Zanzibar: Crossroads of the Indian Ocean
There's something so exotic about the name Zanzibar that the uninitiated might conclude it is not a real place at all, but simply a name from a fairytale of the east, or the thousand and one nights. But Zanzibar is indeed a real place - Or rather places. For Zanzibar is actually the name given to a cluster of islands that nestle in the waters of the Indian Ocean just off the coast of mainland Tanzania, East Africa. The two principal islands in the group are Unguja, also known as Zanzibar Island (just to confuse you further) and Pemba. Smaller islands are scattered around these, which range from mere sandbanks to those with their own ethnic grouping and a fierce sense of identity.
Most accounts of Zanzibar in travel literature and fiction begin with a description of the port of Stone Town, the island's capital, from the sea. It's certainly an unforgettable sight, and one likely to make even the most hard-nosed, jaded traveller ooh and ah with excitement. Minarets and graceful, curved towers rise above the turquoise waters, the smell of cloves wafts on the breeze, and Arab dhows with sails the shape of the crescent moon bob gently in the harbour.
For a look at one of the many other faces of these multi-talented islands, grab a scheduled charter flight across from the mainland. Your little twin-engined plane will swoop low over the white flecks of waves, flash past white beaches and spice plantations before bumping onto a tiny runway fringed with palm trees, in front of a low, white building with children waving frantically from its roof. You'll feel like a character in a Graham Greene novel.
However you arrive, you'll fetch up in one of two places eventually - the narrow, winding streets of Stone Town's old quarter, or the glittering beaches of the coast. Everything will seem a little strange, a little disturbing and very, very exotic. But the Swahili people of Zanzibar have been welcoming strangers to their country since the first Phoenician ships blew into the harbour on the north-west monsoon of 600BC, or thereabouts. They've seen Greeks, Arabs, Persians, Portuguese, Indians, Chinese, Americans and British ships anchor offshore in the centuries since, so not much can faze them. Ancient visitors to the island came to trade - gold, silks, ivory, spices, animal skins and, most notoriously, slaves.
But many stayed, intermarrying with the locals to form a culture that's uniquely diverse, and producing a race of people who regard hospitality to strangers as a sacred duty. The word you'll hear first, and most frequently throughout your stay, is karibu ('welcome' in Swahili). And astonishingly, considering a colourful history of conquest, slavery and revolution, they mean it. So even if a whiff of drains mixes occasionally with the aroma of spices, or exhaust fumes sometimes taint the sea breeze (this is, after all, a third world country), you'll leave with the Zanzibar of your imaginings still intact in your mind.