Seat of the ancient Omani Empire, the islands that make up Zanzibar (Ujunga and Pemba) used to rule the entire Swahili Coast; Arab sultans and Indian princes built their fortunes here, dealing in slaves and spices. Todayâ€™s Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous state of mainland Tanzania, whose paradisiacal beaches, rich, historical lure, and post-colonial color (Portuguese and British) are the stuff of any travelerâ€™s dreams.
We begin with a day and a night in Stone Town, where, daunted by the maze of narrow, donkey-cart alleys (and remembering when Tay got hopelessly lost in Varanasi), we break from our independent custom and hire a guide for a three-hour walking tour. Ibraham Musa (â€œAbraham Moses!â€ he translates) is gregarious and knowledgeable, filling us in on everything from Zanzibarâ€™s famous carved doors to its raucous modern politics, where centuries of history are not erased by modern democracy, and party alliances often depend on how much Persian blood shows in oneâ€™s skin color.
Stone Town is 95 percent Muslim, we are told, as we study the various versions of black body, head, and face coverings worn by the women, and the neat pillbox kofia hats on the heads of the men. It is Thursday afternoon, eve of the Muslim holy day, and Ibraham says this is the cause for so many shouting children, who are clad similarly to their elders: â€œNo madrassa tomorrow!â€ he says.
After the slave market, the â€œHouse of Wonders,â€ Old Fort, and other sites, the tour ends at the birthplace of Farouk Bulsara, better known as Freddie Mercury, the famously flamboyant front-man of the rock band, Queen, and Zanzibarâ€™s modern-age icon, his world renown apparently superceding any shame that such a conservative place as Stone Town might harbor regarding his sexuality and death from AIDS in 1991.
To top it off, seafood spaghetti and Tusker beer while watching waves crash and the sun set from the bar at Africa House, formerly the â€œBritish Clubâ€ (up to Independence on 12 January, 1964, a date Ibraham mentioned at least 10 times during the day). Ibraham has arranged our shared-van transport for tomorrow, to the northern tip of Ujunga, at Kendwa Rocks, where we will languish on the beach for two days before venturing inland.