Stone Town, the ancient part of Zanzibar Island's largest city, is one of the most unique and beautiful places we've ever been, and instantly one of my favorite places we've visited. Its most striking feature is the layout of its streets, a winding, curving, jumbled maze of narrow alleyways that makes the city feel alive and constantly changing, and completely bewildered our map- and grid-city-accustomed brains. The fact that most of the streets are so narrow, permitting only foot and bicycle traffic, that you can only see a few paces ahead since they are always curving, splitting, ending, and beginning, and that they seem so claustrophobic due to the seemingly haphazard pile of buildings hanging over them were a little off-putting at first, reminding us of shady alleyways we would fear to enter in any large Western city.
But after passing enough smiling faces looking up out of doorways from boiling pots and small children chasing balls, we warmed up to the city's charms and spent countless hours getting lost in its deepest corners (although it's small enough that we always popped out somewhere familiar after a few minutes). As we walked, we crossed patios with drying laundry and public squares with men playing boa (a board game similar the one we learned as Mancala), turned a corner to find an ornately carved wooden door, a persian-styled portal, a woman pulling a basket full of bicycle-delivered bread into her third-story window, or a wall-sized chalkboard detailing the results of all of Liverpool's football matches, all the while with a soundtrack consisting of the muslim call to prayer, children playing, local Taarab music, and lots of people singing and drumming in the streets...
As one of East Africa's most important trading posts with the Middle East and India, Zanzibar, and Stonetown in particular, accumulated many inhabitants from those regions, and with them came their food, tea, and coffee. On our trip we have learned that most of the world drinks instant coffee, and have thus begun to cherish those few places which have an established coffee culture, and Stonetown indeed has a strong and unique one. From comfortable cafes pouring lattes and the local specialty of coffee flavored with cinnamon, clove, and ginger to old men boiling pots over coal fires and pouring syrupy-thick brew into mismatched porcelain espresso cups on the corner, we got our fill and left pleasantly caffeinated.
We also ate our fill of local food: two visits to lovely Forodhani gardens for uber-fresh seafood and "Zanzibar Pizza" (the subject of our next post), as well as a delicious local dinner in a family's house, only accessible--in traditional Stone Town style--off a sidestreet, down the driveway, past the construction site, between the sheets of corrugated steel, turn right at the toilet fixture, then left at the pile of iron bars, then ring the bell and make sure to take your shoes off when greeted by the eight-year-old hostess. Dinner was upstairs and served family-style, course after course of Indian-African coastal fusion left us happily full.