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A taste of Zanzibar

“Hakuna matata” bellows the starched waiter with a Colgate grin, as we remove our beaten sandals, and jostle for position at Tower Top Restaurant, the hotspot of choice in Stonetown. No problems indeed. The blood orange setting sun is reflected on each of the expectant faces of our crowded fellow diners.

Required prepaid reservations are quickly forgotten, like an annoying bureaucratic pebble in the shoe of this very relaxed town on the exotic island of Zanzibar off the coast of Tanzania. The tourists are eagerly perched on the edge of their stained cushions, rubbing numb toes and jiggling bony bumps to find a comfortable spot, Swahili-style on the floor, from which to savor the spectacle. A barman shakes up cocktails, lukewarm and sweet, while keeping one ear tuned to the local news in Swahili blaring from his speckled, dusty radio. This magic carpet ride is not without million dollar views, perched atop a bohemian hotel built to be the second tallest tower in the city by a prominent Ismaili advisor to the Sultan Barghash. Zanzibar is steeped in history, serving as a stop-off for monsoon-fueled ships between Persia, Arabia, India and the coast of East Africa, since the end of the 15th century. It grew strong on the trade of slaves, ivory, wood, cloves and gold. It was also the stomping ground for explorers, including Dr David Livingstone, in his quest to find the source for the Nile River, who disapproving of its health standards, renamed the city “Stinkibar”. <!–page–>
The panoramic view bowing proudly beneath us is a smorgasbord of countless intricately detailed crumbling minarets, battling for elbow room with their stately church-steepled neighbors. Its timing could not be more perfect, as the sun dips its toes hesitantly into the warm salty sea to the west, and the resting dhows in the bay heave a sigh of relief. And in that exact pinprick of a moment, a chorus of wailing muezzins summon the faithful to prayer from all sides.

We are all respectfully subdued as we listen to the countless melancholy, holy voices competing against one another like overzealous storekeepers in the afternoon’s bazaar. The cooling dusk is a welcome relief, after a particularly scalp-tickling afternoon, journeying back into medieval times, spent spying on veiled women, shrunken old men competing at Bao, the abstract strategy board game of Tanzania, and counting brass-studded doors built to impede elephant entry. <!–page–>An expectant hum settles across the restaurant as the dancers are spotted stamping their path up the dangerously steep, narrow staircase. Their countless bracelets flick gold with each movement, hypnotizing the willing, and the women smile shyly. Naked skin with a mahogany sheen, and a musky fragrance we drink thirstily. Accompanying drummers begin a methodical thump, drowning out the barking dogs from the alleyways below.

Everybody is soon caught up in the dance, eyes trained to shimmying hips, stamping bare feet as thick as tree trunks, and swinging long necks. A rhythmic story unfolds, of unraveling red, turquoise and saffron sashaying hems. Those who were lucky to be served ice with their beverages, unconsciously trace the journey of the droplets down each forgotten greasy cocktail glass with hot sticky fingers. Aromatic steam from baskets pregnant with cloved rice, hearty marsala stew and spicy dipping sauces, makes its way up from the kitchen below, layering over the sweet, pungent sweat of the grimy travelers. Food is but a side dish to this festival of traditional African culture, and it’s a dance of seduction. An orchestra of sight, sound, smell, texture and intense flavor is woven in this floating room in the sky, while little boys chase flea-bitten stray dogs around the scarred rock walls dizzyingly far below.  The ships in the distance wink knowingly from their place in this age-old Arabian story of a navy Indian Ocean meeting a tapestry of mismatched rooftops under a sparkling African night sky.  

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