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Zanzibar is a country of contradictions. On the one hand, it’s spectacularly beautiful, full of stunning features bestowed on it by nature. Before you even land, the pristine white sand beaches and the azure waters invite you.
The other side of the coin reveals a darker side. The people are dirt-poor. To them the stunning beaches and warm waters are nothing more than a source of food.
However, what they lack in material assets they make up for, 10 times over, in warmth, humanity and hospitality.
A day after we landed on this hot and humid island, we began to discover the land, its people and history.
Our education started at Spice Farm with an educational tour in which we traced the rich history of Zanzibari spices. We saw trees and herbs from which spices such as nutmeg are produced. We also discovered that men in Zanzibar used ginger as an aphrodisiac while the women turned to nutmeg for a sexual boost.
Spices, ivory and slavery were the major pillars of the Zanzibar economy before its independence from Britain 48 years ago.
The farm tour ended with a fruit lunch of some of the freshest fruits I had tasted. The pineapple was juicy and the coconut juice sweet and cold.
Our next stop was Stone Town (Zanzibar City), a part of this country that is at the heart of the contradictions to be found. We stood outside an old stone structure, next to the Anglican church founded by missionary John Steere.
This is the place where slaves were brought in from east Africa, imprisoned in a dungeon in inhuman conditions, waiting to be sold to the highest bidders from Europe and the US.
At the height of this dishonourable trade, more than 15 000 slaves a year were exported from Zanzibar to the world.
In these dark dungeons, barely a metre high, there were a few holes in the wall for air but no ablution facilities.
The men and women waited there, chained around their necks, for auction day. On this day, the strongest among the men and women would attract a higher price from the slave traders.
From here we walked the narrow streets, retracing some of the slaves’ steps as they either walked to their holding cells or to the ships that would forever remove them from the land of their birth.
Along the narrow streets, past the leather manufacturers who specialise in shoes and belts, we paused at Jaws Corner, a popular hangout spot for locals, young and old.
Around the corner from this spot we found the Freddy Mercury House. The famous late rock star who sang for Queen was born in Zanzibar and christened Farrokh Bulsara in 1946. The house has since become a popular part of the tourist itinerary.
Once we had been to the waterfront and come face to face with what ordinary Zanzibari do in the afternoon and early evening – take lazy strolls along the harbour – we hopped into our transport and headed for the home of our guide, who invited us to share a seafood dinner.
After 45 minutes of driving to the east of the town, negotiating our way past bribe-seeking cops – a tourist bus is a mobile auto teller machine to them – we reached our destination: an old house under renovation, a few metres from the beach.
Here Hassan, our guide, had arranged a feast for us with seafood bought that afternoon. While he spent the afternoon cooking up a storm, his wife made a tasty tomato, onion and potato sauce, with coconut and other spices.
As we sat down at a long teak table with a bright red traditional table cloth, Hassan transformed himself into a waiter. He emerged from the house with a pot full of chips. A few minutes later he had in his hands a huge plate of what seemed like Zanzbar’s entire stock of seafood.
I have never seen so much lobster, calamari and crayfish in my life. I have never tasted such fresh and tasty seafood.
Downed with South African white wine, this was a seafood feast to die for – cooked by the tough hands of Zanzibari men. Not even load shedding – Zanzibari-style – could spoil the special evening.
When the lights went out, our industrious Hassan emerged with a paraffin lantern. The evening became more intimate. And the wine flowed faster than the Zambezi.
Moral of the story? Always divert from conventional routines and you will be pleasantly surprised, as we were.
With our bellies singing eternal praise to the cooking skills of these men, we headed for our home during our five-day stay in Zanzibar.
The Royal Zanzibar Beach Resort nestles on the east coast and is an ideal spot for a holiday or a honeymoon.
The rooms are palatial, giving guests a real feeling of what it must be like to be royal. The staff are friendly, going out of their way to meet people’s needs.
However, as our guest card comments will reveal, we had a few suggestions on how they can turn this good hotel into a great destination for relaxation, a den for great food and an oasis of excellence.
We discussed these with Anderson Makiwah, one of Royal Zanzibar’s great assets. He has great interpersonal skills, always smiles and tries very hard to meet a guest’s needs.
Our suggestions included a major change to the menu and so we were delighted that a new food and beverage manager arrived from Egypt with a plan to shake things up at place whose potential is unlimited. - Sunday Tribune