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Trip 25 -- Zanzibar Walk

Day 2: Stone Town to Fuoni
Sunday, February 14, 2021

Today: 16942 steps/12.80 km/7.95 mi/2h 30m
Total: 27743 steps/21.13 km/13.12 mi/4h 4m

The annual Sauti za Busara music festival was cut from four days to two because of the pandemic. Last-minute programming changes due to travel logistics abounded, as evidenced by the taped updates in the fold-out program. As a result, the event was perhaps not as pan-African as usual. Every act was still impressive and unique, however, and the festival featured performers from Zanzibar, mainland Tanzania, South Africa, Uganda, Algeria, and Lesotho.

It took place in Zanzibar's old fort, with the stage between two crenellated towers. In a separate area, around another stage with amphitheatre seating, were food stalls. Entry was through a metal detector that had fortunately been set to a high threshold; I feared a lifetime of digging through my Clothing Arts Pick-Pocket-Proof Convertible Travel Pants in the event the machine found something that had escaped my attention.

I had purchased my ticket ahead of time and splurged the extra $30 for a $90 VIP ticket, which included access to a seating area with chairs and the nicest portable toilet I'd ever seen (it even had a light!). Most people stood, sat, or danced on the grass; I often did the same in order to be closer to the performers, but being able to sit on a chair was well worth the extra money.

There were few people in the VIP section, never more than about ten on each side of the sound-control area. Among them was a Brit named Nigel -- somehow I knew he was a Brit named Nigel before he opened his mouth. He was around 60 years old and happy to live life in permanent inebriation, enjoying Zanzibar's prostitutes, easily distracted, and dropping the "F" word so often that I'll save significant bandwidth and file space by leaving it out of our conversations here.

"My girlfriend just gave me some really strong weed!" were his first words to me. "Sorry, I've forgotten your name."

"I haven't told you yet. I'm Seth. What's yours?"

"I can't remember." This had me in hysterics. "Where are you from?"

"New York."

"Are you some finance guy?"

"I'm a pianist."

"A pianist!" He jabbed his friend, a Seattleite named Gator who had his legs dangling over the railing. "Get a load of this! This guy's from New York, and he's a pianist!"

I explained my plan to walk an island starting with each letter of the alphabet, and that I had started with Aruba a few weeks ago.

"Where are you going to find an island starting with zed?" Nigel asked, seemingly without sarcasm.

Each act performed for almost an hour, and there was a long setup time before the next one. Seven acts performed each night, from 4:20 in the afternoon until after one in the morning. For better or worse, there was a full bar at one end of the festival area -- this surprised me somewhat in Muslim Tanzania -- and I sipped $4 gin-and-tonics slowly.

"They have tonic water?" Gator asked.

"Yes. Getting lots of quinine. I can feel the malaria flowing away." In reality, Zanzibar has a very low instance of malaria as a result of treatment efforts over the past decade or so.

Almost all the music was joyous and tuneful. The first act, Zanzibar's own Tofa Boy, began with a woman's passionate freeform wailing, followed by the entrance of Tofa Boy himself, playing the flute. Then the rhythm started. The sax player, Alex, had a lengthy solo that had him kneeling and holding a note for what seemed a half-minute, before he bended it and finished the phrase in the same breath. Tofa Boy sang with such crisp enunciation that I could have transcribed his Swahili better than I can make out the lyrics of most English pop songs today.

The second act, a taarab ensemble, was more poignant. Taarab is a defining style of the area, with Arab tonality. Siti Muharam sang her poetry with purpose, accompanied by an oud (lute), a qanun (zither), an upright bass, and a tabla (drum). A few of the festival's groups were from the Dhow Countries Music Academy, whose building -- the old customs house -- I visited yesterday. As I'd listened to the delightful cacophony of a violinist practicing arpeggios, a piano being tuned, and drummers drumming their rhythms, I'd read the displays on various musical forms. The raucous audience-participation style known as beni (from the English word "band") is usually played at weddings, and according to the description, "If you can imagine a deranged military marching band playing as loud as possible on half-broken trumpets, trombones, drums -- only vaguely in tune with each other, but having a great time -- then you will get the idea!"

A group of ten from South Africa sang and danced patriotic songs in lovely harmony, and the Ugandan Sandra Nankoma performed songs of female self-empowerment. "You are beautiful. Let no one tell you you're ugly." With her rich voice and large, curly hair, it was hard not to make the comparison to Whitney Houston.

During a break I stepped out for some food. Frida and Maryam latched onto me, and we shared some grilled shrimp. Maryam suggested a quick trip to my hotel before the next act so she could earn a few bucks.

I paid her for her time, but just to take a walk and talk on the beach. She was from the mainland, and she had met Beatrice, her "boss," in Dar es Salaam. They lived together on the road to the airport, and Maryam had been indebted to Beatrice for two and a half years. She had a few months remaining on their agreement.

"Does your boss treat you well?" I asked.

She hesitated and answered yes without looking at me.

"Look at me," I said. "Does your boss treat you well? I respect what you do, but only if you are doing it by choice and are treated well."

The profession was her own decision; she hadn't been forced into it. Eventually she wanted to go into business.

"You can do that," I said. "You are smart and confident, and you can choose your own path."

And we discussed cultural appropriation, the borrowing of styles not from one's own traditions, which can be either harmless or offensive.

"What do you think of white people wearing kangas?" I asked, referring to a colored cloth wrap worn by women. "Or having their hair like yours?" She had long, thin braids.

"We like it," she said. "It means they like our traditions." It's easily possible to go too far, of course, such as by wearing a religious symbol inappropriately.

"When we go back, can you tell my boss that we only talked?" Maryam asked. When she turned over the money later, she needed an explanation why there wasn't the full amount for a regular session.

I made the explanation to Beatrice. They would have gone home together, but Beatrice found a customer. Maryam suggested that we go to a nightclub after the bands finished.

"You don't have to stay with me," I said. "You can find someone else and make some money."

"No," she said. "It's nice to have a night off."

The club was small and packed. They did not have tonic water, but a Tom Collins was a suitable nightcap before I put Maryam in a tuk-tuk to get home.

"You know where to go?" she asked.

"Yes," I said. "I can walk to my hotel in a couple of minutes." The Hyatt was back toward the fort, but I never disclosed where I was staying.

By the second night of Sauti za Busara, Nigel had a new girlfriend, Sandra, whom he abandoned with me while he went off to dance around wildly in his yellow Sauti za Busara tank top and shorts. When he was in a good mood, he made those around him laugh. He danced with people of all ages from little children up to veiled middle-aged women. But he could easily become upset and threatening. He had bought Sandra a dress and insisted that she put it on immediately. She refused, and he cursed and then got distracted and stomped away. By the fourth act, however, he was accusing her of robbing him. He yanked off the necklace he had given her, and he started hitting her legs. I found a security guard and Nigel was taken away.

The best performances of the second night were Tarajazz, a local jazz ensemble; a group from Lesotho with freeform, atmospheric tones and an almost impossibly low bass singer; and the closing act, Dulla Makabila, who played at such a consistently frenetic tempo that I had no hope of keeping up -- this was the sort of music that made everyone else dance fluidly and naturally and made me look as though I hadn't peed since I passed through immigration.

After procuring my Zantel SIM card, today I began the circuit around Zanzibar. This segment was a 2.5-hour shot east along dusty highways and through neighborhoods with dirt roads. Within a half-hour I was on a narrow lane, saying hello to groups of children eager to practice their "Hello! How are you? I'm fine!" Some of the older men looked at me suspiciously, and I couldn't find fault with that. Who was this foreigner traipsing through their neighborhood? White people don't usually walk out this far.

The second half of the walk was along a busy road, and my eyes soon stang with sweat and dust. The walk wasn't dangerous, though: There was a wide space for pedestrians on each side of the vehicular traffic. It wasn't a particularly interesting or pretty walk; there were clothing shops, electronics dealers, and other features of urban sprawl. There was little of architectural interest and there were few restaurants, squares, or other welcoming establishments.

The Green Travellers Lodge, where I'd reserved a room, was shown on Google Maps somewhat off the main road, but when I arrived at the location it turned out to be a secondary school. "The hotel is farther down the road," one of the students said.

I still couldn't find it and I approached a group of men sitting around and chatting. They had never heard of the Green Travellers Lodge. I showed them the Booking.com page with the location. "Fuoni ngome. Over there," one said, pointing back behind the road, where the school had been. They discussed it for a moment. "He will take you," the man said, pointing to a young adult around 20 years old.

We headed toward the back streets. I'd never have found the hotel on my own, as the building was unmarked. It didn't matter anyway, because when he banged on the door, someone came out to tell us the place was closed.

Fortunately there was another place to stay about ten minutes farther down the main road. The Fuoni Lodge was part motel and part bar. I had my choice of a tiny, dingy room with a squat toilet at the back for $11 or a room twice the size at the front for $22. The small room might have been quieter, as it was much farther from the bar, but the big room had a more powerful ceiling fan, and that's all that mattered on this hot day. The bar music could have been a lot worse: It was light on drums and bass and full of sweet melody, and it lulled me into a nap. My time in Stone Town had been short on sleep, and I needed to catch up.

When I woke up, I walked to the bar, more of a large outdoor restaurant with a small bar area and two pool tables. A customer approached me; he had seen me check into the motel and was also staying there. He was from Kenya and working temporarily at the Zanzibar airport. He invited me to join him at his table for vodka, but I didn't feel like eating or drinking yet. No problem, he said. The place is open around the clock.

My hunger never summoned me to a meal, however, and I'm content to let the music put me to sleep once again. It's a little louder than would be ideal, but it drowns out the leaky sink pipe.

Go on to day 3