Welcome to my tales of cookery school, food and travel

The first 30+ posts of this blog describe my experiences as I complete a nine month cooking course - the City and Guilds Diploma in Food Preparation and Culinary Art. I did this after I moved out of full time employment and it was purely selfish - I love food, cooking, eating and drinking. Subsequent posts are about, food, travel and adventures.

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Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Zanzibar: not what you think

Zanzibar: the very name conjures romantic notions of kings, sultans, princesses, exotic spices and dusky slaves.  However our first impressions are of poverty, a hand-to-mouth existence and general squalor.  The 45 minute drive from the airport to our beach side accommodation takes us through the dusty and very dilapidated outskirts of Stonetown - the main town - through crumbling, countryside villages, and past rickety roadside stalls lightly topped with a few tomatoes or other fruit.  The overall impression is more Honiara than Honolulu.  I remember one of NZ's provincial towns had a caption 'better than you think' - a damning phrase if ever there was one. Zanzibar's could be 'not what you think'. That's the problem with romantic notions and high expectations – they’re rarely met.

swaying palms and swimming pools at Uroa resort
Gradually, though, the charms of the place and people draw us in. Our first few days are at Uroa Beach Resort on the east coast, open to the Indian Ocean.  This turns out to be a lucky choice as there are only 2 other resorts further down the beach, as opposed to the north coast which is cluttered with large hotels full of Italian tour groups: there are about a dozen direct flights from Milan to Zanzibar every week.

The weather is very warm, but not uncomfortably so, and the coastal breeze is a pleasant accompaniment to afternoon cocktails. I am delighted when the barman produces a Margarita worthy of the hunter-gatherer's hand.

seaweed farming - who would've thought?

In the mornings we walk the beach, fend off the few hawkers, and watch women farming seaweed.  The sticks poking out of water at low tide are pegs to which the women string lines tied with small pieces of seaweed. They harvest after three weeks, dry the seaweed and then use it in food or other products.

 Back in Stonetown, a two hour walking tour with a nice young man called Dowji takes us through a maze of streets and alleyways and introduces us to the history of Stonetown.  FYI the name comes from the widespread use of coral stone for the buildings.  We would be lost on our own, and this is sometimes the case over the next few days.  However, turn enough corners and eventually you recognise something.  
Indian style carved wooden doors

Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000, 80% of the beautiful old buildings are in need of maintenance and repair.  This is especially apparent on the waterfront where the major historical buildings line the harbour. It is tragic to see places such as the 1883 built House of Wonders - so known as it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electricity and the first working lift in East Africa! - crumbling away. 

As the foremost centre for slave trading in East Africa through the 1800s, the site of the slave auctions is particularly chilling.  Especially so when we go down into one of the cellar like rooms where slaves were kept for days on end, waiting for auction.  There is no way to stand upright, and dozens were packed into very small spaces.  Needless to say, no running water, no facilities at all - just concrete benches.

The second day in town is the last day of Ramadan, so after 30 days of fasting between sun up and sundown the locals are ready to party – in a non alcoholic Muslim kind of way. The difference in mood and activity from one day to the next as Ramadan ends is very marked. The celebration, Eid, is a bit like Christmas coming straight after Lent.  Everyone has new clothes, gives gifts and large family gatherings and feasts take place. 

One evening we find a really good rooftop restaurant at Emerson Spice Hotel. We start with cocktails (at about $6US they're too much of a bargain) and then enjoy a five course degustation dinner.  The courses are very small and have two or three different tastes in each, for example the pictured Prawns with Papaya Salad, Garlic Bamia (okra) and Braised Leek.

We just about have major heart attacks half way through drinks as a really loud alarm sounds across the city -  a tsunami warning? air raid?  But after the calls to prayer flow we reason it is marking sunset.

One day we once again take our lives in our hands by way of yet another clapped out minibus, and travel up to a spice plantation. Ahh, we think, this is more like the Zanzibar we expect.  
However it is not part of a great spice industry, it is a 'show farm' as plantations no longer exist and the only spice grown for export is cloves.  All the same it is interesting to see cinnamon, clove, vanilla, cardamom, ginger, turmeric, nutmeg, coffee, cocoa, along with fruits such as rambutan, durian and star fruit growing, though not all are in season - thank God in the case of durian. You'll know what I mean if you've ever smelled it.

Zanzibar is so poor it's hard to understand why agriculture doesn't take off - everything grows. The answer appears to lie in corruption; the rich don't pay tax and the tax that's collected goes into officials' pockets, not roads or schools or healthcare.  There's no encouragement, either financial or educational, to develop land and farm it, other than for the few vegetables some grow for themselves or for a small market.  Our young guide Dowji is so disillusioned he says he's never voting again, as politicians promises are all lies.  Welcome to our world Dowji!

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