Accidental Tourist

Calmly navigating the chaos of Zanzibar's Stone Town

Tamlin Wightman delights in having a guide along for the ride as she explores this island city

17 December 2017 - 00:00 By Tamlin Wightman

What got me most about this deviation from the hotel was the other guests' lack of interest in it.
Sure, there were turtles to swim with and cocktails to sunbathe beside.
I wondered what it said about me that I was more attracted to treading fish guts and bloody, muddy puddles in the Stone Town market than I was to the turquoise Zanzibari waters.
Of course, the lure of floating with fish was not lost on me, but the news of Weinstein and Spacey and Louis CK had just broken - #metoo - and all I wanted to do was get lost in the chaos of another world.
I found it - the chaos and a special kind of happy - in the stuffy Darajani Market.
I found it while hunching over a bull head to inspect its insides.
While aiming my camera at a shark. Sure, it was out of the water, lying beside a magnificent, pearl-white octopus awaiting a new owner, but shark it was.
I found it while gliding a finger over the velvety insides of a cow's stomach as it hung down over me, like the biltong I'd seen in my grandfather's drying room from time to time.
Perhaps I was used to sights like this, perhaps that's what allowed the stench to go almost undetected, and what made me desperately want to stay and zoom in on every tuna tail and squid tentacle, every exchange of shillings between seller and buyer.
But there was someone with me, Shaib, one of the hotel staff playing guide, and I could see him edging for the exit. Shaib would do this often - not say anything, just edge. And I would follow. My guide in the chaos. My certainty in the surprise. My friend among the unfamiliar.Shaib led me towards the spices, towards one man reigning over a sizeable collection of whole cloves and ginger and turmeric roots, and bags of tea leaves and coffee grinds.
The spice merchant was all hands, pointing at this and that, with great speed and confidence, picking up items and raising them to my nose, taking my hand and pouring coffee beans into my palm.
It felt as if we were locked in some kind of dance and I was hypnotised. If he had lifted my arm and twirled me, I would have spun with glee. I left with enough lemongrass to build a raft and quickly scuttled after Shaib through the winding walkways that lead out of Stone Town's centre.The walking of a labyrinth is said to heal, to bring awareness and answers.
As I walked myself through the tangle of paths, past ruins, tombs, great Arabic, Islamic and Zanzibari doors, each with their own characters, past scooters and vans and sedans, past women and men and children, on foot, in windows, on the move and still, I found the way out of my head and into the present. I found chaos and calm.
I felt as though I could stop moving my feet and be swept up with the flow, carried through the crowds like Aladdin on his carpet. Perhaps I had been sniffing too many spices.
We fell out of the maze, onto the waterfront and went in search of a loo.
"They think you're my girlfriend," Shaib said to me, as we entered museum after museum after slave podium, and finally a dark room with a hole in the floor, without being charged an entrance fee.He was so proud of his having won us free admission that I pretended stepping through a pool of water to squat over a hole in the floor was perfectly standard for me.
"Hotel toilet be damned! This is the real thing!" I said.
And to tell you the truth, I believed it.
As much as there were scandals happening oceans away, people taking what was not theirs, here was a world giving all it could to me, sharing itself and welcoming me in, letting me soak up each new sight, sound, smell, touch and taste with the innocence and joy of a child - with the company of local eyes watching over me.
"You keep me safe, I'll keep you wild," as the saying goes.
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