Stranger in Paradise
Travel Stories: Christopher Vourlias searches for a place to call home in Stone Town, Zanzibar
06.15.09 | 2:19 PM ET
It was noon and the sun was heavy and here was Ken, red-faced and plucking the shirt from his chest. We were waiting for his father, Ikrima, a local hustler who’d promised to find me an apartment by the end of the day. Around us the streets of Stone Town were abuzz with the music of Zanzibari life: women chattering over pots of maize meal, men clacking stones into the empty pods of a bhao board. The muezzins chanted, “God is great, God is great.” Ken might have argued the point.
We’d been pounding the pavement all morning, his stubby legs needing two steps to match the ground I covered in a single stride. God’s greatness looked increasingly debatable.
“It’s OK, it’s OK,” he said, tugging at his collar, while his face suggested the stations of the cross.
Just a few days before I’d been skipping across the waves aboard the Sea Star ferry, watching the green line of Zanzibar’s palm-fringed shores scroll past. After nearly two years of traveling I’d come to Zanzibar for an extended breather—a chance to unpack my bags, iron my shirts and settle into the sort of purposeful domesticity that no 30-year-old travel writer should so desperately crave. I had none of the intrepid, buccaneering spirit of the Burtons and Spekes, the Stanleys and Lugards and Livingstones, who had come to Zanzibar to prepare their grand caravans for expeditions into the forbidding African interior. My hopes were more modest: a couple of months of good seafood and steady boozing, maybe some promiscuous Europeans cavorting around the beaches in skimpy swimwear.
But after the postcard scenery of the boat ride, my introduction to island life was jarring. I was bumped and jostled around the ferry terminal, had my arms and bags grabbed at by elderly porters with severe, down-turned faces. Dubious offers of assistance were made and rebuffed. A fisherman wagged a few crustaceans under my nose with what can only be described as menace. It was hardly the warm welcome I’d imagined. Sweating through the afternoon heat, struggling to find a hotel that, the owner assured me, was just a five-minute walk from the terminal, I found Stone Town’s confusing nettle of alleys—endlessly lauded for their “charm” by travel writers like me—to be a real pain in the ass.
Now it was Ikrima who came galloping down those same streets, tall and lean, a picture of Spartan health in a cut-off Nike T-shirt and white running shoes. When I’d enlisted him Ken assured me of his father’s house-hunting competence. Indeed, everything about Ikrima suggested a capable man, a tireless worker, an f—-er of other men’s wives. I laid down my conditions and he nodded quickly, digesting the particulars. A fully functioning kitchen. Natural light. A bit of elbow room after months of crowded buses and stuffy hotels. Yes, yes, he knew just the place. He led us briskly through the streets, working his cellphone like he was running a telethon. Motorbikes roared past, grave bearded men gripping the handlebars while their caftans whipped in the wind.
It was an exhausting afternoon. We visited dusty houses, forlorn houses, houses with stray, feral cats prowling through broken windows, looking hungry and abused. On the north end of town we came to a modern, gated, white-washed building with air conditioners thrumming in the windows—a sultan’s palace beside the day’s less palatable options. Upstairs Ikrima showed me the washer-dryer, the living room, the master bedroom about the size of a bowling alley. He showed me the kitchen, turning the faucets and watching me watch the water that came gushing out. It was almost too good to be true.
And it was. He named his price: almost twice what I’d offered that morning. A long silence passed between us. I reappraised this Ikrima with narrow eyes: his stringy arms and beveled cheeks, his legs like mangrove poles. Maybe it was the harsh afternoon light that made him look so hollowed-out. I wondered how many rackets and failed schemes had gathered through the years, had compounded the quiet disillusionment of his life. We bargained, briefly, but there would be no deal. Sulking, he took my hand, shook it not unkindly, and offered his best wishes. I left the two of them, father and son, standing dejected in the shade. And it was only now, with the day’s failures behind me, that I began to appreciate the work that lie ahead. A stranger in a strange land, a tight-fisted foreigner looking for American comforts at African prices: Really, now, what did I expect?