Stone Town Past Preserved

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Stone town is the past preserved. Young boys chase each other through the narrow streets, adults are content to mosy. As a child I roamed my streets unfettered without a care in the world. Today at home, our children grow pasty in flesh and slack in body safe in their rooms. They scroll through a virtual world. Here in Stone town, life unfolds in real time, unplugged.

Retail is everywhere, though no big box stores exist. Quaint shops appear doorway after doorway, their items similar. The Proprieters fan themselves on their stoops and chat amicably with their competition. They beckon us to look closer. “Just look,” they say. We venture in and like the spider to the fly once in we are trapped. Haggling is the order of the day. I ask, “how much?”  She responds with a price. I recoil, suggest a lower price, she looks horrified, clucks her tongue, counters with a slightly higher price. I accept for fear of further offence. The trinket is bagged in a recycled tote and I’m released. There are shops that have inflated fixed prices. Haggling, though exhausting, yields a better deal.

We pass a group of men and boys huddled around an antiquated television complete with rabbit ears. They are watching a soccer game in the open air.  They are happy and animated, joy contagious as they cheer for their team and grumble when the opposing team has possession.  My Mom told me that years ago when televisions were expensive that department stores would display them in store windows. People would gather together to watch and share. Those days are over. In our consumer driven culture everyone seems to have at least one flat screen television, lounge chair and privacy. We trade perceived luxury for camaraderie and community.

We tour the birth home of Freddy Mercury of Queen fame. There are odd items for sale, nearly as odd as the man himself. Freddy has achieved superstardom status in the Island of Spice and is marketed for profit. He was born here though spent his youth between India and Zanzibar before settling in Great Britain. His stardom occurred years after leaving Zanzibar. The tenuous connection is a conduit for currency in Zanzibar. Still, I imagine his carefree, boyhood days on this Island a sharp contrast to the life he led as an adult

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We have learned a great deal during our tour. I’m left with a longing of times past when our life was much like this one. We have sacrificed a great deal for our modern conveniences and there is no way to turn back or stop the clock.

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Stone Town Market

We continue our tour of Stone Town.   My heart and spirit lightens as we walk away from the slave market and towards the vibrant market.

There is a richness of colour with the many spices, clothing and foods for sale. People shop daily as there is inadequate refrigeration, likely due to the antiquated electricity. I think of our home with its over sized refrigerator and extra freezer both filled to capacity for two. The contents difficult to see, too much choice leads to too much waste.

In Stone Town the food is fresh and the people close to their food. It’s disconcerting to see fish, chicken and beef still attached to its source. The fresh meat smells assault. We are removed from this at home. The animals we consume are typically pumped full of hormones. Our markets bright, meat safely stowed in a foam container, cleanly covered in plastic wrap.  Our health suffers amidst the sterility.

There are so many flies here, munching on the fish and chicken flesh. I quickly decide if I lived here I would become a vegetarian. We round the corner and I see some grapes, though on closer inspection they are covered in flies. There are no fly zones here, a keep away fly stick does its best amidst the fruit.  The fruit and vegetables seem small and less than perfect, though closer to reality. The majority of what we see would not make its way into our large supermarkets, though it would go for twice the price in an organic market, the price out of reach for most.  In Stone town, everyone eats fresh, organic produce.

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Zanzibar is the spice island. There are many vendors selling spices, the delicious smells of no interest to the flies. We linger and peruse the many options. The smells pungent, our mouths water with the possibilities. Prices are reasonable and we buy in bulk to share with friends and family at home.  We hold fresh cinnamon bark, the size of a tree limb, and learn how it grows. I think of my cinnamon dust at home, with its dear price, lack of aroma and glass jar.
We have learned so much today. We are fortunate to live where we do with our choice, clean water and reliable electricity. Still, in our want of convenience, variety and beauty I wonder what we are sacrificing in health.  There is much to ponder.

Stone Town, Zanzibar

Our clothes firmly stuck to our bodies, we open the door to our room and an air conditioned oasis greets and beckons us inward.  We happily comply and drop our bags, our cranky mood lightens as each fibre of our clothing retreats.  The room is beautiful, with high ceilings, stained glass and intricately carved doors.  The tub is odd, small, round and tiled.  There is a shower and finally I’m treated to a “Hollywood” shower and take full advantage.  We climb into our four poster bed and quickly fall deep asleep.

We awake early, excited to explore Stone town and our hotel.  We eat a hot breakfast, complete with most excellent coffee and prepare to meet the rest of the group for our formal City tour and a chance to learn.

The Guide explains some of the features of the doors that we admire.  I decide today I will photograph doors and envision creating a montage of sorts once I get home. I happily snap away while the Guide narrates.  He tells us that carved chains around the doors informs people that a Slave Trader lived at that address.

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If there was raised brass on the doors, it was designed to keep elephants away.  I wonder if that would work thinking of the elephants we just saw in Tarangire ripping apart the baobab trees with little effort.  Its unlikely that it would work, but is pretty and decorative.

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The town has effectively preserved its past.  There is an Arabian influence and the predominant religion is Muslim, though other faiths are also represented.  Everyone seems to live in relative harmony.  The electrical wires above our heads are ancient and not to code.  It is amazing that there is any electricity and that the place has not burned to the ground.

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There are many clocks in this town, but none tell the current time.  Still, they are correct twice per day. There are vendors each sitting outside their tiny shops, beckoning to the people that pass, each claiming that they have the best price.  We have no time to shop, but promise we will be back later.  They shrug, their livelihood is not dependent on whether we purchase, there is less desperation here.

We walk to where the Slave Trading occurred, sadly not so long ago. We are taken to a holding area where the Slaves were kept prior to going to market. It is a sad place with a small window to the outside and chains to leash people inside, it is oppressive. The Guide shows us the whipping post outside where the Slaves were whipped to separate the strong from the weak.  The stronger would fetch a better price.  The Guide tells us that the Slaves would adopt a saying, “Lay down your hearts, for now you are slaves.”  They would accept their lot, as to fight and struggle would be futile.

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It is always moments like this that I’m ashamed to be Caucasion. The Guide helps to lift some guilt when he  tells us that in many cases the people were stolen from their villages, or lied to about work,  by their own people who would profit by providing people to Slave Traders.  Many Slave traders were from the same country too, though of course many Slaves were eventually sold to Caucasians in other parts of the world.  It seems as though there was plenty of blame to go around.

Travelling to Stone Town, Zanzibar

We bump along safari rutted roads which soon change to a pock marked road and then to a smooth highway where we zip along at what feels like breakneck speed.  I check the speedometer and we are not speeding, just a sharp contrast to the last week of crawling along in search of animals.

I’m excited for the next part of the trip where we will be sleeping in real beds and have the opportunity to be clean daily.  I look out the window at the scenery that passes too quickly, though at times details are clear.  People sit on the porches, lounging in the hot sun, while the work of their homes piles up around them.  I mentally complete the work of painting, repairing and landscaping to create a prettier picture.  There seems to be no urgency here.  I wonder how the people are able to relax with so much work?  Perhaps there is a balance and my life and the one viewed here are at either end of the spectrum.  I wonder if my seemingly endless lists of to-do’s and must-do’s rob me of the present.

We meet up with the other group to tour a coffee plantation.  John and I are excited about the prospect of a proper cup of coffee.  We stand through the inservice of how coffee is made, though there is no opportunity to either sample the wares or to purchase a cup of joe.  I think of how this could be marketed and envision a coffee shop where one could buy a coffee and have a snack while relaxing in the beauty of the plantation.  I wonder why this has not been created and decide that the only ones that would partake would be tourist folks who have been on a camping safari and have climbed Kilimanjaro without a proper cup of coffee.  Its still a pretty place and there is a proper toilet that includes toilet paper.  I wash my hands and let the water run over them, while I wash them not once, twice, but three times.  I look in the mirror and for the first time in a week look at my face.  I smile at my reflection, happy to be back to civilization.

We arrive in Arusha, a third world place mixed with first world, a city struggling to be current.  The car horns honk incessantly while the goats amble down the centre of the road.  There are smooth concrete sidewalks that gradually turn to rubble.  There are people begging for food while they stand in front of a restaurant.  There are well made buildings, high-rises mixed with shantytowns.  There are many big name companies represented, and I wonder about the salaries that are earned.

We stop at a gift shop, there are no locals shopping here, it has been created for tourists.  It is a pretty place, with sculptures, restaurants, coffee shops and expensive bric-a-brac. It is an oasis in a sea of poverty.  I feel guilty, as its clear this place is not open to the people who live in this city, the people that call Africa home.  This pretty place is for the pampered, spoiled people who only visit. For two weeks we have had the opportunity of seeing the place on the same level as the guides and now we are back to being sheltered from the people.  Our experience will now be more pedestrian and like the sculptures surrounding us, fake.

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We meet with the Director of our Safari experience.  She asks us for feedback, we  provide, though its soon clear that she is only interested in positive feedback.  She seems to regard us as spoiled.  It is doubtful that any of our suggestions will be put to use for subsequent groups.

We find out from her that our flight to Stone Town, Zanzibar will be delayed for several hours.  At first it will be four hours, then later we are told it will be six hours. They have found a Safari lodge for us to wait.  We have no rooms, no access to showers, but we are in a pretty place.  There is a pool, bar and restaurant.  Our mountain of luggage and lounging bodies occupy a large portion of the bar area.  I order a cheeseburger and fries and  relish every bite.  It tastes most excellent and rivals any burger I’ve had back home in  beef country, Alberta.

It’s finally time to go to the airport.  We get through customs as a group and then sit around and wait as minutes turn to hours and then several more, Africa time.  In what seems like forever, the time arrives to board the plane to Zanzibar.  We have been waiting all day.  We arrive the next day at 1:00 a.m.  The humidity immediately assaults despite the early hour.  My clothes instantly stick to my body and my body greedily sucks up the moisture.

We are greeted by our tour guide, such a friendly man with a beautiful smile.  We begin to walk towards the waiting bus and then a shout causes us to abruptly stop.  One suitcase has gone missing and we must all check our bags against the claim checks to find out the claim check that corresponds to the missing bag.  This is akin to solving the theory of relativity at this very late hour.  We all work through this task and the bag is found after checking the last tag.  We climb aboard the air conditioned bus and amble through the narrow streets of Stone Town.  I’m excited to explore in the light of day, but for now my eyes are forward as I travel ever closer to a shower.  We arrive at the Dhow Palace, obtain our room keys and haul our too many bags up the three flights of stairs to our room.