Zanzibar: Spices, Slaves, Seashells

by Piotr Buraczewski April. 12, 2021 1280 views

The word "Zanzibar" evokes the images of dazzling blue Indian Ocean, smooth chocolate-skinned locals, Arab slave traders, British and German gentlemen in tropical clothing signifying their colonial identity, all wrapped in the scent of exotic spices. I could not wait to see it.

In the summer of 1993, after I had barely passed my university exams in process thermodynamics and heat exchange, I took off for Zanzibar. Getting there was half of the fun.

I found my name on the passenger list displayed at the door of the sleeper car. An overnight rail trip from Nairobi to Mombasa started with dinner: silver cutlery, Kenya Railways china and waiters in immaculately white uniforms. An elderly Swiss woman that sat at a table in front of me must have had a bottle of wine as an aperitif already. Starters, Indian fare, cheese, chocolate pudding, one more bottle of wine and I rolled back to my compartment. A very polite steward made my bed and so I woke up the next morning to an English breakfast. Then I packed my rucksack and got off at Mombasa train station.

Air Tanzania travel agent was a short taxi ride away. They fixed me with a ticket to Zanzibar and a cup of tea. Quite some passengers and even more busy looking ground staff gave Mombasa Airport an impression of a real hub. Check-in procedure was swift though, and I had ample time to peep in the cockpit and pretend to do visual inspection of the plane before we took off.

Zanzibar is an island off the coast of Tanzania (which it is part of). At about 1670 (645 sq.mi.), it is roughly the size of the Scottish Isle of Skye or Hawaiian Oahu. Over the course of the last five centuries it was part of the Portuguese Empire, Sultanate of Oman, German East Africa and the British Empire before it gained independence in the 1960s.

As opposed to rainy Mombasa, Zanzibar greeted me with sunshine and dazzling blue sky. Immigration formalities were a breeze and soon I was on my way to Zanzibar Town. It was quite a walk but worth all the effort. The locals charmed me with their smiles and friendly "hello sir, jambo, karibu" all the way to my guest house. It was not easy to find it in the maze of narrow streets and among look-alike whitewashed houses with wooden carved doors. Only five guests stayed there: Julia from Austria, James from Hong Kong, two guys from Germany and (now) I.

Julia studied anthropology at Vienna University and spent a couple of months in Zanzibar collecting materials for her master's degree. James came from Hong Kong to whizz around the island, charter a little plane and fly to mainland Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. We spent a lovely afternoon walking around the city and then enjoyed high tea on a graciously crumbling terrace of the Africa House Hotel. At the end of the day, we admired stunning sunset sipping on long drinks and feeling very colonial but with flip flops on our feet.

I woke up to freshly baked bread with butter, omelette, fruit salad and sun, lots of sun. Blissful lack of mass tourism in Zanzibar in those days allowed the guest house manager to assign an individual hotel boy to each of us. Friendly Mubarak "the Hunchback" took care of making my bed while listening to Whitney Houston on my Walkman. Julia drove me to the nearby Bububu Beach where we spent most of the afternoon drinking Coke and dancing to the songs of Salif Keïta, Ziggy Marley and Khaled, obviously in a conservative manner typical to predominantly Muslim places: guys with guys and girls with girls.

For centuries Zanzibar was famous for its locally grown spices and slaves transported here by dhows (traditional Arabic sailing ships) from East Africa. Middle Eastern rulers made slavery the most profitable part of Zanzibar economy. The descriptions of their brutality toward the Blacks exceed the limits of imagination. Although the British prohibited slave trade, it was rife in Zanzibar until the end of the 19th century. Today, many of the inhabitants of Zanzibar and adjacent islands are the descendants of Africans enslaved by the Arabs.

Mitu, an elderly Indian man whose family settled down in Zanzibar Town was a local celebrity. In the morning he would take a couple of backpackers for his famous spice tour around the island. The meeting point was just behind Cine Afrique. He picked us up for the most unforgettable drive with frequent stops to sample the magic of cloves, nutmeg, pepper, vanilla or pineapples (so they do not grow on trees!). Children from local villages chased his car shouting "Mitu! Mitu!" He would throw a handful of small coins through the window. Impressed by his knowledge of botany, we would listen to his fascinating stories about the medicinal plants you can find on the island. Back at Cine Afrique, watching an evening screening of a Bollywood film rounded the day off.

James, the guy from Hong Kong was excited as he finally found a plane that would take him to Arusha. By the looks of its British pilots, Zan Air made an impression of a reputable airline. Julia was very happy and could not wait for her grandmother to fly all the way from Austria to spend two weeks on Zanzibar with her. I had a first ever pre-arranged photo session with Mr and Mrs Soraga who returned my smile as they passed me by earlier that day. We met at Peace of Love Street where they lived and the family were eager to pose at a Tanzanian flag pole. Back in Europe I had the film developed and was happy to send them pictures from my first ever trip to Africa.

Mubarak made a nice breakfast and walked with me to a dala-dala station. Dala-dala was a long distance bus-like vehicle that would take me away from the hustle and bustle of the town. Perfectly working natural air conditioning system and friendly passengers compensated for a bumpy ride. In no time (read: after four hours), I was on the east coast of the island.

They could make commercials of Bacardi or Bounty on the deserted east coast beaches. Nothing disturbed the sound of palm trees swaying in the wind and waves breaking far on the horizon. I shared a hut with a guy from Japan. He appeared to be happy and genuinely grateful for the fact that I carried a Sony and a Minolta with me. Old times... no charter flights to the island and gadgets made by the Japanese in Japan... we sealed our friendship with a sumptuous seafood dinner kindly prepared by women from a nearby village.

Magic continued the following day. Watching people and staring at the horizon was so interesting that I would not bother to write my diary (which I normally keep up to date on a daily basis). I collected a couple of beautiful shells that adorn my writing table at home until today. The women from the village brought me toast, scrambled eggs and baked beans. They must have been convinced the Whites could not survive without a touch of England.

The Moon hanging above the Indian Ocean made my jaw drop. I dreamt of it long after I came back home from Zanzibar. I have reasons to believe its light helped me fulfill one of my wildest dreams: to live and work in Africa. Blessed or lucky enough, I managed to make Africa my second home, even though it was not always a rosy experience.

In 2020, I met an elderly Indian couple on my trip around Gujarat. They were born in Zanzibar and emigrated to Canada. They visited their island five years before only to be confronted with booming mass tourism and inapropriate behaviour of holiday makers. Although I am convinced it is the minority of Europeans who do not respect traditional values that prevail on the island, it is most regrettable to hear this from the Zanzibaris themselves. I do believe 99 per cent of visitors come to Zanzibar to appreciate its incredibly rich and diverse historical and cultural heritage.

As always, have a look at the map below and check on my boarding pass. Stay tuned to my trip along Lake Tanganyika to Burundi and enjoy travelling The South with me.

You may also wish to refer to a couple of interesting links about Zanzibar and more:

General information about Zanzibar from Encyclopædia Britannica

An interesting overview of tropical hygiene issues and dress code in the British Empire

How the local government plan to handle holiday makers who treat Zanzibar like a nude beach

Cine Afrique ticket. More than three hours of Indian entertainment, not quite suitable for a boy bred on Aliens and Star Wars.

Even the three-letter Zanzibar airport code is a reason to rave about: sexy ZNZ.

Before the era of everything digitized: my personal boarding pass, seems like all was based on trust.

Join the conversation
There are 16 comments , add yours!
R Kuerbovich 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Piotr, you are one of the fortunates that saw Zanzibar in its genuine colors! I loved your story! Friends who went to Zamzinbar in the 90's told me similar adventures, so I went there on 2002... well, apparently things had already changed in terms of tourism, so I do understand well the Indian couple you met in Gujarat. To me, the most exciting about Zanzibar it was a visualization of the books I used to read as a teen: the sumptuous houses with rich carved doors, the castles with the indian ocean in the background, the masala teas and the octopus coconut curry, and the villages by the beach...

4 months, 3 weeks ago Edited
Piotr Buraczewski Replied to R Kuerbovich 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Correct, Rabino. Zanzibar was amazing and untouched by mass tourism in the early 1990s. It was like in the books that you describe, with the exception of octopus coconut curry: English breakfast ruled 😁.

Zanzibar is one of the places that have changed since it opened for (mostly and regrettably) cheap package tourism. Well, the government of Tanzania will do everything to get an extra euro or two. Zanzibar epitomized African, colonial and Oriental adventure. It does not any more but, luckily we can find many other places far from the madding crowds and charter flights today.

4 months, 3 weeks ago Edited
Steveandjustyna Nomads 5 months ago

Wonderful story! You have a talent to capture your audience's attention to the maximum. You certainly captured mine through this whole post... Mesmerizing photos and the whole story of going to Zanzibar in 1993... Wow. 
Great adventure you had!

Photo #12 grabbed me the most. It's so beautiful. Fishermen in their simple canoes scene. It is almost like an impressionistic painting. The colors of the water... Fabulous photo/painting. I wonder if anyone else sees it as a "painting-like" photo...

5 months ago Edited
Piotr Buraczewski Replied to Steveandjustyna Nomads 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Thank you Justyna, thank you Steve. Zanzibar was very special, it far exceeded my expectations. I have been to Africa many times, I lived and worked there but, deep in my heart, it is the first trip in 1993 which was the most beautiful and amazing... yes, sometimes people ask me what my greatest trip was. Africa 1993 followed by cycling along the River Moselle.

4 months, 3 weeks ago Edited
Olga Helys 5 months, 1 week ago

Thanks for sharing

5 months, 1 week ago Edited
Piotr Buraczewski Replied to Olga Helys 5 months, 1 week ago

Thank you so much, Olga. When I was in Zanzibar, I tried my best to find Madagascar far on the horizon... well it took me another flight from Charles de Gaulle (or was it Orly?...)  to get to Tana and beyond. Fell in love with Madagascar as much as with Zanzibar. 🌸

On second thoughts, I think I prefer Madagascar though. That’s why have been there three times with a side trip to the Comores, another wonderful destination.

5 months, 1 week ago Edited
Camellia Staab 5 months, 1 week ago

What a treat to read this post. Now I know how you have managed to have such a good memory (diary). You are true story teller, beautiful photos and beautifully written. I reiterate what John said "DON'T STOP". 😉

5 months, 1 week ago Edited
Piotr Buraczewski Replied to Camellia Staab 5 months, 1 week ago

Camellia, thank you for your kind words. Did I mention to you that I quite like travelling? 😁 There are about 200 countries and territories around, so you bet I will not stop. 

Zanzibar was very special. Even though I had flip flops on my feet, watching sunset from the terrace with a glass of gin and tonic in my hand felt so... Victorian.

5 months, 1 week ago Edited
Antonio Gil 5 months, 1 week ago

I love to see your travel posts my friend. Always learn something new. Thanks for sharing such gems

5 months, 1 week ago Edited
Piotr Buraczewski Replied to Antonio Gil 5 months, 1 week ago

Thanks, Antonio. The more fellow Photobloggers I meet, the happier I am to share my pics, travel stories (old and new) and scans of tickets with all of you.

5 months, 1 week ago Edited
John Durham 5 months, 1 week ago

Please don't stop.

5 months, 1 week ago Edited
Piotr Buraczewski Replied to John Durham 5 months, 1 week ago

Thanks, John. My first trip to Africa was the most memorable one and I am happy to share travel notes with fellow Photobloggers. More to come.

5 months, 1 week ago Edited
Benny Law 5 months, 1 week ago

I was totally absorbed into your story for a few minutes. Good that you kept a detailed journal on your trips.

5 months, 1 week ago Edited
Piotr Buraczewski Replied to Benny Law 5 months, 1 week ago

Thanks, Benny. It is so much fun to read all these notes after ten, twenty or thirty years. How the world has changed! Zanzibar was almost untouched by mass tourism in 1990s. Apparently, the first charter plane flew to the island well after I came back from Africa in 1993 (to re-seat some of my exams at university smile   ). 

An elderly woman works as a waitress in one of my favourite restaurants in Euskirchen. She is a Zanzibari. Sometimes we talk over a cup of coffee when the place is not too busy. She is bitter about how Tanzanian government allowed for chaotic development and importing hordes of Europeans to her beloved island. Unfortunately, Zanzibar is not one of well developed African, Caribbean or Pacific destination, say The Seychelles, St. Barth or Wallis and Futuna, where high prices and strict infrastructure development rules allow for face control and deter the amateurs of cheap booze and topless bathing.  

All in all, mass tourism brings revenue to the economy of Zanzibar (as once upon a time slave trade did ;) ) and most visitors respect local culture. Many stay longer or keep coming back to help the locals improve their life in a sustainable way or just bring beautiful stories back to Europe with them. 

There is a Polish geographer, publisher and writer who fell in love with Africa and Zanzibar in particular. I could read and listen to her stories for hours. There is also an interesting and extensive UNICEF study on the lights and shades of mass tourism development in Zanzibar. 

Thanks for reading and commenting on my posts. I hope you will like the notes from my Belgian-chips-with-mayonnaise tour of the Republic of Burundi. Good old 1993... stay tuned.

5 months, 1 week ago Edited
Benny Law Replied to Piotr Buraczewski 5 months, 1 week ago

Thanks for taking the time to share your stories, Piotr. We all love your posts. Looking forward to more!

5 months, 1 week ago Edited
Piotr Buraczewski Replied to Benny Law 5 months, 1 week ago

I am very happy to share my travel stories with such a nice audience.

5 months, 1 week ago Edited