Spice Island


This blog entry about the events of Sunday, May 16, 2004 was originally posted on May 20, 2004.

DAY 211:  What would the world be like without spices?  For one, Colonel Sanders and his Kentucky Fried Chicken would have eleven less ingredients to put in his secret recipe and probably be out of business.  TV chef Emeril Lagasse probably wouldn’t have a career involving yelling the word “BAM!” and would probably be a janitor somewhere.  And you could forget about going out for Thai food entirely.  (God forbid!)  In short, a world without spices would be a pretty boring and bland world.

Luckily, spices have been a valued culinary treasure throughout history.  In fact, most of the exploration of the early European explorers was commissioned so that new routes could be discovered to the Far East so that people in the Western world could get their hands on more spices.  Zanzibar was a great treasure in their quests, being an island in an ideal geographic location and climate to grow many spices.  In fact, the spice harvest and trade in Zanzibar became so well known that it became known by some as Spice Island.

The commissioned explorers of yestercentury have been replaced by backpacking explorers, but the spices remain.  The way one accesses spices in their pure form nowadays is to go on the widely popular Spice Tour with any one of the many tour companies in town (or with a Street Boy if you don’t mind the possible hassles).  Willie at Grace Tours set me up on one, which was with a pooled group of other tour companies and led by Island Adventure Tours.  When my guide for the day Kazim brought me to the office to wait for others, I bumped into a familiar face:  Ed, my dormmate from Mayoka Village in Nkhata Bay, Malawi.  Coincidentally, I was wearing the hand-painted Nkhata Bay shirt I got there and he recognized it right away.

My reunion with Ed was brief since he was going on a tour of Prison Island to see the turtles.  I on the other hand, went along in a chartered dalla-dalla with eleven others about 30 minutes north to a spice plantation, where about a dozen different spices and fruits were grown.  Kazim and a local farmer took us around the fields to see each one in its pure form:  lemongrass, lipstick fruit, cocoa, cassava, tangerine, papaya, taro, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, ginger, coconut, tumeric, nutmeg, jackfruit, starfruit, breadfruit and cloves — most of them were given away to us to collect in cones made out of big leaves.  Walking by banana orchards, Kazim teased us by telling us how all the mzungus loved the coveted red bananas, but wouldn’t let us have any off the tree since they were for market trade only.  The only other American on tour, a 20-year-old named Jess and I tried to look for strays, but found none.

One particularly interesting thing I learned on tour is that the five different kinds of peppercorns we know all come from the same plant.  Green peppercorns (a prized spice for some) only have a window of a couple of days to be ground before it turns into black pepper.  White pepper is actually a derivative of additional drying, yellow pepper is when the peppercorns are semi-ripe, and red pepper is when they are fully ripe.  In a way, the pepper plant is a “magical” plant that produces many different spices, the way a pig is a “magical” animal that gives us pork chops, bacon and ham.

While touring, smelling and tasting the spice fields, local boys followed us around and wove each of us costume jewelry, bags, hats or neckties out of coconut tree leaves.  There really was no choice in the matter.  You’re standing around a tree to listen to Kazim’s lecture on a spice and then BAM!  A kid places a newly woven hat on your head.  You walk to the next area of the farm, and all of a sudden, BAM! someone is tying a bracelet around your wrist.  There were about three young boys following us around doing this, and it seemed like all three of them were assigned a particular sub-grouping within the larger whole.  The boy that was “assigned” me wasn’t Emeril Lagasse but a 12-year-old kid named Ali, off from school.  Over the course of the tour, he wove me a necktime, a ring and a bracelet, all of which I wore until the first part of our tour ended at a table where a guy sold spices in already packed gift sets that don’t look too authentically “Zanzibari” (picture above).

“I’d feel like such a tool if I bought any of those,” Jess the American girl said at the table after taking my photo with all my coconut leaf gear on.  She was traveling through Zanzibar for a week after having just finished a study abroad program in Nairobi, Kenya.  We were both in the same situation where people we knew may or may not arrive in Stone Town, and debated whether or not to wait for them or head to other parts of the island without them.  We decided to combine forces and split costs and head to the north coast the next day together.

FROM THE SPICE PLANTATION, we hopped back in the chartered dalla-dalla and briefly visited the nearby ruins of the Kidichi Persian Baths, built in 1850 for the wife of Sultan Seyyid Said.  Now decrepit, the baths and their dirty bathwater only serve the purpose of being an additional stop on a Spice Tour.  A couple of short stops followed afterwards to see vanilla beans and henna plants and to sample rich Arabic coffee grown from a nearby coffee orchard.  Kazim had us sample the strong and robust blend “like American police officers,” as he said:  with sugary homemade donuts to dunk.

The dunking donuts were just the appetizer for our next stop:  lunch in a nearby village, prepared by the local women.  Kazim led us into a big room where we had to take off our shoes and sandals and sit on straw mats on the floor where the Zanzibari specialty pilau rice was served.  Pilau rice is basmati rice seasoned with cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, black pepper and ginger, and it was served with a sauce to be poured on top made of eggplant, okra, garlic, tomato, tumeric and coconut milk.  Together it became a delicious and filling lunch on the floor.  “Why can’t Thanksgiving be like this?” Jess said to me.  “No big tables, just everyone sitting on the floor.”  We chatted on the mat with our barefeet, eating our pilau rice next to a German couple; the man was more like a Japanese tourist, taking photos of his food.

FROM THE THANKSGIVING FLOOR, we got up and hopped back in the dalla-dalla and drove off to the nearby Slave Caves, where slaves were kept hidden during the illegal Zanzibar Slave Trade from 1873 to 1876, after slavery had been abolished.  The underground caves were well hidden — we couldn’t even see it when we parked nearby — and inside a small natural springs provided water in a pool for the hundreds of slaves that were inhumanly kept there in the dark for safe keeping until a slave trader sold and smuggled him off on a boat at the nearby shore. 

After seeing such a dark the depressing site, Kazim brought us to a bright and cheery place to lift our spirits:  the beach, where we swam in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean or just chilled out on the sand for a good hour.  After that we started the journey back home to Stone Town, stopping once at a coconut stand to sample coconut juice and meat right out of the shell.

JESS HAD THE IDEA OF RENTING a Vespa scooter to go up north, and that idea jived with my spirit of adventure and my need for speed — I was toying with it myself.  When we got back into town, we went over to Willie at Grace Tours, like a spontaneous couple in a credit card commercial, to see what he could do for us.  For $20 per day, we could get a Vespa, including the driving permit that would allow us to drive on the island legally.  A Street Boy barged into the office to try and steal business in the most rude way possible — cutting our conversation off with Willie and accusing Willie of dealing “like a woman” — until the usually soft-spoken Willie started yelling at him with his finger pointed in his face until he left. 

“Don’t you love it when you just run into a fight?” Jess said.

With the Street Boy gone, we set up the scooter rental and the feeling of excitement set in almost immediately.  I didn’t have my driver’s license on me, so the three of us went back to the Jambo Guesthouse to get it.  There, Jess ran into an Israeli couple she had met on the ferry that also had plans to go north, only in a taxi. 

Jess had a friend from her program in town staying with her godmother at the most posh hotel in Stone Town, the Serena Lodge.  She was to meet them for drinks later that night, and invited me along to experience briefly what staying in Zanzibar like a Sultan felt like.  In the meantime, we went looking for a Kenyan Airways office so she could get a flight out back to Nairobi — it was closed so we couldn’t get one, but in place of it, we picked up two friends:  Jessica and Kate, the two other girls from her study program with the questionable arrival since they never sent an e-mail. 

It turns out they were staying at the same inn Jess was, and after stopping in there for a bit, the four of us, our new Zanzibar posse, headed off to the night markets to point and point at this and that, and bargain down seafood dinners.  “Now, this is what Thanksgiving should be like,” I said.  Lobster, point.  Crab, point.  Tuna and octopus too.  Under four bucks?  Done.

We ate out by the docks and gave our scraps to the stray cats loitering around, and then went off to the Serena Lodge to meet Ariana, who was celebrating her 21st birthday.  Her godmother Gail graciously picked up the tab for the round of drinks we had out on the terrace that we had practically all to ourselves.  I, the stranger, filled everyone in on my story so that I didn’t appear like some random pick-up.

After celebrating at Serena, we continued the festivities at the Buddha Lounge, a surreal experience for the four girls who hadn’t had running water in four months:  it was a trendy couch bar with electronic music and a step back into the First World again.  Shots commemorated Ariana’s 21st and when the clock struck midnight, more shots commemorated Jess’ 21st.  The birthday girls were happy, and toasted their drinks with the rest of us.

The spices of Zanzibar may have spiced up life in an earlier era, but sometimes its the shots of Zanzibar that give it that extra BAM!

Next entry: The Things Up North

Previous entry: Dolphins, Monkeys and Queen

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Comments for “Spice Island”

  • HEY GANG:  The fun continues…  I was supposed to catch up on The Blog all day today, but turns out my early flight to the mainland tomorrow morning was cancelled… meaning I am leaving Zanzibar tonight (Friday) so that I can make my connecting flight to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in the morning. 

    If you don’t hear from me, I probably didn’t have time to write—even though I will try!  Right now I don’t the internet situation in Ethiopia, so be prepared for another long NIZ period if you don’t hear from me.  I plan to see northern Ethiopia for about a week if I can find a tour…

    P.S.  Jordan and Janice, a fun American couple I met in northern Unguja (introduction in an upcoming entry) also keeping a blog… they told me they were actually picked by some travel site as a Site of the Day…  Anyway, surely there’s something out there for this blog, if you can find it!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/20  at  12:33 PM

  • ur bro marky mark was a mess on his bday!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/20  at  06:25 PM

  • i can confirm mitchell’s statement.  birthday boy threw up in my van.  oh well, i guess we’re even.  hahhaha.  i think im movin to zanzibar after seein these pics.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/20  at  08:21 PM

  • Yo Bee,

      Cecile Bruneau, a former Bootsnall reader, is in town for the next 10 days with her man, and his assistant shooting a story for a German teen mag here in the Bronx. I hooked ‘em up with all the peeps I know at The Point, and they’re lovin’ it!

      By the way, I got the issue of Aftonbladet about my tour, in my hand—right now. The back of your big head is on the center spread!!

      Word Life. Keep on Keepin’ on!!


    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/21  at  01:40 AM

  • GREETINGS from Ethiopia…  Contrary to what you may think, there IS food here…  Not only that, there is internet too; at least in Addis Ababa.  Hopefully I’ll be all caught up before I go off and explore the rural areas.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/21  at  02:06 PM

  • news of your mugging has travelled the grapevine as my mother proceeded to update me yesterday afternoon wink

    that’s pretty nifty handmade tie youre sporting - that kid ali has got some real talent!

    can i just say im really amazed at how quickly and easily youre able to make friends through your travels: again, can i BE you?? wink

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/21  at  04:28 PM

  • ANIN:  That’s funny… does your mom read The Blog?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/21  at  04:37 PM

  • The beach - I love it!! Thanks!!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/22  at  09:26 AM

  • Serena Lodge must be in some Conde Nast mag…and yeah that neck tie is pretty nifty…

    WHEAT - i think you and FRANCIS should wrestle with the monkeys in zanzibar…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/23  at  10:16 PM

  • That rice dish sounded YUMMY! Looks like Zanzibar had plenty to offer the world traveller! I wonder how that swank, sultan-for-a-day joint would set you back?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/24  at  10:25 PM

  • Nice Simpsons reference… “oh like there’s this ONE magical animal that pork chops and bacon and ham comes from… “

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/24  at  11:17 PM

  • CHRISTY:  Good call!  I was hoping someone would get that!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/27  at  06:06 PM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Next entry:
The Things Up North

Previous entry:
Dolphins, Monkeys and Queen


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