In a timeless, placeless place
Somewhere out of context
And beyond all consequences"
- Suzanne Vega
Happy birthday to Mark, my boon travelling companion and friend. I won't say how drastically old he is, except to note that it's a palindromic age. (And you know he isn't turning 22 . . .) I'd also like to express to him my regret and sadness that we sort of semi-quarrelled tonight and mainly that I so forgot myself (and so forgot how much better he deserves) as to act toward him with pettiness, intolerance, and general lack of charity. (Which is doubly sad, because we were actually arguing about charity.) I put all this in this space due to not feeling strong enough to tell him directly tonight. (And, okay, due to him also having gone to sleep.) I have already told him that this trip genuinely would have been about a third of the joy it's been to me, had I taken it alone (as originally planned); I'm pleased to repeat that here.
If Africa is the continent the world left behind, but can't stop thinking about, then Zanzibar is the Arab world's Africa. Across oceans of time (as well as the Indian Ocean), the Sumerians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Phonecians, Indians, Chinese, Persians, Portuguese, Dutch, and English have all dropped in here. But it was the Omani Arabs who stayed to rule, transferring the Sultan's court here in the early 19th century. They hung around hustling cloves and human beings, on such a large scale as to make Zanzibar the most important place on the East African Coast until a bloody revolution brought independence in 1963. (It was subsequently united with mainland Tanzania.) Today, the Arab influence can't be missed: in the architecture, the dress, the sound of the muezzin's call to prayer on the evening air and in the faces of the people (especially the very beautiful women and girls), who look African but also don't.
Friday afternoon, and our mini-mob of trekkers spills off the ferry, dissolved in a much larger mob, and is rounded up by the people we've semi-contracted with to provide lodging. They put us in a shuttle, drive around the block twice, then drop us off about where we started. Mark and I don't like the looks of the hotel (the "six people to a room" bit is a straight deal-breaker anyway), and so head off in an arbitrary direction. Over our shoulders, we lob assurances that we'll see everyone on the ferry back. Happily, the first joint we stumble into offers us a private room with en suite bathroom, three beds, sitting chairs, wardrobe, two ceiling fans, genuine character and, mainly, a door with locks (and no one behind it but me and Mark). All this for the same price as the other rathole ($10 per person per night). We drop our gear and head toward the water.
Doubling down on our luck, we try the first restaurant we find: Mercury's. The food's okay, and the service lackluster, but the sunset's (yet) another huge winner. Mark's not feeling so hot (special reassurance that Mark's fine) so I drop him off, hit a nearby netcafe for a quick publishing operation then wander into the main square, following all the noise and light. It turns out (we'd later learn) that today marks the end of Ramadan, and is the biggest celebration of the year. (The festivities would continue for each of our four nights in town.) I check out legions of food vendors, curio hawkers, and general revellers; but I find I'm fading pretty fast, and so head back for lights out. On the way, nearly everyone I pass says hello; some fellows invite me to play a strange board game (caroms, I later learn); and a guy on a moped brakes hard to offer me directions, when I look slightly lost. This is my first indication of what later comes very clear: the Zanzibarans are the friendliest people I've ever encountered. To a fault they take it personally if you fail to embrace their greetings, overtures, handshakes (and embraces). But it's sure a nice fault.
Morning, and after a stellar (included) breakfast of passionfruit juice, tea, melon, and toast I latch onto Mark's suggestion that he stay in and convalesce for at least part of today, while I go out and do things (like walking tours) that he would hate. (*) I step out into Stone Town and am instantly hopelessly lost within narrow, steep, twisting, deeply funky streets. (In fairness, they're also frequently strewn with garbage (and, relatedly I think, feral cats) Stone Town has dire waste management issues.) Moped riders beep and zip by. Small children conduct toy gun battles in the street. The eye is caught by tiny shops selling clothing, food, and sundries; pharmacies and sewing shops. It is positively energizing.
People wearing traditional garments (long, kaftan-style wrappers; embroidered caps) pad intently by. Everyone says hello as they cross paths in cool courtyards. I begin to unlearn the city habits of avoiding gazes, monitoring shoes, etc. I field a high-five from a five-year old, who simultaneously greets me with "Jambo!" (Here's how relaxed all the friendliness ultimately made me: later, a curio dealer expressed interest in my belt knife; so I took it out and handed it to him.)
I emerge back onto the water (you always do eventually), and loop around the horn toward a slightly more touristy district (home to Africa House and a few other restaurants that while still cheap the locals could never afford to eat at). This leads into a prettier/cleaner courtyard, that houses government buildings, the local office for the World Health Organization and what's probably the most expensive hotel in town. I go into the latter, hoping for a line on where to find an ATM but stay for the prettiness.
Another couple of hops down the road and I find a gelateria! On the water! And they've got fruit sorbet that's too good to be true!!! I grab a dish of mango, pineapple, and bungo (a local fruit flavor) and get busy being really happy. I also find myself wondering if Ali sat in this exact spot during her visit; I'd give the odds at only about 5/8 against everywhere cool I go, she seems to have been first. In any case, I find these little unadulterated life-enjoyment moments always remind me of her; she has a real knack. Leaving, I belatedly notice the name of the joint: "Amore Mio."
And that seems like a good place to leave things for tonight. (Dispatches have been frightfully long lately; moreover it's nearly midnight and we sail tomorrow.) Lala salama! ("good night") and tutaonana! ("see you later") from Room 302, the Narrow Street Inn, Stone Town, Zanzibar, Republic of Tanzania.
Next: Get Jiggy with the Zanzibarans.