The Year 2000 problem was looming ever larger in my mind, as I sat on an airliner cruising at 35,000 feet. I’m not talking about the problem with the computers and microchips—other people are working on that. I’m talking about the real Year 2000 problem. Specifically: what can one plan for New Year’s eve on December 31, 1999, that will do justice to an event which occurs only once every 1,000 years? The more one thinks about this, the more serious it becomes. I mean, what do you do if you screw it up? Wait until next time? This would be, I knew, like those other famous moments in history where people would ask: “So, where were you when Kennedy was assassinated? Where were you when Neil Armstrong took that first step on the moon? Where were you when the OJ verdict was read?”
But this would beat them all. “Where were you at the dawn of the new millennium?” my grandchildren would one day ask, and later they would share—with their grandchildren—how their notable ancestor (the one who ushered in a new age of man) had seen fit to sanctify that occasion, now so long buried in history. What was I going to say?
“Well, let’s see, I guess a few of us were hanging out at the bar downtown, working on a very interesting game of billiards….”
Or: “That was the night that my wife and I went out to a really nice restaurant, and had a really nice meal, and a pretty darn expensive bottle of champagne…”
Or: “We had a great party. You know, everyone came over. We got plastered. Lots of silly parlor games. Some firecrackers. Some good dance CD’s and a killer sound system. Really fun party. Had the hangover the next morning to prove it.”
“A party?” they’ll ask, in disgust. “That’s all? You heralded the arrival of a new millennium with a party?”
No, that would never do. New Year’s Eve, 1999, was going to require something of distinction; something one could look back on with pride. Among my friends, several ideas had been floated. One suggestion was to go to Venice, rent about twenty gondolas, and shoot fireworks from them as we floated down the Grand Canal. That sounded a bit frivolous, actually. A better idea was to celebrate the event somewhere just to the west of the International Date Line: like New Zealand or Fiji. Whatever one did there would matter less than the fact that one would be entering the new millennium essentially ahead of everyone else on the planet. You’d get there first! A corollary suggestion was to find a spot just to the east of the dateline, and thus remain in the 20th century as long as possible—and become the last to leave. You’d still be living in history—cherishing the last fading moments of a dying millennium—while others would have moved on…
Either approach sounded worthwhile.
But one of the best suggestions had been to undertake some epic event, and be able to usher in the new millennium by achieving it. The proposed undertaking: climb Mt. Kilomanjaro—highest mountain in Africa. Be at the summit, at midnight on 12/31/99. And that was the one I was clinging to. That was the idea to beat.
Of course it was all the silliest fantasy. The odds were heavy that I’d go through life and never even see Mt. Kilomanjaro, let alone climb it on New Year’s Eve.
I was thinking about the truth of this when the pilot’s voice broke through on the intercom.
“Ladies and gentleman, off on the right hand side of the plane you can see Mt. Kilomanjaro.”
What! Mt. Kilomanjaro? The very mountain I’d been fantasizing about? How could this happen? I called up an image of southern Africa in my mind. I was flying from Johannesburg to Nairobi. Where was Mt. Kilomanjaro? I was pretty sure it was near the Tanzanian/Kenyan border. Yes, approaching Nairobi from the south, a plane might in fact fly past Kilomanjaro. Obviously we were doing so.
Just as obviously I wasn’t going to see it, at least not from my present position by the window on the left-hand side of the plane. A massive black man occupied the seat next to me and was working away at something in a briefcase. It would be horribly inconvenient for him to put away his papers and get up and let me out.
Mt. Kilomanjaro, I knew, was slipping away behind us, or soon would be.
Oddly, no one else seemed to care. When the announcement had first been made I’d expected all the passengers on the left of the plane to rush over to the right, causing the aircraft to tip violently to starboard. But apparently these passengers had flown past Kilomanjaro dozens of times. It was like an American flying over the Missouri River en route to Chicago. Yawn.
“Excuse me,” I said to my seatmate, finally working up enough courage. “I’m sorry to be a stupid tourist but I just have to see Mt. Kilomanjaro.” He unbuckled himself and let me out, completely understanding this obsession of white folk to take pictures of exotic places. Near the back of the plane was a row occupied by another large black man. He was looking out the window. I took the seat beside him and tried to see what he was seeing.
“Can you see it?” I asked.
“Very small, very far in distance,” he replied. “Here, you sit here and look.” We traded places. A carpet of scattered clouds lay over Tanzania, stretching away to the horizon. My seatmate pointed to a spot just past the wingtip, 2/3rds of the way to the horizon. “There, that’s Kilomanjaro. You see it?”
I saw more clouds. Lots of clouds. Oh wait. Maybe– Yeah, a couple of clouds didn’t look quite like clouds. But this wasn’t a symmetrical cone, like Fuji in Japan. This mountain seemed to have two peaks. Probably one of them was another cloud.
“Kilomanjaro has two summits, two peaks,” my seatmate said, as if answering my thoughts.
So, there it was. That was the real thing. I was looking at Mt. Kilomanjaro. Sort of. Those two little white bumps in the distance were, in fact, the “Snows of Kilomanjaro,” which was the name of a movie staring Susan Hayward and Gregory Peck that had helped make the mountain famous. I tried to be impressed. Certainly I took enough pictures of those tiny little white bumps. Perhaps, back home, I could blow the photographs up fifty times, frame them and hang them in my office. Perhaps, with enough enlarging, it could look like I was a few hundred yards away from the summit.
But in truth I was not especially concerned about Mt. Kilomanjaro. Yes, it was certainly one of the Holy Grails for adventure travelers. Others would include Tibet, the Sahara Desert, Mongolia, Antarctica, the Congo and perhaps Bora Bora. But no one could dispute the one spot that had to be at the top of the list—the quintessential, ultimate, most exotic, most sought-after, most prestigious, most mysterious, most fabulous adventure-travel destination on the planet. It stood supreme and unchallenged in that role. The very word was intoxicating: Zanzibar.
The name was almost a magical incantation. Those who had been there could well afford to sneer at lesser destinations. A person who has been to Zanzibar could laugh at someone who’s merely climbed Mt. Kilomanjaro, trekked in Nepal, ridden camels in the Sahara desert, or paddled dugout canoes in New Guinea.
Or at least I fancied that such was the case. All my life I’d wanted to go to Zanzibar. It had captured my heart since I’d first seen its name on a map, at age 12. And now I was going there.
The fact that I was doing so was a surprise even to me, as the trip had been arranged at the last minute..
I’d had business meetings in Johannesburg that had been completed Thursday afternoon—yesterday. I’d scheduled more meetings in London, beginning Monday. Flying from Johannesburg to London it costs nothing extra to lay-over in Nairobi, Kenya. And Nairobi is only a short flight from Zanzibar—off the Tanzanian coast. As soon as I’d perceived all this I’d known in my heart that nothing was going to keep me from spending the weekend in Zanzibar.
It was all quite silly, of course. I was in love with the name—nothing more. I had no idea what Zanzibar was like, or why a person might even want to go there. Others had said good things about it, but good things are said about many places. I knew I would be better served to simply fly straight to London and take it easy over the weekend. By trying to work a sidetrip to Zanzibar into my schedule, I would probably arrive in England exhausted, and make a complete hash of my meetings.
Balancing this was the fact that—after a weekend in Zanzibar—I’d probably arrive in dismal London sporting a very nice tan, and thus impress those with whom I was meeting. That was a more forceful argument.
As we crossed into Kenya airspace, the plane began its descent to Nairobi, the capital. It was a clear day, just after noon, and I took the opportunity to observe this new country I was about to visit. Certainly I needed to take the opportunity. Every minute was going to count. When I meet people on these trips it is often people who are there on holiday. They measure time in weeks, sometimes months.
“So, how long are you going to be here in Exoticstan?” I ask.
“Well, been here six weeks already. I don’t know. Probably stay at least another month. Pretty cool place, Exoticstan. How ‘bout you?”
“I’m here for eight hours.”
“Eight hours! Are you nuts? You came all the way to Exoticstan, and you’re only here for eight hours?”
“Hey, that’s eight hours more than most people are ever here for. It was either eight hours or nothing. Don’t you think I made the right decision?”
“Oh yeah, if you put it that way. Good point.”
But I wasn’t going to be in Kenya for eight hours. Only six. It was a short trip even by my standards.
In fact I wasn’t even supposed to be visiting Kenya at all. I was landing in Nairobi only to change planes. But the connections were so lousy I had to layover six hours. Rather than sit on a bench, I planned to leave the airport and go see Kenya.
Leaving the airport requires passing through immigration, and arranging to do this had not been cheap. Kenya is one of the few places left on earth that still require a visa. Visas used to be legitimate immigration-control devices, to ensure that undesirable aliens did not penetrate the borders of a particular country. Now visas are just a form of tax. Here’s how it looks to the government of Kenya. You can either let in all those tourists for free. Or you can make them pay $35 to enter the country.
Not a difficult decision for the corrupt officials who are now running Kenya.
Here’s how this plays itself out. You’re thinking of visiting Kenya. You do your homework and discover you need a visa. Or a MasterCard. Or cash. Ha ha! (That was a joke.) If the trip is relatively last-minute, you don’t have the time to get a visa the normal way, through the mail. No, you have to get the visa on the fly. In my case, this meant spending valuable travel time in South Africa visiting the Kenya embassy in Pretoria.
The only reason Kenya even has an embassy in Pretoria is to collect money for visas. A young guy with a Dutch passport was ahead of me in the queue. “350 rand” said the clerk.
“350? That’s highway robbery!” he protested. “I’m only going to be there for two months.”
The visa clerk looked up at him with an expression that said it all. Or more specifically said: “We can do this one of two ways. Pay the 350 and get the visa. Or don’t pay the 350 and don’t get the visa. Now, how much of your time and mine do you want to spend arguing about it?”
He forked over the 350 rand. Now it was my turn.
She looked at my passport. She looked at the amount of time I was going to be in the country. “200 rand,” she said.
I pulled rand out of my pocket. There were some crumpled bills. Some coins. I counted it all up. 186 rand.
“I don’t have enough rand,” I protested. “I’m fourteen rand short.” (About 96 cents.)
She looked at me with an expression that said: “And this is my problem—why?”
The Dutch guy came to the rescue. “Hey, man, like, uh, how much you need?”
Clearly he wasn’t thrilled about helping me out, but his sense of fair play asserted itself on some level.
“Fourteen rand. Hey, I appreciate the help. But I can go back out to my car and get more. It’s cool.”
“Oh, OK. Like, you shouldn’t have to go back out to your car if it’s like just a few rand, but—hey—fourteen rand…”
So I walked back out through the embassy gate, past the wrought iron fence, past the guard, signed the sign-out sheet, and found Deonne Le Roux, head of Polygon/South Africa, resting comfortably in his BMW in the shade of a lavish maple tree.
Seeing me coming, he started to unlock the passenger door, then—as I went the other way, toward his window—he rolled it down.
“Uh, dad,” I said…
Deonne and I had maintained a joke, ever since arriving in South Africa. Since I’d paid the airfare in coming over, he was going to pay for everything—food, drinks, etc. He’d had to loan me money on occasion, so I could pay for some incidentals like a cup of tea. It was like asking my dad for the car keys for the evening.
“I need another few rand,” I said, appropriately embarrassed. This was so humiliating. I was a teenager again.
“Jacques, here, take more rand. By all means! Here! Ten rand. Is that enough?”
“Well, twenty rand would be cool.”
“No problem! Here’s twenty rand.”
I walked past the Kenya embassy guard, waving my rand.
What a ridiculous job, I thought. What’s he guarding? Like someone in South Africa’s going to try to break into the Kenya embassy? What do they have in there that anyone in South Africa could want? Visas? They should be so lucky.
The black, female, dutiful clerk accepted the extra fourteen rand as if her life had suddenly justified itself.
“Come back in about two hours,” she said. “You pick up passport, in about two hours.”
Oh, right. They had to pretend that this was some big event—the stamping of a passport with a visa. If they did it instantly—on the spot—it might look like 200 rand was mere extortion, and not a reasonable fee for a time-consuming and difficult job—stamping a passport.
“Can’t you do it right now?” I asked. It was going to be inconvenient to have to return all the way to the embassy.
“No, it takes time. We have to check out passport. Have to check you out.”
Check me out? Like, see if I had any drug convictions on my record, that kind of thing? Like anyone in Kenya cared?
I could imagine the scene at the border.
“Ever done heroin?”
“Ever smoked marijuana?”
“Well, er, you see…”
“Well, maybe, just once, like, at this really cool party, and everyone was getting high, and…”
“Do you honestly think you’re Kenya material!!!”
“Well, uh, maybe not, if you put it like that, but, er, please, sir, I was young, and everyone makes mistakes, and I’m sure I didn’t enjoy it, and…”
“OK, OK. More rand. Yeah, that’s good. OK. Well, enjoy Nairobi!”
So here I was at Kenya emigration. Surprisingly, my visa was in order. I didn’t have to pay more rand. I waited at the luggage carousel. Airports are my life, I thought, with a reasonable degree of self-disgust. Everywhere in the world, I seem to spend my time waiting on these rubber-belt snakes, hoping my luggage will somehow be there. And it always is. Airlines are so efficient nowadays that luggage is never even lost. There’s never even a reason to feel worried, even in third-world places like Nairobi.
OK, here was my travel pack. And my hanging bag. I could attach the two, if necessary. I could put everything on my back. Certainly this is what I’d have done if the plan had been to walk two miles to my hotel. But I had no hotel. I had six hours.
Six hours in which to see Kenya.
The entrepreneurs washed over me the moment I cleared customs.
“Hey! You need taxi? I get you taxi…”
“Guide? I give you guide. Good tour of Nairobi…”
“Where you go? You need hotel? No problem. Come with me….”
They were like gnats. “Go away!” I wanted to yell. “Give me time to think!”
I beat my way to a spot on a bench, where I could sling my pack down to the floor, and take stock of my situation. You always want to do this in strange places: calmly take stock of your situation.
Bodily needs first: food, water, oxygen…
- I was alright with oxygen. Water? Not too bad. I’d had plenty on the plane and I was carrying a water bottle in my pack. Food? Now that was a concern. I was famished.
But I’ve been famished before. There are many opportunities to eat, in life. Very few opportunities to see Kenya. I decided to ignore my hunger.
So, six hours. Five and a half, now, actually. The gnats had moved off only temporarily. They were ready to assault me at the first sign of weakness. Yet I was weak. In truth I did need help. Five and a half hours?
Seizing the initiative, or at least pretending I was doing so, I hefted my pack on to my shoulder and forced my way over to the “Information Counter.” This, I reasoned, would be less graft-ridden than other institutions. It had at least a thin veneer of respectability. I explained my situation, and my desire to see something of Nairobi in five and a half hours.
“You want car? Taxi?” asked the woman staffing the desk.
Well, that sounded kind of expensive. What I really wanted was to explore options. Discuss different possibilities. But I’d forgotten the first rule of third world countries: Everything is incredibly inexpensive.
In New York City it would be absurd to hire a car and driver for half a day. That would cost hundreds of dollars. But in Nairobi it’s precisely the thing to do. It costs pennies and it’s completely worth it. Especially if you’re short on time.
The information clerk mumbled something about finding me a car, left the desk, and came back in a few moments with a tall, black woman in high heels and a very tight fitting, lime-green dress. I had a brief concern that maybe I’d been misunderstood, and that the information-desk lady had confused the word driver with hooker. I mean, maybe that’s a normal request at the Nairobi airport. You want a hooker, you don’t know where one is, so you go to the information desk.
“Nice dress!” I said to the green lady, trying to be friendly, and she rewarded me with a big smile. “Oh, thank you.”
Pretty much everyone at the Nairobi airport is black. There were a few white tourists, but they’d generally been met by tour guides and whisked off in air-conditioned buses soon after we’d cleared customs.
Green lady took me through a small door and into a tiny office with a desk—I was pleased to see it contained a desk, not a bed—and we negotiated a rate for a car. Then she went off to organize one, while I took the opportunity to change some dollars into Kenya money, and buy a couple of yogurts at the airport café. I could eat them in the car.
I was curious to see what Kenya money was. Dollars? Pounds? Shekels? Actually the unit of currency is the Kenya Shilling. There are about sixty gazillion Kenya shillings to the dollar—so declared the current rate of exchange. I bought ten dollars worth, and pocketed the 600 gazillion Kenya shillings that resulted . The yogurts consumed 120 of those shillings, leaving me—I fancied—with plenty of purchasing power for whatever I might find of interest in Nairobi, if anything.
Here came my driver. It was a reasonably modern VW van. Green lady hopped out and prepared to usher me into the back seat. But that seemed silly. The front seat was available. It would be awkward talking to the driver from the back, and the view wouldn’t be as good. I indicated I wished to sit in front, and moved in that direction.
“Oh no!” said Green Lady, scandalized. “That seat not comfortable. You want comfortable seat, like this seat in the back.”
I glanced at the seats in the back and they did seem to have perhaps more padding in them. But there was nothing wrong with the seat in front.
“I don’t want the comfortable seat” I explained. “I want to sit up here.”
Green lady and driver conversed for a moment in a language I guessed was Swahili, before finally agreeing that perhaps this was OK. I hopped in, and off we went.
Airports look much alike the world over, but soon we were in the countryside and I was seeing the real Kenya. We were following a narrow asphalt highway, and in the distance the city of Nairobi could be seen—a collection of tall buildings poking up from an otherwise featureless, brown, plain. A few industrial structures—warehouses or small factories— were scattered about, their quantity increasing the further we drove. Pretty desolate place, in general.
“So, where you from?” asked the driver, who’s name was Tomas. He was a pleasant fellow: black, a bit on the small, thin side, comfortably dressed, about my age, perhaps.
“I’m from America,”
“Ah, what state?”
This is an interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed everywhere outside the U.S. Mention America and the person wants to know what state. Yet it seems odd. How well would a person in Nairobi know American geography? Certainly they don’t study the individual states in school do they? If they met someone from France would they immediately say: “What province?” Or from England: “What county?”
Actually a few days later I was in England and my cab driver not only wanted to know what state I was from, he tried to compete with me on U.S. geography games.
“Name four states who’s capitals are named after U.S. presidents.” he challenged, as he drove me to Paddington Station.
Hmmm. I’d never been asked that before. I came up with Lincoln, Nebraska; Madison, Wisconsin, and Jefferson City, Missouri. But the fourth one escaped me.
“Jackson, Mississippi,” he finally said.
But I got even when I challenged him to name the capital of Idaho. He finally got it, but only after I’d given him the first two letters.
Anyway, here was my driver in Nairobi wanting to know what state I was from—as if he would ever have heard of it.
“Colorado,” I said.
“Colorado! You’re actually from Colorado? That’s the place that John Denver sang about. You know, let’s see, something about Rocky Mountains tall or something, wasn’t it?
“Yeah, Rocky Mountain High. Let’s see, it goes…”
I sang a few bars, and pretty soon he was joining in.
“Hey you’re pretty cool guy, you’re from Colorado. John Denver, he’s my idol. My wife and I, he’s our idol. We just love John Denver. Say, is John Denver still alive?”
“Actually he’s not. He was killed about a year ago in a plane crash.”
I gave him the details, and he was devastated. “Oh no, Oh no,” he kept saying. “How am I going to tell my wife that John Denver is dead? Oh that’s so sad. Oh no, Oh no. He was everything to us.”
“Well, if you are that interested in John Denver, you might like to know that I actually met him once.”
The VW swerved off to the side of the road and came to a stop. He looked at me in disbelief.
“You met John Denver. You actually met him?”
“Well sort of. I was checking into a hotel in Crested Butte, Colorado. That’s a ski resort town. And I happened to notice that the guy right next to me, also checking in, was John Denver. And then I realized that the check-in girls were just going nuts, because here was John Denver and this was just too cool. But I didn’t want to be obnoxious or anything and try to say hi to him or shake his hand, because I know how celebrities are always getting hassled, right? So after I checked in I just walked over to the elevator to go up to my room, but when I turned around, John Denver was right behind me. He got in the elevator with me. Just the two of us, in the elevator.”
“What happened? What happened?” asked the driver, mesmerized, but sufficiently in control to have pulled back onto the highway and resumed our journey.
“Well, since we were in an elevator together I started talking to him. I’d heard him mention something about the plane he’d flown in, back at the check-in desk. And I used to be a pilot so I started talking flying stuff with him, you know like does Crested Butte have an instrument-rated runway, or would he have to wait for the weather to clear before heading back to Aspen—that kind of thing. And we chatted, and he shook my hand, and said goodbye when we got to his floor. Nice guy, John Denver.”
“So you actually shook his hand?”
“Yep! This hand right here!” I held up my right hand, as if it were a museum piece, a holy relic, an artifact.
“Here,” I said. “You shake my hand.” He did. “Now you tell your wife you’ve shaken the hand of a guy who shook John Denver’s hand.”
The man was euphoric, lost in a dreamworld. “Wow, I’ve shaken the hand of a guy who shook John Denver’s hand. I just don’t believe this. My wife is never going to believe this. She’ll be real sad that he’s dead, but she just won’t believe this…”
“And now you have a friend who actually lives in that Rocky Mountain High place!”
“Yes I do!” he smiled. “And now you have a friend who lives in Kenya!”
We shook on that as well.
“Hey, do you have any history books? Like from the old west. Or novels. I love books about the American west, in the old days. Maybe you could send me a book about the old west, I’ll send you a book about Kenya. What do you think?”
“It’s a deal.”
Nairobi was getting closer. The barren countryside had been replaced by the outskirts of a city: lots of low buildings, everything quite unkempt and third-worldish. Lots of blacks walking around. There were no sidewalks, just people walking on the grass, the edge of the asphalt, in the dusty-orange dirt, whatever. I was surprised to see almost no bicycles. In China, bicycles are the primary form of transportation. In Africa, walking is apparently more in vogue. As I’d seen a year before in Botswana and Zimbabwe, the women often had something on their heads, balanced while they walked. And often they had a child, carried wrapped in a blanket like a pack on their back.
“Do they have public transportation in Nairobi?” I asked. I wasn’t seeing any buses. Just people walking, and people in old beat up cars.
“Lots of people use these little mini-vans as taxis. They all crowd into one. Actually, there’s one over there.”
Tomas pointed to something about the shape of a VW van. People were crammed into it, way beyond what should have been its capacity.
“They look awfully squished.”
“Yes, we can fit 18 people into one of those vans. Plus the driver. Total of nineteen.”
I don’t know why I was surprised. In the Tokyo subways they can squeeze in probably twice as many people per square inch.
A long line of traffic had formed, apparently leading up to a traffic circle in the far distance. All along the roads were “hawkers,” young boys selling things. They came up to the car as we stopped, holding up for our inspection various items for sale. Now you might expect, in Africa, that these would be exotic fruits and vegetables, perhaps. Or maybe souvenirs, like those carved wooden giraffes so endemic to the continent. No, the main thing being offered for sale were cassette tape decks for mounting in a car dashboard. All of them were quite new, in their original packaging. Everyone was selling the same thing: car cassette decks.
Our windows were open, and the hawkers came right up, actually thrusting the cassette decks right in the window for us to see. Tomas would speak softly to them and they’d finally give up and go away. Then another one would try his luck.
“Is this typical for Kenya?” I asked. “Do people just—on the spur of the moment—decide to buy a car cassette deck at an intersection, while they’re waiting for a traffic light?”
“Well, everyday it’s something different. In fact, there’s something different!” He pointed to another hawker now coming up to us with a full length bathroom mirror, also in its original packaging.
“Yeah, that’s what I need,” I said. “A bathroom mirror! I’ve been looking all over for one. What a great place to shop!”
I was having a hard time taking it seriously. Where was all this stuff coming from? Had some truck broken down, been raided, and now everything from it was being sold on the street? That seemed altogether likely.
The salesmen seemed to be under the impression that people would buy most anything if the price were low enough. “Good price! Good price!” they kept saying, as if the only thing keeping me from buying the mirror was concern that the price might not be low enough. Tomas exchanged a few words with the mirror salesman, and finally convinced him we weren’t in the market for a mirror.
“So when you speak to them, what language are you speaking, Swahili?”
“Sometimes Swahili, but usually tribal language.”
“Tribal language? Isn’t Swahili a tribal language?”
“Oh no. You see, Swahili is the common language here. Everyone speaks Swahili. But each person you see also is a member of one of the tribes—one of the Bantu tribes. Each tribe has its own language. So I speak to them in their tribal language.”
“But how do you know what language? How do you know what tribe they’re in?”
“Oh, it’s usually very easy. You can tell just by looking at them. They all look very different. Like that guy over there. You see the slope to his forehead. That means he’s a member of the Afaki tribe. And the guy with the mirror. He was a Kinsu.”
A rather sullen-faced teenager was selling spears, on the other side of the road. Tomas pointed him out. “That’s a Masai. The Masai are the warriors. That’s why he has spears for sale.”
“And you can speak all these languages?”
“I know about six of them, including my own tribal language of course. Plus Swahili. Plus English. If someone speaks a tribal language I don’t know, then of course I talk to them in Swahili.”
“So Swahili isn’t a tribal language?”
“No. Swahili comes from Zanzibar. It’s a combination of some of the Bantu languages, plus Arabic. When the Arabs came to Zanzibar, they brought their language, and out of it came Swahili, which is now all over Kenya and Tanzania.”
“Yeah that reminds me of something. In fact, I’m really angry about something, and I’m going to take it out on you.”
Tomas and I were becoming good friends, after the discovery of our common interest in John Denver. I could kid with him about stuff and he was quick to laugh.
“OK, what are you so angry about?”
“I’m angry about the name Tanzania.”
“Well that name comes from the two countries….” He starts explaining it to me.
“I know all that!” I interrupt. “You used to have these two great countries: Tanganyika and Zanzibar, right?”
“Those were great names, don’t you think? Tanganyika. Zanzibar.”
“Yes, good names.”
“OK, so the two countries merged into one, right?”
“Right, and they combined the names.”
“Yes, but they combined them in the wrong way! Think about it. If you’re combining Tanganyika and Zanzibar you could end up with the coolest name in the world: Zanganyika! But they did it backwards. They made it Tanzania! What a stupid name, Tanzania. It sounds like some bleak country in Eastern Europe, doesn’t it?”
“Yes! I agree with you completely. That’s what I’ve always said. It should have been Zanganyika. Tanzania doesn’t even sound African. You’re one of the few people I’ve ever met who’s agreed with me about this.”
“You feel the same way, then?”
“Of course!. Tanzania’s a stupid name. I’m angry too. And my grandparents are so angry, they won’t even say the name Tanzania. They’re from Tanganyika, and they still call it Tanganyika. They think Tanzania’s a ridiculous name.”
“Well can we fix it? I mean, it’s not too late to change back is it? Let’s petition the government, hold a referendum, something like that.”
“Yeah, I think we should!” Tomas is warming to the idea, getting angrier and angrier, along with me. “Oh wait a minute. That won’t work. We’re not in Tanzania. This is Kenya.”
“Oh yeah. Good point.”
We were still stuck in the traffic jam. People were still trying to sell us things. Tomas keeps using a combination of words to send them away.
“You know, I need to learn those words. Whatever you’re saying, it’s working.”
“Yeah, good idea. I’ll teach you some Swahili while we’re stuck in this traffic. First word you want to learn is ‘jambo!’ That means ‘Hi!’ or Good-day!’ It’s a friendly greeting. Or you can use it to say farewell. You can use it all the time.”
“Yeah. Then you say ‘haberi gani’ which means ‘how are you?’ And the correct reply is ‘missuri sana’.
I worked away on this for awhile, as he corrected me on pronunciation. And I learned how to say ‘ipana’ (no) and ‘sitaki’ (don’t want). And ‘asante’ (thank you) and ‘asante sana’ (thank you very much).
“So if someone tries to sell me something, or hassle me, I can just say ‘ipana sitaki?’”
“Yes, that will work. But you can make it even nicer by adding ‘akisi noro’. It means ‘maybe tomorrow.’”
“Yeah, that’s just being polite. You’re not saying you don’t want what he’s selling. That’s rude. It puts him down. It’s rejection. So by adding ‘akisi noro’ you’re making it clear that you just don’t want it today. Maybe tomorrow you’ll want it. Who knows? No one can predict tomorrow. Maybe you’ll want that mirror tomorrow. Maybe you’ll want one of those cassette decks tomorrow. It’s possible. That’s what I told those other guys. That maybe tomorrow you’d want to buy one. Just not today. That way they’re not rejected.”
We’d made it through the traffic light, finally, and were closing in on downtown Nairobi.
My sister Beth once remarked that the curse of the third world is not poverty but the internal combustion engine. She was referring, of course, to the blight of poorly-tuned, exhaust-spewing, automobile rejects that are routinely shipped from America to places like Bangkok, Seoul, and Caracas. It’s a problem no one talks about much, but it’s very real. It’s so bad, that I suspect the third world may actually generate more automobile pollution per capita than do Americans—the views of liberal mea-culpa environmentalists notwithstanding. In the U.S., one occasionally has the unpleasant experience of being stuck behind a “stink-mobile,” a (typically)older model car that is clearly tailpipe-challenged. Some statistics have suggested that poorly tuned vehicles like this may be responsible for 90% or more of our automobile-caused air pollution.
Now imagine cities made up almost exclusively of such vehicles. Imagine cities where almost every car is a stink-mobile! That’s what’s happened to the third world. Furthermore, economic conditions being what they are in these places, no one is much interested in passing pollution-control laws or exhaust-emission requirements. So as a result the very air they breathe has been destroyed.
Perhaps I’d been hasty, back at the airport, when I’d reviewed my bodily needs and decided I was OK with oxygen. Oxygen was in short supply in downtown Nairobi.
Those people who earn their living buying up these pollution vehicles in the U.S. and shipping them to places like Mexico City are arguably no less evil than drug dealers—in many ways much more evil, because doing drugs is ultimately a choice whereas breathing is not.
The air pollution in Nairobi is as bad as Bangkok, albeit without the oppressive humidity or stench of rotting food—two elements which give Bangkok its special charm.
“Are cars very expensive here?” I asked Tomas, as we continued towards downtown Nairobi.
“Yes, quite expensive.”
“Well, like that car in front of us, how much would that cost in its present condition?” The car in front of us—of uncertain origin—was a rattletrap, spewing visible exhaust fumes just like all the other cars on the street.
“Probably at least 2,000 U.S. dollars,” explained Tomas.
“In the U.S. you could buy a car like that for 50 bucks.”
Tomas couldn’t believe it.
“I think there are people who are taking all of our beat-up cars and shipping them to places like Nairobi,” I suggested.
“Yes, I think you’re right.”
We entered a large traffic circle.
“We call this place ‘God’s Place’” said Tomas. “Want to know why?”
“Right there, that’s a Catholic church. And over there, that’s a Lutheran church. And see that building? That’s a mosque. And on the other side, over there, is a synagogue. And this big building here is a Presbyterian church.”
“Wow, this really is God’s Place. How did all these churches get built in this one area?”
“I don’t know. I think it just was coincidence.”
“Or maybe it’s like gas stations in America. You know, if there’s one gas station at an intersection, no one stops for gas. But if there’s two, then everyone thinks this is the place to stop for gas, and so everyone stops. It triggers a gas-buying urge on some deep hormonal level. Maybe all these churches are supposed to trigger religious frenzy or something…”
“Maybe it works, “ said Tomas.
Once past God’s Place we were in downtown Nairobi, and I tried to take it all in. Very third world. Old, dirty, poorly painted buildings. People walking around looking quite disheveled. Trash blowing about, and no one bothered by it. No landscaping attempts whatsoever: no fountains, no plots of well-manicured grass—nothing to imply that anyone cared about the place. And this was Nairobi! Nairobi is supposed to be the shining star of Africa (not counting South Africa of course, which has modern European-style infrastructure.)
“Government of Kenya very bad now, very corrupt. They’ve ruined this place,” said Tomas, as if guessing my thoughts. “Nairobi used to be called the ‘City in the Sun’ because it sparkled, it was so clean and shiny.”
“It’s not shiny now, is it?”
“No, very bad what government has done.”
Somewhat out of character, tall skyscrapers rose up here and there, set among the other downtown buildings as if hoping to inspire them. No doubt here was the work of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund: modern skyscrapers in a city where the cost of land was probably $10 an acre. They made no sense, and they looked silly. They also seemed neglected. What might once have been beautiful buildings now looked drab and faded—as if run by absentee landlords and corrupt doormen. The skyscrapers had not inspired the lesser buildings. The lesser buildings had reduced the skyscrapers to their own level of slovenliness.
Tomas parked the car and we went for a walk.
I’d been sitting in an airplane or a car all day, and it felt delicious to get some exercise.
But Tomas was a little nervous. “It’s OK, walking?” asked Tomas, unsure how a rich American would feel about using his feet instead of being carted around in luxury.
How strange must be his world—dealing with some tourists who actually would object to a nice walk down the street, who would consider themselves horribly put upon at having to get out of the car. It was a throw-back to a prior century, when the whites would arrive from Europe with their steamer trunks, and expect to be carted everywhere by the natives. Old habits died hard, perhaps.
Tomas took me to see the market. This was held inside a vast stone building of much open space, and with a high vaulted ceiling—kind of a third-world atrium. Half this market was the real thing, and consisted of stalls wherein were sold vegetables and fruits, and fish and meat, all spread out in quite breathtaking disarray, on carpets or in crude wooden boxes, or simply on the stone floor. Kenyans milled about, inspecting these wares, haggling here and there over an item, and occasionally making a purchase. But on the other side of the great stone hall were stalls selling souvenirs—things likely to be of interest to tourists, not natives. Here were found carved wooden figurines of animals, various items of jewelry (although ‘trinkets’ might be a better term), things of doubtful purpose made of brass, and the like.
I found the vegetable and meat stalls quite interesting, but Tomas assumed I should be steered to the tourist side of the market because I was—well—a tourist. Seeing me approach, they fell on me almost as a pack.
“Good price! Good price!”
“Here! Look at this! Good bargain!”
“How many you want? Good price.”
Various things I was not interested in were shoved in my face. But to their credit they were good salesmen. They tried to find out what kind of thing I wanted. They tried to estimate my budget. They tried to be polite and to an extent they were, within the context of desperately trying to sell me something—anything.
I found myself touched by their eagerness, their enthusiasm, their determination to make a sale. They reminded me of myself, at a trade show.
“It’s OK,” I said to them as a group, trying to quiet them down. “I’m a salesman too. This is what I do for a living, too. I sell things. I understand you. You are all very good salesmen.”
“Ah, you salesman too?” said a middle-aged woman sitting behind a tray of jewelry. “You OK then. You friend. You can stay here and look around.”
She wasn’t kidding. Now they were willing to treat me as one of them. Everyone backed off and seemed to relax. New smiles emerged. Geniuine smiles this time, I fancied. The selling frenzy was over—they understood that one of their own was in their midst, and all of their expostulations would, to an extent, be wasted. A fellow salesman would be impervious to them.
In any case I was determined to buy nothing. My wife can’t stand it when I come home from places like this with worthless trinkets that just collect dust. She’s right about that. I’d once returned from the Yucatan with three shrunken monkey heads, carved out of coconuts. I’d thought they were cute. “They are cute,” agreed Derry. “Now where, precisely, do you think we should put them?” I saw her point instantly. They were a lot cuter back there at the souvenir stand in the Yucatan jungle.
Yet despite my resolution, while walking among the stalls I did find something of interest. A young boy—a Masai almost certainly—was selling spears and shields. These were very African looking things. These were the kind of objects a person would place on the wall of their den at home, after a trip to East Africa. I’d always envied people who had such things on their wall, trite though they were. In fact they were a bit too trite. Those shields for example—large awkward items made of animal skin stretched between wooden hoops. They would look preposterous hanging on a wall in Colorado.
On the other hand the spears were very elegant and subtle. There was a grace to them, a simplicity, that came from such a perfect design. I picked one up, examining it more closely. It was made of shaped metal and wood, a spearhead pounded out of the soft iron at the front, a long balancing rod of metal—culminating in a sharp point—at the back. It was perfectly balanced, and undoubtedly lethal. This was a form that had evolved over hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years, and was probably responsible for the survival of the Masai warriors on the plains of the Serengetti.
The boy was explaining the price, and it sounded like he said “600.” Before I could start translating from Kenya Shillings to dollars Tomas said: “that’s the price in dollars. He’s giving the dollar price.”
$600? That was ridiculous. I was not going to spend $600 on a spear, even though it was probably worth that as an object of art, if nothing else. $60 would have been reasonable. If I’d been in the market for a spear—I wasn’t but if I had been—I would have considered $60 a fair price. I was about to walk on.
“That’s a good price!” said Tomas, which puzzled me.
“$600 is a good price? What do they usually sell for?”
“No, no! Not six hundred. You misunderstood. Six dollars, total. That’s a great price!”
“Six dollars! Do you mean I can own this spear for only six dollars?”
“That’s not a great price. That’s, like, free!” I looked at it anew, wanting it now. But I’d never get it in my suitcase. And there were certain to be problems with airport security if I tried to carry a spear onto the plane.
“It won’t fit in my suitcase,” I explained sadly, to Tomas.
“Sure it will. It comes apart.” He motioned to the boy, who immediately disassembled the spear into three equal lengths. Tied together, with something covering the sharp end, those pieces just might fit into my suitcase. I bought the spear.
We came out the far side of the stone market-building, and there was more market here. More souvenir stands. Yet nearby, through an archway, a path led to more of the real market. More vegetables and such.
“Let’s go this way!” I said to Tomas.
“Oh no. This very dirty. Just vegetables. And fish.”
But I wanted to see the vegetable and fish market, and there was no stopping me. Dirty or not I walked briskly through the archway and found the real market—not the sourvenir shadow market that had grown up around it, to cater to the tourists.
But here also I was reluctant to buy, however eager were the sellers.
“Hey! Try our fruit! We have good fruit. Good price!” This kind of thing was called out to me as we toured this new outdoor marketplace. In truth the fruit looked delicious. It was exotic fruit. I knew this because I did not recognize any of it. Yet it seemed the kind of thing a cloistered American should not eat. The phrase “avoid unwashed vegetables” came to mind, and here—certainly—were vegetables utterly unacquainted with the concept of being washed. They would have been shocked if a bar of soap had been shown to them.
Half way back to the car we were accosted by a young woman on the street. She had a tiny baby on her back. The baby looked starved, and near death.
“Please,” she said. “You give money, please. I buy milk for baby. We so hungry.”
She looked hungry. She looked gaunt. I recalled a conversation with Deonne back in South Africa.
“All the beggars, they just want your money to buy alcohol,” said Deonne. “It’s a big scam. They pretend they’ll ‘work for food’ but they won’t. I’ve offered them a job. I’ve told them they can come work for me and I’ll pay them in food. They never do. It’s just a scam.”
“Yeah, same thing in the states. There’s a complete safety net in the states. No one need go hungry. There are lots of government agencies, food stamp programs, that kind of thing, that keep people from being hungry. So when you see these signs saying they’re hungry, it’s bullshit.”
“Jacques, I agree completely.”
“But you know if I were truly in a third world country,” I continued, “if I were in some place like India, and the people really were starving, and I was approached by a beggar, I’d probably feel very differently about it. I’d probably give them money, just like they wanted. I would feel so sorry for them.”
So now, less than 24 hours later, I was in a third world country, and here was a young woman with a baby, and they both looked near death, and she was begging for money.
But something inside me resisted. I’d just spent an hour with people who were trying to honestly earn a living: men, women, all ages. They were trying to provide goods and services, and thus feed themselves. I hadn’t done much to help them. I’d bought a spear. The six dollars I’d spent had probably been a windfall to the boy selling it. But I respected the fact that the vendors in the market were trying to earn an honest living. This woman with the baby was just asking for a handout. She was being a parasite. That’s how it seemed to me. Yet was this not hypocrisy? Was this not the very situation that I’d said to Deonne would cause me to give them money? All I knew was that my instinct was to not trust this woman, to not give her money at all. I let my heart turn a little bit to stone, and I ignored her and walked away. Finally she gave up.
“Was I wrong?” I asked Tomas, a few moments later, after the awkward situation had passed. “I feel every guilty. She was a poor girl, trying to feed her child. And I walked away from her. That was very bad of me, I think!”
“Poor girl? She wasn’t a poor girl! She just wanted your money to buy drugs!”
“Are you serious? What about the baby? The baby looked half starved.”
“Oh it wasn’t her baby, for heaven sakes. She just borrowed it. That’s what they do around here. They borrow babies and walk the streets and ask for handouts. So they can buy drugs. Look, you want to feel sorry for someone? Feel sorry for all those guys trying to sell stuff to tourists.”
“Well, I do feel sorry for them. There weren’t very many tourists were there?”
“No, you were the only one. Look around you. There are no tourists in this city!”
That had been my impression, but I hadn’t quite internalized it. Back in the market, at all the souvenir shops, I’d been the only tourist. I began to wonder, now, how all those people could earn a living selling to tourists if there were so few tourists.
“Why am I the only tourist? Is this the low season or something? Where’s everyone else?”
“You don’t know?”
“No, actually, I don’t really know when the high season or the low season is here. Where is everybody?”
“This has nothing to do with the high season or the low season. But normally this would be a good time. There would be lots of tourists. You’d see tourists all over these streets. In the market it would be packed with tourists. But not now. Those poor souvenir vendors are starving!”
“Well what’s going on? Where is everybody?”
“I don’t believe this. Don’t you read the newspapers?”
“I read the newspaper every day. What are you talking about?”
“Didn’t you hear about the bombing of the U.S. embassy? Terrorists bombed the U.S. embassy in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam last month!”
“Oh yeah. Well I heard about that, of course. I’d forgotten about it. What’s that got to do with the missing tourists?”
“Well all the tourists who were coming here, all the tours, they got cancelled!”
“What! That’s ridiculous! Why would tours get canceled?”
“Because of the bombing!”
“But that doesn’t make any sense. You mean that people who were planning on coming to Kenya suddenly canceled because of the embassy bombing?”
“That’s exactly what they did. That’s why there aren’t any tourists around here. That’s why everyone was all over you at the airport. You were their only hope. That’s why the vendors in the market were so desperate. You’re it! You’re the only chance they have to sell something. You’re the one tourist who didn’t cancel!”
I began to feel horribly guilty, on several levels. First, as a political science major, I should have remembered that this was Nairobi, and a few weeks ago there had been a major act of terrorism here. I knew all about the bombing. I just hadn’t made the mental connection that the bombing had occurred in a place I was about to visit. But I also felt guilty vicariously. What were all those other tourists thinking? Why would they cancel? What were they worried about, that the embassy would be bombed again? How many times can you bomb an embassy? I expressed these thoughts to Tomas.
“Well, they don’t think of it that way. A bomb goes off. All the tour agencies cancel their plans. That’s just the way it works.”
“Wow, I bet the terrorists didn’t think about that.”
“Would you like to go see the embassy—what’s left of it?”
So we drove through more of Nairobi and came at last to a vacant patch of dirt.
“That’s where it was,” he said. “It’s gone now.”
It sure was gone. There was an empty plot of land and some rubble lying about.
“See, that building right beside it?”
“All the windows are gone.”
Sure enough, the windows had all been blown out of that building, and the one on the other side.
“Where were you when the bomb went off?”
“Just driving into the city. We got a call on the radio: ‘Don’t go into the city, a bomb just went off.”
We drove around some more and he pointed out other buildings. A museum. Nairobi’s oldest hotel. Some government place. Finally we ended up far to the south of the city, driving along a narrow road. We passed a general aviation airport on our left.
“Over there, on our right, that’s the slum,” said Tomas.
“The slum?” Is there only one?”
“Yeah, only one slum in Nairobi. But it’s a big slum.”
I looked and in the distance, enveloping a hillside, was a massive collection of dirt huts, each one sporting a tin roof. It was too far to see much else.
“Very bad slum,” said Tomas. “No electricity. No running water. No toilets. Bad place.”
“So who lives there, exactly?”
“People who come from the country. They come to Nairobi to try to find jobs. They can find work in Nairobi. But they take the money they earn and send it back to their families. That’s why they live in slum, so they can save their money and send most of it back. They’re happy people, most of them. They don’t have much. But they can send money back to their families, and so they’re happy.”
Just past the airport, we pulled into an enclosed grassy area. A large stone and metal monument had been erected here: some sort of national shrine, showing people cast in bronze raising a flag. We walked over to it.
A small plane, a Cessna 182, roared past on short final for the nearby airport. I glanced at it, puzzled. It was making way too much noise. The throttle should have been almost back to idle at this point in the glide path.
“Why’s he have his power so high?” I asked Tomas, somewhat rhetorically because he probably wouldn’t know.
“Don’t know,” said Tomas. “But let me show you this landmark. This marks the spot where the war of independence finally ended; where we won our freedom.”
“You won your freedom, uh, from whom, exactly?”
“From the British.”
“But there wasn’t an actual war, was there? I thought they just gave you your independence, like they did with Canada.”
“No. There was a war. It went on for years. We had to fight for our independence. They didn’t give it to us.”
“Yeah, I know the feeling. We had to do the same thing, in America.”
Another plane came gliding down, on short final. This one had his power way back, which was proper.
“Jeez, they’re awfully close together aren’t they?” I asked Tomas. “Oh, actually that explains it. The first pilot was doing a high speed approach, because he knew he had another plane on his tail. That’s why he had his power set so high.”
“See, there’s another plane,” said Tomas. “And another one behind that.”
I looked and sure enough, there were several planes in the air, all approaching this runway.
“It’s the time of day,” said Tomas. “These planes have been flying around, taking people out to see the game parks, the animals, but there’s a law that says they have to be back before sunset. And it’s almost sunset. So now they’re all arriving at once.”
It was time we headed back, ourselves, to Kenyatta Airfield, Nairobi’s international airport. Lots of things seemed to be named Kenyatta.
“What’s the word, Kenyatta?” I asked.
“Kenyatta was our first president. Everything’s named after him. Like Washington in America.”
“Kenyatta? That’s too similar to the name of the country. Did you name the country after him? Or did he name himself after the country?”
“No,no. When he was in university, in England, no one could pronounce his name, so they called him the person from Kenya. In Swahili, “atta” means “from”. So he added “atta” to Kenya and started calling himself that. So then it went like this.
“What’s your name?”
“Oh, you’re the guy from Kenya?”
“That’s what I just said.”
“Over there,” said Tomas pointing to the flat prairie stretching into the distance, “is the National Park. It starts right here. Animals from the park come down sometimes and—hey! There are some animals! You’re very lucky! Look, see them? Follow me, let’s get closer.”
We walked slowly towards the four legged beasts, about 50 yards away. I wasn’t quite sure what they were. Suddenly they saw us and ran off.
“Warthogs!” I said.
“Yeah, warthogs. You’re very lucky to see warthogs.”
Well, not that lucky. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that a few months earlier I’d been in Kruger National Park in South Africa and we’d seen dozens of warthogs, right up close and personal. And warthogs are about the ugliest animal on earth so seeing one isn’t all that wonderful an experience anyway.
“You know what I’d really like to see?”
“I’d like to see a cheetah come out of that tall grass there and tear across at 70 miles an hour, and leap onto one of those warthogs and tear it to shreds. Now that would be worth seeing!”
Tomas was looking at me strangely.
“You know, there’s a restaurant I should tell you about. It’s called ‘The Carnivore.’ We’ll pass it on the way to the airport. They have different stuff on the menu everyday. You know, weird stuff. Like warthog. Cheetah. That kind of thing. It’s the only restaurant in the world that serves those things.”
“Wow, too bad I have to leave. Sounds like my kind of place!”
As we drove back down the long asphalt highway to the airport, hundreds, perhaps thousands of Africans were walking towards us, along both sides of the road. They were dressed much as Tomas was dressed: casual slacks, short sleeve shirt—loose fitting, comfortable clothing.
“Where are they going?” I asked.
“Back to the slum.”
“Where are they coming from?”
“The factories. They work in all those factories on the outskirts of town. At the end of the day they walk back to the slum. But they’re happy, because they save money to send home.”
Actually, they did look kind of happy. Probably all the endorphins from the exercise of walking to and from the slum.
“How about you? Do you save money and send it to anyone?”
Tomas started telling me about his family. His wife was a teacher and worked in Nairobi. Five kids, all girls.
“What are there ages?”
“Oldest, she is five. Next oldest is four. Then three. Then two. The youngest just turned one.”
“Boy, you kind of keep your wife busy, don’t you!”
“Well, the last one was—how do you say—not planned. We don’t think we’ll have any more kids. It’s a lot of work, actually.”
Yeah, especially for her.
“How about grandparents?”
“My grandparents live in the country. They’re from Tanganyika, remember? But they live in Kenya now. Very primitive place. Just a hut, in the country. I send them money. Sometimes I go there to visit. Very peaceful, in the country.”
We drove in silence, for awhile.
“So, tell me about the civil war,” said Tomas. “What was that about, anyway?”
This guy really did enjoy history. “You want me to tell you about the civil war?”
“Yeah, I want to know everything about American history. I never understood the civil war.”
“Well, the southern states wanted to keep slaves. The northern states didn’t think people should be slaves, so they passed a law. The southern states decided to secede from the Union—in other words form their own country so they could have their own laws. And the northern states weren’t willing to let their country be torn apart. So they went to war.
“And it was the worst war in history. More Americans were killed in that war than in all our other wars put together—because everyone killed was an American.
“But the north won.”
“So, what about President Clinton?” asked Tomas, abruptly changing the subject. “Is he going to be impeached?”
All over Africa, and in England later, people were asking me my opinion about whether Clinton would be impeached. It seemed that the rest of the world was following the story in some ways more closely than we were in America. We’d burnt out on it long ago.
“No, he won’t be impeached, or at least he won’t be removed from office. And it’s better that he’s not. As long as Clinton is president the democrats won’t be able to get anything accomplished. He’ll be too weak as a president. Much better to have him stay in office.”
“So, you must be a Republican.”
This guy was pretty savvy about American politics.
“Sort of . I agree with the Republicans about a lot of things, but I disagree with them about a lot of things, too. But with Clinton I disagree with almost everything.”
“Like affirmative action. Do you know what that is?”
“No, what is affirmative action?”
“Well, the blacks in the U.S. used to be slaves. Then we had the civil war, right? And then they were free. But they were not treated as equal citizens. We had a lot of stupid laws like they had to go to the back of the bus, and use separate restrooms, and stuff like that.”
“Yeah, but that got changed, right? Martin Luther King.”
“Exactly. King led the civil rights movement, and it was successful, and all those stupid laws got eliminated. And then we had a world where—at least officially—no one was judged by the color of their skin. Skin color was meaningless.”
“That’s good, right?”
“Yes, that’s good. But then you had this new movement that started in the seventies, called Affirmative Action. And it was like they started getting racist in the other direction. Suddenly the government, the universities, everywhere started keeping track of people’s skin color. When you applied for a job, or to a university, or when you registered at a hospital, you had to declare your race, your skin color!”
“That’s terrible. That really happened? Or are you making this up?”
“It really happened. And then they started figuring stuff out like if 10% of the population in a certain areas is black, then ten percent of all the workers in the factories in that area have to be black. That kind of thing. It was stupid. Suddenly people’s skin color mattered more than anything else.”
“So it wasn’t a color-blind society anymore?”
“Right. King wanted a color blind society. But with affirmative action, everyone has to keep track of their race, and pay attention to it, like it’s some big deal. So we’re kind of going backwards, in terms of our attitude towards race.”
“And Clinton’s for that?”
“Yeah, he’s a big fan of affirmative action.”
“Then he should be impeached!”
“Yeah, actually, that probably should be an impeachable offense. Too bad it’s not.”
It was interesting that Tomas—and a guy couldn’t be any blacker than Tomas—was horrified at the concept of affirmative action, and could sense immediately that it was a dumb idea. Maybe there was hope for the continent after all.
Tomas dropped me at the airport, and I felt a little sad to see him go: my only friend in Kenya. I made a mental note to send him a history book about the old west.
“Jambo!” I said.
“Jambo!” he replied.
To travel from Nairobi to Zanzibar one flies Air Tanzania. I’m always a bit nervous flying on airlines named after third-world countries. One reads in the papers about some plane crash, but then one notices it’s an airline no one’s ever heard of, in a remote unimportant country, and one relaxes a bit. And maybe the news story mentions that two Americans were aboard, and one thinks: “Well, what did they expect, flying on Air Bangladesh, and what were they doing there anyway?”
But now I was that American. If the plane crashed, they’d read: “…including one American,” and they’d think, “Well what did he expect, flying on Air Tanzania, and what was he doing there anyway?”
In truth there was something to feed my fears almost immediately. In fact there were several things. The entire tail of the plane was painted with the giant head of a giraffe. And this was to make me feel secure—how? Then there was the strange baggage handling system. You check your bags, just like with any airline. But as all the passengers walked across the tarmac to the plane we found our luggage lined up in a row on the ground. Each passenger dutifully went over to this luggage, found their own one or two pieces, handed it to an attendant, where it was placed on a cart for loading into the plane. After everyone had done this, the entire pile of luggage was now on the cart. Why not just put it all on the cart in the first place? Was someone unclear on the concept that these were bags that had already been checked to Zanzibar?.
Upon boarding the plane itself, up a stairway in the back, mild chaos erupted. Everyone had their ticket with their seat assignment, but the seats—we discovered to our horror—had no numbers on them. Thus I was in 11A. But where was row 11? Where was A?
The flight attendants were all angry young black men. Scowling at us, they motioned for everyone to urgently take our seats. Finally realizing we had no idea which seats to take, they begin counting out row numbers for us.
“That! That’s row 8!” one of them said. “Count back from there!”
Oh, OK. So the first row in the plane is row 8 (that made sense) and you just count back to find your row. I was glad I was in 11 and not 43. Getting everyone onto a plane is always awkward, and that’s when the seats are marked and they board the back of the plane first. In this case it was like cattle milling about among the seats of a movie theater. People would go too far forward, then try to reverse and go back, as they counted the seats, and they would of course encounter others trying to move forward. And everyone had too much carry-on luggage, which was soon getting passed back and forth over people’s heads and across the aisles.
It was all quite what you’d expect of Air Tanzania. The giraffe head on the tail was looking increasingly appropriate.
I found my seat eventually, although I couldn’t really prove it was mine. Overhead, the words “fasten seat belts” and “no smoking” were illuminated. And right beside them were the Swahili words: “Jifunnge mkanda wa kiti” and “usivate sigara.” It was interesting that Swahili, the lingua franca of the primitive tribes of East Africa, had evolved sufficiently to encompass verbs like fastening seat belts on an airliner.
I began chatting with the man next to me. He was the regional director of a trading company, and his region was Africa. He seemed more Arabic in skin color, not the coal-black ebony of most everyone else on the plane.
“What do you trade?”
Petroleum. Lumber. Minerals. Agricultural goods. Manufactured Products.”
That did sound like just about everything.
“Is your company only in Africa or worldwide?”
“Very world-wide. I’m based in Dar Es Salaam.” (Dar is the capital of Tanzania). “We have offices in Saigon, Rangoon, Darwin, Quito, Luzon, and Muscat.”
That was a very odd collection of cities. You’re used to an international company boasting of offices in New York, Paris, London, Tokyo.
“Why are you based in Dar?” I asked him. “I mean, that’s not really a center of anything is it? Isn’t Nairobi more the capital of East Africa?”
“Yes, but Dar has an excellent harbor.”
Wow, so there were still companies out there that cared about things like harbors. It sounded so quaint, so 19th century.
“What kind of business are you in?” he asked politely.
“Website services. We’re based in Colorado.”
If he questioned the location I was ready to add: “We don’t have much of a harbor, but Colorado does have good Internet-backbone access.” And then he might have added: “You know, that’s the one thing we’re missing in Dar. Good harbor, but lousy Internet backbone…”
The conversation didn’t proceed that way, but it might have. A few years from now it would.
The plane landed and one of the flight attendants (no longer quite so angry) indicated that we had arrived in Zanzibar. Most of the passengers were continuing on to Dar Es Salaam. Only about 8 of us were getting off the plane.
“All my life I’ve wanted to go to Zanzibar,” I said to my seatmate.
“Yes, and now you’ve made it!” he said.
“Well, do you think it really is Zanzibar? I mean it seems too good to be true. You know the pilot could just have landed us anywhere, and claimed it was Zanzibar.”
“Oh, I’m quite sure it’s Zanzibar. In fact, see the sign?” He pointed to a large sign just visible out the window. “Welcome to Zanzibar” it said.
The evidence was beginning to mount that I really had made it to Zanzibar. A life dream had been fulfilled.
But as I exited the plane a slight worry crept over me. One travel brochure I’d seen in South Africa mentioned that a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate was required for Zanzibar. I’d checked with my doctor before leaving Colorado. He’d checked his computer and had told me that malaria medication was recommended, but hadn’t said anything about Yellow Fever vaccination. Maybe I’d had a Yellow Fever vaccination sometime in my past. Maybe I hadn’t. But I certainly didn’t have a certificate to prove it one way or another. Who carries Yellow Fever certificates around with them?
As I entered the airport and approached passport control, there was another desk—another gauntlet—that apparently had to be run first. Everyone in line (all eight of us) were queuing up to show some documentation to the person behind the desk. As I got closer the horrible truth emerged. They were showing their Yellow Fever vaccination certificates. No one was going to get past this desk without a Yellow Fever certificate!
Damn. I’d waited decades to visit Zanzibar. Now I was going to be deprived of the experience because I didn’t have some stupid piece of paper?
I was last in line, and finally it was my turn.
Playing dumb, I handed the man my passport.
“Vaccination certificate,” he explained, patiently.
“Excuse me? I don’t understand.”
“Yellow fever vaccination certificate,” he repeated.
“Oh, I’m from the United States. I don’t think we’re required to have one.” It was a weak argument, but it was all I had. And it didn’t work.
He opened my passport to page two, and pointed out the paragraph that stated: “Some countries may require yellow fever vaccination certificates.”
Who ever reads the fine print in their passports?
I tried to play games with the syntax. “It says may require, not must require.” My arguments were getting weaker and weaker. I decided to throw myself on the man’s mercy.
“Look, I’m only here for the weekend. I was told I didn’t need any special certificate.”
So, there it was. It was now clear to both of us that I didn’t have the necessary documentation. He had every right to send me right back onto the plane. I was not going to see Zanzibar after all.
But I was thinking like a Westerner. People in third world countries don’t think like that. This man didn’t care if I had the piece of paper. He cared about something else.
“Well, what are we going to do?” he asked. “You need a yellow fever certificate.”
“I don’t have one.”
“No, you don’t. Now, let’s see. How are we going to solve this problem?”
He gazed up at the ceiling, as if truly lost in thought, hoping I might think of something.
“Yes, that’s the question,” he continued, dreamily. “How are we going to solve this problem? Hmmm…”
He continued looking at the ceiling.
Oh, this was ridiculous. I’d read that all the officials in Tanzania are corrupt, but this was too blatant. I would have been happy to hand him a twenty dollar bill. But the other passport officials were less than ten feet away. There’s no way it could be done subtly. Probably he was setting me up with a little sting operation. I hand him the twenty, they cart me off to jail. I’ve broken the law plenty of times in places like the Soviet Union and China, but never in full view of immigration officials. I wasn’t sure enough of my bearings in Zanzibar to start bribing people left and right. Finally I said: “Look, I’d love to buy something from you. I’m certain you could sell me what I need. But I don’t think I’m supposed to. I’m sorry.”
He was sorry too. He kept looking at the ceiling. “Well, then how are we going to solve this problem?”
Finally I just ignored him, walked over to the passport control desk, got my passport stamped and walked swiftly on through before anyone could stop me. Immigration officials this blatantly corrupt could be ignored I reasoned. And so it proved.
And as long as everyone else was vaccinated, obviously I wouldn’t get Yellow Fever. Right?
Back in South Africa, the prior evening, a friend of Deonne Le Roux’s wife, Bokie, had just returned from Zanzibar. Her name was Danielle.
“Where are you staying?” asked Danielle.
“I don’t know,” I’d told her. “Do you have a suggestion?” (Bokie has exquisite taste, and was born to shop. I suspected her friend had a similar personality. She would stay at the best hotel in Zanzibar, not the cheapest.)
“You must stay at the hotel Serena,” explained Danielle. “It’s on the expensive side, but you’re dealing in Tanzanian shillings. The exchange rate is fabulous. It’s less than $100 a day, for you, and it’s probably the nicest hotel on the island. Right on the water. And right in Stone Town. You’ll love it. In fact, I’m jealous. I wish I could go with you!”
So I’d called the Serena from my hotel near the Johannesburg Airport early this morning. I’d felt silly asking the operator for directory assistance for Zanzibar. It sounded like a joke—like asking for a listing in Timbuktu. But they took me seriously, and I did reach the Serena and I was able to make a reservation. The hotel had even offered to meet me at the airport with a car and driver, at no charge.
Sure enough, once past the usurious customs officials I noticed a man was standing holding a sign that said “Voorhees.”
His van was parked just outside the door and I took my seat in the front, left hand side. After South Africa and Kenya, it was seeming very natural for the steering wheel to be on the right. In every country the British used to own, they’ve screwed up the location of the steering wheel. Quite a legacy.
The night was dark as we drove along the deserted highway, and I could see very little of the landscape. But the air was hot and humid, as you’d expect of a tropical island.
“All my life I’ve wanted to come to Zanzibar,” I explained to the driver. “Now I’m really here. I can’t believe it.
“By the way, I really am here, aren’t I? I mean this really is Zanzibar? It’s not just a place that’s pretending to be Zanzibar?”
“It’s the real thing,” said the driver. “You made it.”
“So, why have you wanted to come to Zanzibar all your life?”
“Because of the name. It’s such an exotic-sounding name, don’t you think?”
“That’s the only reason, the name?”
“Well, why else would a person come here? I mean, is there anything to do here?”
“Of course there is. Lots of people come here. This is a great place.”
“So, what should I do in Zanzibar?”
“Well, you can walk around Stone Town. You can go scuba diving. You can take a spice tour. Go sailing on a dhow. Rent a motorbike.”
“Oh yeah, my friend back in South Africa had just come from here. She said if you rent a motorbike, it’s a scam. The police will follow you and pull you over. If you don’t have a motorcycle license, they’ll give you a ticket, unless you bribe them. It’s like this big scam that everyone falls for.”
“Yeah, that’s true. That’s exactly what happens.”
“So it’s true?”
“Yeah, that’s what they do. You have to bribe them or they’ll give you a ticket.”
“Then why did you suggest I rent a motorbike? Won’t I have to pay a bribe?”
“But—but that’s terrible!”
“No it isn’t. It’s only a very small bribe.”
“If you pay in U.S. dollars, I think maybe one dollar would be plenty.”
“That’s all? Just one dollar buys me a policeman in Zanzibar?”
“One dollar is a lot of money to a policeman in Zanzibar.”
I thought about this for a moment.
“What could I get for two dollars in Zanzibar?”
He looked at me and grinned. “Probably anything you wanted!”
We were driving through dark forest, but soon came upon what seemed the outskirts of a town.
“Is this Stone Town?” I asked naming what I thought was the capital of Zanzibar—the one city. Everyone was always talking about Stone Town.
Apparently in this I was mistaken. The one “city” in Zanzibar—if you can call it that—is called Zanzibar. So out in the country, in Zanzibar, you see signs pointing to Zanzibar. And they actually point in a direction, not just straight down at the ground, as you might expect. They were pointing to Zanzibar-the-city.
But inside Zanzibar City is the area called “Stone Town.” Stone Town is the old, original “Arab” world, consisting of stone walls, cloistered alleyways, hidden doorways, mysterious, beckoning cul-de-sacs, and the like.
“No, not yet Stone Town,” said the driver.
But soon we came to an area of ancient stone walls and cloistered alleyways.
“Is this Stone Town?” I asked.
“No, not yet Stone Town.”
After a while we found ourselves in an environment of really high, thick stone walls, and really mysterious, extremely secretive alleyways.
“Stone Town?” I asked.
“Not yet,” he answered.
But eventually we were driving through a section of the city with incredibly high, absurdly thick stone walls, and shockingly mysterious, tantalizingly secretive alleyways.
“This must be Stone Town.”
“Almost, not quite.”
We passed through a Byzantine archway in a wall and now we had reached a place where the stone walls simply couldn’t get any higher or thicker; the alleyways had reached a level of mysteriousness from which they could aspire no further. It was ten o’clock at night, but there were women about. And they were all draped in chadaris—those beckoning veils so endemic to North Africa and the Arab world, and yet never seen south of the Sahara—except in Zanzibar, apparently. Suddenly a powerful Vespa motorbike passed us. Driving it was a young man in a flowing, white, Arabic robe. On his head was a Fez cap. Sitting behind, sitting sidesaddle and holding on tightly, was a woman covered head to toe in chadari. They roared past, and then disappeared down one of the secretive alleyways.
“Now we’re in Stone Town,” said the driver.
We were driving parallel to the water, about 100 yards away. Along the shore, lamps were burning—oil lamps. It was some kind of open-air market, I judged, but the flickering shadows cast by the lamps, and the light reflected back from the waves in the harbor, did nothing to lessen the exotic nature of the scene. Men in Arabic robes milled about, and there were more women in chadaris. But soon our car was past this market and ensconced once again in the thick stone walls and Byzantine passageways of Stone Town.
Zanzibar is famous for its doors—much as is Dublin—but the Zanzibar doors are unique in the world. They are typically of carved wood, with metal spikes of some sort, several dozen at least, protruding from them. Whether these spikes are part of a defense system for the door, or are placed there for purposes of decoration, was never quite clear to me. Postcards from Zanzibar always showcase these doors, usually with beautiful late-afternoon sunlight illuminating them, and their gold and brass colored metal spikes all aglow. Late at night, from the vantage point of a fast moving automobile, I could see these doors only briefly, but it was enough to convince me that I must truly be in Zanzibar.
At last we pulled up in front of a very statuesque building. It was painted white, but its elegant doorway was of dark, rich wood, carved in intricate design, and sporting aggressive, brass spikes—beautifully polished. Doormen flanked it, dressed in Arabic robes. But these weren’t silly costumes. Other men were walking down the street, in identical dress.
Zanzibar is about 100 miles south of the equator. Early December is the beginning of their “summer” and the night was hot and sultry. I flung my backpack suitcase over my shoulder and entered through the elegant doorways. The architecture of the Serena Hotel is open-air, with high ceilings, traditional white-painted hallways, polished wooden floors and doorways, and ceiling fans rotating somnolently from vast heights. A dark brown mahogany desk graces one side of the lobby, and staffing it were two friendly women in what I’ll call “partial chadari.” Their hair, ears, neck, and shoulders were covered with swirls of bright, cottony fabric. Yet their faces were utterly exposed—shockingly so in my opinion—and their smiles would have come through even if they had been fully cloaked.
“Welcome to Zanzibar,” one of them said, demurely. “Is this your first time?” Her eyes locked with mine, and her eyelids batted slightly.
I lost it.
“Yes this is my first time! And I can’t believe I’m really in Zanzibar. And I can’t believe how thick the stone walls are, and how polished the doorways, and how mysterious the alleyways! And I can’t believe how all you women are wearing these beautiful chadaris around your heads. This is too cool. Am I really in Zanzibar, or is all this just a dream?”
A turbaned man, in Arabic robe, appeared bearing a tray upon which rested a glass of guava juice. He bowed slightly and offered it to me. I drank it, nodded my appreciation, and set it back down on the tray. He turned abruptly and vanished.
“Yes, you are really in Zanzibar,” replied one of the ladies.
“I am certain you will have a wonderful time,” prophesized the other.
My room continued the décor of white plaster walls heavily-accented with polished wood trim. As a former yacht builder this was a wood I knew well, and hated. It was teak. I have ruined more drill bits, and broken more saws, trying to work with teak than I have even trying to fashion metal fittings out of steel. Teak is the bane of yacht builders, because it is so hard and durable. And of course that’s why yacht builders use it—the stuff laughs at salt water. It is a very expensive wood, because it grows only in certain, distant, tropical places. Places like—apparently—Zanzibar. Teak must be growing all over the island, I reasoned, if they would use it as trim inside a hotel room. And I marveled at the intricate carving of this wood, beginning with the door itself and continuing across the ceilings, the cupboards built into the wall, the closets, the window frames, everywhere. Another wood door, on the other side of the room, led to a small balcony which must look out over the harbor. But I’d been cautioned not to open this door at night, because of the possibility of mosquitoes. It wasn’t mosquito season, but malaria is taken very seriously in East Africa, at all times.
The two twin beds in the room were tucked right together, essentially forming a large double—the whole set in an opulent, carved wood frame and headboard. Overhanging this was a beautiful canopy arrangement, with elegant lacy material flowing over it, and providing a nice decorating touch. I discovered later this had nothing to do with decorating. The whole canopy was a rolled up mosquito net. You drape it over the double bed, and then climb inside, like a tent. But I didn’t know this at the time, and thought it was just pretty, which it was, actually.
According to those who have been to Zanzibar, there’s a short list of things you “must do.” Heading this list is “take a spice tour.” I didn’t know what a spice tour was. It sounded pungent, but I wasn’t sure it would be all that exciting. Yet everyone insisted I take one so I’d probably have to. The other items on the list were: sail on a dhow, go scuba diving, go to the southern tip of the island and swim with the dolphins, and rent a motorbike or bicycle,. When I got up the next morning I wasn’t sure how I was going to fit all this in. I had all day today, and half of tomorrow. My plane left at 2pm on Sunday. But if I was going to dive I had to do that first. You can’t dive and fly within 24 hours of each other.
I went to the front desk in search of the chadari ladies. They had promised I would have a good time in Zanzibar, and now it was time to prove it.
“I’m thinking of going diving today,” I explained. “Are there any dive operations around here?”
“The one we recommend is just a few minutes walk down the street. It’s called Zanzibar Dive Center.”
Certainly it had a good name.
I set out in a brisk walk, enjoying the early morning air—hot and humid though it was—and looked around with interest, this being my first day-time view of Zanzibar. The bad news was that there were many streets and alleyways and corners and mysterious openings in the walls and I was almost certain to get lost. The good news was that I was kind of hoping to get lost. It was only 7:30 and I’d been told the dive center did not open until 8:00—a perfect amount of time in which to get lost and thus really see the town.
The Swahili words I’d learned in Nairobi proved immediately useful. Various men and women and boys and girls strolled the streets and alleys, and every time I passed one—or a group of several—I would call out gaily: “jambo!” and they would smile immediately and reply “jambo!” And then if I was feeling brave I would say: “haberi gani?” And they would reply: “missuri sana.”
They say Zanzibar is where Africa meets Arabia, and this is true but not in a melting-pot sense. The architectural elements—the streets, white stone walls, cloistered windows, beckoning doorways, and such—are completely Arabic. The religion is Arabic, which is to say Islam. The dress is Arabic. The men are typically in robes or loose fitting clothing, and often sport a fez hat. The women are in partial-chadari. So you have all the trappings of Arabia. What’s African—completely African—are the people themselves. The people of Zanzibar are black. And another thing that proves they’re African and not Arabs is that they’re friendly. Arabs scowl at strangers and try to stare them down in a brutal way. East Africans are friendly. And Zanzibarans are extremely friendly.
So as I walked through the streets of Zanzibar I felt like I was among friends. I was having pleasant conversations and exchanging bright smiles with almost everyone. True, the conversations always consisted of precisely the same words, but that didn’t bother me, or them.
I saw no other tourists the whole time I was lost in Stone Town. Zanzibar—for all its fame—has not yet been taken over by tourists, and the original culture seems to be surviving nearly intact. I saw no tourist accoutrements anywhere I went: no T-shirt shops, no Wimpy’s hamburger restaurants, no souvenir stands, no busloads of tourists being guided hither and yon, and for that matter—perhaps most surprising of all—no one trying to sell me anything or hassle me or offering to be my “guide.” In Morocco, for example, a tourist can’t last more than a few seconds on the street. They fall on him like piranhas, rip the flesh off and leave only bare bones (speaking metaphorically of course). The tourist’s only chance is to actually hire one of the young urchins and have this person be responsible for keeping all the others at bay. Fortunately it only costs a few pennies to do this, but it’s annoying even so. Certainly that had been the case in Nairobi.
But there was nothing like that here. Zanzibar is an oasis, where the hoards of tourists are left behind, and the natives are pleasant and friendly and un-tarnished by contact with the sight-seeing culture. Life goes on in Zanzibar as it has for hundreds of years.
With one exception: slavery is no longer the mainstay of the economy.
In its time Zanzibar was the center of the slave trade for the entire region. In fact, that was the whole point of the Arabs coming here. Arabs were (and in some places still are) masters of the slave trade. They would swoop down upon the African coast, capture the blacks, or simply buy them from other blacks, and export them around the world. Zanzibar was ideal, geographically. The Arabs conquered the island, set up a sultanate form of government, and brought over their architecture, religion, and culture as well. When the dust settled, they had a nice little piece of Arabia right off the coast of Africa—a perfect spot for trading slaves.
But all that is gone now. The sultanate was dissolved in 1963, Zanzibar was an independent nation for about a month, and then—as previously mentioned—it merged with Tanganyika and the combined entity is now known as Tanzania. (More’s the pity.)
Rather than slavery, Zanzibar is now famous for something else: spices. Zanzibar has been nicknamed “the spice island” and they say you can actually smell the island from miles offshore as you approach by ferry from Dar Es Salaam. So it is now spices, plus fishing, plus—I suppose—scuba diving, that provides the foundation of the Zanzibar economy.
By good fortune I stumbled upon the Zanzibar Dive Center at eight o’clock, just as they opened. The Zanzibar Dive Center is a large open garage-like space, set back into the stone walls like everything else, and with a glass counter, and a bunch of dive gear lying about. It commands a view of the water, and a few small fishing boats were anchored offshore.
The person just opening up was a young, white woman—the first white I’d seen since arriving. A boat was leaving at 9:00 and there was room on it for another diver. I signed up and promised to return shortly. There was time for breakfast now, back at the hotel, and I was curious what kind of breakfast might be served in Zanzibar, especially since it was included with the price of my room.
The hotel restaurant was a very airy place, opening onto the sea via large, wood-framed windows kept perennially open.
Breakfast in Zanzibar consists primarily of fruit. A substantial buffet had been laid out, but almost all of it was fruit: mangoes, bananas, papayas, pineapples, guavas, etc. Nicely complimenting all this fruit were slices of cheese, and of course the coffee was excellent. Being this close to Kenya—home of perhaps the best coffee in the world—it could hardly have been otherwise. The view was excellent too. Fishing dhows were cruising past less than a hundred yards away. I was reminded that sometime during my stay I would have to arrange for a dhow cruise. Dhows are sailboats very common in Arabia and so of course very common in Zanzibar. They are unique in that they are rigged with a lateen sail, which means a sail that has a boom (a wooden spar) on the top of the sail as well as the bottom. The bottom one is parallel to the deck. The top one, given that the sail is a triangle, is set at about a 45 degree angle. It is the top boom itself that is hauled up the mast by the halyard. What I found interesting about these dhows is the size of the sail. It is huge. It is so large that the dhow itself appears a mere after-thought. Or, put another way, a dhow is similar to a butterfly, in that almost everything is wing area, and the body itself, insignificant.
The dhows seemed to work quite efficiently, for they cut briskly into the light air of the morning and extracted from it all the speed necessary to propel them swiftly towards their fishing grounds.
It was important to bear in mind that these graceful dhows were not pretty tourist attractions. They were real, working, fishing boats—another reminder of how Zanzibar seems more anchored in the past century than the present one.
Back at the dive shop the divers themselves were assembling. There was plenty to do: filling out legal release forms, showing dive certification cards, getting fitted for face masks, fins, and wet suit, and making sure that there was plenty of suntan lotion at hand. Yet in the midst of all this we tried to get acquainted.
The dive master, Gary, was a grizzled Lloyd Bridges type, perhaps in his fifties. Everyone else seemed quite young, perhaps in their late twenties or even younger. There were two sets of couples. Jim and Sandy were Americans now living in Dar Es Salaam. Eric and Liz were from New Zealand and Australia, respectively, had been living in London, but were now on a truck safari across Africa.
There were two very pleasant British girls, Roz and Tammy, who had just been certified for diving yesterday. Finally there was William Chen, a Hong Kong citizen presently attending university in Sydney.
There were two dive boats anchored offshore—large, open craft, sporting powerful outboard motors. In contrast, and off to one side, was an elegant and graceful dhow. I pointed it out to Gary, the divemaster, and kiddingly said: “I wish we could use that dhow as our dive boat!”
“I grant your wish!” said Gary. “That dhow is our dive boat.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah, but it’s got a diesel engine as well. We won’t have to rely just on the sail.”
I could see two human figures on the dhow—blacks, stripped to their waist. I watched as they raised the anchor, started the engine, and steered the little craft over to the shore. As instructed, we now carried our gear down from the dive shop and across to the beach. There was no jetty here, and we were forced to wade out into the water—perhaps not too horrible a gauntlet for experienced scuba divers. A crude, hand-made ladder was extended from the deck down into the water, and one by one we each climbed awkwardly up into the boat, carrying our dive gear in one hand, trying to hold on with the other. Soon we were putt-putting our way out towards the open sea and away from Zanzibar.
Our dhow was named Henya, and it was a very interesting craft made entirely of teak. About 45 feet long, I guessed, and with substantial beam and freeboard. A planked “roof” (I could think of no better nautical expression) covered the aft third of the vessel, and was held up by wooden posts attached to the top of the coaming. But the front was flush-decked (meaning “open deck,” no obstructions), and afforded an ideal place for passengers to lounge about, enjoying the sun. The thick mast was stepped quite far forward, but that’s typical for a dhow. A lateen-rigged vessel has no foresails, so the mast needs to be as far forward as possible.
The sail itself was still furled around the boom, and I guessed they would not use it for the time being—the diesel engine being a quicker way of getting to the dive site.
The sun had come out, although at best the day would be partly cloudy. Zanzibar Island, already beginning to fade in the distance, was also beginning to fade under a cloud cover. To the North, rain showers were blanketing Zanzibar, and cloaking it in mist. There was very little wind and the sea was calm.
Scattered about, in all directions, were more sailing dhows, but these either had their sails up, or they were stopped and engaged in actual fishing operations. We passed one fairly closely. It was crammed with men, all hard at work pulling up a vast fishing net.
As if by common agreement, the divers were now engaged in that most important preliminary activity: applying suntan lotion to all exposed parts of the body. There’s something pleasantly social about the act of applying suntan lotion, and the ice was quickly broken between us. Our respective stories came out, as we got to know each other while lounging about near the bow.
The Americans, Jim and Sandy, were school teachers working at a university in Dar. They led quite an interesting life, in that they worked in universities all over the world.
“We’ve been in Dar just under a year,” explained Jim. “Before that we were teaching in Bangkok. Before that, Sydney.”
“Where will you go next?” someone asked.
“Well, we like Dar. Probably stay in Dar another year or two. After that, who knows? Maybe Peru.”
Tammy and Roz, the British girls, were on a two month winter vacation.
“I grew up in Malawi,” said Roz. “So when we leave Zanzibar we’re going to visit Malawi. It will be like going home. I’ll see all my old friends.” (I wasn’t quite sure what or where Malawi was—perhaps it was a country, perhaps it was slightly south or south west of Tanzania. But everyone else seemed to know Malawi, so I certainly wasn’t going to confess my ignorance.)
“After Malawi we’re heading to Victoria Falls,” explained Tammy. “Christmas in Victoria Falls! That’s the plan!”
“Hey, that’s where we’re going to be over Christmas,” exclaimed Liz, the Australian. She and Erik had been living and working in London, but were now on extended holiday. The overland truck safari, from Nairobi to Victoria Falls, was just one part of it.
William Chen, the young Chinese student, seemed to be leading an interesting life as well. A Hong Kong native, he was going to school in Sydney, but was now visiting his parents who lived in Zanzibar, over Christmas break.
“I come here every Christmas break,” he said. “It’s good to be with your parents over Christmas.”
This forced me to consider my own parents. They didn’t live in Zanzibar. What a cruel twist of fate, it seemed, that I’d been born to parents who didn’t live in Zanzibar. How brutal life can be. I considered trying to talk my parents into moving to Zanzibar, so I could visit them for two months over Christmas, like William was doing.
“I heard you mention your sister lives in Melbourne,” said Gary, the divemaster, turning to me. “Melbourne’s where I’m from.’
“Another Australian? So how did you end up being a divemaster in Zanzibar?”
“Well, you see my wife is South African,” he said, as if that explained it.
I waited for him to continue.
“And that requires you to live in Zanzibar—why?” I finally asked, realizing some prompting was going to be needed.
“Well, she can’t emigrate to Australia. They’ve tightened up now. Just being married to an Australian won’t do it. Too many marriages of convenience. We’re hoping we can get her a residency permit eventually, but until then we have to live somewhere else. And we didn’t want to live in South Africa obviously. So we chose Zanzibar.”
“Been here long?”
“Three years. Love it. It’s a great place.”
It occurred to me that this was a very interesting collection of people I was meeting, and they were leading such exotic lives. Of course I suppose they might have thought the same of me: a guy who provides Internet services to diamond dealers, traveling around Africa, building websites, stopping in Zanzibar on the way to London, living in the ski country of Colorado. On the surface that sounded kind of exotic too, perhaps. But these people were actually living abroad. They’d grown up in places like Malawi and Hong Kong and New Zealand. Of course on a dive boat in Zanzibar these are the kinds of people one meets—certainly not weekend tourists from New Jersey. By contrast I felt quite pedestrian. I was just an American on a brief holiday.
Tammy was asking if anyone had been to Victoria Falls, and if so what there was to do there. With Christmas looming, she wanted to make sure there were plenty of activities.
This gave me an opportunity to pretend I was as exotic as the rest of them, because as it turned out I was the only one aboard who’d ever actually been to Vic Falls.
“Yeah, I was there just over a year ago,” I said, hoping it sounded like I went to Vic Falls regularly, and was in fact well known there and almost a native of the place.
“There’s tons of stuff to do,” I continued. “There’s river rafting and bungee jumping, and you have to take a canoe safari.”
“Yes, we want to,” said Tammy, who’d never been to Africa before. “I’ve heard about the canoe safaris. I’m just so hoping to see a hippopotamus.”
Everyone seems to have a favorite animal, when they come to Africa—an animal they just must see. My assistant, Clare, had wanted to see elephants. For me it had been giraffes. Tammy had her heart set on a hippopotamus.
“Just seeing a hippopotamus would be so lovely…” Tammy continued, in her refined British accent, obviously lost in rapture at the thought.
“Actually, it’s not quite so lovely as you might think…” I said, and went on to explain what it’s like being attacked by hippopotamuses on the Zambezi river.
Stone Town is on the Western side of Zanzibar island, facing the mainland. We’d headed west from there, and so were now in open water somewhere between Zanzibar and the coast of what had once been Tanganyika. The dhow slowed to a stop and one of it’s oversized, grappling-hook anchors was tossed overboard.
“This is a wall-dive,” explained Gary. “We’ll start at the top, which is about 10 meters down. It drops off to over 40 meters but we’ll go down to about the 20 meter level (60 feet.) We’ll continue along it, swimming to the north. When you get to 500 pounds of air, let me know. When you get to 300, head for the surface. The boat will see you and come pick you up.”
“What’s the entry method from this boat?” I asked.
“Giant stride, from the port rail.”
Sounded simple enough. In fact, I realized that this would be my 75th open water dive. It was surprising to think I was becoming almost an experienced diver. One of the symptoms of that, perhaps, was that I didn’t really think about diving anymore as being something difficult or complicated. There were no butterflies in my stomach, as there once had been just before a dive. I didn’t care at all what I’d had for breakfast, although that used to be a big deal. I’d neglected to bring a dive watch with me. I considered diving with my Citizen watch, but even though it was water-resistant to 100 meters, it was not really meant for diving. The salt water would not do the band or the rotating bezel any good. Based on the depth, I knew I’d use up the air in my tank before I exceeded the maximum time requirements for being under the water. So why bring a watch at all? That’s how unconcerned I had become.
But Tammy was clearly going through all the nervous symptoms of a new diver.
“What’s a ‘giant stride?’” she asked me. “I don’t think I ever practiced that…”
So I explained about a giant stride, and how you have to hold one hand on your facemask, the other on the regulator, as you take a long step off the boat and plunge into the water.
“You want your legs apart as you hit the surface, and then bring them quickly back together to keep from going under. As soon as you’re stable, remember to make the OK sign to people back on the boat.”
“Wow. I hope I can do that,” she said.
Tammy and Roz were their own buddy team, and I was paired with William, from Hong Kong. Soon we were all bobbing in the water.
“OK, let’s go down,” said Gary, and all nine of us hit the dump valve on our BC’s.
This was my first time diving in the Indian Ocean, and I was curious about it. Ten feet underwater I became a little disoriented, because the bottom was not yet visible. I’m used to diving in extremely clear water, where as soon as you drop below the surface you can pretty much see your landing spot. But here I could see no bottom. I was suspended in a trackless void, and all points of reference, save the other divers themselves, had vanished. I grabbed for my depth gauge, needing to know what was happening. We were ten meters down, dropping swiftly. There is everything to be said for a rapid descent—it’s when going the other direction that you have to watch your speed—so I let the free-fall continue. Suddenly the reef did become visible, emerging out of the depths. Leveling off at 20 meters we began swimming to the north. Other than the less than perfect visibility, it was a nice dive. The coral was excellent and there was an abundance of fish. Part way through we encountered a flotilla of sea turtles, but these were not as big as ones I’ve seen in Hawaii. Eventually it was time for me to ascend—I’m always the first to run out of air on a dive, and William Chen followed me up. After a three-minute decompression stop at 5 meters, our heads broke above the surface.
A light rain was falling, and the drops spattered the sea around us, giving it an unusual texture. The rain was mostly a visible phenomenon, because in our scuba gear and being mostly under the water ourselves, we couldn’t feel the raindrops at all.
Scanning the horizon, we were able to see Zanzibar island far to the east. Eventually we spotted the dive boat—about a quarter mile from our present position. In such a situation one is tempted to try to swim to the boat, but that’s a mistake. Swimming on the surface is very awkward with dive gear, and one becomes exhausted quickly. You could drop back under the surface, but without a compass bearing its hard to know which way to swim. And it’s not a good use of your final air reserve, which is best kept for a true emergency. Far better to just float on the surface as long as necessary until you’re spotted by those on the boat. Then they’ll just motor over to you.
So we bobbed on the surface, with the raindrops falling all about us, and the sea stretching out to the horizon in almost all directions. I felt very small and insignificant, and it was a little unnerving, being so far from land and bobbing up and down and being so relatively helpless. William must have sensed this too.
“I’m thinking about what happened a year ago to the divers on the Barrier Reef, where the boat went off and left them,” he said. “Did you hear about that?”
“No, tell me about it,” I said.
“The divemaster didn’t count the number of people. He thought he had everyone back on board but two of them hadn’t been picked up yet. The boat went off and left them in the Coral Sea.”
“My God, what happened?”
“The bodies were never recovered. The dive center was charged with criminal negligence. Can you imagine what that must have been like for those divers. They come up to the surface, and the boat’s gone!”
“What a way to die!”
“Yeah, they must have floated for days, until they died of thirst. Or more likely they were eaten by sharks…”
This was becoming a very unpleasant conversation, considering our circumstance. The dive boat was no nearer than it had ever been, and I wasn’t sure they could even see us from such a distance.
Coming to the same conclusion simultaneously, William and I both began waving our hands and calling out to the boat. Finally one of the boat crew waved back, and soon the dhow was heading across the water towards us.
Eventually all nine of us were back aboard, and huddled under the roof, watching the water frothing with raindrops. The dhow was motoring slowly to a tiny sand island where we would stop for lunch. I could see it in the distance—a perfect dome of sand. I’d experienced one of these perfect domes of sand on another occasion, and at the time I’d compared it to a bald giant’s head, just barely sticking out of the water. But, no, now that we were closer it was becoming obvious that this was not a circular island at all, but a crescent—a perfect crescent made of sand. Kind of like a giant “croissant” just barely sticking out of the water, I decided.
“So you guys saw turtles?” asked Tammy. “I didn’t see any turtles!”
“You were too far ahead of us, I think,” said Jim.
“How about the octopus?” I asked. “Did you see the octopus?”
“No, there was an octopus?”
“Jeez, a giant octopus. Biggest one I’ve ever seen. Too bad you missed it.”
“Yeah,” said Sandy, getting into the spirit of the thing. “The octopus was great. But you saw the two eels, though, right? The moray eels?”
“No, I didn’t see any eels! Darn it! I can’ t believe I missed all this stuff.”
“Probably because you were distracted by the sharks,” I volunteered sympathetically. “I mean, wow, I’ve never seen so many sharks.”
“Or such big ones,” noted Jim.
“Or so close!” added Sandy.
Then we all broke out laughing and Tammy realized we were only kidding about the octopus and the eels and the sharks, and she laughed too.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her about the whale.
The sun had re-emerged, we were all sitting back up near the bow, and Gary now brought out large trays of food which he set on the wooden planking, at our feet. They’d mentioned that lunch would be served on board, and now here it was.
But this lunch was very similar to breakfast, in that it consisted almost entirely of fresh fruits: bananas, papayas, guavas, passion-fruit, kiwis, and lots of exotic things I’d never seen before and the names of which I do not remember. I did not mind all this fruit. In fact I craved it. Papayas cost $2 each back in Colorado, and here they were by the basketful. We had plenty to drink as well, for there was a limitless supply of coconuts. One of the boat crew kept us well supplied, lopping off the top of a coconut with a big machete, and handing it to whomever needed a refill. The liquid inside a ripe coconut is clear and very refreshing, and especially so when served on a dhow floating in the water off the coast of Tanganyika. Certainly my wife would be pleased, knowing what a healthy, low-fat diet I was eating. Of course I knew that if I continued to eat like this I would develop an insatiable craving for McDonald’s French fries and a big Mac, and upon a return to civilization would no doubt go on a binge and consume limitless supplies of hot dogs and potato chips, and set myself back several months. But I had not reached that point yet.
As we worked our way through the fruit and the coconuts, conversation turned to the recent bombings of the embassies in Dar and Nairobi.
“You know what job you want?” began Jim, who lived in Dar. “You want to be an FBI agent sent over to investigate. I tell you, those guys have the life…”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Man, they come over here at government expense. They’re put up in the finest hotel in Dar—the Palace Hotel. They hang out at the pool all day. What a life!”
“Why do they just hang out at the pool,” asked Roz. “Aren’t they supposed to be investigating?”
“Yeah, but get this. They ‘investigate’ by waiting for leads. That’s what they tell everyone they’re doing. They’re waiting for leads. So they hang out by the pool, and they drink mai-tais, and once a week maybe some native person brings them a lead. It’s all bullshit. No one knows who set the bombs off. And the FBI agents know that no one knows. But they have to make it look like they’re conducting a lengthy investigation, and that means they get to be here for months. They’re in no hurry. No hurry at all.”
“Do you live anywhere near the embassy?” I asked them. “Were you affected by the blast?”
“We don’t live near there,” said Sandy. “But we have a friend who does. You’re not going to believe this, but when the bomb went off, he had his windows open in the direction of the blast, and he had a pet parrot perched near the window and the blast blew all the feathers off the parrot!”
“No way!” said Eric.
“Yeah, she’s not kidding,” agreed Jim. “I saw the parrot. Most miserable thing you’ve ever seen. Feathers all gone. It was like he’d been plucked, and was now going to be roasted.”
“Wait a minute,” I protested. “Does that work? Can a bomb blast blow the feathers off a parrot? I wouldn’t think that would be possible. I’d have thought the parrot would just have been blown across the room, feathers and bones and everything.”
“Well, Jacques, it’s not like there have been that many cases of trying it,” pointed out Sandy. “It’s not like you’ve got these scientists all over the world who have been trying for years to blow the feathers off a parrot using a bomb blast. This was probably the first time it’s ever happened!”
“Yeah,” agreed Jim. “That parrot was as surprised as anyone. You can bet he didn’t know it was possible to blow the feathers off a parrot with a bomb blast!”
“Of course he didn’t,” added Sandy. “Otherwise he wouldn’t have been sitting by the window waiting for the stupid bomb to go off!”
Well, we were all getting a bit giddy about the parrot and the feathers by this point, maybe from the effect of too much nitrogen in our blood.
Henya had arrived at the sand island, and we anchored on the leeward side. Lunch was over, but we had to wait at least an hour before our next dive. The little island was a nice place to wait.
Several of us jumped in and began enjoying the water. With the sun back in full force, the day had become hot, and the ocean was a perfect temperature.
Roz, Tammy, and I swam towards the island, and pretty soon it was shallow enough to touch bottom. We continued walking towards shore, and were about half way there when Roz was attacked by the jellyfish.
“Aaaaaaa!” she screamed. “I’m getting jellied!”
“What do you mean?” I said, very concerned, yet unfamiliar with the verb.
“Jellyfish! They’re biting me. Ow!”
I didn’t see any jellyfish, but that didn’t mean anything since they’re pretty much transparent. I hurried Roz over to the beach and quickly got her up on the sand.
“I hate getting jellied,” said Roz.
“So this kind of thing happens to you often, does it?”
“In these waters it does. Jelly fish have been attacking me since I was a little girl. I hate them!”
I remembered that Roz had grown up in Malawi. This was virtually her old neighborhood.
Roz lay down in the sand, enjoying the sun and her escape from the jellyfish. Tammy and I walked along the beach down to the end of the island, and then back up the other side, looking for shells.
We found several hundred seagulls resting near the tip of the island, watching us approach. But then we walked one step closer, the seagulls panicked and—all in a group—the several hundred seagulls blasted off the island with a hurricane of beating wings and cries of alarm.
“I think we scared them,” said Tammy. “They’re very nervous, aren’t they?”
“Yeah. They’ve probably been overhearing all these stories of bomb blasts and birds getting their feathers blown off. Can’t say I blame them.”
As we motored to the next dive site, I began asking advice from the other divers.
“It’s important I do all the right things in Zanzibar,” I explained. “There’s the spice tour, swimming with the dolphins, scuba diving, dhow cruise, and renting a motorbike or bicycle. I’m worried I won’t have time to get it all in.”
“You won’t,” agreed Jim. “Don’t worry about swimming with the dolphins. It takes half a day just to drive down to the south tip of the island. You gotta do the spice tour.”
“What is a spice tour?”
“I’m not sure,” said Jim. “But it’s what you do in Zanzibar. This is the spice island. You gotta take a spice tour. We’re doing one on Monday.”
“You get a car and driver, or maybe a group in a small van, and they take you around and show you how the spices grow,” explained Gary, the divemaster. “You gotta take a spice tour.”
Others agreed. Eric and Liz were taking one tomorrow, but I couldn’t accompany them as theirs would be an all-day affair. I’d have to try to squeeze mine in in the morning. And I’d still miss swimming with the dolphins, not to mention renting a bicycle or motorbike. But the spice tour sounded imperative.
The next dive was similar to the first, although the water was clearer, and with the sun shining the colors of the coral were more vibrant. It was a shallower dive, about 15 meters, and I was able to stay down for almost an hour. William and I discovered a lobster, hiding in a hole in the rock, but we couldn’t get him out. A few more sea turtles made their appearance. We also chalked up two giant clams, and a monster grouper—arguably the world’s ugliest fish.
We surfaced at nearly the same time as the others, and found everyone pointing eagerly towards a certain spot in the ocean.
It did not take long to understand why. The dolphins, having heard the rumor that I wasn’t going to be heading down to the southern tip of the island to swim with them, had decided to meet me up here. How exceedingly considerate! There were maybe ten or twenty, and they porpoised in and out of the water, but they never let us get too close. Finally they swam off, hoping to meet other tourists.
“So, does that count?” I asked the others, back on board. “Can I cross ‘swimming with the dolphins’ off my list?”
“Sure it counts!” said Eric. “Those were dolphins. They were swimming. You were swimming. That’s called swimming with dolphins.”
“Uh, I’m not so sure,” argued Liz. “They never really got that close to us. It wasn’t like we were riding on their backs or anything.”
Others joined in, trying to decide if I could count this dolphin encounter as an official “swimming with dolphins” experience.
Finally a group consensus emerged. I could count it, but the deal was that when I next came back to Zanzibar, I had to do the real dolphin thing down at the southern tip of the island. If I failed to do that, then the whole deal was off. That sounded reasonable, and I accepted on the spot.
“OK, that takes care of the dolphins,” I continued. “Now there’s the little problem of the dhow trip.”
“This is a dhow!” protested Gary. “This counts as the dhow trip!”
“It would, if we did one thing we haven’t done yet.”
“Oh, I know what you want. You want us to put the sail up, don’t you!”
“Yes!” cried Tammy. “Let’s put the sail up!”
Others joined in.
“It’s critical!” I explained. “If we don’t sail the dhow, it doesn’t count!”
“Well, when do you all need to be back?” asked Gary. “Anyone taking the ferry back to Dar this afternoon?”
No one was. And we were all having so much fun on this scuba diving dhow that we were in no hurry to return.
“OK, let’s get the sail up,” said Gary to the two deck hands.
Now this was interesting. Hitherto the mast was unsupported. There were no shrouds or stays to hold it vertical. When the sail was raised, it would snap right off. So the first thing the deck hands did was rig a pair of shrouds on what would be the windward side.
“So you rig the shrouds on just one side?” I asked Gary. “How does that work when you tack?”
“We won’t tack. We’ll just maintain this course all the way in. Near shore we’ll drop the sail and use the engine.”
That made sense, sort of. It was kind of like embarking on a trip in a car, and the car could only turn to the right, but you determined beforehand that on this particular trip, only right hand turns would be necessary.
With the shrouds rigged on one side the deckhands now unfurled the lateen sail, and hoisted it up the mast by pulling on the halyards. It ballooned softly in the subtle breeze, the engine was killed, and the magic of sailing enveloped us as we ghosted across the water—everyone enchanted by the silence.
With the sail up the boat had suddenly become much more photogenic. Pictures needed to be taken! Unable to stop myself I fell into a photo frenzy, and even climbed on top of the roof to afford a better shot of the sail. But there are only so many photographs one can take in a situation like this, and soon I’d taken them all.
Back on deck I looked around, trying to figure out what else was amiss. It came to me in an instant. I wasn’t sailing the ship! Someone else was sailing the ship! That would never do.
I had to take the tiller. This has become a tradition for me. In Hong Kong harbor I had to steer the sampan. In Bangkok I had to steer the long-tail boat. And now, in Zanzibar, I had to sail the dhow.
I communicated all this to the helmsman, with a lot of “jambo’s” and “asantes” thrown in. Finally he realized I just wanted to steer the boat, and he handed me the tiller. To his credit he did watch me nervously, needing to ensure that I knew what I was doing. But after awhile he sat down on the windward rail, closed his eyes, and went to sleep.
Certainly it was that kind of day. There was barely enough wind to maintain steerageway. Nonetheless I steered while the others lounged about the deck, enjoying the sun and the company.
Jim started telling us about the latest World Bank scam in Tanzania.
“So the Tanzanian dictator and a few of his friends set up this dummy corporation. And they called it ‘Goldberg Financial Partners,’ which made it sound like some kind of legitimate U.S. Jewish business operation, right?
“Goldberg wanted to loan $100 million to a Tanzanian firm that was going to start diamond mining in Tanzania. This was going to be great for Tanzania. Lots of money. Lots of investment. Infrastructure. That kind of thing.
“So Goldberg went to the World Bank and the World Bank loaned them the $100 million so they could lend it to the diamond mining company.”
“Do you mean this diamond mining company was going to try to compete with DeBeers?” I asked.
“Yeah, they were going to mine diamonds in Tanzania and bypass DeBeers completely.”
“Well I can think of one thing wrong with that plan.”
“What’s that?” asked Roz.
“There aren’t any diamonds in Tanzania. If there were, DeBeers would be here.”
“You’re right!” said Jim. “That had never occurred to anyone at the World Bank. The whole thing was a scam. Turns out the mining company was owned by the Tanzanian dictator and his three buddies. They each owned a fourth. As soon as Goldberg lent them the $100 million, they each took $25 million and sent it off to Swiss bank accounts. The diamond mining company went bankrupt, Goldberg went out of business, and the World Bank was out the money.”
“Wow, twenty five million bucks each,” said Eric.
“Our tax dollars at work,” said Jim.
“Hey, Jacques! He’s gaining on us!” called out Liz, pointing off to starboard amidship.
Another dhow, a fishing dhow not a scuba-diving dhow, was on a parallel course. It’s not possible for two sailboats to be on a parallel course without them inadvertently entering into a race. I’d been racing this dhow for a good five minutes, and he was gaining. Now others were beginning to notice.
“C’mon, mighty captain, show us what you’ve got,” cried Tammy, getting caught up in the excitement of the chase.
This chase had all the excitement of two caterpillars eyeing each other from opposite sides of a crack in the sidewalk. The wind was that bad.
But the fishing dhow was head-reaching on us, and there was nothing I could do about it. I wanted to shake out a reef in the sail, but there were no reefs in the sail. I wanted to raise the 120% jenny, but we had no jenny.
This was terrible! How could I let some 19th century sailing vessel, probably owned by the sons of slavers, beat me in a sailboat race!
I cast around, seeking something, anything, to increase our speed. Suddenly I saw it. The ignition key for the diesel engine!
I called the deck hand back from his slumber.
“That dhow is going faster than we are,” I explained. “He’s got a bigger sail. But we’ve got a bigger engine. What do you think we should do?”
Moments later our sail was furled and we were charging through the sea under full diesel power. The fishing dhow was left to eat our wake.
I took my place back among the divers, at the front of the boat.
“So, what’s one do on a Saturday night in Zanzibar?” I asked, thinking of the evening ahead and not especially wanting to spend it alone.
“What you want to do,” explained Eric, “is start off with a beer on the terrace of the Africa House hotel. You drink beer while you watch the sun go down.”
“Then you go to dinner.”
“And what’s the best place for dinner.”
“You want to go to ‘The Market,’” explained Liz.
‘The Market’ sounded like a very trendy restaurant—the kind of place with lots of brass and varnished wood, and presumptuous waiters, and carrot cake for desert. Danielle, back in South Africa, had made me promise I would visit Zanzibar’s best seafood restaurant: ‘The Blue.’ But perhaps ‘The Blue’ had competition from ‘The Market.’
“Why don’t you join us,” said Liz. “We’re going back to the Africa House bar tonight. Join us for a beer.”
“Roz and I will probably be there too,” said Tammy.
Soon the Henya was back in the harbor. The little wooden ladder was lowered, and we all waded across to dry land. We said our good-bye’s, but agreed we might see each other at sunset at the bar.
The shower at the hotel felt delicious, and I quickly dried and prepared for the day’s next activity. The day’s next activity was exercise. I’ve developed a very legalistic regimen. I must exercise no less than thirty minutes, at least 5 times a week. Almost any exercise qualifies. And if I’m travelling, even a brisk, high-speed walk through town is acceptable. But one rule is immutable. Once I start, I don’t stop.
Now I headed out for a high speed walk in Zanzibar’s Stone Town.
Stone Town is actually not designed for a high speed walk, and the further I went the more apparent this became.
The problem was that I was fighting to achieve two incompatible goals. I had to keep walking at high speed. That was inviolate. Yet I also had to take a picture of anything that was unusually photogenic.
Everything about Stone Town is unusually photogenic.
So as I walked at high speed, I also tried to take pictures. But taking really good pictures is difficult even when you’re standing still. I tried to balance these two conflicting needs but they did not balance well. And when I arrived at the open-air lingerie market, the delicate balance toppled completely.
I didn’t realize it was a lingerie market at first. Initially it was just another African market, and it had all the African accoutrements: carpets spread out on the ground showcasing merchandise, vendors eagerly promoting their wares, bright and colorful consumers wandering about…
I walked through this market at high speed, yet I found my pace slowing the further I went.
Unless my eyes were deceiving me, it was panties and bras that were being offered up for sale.
And the customers for these panties and bras were—predictably—women. And yet these women were outfitted in the partial chadaris unique to Zanzibar. The irony was delicious. Here were these chadari-draped women, their Islamic upbringing ensuring that their heads were veiled, shopping—in the open—for brightly colored lingerie.
Where’s an ayatollah when you need one?
In Afghanistan the Taliban rebels would have put the entire market to the torch, and probably cut off a few hands and ears just to be on the safe side.
But Zanzibar is a cross between Islam and the fun-loving tribes of East Africa. Yes, the women were willing to cover themselves in chadari, if religion demanded it. But they didn’t cover the face. Just the head. So it didn’t really have the effect of modesty, which was the whole point of the thing. For the women of Zanzibar, the chadari is decoration. It’s like wearing makeup. And the colors and patterns and fabric would put the Parisian haute-couture merchants to shame.
These women knew what chadaris are all about. They’re not meant to cover up. They’re meant to tease.
So here we have these teasing Zanzibaran women in their provocative come-hither chadaris, shopping for brightly colored lingerie, in an open air market, with the late afternoon sun giving everything an enriched glow, and I was still trying to finish my thirty minutes of exercise via a high speed walk.
It wasn’t going to happen. This was clearly the most photogenic spot on planet earth. I tried taking some pictures as I walked, but I knew I couldn’t do justice to this market by clicking the shutter as I hurried by. I would have to do the one thing I’d never done: I’d have to abort this period of exercise. I would forfeit it. It wouldn’t count. I would have to make it up later. This was the only time I could take award-winning photographs of chadari-draped women shopping for lingerie, in an open-air market.
I mean, you just don’t see that back in Colorado.
But then I remembered the words of my sister Beth: “Sometimes when you’re travelling you need to remember that you’re not there just to take pictures. You’re there to experience the scene. Set the camera aside sometimes. Just enjoy what you’re seeing, don’t try to record it.”
Yeah, perhaps that was good advice in normal circumstances. But this was the lingerie market in Zanzibar! A month ago I’d been trying to photograph the Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. I’d ended up with a bunch of butt shots of horse-drawn carriages. This time I wanted the real thing. I wanted a woman in full chadari, eyeing judiciously a pile of pastel-colored lingerie spread out on a carpet on the ground, with the late afternoon sun at just the right angle. I could win a Pulitzer with a photograph like that. And it wouldn’t be enough to merely stop and try to take pictures. I knew what would happen if I did that. Everyone would be offended. Here was this stupid American tourist trying to take pictures of women in chadari shopping for lingerie. How trite!
I needed to hire local talent. This was a situation where money would have to be spent. I needed to find a “guide.” I would hire someone for a few pennies, and ask them to help me arrange some good photo-ops. I’d pay the models. I’d pay everyone. Developing a single roll of film back in the states can cost ten dollars! For half that price I could have everyone in this marketplace posing for me—or so I hoped.
I allowed myself to drift to a stop, looked around, and tried to collect my bearings. I was the only white person anywhere in sight, but that didn’t bother me. I’d grown used to that in Africa. Some rambunctious teenagers, skylarking near one of the booths, caught my attention. And I caught theirs.
“Jambo!” I said.
“Jambo!” they agreed. But they were smart, and they detected the scent of money. They weren’t sure what I wanted, but they were very attentive, aware on a subliminal level that I wanted something and was willing to pay for it.
“Speak English?” I asked.
“No,” said one of them.
This would not do. I needed someone who spoke English.
“Speak English,” I explained. “Find someone, speak English.”
That was as simple as I could put it, and they understood. One of them rushed off to find an English-speaker. He returned in a few moments in company with another man.
“My name is Misuri. What do you need?” he asked, puzzled yet curious. I regarded him cautiously. He was young, he seemed to speak English and—hopefully—he was greedy.
Since I was willing to pay, I started giving orders immediately.
“Come over here please,”
He followed me to a booth with an overhanging awning. The afternoon sun was growing hotter by the moment, and I needed the shade just to be able to think.
“I need some help,” I explained.
“Yes? What do you need.”
“I want to take pictures. I want to take pictures here in the market.”
“The people in the market do not want me to take their pictures.”
“Ahh! Just take their pictures. Who cares?”
“No. I want to pay you 5,000 shillings.”
That got his interest.
You help me take pictures. We use another 5,000 shillings to give to the people. If we give them money, then it’s OK we take their pictures. What do you think?”
“Oh! You give money to people. Then take their picture?”
“Yes. You help me. You talk to them. You explain about the money, and the pictures.”
“OK. Where you want to go?”
I maneuvered him back to an area of the market still awash in late afternoon sun. There was an infinity of photo opportunities here. I tried to find one of the better ones.
“Here. We take picture here.”
My guide exchanged a few words with the vendor. I assumed these words were: “Hey, this white guy’s cool. He’s not being rude. He’s paying for this. Are you OK with your picture getting taken if you get paid?”
And they responded, and I assumed they were saying: “Yeah, man, that’s cool. Like if we’re getting paid then sure, why not. I mean, we are pretty damned photogenic, now that you mention it, especially with this late afternoon sun…”
Misuri turned to me. “OK, you take picture now.”
But the moment I pulled out my camera they freaked.
“No! No!” they cried out, and one of the men covered his face with his arms. Another turned away. A third held up some lingerie to hide behind. It was clear that all the jambos! in the world weren’t going to make a difference with this crowd.
“Let’s try somewhere else,” I said to Misuri. We strolled through the market and came to another good spot. But the same thing happened. After some initial conversation, I was told to take the picture. But as soon as I pulled forth my camera the women raced away and the men turned mean-spirited and sullen.
And then it happened a third time.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “Don’t they understand we’ll pay them for the picture? We’re not asking for it for free.”
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” said Misuri. “Let’s try this booth over there.”
“Wait a minute. You are telling them about the money aren’t you?”
“Well, here’s an idea. At the next place I’d like you to pay them first, before I take the picture.”
“No, that’s not necessary. Everyone knows me around here. I explain what we’re doing, and explain that I’ll come back later and pay them.”
I look at him for a moment, and he looks back, waiting.
“Misuri, do you think I’m stupid? I mean, do you think I’m really, really stupid?”
“No, no. You trust me. I come back later and pay them.”
“Misuri, I trust you completely. You’re my friend. Of course I trust you. But do you think I’m really, really stupid? I mean, that’s almost insulting, that you could think I’m that stupid. Now let’s try another one, and this time pay them first.”
We found a fourth vendor, with plenty of lingerie. Misuri chatted with him a moment, and then turned to me.
“OK, you take picture.”
“You didn’t pay him anything!”
“It’s OK. I pay him later.”
“Pay him now!”
Misuri hands over a few coins, along with some words of explanation.
Suddenly the whole market erupts. A tourist is paying people to take their picture! It’s a gold mine! Everyone wants in on this action. Now everyone wants to be my model, is desperate to be my model.
“Hey, over here, over here!” someone cries out from a distant table, waving.
“Take picture! Good picture, right here!”
People are waving and whistling and trying to get my attention. I take some good shots. But these aren’t what I’m after. A couple of black guys behind a table piled high with lingerie is OK, but it’s not the shot I want. It’s the women, with their alluring chadaris, standing next to the lingerie, that are my theme.
“I want to photograph the women,” I explain to Misuri. “It’s the women with their chadaris that I want to photograph.”
So Misuri tries a few women, but they turn away in horror at the suggestion.
“Did you offer to pay them?”
“Yes. I explained that we’re paying 100 shillings for a picture. (About 25 cents—a lot of money here in Zanzibar.)
The men are thrilled with the wage we’re paying. But the women simply don’t want to be photographed.
“What’s the deal?” I ask. “Is it against their religion? Do they think the camera steals their soul or something?”
“No, nothing like that. They’re just very modest. Very shy.”
This was ridiculous. In Bangkok, for the equivalent of $10 you can buy three beautiful women for the whole night. If I had to, I’d pay a dollar here in Zanzibar, just to snap a picture. Hell, for a really good set shot, for that one photograph that I could later hang in my office, I’d probably pay $10 as a modeling fee. Ten dollars was probably the per capita income for a month in Zanzibar. And I’d take less than a minute of their time, and wouldn’t even touch them. But nooooo. These women were too good for that. They were too modest. I tell you, they’d starve in Bangkok. They’d starve in Nairobi. What a bunch of teases. They wear these beautiful chadaris, and then, when the male of the species does the expected thing, his hormones kick in, and he goes into a photographic frenzy, they’re suddenly so aloof. I wanted to send the lot of them to Morocco where they’d have to wear black chadaris—real chadaris—not these lingerie-inspired come-ons. And they’d have to cover up their entire faces. Then I’d really save money. I wouldn’t even need color film. I could shoot them in black and white! Ha ha!
Finally I figured it out. The trick was to not ask permission. I would set the camera on wide angle, hide in the shadows, and then wait for some chadari-draped woman to walk past. I’d hold the camera at hip level and aim in the general direction. Click! I didn’t care about composition. As long as it was in focus, I could zoom it and crop it later. National Geographic was going to pay for these pictures. They were going to pay big time. I went through a roll and a half of film using this trick, but I wasn’t certain what I was getting. Probably more butt shots, just like with the Amish.
Eventually I tired of the game, paid Misuri his 5000 shillings, and left the women and their lingerie in peace.
As I navigated my way back to the hotel, through the twisting alleyways of Stone Town, I came across something I had not hitherto seen on the island: a tourist shop. “Memories of Zanzibar” said the sign, and—past the opulent carved-wood/metal-spiked doorway—I could see rows of t-shirts, postcards, carved giraffes, and the like. Needing a T-shirt, possibly needing postcards, probably not needing a carved giraffe, I stepped inside. It was quite a large room, with several female sales clerks standing around waiting to be helpful. One of them was wearing a chadari, but I’d had it with women and chadaris and I deliberately ignored her.
I found the T-shirt I wanted and chose several postcards. The shop’s proprietress, an elegant Indian woman, rang them up for me.
“Are you here on holiday?” she asked me.
“Actually I’m in Africa on business. But I’m just visiting Zanzibar for the weekend.”
“Oh really? What kind of business are you in.”
“Well, my company provides Internet services for jewelers. You know, like websites.”
“We’re a jewelry store!”
“You are? Where’s your jewelry?”
“Over there, in that counter.” She pointed out a corner of the store opposite the t-shirts. Sure enough. It was filled with jewelry of a sort: brass trinkets, hand carved things, cameos, and the like.
“You know, my son’s upset because we can’t get good Internet service here in Zanzibar.”
Oh, like, duh.
I was tempted to say: “What! You mean you’d don’t have a 56 k dedicated line, right here in this little side alleyway in Stone Town? And you call this a country?”
But I politely refrained.
“Sons are alike everywhere, when it comes to the Internet,” I suggested, placatingly.
Actually that’s true. No matter what your Internet situation, if you have a son, they’ll be upset because the bandwidth isn’t sufficient. In New York the kid might say: “Dad, we gotta blow Manhattan. I’m trying to uplink for a decent FTP connection and the T1’s just dragging today. Can’t we move nearer to one of the backbones?”
And in Zanzibar it’s: “Mom, will you please ask our neighbor to get off the phone so I can use the party line to connect over to the mainland and maybe try to get my 300 baud phone coupler to download the Yahoo home page in less than 3 hours…”
“Actually, we build websites for free,” I continued. “Would you like me to build a website for you for free?”
“Oh, we’d love a website! Can you really do that?”
“Sure, we make our money by placing your supplier’s merchandise into your website. We make our money from suppliers. I can build you a website for free. But I need to take some pictures…”
“Please do! What pictures would you like to take? Oh…how about the sales girls, standing behind the jewelry counter!”
The proprietress started gathering everyone together behind the counter.
“Oh, let’s get Eleah,” one of them suggested. “She has the pretty chadari on…”
Eleah shuffled over quickly, all smiles.
“Should I take this off?” she asked innocently, not sure if a chadari is appropriate for the Home Page of a website.
“No, no! We want it in the picture. It looks great,” I said. The other girls nodded their agreement.
Eleah moved swiftly behind the jewelry counter, tilted her head at just the right angle, and smiled sweetly.
Next they insisted I pose with them, and the proprietress herself took the picture.
The girls were laughing and having fun and thrilled to have their picture taken.
Now why couldn’t some of this enthusiasm spread to the lingerie market? Maybe I shouldn’t have paid them money. I should have offered to build them free websites. Maybe a chance to star in their own website, to showcase their lingerie on-line, would have removed all their inhibitions.
I fantasized for a moment, visualizing myself in a rematch with the chadari-draped women in the market—but this time with all of them in a very willing mood.
“OK, that’s good. That’s the look I want. Now, give me pouty. Oooo, yes. I like it. I like it. Now, tilt your head, and let the edge of the chadari drape across your face. I want to see just your eyes. Yes, perfect. Now, let’s do sultry. You’re in Zanzibar. You’ve just been sold into the sultan’s harem, but you’re determined to get ahead. Work with me here… Yes, yes. Perfect. Good. Good. Now, reach out with the other hand, take the peach-colored bra off that table, hold it up and…
“What! What’s that you say? You want your own domain name? You want FTP access? OK, OK, whatever. Now, here’s what I want you to do with the bra… What? You want more? OK. I got a pencil. Let’s hear it. Ten linked pages? No problem. Some Java scripting. OK. A little CGI work. Animated giffs. Fast download time. Right, right. You got it. Now, where were we? Yes, take the bra, and…”
Eventually I left “Memories of Zanzibar” with a T-shirt, postcards, and some pretty good memories, along with a business card containing their logo. This was going to be a great website. Maybe I could even come back next year and try to sell them a domain name registration…
Back at the hotel I took another shower to cool off—my third for the day—and dressed for the evening. My instinct was to wear shorts, and a lightweight, tropical shirt. But I knew that that could be dangerous in malaria country. Best not to make it so easy for the mosquitoes. I chose a lightweight, long-sleeve shirt, and a pair of jeans.
The Africa House hotel is one of the lesser hotels in Stone Town, which is to say one of the lesser hotels in the world. Only a few blocks from the Serena, it makes no pretense of opulence. It’s stone walls—inside and out—are the same dirty white as can be seen everywhere in this section of the city. Inside it is dark and primitive and undecorated. The stone is unrelieved, and reminds one of the starkness and dankness of a medieval castle. It is very third-world. Very African. A rusty sign just inside the door points upwards to “BAR”. One eyes the ascending staircase with trepidation, finding it a likely spot for a murder.
But I climbed it nonetheless—two stories up—and found myself in a large stone hallway of high ceilings, barren of furnishings. There was light at the end, and I moved towards it uncertainly.
Here, at last, was the terrace. It was a large stone deck—no doubt the roof of some structure just below us. An iron railing had been placed along the outside. A dozen tables were set about, each with a full complement of chairs. In the back corner was a bar made of weathered tile and faded teak trim. A large black man stood behind it, polishing beer mugs insincerely, as if he didn’t understand the point of the exercise. This was a workingman’s bar, not a yuppie hangout.
But the view was spectacular. Two stories up, the Africa House bar is perched atop a small hillside and commands a broad view of the Indian ocean west of Zanzibar. Dhows were sailing elegantly past, some close in, others far out towards the horizon. The sun was just setting, and the sky was clear.
It was truly a beautiful scene.
And there, occupying the best table right at the railing, were Erik and Liz.
“Hi Jacques!” called out Liz. “We saved you a great seat!”
We began with Castle Beer, kind of the Budweiser of East Africa. But after a couple rounds we tried something called Tusker. The label was kind of cute: a graphic of an elephant, with tusks, on the front. “Made in Kenya,” it said on the bottle.
“Jeez, this beer is excellent,” commented Liz. “To hell with Castle. This is our beer, from now on.”
A young woman arrived, who seemed to know Eric and Liz. She joined us and introductions were made. Her name was Jackie. Late-twenties, I guessed. Long brown hair. Deeply tanned. Cute. Outdoorsy-looking. She was one of the women traveling on the six-week, overland, truck-safari, but now she was fashionably dressed in a pantsuit, some gold jewelry, and just a touch of lipstick—ready for a Saturday night in Zanzibar. Like Eric and Liz, she was also a native of Australia and had also been living in London on a work permit. Not being a certified diver she’d chosen to spend the day swimming with dolphins down on the south coast.
“How was it?” I asked. “I mean, how close did you get to the dolphins?”
“Well, close but not real close. It was fun though. There were lots of dolphins.”
“Notice how this bar is filling up fast,” observed Erik. “You see, this is the place to be in Zanzibar right now. When the sun’s going down, everyone comes here. Do you know how everyone knows to come here?”
“How?” asked Jackie.
“Lonely Planet. The Lonely Planet guide to Zanzibar says this is what you do at sunset. You go have a beer on the terrace of the Africa House Hotel. Then you go have dinner. So everyone’s going to go have dinner someplace else, but they come here first to have a beer. So everyone in Zanzibar is doing what we’re doing—because Lonely Planet says it’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Sure enough, all the tourists that had been missing from everywhere else were now converging at the bar at the Africa House hotel. It was standing room only, to see the sun go down. Certainly these were Lonely Planet-type tourists. Backpacker-type tourists. The kind of tourists who take six-week, truck-safaris across Africa. A young crowd. And everyone was drinking Tusker Beer.
“I’m curious about those overland truck safaris,” I said. “I mean, you’re stuck together with, what, maybe 20 or 25 people, for weeks. The group dynamics must be kind of tricky. I mean, what if you don’t like each other? You don’t really know ahead of time.”
“That’s true,” agreed Liz. “But on this trip, I think it was the third day out from Nairobi, the trucks stopped at this beautiful little river, it was really hot, and everyone spontaneously decided to go skinny dipping. Boy did that break the ice! It’s like you’re suddenly a much closer group when no one has anything left to hide.”
“Yeah!” added Jackie. “But I’d gotten out of the water and was walking back to the truck to get my clothes on when all of a sudden I saw these guys walking down the road. You know, native guys. They saw me, and they just stared. I was really embarrassed. I tried to cover myself up, and I started shouting ‘Don’t look! Don’t look!’ But they just stood there, totally amazed.”
(Yeah, I bet they did. Like they’re thinking: where’s her chadari?)
Emerging from the shadows, two more women appeared at our table: Tammy and Roz. Liz introduced them to Jackie.
“What are we drinking?” asked Tammy. “Oh, Tusker Beer. Is it good?”
“Well, it’s made in Kenya, and it’s got a cute logo of an elephant on the label,” I explained.
“Yeah, what more do you need,” agreed Erik.
So they ordered a round and we kept talking, and the sun sank further into the ocean.
I began recounting my experience in the lingerie market earlier in the day.
“I can’t believe that they have such scruples,” I said, remembering the frustration. “I can’t believe they wouldn’t pose for a picture, even if they’re getting paid!”
“Oh, they’ll pose,” said Roz, who had grown up in Africa. “You just weren’t paying enough. At some price level their scruples will vanish. You hit the threshold for the men. Suddenly they were desperate to have you take their picture. How much was your guide paying them?”
“50 Tanzanian shillings.” (About 10 cents).
“That must have been too little. Probably if you’d doubled the amount the women would have been all over you. Your guide should have known how much would be necessary, but it sounds like he was trying to keep as much money for himself as possible. At a thousand shillings they would have gone crazy.”
“You just have to learn how to take the piss out of them,” noted Liz.
“You know, you have to get the piss out of them. Erik’s really good at it.”
“Uh, I’m not sure I’m familiar with that expression. What’s it mean?”
“Oh, you know, make them laugh. The men or the women. Sometimes natives can be real cold to tourists, but if you can make them laugh, do something funny, they’ll warm up real quickly. Like in the markets if someone starts hassling Erik, like asking for money—begging—Erik will just turn it around and start asking them for money. Pretty soon they’ll start laughing, and then everyone will be real friendly. That’s called “getting the piss out of them. Don’t you have that expression?”
“No, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before. I’ll have to try it sometime.”
It was interesting hearing the different accents: the Australians: Erik, Liz and Jackie, and the two British girls: Tammy and Roz. The contrast was striking. I wondered how an American must sound to them.
As we continued the conversation I thought I detected a little animosity—very subtle—from Jackie towards Tammy and Roz, which was odd as they’d just met. I found out why, later.
The sun set at last, casting its final rays across the water, highlighting the dhows one final time before plunging them all into shadow. A slight round of applause erupted from the audience, and night had come to Zanzibar.
Finally Tammy and Roz had to leave—they were meeting some other friends for dinner. We said goodbye, and now it was just the four of us.
Erik took out his DEET mosquito repellent, and began coating himself thoroughly. Liz did the same. Then Jackie borrowed it.
“Should I have some of that on?” I asked
“Absolutely!” said Liz.
“Do you know the two most malaria-infested places in the world?” asked Erik.
“Zanzibar and Malawi.”
“And after Zanzibar, we’re going to Malawi,” added Jackie .
“You have to take it very seriously,” said Erik.
“I’m on anti-malaria medication,” I explained. “Started taking it a week ago.”
“That’s good,” said Liz, “but it’s not 100% guaranteed. You can still get malaria if you’re not careful. You don’t want to get bitten.”
I applied the DEET liberally, suddenly quite concerned about being outdoors at night in one of the two most malaria-infested places in the world.
“Ready for dinner?” asked Erik, and we were. I was quite curious to find out what kind of place this restaurant called “The Market” would be. Erik and Liz had been singing its praises all day. And now they were going back for the second evening in a row. It had to be good.
Yet Danielle, back in South Africa, had made me promise I’d have dinner at a restaurant called “The Blue.”
“It’s the best seafood in Zanzibar!” she’d insisted. “It’s expensive, but worth it!” Certainly Danielle would settle for nothing less than the best. But “The Market” must be just as good, I reasoned.
Erik, Liz, Jackie and I walked together through the twisted streets of Stone Town, and I was enjoying not having to navigate. Erik knew where he was going. We came, at last, back to the water, and walked along the embankment for awhile. I judged we were somewhat north of the Serena Hotel. It was very dark, but dhows could be seen anchored just offshore. A building was on our left. It was a modern looking structure, set on pilings which enabled it to overhang the water. As we approached its well-lit entrance, I could just make out the name: The Blue. So, this was the restaurant I’d promised Danielle I would visit.
Yet this was as close as I’d get.
“That’s a really fancy restaurant,” noted Liz as we walked past. “The Blue. But where we’re going is better.”
Here was something interesting indeed. Just past The Blue, and set along the embankment, were dozens—perhaps hundreds—of flickering lights. These were not electric lights. They were oil lamps. Small flames could be seen burning vibrantly in the nearest ones. As we came closer, human forms became visible. I realized there were scores of people here, mingling about. Set amidst the oil lamps were tables. And on these tables were other sources of light—duller but visible. Then I realized what they must be: small charcoal braziers. This was the place I’d seen from the car last night, just as we’d entered stone town: flickering lights by the water, and mysterious forms wandering among them.
The breeze adjusted itself slightly and a tantalizing scent enveloped me. It was the smell of fresh seafood roasting over open fires. It seemed possible that perhaps I’d never been so hungry as I was at that moment. What had I had to eat all day? Fruit. What had I had to drink all day? Coconuts. (And Tusker beer.) I was famished for real food. And here—in this strange place—I had found it. People were cooking seafood by the sea, over open fires. Oil lamps and charcoal grills provided the lighting. The things being roasted were obviously right off the boats—right off those dhows moored offshore. Waves lapped gently against the stone embankment.
As we drew closer the human forms defined themselves. There were women here, in chadari. And men, in robes—some of them—or at least in fez caps. There were no tourists. Zanzibarans were energetically shuffling about, bargaining, buying things, selling things, eating things. Apparently this was the spot to be in Zanzibar on Saturday night. Obviously it was some kind of outdoor seafood market, where they cook the food as you buy it. This was—wait a minute…
“Isn’t this cool?” asked Liz. “This is the market…”
What? This was the fancy restaurant we’d been heading for? This was ‘The Market?’ It had never occurred to me that ‘The Market’ meant: the market. This was nothing more than an open-air seafood bazaar—by the ocean.
“I am so hungry,” said Jackie. “I think I’m hungrier than I’ve ever been in my life.”
It was impossible not to feel that way. Zanzibar is also “the spice island,” and not only do they grow spices here, they know how to use them. The seafood roasting over the open fires was scented with basil, and tarragon, and coriander—fish and spices mingling together in an inexpressible aroma.
From our conversations, I knew that Jackie was worried about her money. She’d saved enough from working in London to afford this trip—barely—but she was watching every penny. Meanwhile I’d spent a week in South Africa, where Deonne had paid for everything.
I drew her aside. “Jackie, I’m going to buy you dinner tonight. I want you to have whatever you want. Enjoy yourself. This will be more fun if I know you don’t have to worry about the expense. OK? Is that a deal?”
She hesitated a moment, looked into my eyes to search for hidden intent—saw none—and smiled. “OK,” she said, gratefully. “Thank you. I’ll accept. It’s very kind of you.”
We became separated from Liz and Erik almost immediately, in the crush of people. It was difficult to choose which stand to patronize, but perhaps it did not matter greatly as they all had similar merchandise. One thing that made it tricky was knowing what the merchandise was. Some items were recognizable, such as octopus and squid. But there were also many species of fish and meats of mysterious identity. And even the vegetables presented a challenge. I recognized cabbage. But the other vegetables seemed to be unrelated to anything in the Western hemisphere.
Much of the food was already prepared in that it had been cut into small, bite-size pieces and impaled on tiny wooden skewers. These were generally set on the edges of the charcoal braziers, where the smoke and heat of the charcoal would slowly tenderize them. To buy an item, you merely pointed at it. The vendor would then take the little stick of unrecognizable flesh and move it to the center of the brazier, where he would cook it thoroughly in less than a minute. When ready he would place it on a paper-plate, and then scoop up vast quantities of vegetables (roasting nearby) and place them on the plate as well, along with an ample portion of steamed rice.
Before we’d lost her in the crowd, Liz had urged us to find someone selling lobster. We toured many of the stands, looking for lobster and getting hungrier by the minute, but without success.
“I can’t wait any longer,” I finally said.
“Me neither,” agreed Jackie. “Let’s try this one here.”
We’d come across a stand specializing in squid and octopus. I pointed to several items, and soon was holding a plate piled high with morsels of cooked cephalopod, as well as vegetables of unknown persuasion. Jackie was holding a similar plate.
“250,” said the vendor, meaning 250 Tanzanian shillings. I handed him the money. Jackie’s dinner and mine came to a total of about 75 cents.
“Jeez, I try to buy you a nice dinner and it only comes to seventy five cents! You’re probably thinking: ‘Wow, the last of the big spenders…’”
“Well, at least I won’t have to wonder what you’re expecting in return,” said Jackie, teasing. “I mean, seventy five cents?”
“Hey, don’t blame me because the exchange rate is 10 gazillion Tanzanian shillings to the dollar! How’s a guy supposed to impress his date, in Zanzibar, with that kind of exchange rate?”
“Find lobster,” suggested Jackie. “That will impress me.”
“You know, I did find one lobster. He was in a hole back on the reef. We tried to get him out. He wouldn’t come!”
“Well go back and get him!” said Jackie. “I’ll wait for you. I promise!”
Lobster eluded us, but we did find Erik and Liz, sitting at one of the tables set between the ocean and the market itself. Several chadari-draped women, and robed men, were there as well. We took the vacant seats by Erik and Liz.
It was some time before any words were spoken. All of us were so hungry we had no interest in polite conversation. This was perhaps the best seafood I’d ever eaten. I’m accustomed to octopus being hard and rubbery and difficult to eat. Yet this octopus was as tender as veal, and tasted like shellfish. And I didn’t care if I didn’t know what the vegetables were. They were delicious.
“You don’t have to wonder if this is fresh,” said Erik, between mouthfuls
“These things we’re eating were swimming around, just a few hours ago,” says Liz.
“ Hey!” I exclaim, pretending to look closely at the tentacle on my fork, “I saw this guy this afternoon! I recognize the suction cup pattern. I saw him on our second dive!”
“Is the squid any good?” asked Erik. “I haven’t tried it yet.”
“The squid is orgasmic,” replied Liz.
“Is it as good as last night’s lobster?” he queried, with a grin.
Liz laughed. “Last night after the lobster I told Erik I wouldn’t need sex. The lobster had satisfied me in every way possible.”
But Jackie and I weren’t satisfied yet. We returned for more.
It wasn’t all seafood. There was lamb on skewers. And chicken on skewers. And other things on skewers—things we could not identify.
“Only seafood,” said Jackie. “That’s the rule. You can’t fill up on anything that doesn’t swim. Otherwise it’s a waste.”
We followed that rule for the first hour, but eventually my curiosity got the better of me and I tried out the lamb and the chicken and the other things.
“Just think about those poor bastards at the Blue Restaurant,” said Erik. “They’re paying ten times these prices, and the food isn’t half as fresh, or half as good.”
Well, it probably was as fresh, and it probably was as good. But it probably was ten times higher price. On the other hand the people in the restaurant weren’t having to order in Swahili.
“Jambo!” I said to one of the vendors, pointing to something interesting on his grill.
“Jambo!” he replied, handing it over. “Asante!”
I listened to the accents carefully, because Zanzibar was—after all—the birthplace of Swahili. This was where the language originated, and no doubt they spoke it more perfectly here than in Nairobi.
At one table I pulled out my camera and tried to take a picture of the scene. The vendor became unfriendly very quickly.
“No take picture,” he said in English. “One pound. You pay one British pound, to take picture.”
Liz leaned over and whispered in my ear. “Here’s your chance. You’ve got to take the piss out of him.”
“One pound!” I exclaimed loudly, turning back to the vendor. “I only have to pay you one pound? I don’t believe it. This woman here charged me two pounds to take her picture!”
I grabbed Liz roughly by the arm and pulled her in front of me.
“Hey, bitch, you ripped me off!” I yelled at her. “You said that two pounds was standard. You charged me two pounds. This guy’s willing to do it for one pound! I want my money back. You’re a thief, that’s what you are!
“Look at her!” I said to the vendor. “This woman’s a thief. She charged me two pounds to take her picture.”
Everyone in the market was looking at us, but then Liz started laughing and then so did the vendor.
“I’ll have to take your picture for free,” I said to him, apologetically. “She took all my money.”
I took his picture and he smiled.
“That was great, Jacques!” said Liz. “You learn real fast. That’s called taking the piss out of someone.”
But it still seemed an odd expression.
We stayed in the market a long time: wandering among the tables, smelling the spices, guessing at what the food might be, ordering a slice of this, a tentacle of that, tossing it into the ocean if it wasn’t to our liking, asking for more if it was.
At last we were gorged—utterly bloated. We’d bought something from just about every vendor on the waterfront. Jackie had let me squander money on her recklessly, knowing it would help my self-esteem, but our whole feast came to less than $4.00, even so.
She could see I was disappointed.
“Don’t worry, Jacques. Now we’re going to hit the pubs. You can buy me beer!”
We did hit the pubs, but Jackie bought the first round. She was feeling rich, given all the money she’d saved at dinner.
Wandering through Stone Town, we found numerous little places to visit—bars, restaurants, holes-in-the-wall of uncertain purpose. Most of these were somewhat squalid, and were patronized by the natives. We encountered few tourists in Stone Town. But Tusker beer was served everywhere. Finally, late in the evening, we came to a pub called “Pichy’s Bar,” down at the waterfront. It was open to the sea, and a nest of dhows were anchored just past the terrace. A full moon cast a gentle peace over the water, silhouetting the boats, and making the little waves glisten with sparkling light.
“This is the place I’ve been looking for,” said Erik, with satisfaction. “Pichy’s! This is one of the pubs recommended in Lonely Planet.”
It wasn’t crowded, this late at night, and we were able to seize a table by the railing, looking out over the water. A blues band was playing somewhere nearby, or maybe it was recorded music, but it was sufficiently low to permit conversation, while adding some nice atmosphere—as if the atmosphere needed improving.
A sandwich-board wooden sign, four feet high, stood just outside the restroom doors. On it were painted 30 different types of condoms—each with an amusing theme. “Safe Sex For All!” declared the sign. The sign was funny, but also very serious. East Africa is a hotbed not only of malaria, but even more so for AIDS.
With another round of Tuskers on the table, and enjoying the night breeze and the view of the harbor, each of us begin telling our life story.
Erik had grown up in Queenstown, New Zealand, and had been involved in the construction business his whole life.
Liz was a school teacher. They’d both been living in London on a work program that apparently is available to Antipodens before they turn thirty.
“What’s an Antipoden?” I asked. “Sounds like some kind of insect.”
“No, no. Antipoden means Australian or New Zealander,” explained Liz. “It’s a name the British gave to us, because they look at us as similar. They needed one word to describe people from either place.”
“It’s like on those truck safaris,” continued Jackie. “The organizers have learned that Antipodens go well with each other. And the British go well with each other. But it doesn’t work to mix the two.”
“Why would that be?”
“Well, because the British aren’t friendly like we are,” said Liz. “It’s hard to get the piss out of them. They’re always making jokes about Australians and New Zealanders.”
“Hey, I’ve got a great New Zealander joke,” interjected Erik, a New Zealander. “Ready for this?”
We all were.
“New Zealanders have found a new use for sheep,” he began.
We all waited, wondering what this new use might be, afraid to find out…
“Wool!” he exclaimed.
But I was puzzled by the comment about the British not being friendly.
“What do you mean the British aren’t friendly?” I asked Liz. “ They’re extremely friendly in my experience.”
“No,” said Liz. “They’re much more reserved than Antipodens. They may seem friendly on the surface, but they won’t really become your friend all that easily. It takes a while. They have their guard up all the time.”
Jackie was an office worker and she, also, had been living and working in London. She’d been working as a secretary/typist.
“That’s the job I’ve always known I could get, if I ever had to find work,” I said. “The only real marketable skill I have is typing. I can type 94 words a minute.”
I enjoy telling people that. It always impresses them. I figured it would certainly impress Jackie.
“94 is pretty fast,” she agreed. “I type 128.”
“What? No one types 128. That’s impossible.”
“Not quite impossible. I’ve been timed at 128. I type faster than anyone I know. I’ve never met anyone who can type like I can. But 94 is pretty good. That’s much faster than most secretaries.”
“You can really type 128 words a minute? Doesn’t the keyboard lock up at that speed or melt or something?”
“Some do lockup. Sometimes I have to slow down so the keyboard can keep up with me.”
“Wow, let me know if you ever need a job in the states.”
“OK, I will. I’ve had it with the British.”
“Then you agree with Liz, that they’re not friendly?”
“I don’t know what you guys are talking about,” I protested. “I’ve never met unfriendly British people. What about Roz and Tammy?”
“Didn’t they seem different to you, compared to us?”
“Not really. At least I don’t think so.”
“Well, you’re an American. I think they treat Americans differently. But they’re very cold to Antipodens. Notice that they left to go off and have dinner by themselves.”
“They said they were meeting friends.”
“They weren’t meeting friends. They made that up. They just didn’t want to hang out with Antipodens. They just didn’t want to be friendly. If it had just been you, they might have stayed. You’re an American. ”
“Look, I’ll give you an example,” said Jackie. “I’d been working in London, for this company, for maybe four months. I was trying to meet people, trying to be friendly. But it’s real hard in London. London’s a very cold place.
“I remember this one Friday night one of the other girls asked what I was going to do over the weekend.
“I said, oh, nothing much. Just hanging out at the flat. Maybe do some laundry. Maybe some shopping. I made it pretty clear I didn’t have any great plans. I asked what she was doing. I knew she was friendly with several of the other girls in the office. She said ‘Oh, we’re going to Covent Garden tonight. Going to do the pubs. Then tomorrow we’re having a party at my house.”
“And she invited you to join them?” I asked.
“No, she didn’t invite me! That’s my point. I kept hoping she would. She never did. Not just that night, but ever. They went out partying every Friday night. Never invited me. That was just so cruel. I couldn’t do that to someone. I was so hurt.”
She still was, obviously, for she continued talking about it.
“What do you think it’s like, working in an office, knowing everyone else is going out together partying every Friday night, going out partying every week, and no one bothers to invite you? Can you imagine what that’s like?”
“Well,” I said, cautiously, “I think probably everyone’s experienced something like that…”
Jackie was not to be placated. “It’s like no one cares what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling. That’s the British for you. In Australia it wouldn’t be like that. They would just have to invite a co-worker in a situation like that. They would just have to include you.”
“She’s right,” said Liz. “Australians wouldn’t be so unfriendly. They’d go over board to try to get you to come along. The British are into cliques. They’ve got their circle of friends, and you’re either in or you’re out. And if you’re out, they don’t care about your feelings. You don’t exist.”
“You know what it is?” said Jackie, “They’re basically just jealous. They sent all those criminals to Australia, thinking they were doing such a bad thing to them. And now they’re finding out how great the weather is in Australia, and how London sucks so bad in the winter, and they’re wishing they were in Australia, and not in London, and that’s why they’re so mean!”
Note: Precisely two days later I’m sitting at a pub in London with Terri Gray, a young English socialite and office worker for an international jewelry association. In Italy—where we’d met—Terri had regaled me with stories of attending parties at country manors owned by arrogant young knights and barons—most of whom she despised. But she was obviously well connected in society, and very much a party girl.
I tell her Jackie’s story, wanting her opinion.
“So what do you think, Terri, is she right? Is that how someone from Australia, someone from out of town, would be treated?
“Oh, that’s just dreadful. That does sound cruel,” she says, in her very refined, very upper-crust English accent. “But she must not have been working there long,” she speculates. “I mean, maybe if she were quite new…”
“She’d been there over four months,” I explain.
“Oh, well, there you are then. Four months. They’d hardly know her. She’d have had to have been there at least a year. Maybe two. Then things would be quite different. But after only a few months? Good heavens…”
“They really are different, the British,” continued Liz. “These truck tours, for example. They have to divide them up, like Jackie was saying. The Antipodans go well together. They’re friendly and fun loving and they have a great time. And then the Brits go together. They’re reserved and cautious and not nearly as friendly. It sounds like a real drag to me. But if they’re all like that then I suppose it’s OK. Anyway, that’s why they have to divide us up. They put the friendly people together. And they put the British together. Works great.”
“You know, I was looking over some of those brochures for those truck safaris,” I noted. “Maybe they do a good job dividing out the friendly people, but they’re quite age conscious. I mean, they have these age limits, like 18 to 29, or 21 to 32, or whatever. Just reading all those things made me feel really old. Like I’m over the hill. Like I’m too old to have fun. I guess I wouldn’t be allowed on one of those trips. That kind of hurt my feelings! Like, excuse me for not being in my early twenties.”
“Oh don’t be ridiculous!” said Jackie. “They just have those age things so that basically people know what to expect. You’d fit in perfectly. Look at you. You come to Zanzibar for the weekend. You go scuba diving! You hang out with fun people like us! That’s what they’re looking for, fun people just like you! They don’t care what your actual age is. They just don’t want some old retired couple that expects to stay in a 5 star hotel every night and be waited on hand and foot. It’s not that kind of situation.”
“On one trip I was on,” said Liz, “there was a 67 year old guy. No problem. He was young at heart. That’s what they’re after. Young, or young at heart.”
“There’s an extra seat,” said Jackie. “Want to join us?”
“Yeah,” said Liz. “Seriously. You ought to come along. There’s only four weeks left on the safari. I’m sure they’d let you join up. When do you need to get back to the states?”
“Don’t go back to the states!” Jackie pleaded. “Stay with us. You’ll have a great time!”
She was so serious that, to my surprise, I actually found myself toying with the idea. Perhaps it was a testament to how many beers we’d consumed. Would the office really miss me if I didn’t come home for four more weeks? Would anyone notice? On some deep, midlife-crisis level I found myself wanting to join the Trans-Africa truck safari to Victoria Falls, and stay with these fun-loving people who were so willing to include me in their group.
Certainly I had the vacation time saved up.
On the other hand my wife, at least, would probably notice my absence. She would miss me. It was probably not the right thing to do.
And then something happened which made me less interested in spending four weeks camping in East Africa.
Erik swatted his arm and said: “Damn!”
“I killed the little bugger before he got me, but he’s already bitten someone. He was full of blood Had a real bellyful. Damn. Hope it wasn’t me!”
At that moment I began noticing that my wrist was itching. It was a mosquito bite. Growing up in Iowa, I knew what a mosquito bite felt like. I had definitely been bitten.
“You know one reason malaria’s so serious,” continued Erik, “is because once you get it, it’s really always with you.”
“Isn’t it treatable?” I asked.
“Yeah, you can take medication to treat it. But it will come back, and you’ll have to treat it again. And again. Once you have malaria in your blood, it’s with you forever. You’re going to London, after you leave here?”
“Yeah, I’ll be in London day after tomorrow.”
“You ought to go in and get a blood test. That’s how it’s detected. Tell them you’ve been in Zanzibar, and you want to get a blood test for malaria. It just takes a few minutes. If you caught malaria, you’ll want to start taking the medication right away. If you’re clean, then you won’t have to worry about it.”
“That’s what we’re doing,” agreed Liz. “When we leave Malawi, we’re stopping at the border and we’re all going to be checked for malaria. It’s required.”
We stayed at Pichy’s Bar for what must have been hours, but finally they closed and we said good-bye, promising to keep in touch by e-mail.
“Backpackers all use e-mail now,” explained Erik. “No one uses poste restante addresses any more. It’s great. You can stay in touch with people all over the world.”
Back at the Serena Hotel my bed had been completely transformed. A maid had come in, in my absence, and opened up the mosquito netting so that it billowed out and downwards from the overhanging canopy, and draped the entire double bed in an elegant cocoon—a tent, essentially . The canopy was functional, not decorative, but it was very beautiful nonetheless. It was fun to slip underneath it, lie back, and gaze up at its many folds and lacy patterns. It was like camping indoors.
I went to sleep that night worrying about malaria. Everyone seemed to go to great lengths not to be bitten by a mosquito: long pants, the warning about not opening the windows in the evening, insect repellent, and even mosquito netting on the beds in the hotel. Yet we’d spent all evening mostly out of doors, and I had definitely been bitten. I resolved to have that blood test in London.
My wristwatch alarm clock woke me early, again. I’d had very little sleep either of the last two nights, but I had so few hours in Zanzibar I was determined not to squander them by sleeping. After breakfast (more fruit) I went right to the concierge.
“I need to take a spice tour,” I explained. “I don’t even know what a spice tour is, and I only have a few hours before my plane leaves, but I have to take a spice tour.”
“Would you like me to arrange a car and driver for you then?” asked the chadari-draped woman behind the desk.
“Well, is that the right thing to do? Are there regularly-scheduled spice tours that I could just join? Is it expensive to hire a private driver?”
“For half a day it will cost about twenty U.S. dollars. But you don’t have a choice if you only want to do a half day tour. Most of the tours are a full day.”
Liz, Erik, and Jackie were doing one of the full day tours today.
She made a phone call and a car and driver was arranged for me for 9:00. I had half an hour to pack and get organized. Yet I’d been back in the room only a few minutes when the concierge called again.
“There’s another small group that’s doing a spice tour. They’re leaving at 8:45. You can go with them. It will only be half the price.” I accepted on the spot.
The small group turned out to be a British couple. The man was perhaps my age. The woman seemed younger—late thirties perhaps, short dark hair, pretty face, red lipstick. They were not dressed like backpackers. He was in khaki slacks and a polo shirt. She was in a long skirt and sandals.
A VW van pulled up—similar to the one in Nairobi. But in this case the guide and the driver were different people. The guide took the front passenger seat. The British couple took the middle, and I took the rear.
As we drove through the outskirts of Zanzibar city, the guide—who introduced himself as “Hasef”—began explaining things to us.
“Before Zanzibar was an independent country, it was a sultanate. The first sultan was Oman Ak Bara, who moved his headquarters here from Muscat in the Arabian gulf. This was a trading center for slaves…”
I knew most of this already, of course. Finally we left the city behind and were driving through forests, mostly of tall palm trees. About ten minutes outside the city we turned on to a side road and came at last to a clearing. Some ruined stone buildings were visible through the trees. At our guide’s direction, we alighted and began walking towards them. A large sign was affixed to a metal frame, and explained what we were seeing:
Palace Ruins Maruhubi
Maruhubi is the name of the former sultan whom the palace was built for in 1860 by Garbhash the third of Oman, Arab ruler of Zanzibar, for the use of the women of his harem.
In 1899 the palace was accidentally burnt down. The bath complex in Turkish style is preserved. The numerous revisions suggest the number of the resident secondary wives. Note the massive columns which supported a large balcony on the upper floor, remains of the overhead aqueducts for supplying water to the baths, the ground water channels, and the circular pleasure ponds and the extensive garden wall enclosure of the palace.
There wasn’t much left, actually. But we were able to tour the inside of the palace. The stone had been largely stripped of its decorative tile, but a few pieces could still be seen. There were small rooms, each with its own bath and toilet facilities. There was a dancing hall, and overlooking it was another large bath, and right beside it, a small bath. These were mere stone cavities in the floor, but once they had been beautifully tiled and no doubt the furnishings had been luxurious.
“The large bath was for the sultan,” explained Hasef. “The small bath was for the concubine. You see, the most beautiful women were chosen to be in the harem. Either they were slaves purchased by the sultan, or they were women given to him in tribute by tribal leaders in East Africa. Only the most beautiful women were able to be in the harem. It was very prestigious, to be part of the harem.”
“Yeah, but what’s with the separate baths?” I asked. “Wouldn’t the sultan want the concubine to be in his bath, with him? I mean, that would seem to defeat the whole purpose, to have his and her baths…”
“Yes, I was wondering that myself,” said the British lady.
“I don’t know,” admitted Hasef. “Maybe she had to be bathed and cleaned, before she joined him in his bath.”
I tried to visualize it all. The place had burned down in 1899—less than a hundred years ago. All this was going on less than a hundred years ago: beautiful women paid in tribute to the sultan, a “pleasure palace” carved out of the jungle, concubines, a Jacuzzi-style bath overlooking the dance hall… My grandmother had been born in 1897—this had happened within her lifetime. Yet it seemed so unbelievable—so medieval. It was something out of Sheherazade and the Arabian Nights. Yet it wasn’t that long ago at all.
A few hundred yards from the palace was the sea, and here a small boat-building industry had grown up. Several dhows were being built, and—as a former boat-builder myself—I took an immediate and acute professional interest in what they were doing. The fundamentals of boat-building were visible enough: frames and stringers and planking. More interesting was the fact that the planks themselves were being carved literally out of the logs. Workers were sawing the trees into planks, as I watched. But it wasn’t teak.
“What wood is that?” I asked Hasef.
He didn’t know, and so repeated my question to one of the workers.
“Mahogany,” he reported back. “The boats are built here because this is a mahogany forest. The boats are built wherever the trees are found. That makes it easier.”
There were no power tools in use anywhere. Everything was being done by hand. In the background were the ruins of the sultan’s harem palace. Here were sailing ships being built by hand, with primitive tools. I felt I was in the midst of a time capsule and the world of jet airplanes, lasers, and CD players was something out of a Buck Rogers future. Life had changed very little in Zanzibar.
We climbed back in the car and continued down the road. I felt it appropriate to get to know the British couple, at least on some minimal level.
“So, how long are you here for?” I asked, starting the conversation.
“Not long, said the woman. The man said nothing.
“And where are you from, if I can ask?”
“London,” said the man. The woman said nothing.
“Well, I’m really glad I was able to get this spice tour in,” I explained. “I have to leave today. But I don’t really know what a spice tour is. Do you?”
Certainly that would get the conversation going. Either they knew what a spice tour was, and they’d have fun explaining it to me, or they were clueless as well, and we’d have fun speculating about it.
“Can’t really say we do,” said the woman. The man said nothing. “And where are you going from here? Back to the states?” Apparently she’d recognized my American accent, and felt obliged to show at least a minimal level of interest.
“London, actually. I have to go to London on business.”
“Hmmm,” said the woman. The man said nothing.
“And you’re here on holiday?” I asked.
“Yes,” said the man. The woman said nothing.
Damn. This was exhausting. They weren’t unfriendly. They were just so—reserved. In fact, wasn’t that the very word Liz had used last night? Maybe I’d finally encountered the kind of British that Jackie and Liz were talking about. Certainly these two weren’t going to invite me out for a beer on Friday night.
The car was driving through dense tropical jungle now. Palm trees and many other kinds of trees were flourishing over our heads and on either side of the road. Conversation with the British couple lapsed—not that it had ever been very heated—and we continued in silence. It was a cloudy day, and a rain shower pounded us for a few miles. Then the sun came out again.
Zanzibar island is moderately hilly—not mountainous—but hilly. The car pulled off to the side of the road, in the middle of the jungle, and we climbed out.
British couple and I now followed Hasef and the driver into the trees. The driver had a machete, and he slashed a path for us, although we appeared to be following a track of sorts. Others had come here before us—no doubt others on a spice tour. At last the jungle opened into a kind of clearing, if it could be called such. Tropical jungle abhors a clearing no less than nature abhors a vacuum, and the different plants and trees surrounding us were already in stiff competition to see which of them could fill this clearing first. Yet upon closer inspection it appeared that the hand of man was engaged as well. Long dirt mounds could be detected—almost like rows in a garden. Small, weed-like things were growing out of them, and the spacing along the mounds did imply some kind of civilized cultivation was being attempted, despite the chaos of vegetative promiscuity all about us.
Hasef pulled out a pocket knife and began digging into the base of the plant in one of the mounds. Soon he emerged with a piece of small, greenish root. Holding this up for our inspection, he slit it with his knife in several places, and then crushed it with his fingers, mashing the ravaged root even further. He held the mess up for the British lady’s inspection. She sniffed it delicately.
“Ooh!” she exclaimed, a look of pleasure and puzzlement registering briefly on her face. She knew the scent, but was having difficulty remembering what it was. Scents can be like that.
I sniffed it next, and then the British man did the same.
Note: From here on I will call the woman ‘Elaine’ and the man ‘Harold,’ because they seemed like an Elaine and a Harold, although they never did condescend to give me their real names—nor did I give them mine. Americans can be stuffy too, when it suits our purpose…
“I know this,” said Elaine, smelling the root again.
“You have to guess,” said Hasef.
“Is it—coriander?” asked Elaine.
“Yes, very good. This is coriander.”
We walked deeper into the jungle and came to a tree. Hasef motioned to the driver, who climbed up into the branches, and then returned to earth holding a little clump of something. It was green and had little knobs sticking out from it—green knobs. Hasef crushed it, and we all recognized the smell, instantly.
“Cloves!” I said.
We continued this way for half an hour, walking through the jungle, finding little clearings, detecting cultivation, pulling out a root or grabbing a branch or cutting a leaf. It was interesting to see that some spices were in fact from roots, some were from branches, some were from leaves, and some were the actual “fruit” of the tree, like cloves.
Finally we returned to the car and drove some ways down the road. Zanzibar island was apparently mostly wilderness. It was raining again. We came at last to a native village by the side of the road. There were grass huts here, and little children running about in brightly colored clothing. The girl children actually had chadaris—they were being trained young, to be flirtatious. They scurried about and were thrilled to have their pictures taken. Jungle vegetation encroached from all directions save the highway on this village. An elderly man, naked except for a loin-cloth—I’m not kidding, a loin-cloth—was hacking away at something with a machete. He looked up and smiled and said something to our guide.
Several women were about, attending to domestic chores. One was cooking something over a small fire. The rain had stopped, fortunately. Another was hanging out clothes to dry, hoping the sun would cooperate. Another was suckling an infant. That made for quite a contrast: a Muslim woman in chadari, her face barely visible, her breasts open for the world to see. Again, the Mullahs in Iran would have been scandalized, but it was a quintessential image of the mad contrast of Zanzibar itself: half Arab, half African.
The elderly man went back to work with his machete.
“That’s the village chief,” explained Hasef. “The old man is the village chief.”
“Village chief? They actually have a village chief? That sounds so—primitive.”
“Why primitive?” asked Hasef. “Someone has to keep the village under control…”
I called forth my bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Texas. Hasef had made a very good point. Why was it “primitive” to have someone designated as the political leader of a population group? In truth it would be primitive to not have someone so-designated. Perhaps it was the phrase: ‘village chief’ that seemed so Hollywood-esque. But, I reasoned soberly, if we substituted the word “mayor” would not that seem quite modern and proper? Was it just semantics? On the other hand, the mostly-naked man hacking away at something in the jungle with a machete, while all about him were primitive grass huts, was clearly a village chief, not a mayor.
But we hadn’t come here to see the village or the village chief. We’d come to see the lipstick tree.
We had by now guessed (sometimes correctly, sometimes with prompting) over a dozen different spices: coriander, citronella, cinnamon, cloves, tumeric, cocao, cardoman, vanilla, curry, basil, garlic, and others.
“This is not a spice,” explained Hasef, referring to the lipstick tree. “It is a cosmetic.”
He pulled something off the tree itself, cut it with his knife, and offered it to Elaine. Inside was a dark red, viscous liquid.
“Lipstick,” said Hasef. “Try it out.”
To her credit Elaine did so. She smeared the red substance onto her finger, and then applied it delicately to her lips, just as if she’d been applying makeup in front of a mirror. It looked quite nice, actually. Being an American, I felt I could be somewhat tacky so I arranged Elaine and Hasef and the lipstick tree in such a way as to achieve the best composition, and then photographed the scene—making Elaine re-enact the applying of the lipstick. Not wanting to be outdone, Harold also took a picture, relieved that someone else had condescended to compose it.
Back in the car Elaine took out her compact and mirror, and regarded the results with a skeptical eye. “Hmmm,” she said. “Not exactly my color I’m afraid, wouldn’t you say?”
But she left it on, nonetheless, and I was impressed that she did.
We continued touring the island in this way: turning off on little dirt roads, finding clearings in the forest, cutting trees, pulling up roots, guessing at spices. It was quite fun, actually.
But at one spot we actually encountered another group. This was a large bus-load of people, and they were just about to leave as we arrived. They’d been studying a tree of some kind, and we now walked over to it as the larger group was preparing to walk back to the bus.
Suddenly two women in the group detached themselves and came running over to me.
“Jacques! What are you doing here?”
It was Jackie and Liz. They each greeted me warmly.
“I’m taking a spice tour, just like you!” I exclaimed. “But I’ve got a problem.”
“What problem?” asked Liz, quite concerned.
Pulling them off to the side of the path, and drawing them near, I explained the situation.
“I’m with a British couple. And they’re just like you said. They won’t open up. They’re not mean. They’re just not friendly. Jackie, it’s just like what you said last night! What do I do?”
“Jacques, you’ve got to take the piss out of ‘em!” declared Liz. “You’re good at it. You can do it! Just take the piss out of ‘em.”
“I’ve tried but there’s too much piss! And it won’t come out!”
“Try harder! You can do it!”
“Good luck,” said Jackie, smiling.
We said our good-byes again, and I hurried back to the tree, where Elaine, Harold and Hasef were waiting for me patiently.
“Who were those girls?” asked Hasef. “Did you know them?”
“Yes, they’re my friends. I had to say hi.”
“Oh, OK. Well, let me tell you about this tree.”
Hasef was holding a small round fruit of some kind, about the size of a golfball. He took out his knife and sliced it—cutting around a central core. Inside was an amazing sight. A tiny, white nut was glistening inside. But surrounding the nut was a bright red, lithe, sensuous pattern made by some kind of growing thing. It was like an alien life form growing up inside this fruit, and elegantly and beautifully entwining itself around the nut, creating a majestic harmony before cutting off the nut’s life force and destroying and consuming it forever.
“Do you know what this is?” asked Hasef.
“It’s a nut of some kind,” said Elaine. “It’s very beautiful. What an amazing pattern…”
“It’s a nutmeg,” said Harold.
“Yes! Nutmeg. Very good.”
We all congratulated Harold for having guessed the secret of the spice.
“This outer lacy thing,” explained Hasef, “is cut away and dried and is made into another spice. Do you know what the name of the other spice is?”
None of us did.
“Mace. It’s a spice called mace.”
“And then the nutmeg seed is dried and crushed into a powder, but the Zanzibar nutmeg is more than just a spice. Would you like to know what else it does?”
We all did. Hasef was very good at playing his audience.
“Well, the women of Zanzibar are Muslim, and that means they do not drink alcohol. And they are very closely supervised. It’s difficult for the Muslim women to go out and have fun and have a good time. So they take the nutmeg seed and dry it and combine it with the sap of the nutmeg tree, and then they mix this into their tea and…
Hasef was unsure how to explain this next part.
“And it makes them kind of crazy. You know, wild and crazy. Like alcohol, but better than alcohol. And so then they go out and they have fun and they go wild and crazy. But if their husbands catch them they’re in big trouble, and so the husbands try to keep the women from getting near the nutmeg tree.”
Elaine was regarding the nutmeg with greater interest, now that all this had been explained. I picked up half a dozen nutmegs from the ground and secreted them away in my pocket, knowing I could find a good use for them in the future.
This nutmeg tree was a popular destination, for several spice vendors had set up tables alongside the road—hoping to catch tourists on their spice tours. And catch us they did, for I was becoming quite interested in spices. I bought whole bags of saffron and curry and cinnamon and other Zanzibar spices. It was all ridiculously inexpensive. I remembered how much saffron costs back in the States, and bought several more bags, hoping I could think of something to cook with it.
Finally we’d seen enough spices, and Hasef knew I was catching a flight at 2:00. Harold and Elaine asked to be let off at a restaurant they’d intended to visit in Zanzibar city—quite a nice restaurant, it seemed, by the look of it. I saw no more of them and it wasn’t like we’d exchanged addresses and promised to keep in touch or anything. I suppose if the spice tour had lasted a year (or better yet, two) they might have thawed slightly and perhaps given me at least their last name. I decided that if I ever went on one of the truck safaris, I’d ask to be put with the Antipodans, however creepy that word sounded.
As we continued back to the hotel, we passed two young women, western women—quite pretty from the brief glance that was afforded—walking unhurriedly through the streets of Stone Town, obviously on vacation.
It took a moment for the image to register.
“Hey, wait a minute!” I turned around suddenly but they were gone. “That was Tammy and Roz!” I explained to Hasef. “I know those girls!”
“Hey, you seem to know all the pretty girls in Zanzibar.”
“Well, I was scuba diving with them yesterday. They’re from England.”
“Next time you come back to Zanzibar, you look me up. Maybe we’ll go drinking together!”
Oh, right. Like I was some kind of babe magnet.
“I’m not all that popular with women,” I confessed. “Yesterday I couldn’t even get the women in the market to let me take their photograph. And I was willing to pay them! It was so humiliating—offering to pay for it and still being refused!”
“You wanted to take pictures of the women in the market with their clothes off?” Hasef was scandalized.
“No, no! With their clothes on. It was the clothes that were so interesting. I was trying to take pictures of the women in their pretty chadaris.”
“How much were you offering to pay?”
“Well, about 50 shillings. They were all too shy. They were offended.”
“Yes, for 50 shillings they would be shy. Next time try 500 shillings. Maybe a thousand shillings.”
“OK, I’ll remember that.”
They dropped me at the Serena hotel, and I tipped him a thousand shillings (about $3.)
He grinned. “Do you want to take my picture?”
“No, that’s OK. Thanks for the great spice tour! Jambo!”
“Jambo!” he replied, and the van drove off.
I was supposed to be at the airport at 1:30, but it was only noon. I had ninety minutes. I was desperate for food, having eaten only a few slices of fruit, and even that had been early in the morning. Furthermore I’d been tantalized by exotic spices all day. But food wasn’t important. I’d done everything I needed to do in Zanzibar except for one thing. I hadn’t rented a bicycle or motorbike.
I would have preferred a motorbike, and would not have minded paying the regulatory bribe. But I was worried it might take too long. Near the hotel, in a tiny alleyway in stone town, I’d passed a place that rented bicycles. I returned to it now, and was soon peddling away on a very nice, 18-speed mountain bike.
At first the owner had been reluctant to rent it to me.
“Will you really be back in an hour?” he asked.
“Yes. I have to catch a plane. I’m leaving today.”
“Well, what if you steal the bike. What if you take it with you?”
“Then you will have lost the bike!” I replied.
“Yes, that’s true! OK, have fun.”
It was an interesting exchange, but I put it down to the East African sense of humor. He’d just been kidding with me—trying to remove my piss, as it were.
Stone Town was easier to dominate with a bicycle. I explored it swiftly, keeping an eye on my watch. Somehow I found myself down near the water, in a very slummy part of town, and desperate for food.
There was a kind of rancid fish market here. People were selling fish, but the flies seemed to be doing most of the buying. Another stall was selling fruit. I bought half a dozen of those miniature bananas so endemic to the tropics—about ten cents for all of them. At least the flies hadn’t gotten to the bananas yet. I ate the bananas in a flash, tossing the peels into the sea, where a great deal of other garbage had already been thrown. Retreating from the harbor area I made my way more deeply into Stone Town, wondering if I might come again upon Tammy and Roz. It wasn’t just hunger now that was assaulting me. I was thirsty. The noon-time sun was leaching every drop of moisture out of my body. How many stone walls did I need to see? How many chadari draped women? How many robed men? How many metal-studded, mysterious doorways? How many fish markets? In truth I needed to see many of these things. I hadn’t yet had my fill. But at some point this would be dangerous. I had no hat. There was no shade anywhere. I was exercising heavily. My body needed liquid. A person could die of heat stroke out here, on a bicycle in Zanzibar.
Then, like a desert mirage, I saw it in the distance. A coconut vendor! I remembered from yesterday that coconuts are mostly water—very sweet, nutritious water. Peddling up to him, I stopped, got off the bike, and nodded towards one of the coconuts.
Whack! went the machete, and the top slice of coconut was guillotined away, leaving a small hole. He handed me the coconut and I drank it swiftly.
“One more please,” I said.
I drank four coconuts in all, and I could feel myself expanding—filling back out again—as the moisture permeated my body.
It was time to return. As I peddled back through stone town, enjoying looking at the mysterious people in their chadaris and robes and fez hats, suddenly I heard my name cried out.
“Jacques! Hey, Jacques!”
I stopped and turned around. It was a male voice. It wasn’t Tammy or Roz. Yet no one knew me in Zanzibar. I was deep amongst the alleyways of Stone Town. No one knew me here at all. There were only natives here, in robes and chadaris. Yet one of them did. It was a native person, not in a robe, but very black like everyone else. It was Hasef, the spice guide!
He looked at the bike, looked at me. :I’m dripping with sweat, and I’m in shorts. There’s a coconut in the basket attached to my handlebars.
“Jacques, what are you doing here? What are you doing on a bicycle?”
“Well, I’m just riding around. You know. I wanted to see more of Zanzibar before I left.”
“Yeah, but you had to catch a plane.”
“Not for another half an hour.”
“Oh, OK. Well, have fun! That’s really funny. You’re on a bicycle.”
I said goodbye and pedaled off. Funny? What’s funny about me on a bike? Like doesn’t this guy know I almost live on a bicycle during the summer months in Colorado? Like what’s he suggesting, that tourists are supposed to stay inside air conditioned vans?. In any case I was glad he’d seen me on the bike. I decided it was cool that I could be peddling around Zanzibar and some native guy could step out of the shadows and say ‘Hi,’ because we knew each other.
I returned the bike and was soon back in the lobby of the hotel. Dripping with sweat, and with the heat of the day at it’s zenith, I knew I simply was not going to be able to cool off. In this heat I wasn’t going to be able to cool off until I arrived in London—where it would be winter time. The van to the airport was due to leave in twelve minutes. Half a dozen tourists were sitting in the lobby, staring vacantly ahead, waiting for the van, overhead fans turning slowly and despondently and without effect. Massive suitcases were sitting beside them.
Were these people crazy? Twelve minutes were left. They were content to squander their time in Zanzibar sitting in a lobby?
Reclaiming my travel pack I ducked swiftly into the restroom and changed into a swimsuit. Soon I was out at the pool, swimming under the water, desperate to cool off, wishing the water were ten degrees cooler. I stayed in the pool as long as possible, then changed back into my regular clothes and boarded the van to the airport.
I had no trouble leaving Tanzania. No one seemed to mind that I’d probably caught malaria and had no certificate to prove that I hadn’t.
The Air Kenya flight landed in Mombassa on the way to Nairobi, and I had a wonderful view of the city as the plane approached the runway. Mombassa is Kenya’s port city, and it lies on an island at the confluence of two rivers, just as they empty into the sea. From the vantage point of an airplane it seemed a clean, modern city. Tankers were anchored in the rivers, waiting to unload their cargoes, and then load them with something new—spices, perhaps.
In Nairobi I again had several hours to kill, but it was nighttime and I was content to remain at the airport. An outdoor pub was able to provide me a steak and kidney pie, but this time I was not worried about mosquitoes. No mosquito could survive in the pollution-laden air of Nairobi.
A souvenir shop was open and selling t-shirts. I found the one I wanted: Tusker Beer—Made In Kenya. “Brewed For The Good Times,” it said. Another shop sold bags of coffee beans—Arabica Coffee, said the sign. And I liked the coffee bags because they included a drawing of a chadari-draped woman with a dhow sailing behind her. I bought two.
Having a little more time to kill, I decided to stroll around outside the airport. I’d been here day before yesterday, but I’d forgotten the danger.
The hawkers fell on me in a pack. Fresh meat, they were thinking. Fresh, white meat.
“Hey, meester, you want taxi?”
“You want tour?
“You want to go city”
“You want to go game park?
It was definitely time to remove some piss.
“Jambo, haberi gani?” I said to them. “Ipana, sitaki.” (No, I don’t want.) “Akeri sanate garn.” (Maybe tomorrow.)
It worked like a charm. They smiled shyly, and vanished.
It had been my first visit to East Africa. Yet, as I boarded the plane to London, somehow East Africa did not seem quite so foreign.
When I came back I would learn more words. When I came back I would swim with the dolphins. When I came back I would rent a motorbike.
And—assuming I did not succumb to malaria in the meantime—when I came back I resolved to finally pay the women in the lingerie market a decent wage…