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Stories from our Travelers

To Market in Stone Town, Zanzibar

[From Fall 2008]

by Melissa Cicci

Navigating the serpentine streets of Stone Town, Zanzibar, is an exercise in patience. Put aside thoughts of reaching your destination in a timely manner. Instead, follow the undulating curves of the alleyways, pause to take in a group of schoolboys playing a pick-up game of soccer or watch a barefoot child roll a giant tire down a narrow passageway. Beautiful women in flowing black hijabs walk purposefully, eyes downcast. Schoolgirls too are fully covered, dressed in long uniforms and white headscarves. Vendors call out from crumbling doorways, hawking antiques, chessboards, mancala boards, textiles and souvenirs. Seagulls cruising the Indian Ocean screech overhead.

My sister and I had been searching for the main produce market on Zanzibar, the island nation that is part of the United Republic of Tanzania. A friendly merchant had given us meticulous directions: follow the alley, turn left at the second corner, right again at the next, then a left, then two rights, and listen for the market. When we reached it at last, the covered market was exactly as I had imagined.

The heat, salty sea air and oppressive humidity of tropical Zanzibar blended with the enormous sides of meat suspended above the stalls, creating an aroma that hung heavily over the market. Giant bunches of bananas drooped from the rafters; 3-foot-high piles of melons, oranges, peppers and other exotic produce filled every stall. I sampled a large orange. Usually I avoid fresh produce when traveling, but my thirst (and the relative safety of a peel-able fruit) outweighed any health concerns. Juicy and sweet, the orange satisfied and left me with sticky, citrus-y hands that seemed appropriate for the setting. The orange fortified and gave me the confidence to engage in a lively negotiation with a vendor over a rough-hewn wooden kitchen spoon (more like a paddle, really). I felt awkward bargaining for an item which, in Tanzanian shillings, amounted to no more than a few dimes. But the vendor was intent on prolonging the exchange, and despite his good English spoke to me almost exclusively in Italian. Make no mistake, he was a Tanzanian.

Returning from the market, we were surprised to come upon a small gathering in the square outside our hotel. A well-dressed young Tanzanian, pen and clipboard in hand, was collecting signatures in support of a political candidate. A local, we assumed. But then we noticed the almost life-size portrait pinned to a tree. The face was familiar. And the button on the young man's collar confirmed it - "Obama '08."

Images of spices, romantic Islamic architecture (nearly 100 percent of the population is Muslim), palm trees and the exotic Indian Ocean had filled my thoughts for months before arriving on Zanzibar. But it is not for these images that I travel. I travel to remind myself that meeting people, speaking other languages and encountering places and experiences so different from my own are the real rewards of venturing beyond the familiar.

This image is real: the turquoise Indian Ocean is salty and warm and wraps you in luxurious splendor. When the tide is low, it’s possible to walk far into the sea. Ensconced in a western-oriented resort along the ocean, it's possible to see Zanzibar for its natural beauty alone. But the crushing poverty in Stone Town, the day-to-day reality for women of Muslim society and the cacophony of voices in tight spaces left a deeper impression on me than the bucolic Indian Ocean.

If You Go:
Zanzibar is part of the United Republic of Tanzania. From Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s international gateway, there are several short-hop flights daily on Precision Air, and ZanAir, The 15-minute flight is quick, but departure times are fluid.

Travel Documents:
U.S. travelers to Tanzania require a U.S. passport and visa for entry (visas may be obtained in advance or upon arrival in Tanzania). Multiple immunizations are required. For information on documentation, travel alerts and medical issues, visit the Tanzania page at the U.S. Department of State website: Tanzania Travel Requirements

Where to Stay:
The lovely Beyt Al Chai in Stone Town, rich in Moorish flavor and furnishings, is located close to the seashore. Six rooms evoke the Arabian nights. A small restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Wonderful wine selection. Doubles from $175.
Beyt Al Chai
The Stone Town Inn
Zanzibar, Tanzania
Tel. +255 (0) 774 444 111

Photo credits: home page, top and middle: Melissa Cicci, bottom: Cynthia Sewell

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