Wednesday, April 23, 2008

On This Day Last Year...

I was on the island of Zanzibar (actually an archipeligo of islands), off the coast of Tanzania. Called the Spice Islands for their growth of nutmeg, cloves (world's largest producer), cinnamon and vanilla, the islands were also a center for slave and ivory trade. Spices were not indigenous but introduced to the island by traders.

The narrow and winding streets of Stone Town, the historic port area, require a trail of breadcrumbs to navigate. I was only able to find my way around after a week in the town by making note of grafitti.

Zanzibarians are Sunni Muslim and the sounds of the muezzin ring across the island throughout the day (in Arabic). The first mosque in the southern hemisphere was built here.

One of the great saddnesses of visiting Zanzibar is the overwhelming poverty. The people on the island consider themselves Zanzibarians and not Tanzanians, though the island still officially belongs to Tanzania. Politics plays a large role in the lives of the men; you will see them sitting in little squares or on raised steps that line the narrow streets drinking tea and debating their parties.
Because poverty is so high on the island, the Stone Town area is notorious for petty crimes. I actually saw a local thief be chased down by citizens and pummelled for his thievery. Many fear that theft will drive away tourists, and yet it continues.
Any tourist in town will be trailed by men who profess to be guides. They offer to help you find a hotel, rent a bicycle, or find a restaurant. It is so overwhelming after a few days - men will stand outside your hotel, waiting to send you on a spice tour, or they will trail you around town - that it is wise to not make any commitments until you know your options.

My solution to the barrage of "guides" was to pick one and stay with him for all my needs. Mohammed and I would sit at Jaws Corner, a little square near my hotel, and talk about politics and drink tea. He had never been to Tanzania, had never held a real job.

Because of the tourist trade, many Zanzibari men speak English in addition to their native language, Swahili, a mix of Arabic and Bantu that also possesses a smattering of German and English words.

While it is hard to lament the lack of architectural preservation in Stone Town when faced with such incredible personal poverty, I found that most of the once glorious buildings are fallen too far beyond in maintenance. Sometimes in other parts of the world I found some shabbiness to be charming; Zanzibar crumbles, rubbish piles, sewage seeps.

After a long bike ride across the island one day, I returned the the Stone Town area to find a quiet beach for a swim. As I walked my bicycle down the beach not far outside of town I had a man with a knive approach me. He put his hand over my hand on the handle bar of the bicycle. I screamed and yelled and made noise and ran as fast as I could. Others came to my rescue as he wandered off into the brush.