I won’t cook it, but I’ll order it from Zanzibar

When I told my friend that I was going to Zanzibar yesterday, she asked if I meant the same Zanzibar from the Tenacious D song. I’ll leave out the title, as I know my mom is reading this blog, but the line from the song alludes to a far off place where the crooner would be willing to go to seduce a lady. For me as well, Zanzibar was a far off place I assumed I would never see…until it turned out to be a twenty minute jumper flight away from Dar es Salaam. As Friday was Farmer’s Day in Tanzania, I had an extended weekend to try to be productive with my ever-increasing to-do list, and decided to break up the long weekend with a day trip.

In Tanzania, it seems as if everyone has a guy for everything, everywhere. A driver on the peninsula, call this guy. Someone to book a flight for you to Zanzibar? Mwajabu will take care of it for you. Want a tour of the Spice Farm or Stonetown in Zanzibar? My brother knows someone who can do that. I have to laugh at myself, because for all that I pride myself in being independent and able to handle things on my own, arranging a day trip like this required me to a) figure out how to use my cell phone in Tanzania (still a work in progress) and b) actually talk to people; after a few failed attempts at both of these, I gave up and asked the reservations desk in the Sea Cliff Hotel for assistance. And boy did they ever come through. Within a few hours, I had a driver to and from the airport, flights to and from Zanzibar, a driver to take me around the island for the day, and tour guides to walk me through the Spice Farm, which I had been anxious to see, and a tour guide to show me the history of Stonetown. Now, I have people too and their numbers, if I can ever figure out how to use a phone here.

Admittedly, I started my day out on a nervous foot. I had placed tremendous faith in the hotel’s assistance, and I was not sure the pieces would connect as seamlessly as the trip had come together. I arrived at the airport, where they wrote my name on a paper-based flight ledger, and I waited in a room with all other patrons of the same airline (regardless of destination). When called, we walked out to a tiny airplane and climbed aboard. As we flew over the Indian Ocean, my nervousness began to dissipate, particularly because I could see dolphins swimming and jumping in the water below us. (Yes, we were flying that low). I arrived at the airport, where my driver was ready and waiting for me, and whisked me off to the spice farms.

I often joke that if public health doesn’t pan out as a career, I would like to go to culinary school and become a chef. Throughout this trip, I have been reading a book, Cinnamon and Gunpowder; while not especially a groundbreaking novel, the tale of a kidnapped chef forced to cook for the female pirate captain using only what he could find on the ship–and more importantly, the gastronomical descriptions of how he did so–have kept me quite entertained. As such, traipsing around a spice farm for a few hours, sampling and sniffing spices and fruits directly from the plants themselves was an ideal outing for me, and will remain among my favorite travel memories for years to come. My guide explained how many of the parts of the plant are used in traditional medicine and beauty regimens, in addition to other culinary pursuits, while sending his assistant to climb trees, dig up roots, and grab leaves for me to sniff and sample. At the end, we watched the coconut man climb the coconut  tree, after which I enjoyed fresh coconut water (from the coconut of course) and a selection of the freshest fruit I have ever tasted.

My driver then took me to a “spice lunch” of fish biryani in Stone Town to taste the spices I had just explored. My next tour guide picked me up at the restaurant and took me on a two hour walking tour of Stone Town, during which I learned more about the slave trade in Zanzibar, cultural history, and saw the mashup of Arabic, Indian, European, and African culture in this small city. I was strictly instructed not to take any pictures of people during this tour. It is apparently illegal to take photos of the police, and I learned that Zanzibar is 95 percent Muslim, so it is also not appropriate to take close photos of men and women without asking first. Although I am a terrible photographer, there were quite a few scenes along the way I wish I could have captured in photographs, but for now they are imprinted in my brain. My guide dropped me off at a cafe on the ocean for a coffee and to rest my tired feet while he ran a quick errand; as I waited I did a bit of work and took in the incredible nautical scenery (I’m a sucker for an old sailboat.)

And just as quickly as it had begun, it was over, and time to return to the airport for my flight back to Dar. The return flight went not quite as smoothly as the flight out. The airline’s “terminal” is an open cement garage structure. A single man takes everyone’s passports, cross checks against the flight ledgers, and hand writes tickets, while his small team manages baggage and also serves as the people who direct the pilot out onto the runway. As such, the team was overwhelmed by the rush of people looking to return to Dar at the end of the day, particularly, a group of probably 20 Swiss passengers at the end of a two-week safari eager to catch their international flight home. I’m amazed we only departed 45 minutes late.

Ultimately, Zanzibar lived up to expectations as an exotic, tropical destination, rich with history and good food. On future trips to Tanzania, I would be eager to return to Zanzibar and stay for a bit longer, spend some time on the legendary white sand beaches, tour Jozani Forest, Prison Island, or maybe even get on one of those boats! For now, I will report back to my friend, if the food in the song comes cooked in anything from that Spice Farm, I will absolutely order it from Zanzibar…or better yet, return and have it there instead.