From Zanzibar: With Love + Ginger + Cardamom

Arriving in Zanzibar was unlike anything I had ever seen. The airport was so small I could see from one end to the other, baggage claim was outdoors and the money exchange consisted of men shouting while waving stacks of money. I loved every minute of it. For me, traveling is about getting out of my comfort zone. I exchanged $200 for roughly 400,000 Tanzanian Shilling, the bills barely fit in my wallet. My boyfriend, still recovering from a panic attack after a lady asks if we had our anti-malaria medication, then says the mosquitoes are going to swarm you.  This was his first trip to Africa.

I don’t remember why I wanted to go to Zanzibar or how I chose it over Mauritius and the Seychelles. In fact, I only wanted one thing: white sand beaches, with clear turquoise water. We got our bags and headed straight for the beach. The following days  consisted of beach walks, sailing, snorkeling and sunsets. Island time is different, I enjoyed the days as they slowly unraveled, as opposed to rushing towards the next activity. As time wore on I admitted I would eventually get tired on this lifestyle, in reality, however, I knew my beach life was coming to an end.

Nungwi Beach, Zanzibar

The next stop was Stone Town, the capital of Zanzibar. We hired a local driver since hotel taxis were costly, but there was a catch—a stop at the spice farm. As I hesitated, convinced this was a tourist trap, we were assured it was a “must see”, after all Zanzibar is the “spice island” and we were getting a “good price.” Needless to say I caved. We drove for an hour, until we pulled over and a man with a flip phone wearing a throwback jersey came running behind the van and jumped in. I noticed a sign that read “Kisiki Spice Farm,” so I assumed we had arrived and this was our guide.

Arriving at Kisiki Spice Farm

We followed him into a small village and he began pulling up plants and cutting small branches from trees. “Try this,” so I did. First it was ginger, then vanilla, cardamom, peppercorn, rice and cloves.  Not long after, I had seen or tasted the majority of the same spices I keep in my rack at home, except these were the real deal. He showed us plants whose sap acts as a sealant for cuts—think natural band-aids, and a “lipstick plant” that contains little beads of what looks and feels like red lipstick.

Vanilla growing in spice farm

The lipstick plant (Annato plant)

Our guide at the spice farm

Grabbing leaves from a tree, he formed a ball and waved it near my nose. I hadn’t used Vicks Vapor Rub in a long time, but that’s a smell you NEVER forget. He said they use the plant for relief from cold symptoms. I left with a new appreciation for farm-to-table.

Stone Town, fulfilled a slight obsession of mine: doors. Yes, doors. After sunsets and rooftops, doors are one of my favorite things. I appreciated how most buildings in Stone Town, no matter their condition, had handcrafted, intricately designed, massive doors. They were like portals to a different dimension. The city consisted of very narrow streets that twisted and turned like a labyrinth, they were more like hallways. We often had to press against buildings to allow the occasional mo-ped to pass by. Artisans lined the “streets” making everything from doors to little wooden boxes with brass adornments.

The door at Park Hyatt Zanzibar

Zanzibar merchant house door

In search of doors to photograph it started raining, so we went to a local market for shelter. Flintstone-sized pieces of meat were hanging on hooks, dripping blood. “This is where you can buy fresh meat, the cows were slaughtered earlier this morning” says a guy next to me.  I didn’t need a freshness label to know he was telling the truth.

Meat section of the local market

Through the meat section we moved to a series of fruit and vegetables stalls, each covered with a brightly colored tarp that connected with the adjacent stall’s tarp, forming a large multi-colored canopy that spanned the whole market.

We ended the day with dinner at Emerson Spice, a merchant’s house turned boutique hotel and rooftop restaurant. The hotel resembled a fancy Indian Haveli, each room different and brightly colored. From the top, prayers from various mosques reverberated over the loudspeakers.

My view from Emerson Spice

We enjoyed an amazing meal as the sun set and the city began to shut down. The front desk offered an escort back to our hotel, I suppose they knew there was no way we could find our way to our hotel at night—or during the day. Things were different now. The city was quiet, dark, mysterious and cool. In the morning on our way to the airport we saw the city come alive once again.

And the whole time we only saw one mosquito.