Around 10 every morning the southeastern coast of Zanzibar shakes off the drowsy new day and pulls out a paintbrush. As the tide sucks the Indian Ocean toward a reef from which you hear the far-off roar of a ceaseless pounding, the receding inshore water turns a startling shade of green.
Village women head into the exposed shallows to harvest seaweed that they sell for use in soaps and cosmetics. A baffled band of bovines at the fugitive water’s vanished edge wonders what just happened to their surfin’ safari. Dhows settle into the polychromatic sand, resting until the tide returns.
Cycle or stroll down Paje and Jambiani beaches and you pass a string of gentle villages and fishermen here and there. Swahili sings through the air. Then an idle hush settles over the scene, blanketed by the heat, sending beachgoers scurrying for shade. The turquoise play of light on the mighty ocean beyond the reef dominates all.
Winds defined Zanzibar’s history, drawing Arabs, Portuguese and British to its shores for spices, slaves and adventure. Between November and February the Indian Ocean monsoon blows to the southwest, which enabled merchant vessels to sail to the east coast of Africa. Around April the wind machine reverses, so that those traders could sail east to home ports in Arabia and southwestern India.
And this is where Oman enters the picture. As Francis Owtram, historian of Oman at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, explains in fascinating detail, the Omani port of Muscat’s position on the eastern coast of the Arabian peninsula made it “an ideal springboard for boats looking to hitch a ride on the monsoon winds.”
Arab seafarers rode that wind all the way down to Zanzibar, about 3,900 kilometers, or 2,300 miles to the south. So essential did Zanzibar become, that the Omani sultan moved his royal court there in 1840.
Across the island in Stone Town, where the sultan ruled, his palace terrace fixed in the direction of mainland Africa, now the rest of Tanzania, marine hues reappear on intricate wooden doors scattered about narrow alleyways soothed by the call to prayer. The passages fend off the blistering mid-day sun, which finally settles down to colorize the evening waters lapping at the sandy fringe.