Stone Town is the vibrant cultural heart of Zanzibar. Swahili culture is a complex mix of Bantu, Arab, Indian and other influences, and Stone Town is a great place to take it all in. It is a very historic town with crooked, narrow alleyways that wind around beautiful
mosques and homes crumbling away with age. Many are fitted with ornate, brass studded wooden doors, intricately carved with symbolic figures and motifs. Historically, the size and design of the door signified the wealth and dignity of the owner, and the brass studs were used to keep out war elephants, although there are no elephants on the island anymore.
The maze of alleys are a melting pot of cultures, and each turn teases the senses with bright colors and sweet aromas from a healthy variety of spices abundant in every home. In a way, it reminded me of Old Havana in Cuba, without the old American cars. The alleys are mostly too narrow for cars, but it is entertaining (and a bit frightening) to watch how fast the locals and taxi drivers whip around the numerous blind corners of the streets along the perimeter.
One of the most interesting aspects of my visit to Stone Town was observing the Islamic culture. Hearing the Islamic Call to Prayer being sung by school children early in the morning was serenely beautiful. It is a pretty closed culture, so I didn’t attempt to take many photos of people. I did politely asked to take a picture of some women cooking outside their home on a makeshift grill, but was harshly scolded. I responded “Hakuna Matata” and tucked the camera away and just enjoyed observing with my eyes.
Between the sea and the Old Fort in Forodhani Park, a charming and very popular market opens up in the evenings to sell a wide variety of snacks and fresh seafood. Vendors and tourist come out in force, and kids
have made a game of diving off the nearby seawall in an acrobatic display of athleticism. Along with a red snapper dish, the Zanzibari Pizza and sweet sugar cane juice with ginger and lime stood out as memorable snacks from my visit. While I waited for my food to be prepared, I met a very friendly guy named Haksy, with whom I’ve maintained contact.
The beach and sea play a big role in the daily life of a Zanzibari. I woke up early to do a sunrise walk on the beach one morning and found a lot of folks out doing exercise on the sandy shore. I enjoyed watching the routines they were
practicing, which was quite different than what your might see in a gym. Of course, pick up soccer games were popular on the beach, and it was very common to see kids playing in the sea and diving off boats.
Despite the one incident with the women cooking (and I don’t hold that against them), I found the locals to be very warm and welcoming. Most would
speak to your at length if you’d let them. They love to practice their English, and are just genuinely engaging people. I spent one very memorable evening with a fun loving group of Zanzibaris in a small tucked away bar talking about all kinds of topics ranging from Africa to jazz to world politics. Sure, you have to be a little leery of the “papasi”, or touts, but they are also friendly, and after you convince them you aren’t going to buy anything, you can actually have a rewarding conversation with them as well.