Friday, February 10, 2012

In Spice of Everything...

Did I make it plain how incredibly amazing Zanzibar is in my last post? I think I may have under-played it a bit. After an incredible first impression, things were about to get even better. I'd signed up for a spice tour combined with a beach visit in the afternoon, and got a slight discount as it was through some bloke Nanda had met before I arrived. I think we can all agree that all the very best deals can only ever be got through "some bloke".

Anyhow, we set off in a mini-van along with about 7 others and went out to visit a spice farm. So many of the spices you use in your kitchen are grown here, maybe even the very ones you are using. It's what the islands are famous for and what attracted the attention of the Arab traders many many years ago, and I was interested to see what nutmeg looks like before it is trapped and skinned and put in a jar. Now, while there are areas of more intensely grown spices, most of the spice tours take place in a smaller area specially planted with the various varieties so that the poor farmers (both poor as in unfortunate as well as fiscally challenged) don't have clumsy tourist stamping about on the green gold. As the plants from which the spices are harvested often like to grow in shady areas, being often small and shrub-like, this made for a pleasant walk through some trees.

We were taken around by our guide and shadowed by some helpful workers, presumably on a break, or maybe this was their role, who helped climb trees or dig roots as required, and who made frogs and neck ties out of palm fronds in an effort to earn bigger tips at the end. We found out that there are 3 types of coconut that are used in different was and for different things, we saw ginger in its (or should that be "her", Smitch? You're the expert...) natural form, took a nibble of a clove fresh off the tree (it has an almost instant numbing effect), licked the bark of a cinnamon tree - after it had been peeled off - and dyed out hands yellow with turmeric. We also found the fabled nutmeg, and learned that the outer casing of the fruit can be used for marmalade and that the hard nutmeg stone comes protected by the strangest red, almost plastic-textured, sort of net that you peel off. Truly a very strange thing. The red plasticky bit is called mace (not the pepper spray kind of mace, and not used to make it either) and can also be used in cooking and is worth more than the nutmeg itself.

I ate jack fruit, kindly picked from the highest part of the tallest tree (it has special powers when picked under these circumstances) by one of our shadows who shot up despite the apparent lack of anything to hold on to. It's a strange fruit, part way between a pineapple and a banana in both texture and flavour. Quite nice, in fact.

We went on to find a pepper tree, visit a guy who makes spice infused oils for both cookingand massage, and also passed by a spice stand to buy some should we so wish. It was really interesting, and we broke for a lunch of local spice-flavoured rice, spinach and a delicious coconut curry sauce, made using a fruit whose name I forget, but whose flavour is much sourer than lemon (which is the alternative ingredient if you can't find this anonymous fruit in your local supermarket). So good, and really filling, and just right for setting us up to visit the slave caves and Managapwani beach in the afternoon.

The slave caves were exactly that - a way of smuggling slaves on or off the beach through a natural tunnel and then holding them until they could be moved to wherever. This was after the British made slavery illegal but before the Arabs wanted to stop, back in the eighteen sixty somethings or there abouts. A spooky kind of place, and not at all a nice place to have been kept.

The beach itself was possible the most beautiful beach I've ever seen. Small, secluded, beautiful clear blue water and fringed along the shore with coconut palms. Absolutely idyllic. There was even a bloke with a chilly-bin selling cold beer for the same price as in town. Can't get a lot better than that! We hung bout for an hour or so until the tide started to come in and take back the small area of beach it had loaned us for the afternoon, so we packed up and headed back to the bus.

Back in Stone Town, after a quick freshen up, I wandered down to the beach to take some (more) sunset shots and try and capture some local colour. A Wee boy of about 3 or 4 came over to have his photo take (the kids love to see the picture on the screen afterwards), and then wanted to take some of his own. His hands were too small to reach all the buttons, but he wouldn't be helped, so I just held the strap while pressed everything at once. I narrowly escaped having the memory card wiped clean, and he also somehow managed to get the video mode to work - something I have been trying unsuccessfully to do since I got the camera (my own fault, I never looked at the instruction book). Even after I got it to stop filming, I had no idea how to make it start again. The boy must be some kind of savant with cameras or something. After a while he got bored and asked for sweets, which I didn't have, so he wandered off.

Sunset came and went, and a couple of beers later and it was about 11pm and I'd still not had dinner, so Nanda, Diana and I headed back to the local food market (via, I have to confess, the Foudhani one, where I got a local pizza to tide me over). I had another pizza at the other market (they're only small) which was actually tastier, and as it was late and the market much quieter, the vendors were very chatty and entertaining. Most of them had pretty good English it seemed, or at least were good at pretending they had pretty good English, and it was great experience to be just hanging out with them, chatting for an hour or so. As in South America, I found limited language does not necessarily equal limited communication, and almost certainly does equal a fair amount of hilarity. Day 2 had somehow managed to surpass Day 1, which had been, quite frankly, pretty bloody good. I wonder what day 3, with a spur of the moment plan to hire a car with 4 others I'd met at the bar, to go touring the island, would bring?

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