‘Zanzibar: the old Arab town, like a brooch skilfully sculpted out of white stone, and further on forests of coconut palms, enormous, branching clove trees, and fields of corn and cassava, all of it framed by the brilliant sandy beach punctuated by aquamarine inlets in which bob flotillas of fisherman’s boats’ (Ryszard Kapuscinski)
When I opened my eyes the sight was familiar, although for a spilt second I thought I was still dreaming. I must have been tired to fall asleep with those stomach-churning waves.
Stone Town, Zanzibar. I was here 15 months ago. At that time it had taken me over two years on a bicycle to get this far from England. Now I was here in less than a day. As the high-speed ferry docked in the port and I waited for the inevitable rush of passengers to disembark, I blinked several more times. It was hard to believe I was actually back.
I’d booked the flight back in September, a little over a month since I’d returned from Cape Town. How about that for restlessness after a three-year journey through Africa by bicycle? And the question that people had asked, including myself as I poured with sweat lugging a heavy backpack through the narrow old streets with a persistent tout telling me where I should stay, was why? Why return?
‘Never go back’ is an old traveller’s adage, at least according to my Grandpa, who I visited shortly before leaving England. He flew all across East Africa while working as a navigator for East African Airways in the 1960s, although never came to Zanzibar. I think Paul Theroux also wrote something about never going back – the idea that places are never the same and usually disappoint when you return. Does this apply to someone who has travelled through places on a bicycle? I don’t know. I wasn’t in Zanzibar all that long when I was here last, and that was really quite recently.
I’ve merely done what I told myself I’d do back then, which was to return and write a book about the journey, regardless of how far away it was. There was never someone or something else involved in coming back here. I was/am in the enviable position of being able to go anywhere, and Zanzibar seemed a good enough choice when I weighed up other places that I could go to in Africa without paying an astronomical amount: Cape Town, Morocco, Kenya.
I wanted to be close to the sea. I wanted to be somewhere hot. I wanted to be somewhere visually as well as culturally interesting. I liked Tanzania, a country where Swahili remains the lingua franca and there is none, or rather much less of the tribal complexity and political insecurity that inflicts many other countries in Africa. Stone Town in Zanzibar has hundreds of tourists that pass through every day. I, like them, am just another mzungu to the locals, but I’m not about to disappear to some expensive lodge beside the beach. This place has a working vibrancy and I like it. I can remain relatively anonymous, if I chose to be, and there is always somewhere new to discover and interesting faces that come and go.
I didn’t need nor want to be in England during the winter. There I felt people would continue to ask me questions like ‘so what are you going to do now’? while they continued with their busy jobs and probably wondered how I could be so carefree to just leave so easily.
I had no public talks booked and felt disconnected and detached. I missed Africa. Had I not wanted to be in England for Christmas with my family I’d probably have been back here earlier, but this isn’t a place I could just jump on a budget flight to and return home within a few hours, wherever home was. I didn’t want to stay in a small village in Dorset, and neither did I want to rent a poky little room in London or anywhere else where life would have taken me away from where I wanted to be, which was back in Africa.
I’m now renting a furnished two-bedroom apartment on the edge of the historic part of Stone Town. There is a kitchen and a narrow long living room with a balcony that looks over a quiet road. The rooms have high ceilings with fans. Power cuts, so far, seem to be rare. It’s walking distance to pretty much everywhere (market, cafes, water-front) although I might still buy/rent a local bike to get out of town. Bringing my own on the plane would have been too much hassle. I’ve always found the traditional single-speed Indian and Chinese made bicycles that exist throughout Africa to exude a certain charm. I took many photos of them.
At the moment there is another couple staying here. They will move out at the end of January, after which I’ll be alone, unless I choose to find someone to rent out the other room to. Mary is 32 and from Uganda. Lars is Danish and in his late sixties. He came here at the beginning of December and has spent other winters in Africa. For much of the day he paints on the balcony or disappears to a quiet cafe in town. ‘If I was in Denmark now this painting would be grey’, he told me when I first saw him finishing a colourful painting of a woman washing pots outside on the street. I’m no art critique, but was very impressed. Someone helped create a website for him. It’s definitely worth having a look. I have to speak loudly to him as he is partially deaf. He is tall, very slim and has a long white goatee beard. He constantly smokes local cigarettes.
Mary has been in Zanzibar off and on for several years, at least so she tells me. I don’t know her story, but then I don’t really know his either. At the moment it doesn’t really matter. They seem friendly and quiet, and the apartment is spacious, clean, light, affordable and feels safe.
I’m more at ease now than when I first arrived and stayed with a Tanzanian girl. That was a mistake. We hadn’t met when I was here before, but had chatted online. I soon realized I needed to find a place of my own. It would have been more sensible to check into a hotel than stay with a stranger, but I’m often finding myself in situations that I can’t imagine many other people would do. I’d never have made it across Africa otherwise.
Her life story ended up making me emotional as I watched her drink beer and get drunk in front of her young son. She’d lost her parents when she was young and had no idea how to be one herself. The father of the young boy was also Danish funnily enough, although he’d disappeared long ago – an irresponsible tourist perhaps. I didn’t ask many questions. What the hell was I doing there?!
It was my birthday the day after I arrived. That girl took me to a nightclub, but I decided not to go inside when we got there around midnight. The ticket price was 15,000 shillings for men ($10) and free for women. I just wanted to drink a few beers. Any white male face in there would have been quickly set-upon by local girls looking for a free drink – no doubt more. I wasn’t in the mood to buy drinks for such company on my birthday. I’ve been to a number of clubs like this in Africa. There might have been western women with local men in there too. I didn’t care to find out.
This girl disappeared inside with her friends while I went to play pool upstairs in an open-air bar. There I met a Somalian who’d lived in Gravesend for several years. He spoke fluent English and was beginning to tell me about the current political situation on Zanzibar before this girl came to check on me. I was actually more interested in another building that stood beneath tall swaying palm trees a short distance away. ‘Bwawani Squash Club’ was written in blue against the crumbling white paintwork on the sidewall. It seemed an odd location for a squash court, right in the middle of a car park, but then I was surprised there was even a squash court on the island. I walked there several evenings ago, met some of the members (all Zanzibarian) and almost dehydrated on a court with no air-conditioning. When I stepped outside it felt cool and refreshing. It was around 8pm and 25ºC. Maybe I’ll write a blog post about the club. It’s a bit different from the one I played at in Dorchester before leaving.
I have all my hand-written journals and country maps of Africa with me. I also printed off my blog-posts from the journey, which provide a foundation for the book. I can’t say I find it easy at all, the writing that is. I keep having conflicting thoughts about whether I should be writing in the present or the past, or both, then I deconstruct sentences and paragraphs when I should just move on and come back at a later time. I’ll read a book, enjoy the author’s style, then wonder if my voice is coming across as clearly as I want it to be. I’m not sure there is any right or wrong way to go about this?
I left the writing just before Christmas. I was mid-way through Mauritania – chapter 4, which is where I’m about to pick up from. When I’m not writing there is always the reading material I brought with me, and it’s not hard to find someone to practice my Swahili with. Oh, I forgot to mention, my return ticket is booked for the end of April, but I’ll see how I get on over the next few months. Should you be heading this way at any point, on a bicycle or not, feel free to look me up.