An excellent reader story about arriving — and getting lost in — Zanzibar.
STONE TOWN, Zanzibar – Zanzibar Serena Inn comes highly recommended by a man you met three days ago in Tanzania. "You'll love it," he said. The pronunciation alone — Zan-zee-barrrr — sounds like an exotic cocktail tastes: sweet, frothy and indulgent. You wonder how the mere naming of a place can lead to hallucinations of waters clearer and beaches whiter than ever dreamed. You compose music with unknown lyrics during the 20-minute flight from Dar es Salaam. Exiting the plane, you imagine windswept patios with curtains blowing outward framing a room that's never been seen.
A girl named Happyness with a "Y" checks you in. She's wearing crayon colors of Outrageous Orange and Hot Magenta; her welcoming smile completes the picture book. As you sign the register, she points to a coconut shell concoction that has magically appeared. "Please," she insists. You drink without question. A bellman lugs your heavy suitcase up three flights without complaint. The corridor's furnishings complement vibrant stained glass windows high above your head, which at this point is full of passion juice. Exactly as imagined, your room faces the sea. Stepping onto the balcony, you spot ships on the horizon sailing to destinations that sound too good to be true. A warm breeze brushes your skin. Waiters below set tables surrounding a swimming pool as large as the plane that carried you here.
You spend the evening bar-side sipping Kilimanjaro beer while a Taarab band competes against the lapping of waves. Your waiter recommends the seafood restaurant upstairs. "It has the best view in all of Zanzibar," he says. "Tomorrow night," you promise, ordering another drink, pledging to request his station. Not even food can your soul like this. Hours pass, and at times you are the only audience. You start a conversation with the band leader, Mohammed. He confesses having played the violin for only three years. A novice. But you don't believe him. As his bow moves across the strings, sadness interrupts like a poignant film score tailing an ill-fated character. "You have a gift," you whisper. The crooning stops and you purchase the group's CD for 30,000 Tanzanian shillings, a very good price.
Morning light evades your pillow, windows blocked by an invisible housekeeper. The same ghost who covered your bed with mosquito netting. You've overslept in this heavenly place. The lavish breakfast buffet stops serving in fifteen minutes. Fresh-squeezed juices on ice, eggs cooked to order, pancakes and waffles, pastries, breads, sausages, bacon, potatoes, and fruit spread across white linen tablecloths. It's a shame not to indulge: you've paid amply. The hostess tries to answer your question, but English is not the reason she was hired. Her pretty face is all you need, and suddenly it's not a problem that the poached eggs are hard-boiled. An employee has gone out of his way to make a cappuccino, and though it arrives 25 minutes later, he's so proud of the cup he's serving that you take a picture to savor his effort. Time is not of the essence on the island of Happyness.
A teenage boy sidles up as you exit the hotel. "I will show you Stone Town, yes?"
Before consenting, he's guided you through a "short cut," past dirty toddlers huddled together on a stoop. Their once-bright and cheerful fabric has now soiled to black. Their expressions seem unfitting for children this young. Are these streets or dead ends? Within seconds, your guide parrots a script and points out noteworthy buildings (the house where Freddie Mercury was born, a Catholic church enclosed by rusty iron, and the last marketplace where slaves were sold). Lagging ten steps behind, men ask if you'd like to see inside their shops. You politely refuse. Sale (you've asked his name) instructs you how to say "no, thank you," in Swahili becase "it's better." You comply, inhaling the scent of burnt coffee mixed with body odor. Faceless silhouettes crouch in doorways. Averting your eyes downward, you catch sight of a twisted foot, gnarled into crippling submission. Tourists haggle over pieces of cloth, carved statues, and other wares, oblivious to the man who cannot stand.
"You'll love poking around the little stone streets," someone had told you back at the hotel. Turning back enters your thoughts, but which way? You haven't paid attention to direction and narrow, unmarked alleys all look the same.
"Here's the open market," Sale says.
Under red and gold tarps stretched across the open-air bazaar, the temperature doubles and the crowd triples, and you lose your escort as quickly as a child getting lost at the fair. Cellophane-wrapped nutmeg and spices, fruits and vegetables, and stalls without order become labyrinthine. An old man hunched into an L-shape cups his hand, begging to no one, anyone. You cannot get past him and the boy wheeling a bicycle beside you. Sale calls out. Your own name sounds foreign in this place. The atmosphere is thick, crowded. You feel like crying, screaming, yet still follow closely behind. Flies swarm gored barracuda splayed on wooden tables. While photographing the octopus slab, a man drags a dangling squid tentacle across your foot, most likely on purpose. You stare down, too stunned to flinch. Soon you're overpaying for a wreath of cloves handed back in wrapped newspaper. The vendor, sensing your purchase of pity, offers an awkward silence as confirmation of final payment.
It's raining now. Sale suggests ducking under an awning. You decline, pressing onward, getting drenched. Locals take notice, snicker and shout, "You're getting all wet, lady!" Suddenly, you're funny in this place. The joke is lost on you, like pages of unsightly features left out of travel brochures.
"I must show you the slave market," Sale pleads.
You agree, wiping rain drops from sunglasses. You're hushed for an hour. You don't have words for the prisoners once chained together and brought here in dhows. Had they sailed from Bagamoyo, the Tanzanian seaport town whose name means "to lay down your heart?" How many thousands were broken here? Your own heart breaks in commiseration.
"Now, I will show you the oldest door in Zanzibar."
There's a brooding wooden gate opened slightly with brass spikes piercing the entry like a warning.
"Please, look inside," he coaxes.
You cannot. You have already seen forgotten figures through doors left ajar before reaching this one.
"Please," you lie. "I have to meet someone back at the hotel." He's disappointed, but finishes the tour with a stroll along the beach. Stepping over and on frayed ropes tethered to fishing boats, scattered sea shells litter the sandy shore. You're collecting the smoothest ones and put them in your pocket.
"Here's a good one," Sale says handing you the whitest shell.
"Asante," you say, smiling at him for the first time.
You agree on a ridiculous fee for the outing. The extra cash will cover the cost of the school books he needs yet cannot afford. Convinced there are no books or even a school for this slick enterpriser, you figure it's a small price for whatever happiness it brings.
Standing naked beneath the warm water, you shower until the stream turns cool. You scrub the remnants of Stone Town away. Lifting the net, you fall into bed. Shuttered panes hide the darkness, and you awake feeling not guilty for skipping the seafood buffet, the one with the greatest view.
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Zanzibar Serena Inn
Stone Town, Zanzibar
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