Monday, July 03, 2006


So in an effort to escape the boredom of a weekend in a city where you know no one, I caught the 4 pm ferry on Friday from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar. Zanzibar is the main island of an archipelago that, along with the mainland of Tanganyika, make up the country of Tanzania. Zanzibar has a history of kind of funny unions. It was part of the sultanate of Oman for a couple centuries. And, yes, your working knowledge of geography is correct, those two are not even remotely close to each other. Then it got to be its own sultanate for a while before being a British protectorate. Then it started had a revolution and started making all sorts of Marxist rumblings at a time when Marxist rumblings got you a large dose of CIA intervention. Instead, we just bought off the right people and, instead of turning into an African Cuba in the Indian Ocean, it became part of this weird hybrid union, Tanzania. The Zanzibaris are still a little pissed off about this and make you gets your passport stamped coming onto the island. The culture itself is really interesting. It used to be an Arab ruling class, an Indian merchant class and then an African peasantry (which also serves as the main export – slaves). Then there was a revolution bit and heads rolled (literally) and things got a bit more mixed up. The city is still a hodgepodge of different neighborhoods and architecture. Most of the (crumbling) center of the city is called Stone Town, and is a maze of little alleyways, much like a Middle Eastern souk. And they have really intricately carved doors. In different styles. Mark told me.

The boat ride over was uneventful. We watched Craig David music videos and some weird movie in Swahili about a white tribal chieftain and a black American pro-golfer (you feel like someone in casting didn’t get the memo…) that had lots of safari animal humor. I arrived after dark in a really dark port. You had to walk through narrow lanes in the shipping containers to get to the exit, all filled with the most wretched of Africa’s creatures, taxi drivers. There was no way that I was running the gauntlet alone, so I waited for the biggest meanest African lady I could find, and followed her. If she only had an umbrella to beat them with…

I found my way to the Pyramid Hotel, politely waited until the World Cup match went to commercial, and checked in. The hotel is a remodeled traditional house, and my room was on the top floor, so it involved a staircase that was more ladder than staircase. But the hotel water and ceiling fan worked most of the day, and I had a traditional Zanzibari bed, so I couldn’t complain. For dinner I walked down to the fish market to find a good selection of grilled aquatic creatures on sticks. The market is famous for tables covered in all sorts of seafood, you could get lobster and crab if you were confident that it was fresh enough… I settled for tuna and prawns. The problem was that it was well after dark and I had to negotiate the narrow alleys of the old city in the dark. The alleys are only about 5 feet wide and don’t go in any one direction for much for than a couple yards. You could get lost for months in the old town. I eventually made my way out and got something to eat, but I had no idea how I was going to get back. Then I spied Purple Shirt. Purple Shirt had been in the lobby of the guest house and I had followed him part of the way out. He was about my parents age (so OLD), had a bright purple shirt, pink shorts, black socks and brown shoes. (If you look very closely at the seafood picture, you can just see him in the background.) He also had this really distinctive walk, like a penguin with hemorrhoids, but fast. I went up to him and asked if I could follow him home. He looked at me skeptically, but agreed. Somewhere, some old actor said this is going to be the start of a beautiful friendship. So that is how I met Mark. Mark is an archeologist, and as I discovered over the course of the weekend, a minor British television celebrity. (People kept coming up and saying, excuse me, aren’t you…) He has the mannerisms of a cartoon British academic, but was unbelievably interesting. He had been “digging up the place” for about twenty years and consequentially knew every bit of history of the town. He had found a good chunk of the local museum. So I started asking him questions. He started telling me stories over a glass of sugar cane juice (Katie would love this stuff – they squeeze fresh sugar cane right in front of you into a glass, it is so sweet that you have to put lime juice in it to make it palatable.) Next thing I know, I am chasing after him all over town as I get a nocturnal tour. We are peering over fences, running around the alleys, and he just lets himself in to the historical sights like the fort, all while giving me a running history of the place in this very hushed whisper. The whole enterprise had an air of a junior high mystery story (like Big Sister and the Missing Hairbrush), but was incredibly entertaining at the same time.

The next day, Mark wrote his paper for some keynote speech he is giving next week, and I went on a spice tour. Spice tours are the requisite tourist activity on Zanzibar, and involve going out into the countryside to see how vanilla, pepper, cloves, coffee, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, etc. etc. etc. are grown. The nutmeg was the most interesting one. It is the alien looking thing in the picture. And I learned if you take enough of it it acts like an aphrodisiac (or “make ‘orny” as the guide put it). I think if you ingested the require amount of nutmeg for it to work you would likely get cancer or die of nutmeg poisoning or something – probably why it hasn’t yet overtaken Spanish Fly on the commercial market. Then it was fish and coconut milk over rice for lunch (I was on this tour with 25 other western tourists, some of which actually left the tour and took a taxi back to town rather than sit on a plastic mat and eat rice and sauce – stupid stupid people.) Then a weird 40 minute drive to look at a beach for 10 minutes, and then an hour back to town…

I got back and left word for Mark that I would be at the Africa House Bar. It was the refurbished version of the old English colonial club. It is much better now because anyone willing to pay the exorbitant prices to drink Tusker beer and watch the sunset is allowed in, unlike the olden days when you had to be in the social register in addition to paying exorbitant prices. Mark eventually came in and we sat around drinking and discussing Zanzibari history (we had gotten back the 9th century by this point…). Then dinner, ice cream, and more late night running though the city to look at churches, mosques, caravan houses, etc.

Next day I went sightseeing while Mark finished his paper. I saw all the things he had told me about, but it wasn’t near as interesting. I met him for lunch and he promptly took me to all the places that I had missed during the morning. Then a quick lunch (who knew that octopus went so well with spicy tomato sauce…) and some fast souvenir buying before heading to the boat. Mark was great at negotiating. He had been in Zanzibar longer than some of the merchants and was having absolutely none of this price gouging… I bought a really neat Zanzibar chest. Then back to the hotel, grab my backpack and dash to the ferry. I made the last boat home with 10 minutes to spare. And unfortunately, I now have to work all week until I can go and do something more interesting again.

1 comment:

ORF said...

Octopus is surprisingly delightful grilled as well. I suggest you try it!!!

Glad you got a blog up and running, Kris. I look forward to reading more :)