Thursday, March 18, 2010

Stone Town / The Long Journey to Malawi

Day 46: Chitimba, Malawi
Monday morning we reluctantly left the white sands of Zanzibar's northwest coast for the island's main city, Stone Town. We stopped for a tour of one of Zanzibar's famous spice plantations, where we learned about the multitude of crops that have been a leading component of the island's economy for centuries. Cloves, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, vanilla – they all prosper in the warm climate, as do numerous tropical fruits like lychees, starfruits, jackfruits, pineapples, and bananas. Particularly interesting is the iodine plant, which "bleeds" the rust-colored antiseptic sap.

Achiote "lipstick" fruit, Zanzibar, Tanzania © Matt Prater
The fruit of the achiote tree (Bixa orellana) contains seeds that produce a red pigment, hence the plant's nickname, "lipstick tree." This specimen is from a spice plantation on the island of Zanzibar in Tanzania.
Our next stop was a grim reminder of Zanzibar's dark history of slave trading. We toured a dungeon where Arab slave traders imprisoned slaves for days without food or water to determine their strength. In a dark room that could barely contain ten of us, up to eighty slaves were piled on top of one another, the only light from two tiny slits in the thick stone walls. Those who did not succumb to disease or starvation were transferred to the adjacent slave market, where they would endure further brutal tests of their strength. A whipping post stood in the center of the square – those slaves who did not cry out or collapse when repeatedly beaten would command the highest prices. These practices were occurring in Zanzibar at the same time that the equally barbarous slave trade to the Americas was happening thousands of miles away in West Africa. Slavery was abolished in Zanzibar in the late nineteenth century, but remnants of the practice remained until the first decade of the twentieth century. At this particular site, a European missionary built a church on the former grounds of the slave market. The spot where the whipping post once stood is at the center of the altar, ensuring that the human atrocities that occurred there are never forgotten.

Historic waterfront buildings, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania © Matt Prater
Historic buildings line the waterfront of Stone Town on the island of Zanzibar in Tanzania
After the sobering journey into Zanzibar's horrible past, we journeyed further to the edge of town where stone buildings met the shimmering sea. A few of us walked around the ancient streets for a while, browsing the numerous shops crammed with wooden carvings of animals and African paintings. We stopped at a picturesque Italian restaurant for some exquisite ice cream, a rare luxury in Africa. In the evening, we met up with the rest of the group for drinks at Africa House, a British colonial club that features a beautiful balcony looking over the sea. Afterward, we all walked to the nightly food market at Forodhani Gardens, where I tried some fresh octopus. The spices lent a delicious flavor, but the meat was quite tough. For dinner, we returned to the Italian restaurant for some fantastic pasta. As we walked back to our hotel, the exotic and unmistakeable sound of prayer calls resonated from the mosques and echoed throughout Stone Town.

Majlis shisha lounge in Africa House, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania © Matt Prater
The Majlis shisha lounge in the Africa House Hotel, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania. The building was an English colonial club from 1888 until the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964.

Boats at sunset, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania © Matt Prater
Boats at sunset, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania
Octopus at Forodhani Gardens night food market, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania © Matt Prater
Octopus and other delicacies at the Forodhani Gardens night food market, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania

It was an early start the next day. Waking up to my alarm before five o'clock, I wearily descended the narrow stairs to the dining area for a simple breakfast of fruit and toast. We walked to the port and took the seven o'clock ferry back to Dar es Salaam. We still had to endure an additional eight hours on the truck before finally reaching our bush camp. The evening air was sticky, and we had to use the rain cover on our tent because of intermittent rain. It was stifling inside, and I finally fell asleep to the high-pitched buzzing of mosquitoes in my ears, occasionally swatting the unwelcome intruders away.

Yesterday was an extremely long drive day, ten and a half hours to yet another bush camp – this meant no showers or toilets two nights in a row. Luckily, the night was considerably cooler, and I slept comfortably.

Market, Mbeya, Tanzania © Matt Prater
A market in Mbeya, Tanzania
Today we stopped in the southern Tanzanian city of Mbeya to buy some food at a local market. Then, this afternoon, after two and a half days of driving all the way across Tanzania, we finally reached Malawi. We had to make sure to use all of our Tanzanian shillings before reaching the border, as we were not allowed to take them into Malawi. Similarly, we could not obtain Malawian kwacha until we were in the country, as the government maintains tight control over their currency. Malawi is currently undergoing economic problems which have caused certain commodities such as fuel to vary in availability. I am now lounging by the shores of the vast Lake Malawi, anticipating what adventures may lie ahead in a new African country.

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