Travel Stories


         Zanzibar, a name that evokes far more exotic images than what I actually found there, reminds me of a very poor Caribbean island, somewhat like Martinique, but without the infrastructure.  Stonetown, the capital, is a bit like I remember St. Thomas, although St. Thomas had much better hotels, much better restaurants, and a far busier port filled with cruise ships.  And that was twenty years ago.  And while Zanzibar does have a significant tourist scene, complete with street after narrow historic street filled with high and low end shops selling trinkets, statues, carvings, batik, bracelets and paintings that all look the same - visited mostly by Italians, Germans, Brits, French, Kenyans, Indians, and South Africans in that order, (we were the only Americans we encountered in our five days on the island) - it is not a particularly attractive place, mainly, I think, because it is so equatorially hot and oppressively poor.
          Outside of the tourist scene, Stonetown is a quite busy city, with many substantial urban peasant markets and streets filled with Zanzibarians going about their lives in the intensely muggy heat, almost all of the women dressed from head to foot in traditional Arab/Muslim scarves and shawls, some veils, long sleeves, and long skirts, while almost all men wear trousers and shirts, and most of the children run barefooted.  The contrasting reality between the white European women in their two piece bathing suits laying around sun bathing (and drinking alcohol) on a island that is over ninety five percent Muslim rendered me speechless for the second time in a week.  I mean consider all that visible flesh, those naked legs, those breasts and buttocks reaching for the light!  I just can’t imagine what the Muslim men and Muslim women make of it, how they process, understand, or integrate it.  I honestly haven’t a clue.  And add to that the immense differences in wealth and the expendable capital – the cost of a car and driver for one day exceeds the average monthly income of the average Tanzanian – and you have a situation that to me seems almost as unreal as it is exceedingly real. 
          The outermost beaches are also fraught with dramatic contrasts.  The villages they are set in, like Nwunge, and Paje, are miserably poor, as poor, if not poorer, than anything I’ve seen in Southeast Asia or India, filled with crumbling cement block houses that have few windows, no screens, and tin roofs, baking in the sun, a village water pump or well used to fill old yellow plastic oil containers, with everyone who lives in the village out in the street laying around in the shade, women separated from the men, always.  No real roads throughout the villages and almost no cars or motorcycles to be seen.  Just gray white dust, coral outcroppings, sand, shells, chickens, the smell of wood fires burning, and the smell of rotting fish.  No industry, almost no opened stores, no groceries, no gardens, no refrigeration.  And on the edges, where the villages meet the sea, you’ll find a small resort hotel, guesthouse, or bungalows on the beach, catering to what for all intents and purposes are naked white men and women with more money available to spend on lunch than most of the people who live in the host villages see in a month.  I mean really, I just don’t get it.
          And somewhere, under the seething surface of the place, recorded in the rocks and the molecules that hold its history, is a three hundred year long travail of slave markets and barbarity equal to or exceeding in volume, mass cruelty, and inhumanity - on this tiny island ruled by Omani sultans and Portuguese traders - of the enslavement, torture, and sale of probably close to one hundred million human beings.  No, really, one hundred million.  I feel the tears, rage, blood, and despair that seeped into the soil, that linger in the atmosphere.  And while some may call that sensation only a thought, a creation of my mind rather than a perception of anything “real,” for me it was as real as any dream or nightmare is, hinged in reality, distorted by imagination, but “known” as for a time in the mind as fact.
          I did enjoy seeing and learning about the colobus monkeys and the massive sea turtles that live on reserves on the island, and it was inspiring to learn how the Tanzanian government had convinced the villages and villagers who made part of their livelihood killing turtles and monkeys to give up their deadly pursuit of these endangered species in exchange for a percentage of the revenues derived from the tourists who now pay to visit the monkeys and turtles, and how each species is now prospering.  Did you know that some young sea turtles wander thousands of miles from home before returning, like salmon, to their own spawning ground to lay their eggs, sometimes as much as twenty five years after leaving?  Or that the colobus monkey has no thumb?  Sometimes I really feel very doubtful about the theory of evolution, its limitations, and the limitations of our imagination.  Don’t you?  I mean a primate with no thumb but with five toes arising because it gave that monkey a selective survival advantage?
          Anyhow, I did find the spice plantations to be a botanical heaven and thoroughly loved wandering among, smelling, and seeing cinnamon trees, cardamom, cloves, vanilla, lemon grass, and a profusion of other spices, including a variety of peppercorns I could pick off the trees and pop into my mouth, growing in their natural environment. And we stayed in a guesthouse in the old Arab Quarter where no other whites were guests for a couple of nights and it felt just fine.  And I made a kind of passing friendship with fat Mulky, the proprietor of Mulky’s World Famous Outdoor Café, who sits in his chair unmoving except for making change and directing his employees in the sale of crackers, soda, candies, and barbequed chicken.  And we heard a fantastic middle eastern stringed instrument player and a drummer making music unlike anything I’d ever heard before, seated on the floor of a true Swahili restaurant, who were so gifted and skilled, playing classic Arabic and Swahili tunes as well as Ravel and Massorgsky (sp?), that was absolutely brilliant.  And of a gray and rainy morning, in the welcome flooded streets, I left Zanzibar Island for the interior, unencumbered and unchained.