Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
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Get Jiggy With The Zanzibarans
"And when he remembers that it has laid upon mankind the bitter burden of the sense of sin that has darkened the beauty of the starry night and cast a baleful shadow on the passing pleasures of a world to be enjoyed, he must chuckle as he murmers: give the devil his due."
        - W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor's Edge

    I emerge from my "life enjoyment break" in African Gelato Heaven into the lightest, gentlest sprinkle, which has floated in on the offshore breeze. Looping hotelward, but wide, I find myself in the proper, local (non-tourist) market – filled with stalls, vendors, shops, honking vehicles, and thousands of faces (all of which but mine are non-white). It's also filled with cashew vendors on the hoof, one of whom gets my business without much effort.

I find my way back, by the pretty-but-low-key mosque that marks where our road intersects the water. But one block before the hotel, I'm buttonholed by a tailor. His name is Marabu, he's 28, and he keeps me in happy conversation for the better part of an hour. We discuss careers, politics, women, sex, tourism, language. He's such a neat guy – and so uncomplicatedly interested in just interacting with me (like so many of his fellows) – that I bring Mark back a few minutes later to meet him.

Mark and I have our eye on a veg Indian restaurant called Radha, which I spotted on my earlier solo meander; but first we figure we'll have a drink. We find ourselves in a cramped, slightly seedy, second-story hotel bar, engaged in conversation with an engaging artist type who refers to himself as Mister Stephen. The evening passes pleasantly. Ultimately, we shoulder our way through the market/festival (the post-Ramadan fest proceeding apace); and on the way back – though I'm pretty keen on not drinking carbonated sugar-water these days – I pick up a Fanta Black Currant, because, hey, who could resist?

* * *

Morning, and after a lovely hotel breakfast, Mark and I amble back into town. Mission: find me a netcafe to squeeze one out on the wire. It turns into a bit of an odyssey, unfortunately (each of four places in a row has some technical glitch that keeps me from doing what I need to); but on a happier note, Mark looks up at a certain point – into a hidden world of spiders. It turns out that great walls of these things hang over our heads, in various places all over town. And they are big suckers. Shortly after, we run into David and Sid. Happily, the two of them agree to join us for lunch – at Amore Mio, of course.

After a pleasant repast, Mark and I get hoofing it south. Mark is pretty cool on organized tours; and, as previously noted, he's not real big on going out to see whatever the guidebooks have all the rest of the tourists seeing. So, he's a bit of a challenge to find "activities" for. But today I've dug up a Natural History Museum. Mark's game – especially given that it's a fair hike, and there turns out to be another variety of spectacularly large spider involved. Lamentably, there doesn't initially appear to be a museum involved.

We hit Museum Drive, and quickly spot something called the Peace Museum. But Natural History eludes us. We emerge onto a majorer drag, and begin asking people on the street. Impeding our inquiry is the fact that none of them speak English (and let's not talk about my Swahili (in any language)). Ultimately, one small and old woman in traditional garb seems to latch onto the word "museum" and begins leading us back around the corner – right to our target. We never saw it, due to it being a tiny, decrepit, abandoned-looking stone building – with a ten-inch, block-letter, paper "Natural History Museum" sign over the door. Also, those doors are locked, with an iron gate in front. We can't quite tell if the museum is open in this day and age; but it's definitely not open right now. We try to thank the woman for her assistance all the same; but she produces a key. Before we get a handle on what's happening, she's unlocking the door, letting us in – and collecting 1000 schillings (US$1.00) apiece entrance fee from us. Beside ourselves with bemusement, we begin our tour.

And it's immediately evident that we are in the right place: The first display features a monitor lizard, a curley-toed chameleon, and other lovely reptiles. And what's this beyond it? An entire cabinet of preserved (and labelled, and categorized) snakes! Holy serpents, Batman! We catch our breath with a few small mammals – a bush baby, a hyrax, and a Zanzibar Giant Rat – before exploring a chest of drawers full of lepidoptera. Around the corner from that is the motherlode of bugs. This place just keeps getting better!

We take in a few fruit bats for desert (the old woman waiting patiently for us the whole time, by the entrance), then loop around the last corner. Mark leans intently into a darkened cabinet.

Mark: My God – there are just all kinds of bizarre, unknowable things in here. This cabinet seems to be "Things We Don't Know What They Are." Here is some kind of split-toed salamander – it's like no creature I've ever seen. But it's exactly what you'd expect to find in in a dusty relic of a museum – an unlabeled, unheralded thing.
Me: A chimera.
Mark: Right! And what's not to like about this place? It's like a museum exhibit of a museum. And we had to be found and dragged in here by some mysterious proprietress.
Me: Yeah. This definitely goes down in my Why I Travel column.

Our hostess lets us out. But as we try to thank her again and profusely, she leads us around the side to view the 80-year old giant turtle. We walk back, laughing, through the funky back streets, shadowed by small boys; and take a pleasant afternoon siesta. I spend most of the time processing images (including many of the lovely specimens you see here today); and as I'm blowing up spiders for maximum effect, I remember to thank Mark for this whole (micro-) level of African exploration – one that I would never have thought to check out on my own.

* * *

Back on the street, we're gunning for dinner, and the point is pressed home that – of the legions of people who act friendly toward you around here – some of them do actually want money out of you. (Ie they're selling tours, trinkets, or hard-luck stories.) However, the calculus of defense mechanizing is reversed from Vic Falls: here, we give everyone the benefit of the doubt that they're simply being friendly (because most are). Or maybe it's just the sunsets. (I guess we can't have seen any more than about 50 stellar sunsets on this trip; but it sure seems like it.)

Over dinner, we discuss the disparity between attractions for the general public, and attractions for Mark Pitely. For starters, he can't understand why Zanzibar doesn't bill itself as the Spider Capital of East Africa. (Official tourism slogan: "We've got huge freakin' spiders!") Mark further opines that my Swahili phrasebook could stand modification; for instance, in the Police & Medical section, a translation of "Please help me – the spiders have taken my child." In Greetings & Phrases: an alternative to the old standard "Bismallah" (ie "If Allah wills it," eg "I'll meet you for lunch tomorrow, Bismallah"): "I'll meet you for lunch tomorrow, if the giant spiders don't take me in the night." We realize that for all we know, "Jambo" actually means "Look out! A spider!" We go on to consider that there should be a special series of guidebooks for people who revile guidebooks, perhaps titled The Cranky Bastard Tourist: "City Hall is rubbish; the main plaza is rubbish, and mobbed with annoying tourists; avoid the waterfront, where they'll annoy you no end about sunset tours and similar crap. However, closely monitor cracks in the boardwalk for bird spiders, mantises, and dung beetles."

We stroll back, wander out onto a balcony of our hotel, and view mantises for a bit. Mark's explanation of how they hunt makes it pretty clear where James Cameron and Stan Winston got all their Aliens ideas.

* * *

We've got another day and a half in town (those miserable overnight drives bought us a couple of bonus days), and I'm personally not going to spend that much time all in Stone Town, without seeing the island. Prescription? Motorcycle rental. I've just completed a brutal price negotiation with the folks at a scooter rental shop I allowed myself to be dragged into – and paid the "International Driving Permit" shakedown fee – when the rains come down. I get busy sitting under the awning, chatting with the folks there, and watching the show. I don't mind waiting, but the shop guys – apparently afraid I'll back out if too much of the day slips away – shoo me out before it's really cleared up. I battle my way out Zanzibar Town's drippy main drag – interacting a little too closely with trucks, cars, scooters, pedestrians, and produce stalls – then start spending a fair bit of time stopping under trees to let the rain get ahead of me.

We're both going south and east – me doing a loop of the south part of the island, it going out to sea – but it eventually does gain a little ground. First comes relative dryness! Then warmth! And finally sunshine! I reseat my beloved Costa del Mar EL-ll "Eliminators" (they belong on my face) and get really happy to not be riding in the rain. I pass Jizoni Forest, home to the evidently famous Red Colobus Monkeys. I near the southern tip of the island, and jog west to check out 1000 Dolphins Bay; but it's no great shakes, so I turn back for the eastern coast.

Ah! Much better. I stumble out onto the beach for awhile to watch the fishermen and washingwomen. I take  these  pictures.

According to my tourist office map, there's a road that goes straight up the coast – but I soon discover why it's drawn as a little, wispy, narrow line. There's a passage in Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where he extolls the great virtues of staying well off the highways when touring; but does note the danger of picking a country road that turns into a two-rutter, that turns into a single-rutter, that turns into some farmer's backyard. Well, let's just say I was reminded of that passage. Still, it's a very pretty setting for offroad, dirt-bike, motocross (and I've got the bike for it); so I negotiate the ruts and rocks, trying not to worry excessively about what's going to happen if I wipe out and damage the bike, or (worse) me. And I have no real reason to think I'm going to run out of gas. And I'm probably even still going the right way.

Luckily, this is the best place in the world to ask for directions (everyone delights in directing you), so I ask each person I pass for reassurance that I'm still on the "road." Eventually I hit the seaside town, and crossroads, I've been looking for, make a sweeping left, and find . . . a paved road! A real road! Yeah! Later, when asked how my ride was, I answer that it was "an adventure" – a little more stressful than fun. But, again, adventures are good. I guess I did pick Africa.

I get back to Stone Town unhurt, unstranded, and with an undamaged bike – and even find the shop straight away, within the maze of alleys. I retrieve my deposit, and walk to Africa House, where the group is meeting for a sundowner. I'm early, so I grab a mango ice (from Amore Mio), a henna tattoo (from Asha, a stunning half-Indian/half-African woman taking a break from studying medicine in, of all places, the Ukraine), and settle down on the balcony bar with my Swahili guide. The group trickles in and I stay long enough to sort of greet the people I've been living on top of 1440 minutes a day for weeks, then exfil back to Amore Mio for dinner with Mark.

I'm early, so I greet the owner (she and I are getting pretty chummy), and order a spiced ice tea. The sun begins to . . . well, the answer surely may be guessed by now. I'm still early, so I order a bowl of sorbet (banana, passionfruit, and bungo, as I recall). I decide this truly is the gelato of sorbets. As I sit (in my usual seat) and monitor the water, I ponder: how flash it is to have a favorite waterside gelateria in Zanzibar? That is going to go an awful long way at an awful lot of future cocktail parties, let me make so bold as to predict.

Mark arrives. We eat, discuss the Russians (Dostoevski, Gogol, Lermontov, Nabokov). Then – as previously noted – we get into it a bit, mostly on the topic of charity. For some reason, this is a hot-button issue with me. Also, it's starting to have been a long trip. Mainly, I just chose to be a cranky – and not a little snide – bastard. I realized, and regretted it, almost as quickly as I was doing it – but not quickly enough.

Pushing home through the mob in the plaza (it's the last night of the holiday, and the most crowded and boisterous yet), we're more-vigorously-than-before assaulted by bodies, racks of meat, curio vendors, and hustlers – and we're not much in the mood for it. Before we hit the hotel, we're actually arguing about whether a ferry that leaves at 4pm, but which you have to be on at 3pm, is a "4 o'clock ferry." Jesus. There are frustrations and tension on any trip; but I don't have to like them, and I aspire to much better from myself. Back in the room, after Mark retires, I dive into the glow of the laptop LCD – and I recall and review some of my serious failures of good will, patience, and kindness on previous trips (most notably, with Sara in Latin America, and with Erin in Italy). I believe I'm doing better; but not yet well enough. I write my little Dispatch mea culpa. I sleep.

Next: Intermissionary Position

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close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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