“Zany Zebras Zoom Through Zanzibar!”
Alphabet cassette tapes of the 1980s pained a wild and colorful picture of a place in my childhood mind. Twenty years later, I heard Lynn Rosetto Casper’s voice through my iPod headphones. She was chatting with a Splendid Table listener who had recently returned from Zanzibar, and my imagination again filled with scenes of spice plantations and market stalls. I could almost smell the coconut and cinnamon and cardamom spice as Lynn rattled off recipes, and I was smitten by the sounds of such an exotic trip…
I remember Ted and I sharing travel planning dates at Townshend’s Tea in NE Portland, drinking alternating pots of highland, kashmiri, and masala chai…plotting our great escape. When we pinned down our travel route and sorted flights, this Tanzanian island off the eastern coast of Africa moved from fantasy to reality, and I could barely contain my excitement at the thought of tracking my favorite spices back to their origins.
My highest hopes:
1) Seeing my kitchen pantry spices growing in fertile soil under tropical sun
2) Bringing my cookbook-world to life by learning a recipe or two from someone living on the island
Like most visions of the unknown, reality came in different shades.
I’d optimistically anticipated a polished spice plantation tour or a down-to-earth farm visit…instead, the beauty of Zanzibar came through despite the tourist runaround.
In Stone Town, Zanzibar (the main island’s capital city), touts and business owners are quick to offer the same dozen experiences to their ocean-locked audience. Swim with the dolphins? Boat to Prison Island? Nature reserve? Snorkeling and a packaged lunch? Spice tour?
Oh, spice tour. There you are…
Fifteen dollars a pop. A visit to the plantation/demonstration farm, lunch in the village, a stop at the slave caves and a swim a the beach.
A bit of junk food travel, but we bit, swallowed, and agreed to make the best of it.
Often, the invitation of world travel is to seek something good in every new corner…especially when circumstances seem less than ideal.
Morning of the tour. Let the cattle-herding begin…
(So much for those Zany Zebras zooming.)
8:45 AM: Pick-up = no-show.
9:00 AM: Our guest house host made a call then led us to find the ride at another spot.
As we walked to meet our bus, I spotted the street sweepers – women in colorful scarves and robes with wicker brooms – pulling the seams of the city back together after the previous night’s market.
Along the road, we passed artful canvases stretched over wooden frames, and an old man came walking toward us, paintbox in hand with brushes and pigment, a blank canvas as tall as his own frame strung over his back.
I couldn’t make a purchase, but I could carry the scene in my heart, this Zanzibar-come-to-life.
9:15 AM: We climbed into the sweaty van headed for the countryside…and waited.
9:30 AM: Waiting; watching the ever-changing, ever-the-same stream of bicycles and bodies jammed into daladalas (public buses) flowing outside the window.
A photo from a different, calmer day…bicycles always on the move in Stone Town
9:56 AM: Still waiting: one last stop, parked outside the main market while the driver purchased lunch supplies.
10:31 AM: Arrival at the spice plantation/demonstration farm and a brisk-paced introduction.
Our guide, Fuad, rattled off tidbits in choppy English, pointed for photos, and cut a few samples open for the group to see.
Cinnamon. Cloves. Nutmeg. Sorsop, Passionfruit, Durian. Cardamom, Cacao, Vanilla, Coffee. Cassava. Elephant Apple. Lemongrass. Lipstick-tree. Jackfruit.
About that point, I realized I’d traveled all this way to see a glorified zoo-exhibit of plants. Not exactly the working farm or culinary epiphany I’d been after…
Chickens making the most of coconut scraps…
While young boys climbed coconut trees and wove palm-leaf hats and bracelets and smeared lipstick-tree dye onto their faces in hopes of earning a tip, I realized in retracing that radio caller’s footsteps, I’d walked out of an imaginary land of exotic visions and into the real-life world of guides trying to make a living and resident villagers giving us tourists the generic day-in, day-out run-around.
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit disappointing.
But what exactly had I expected? Fanciful visions of cinnamon trees blowing in the wind?
The most authentic moments at the spice plantation came as our group traversed the pathways, encountering women from the neighboring village, washing laundry in the plantation’s water while their supply was out of order. Their little ones napped on the ground and played in the fields…
A much-needed reminder.
11:48 AM: Tropical rain started falling, and our group bunched under a thatched-roof shelter.
12:01 PM: Still raining. The guide disappeared, leaving our group to wonder if we were headed for more touring, more lunch, more shelter?
12:07 PM: Twenty people huddled in the jungle, sidestepping roof-leaks and making awkward small talk, wondering how long we’re meant to wait and watch the deepening puddles and streams form. Spice tour turned social experiment?
12:20 PM: Still raining. Still writing notes in my Moleskine – wondering if these memory joggers will be some-day sentimental to me.
12:40 PM: Guide re-appears. We run through the rain, across the red clay field, past the giggling village school kids, and dive for the bus. Flip-flops suctioned into mud. Windows steaming.
A drive down the road to the Peppercorns and Starfruit.
A coconut oil sales-pitch worthy of timeshare-marketing-awards.
Snake oil. Massage oil. What’s the difference?
And do you know what?
That act of eating a simple meal restored my faith in the day.
The food of Zanzibar’s working class families.
Cross-legged seating, plastic dishes and flimsy silverware atop woven floor mats in another open-air shelter.
Giant bowls of humble rice pilau, steamed greens, and basic potato curry.
Watermelon with more black seeds than I’ve seen in the U.S. in ages.
No hybridizing out the inconveniences of life.
Cold Coca-Cola for an extra coin or two.
Rewarded by looking for the beauty in the world.
Ingredients never destined to be local in my Oregon life were fresh as ever in the bowl in front of me: peppercorns floating alongside a cinnamon stick, both harvested a stone’s throw away.
Instead of exotic pantry items traveling thousands of miles to me, I’d traveled to meet my meal. I’d seen another glimpse of reality. I’d tasted the traditions of hard life, hard labor, and humble meals grown from the ground, and my foodie heart was grateful.
After lunch and spice tales, our bus of travelers stopped for a visit to coral caverns and slave caves. The guide explained the history matter-of-factly, speaking the script in sometimes-intelligible English.
This dreadful past is now all part of the show.
I spotted butterflies and sand crabs while Ted took a dip in the ocean, but both of us carried the heaviness of having seen the rocky prison that held humans in captivity long after the slave trade was declared illegal…
The weight of real-life thoughts in so-called paradise becomes so heavy.
4:30 PM: Back to Stone Town. Four hours of touring stretched with three hours of waiting to fill and uncomfortable seven.
My visions of exotic Zanzibar spice tours faded away by the end of the lackluster, lackadaisical excursion. Reality replaced the daydreams.
But that’s not a bad thing, is it? Seeing this world for what it truly is? Admiring the beautiful and the good, acknowledging the artificial and the broken. Ultimately celebrating the real…
Packages, artful jars, and bulk bin scoops of spices are destined to take on new dimensions in my future spice cabinet, and not for the reasons I expected.
More than exotic plants and precious trade-goods, I found myself admiring the women working through the rain to clean laundry with farm water. Age-old flavors gave food for thought at that lunchtime meal; thoroughly spiced was I at the humbling properties of rice.
The humbling and learning continued on Zanzibar, beyond the confines of the canned tourist experience and out on the opposite side of the island.
The second of my two highest hopes for our visit came true during a full day of cooking with a new friend, Salama. But that tale of a strong woman and her incredible octopus curry is for a future post…
For now, I’ll leave you with my one favorite random tidbit from the spice tour: cardamom grows on the ground!
I had no idea.
Look at those little baby seedpods…
How could I have known that that old childhood cassette tape would lead me so far away from home, or that that the inspiration of spice and flavor on a foodie-podcast would carry me to a lesson on slavery, trafficking, and modern-day poverty juxtaposed with lavish travel?
I couldn’t. And as with all of these travel inspirations turned real-life encounters, I couldn’t have fully anticipated what reality would smell like, taste like, feel like…
More than ever, though, I am grateful for whimsy that helps me process through the journey, and for the cups of tea and conversation I hope to share with friends when I’m one day back home, savoring flavors and memories and trying to make sense of the world.
Note: Painted murals pictured above come from our visit to the Bartolomeu Dias Museum in Mossel Bay, South Africa where exhibits display old-time shipping routes and sailing vessels used in the Spice Trade.
A little parting gift: Simple Cardamom Spice Tea
To a medium saucepan of boiling water, add:
Five cardamom pods
Several generous slices of ginger root (more rather than less – I like mine strong!)
One star anise
Simmer for 20 minutes, then add:
Seven whole cloves
After five minutes, remove from heat and add:
Juice of one lemon
Sweeten with a generous few spoonfuls of honey, filter.
Pour a cup for yourself & a cup for a friend.