The Spice Tour

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
Zanzibar, the spice islands and on the lookout for Sinbad.

Submitted: November 10, 2016

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Submitted: November 10, 2016



The day after our arrival on the island of Unguja, commonly referred to as Zanzibar, we thought we would explore Stonetown more fully, but we didn’t get far because this lad, who spoke very accomplished English, told us his father would take us on a spice tour in his ‘very nice car’. Further, if we didn’t enjoy it, we didn’t have to pay, and lunch was to be thrown in with the tour.

Well Mr. Suleman turned out to quite a character! To look at him, you would think he was one of the crooks from the Arabian Nights! But in fact, you couldn’t find a better person to take you around the island. His car wasn’t at all nice, and it didn’t run well either. The tour was ‘off the beaten track’ and not where the other tour operators go, but we enjoyed it and him – it was fun! First though we had to pay to put petrol in the car! Nobody ever seems to fill their vehicle but because we were paying, he did! The car was a dilapidated Peugeot, which every now and then give a worrying cough. I would pat the dashboard and he would smile to assure us with ‘Hakuna matata’.  The gearbox grumbled and I noticed he had to change into fourth gear before he could go into third, a sure sign something was crook. The whole dashboard console shook and shimmied because the wheels were out of balance. The floor below me was see-through and dust-let-in, a quality the envy on modern vehicles!

Suleman certainly knew all about spices and he took us to farms where he knew the back way to. We guessed we might have been trespassing some of the time. Telling us about the various fruits and spices, he launched into a diatribe by rote, with no animation, the monotony of which made us laugh. The information was good and accurate. Mo suggested that perhaps if we could guess the names of the spices he showed us, we would not have to pay for the tour. Suleman took up the challenge and agreed, but he gave us some real tough ones so we were generally wrong, but he was nevertheless impressed with our knowledge. We failed, as we all knew we would.

He took us to a village roadside stall, and we were allowed to sample spices of many colours: cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, turmeric, tandoori vanilla beans and more.  The vendor also had various fruits: mango, avocado, soursop, breadfruit, jackfruit, custard apple, lychee, rombutan and more. We didn’t have to pay, which we guessed was within the tour price, we had no idea if he paid the woman. However we did buy some spices and fruit which pleased her no end.

The area has rich, tall vegetation and there were banana plantations as an understory crop to the larger canopy trees. Along the road edges there were old mango trees, which had been planted over a hundred years ago. Because they had been chopped about, they look old, knarled yet attractive.

On the way back we stopped at a beach of white sand and cooled our feet while looking at some small fishing boats, dugouts with outriggers. We also saw some small silver fish like the local dagga, a freshwater species, these were smaller than sardines. Suleman was patient and did not hurry us because he too cooled his feet in the Indian Ocean.

Then on to the ruins of the Sultan’s Palace. Apparently the Sultan’s first wife would not allow him to have more wives but she generously allowed over one hundred concubines. This palace was especially built for them, with accommodation and Persian-type bathhouses, perhaps ten baths, all tiled and probably sumptuous. The ruins were caused when the palace caught fire and it was not rebuilt because politics in the region had changed. However it must have been a fine place in its heyday! We enjoyed visualizing how it would be for the people who lived there.

Back to town and we were taken to End of Road Restaurant, which was busy with locals. This part of town was not so much frequented by tourists, and not far away from the fish market. The rice and meat meal was very good and the mango juice was nothing short of marvelous! We finished with tea and of course the most usual local brew is the milky, sweet tea, sometimes flavored with ginger, cardamom or other spices. While the rest of us chose the traditional, Mo wanted her usual black tea without sugar, chai ya rangi bila sukari. It is not totally unusual for people to have black tea, but without sugar is far less common. Locals would regard her brew as medicine. The elderly waiter served her with milky tea and when she protested, he took it away and returned with another cup, also with milk in it. After again protesting, and my Swahili input, he returned with sweet black tea. Well we thought the elderly bloke was a nice guy who tried very hard, so she drank half the tea without further complaining. Another customer who had witnessed the little saga came to tell us the old waiter worked totally voluntarily and was stone deaf – but he rarely got an order wrong!  He was just not used to English. We gave him a good tip when we left. We returned to the restaurant another day because the food was so good and the deaf waiter remembered exactly what Mo preferred.

I happen like fish markets and the Stonetown market is a very good one with a range of fish species I’ve never seen before, but some I knew: grouper, moray eel, lionfish, lobster, rays and octopus. The fish smell was of fresh fish and not at all-unpleasant. It was a busy vibrant place, presumably the big hotels, cheaper boarding houses and the street food stall accessed their seafood from there.

A wise man once said that nothing ever remains the same and perhaps by now Suleman has a thriving tourist business, hopefully with his old car in a starring role! But given another chance to go with him in his old clapped-out Peugeot for another spice tour, I would leap at it!


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