The boatmen vanished. We were prisoners, abandoned on Prison Island. Lights were on inside the hotel, but no one answered our knocking. I went around the side and shouted "Jambo!" the Swahili version of "Aloha," to the ramshackle cabin in back. Finally, two men hurried out to us, and we haggled out a rate for five double rooms. To our surprise, the men then started down a path into the dark jungle. "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God," moaned Anne--who was from England--as we shuffled along the trail, gear in hand, frequently colliding with what seemed to be large, round boulders.
At last, we arrived at a row of small bungalows on the edge of the sand. Every star was out. The hotel men slipped away without a word.
Most of the group went directly to bed, easing under their mosquito nets with relief. Drew and I opted for night tide-pooling instead. Prison Island, also known as Changuu Island, is really just a large, flat, coral hill, so that even at high tide the surrounding waters are quite shallow. The intertidal zone is a maze of pools, each revealing a unique, self-contained home for sea life--like little neighborhoods, alive with creatures that scuffle around together. Multicolored clown fish abound in the warm waters, as well as sea anemones, sea urchins and corals.
The next morning, we set off to explore the island. It takes about half an hour to walk the 1 1/4-mile perimeter. Our first discovery was the identity of those boulders from the night before: Giant sea tortoises lay about the island, which is a sanctuary for wild peacocks as well. There were the abandoned prison, infirmary and guard stations, built in 1893, to visit.
Zanzibar became an independent Arab state in the 1800s, governed by the Sultan of Oman, who developed Zanzibar town and the clove industry. The island also became the largest slaving entrepot on the east coast, with Arab traders bringing captured slaves from all over the East African mainland. Prison Island once detained slaves. Originally owned by an Arab trader, the prison later housed hardened criminals and served as a quarantine station. Today, it is a strangely beautiful ruin, tortoises sunning beyond its walls. Arab doorways, still standing, frame the occasional, lateen-sailed dhow sailing elegantly by.
A revolt by Africans in 1964 overthrew the Arab ruling class on Zanzibar, and later that year Tanganyika and Zanzibar joined, forming the new country of Tanzania. But even today, the Africans of Zanzibar remain vastly underprivileged compared to the colonial Arab and Indo-Pakistani immigrant communities on the island.
In the afternoon we left Prison Island for Zanzibar town, where Mohammed greeted us as promised. When told about our dhow running aground, his eyes rolled skyward as he exclaimed, "Praise be to Allah! The Great One has saved your lives!" We took that to mean that Mohammed and his cohorts felt that they were not to blame. Back at the minibus, we rushed off again, this time to separate hotels, men in one, women in another.
The women's accommodations were of the standard, somewhat primitive caliber found in Zanzibar town, but with the allure of a candy shop downstairs, and a friendly dwarf, Harry, who washed our clothes to within an inch of their lives.
Later, on our way to the night market, Zanzibar town was a labyrinth: dark alley to ancient Arab palace to lonely beach littered with parchment-colored dhows. Evenings here mean communing. The townspeople are out visiting, or basking on their own front steps, children racing through the corridors. We came upon a group of men, leaning their chairs back against the wall outside a tiny shop front, laughing and talking on into the wee hours.
The glow of hundreds of creamy white candles lured us to the Jamituri Gardens at the waterfront near the old "Arab" fort, a massive, crenelated structure built by the Portuguese. We tried smoked octopus, spicy vegetables, beef satay, curries and cassava. Sugar cane nectar, pressed from the stalk through an antique clothes wringer, is surprisingly light and fresh-tasting. Local musicians supply the entertainment. This luscious repast is overshadowed only by the people-watching--the night market is a rendezvous for friends, a special family outing, a shadowy, romantic tryst for couples.
The next morning, we took a tour through the spice plantations in a cool, open-air van, our guides introducing us to hundreds of spices and fruits. We wandered among cherimoya, \o7 plumeria\f7 , litchi, and jasmine trees. Zanzibar was once the world's largest producer of cloves. The clove plantations sport ancient sorting machinery, mound after mound of fresh harvest drying in the sun and balmy breezes. We continued on to the Marahubi Palace, once the home of the Sultans of Oman and their harems. The palace is a maze of ruined chambers, baths and outdoor "pleasure ponds," which prompted visions of decadence.