Monday, December 28, 2009

Add Spice to Your Life

Vanilla beansImage via Wikipedia
The only gratification I get from mountain climbing up to breakfast is that once there, I can witness those younger than I huff and puff up the last flight of stairs. The view of the seashore is a pleasurable event, though the clouds always look ominous. A quick turn brings the towers of mosques, the steeples of churches, and the dome of the Hindu temple. Any more turns and all there is on offer is are the tin roofs of buildings and homes, with some weather worn block housing in the distance.

By 9am, we were waiting patiently for our Spice Tour guide to pick us up. The 3 Swedish people joined us by fifteen after the hour, but the guide did not show for yet another fifteen minutes. There were so many for the tour, they had 2 vans full, both with air conditioning, so no riots broke out. At $15. per person, it is a popular tour. After filling our van, we drove for about twenty minutes to a spice plantation where we were turned over to another guide with very good English.

I started taking pictures of the different things, but soon realized that when I went back to look at the pictures, I would not remember one from the other, realized it was pointless and quit. What was of interest was that many of the spices are not indigenous to the island or the country. Some came from then Persia, others from Mexico, and Thailand. Which can from where? I cannot tell you now. I told you I would forget.

What was interesting was that vanilla is grown on a vine and has to be grown under trees to protect it from the sun. Vines we saw were strung from tree to tree like a clothesline. The long pods were not ripe yet; green they do not smell vanillay yet. The flowers have to be hand pollinated, resulting in the high cost of vanilla beans. We were treated to some jackfruit right off of the tree. We have eaten this is in Thailand and Malaysia, but it was fun to try again. What we did not know were oversized seeds are edible if boiled first, though we did not get to try them that way. There was also the duran, which has a smell like rotting flesh with the saying "Smells like hell, tastes like heaven". Some parts of countries ban the growing or even the sale of it due to the odor it emits. Other fruits we tried were fresh litchi and rambutan. The guide explained that some people think they are the same fruit, but actually they are two different fruits. One has a spiky out layer, the other is smoother.

Fewer spices were displayed due to the season, but we did get to see nutmeg. Once the pod is opened, the red outer layer is called mace. When the mace is removed, the nutmeg is the inner spice. Cloves grow like just like they look in the bottle, but green and need to be dried once picked. Cardamon was another. Cinnamon is the bark of the tree, when cut in a proper fashion, the tree will heal itself; the bark is renewed and the tree is unhurt. The curled sticks of cinnamon are from smaller branches of the tree. Cinnamon that is ground comes from the larger trunks of the tree.

Walking in the brush, underbrush, and between trees, I walked into a large root sticking up out of the ground and hit my left foot sending me to the heavens to view the stars, even when the sun was blazing. After I recovered, it did not seem too bad, but later my two smallest toes turned lovely shades of purple and swelled like the little piggies where one went to the market and the one who stayed home.

Lunch was included, so we were transported to a village where people were building their home of tree branches and roof of reeds. We were directed to a large open room, a roof, but no walls, where mats were placed on the floor and asked to find a place on the mats. Removing our shoes before the mats, we complied by grouping in fives. Lunch was a yellow lentil dish very Indian looking, spiced rice with cinnamon, and spinach (OH, NO!). Although it was never mentioned, I suspected the meal was prepared with a number of spices we had seen. I found the flavors delectably outstanding.

After lunch, we visited the obligatory stand where we could buy some spices. I had thought they said the vanilla beans were 2,000 shillings a bag, so picked up 7 bags. When the guy started counting, he counted individual beans, so I took back 5 bags and put them back. As he gave me the running total, I added a bag, not wanting to spend more than 15,000. In the end, I had 7 bags of vanilla beans, one bag of cardamon tea and one of Marsala tea. He must have been so confused by the end of the whole transaction, he did not know what had happened. Actually, neither did I until I got back on the van and counted what I had received, more than I had anticipated to start.

The rest of the tour was a trip to the beach. How this relates to spices, is beyond me, but they were going to spend 2 hours there before returning to town. A whole group of us said we did not want to be crispy critters on the beach causing them to fill one van to return us to downtown again.

For dinner, we went to the park to find our friend from last night. He recognized us immediately and worked his charms. When so many things look different or you have not had it spiced in just such a way, eyes take over where the stomach should have control. On our plates were chicken kebabs, falafel, sweet potato, plantain, coconut bread, and salad. Everywhere we have had chicken either here or in Kenya, the way they cut it up is so foreign to us, plus, no chicken dish is served boned. Even the kebabs had bones, so when you are eating on the cement wall in a park on a paper plate, it does get to be challenging. Managing as best we could, we put away a good portion of the meal, but we did order too much. If we do it again, we need to order one thing at a time. As good as the sweet potato was, it would have been delicious with butter. Plain, it is too dry to swallow after the first bite without something to drink and our friend did not sell drinks.

Now that we have the territory down pat, it is nothing to walk around in the dark at night. Dozens of Islamic women in their religious dress are out on the streets as well. I have often wondered if those who keep their faces covered are ever able to eat out. It would make it difficult when only your eyes are showing through.

Back at the hotel, we stoppeed for a cup of tea at the cafe. We were speaking to one of the young waiters there about his job. He convinced us he loved it. He works six days a week and earns 100,000 shillings a month (140,000 is $100). From this, he is saving to go to college to...are you ready for this? to become a waiter. At first, we thought we had misunderstood him, but he said it again. They teach how to properly set a table, how to offer excellent customer service, how to present the meals and so on. What they do after those 2 hours is beyond my imagination. As I was ready to probe further the owner walked in, started talking to us, so I never was able to ask anymore.

Only 40% of the population of the island works in salaried positions. This explains why so many are selling cashews, DVDs, and scarves on the streets. But then again, when you have to pay for an education starting with primary school, only the lucky get to get ahead.

On a different note, we found that Zanzibar is semi-autonomous from Tanzania. Zanzibar has its own parliament and president, but Tanzania is still the overseer as a national government. They do send members to the Tanzania parliament and vote in the Tanzanian presidential elections.
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