Dispatch #151 - The Magical Mystical Tour
At the end of our first day exploring the wonders of Zanzibar, a man stood waiting for us on shore near where Northern Magic lay at anchor. His clothes were slightly tattered and his white Zanzibari hat more battered than most, but his face broke into a broad smile as soon as he saw us.
This was Mr. Suleiman, and we had hired him as our own personal askari, or guard. He would spend the next eight nights in our cockpit, from 7:00 in the evening until 7:00 in the morning, protecting us from night-borne thieves.
Mr. Suleiman didn't speak a word of English, and so we had had to use an interpreter to communicate with him and describe the terms of work. We were paying him, on the hotel's recommendation, 3000 Tanzanian shillings a day, or about $6.
When everything had been explained, Mr. Suleiman smiled, nodded and answered with two words: "hakuna matata", which means 'no problem' in Swahili. Over the next week we were to hear these words often, always spoken with a smile, and we grinned too, thinking of a certain flatulent Disney warthog named Pumba as we did.
Mr. Suleiman, who looked to be in his fifties, was gracious and good-natured, and thanked me extravagantly for the smallest consideration, such as a glass of water, or a raincoat when the weather turned bad. Every day he tried to teach me a few words of Swahili, and I learned that he was married and had five children. I went to sleep at night reassured by his presence.
Herbert, on the other hand, felt uncomfortable about the whole arrangement. He felt we were paying him too little, even though we were, in fact, paying him quite well by Tanzanian standards. But it happened to be quite cold and rainy during the week, and the idea of this nice fellow having to sit all alone in the drizzling dark, right outside where we were comfortably sleeping, bothered him a great deal.
But there was no point whatsoever in having him sit inside, and I reasoned that obviously our contribution to his family income, as meagre as it might seem, was enough to make it worthwhile for him. But the many holes in his old sweatshirt tugged at my heartstrings, too, so I gathered half a dozen old shirts Herbert was no longer using, and presented them to Mr. Suleiman. He rewarded me with a dazzling smile and a very heartfelt "Asante sana!"
While taking a tour of the island, we questioned our driver about how the average Zanzibari can afford to live on a few dollars a day. "It's the clothes from Canada," he explained, "they are very good and we can afford them." He drove us past the clothing market, and then we understood: all the shirts, pants and shoes sitting in the grass and hanging from fences at a myriad of small streetside stands, had been collected by charities such as the Salvation Army, resold and shipped in bulk. Old Canadian cast-offs are outfitting almost the entire population of Zanzibar.
"You mean some of our own clothes might have made it to Zanzibar before we did?" Jon asked.
Yes, that was possible, and we watched what the people were wearing with new interest, wondering whether the Canadians who donated these items would be pleased to see them worn by smiling dark Zanzibari men in pillbox hats.
We visited the Jozani forest to observe the rare Red Colobus Monkey, of which there are only about 2500 left in the world, all of them in Zanzibar. These small red monkeys with comical tufted faces are real daredevils. We laughed as they executed amazing flying leaps from tree to tree, their little four-fingered hands (they have no thumbs) outstretched. One of them did an amazing suicide leap from the top of a large coconut tree that almost ended in disaster, flying at least 20 feet through the air and perhaps 40 feet down to land with a crash in a small bush at our feet. He looked like a tiny, wild-eyed Superman on a bad hair day.
We toured a spice plantation, having fun as our guide made us smell different leaves and try to guess which plant they came from. The ancient wealth of Zanzibar was founded on two things: the slave trade and spices, particularly cloves, which remain Zanzibar's greatest export. So we toured through the spice garden, smelling cinnamon, which is nothing more than tree bark, vanilla, which grows as pods on a scraggly vine, and of course the queen of Zanzibar spices, which are actually dried buds of the flowering clove tree.
We roamed through the palaces of the great sultans of Zanzibar and Oman, including one mighty ruler who had 99 wives in his harem and sired more than 130 children. One day the kids and I explored one of his palaces, just a short walk away from where we were anchored. It was in ruins, with most of its roof gone and part of the second floor collapsed, but enough of it remained that the boys were inspired to play hide and seek within its massive, crumbling walls. While one of them counted, his face pressed against a stone pillar in the Sultan's great audience chamber, the other two ran off to hide in small ante-rooms or hidden alcoves. I sat back and watched with delight - who would have ever imagined that my own children would be playing hide and seek in the palace of the Sultan of Zanzibar?
Once, Michael, triumphant because he had found the perfect hiding place, breathlessly led us to some outbuildings he had discovered by scrambling through a window at the rear of the main palace. Beside what had clearly once been the Sultan's harem, no longer stocked with beautiful maidens but now only with weeds, Michael had discovered a small domed building entered through a steep set of stairs.
Inside was a series of small rooms with vaulted ceilings joined by onion-shaped archways. Benches lined some of the walls, and a large tub deep enough to stand in was in an adjoining room. Michael had found the Sultan's bathhouse.
(One of the Sultan's children, Princess Salme, wrote a book about her life as a princess of Zanzibar, after she scandalously married a German and fled to Europe in disgrace. One of the difficult adjustments she had been forced to make was bathing in a tiny closed European bathtub rather than in the lavish, deep and overflowing Persian bath, continuously fed by fresh, warmed water. She found it unsanitary and dirty to bathe in still water, and it took her many years to get over her feelings of disgust. Princess Salme had spent her childhood at this very palace, and Jon, who read her book after I was through with it, wondered whether the spunky little princess had ever played hide-and-seek within its walls as he had done.)
We explored with unalloyed delight, feeling as if we were the first to discover this treasure - for there was no one else around: no watchmen, other tourists, or local people. We had the entire palace to ourselves. At the top of another short but steep set of stairs we peered into one last domed room, in which half a dozen bats woke up, squeaked their protest and flew around in dizzy circles before folding up their wings and hanging themselves upside down in their dark arched alcove once again.
Almost every day we made the short trip to Zanzibar town, jumping onto a kind of local bus called a 'dala dala' in which are crammed as many human beings as can be squeezed in - a great many more than would fit in a telephone booth.
Once in Stonetown we'd wander through the maze of small streets, buying fruit in the open market or browsing through small shops selling carvings and antiques. Invariably we would lose our way and wander, hopelessly lost, through the warren of alleyways, an absolutely essential Zanzibar experience.
In the evening we would find our way to the night market, at which a huge variety of mouthwatering Zanzibar foods were laid out in outdoor stalls at the waterfront -- samosas, tasty meat and vegetable-filled pastries, potato cakes, shish kebabs, naan and chapatti, and delicious Zanzibari pizzas, which are something like a fajita. All five of us could eat this way for $8. We ate on rough benches, with paper plates in our laps, and as soon as we finished, a flock of ragged young boys would swoop down and run off with our leftovers, gobbling as they ran.
On our last day in Zanzibar we were disappointed because power was out on the entire island, a not infrequent occurrence. We roamed fruitlessly through narrow passageways looking for a working Internet café, but to no avail. Once we inadvertently made a complete circle and ended up, after fifteen minutes of twists and turns, right back at the same clothing store where I had earlier been looking at long black Persian robes - imagining myself swirling in, veiled, dark and mysterious, at future Halloween parties. Since it seemed as if we were fated to end up at this shop, I took it as a sign and bought a Zanzibari hat for Herbert as well.
My destiny fulfilled, we stopped losing our way. We marched for the last time through the market, passing the spot where human slaves used to be sold, buying our last tiny loaves of fluffy Zanzibar bread, haggling over the price of pineapples and passionfruits. We had seen what we came to see, but Zanzibar still had a hold on us and it was hard to leave. Everywhere we went, people greeted us as always with a smile and a hearty "Jambo!"
We finished our rounds, knowing this was our last chance to breathe the Zanzibar air, redolent of spices and slaves, sultans and history. The sense of nostalgia was already growing.
We headed over to where we knew our favourite taxi driver would be waiting - Mr. David has two (concurrent) wives and 14 children to support, so we always gave him our business -- but this day he would be driving us back to Northern Magic for the last time.
"When you stop getting lost in the streets of Zanzibar, you know it's time to go," remarked Michael.
And so, reluctantly, we went.