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The Scent of Cloves

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A visit to the wholly unfamiliar local of Zanzibar, Tanzania, is anchored in what is known as the most memorable of the senses

The rain had stopped. We waited by a five-passenger plane that was to take us to Zanzibar, Tanzania, a 30-minute flight east from Dar es Salaam, the east African country’s largest city. The pilot showed up late, looking distinctly worse for wear with bags under his eyes and a rumpled uniform. His henna-dyed hair showed grey roots.

He motioned for us to board, slammed the door shut and fiddled with his instruments. The single engine coughed, then purred and we took off. I looked down at the receding East African city and the clear waters of the Zanzibar Channel and saw the hem of my long, silk skirt trailing out alongside the plane. As we stepped onto the tarmac I sighed with relief at being back on terra firma still dressed. Then my husband said, “I hope you didn’t notice the fuel leaking out the wing.”

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Our hotel, the beautiful Serena, located in the historic Stone Town, was a blend of African, Indian and Arab décor in recognition of the ancient trade routes to Oman, Persia and India. Fretwork panels, huge chandeliers, brass studded doors and panels of colored glass graced the lobby and our room. Our balcony overlooked the harbor where dhows with their tattered sails glided by. A vision of the East was before us as we sipped champagne, our welcome drink.

One evening we walked to dinner at Emerson House. The hotel, originally built in the 1820s as an Omani palace, was enlarged 50 years later to add several floors in Anglo-Indian style, complete with Gothic arches and Indian ornamentation. We lounged like sultans on silk cushions under a rooftop awning listening to Mozart on the CD player while savoring our dinner and the pervasive scent of cloves stored for shipment in nearby godowns. The sun declined in the west.

Zanzibar’s Stone Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is the old fort as seen from well-known landmark, the House of Wonders

Suddenly, an explosion of sound startled us. First, the Hindu temple directly next door erupted with the sound of bells. When the clanging stopped, the Anglican cathedral began to ring its own more mellow bells for evensong. The sound reverberated through the spice-scented air only to be replaced with a muezzin’s ancient call from the minaret of a nearby mosque.

Night came and the power went out. It was time to leave. We stumbled down steep stairs by candlelight and slowly felt our way down the hill to our hotel, worrying about falling off the foot-high curbs built to keep the walkways above monsoon rains when they pour down the streets in rivers. We came to a mosque and stopped briefly to look in an open barred window. The imam was preaching to the kneeling men by the light of a kerosene lantern. The rapt worshipers looked up, their beards pointed towards him as the age-old words of the Prophet were retold.

Asalaamu alekum. Peace be upon you.

*Photo by Matt Kieffer

About the author

Judith Works, a graduate of Lewis and Clark Law School, is retired from the United Nations, Rome, Italy. She is the author of a memoir about Rome, Coins in the Fountain, available as an e-book, and City of Illusions, published by Booktrope. She writes travel articles for on-line publications as well as blogging her adventures. Her work has been published in a literary journal. She is currently on the steering committee for the literary conference, Write on the Sound, and is also on the board for Edmonds Center for the Arts and EPIC Group Writers. She is a member of several other writer’s groups.

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