We wound our way through the alleys of Zanzibar Island (the more popular name for Unguja in the Zanzibar archipelago) in search of tanzanite. This rather rare semi-precious stone is said to have magical powers that heal and rejuvenate. We were in Stone Town, Unguja’s ticket to the Unesco World Heritage Site list. It was bustling with locals going about their daily chores, tourists from around the world and wayside vendors showing off their ware.
Though Stone Town is still not as famous as the beaches of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, it is intriguing and strangely compelling. The whitewashed façades of limestone buildings house the story of Zanzibar over centuries. The wealth of the Arabian and Persian traders adorns their doors and verandahs while European invasions account for the island’s syncretic character. Anglican cathedrals and Islamic mosques stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the crowded streets. One is struck by the colours of the Masai art that lines the pavements; handwoven fabric frames doorways and the aroma of spices tickles the senses.
While we continued to look for tanzanite at shops, we bought the famed Tingatinga painting — a form of local art made popular by the artist of the same name. Our guide educated us on the door styles — carved wooden, square gateways meant Arab families, brass-studded, intricately designed arches were Indian, and the simple frames were African. Finally we stopped by an open door, with a flight of steps taking us past a series of black-and-white photographs on the walls — the birthplace of Freddie Mercury aka Farrokh Bulsara, the inspiration behind Queen.
The colours of Zanzibar camouflage a dark secret of its bazaar lanes. One of the largest, and the last open slave markets of the world, the Stone Town Museum reminds us of the inhuman conditions under which East African slaves were shipped to these islands, “piled up” in flooded subterranean caverns and then sold off to wealthy households and plantation owners across the world.
We had planned our three-day trip to Zanzibar, a part of Tanzania, at the end of an East African safari, expecting an oasis of solitude in the midst of the Indian Ocean. We were surprised to be transported back in time to a bustling 19th-century sultanate. It was like recreating an Agatha Christie screenplay of a balmy Indian summer by the oceanfront, with a hint of British colonialism against an African backdrop.
Zanzibar has a menu of beaches to choose from. The northern beaches — Nungwi and Kendwa — can get busy at times, but have spectacular resorts. Paje and Matemwe, towards the eastern shoreline, are more tidal and have some pretty walks. Pemba island is surrounded by a coral reef and just right for those who have the luxury of time. Apart from beachy pursuits such as snorkelling and scuba diving, you can simply enjoy the white sands and sunsets. The idea is to not pack too many activities but savour what you choose.
Our choice was to soak in the infinity pool of our Stone Town hotel, which stretched out to the turquoise blue ocean. We sipped bellinis (sparkling wine and peach purée cocktail) in between keeping an eye on the moody, setting sun. The performance was interrupted by the fishing sailboats and tourist yachts. The sound of Afro beats wafted in from the sandy beach below, as a group of youth engaged in their routine beach workout. The dutiful attendant filled our glasses and placed platters of delectable nibbles by the poolside.
After sunset, the heart of Zanzibar’s historic Stone Town turns into a culinary playground. Forodhani Gardens, located by the sea walk, lights up magically, as vendors sell a variety of meats and seafood on skewers: Kebabs, tandoori prawns, lobsters, grilled octopus and more. The Zanzibar “pizza” is a speciality filled with veggies and meat. The lazy promenade comes to life every night with the cacophony of vendors calling out to you, the smell of burning charcoal, dim gaslights, a crowd of tourists — and cats, which often outnumber tourists. It was these cats that drove us out of the gardens, after one feline creature expressed a deep interest in sharing our meal.
Swahili food, the local cuisine, is similar to Indian — it revels in rice, chapatis, beans, cassava, maize, stews, curries and sweets. But the mix of cultures has given birth to multiple cuisines (French, Italian, Portuguese, West Asian and Indian). Small shack-like restaurants line the waterfront.
Exploring the Stone Town market was our itinerary on the last day, before sailing back to Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania. We were yet to find the “right” tanzanite when we stepped into a recommended store. The beauty of the stone was mesmerising — a vivid violet blue, not quite a sapphire, and flawless. The colours, the beauty and energy of Zanzibar were captured in this gem.