Kittie Howard


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Little Box in Zanzibar

When the Kenyan Airways flight from Nairobi, Kenya, landed in Dar es Salam, the capital of Tanzania, I didn't know what to expect. Those few I knew who had visited Dar had described the city as 'sleepy' and then turned to talking about how they'd climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanazania's famed mountain and exotic attraction in the late 1980s tourists knew about but hadn't yet conquered. Nor had tourists swarmed to the Serengeti for photo safaris. Roads leading outside Dar turned into unpaved challenges.

So this trip focused on Zanzibar, the coastal 'spice' island where so many of David Livingston's 19th century explorations had begun and ended.

As warned, Dar turned out to be sleepy. Buildings were mostly baroque and representative of the country's colonial past or cinder-block utilitarian and representative of the Soviet Union's influence. Unlike Nairobi, few cars traversed the downtown's paved streets, and even fewer people were on sidewalks. Those who did were solemn-faced. Shopkeepers waited behind window displays with scant merchandise. Like many countries in Africa during this period, Tanzania struggled to establish a foothold, both politically and economically.

With a sense of relief, we boarded the hydrofoil for Zanzibar, the only passengers on this sleek new vessel. Once we'd cleared the mainland, a young lady emerged from the pilot's cabin and joined us. She and her husband, the pilot, were from South Africa and had gambled their futures Zanzibar would turn into a tourist destination their hydrofoil could service.

As it turned out, they were right. Dar es Salaam now bustles with activity and shines from travel magazines. Zanzibar has an international airport, an international film festival, and tucked-away resorts high-end tourists seek. Whenever I see an advertisement for either, I sometimes wonder if that couple survived the lean, in-between years. I hope so.

In the meantime, the Indian Ocean's fresh air rejuvenated spirits, and we enjoyed the ride. After docking, we wished the young couple well and made our way to a quaint house not far from Stone Town, the former capital of the Zanzibar Sultanate, where we'd secured reservations before leaving Nairobi.

But, as it turned out again, we were the only guests. With scant running water in the un-airconditioned room, we patted water on our faces, set up the mosquito net, then shut the windows. We'd have to return from Stone Town before the mosquitoes found a way in through the loose frame (and, to our surprise, would swarm the white netting until it practically turned black).

As we neared Stone Town, our eyes widened. It was as though we walked into National Geographic, as close to a surreal experience I've ever experienced. Not only was it the visual experience of children playing in the town's dusty square near the historic Old Fort or vendors selling corn roasting on portable stoves or vegetables for sale or women gossiping beneath gnarled trees -- much of this existed elsewhere in Africa as well.

No, it was a combination of all of this and the Indian Ocean dotted with dhows -- and, more -- it was the scent of cloves. . . everywhere . . . on people's skin and clothes like the finest perfume . . . dancing on every ocean breeze . . . resting in narrow passageways . . . everywhere.

We bought ears of roasted corn and sat beneath one of the trees -- very happy we were the only tourists -- and munched our corn. A middle-aged woman approached us. In her hands she held a box that was about four inches by six inches.

She had made the box entirely of cloves. When I opened the lid, it was as though every holiday treat ever baked wrapped around my senses and brightened every smile ever smiled.

She wanted to sell me the box. When I asked how much, she replied, "One thousand dollars."

Two other women joined us, each with boxes. Some good-natured bargaining followed. The price changed to $100,000.

Ahem, that's a lot of money.

Convinced they'd met me half-way, the ladies were disappointed when I didn't buy one of their boxes.

I was, too.

But through the years, the memory of how a simple spice floated on breezes has made me think upon occasion . . . as it did after the massacre in New Town . . . as it did after the bomb explosions in Boston . . . for there was a time when a certain innocence prevailed . . . when a day began without tears for a loved one or friend or a stranger's heavy heavy heart didn't slow steps . . . and the thought of what-might-be wasn't held prisoner by what-had-been . . . so, as if reading my thoughts, my husband, a marathoner and tri-athlete who ran Boston some years ago, asked, "What if go to Boston next year to watch the Marathon?"

"Sure," I said. "I'm in."

And we returned to the television and the horrific events in Boston. . . it's all so sad, so very sad . . . but a sense of resolution and support propels one forward.



(Note: This in the second in a series of Things That Happened Along the Way.)


Approaching Zanzibar by air.  (Wikipedia)


Stone Town (Wikipedia)








26 comments:

Out on the prairie said...

Wow what a glorious experience.a favorite African book is Things Fall Apart.Going out of Kenya a friend was detained to make sure his books weren't bibles.

Julie Flanders said...

Oh my, your description of Stone Town is so vivid I almost felt like I was walking in there with you. What an amazing experience this must have been.

Suze said...

'As warned, Dar turned out to be sleepy. Buildings were mostly baroque and representative of the country's colonial past or cinder-block utilitarian and representative of the Soviet Union's influence. Unlike Nairobi, few cars traversed the downtown's paved streets, and even fewer people were on sidewalks. Those who did were solemn-faced. Shopkeepers waited behind window displays with scant merchandise. Like many countries in Africa during this period, Tanzania struggled to establish a foothold, both politically and economically.'

Kittie, this paragraph in particular stands out to me and says you have a real talent for describing place in such a way that it reads very, very fluidly -- an almost hypnotic rhythm -- but the content is so fresh and subtly unexpected that it keeps you quite awake, if that makes sense.

I can see you writing more than just short fiction for magazines. Can you? Have you?

gigihawaii said...

I have never been to Africa. Your description of the mosquitoes made me shudder and remember the 10 months I spent in Thailand. Above all, I hate mosquitoes.

William Kendall said...

A very vivid description of the place, Kittie! It's a part of the world I'd like to see for myself someday.

Crystal Collier said...

The mosquito detail made me shiver. I'm happy. Florida is good.

LOL.

But seriously, what an adventure! One day I'm going to do it too.

David Macaulay said...

very evocative and poignant - I've always wanted to visit Zanzibar

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Honestly, Kittie, I'm experiencing this trip through you. Have you ever thought of writing for travel magazines? I'd read every article!

Jen Chandler said...

Kittie,
This is a glorious post. I've never actually considered Zanzibar as a travel destination but I will now.

There is something to be said about those moments where you are IN the moment, no plagued by any outside worry or influence. I had several of those moments in India. They were very surreal and they are ones I will never forget.

Jen

Ms Sparrow said...

I wonder if the price the woman asked for the box made of cloves wasn't a figure she got from a movie.
Or maybe she didn't really want to sell it. I'm glad you weren't in Boston for the marathon.

Mary Aalgaard said...

I feel warmed and inspired by your writing today.

And, thanks for the compliments on Millie and Willie. They are a hoot, that's for sure. I think they need their own show!!!

Denise Covey said...

What an exotic journey and an exotic destination. I love the photos too. Hope all goes well in Louisiana.

Denise

Thyra said...

Hej Kittie, I can see it all through you, I can smell the cloves and feel the air. You always make me experience it all.
And you have been there in all those exciting places before the change.

I know what you mean about the innocence. Once we had that feeling of innocence. Although there had been a second world war and the cold war, we lived through good hopeful years with a feeling that we might finally have learned how to behave, that we had might finally have learned to be civilized humans. A wonderful feeling of Hope.

I am so sad about Boston. I am still so sad about 9/11. I am not sure we will ever have the same feeling of innocence and safety again.

Even little children are afraid because they know too much.

Grethe

Thank you for a wonderful story. Please keep on, Kittie.

Gail Dixon (Louisiana Belle) said...

Oh my goodness, I can't imagine so many mosquitoes that they turned the netting black. And scant running water? Don't know if I could survive those conditions. But I enjoyed your story! My heart aches for Boston and now West, Texas. :(

Cape Cod Kitty said...

Enchanting and aromatic words, Kittie. You must indeed write for travel publications...
From your friend in stricken but shining Boston, and more unfolds this morning. The marathon is a very special event in my life and this hurts so deeply. No sleep this week for this proud Bostonian and family.

Inger said...

The entire journey sounds amazing, I can smell the spices. Zanzibar sounds so romantic, but I never knew anyone who had actually been there. Thanks for this journey as a break in all the bad stuff on TV.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Kittie .. I've always wanted to go to Zanzibar since I was a kid .. but have never made it - ended up in South Africa!

I'd love to smell the spice of the islands and see round ...

the thing you haven't mentioned is Freddie Mercury was born in Zanzibar ...

I'd still love to see the dhows, the colours, the vibrancy, the sleepiness - exactly as you describe it ..

The Boston tragedy is terrible - I hope our London Marathon is safe tomorrow ..

Cheers Hilary

☆sapphire said...

Thank you so much for this post on Zanzibar. I've long wondered what Zanzibar is like since I learned that Freddy Mercury was born and grew up there. Stone Town looks really wonderful! I wish I could visit the city! I also enjoyed your former post on Greece. Thank you, Kittie. I too think Greek cuisine is GREAT,

I'm so sorry about the Boston tragedy. I do not know why such terrible things happened there. My heart and prayers are with Boston!

Vagabonde said...

I understand scant water or no water. Once while in Algeria in winter when I was in the shower with shampoo on my hair the water stopped. I had an idea there was a problem when I went in the bathroom and saw two large plastic bottles full or water! Zanzibar sounds so wonderful. I have been to Africa several times but only to Ethiopia on that side of Africa. I have traveled to places I would not visit now – it has become too insecure. I was glued to the TV yesterday (I rarely watch it) and was so happy that the suspect was found. I stopped into Boston airport to change plane once but have never visited the town – now I’ll do that.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hi, Kittie,

I just wanted to remind you that I did a feature on your book this weekend. Drop by when you get a chance. You were my R, post for the A-Z.

Tomorrow I am posting S, so scroll down to yours.

I hope you like the intro I created for you.

Michael

Sandra said...

Beautiful story, thank you, Kitty, and so beautifully described.

My best wishes to you from Sandra

Sandra said...

Beautiful story, Kitty, and so beautifully described.

My best wishes to you from Sandra

Sandra said...

Love this story, thank you!
So beautifully described and written.

My best wishes to you from Sandra

Sandra said...

Hello Kitty

I loved this story, thank you!
So beautifully described and written.

My best wishes to you from Sandra

Sandra said...

Hello Kitty

I loved this story, thank you!
So beautifully described and written.

My best wishes to you from Sandra

Sandra said...

Hello Kitty

I loved this story, thank you!
So beautifully written and described.

My best wishes Sandra