“Odours have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odour cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.” ― Patrick Süskind, Perfume
They called us through the chaos, created a clearing in which we suddenly knew the way. Following their signs, I felt unfettered by the shoulders rubbing against mine and the bare feet and shoes stepping in the puddles around me. I had thought that I was here for beaches and blue waters, but I suddenly saw the bigger picture, the depth of this place people call the Spice Islands.
Here in the Dharajani Market in Stone Town, Zanzibar, a market built in 1904, I saw a culture and history rich in traditions and customs that would colour the rest of my days here. I saw the rows and rows of spices. Loose powder in baskets or packaged in sealed plastic bags. Whole roots and sticks hanging from the frames of each market stall. I saw oil extracts lingering in bottles big and small. I saw the deep reds and oranges and blacks. But more importantly, I smelt their persuasive power, their aroma waking up my tired traveller’s mind and body and bringing me right back to the present.
And there, in the here and now, stood a man with nimble hands and kind eyes but a mouth that didn’t stop working. He told me the name and health benefit of each and every spice that lay across the table in front of us. His hands moved over the cloves and black pepper, the cumin and cardamom, the paprika and turmeric, ginger, lemongrass, masala, vanilla, and teas and coffees infused with the different flavours.
The spice merchant took my hand in his and shook it as we decided on a price for the five items I selected from his offering. I would be drinking masala tea and vanilla coffee for many months. The smell of lemongrass would follow me everywhere.
We parted ways and I followed the call of the other scents stirring in the air of this crowded, heavy marketplace. After that meeting though, that single encounter, it all began to make sense.
I started to understand the land I had driven through from the airport to my hotel at Zanzibar White Sand Luxury Villas & Spa in Paje. The meals I enjoyed beneath the bougainvillea around the pool and on the dining verandah looking out over the blue hues of the Indian Ocean. The massages above the oasis, cinnamon and cloves rubbed into my thighs and back with coconut oil by the strong hands of Suzanne, the masseuse.
I saw the spices as more than mere flavours or perfumes for the pleasure of the senses. I learnt of their significance in the country’s economy. I saw the role spices had played in the making of this island and in the histories of each person I met. I saw their place in the health and wellness of the land and locals.
Strolling through Stone Town, talking to the people and breathing in their stories, the scents, sounds and sights, I found the truest sense of place. Spices had brought us together here. They were, I realised, as much a part of Zanzibar as the waters that lap its shores. To truly experience this faraway island, as a traveller unfamiliar to it, you had to savour the sight, taste, smell and touch of each of its spices.
Best I organise another massage, I thought to myself, as we wound out of Stone Town’s labyrinth of walkways and ruins that grew quieter and quieter the further we moved from the heart of the country, the heart of the Spice Islands.