In a rolling stone town


Edited version published in reef resilience blog:

As soon as I stepped out of the Zanzibar Airport, I was greeted by “karibu”, (welcome in Swahili). The friendly driver drove us to the Hotel Grand Palace, the venue of the 2013 Reef Resilience workshop. Grand Palace is in the heart of the Stone Town with big wooden entrance gates that are decorated by fine wooden sculptures, narrow stairways and spacious rooms.

We were 25 participants in all, most of us representing islands across the Indo-Pacific region. Each day, the workshop commenced at nine in the morning and lasted till five in the evening, with one lunch and two tea breaks. The days were packed with activities ranging from introducing the concepts of resilience to teaching resilience, from facilitating to organizing techniques of a workshop, with fillers of role-plays, energizers and a day-trip to the Fumba Community Conserved Reserve. The style of teaching was very informal, yet very professional. The goal of the workshop was not to complete the preordained activities, but to have fun while you learn!

In the evenings we strolled around the city. It was quite an experience. The town is filled with atmosphere of opulence. Most streets are too narrow for four wheels to pass, but for cyclists and motorists it seemed like a paradise. All buildings have high ceiling rooms complete with roof beams of Burmese teak. Magical alleyways, minarets and mansions, bell towers, latticed balconies and breathtakingly magnificent carved doors are common sight.

On the streets, old, bearded men wearing long white robes, passed by. Youngsters gathered in small groups, perhaps discussed politics or sports. Cyclists and motorcyclists dodged narrow paths like a professional soccer players. Children scampered across streets, and women draped in their flowing black burqua (veil) walked hastily, perhaps on their way to the many little shops to purchase daily provisions or accomplish their daily chores. In the little time that I spent in the city, I discovered Mosques, Persian Hammamni Baths, Churches, Jain temples, small hole in the wall, tailor shops and eateries.

The highlight of the workshop was the dinner at the rooftop restaurants with a great view and the soft light of the sea, which allowed us to make long conversations with the workshop participants. We had interesting discussion on various topics, ranging from politics, science and arts. We tried varieties of local cuisine, from fish, chicken, and octopus to lobsters. Zanzibar being a major producer of spices, and due to Arabic and an Indian influence, the food was different than what I imagined and for the most part delicious!

Wherever I travelled I was enthralled and visually stimulated with the photographic opportunities. Later I learned that the stone town or “Mji Mkongwe” (meaning ‘ancient town’ in Swahili) is a world heritage site and the cultural capital of Zanzibar. With very little having changed over the last 200 years, the town is infused with Arab, Persian, Indian, European and African influences and is a fine example of an East African coastal trading town with bustling bazaars, winding alleys and grand Arab houses. The extravagance of the architecture can be seen in the fine detail of the brass studded, carved wooden doors – with over five hundred fine examples scattered about the town.

At the workshop, I learned important aspects of reef resilience from erudite reef scientists and got a glimpse of the city that offers a view of two parallel worlds—Tanzania when Arabs ruled, and the mundane life in East Africa. After five days the resilience workshop came to an end.But, the beaming smiles of friendly and supportive people at the workshop, the greetings of the locals and the fond memories of the town, where stunning tropical beauty rubs right up against dilapidated charming urban life, will always linger in my mind.

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Published by Vardhan Patankar


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