Recently Zanzibar has become one of those predictable bucket-list destinations tourists flock to for so-called ‘barefoot luxury’. But if you are prepared to look beyond the clichés of sea, sand and sun and step off the beaten path, you’ll find an extraordinary island that you’ll return to again and again. Bay’s Nick Smith packs his cameras and notebooks…
As the sun rises over the eastern rim of the Indian Ocean something strange is happening on the coral beach below me. A man appears to be burning a boat. Not a western-style ocean-going vessel with cabin, rudder and engine room, but a long, slender dugout canoe complete with outriggers and a rudimentary mast. Somewhere in the back of my mind I recall the fate of the Bounty mutineers on Pitcairn who, in order to resist the temptation of escape, reduced their only ship to a heap of ashes. During the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Hernán Cortés ordered his men to burn their boats too, only this time it was so that they couldn’t chicken out and scarper if the natives became too hostile. In short, history doesn’t give boat-burning a strong approval rating, and so to see a local fisherman casually setting fire to his dugout seemed to me at least to be a distinctly odd thing to do. I was later to discover that ‘the Captain’ as the man was known to everyone in Jambiani, was simply scorching off the seaweed that builds up on the hulls of these mango tree trunk canoes and slows them down. But since I’m in Zanzibar, it’s a good idea to bear in mind that there’s no real surprise in seeing surprising things.
Zanzibar suffers at the hands of the modern travel writer cruelly. You can’t pick up a swanky magazine these days without reading, at best, dreamy rhapsodies – and at worst badly thrown together clichés – about a land of tropical sands and spices. And while I sort of know what one particular writer meant when he gushed that Zanzibar was best described as smelling like a Christmas cake, I’ve yet to encounter a one with a sharp salty tang mingled with the slightly foul whiff of decompos-ing vegetation wafting along the breeze. While I equally sort of know what is meant by the poetry of scribes falling over each other in their eagerness to tempt you with romantic sunsets overlooking the Indian Ocean gazing into the snowy peaks of far-off Kilimanjaro on mainland Africa, we also have an island – or to be more precise, an archipelago of slave caves, Communist architecture, shocking poverty and distinctly unhygienic markets. The same writers sell the place as a distant wonderland such as those in the Bounty coconut chocolate bar TV adverts of the 1970s, in which impossibly beautiful people ‘came in search of paradise’. But a better way to describe the place, something that comes far closer to the real truth, is revealed in a rather enigmatic sentence by Robert Nunez Lyne, who wrote more than a century ago that “Zanzibar is looked upon as an obscure corner of the earth. Few people know where it is; fewer still what it is.”
There is one certain way to inoculate yourself against the infection of such overblown travel writing, one that will ensure you avoid the obvious pitfall of saying that anywhere complicated is simply a ‘feast of contradictions’, and that is to spend plenty of time there. Time is your only guarantee of overcoming first impressions and getting to know what lies behind the best china. I’ve been to Zanzibar plenty of times, my first stay long enough for me to get to know one or two local people to the extent that on later visits I was able to call on them, not as a tourist but as a returning friend. The value of getting to know local people was never better illustrated than at the tiny east coast fishing hamlet of Jambiani.
When I first arrived at Jambiani there seemed to be no way that I’d ever be able to photograph the seaweed farmers. In fact, up until that point I’d managed to sail through life completely unaware that there was anything in the world such as a seaweed farm, less idea of what it would look like and even less idea of what sort of people farmed seaweed. But on my first evening as a guest in this tiny palm tree village, chugging an ice-cold beer in the sunset, my education began when a man came up to me and told me that for a few dollars he’d take me out fishing the following day. “It’s very good deal,” said the Captain, in his brand of unorthodox English that I was to become fluent in, “because when we come back at night, I cook fish for you on the beach. We eat with sticky rice and mango slice, all served up on a jolly big banana leaf.” And so, for the following six weeks of my first visit to Zanzibar, I spent most days fishing on the reef, learning the crucial difference between the fish that you could eat, and those you could not. To get to the reef we had to push our boat – the one I’d seen the Captain setting fire to – through clearly defined channels that ran between square patches of cultivated purple seaweed, past groups of women in colourful batik sarongs, harvesting and planting their crop. As the days rolled on I learned that the seaweed was of high culinary quality and was destined for expensive restaurants in Japan. Only the women of the village got involved in the farming, although the men helped to bring the harvest ashore, where it was carefully dried and packaged. I asked the Captain if I could photograph the whole procedure from start to finish and was told that I couldn’t because the women, fed up with westerners and their fancy cameras intruding into their lives, didn’t like the attention. Fair enough, I thought. No-one really enjoys being photographed while they work. I offered to help with the harvest if that would advance my case, but at this the Captain just smiled and explained that the men go fishing to provide food for the village while the women did the seaweed farming. But he added thoughtfully, if I were to help him out on his boat, he’d be happy to teach me to speak Swahili.
On the days when I didn’t go fishing, I set off to explore the island, and although you can do that on your own, it’s best to have a local guide because there were military checkpoints on the roads where bored young men in tatty hand-me-down khaki uniforms spent ages examining your travel documentation in the hope of extracting a bribe to speed things up a little. And so, the ever-resourceful Captain found me a guide with a terrible green car and told me to drop his name if there was any trouble. “They tricky guys,” he told me. “They think tourists carry many hundred dollars cash-money everywhere they go.” We studied his map of the island for hours, which shouldn’t really have taken that long because the place is so small, and eventually we decided that I’d start by visiting Stone Town – the old quarter of Zanzibar City – from where I’d charter a boat to take me to the sombre-sounding Grave Island or Chapwani. As the days turned into weeks, I broadened my travels into the island, avoiding expats and tourist traps, while spending sweaty afternoons hiking among pepper, ginger and nutmeg plantations.
Stone Town is one of those intriguing, shabby places that’s much better on paper than it is in reality. With its Arab, Persian, Indian and bizarrely German architecture, you can see why this stifling tangle of alleyways and markets has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But it’s also stuffed to the gills with faded junk shops and gloomy semi-derelict churches. On the other hand, there’s a booming trade in overpriced ‘barefoot luxury’ boutique hotels alongside the kind of westernised street café culture that looks good in pictures and newspaper articles, but actually could be anywhere and just gets in the way. More interesting are the places associated with Dr Livingstone, the slave trade and the exploration of Africa. So, it was with something of a relief that I joined the Captain’s friend at the Big Tree on the waterfront near Mercury’s Restaurant – Freddie Mercury was born around here somewhere – and set sail to Chapwani. It was on this tiny coral island I came across a small cemetery dedicated mostly to British sailors who’d lost their lives in 19th century shipwrecks. But there are also a handful of British First World War graves, which seemed to be far from home, and yet peaceful enough undisturbed among the herons and the tiny antelope called dik-dik that live on the island. A little further up the coast there are some intriguing slave caves which, following the slavery monument in Stone Town – the altar of the Anglican Cathedral is said to have been built on the site of the whipping post in the slave market – brings home to the imagination what an extremely unpleasant place Zanzibar once was.
But these days it is more than pleasant and, after taking a few photos of these testaments to human misery, most travellers move on to check out the boatyards or the nature reserves (including the rare red colobus monkey at Jozani forest). But for the most part I just walked around some mud hut villages, played football with the local kids or found a nice quiet beach for another spot of snorkelling.
One of the great things about getting to know the Captain was that I was able to learn to speak Swahili. Okay, so I never mastered it to the point at which I could lecture on theoretical physics or direct a light opera, but I did manage to get my tongue around the basics and what I lacked in technical proficiency I more than made up for with enthusiasm. One evening, after a beer or two, we decided that we should sail beyond the reef and into the ocean to catch ‘big white fish good to eat.’
This would involve an early morning jaunt out to the coral rockpools to collect bait, that somehow became in the pidgin English that we were now speaking ‘material of octopus’ (we were trying to say ‘octopus meat’.) After which we set off in the blazing heat of mid-afternoon, picking our way through the seaweed farm before hoisting sail for the long journey through the turquoise lagoon and out to the darker indigo waters that lay ahead. Close to the equator night falls early and fast, and soon we were wrapped in shuka blankets against the cold, our only light coming from the moon, Venus and the stars. Being so far out to sea with no technolo-gy – not even a torch – was at times frankly an unnerving experience. But, after landing a few decent-sized red snapper the Captain said it was time to go home, and he navigated us back to shore, guided only by a low bright star that he assured me was directly above the village of Jambiani. They don’t call him the Captain for nothing, I thought.
One morning, towards the end of my first visit to Zanzibar, the Captain interrupted my breakfast with an important announcement. “Today, we go photograph the good ladies of the seaweed farm,” he told me with the air of a man who had come through a tough negotia-tion unscathed. I looked at him with barely concealed astonishment saying, “I thought we weren’t allowed to do that.” The Captain then explained to me in his most formal and idiosyncratic English that sometimes “the rules can bend. You learn to speak Swahili very good. You are good fish-sailor. Let us go without the loss of a minute, because there’s plenty photograph-making to do.”