Am I in 18th century Zanzibar?

In the back alleys and dogleg streets of Stone Town, locals were sweeping their doorsteps with brittle stick broomsticks and opening up their shops. There were T-shirt and souvenir shops, as you might find anywhere in the world, but that wasn’t the kind of souvenir we were hoping to find. But then, around the corner and appearing out of nowhere, was an antiques shop somewhere in the labyrinth. Run by an local Zanzibari, this shop had four or five rooms stacked high amazing old trinkets. Lighters, compasses, telescopes, playing cards, kettles, pipes, paintings, keys, typewriters, sculptures, lanterns, maps, shirts, knives, and toys. But then there also seemed to be magic lamps, pirate ship wheels, elaborate musical instruments, and a million more items more akin to a trader’s treasure trove than a shop.

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The owner, an Arabic man who spoke good English, was intelligent and a shrewd bargainer, and knew his wares were worth a lot more than most of the other shops in the area who peddled cheap souvenirs. The prices were high and the bargaining was difficult. Jeff bought a compass with The Beatles in place of the cardinal directions; Wessel walked away with something far more outrageous, a pair of wooden door frame beams. Two-metre tall beams of dark wood, easily 15kg each, and intricately carved with Zanzibari designs, Wessel had an idea for a display at his gallery. They were lashed together and protected with cloth, but they were very awkward, weighed a ton and carrying them around the winding streets of Stone Town soon became a problem.

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Dropping off the beams was thirsty work, and we rewarded ourselves with a visit to the Africa House. If our hotel the Dhow Palace felt like a wealthy merchant’s house, then Africa House felt more like a nineteenth century African hunting club. Long persian carpets welcomed us inside the long painted halls of the hotel; the dark wooden walls were adorned with spears, shields and paintings of big game. The bar was a balcony overlooking the water, furnished with elegant chairs and comfortable stripy couches in the sun.

We sat outside, ordered an unlikely combo of white russians and hamburgers, a shisha, and soaked in our surroundings. A lone lateen sailboat drifted past lazily in the distance. The weight of nearly three weeks of driving was melting away with these few rest days. It felt like we might as well have entered the Dakar Rally with the amount of distance we had covered thus far. The beers went down well, and we allowed the bar tab run for a while. We had to enjoy it, because tomorrow we were back into the sweat, the dust, and the wilderness of the African mainland.

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