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Trip 25 -- Zanzibar Walk

Day 1: Airport to Stone Town
Friday, February 12, 2021

Yesterday: 10801 steps/8.33 km/5.18 mi/1h 34m

I'm not very good with symbols. I can read cuneiform better than I can understand an Ikea instruction pamphlet. When the immigration officer at the Zanzibar airport asked for my fingerprints, I interpreted the picture in front of me to mean my index fingers. He wanted my thumbs, it turned out. I know this because he then asked for the other four fingers together for each hand. This proved to have unlikely consequences later.

It had rained while we descended through about 30 layers of clouds, but the rain stopped by the time I exited the airport. Most of the aircraft on the ground were little propeller planes for about 20 people. Our Qatar Airways Airbus A350 dwarfed them all.

Tanzania's plastic-bag ban is even stricter than the ones popping up in municipalities across the USA. No plastic bags are allowed in Tanzania, period, at least on the mainland. They seem to be permissible on Zanzibar as long as they're not left behind. An announcement to this effect was made on the plane before we landed, and I considered this when my backpack went through an X-ray scanner on arrival. Yet I exited the airport with my few plastic bags still in my possession, separating types of clothing.

I expected a chorus of drivers to vie for my custom, but only a couple did, and one courteously showed me toward the main road. It was just before eight in the morning, the beginning of a humid day.

The directions into Stone Town were simple: Stay on the road until I get to town. The road had no sidewalks, but the raised median strip was just wide enough for walking. I alternated between there and the right side of the road, where I walked against traffic -- driving is on the left in Tanzania. The vehicles coming at me included cars, dala dalas (minibuses), motorcycles, and bicycles. Traffic was light, and the walk was easy as long as I made sure to avoid the drainage ditch and the parts slippery from the earlier rain.

Indeed, it was a much more pleasant experience than most airport roads. Lanes veered off toward neighborhoods and schools, and along the road were butcher shops, snack stalls, a bath and tile store, and the Hindu crematorium. As I approached town, the roadsides were sometimes lush with casuarina trees, and teams practiced soccer and field hockey on large expanses of grass.

I had to detour around the State House but found my way back to the seafront and Mambo Msiige, an Arab merchant's mansion built around 1850. As the story goes, Mambo Msiige's walls were strengthened with egg yolk in its builder's attempt to outdo his friends; the building's name translates roughly as "do not imitate." In an old photo at the museum that occupies the former sultan's palace, Mambo Msiige did seem mighty, with a crenellated roof and pointed arches, a tall fortress compared with the buildings nearby.

Mambo Msiige was made into British offices in the 1900s, and the Hamiltons, the British family in "Zanzibar Uhuru," lived there. It's now part of the Park Hyatt hotel, which I had coincidentally reserved long before I read the book. The Hamiltons fled at the time of the 1964 revolution, and the house fell into disrepair. When Elizabeth Hamilton came back almost 50 years later, the conversion to a hotel was in progress, and she had to sneak into the fenced-off building to fulfill a request by her father. As I sat on the veranda waiting for my room to be ready, I imagined her scaling the wall to what's now the Hyatt's pool.

Stone Town still has its touts, some of which are so aware their solicitations are unwanted that they don't bother to directly address their would-be customers. "Hello, taxi please," said one in the garden across from the Hyatt, talking into his phone and regarding me only peripherally. "Maybe tomorrow," I heard him answer himself as I walked by.

I found an ATM. The maximum withdrawal was 200,000 shillings (about $86), in increments of 5,000. I'm accustomed to banks' giving me large bills that are difficult to change, so I asked for 195,000. Out came thirty-nine 5,000-shilling notes, consecutively numbered and freshly distributed, like a new pack of cards spread out over a casino table.

Near the Hyatt is an office of Zantel, the island's most reputable mobile-phone carrier. I hope to get a Zantel SIM card for better connectivity as I traipse around the island, but timing is not on my side. Or perhaps it is just barely on my side. Because my phone is new, Sprint won't unlock it for another carrier until I've used it for 40 days.

Those 40 days end on Monday. I leave Stone Town on Sunday. There aren't other Zantel stores on the island. So I asked: Can I buy a SIM card now, but activate it on Monday?

"There is a problem," said Mohammed, who helped me. "After you register the card, if you don't use it for two days, it will be blocked."

I could get around that problem. "You're open on Sunday?" I asked.

"Yes. Just a half-day, until noon."

"So I can come Sunday morning, register the card, and then start using it Monday?"

"Yes!" he said. "But there is another problem."

"What's that?"

"Ninety-five percent of foreigner registrations fail. So it would be good to check it now."

I gave him my passport, and he typed in my name, passport number, and country of citizenship. Then he gave me a device similar to the button contestants use to ring in on "Jeopardy!"

"Left thumbprint," he said.

And I knew I was in trouble. A country that still has rolling blackouts has focused efforts on technology to match the fingerprint of a traveler applying for a SIM card with the one provided at immigration.

I provided my left thumbprint, and of course it didn't take, because they never captured my left thumbprint when I arrived in the country.

"Can we try that again, but I'm going to give you a different finger?" I asked. And that was rejected, too, because the system, I suppose, wouldn't accept an index finger as a thumbprint.

"Which finger do you want to try?" he asked.

"I can choose?" There was hope. "Left index finger." They'd taken that one along with three others at the airport, but maybe the system would be smart enough to figure out which was which.

He submitted the print of my index finger. The application pondered for a few moments, as if venturing into new territory. Then it brought up the disclosures screen.

"Success!" Mohammed said.

"Will you be here on Sunday?" I asked. It would be easier not to repeat the explanation.

"No. But I'll introduce you to my colleague." He explained my situation to his coworker.

"And what's his name?" I asked Mohammed.


"OK, then! Thank you, Mohammed. See you Sunday, Mohammed."

In the early evening I walked Stone Town's narrow lanes, marveling at the traditionally carved doors, peering into studios where artists painted bright baobabs and safari animals, and staying out of the way of motorcycles and children chasing each other with sticks. Sometimes I heard the monotonous call of a guide. "Hellospicetourmaybetomorrow," he'd mutter as he walked by.

I kept finding myself in Jaws Corner, a little square where people sit and talk. Four streets come together. Where there might have been a fifth, a TV set showed a soccer match. Below it was a group of men selling coffee out of a half-dozen thermoses.

I sat. In the center of the square was a palm tree, under which men played dominoes, striking the pieces sharply against the raised table. Up the tree's trunk, a sign said, "Free wifi. Please make free international calls." Below it, attached to the tree, was a telephone that did not appear to be connected to anything. Even if it was, it was too high to be within reach, especially with the numerous motorcycles leaning against the tree.

Strung out from the tree to the sides of the square were triangular purple flags, matching the purple of the posted signs sporting a picture of Seif Sharif Hamad, the nominee of Zanzibar's opposition party, who ran against the ruling party in the October 2020 elections as he had for the previous five elections. "Maalim Seif -- Chaguo la wazanzibari," the sign said. "The choice of the Zanzibari people."

The power went off for a moment and then came back on. A man in a white skullcap sat next to me.

"What do you think of Maalim Seif?" I asked. "Do you support him?"

"I support him. But he didn't win." That seems to have been largely due to voter suppression, police brutality, and the arrest of Maalim Seif himself after he reported that some voters were provided multiple ballots, according to an article on Human Rights Watch (https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/11/23/tanzania-repression-mars-national-elections).

"I have a boat. I can give you a tour to Prison Island," he went on. "I also sometimes sell cannabis." I noticed him make a quick exchange as we spoke.

"All right," I said as though those were ideas I might consider.

"There's nothing to do here," he lamented.

I chuckled, thinking he was referring to the pot as a solution.

"No jobs. I have to pay rent, pay food," he said. "So I have to make my own job."

"Choose your own destiny," I said. "I'm sorry I laughed."

He stood up and became more animated, cursing the government for his situation. His voice became louder, and he backed away as he spoke. Then his friend came by, and he snapped back to his former smiling self.

"If you want coffee, they're happy to have you," he said, gesturing toward the men with the thermoses. Then he walked away.

Dinner for my first night was indisputable: the food stalls at Forodhani Gardens. The place has become more organized in 20 years, but it's still the place to be, with families, tourists, and stray cats all chomping away. At one end of the food area, James pointed out his offerings. "Octopus, lobster, barracuda, kingfish, blue marlin, mussels, squid, duck, chicken, gizzard," he said. "Rice cake, chapati, bread."

I had to have the octopus, to see if it was as good as I remembered from 20 years ago. I also selected a skewer of blue marlin. "Spicy?" he asked. "Pili pili sauce? Lemon?"

"OK," I said. His helper went away to grill the seafood. A juice seller came over and I ordered a passion-fruit-and-mango combination.

The octopus was fantastic, tender and blissfully slightly underdone in the center. At the other end of the gardens I tried the lobster and scallops. The lobster didn't remind me of any I'd ever had, and the scallops, perhaps misnamed -- they seemed more like whelks or conchs -- became an exercise in proficiency with toothpicks. But the octopus is still a winner.

Go on to day 2