on which way the wind blew, there was the unforgettable scent of cloves. It was much like being around a freshly baked pumpkin pie.

*            *            *

Between mosque and rooster calls, I was up early, so I ventured into Stone Town for something to eat. Overcome by humidity, I sought the shade of a huge baobab tree near the town’s center. While enjoying a pre-breakfast snack of spicy potato samosas, I noticed a Japanese tourist haggling over something with a local in fluent Swahili no less. The food seller next to me caught my perplexed glance—it begged a question.

‘I don’t see many Japanese tourists here?’ I asked.

He just nodded.

I had been aware that spoken Japanese and Swahili had some similarities in their languages, especially the word endings—kawa, dawa, sawa, and from overhearing the haggling, I assumed that this man had picked up the local lingo.

‘I’m surprised,’ I said. ‘Where did this Japanese guy learn Swahili so well?’

The local Zanzibari laughed, ‘He’s not Japanese,’ he said. ‘He’s from here!’

My interest was piqued. As far as I was concerned, he was either Japanese or Chinese and I could not fathom how he had learned Swahili so well. Later, I found out that there was an island along the northern Swahili Coast that had an unusual population of Asian-looking locals. This was the island of Siyu, which is part of the Lamu Archipelago in Kenya that borders the most southern most part of Somalia.

According to the legend, in 1405, the famous Chinese seafarer, Admiral Zheng’s, ship had crashed on the Kenyan coastal reef and the sailors came ashore where they found villagers who were being terrorized by a giant python. They killed the beast, and subsequently, the villagers accepted the Chinese sailors, with even some intermarrying, thus creating a new mixed race. Hence the Asian features of this Swahili guy. Well, it’s a marvelous story and judging from the ease that this Asian-looking Swahili guy conversed with the local Arab guy—who could argue? Perhaps this guy’s family had migrated down to Zanzibar on one of the frequent jifrazis (ocean-going dhows) that ply their trade up and down the Swahili Coast.

Abandoned beach house on Chwaka Beach

Loy had arranged renting a beach house on the other side of the island for our growing group of eleven: the original quartet, Lars, two Brit gals, two American guys, and a Dutch couple.

After buying some groceries, we schlepped our backpacks quite a distance to get to the bus station. Somewhere along our route, our two groups got separated. I thought the Brit girls knew the way but we took a wrong turn and lost the others. We arrived to an empty bus station. Unbeknownst to us, the others had lucked out and already got a lift to Chwaka Beach.

We eventually caught a ride on a dala dala or a wooden frame bus which took us on a milk run to Chwaka Beach. En route, we drove past lush coconut and banana groves, and spice plantations—all verdant and musty. An hour later, in the dark, we finally arrived at the beach house but we were still pissed off at Phil and the gang for not waiting for us.

Loy and the other girls had prepared a tasty curry and vegetarian dish for dinner. To prevent legions of cockroaches invading our dirty dishes, Phil, Michael, Lars and I washed our dishes in well water that was brackish and not potable. After that, we played card games late into the night accompanied by some spirituous libations on the verandah.

The rooms inside were too stuffy to sleep in so we dragged the mattresses off the beds out to the verandah. I hung my mosquito net out there hoping that I could catch whatever evening breeze was present. Since leaving South Africa, I used my mosquito net every night. Everyone but me thought that being on the malaria prophylaxis was enough but that soon turned out to be false. In all of Africa, Zanzibar was probably one of the worst places for getting malaria, as the coastal mosquitoes had, over time, become chloroquine-resistant. Nevertheless, we all doused ourselves in bug juice but I was the only one who slept under a net.

*            *            *

Both Phil and I found the weather debilitating so were just content to laze around on the verandah and take turns in the hammock. At any rate, someone had to guard our valuables as locals had been eyeing our gear and for that matter, we were the constantly the centre of attention wherever we walked.

Michael Collins at beach house, 1984.
While playing Frisbee on the beach, I accidentally stepped on a sharp shell and cut my foot. I thought nothing of it at the time and I thought the salt water would cure any wound, big or small. However, even a tiny cut in Equatorial Africa, neither dries out nor heals completely because of the moisture in the air.

It was not a big deal at first, but it did not heal, and a few days later this innocuous cut had become septic. Luckily, Loy had some disinfectant soap and antibiotic cream to treat my wound. However, I was still worried about getting a tropical ulcer so to protect my foot while wearing sandals, I cut the toes off the end of a sock. Later in the market, while I was wearing the sock and a sombrero tilted at a rakish angle, I looked so odd, like a demented dandy on holiday. Phil just had to take a photo of me.
L-R. Michael Collins, Bionic Lars, and me with my gammy foot, Stone Town, 1984.

Our Chwaka Beach House had bugger all for amenities: no running water, no indoor plumbing, never had electricity, it was just a shell of a former grandiose beach house. It had a huge kitchen with blackened spots, plenty of airy rooms and, best of all, a wide verandah at the front. We used stinky hurricane lamps for light.

Handyman scaling the coconut palm.
The beach house came with a handyman who helped us with cleaning, getting firewood for cooking and who scaled the nearby palm trees for fresh coconuts. His wife cleaned the place but it seemed to have been uninhabited for a long time. If it wasn’t for them, we probably would not have paid anything, just merely squatted. Cheap backpackers that we were.

The main attraction of our beach house was the wide verandah at the front of the house which gave us an unhindered view of the Arabian Sea that was just a few feet from the beach house. The verandah also afforded us a superb view for watching spectacular sunrises with our breakfast and marveling at fiery sunsets with our sundowners.

Of our newfound Brit companions, Val was a bra less, buxom blonde with a punk haircut which pre-dated Sinead O’Connor’s buzz cut—this was 1984 after all. She was a bit cheeky and could be a smart-ass. On the other hand, her long dark-haired friend Jenny was timid by comparison but attractive nonetheless. At times, they came across as a gay couple but maybe were just close friends. This was no big deal for our group but this was the 1980s and we were in an Islamic culture after all. If they were openly gay this might have created serious complications on conservative Zanzibar. Perhaps that is why they were travelling with us.

Compared to Loy, these two Brit gals came across as louts. Perhaps Loy’s intelligence and no nonsense American panache made them uncomfortable in her presence. At any rate, Loy had been a real trooper from the get go, slugging it out from Malawi with Phil, Michael and me. For that matter, because she had a great heart and a wonderful sense of humour, she was an ideal travelling companion.

After a few days in paradise, Phil, Michael, Lars and I decided we’d had enough of this bohemian beach life and we would be leaving the following morning. The three girls decided they would stay for an extra day—they were welcome to it.

The hurricane lamps on the verandah were flickering low, the mosquitoes were buzzing around, our liquour was drunk as were we—I passed out in my mosquito net as a soft tide washed in from the Indian Ocean and lapped close to our beach house.

*            *            *

The next morning, our last morning at the beach house, Neil came up from downstairs where he had been sleeping. We were all slightly hung-over from the merry-making last night and were still shaking off the cobwebs of alcohol. He looked slightly perturbed.

‘Have you guys seen my flashlight?’ Neil asked. ‘Did you guys use it up here?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘Where did you leave it?’

‘I thought it was by my bed,’ he said, ‘I’m also missing my shoes, my jeans, a t-shirt...’

Phil, Michael and I looked at each other, wondering what he was on about. Then we frantically checked our own packs that were scattered carelessly on the verandah.

‘Hang about,’ said Phil, checking through his pack, ‘someone’s nicked my cigarette lighters and a t-shirt.’

Then I remembered that I had leant my Swiss Army knife to Lars to scale and gut the fish for last night’s dinner.

‘Did you give me back my knife?’ I asked Lars.

‘Yah sure,’ he said.

‘Damn!’ I said, rummaging through my pack, ‘Someone’s stolen my Swiss Army knife.’

So, in our drunken sleep state last night, some light-handed (and light-footed) thief had made off with our valuables. Not a good way to begin our morning. I guess it was time to leave after all!

In deciding to leave, our neat little quartet of travellers, Phil, Michael, Loy and me, had come to its end, and unfortunately, under bad circumstances. We exchanged hugs and addresses with Loy. We bid her farewell as she’d been a good sport throughout our trip that began back on Lake Malawi. We’d been through a lot together in our short time and I would miss her spirit and great meals that she made us along our tough borderlands trek.

We made tentative plans to all meet up back either in Dar or Nairobi but we never did see her again. A year later, I received a postcard from her and she told me she was stricken with malaria while staying in Dar.

Back to Stone Town

After farewells, we grabbed what stuff we still owned, hurried over to the dala-dala station for a ride back to Stone Town. While Neil went to report our stolen goods at a nearby police station, we had a cup of chai at a nearby duka. Unlucky for Neil, our dala-dala arrived while he was still in the station. Remembering what had happened a few days before, we hopped on and sped towards Stone Town thinking he could catch a later one.

Zanzibari door, Stone Town.
An hour later, we were back in Stone Town where we dropped off our gear at the Malindi Guest House. We still thought we could catch a boat back to Dar but hedged our bets by tentatively booking rooms for the night.

Zakwan had previously said he could find us transport off the island but when we found him he said there was nothing leaving today. He did find us two captains who were going to Dar later in the afternoon. We jumped at the chance and all of us went to the Immigration office to get exit stamps. While there, Zakwan introduced us to two officers on duty: a younger and older guy.

‘When are you leaving?’ Asked the older officer.

‘Today. On a dhow,’ said Phil.

‘You are not allowed to travel by dhow!’ He said. ‘It’s too dangerous.’

‘You are allowed to travel by motor boat,’ added the younger officer.

‘But you must first get permission from the Tourist Office,’ said the older officer.

That office was at the other end of the town—sheesh!

After telling him of our ordeal in Zambia, just being robbed last night, the older officer seemed to soften and we got written permission from him. We moseyed around town, then walked back to Customs & Immigration offices around 2pm. They told us we had just missed a motorboat going to Bagamoyo which really pissed us off. We were sweaty and tired from the heat and the walking.

‘Are there any other boats leaving today?’ Phil asked.

‘No, but come back tomorrow,’ said the older officer with a smile.

Phil, Michael, Lars and I were shattered by this news. We treated ourselves to some freshly crushed sugar cane juice which seemed to revive our spirits. Still dying of thirst, I ordered some fresh tamarind juice which seemed to temper it momentarily.

*            *            *   

Slave Square, Stone Town, Zanzibar
Later on, I went to the infamous Slave Square in Stone Town by myself. In the shade of a huge palm tree I contemplated the memorial dedicated to the slaves. It was a square pit about three meters a side and one meter deep. In it were five grey stone statues with rusted iron rings chained around their necks. These represented countless slaves. I reflected on the misery that so many East Africans had endured at this very site, where so many were cast adrift from these shores into some desperate life of servitude in an unfriendly distant land. These slaves were not destined for North America but rather for Persia and the Middle East. I came to appreciate why Doctor Livingstone had fought so hard against the evils of slavery. I had witnessed apartheid on this trip and slavery is another thing, but both may be the offspring of the same mother.

It was ironic that the Anglican Cathedral of Christ Church, finished in 1873, overlooks the former slave square and monument. Some say the cathedral’s altar was built directly over the spot where the slave whipping post had been. As it happened, I was the only one there. No locals came by to pester me, and I wondered if for the locals, perhaps, the shame was too much to bear.

*            *            *

Back at the Malindi Guest House, we paid up for the night, took a shower, met Neil and hung out chatting about getting off the island. In the evening, when it was somewhat cooler, we strode down to the beachfront for some grub. My favourite refreshment was freshly quartered slices of green mango, slathered in red chili paste and slaked with freshly squeezed lime juice. In this torpid climate that seemed to do the trick. The deep fried plantain with red-hot chili paste also hit the spot naturally followed by tamarind juice.

Some guys were loading boats, and after talking to the captain, they said they would be heading to Dar tomorrow morning at 9am.

‘How much do you charge?’ Phil asked.

The captain laughed, ‘there’s a few more people going so you can go for free.’

We could not believe our luck because by this time, we had given up hope of finding a boat to Dar anytime soon. Between the humidity, being ripped off, the mosquitoes and hassles with the boats—we just wanted to get off the island.

Buoyed by our newfound luck, Phil, Michael, Lars, Neil and I found a pub where we hoped to drown our earlier sorrows over a few cold beers. We also enjoyed a fine seafood meal at the Blue Dolphin Restaurant, then went to the Africa House Hotel where there was a solemn crowd watching someone’s picture on the TV. Sadly, the Prime Minister of Tanzania, Edward Sokoine, had died in a tragic car accident. The atmosphere was intense and sullen, so we withdrew back to our guest house.

*            *            *

Up and early the next morning, Phil, Michael, Lars and I hot-footed it back to the Immigration Office to get our passports stamped for leaving, telling them we had found a motor boat to Dar. As duly instructed by the captain the day before, we arrived at the boat at the agreed time. They were not leaving yet as they had to wait for the tide to come in.

‘Come back in an hour and a half,’ said the captain.

Just then, we met an old Zanzibari guy named Ali who offered us a guided tour of Stone Town. We had an hour to kill so what the heck, besides you never know when you might get back here again if ever?

He took us to the house where Speke, Burton, Grant and Livingstone had lived during their many heroic explorations of Africa’s interior. There was a bronze plaque on the side of the house commemorating it as a heritage house. This was also the house where British Consul, John Kirk resided. Next, we also walked over to see the house of Africa’s most famous Arab slave trader—Tippu Tip, but it was unfortunately in a state of disrepair.
Tippu Tip's house

Tippu Tip
Like Lamu, Stone Town was also known for its elaborately hand-carved teak doors. I had photographed them in Lamu in 1982 and now recognized their distinctive Islamic, Persian and Indian influence with brass studs embedded in the door, sometimes Arabic cursive script on the lintel and always a huge brass lock at the foot of the door. Perhaps this island is best known for its Zanzibar chests which are usually made from teak and mahogany with intricate brass metal hammer work on the outside. Many of the carpenters who make them are descendants from Yemen, like the Al Tamimi family, who still proudly carry on the tradition today.

*            *            *

Zanzibar’s heydays had been during the Victorian era explorers and adventurers used it as a base for their expeditions, especially for their porter who were mostly slaves. However, over the years, both the island and its accommodation had fallen off the charts and it seemed now unprepared for the onslaught of travellers in the 1980s. The guide books mentioned only a few places to stay and, we got almost all of our information from other travellers.

In 1984, Zanzibar was not exactly “tourist friendly”. It would be about ten more years before it became one of the ‘big’ tourist attractions on the East African coast usually included in a safari package. During the 1980s, it was the Kenyan coastal towns of Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu that were the destinations of choice for holiday seekers and weary overlanders.

I preferred Lamu to Zanzibar because Lamu was quaint—no vehicles, narrow streets, donkeys as the main form of transport, and it was a lot easier to get to. Moreover, Lamu had kept its Swahili heritage by adhering to strict building codes that maintained traditional rag coral construction, boriti (mangrove) roof supports, and palm frond roofing material; Zanzibar had switched to more conventional building materials, i.e. concrete blocks, corrugated metal roofs and breeze-block construction. I was to find out later that film companies used modern-day Lamu as Victorian-period Zanzibar, i.e. in the Mountains of the Moon.

We finally arranged a boat that would take us off the Spice Island, but that’s another story.

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