Spice invaders

Eyelids closed, I clutched a fistful of marble-white sand, fine as flour, then opened my palm to feel the warm sea breeze blow it gently away. I squinted into the sunlight, across the iridescent white, the palm-lined shore, out to the aquamarine ocean, the azure sky.

Here I am, in the place with the most poetic name in the world, listening to the mellifluous murmur of the sea in counterpoint to sounds of the jungle as it tumbles to the ocean edge, rather than “customer information” about signal failures on the London subway.

Zanzibar has been the crossroads of the eastern seas since Phoenician times, strategic maritime hub for the macabre contrast of spice and slave trades; where African, Arab, Persian and Indian culture entwine, with a final layer of British colonialism. Now, Zanzibar is at a different kind of crossroads: “Zanzibar,” says Chris McIntyre who runs Expert Africa, “has become our first mass destination. It can go either way from here. If the development is sensitive and careful, it can remain the beautiful place it is. If not, Zanzibar could be a nightmare in 20 years time.”

Off the little plane, past children streaming out of school wearing bright hijabs and robes, and through the avenue of mango trees, under each of which is said to lie the body of one the lovers of a 19th-century sultan’s daughter — 170 on either side. And at last, the classy Sultan Palace Hotel.

Everyone in its 15 tasteful lodges wants to be the only person there (unless in romantic company) and treats each other accordingly, with respectful distance.

The beach bends time so that a day is both a fleeting moment and an eternity, glancing from one’s book to bleached, barely visible “ghost crabs” scamper across that marble sand.

At dusk, a colony of sykes’ monkeys appears between the trees behind the coast, picking for food; a tiny aders’ duiker antelope, unique to Zanzibar, picks cautiously through the undergrowth. But the silence is broken by a distant, rhythmic thudding, some techno motif from Club Vacanze, an Italian resort. “If they want to go to Ibiza,” says hotel manager Jamie Hendriksen, “why don’t they go to Ibiza?”

At night, contemplating the vast constellations, I catch my breath to behold a blood-red and gold crescent moon rising on its back from the dark ocean. I could stay on this beach for ever.

Damn. Day two, and this plan is going to fail. Zanzibar’s lure is too strong to remain on the sand. There’s plenty else to explore: hotels along the eastern shore entwine with a necklace of villages that have survived for millennia on men fishing and, latterly, women growing seaweed. In a scrappy little hut off the coast, serving warm beer, the talk is of politics, football and shetani. Since the ancient religions before Islam shetani — demons, usually half-animal, half-human — attack suddenly, possessing you. They can only be exorcised by a mganga doctor, says Joseph, whose father was one.

In the fishing hamlet of Bwejuu, Dei Wa Dei is the “doctor” to whom the possessed go. The scent is a potent blend of dirt, sweat, poverty and sweet spice. Wasps and flies fill the air where Wa Dei crouches on the earthen floor, surrounded by the paraphernalia of his science. He explains how people come “with shetani in their body and blood; seeing animals trying to kill them by night”. He lays out his medicinal powder from the root of the udi udi tree, herbs and spices, and explains how “I give this medicine and wrestle with their head, taking the shetani into myself … I reel around, sometimes the force is so great I walk three paces and fall to the ground as though dead. But the sick person is cured, I take the medicine myself and the shetani runs away.”

Day three, and back past Saloma’s lovers to the crossroads of the east, Zanzibar City, and Stone Town. Stone Town is a labyrinth of alleyways and passages overhung with eaves and Arabic balconies, of faces from every shore of the Indian Ocean. A place to which sailors have come since ancient Egyptian times, a place that was once Swahili, Portuguese, capital of the Omani Sultanate, a corner of colonial Britain until 1964, and even thereafter a scene of violence.

To walk through Stone Town is to walk amid strata of history. Zanzibar’s finest building, the House of Wonders, was built for the sultan by a Scottish engineer. From its balcony, you look down into the old Arab fort, a prison and place of execution, then the British ladies tennis club until the revolution of 1964.

Then there are the ghosts. Zanzibar was an entrepot for the Arab slave trade, and no visit compares to the two tiny cellars in which African slaves were crammed against each other to await sale. It is hard to breathe here even when these dungeons are empty. Didactically, the Anglican cathedral was built on the site of the market in which these men, women and children were traded.

Round the corner, in the bustling present and under an impenitent sun, the central market sprawls, along a main road splicing the city between Stone Town and the new town of blocks of flats built by the East Germans during socialist days. Here are mountains of spices, cascades of colours, meat in the heat, sneakers and sandals, Manchester United and cellphones for sale under peeling masonry, balconies and balustrades.

It is a more compelling place than many of Stone Town’s “must see” recommendations, like the balcony of what was the apartheid British Club, now the Africa House Hotel, where one is encouraged to drink a sundowner along with heaving numbers of tourists.

Out in the night, women’s jihabs and robes move through the dark but safe lanes, coffee brews on cobblestones and soon the music plays. The Sweet Eazy plays African pop and Bob Marley to a crowd of local girls dancing like writhing snakes with wobbly white men in khaki shorts.

Two days left, and what about these beaches? Let’s progress to a stretch of coast facing the mainland, which has not changed for a millennium apart from the arrival of a modest electricity plant and the wonderfully isolated Fumba Beach Lodge owned and run by Dutchman, Edwin van Zwan, whose mantra is “I don’t need neighbours”. Here there is only you, the sea, the jungle’s edge and the sails of fishing boats.

On Sunday morning, inland, there’s football on a pitch hewn into towering palms and jungle, between Kisague and neighbouring Kwaltamongani.

At dusk, geckos crawl over the white walls of the lodge and falling night brings a heart-stopping polyphony of three sounds: the whisper of the sea, the timeless muezzin from the fishing village minaret, and the spectral call of a kualtbundi bird from within the jungle. Next morning, at five, clinging desperately to those final pre-dawn minutes before the pain of departure, the imam sleeps but the ocean and the bird still converse. — Â

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