travel

“… culture… is an ensemble of texts…

…which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong.” – Clifford Geertz

—-

I ate dinner last to the Muslim call to prayer, heard in surround, from the roof of the Pyramid Hotel. The calls came from three different mosques. They started on a slight delay, one after another; out-of-sync, nearly harmonizing. Ascents and vibratto wrapped around each other. The crackling bull-horn speakers turned the male voices into horns – deep trombones and lilting saxophones playing minor, off-key, beautifully. They grew in strength and more seemed to join in – there may have been more than three to start with, it’s hard to say; there seems to be a small neighborhood mosque on every third corner – until they washed out, receeding, drawing back to fade away. I missed the last notes, only realizing it was over when the dogs and laughing children returned to the foreground.

I picked up the oily bits of newspaper that had contained my food – I’d finally found real street food, bought enough for dinner and the next days’ lunch. There had been a fabled food market near Forodhani Gardens but it’s shut for renovations and the heir-apparent, a strip of tables on the waterfront where men in white chef’s hats and coats with perfect English try to tell you that they caught the lobster and crab, seafood on skewers, that they’re selling for 3,000 shilingi a piece. (Roughly the same amount that, on Kilwa Masoko, got a real fishermen to show up with live crabs in baskets, caught less than ten minutes away, and enough to feed a camp of archaeologists for two days.) “Sister, sister,” one of them called out, over-hearing Brian and I laugh at the price, “you come all the way from America and won’t spend a little money?” They didn’t need my money – the British woman in front of me, clutching at her husband’s arm in glee was gushing about how cheap it all was, and filled piled her plate high. I’ve been meandering the back streets, convinced that the locals have to be eating something, somewhere, that they aren’t cooking in their homes and finally, found it.

2,000 shillingi got me two andazi (donut-like-things is the quick description; my favorite type are the fluffly, eggy white ones that are probably nothing but lard and oil, but somehow bear a resemblence to cheesecake and, every now and then, when I’m lucky – and I was lucky – are flavored with cardamom), a small bunch of grapes, three lychee (actually, they weren’t lychee but a thicker-skinned, hairier cousin that taste the same, and, actually, the man gave them to me for free since he was trying to close up his cart and normally sold them by the massive branch), a kebabu (ground meat, well-flavored, with a bit of boiled egg in the center), a samosa, and the most amazing of all oily-fried Indian savory-pastries, a thing that the man in the cupboard of a shop described as “bread made from fish”, looked like a greasy pancake, and involved flaky smoked white fish, carmalized onions, ginger, garlic, cumin, cardamom, and possibly tamarind. (The food on Songo Mnara was good (the crab probably the best I’ve ever had, and the octopus one night, interesting), but weeks of the same permutations of rice, beans, fried fish, chapati, boiled spinach, stewed chicken… Getting to Zanzibar to walk around the expensive restaurants catering to Europeans with menus outside describing Indian-local-French fusion cuisine that I really can’t afford has been rather painful. It’s taken several days in Stonetown to find interesting cheap food and I’m ecstatic.)

I took them all, wrapped in newspaper, up to the roof – normally they serve breakfast there, but it was empty at night – and ducked past the clothes line to sit in one of the ancient, cracked and wilting, fake-leather arm-chairs and stare out at the city. The Pyramid Hotel, so-called due to the steep wooden staircases throughout the halls that lead you up, up, and farther up, is a small guesthouse. It’s in an old local house (or three); dazzling walls, white-washed and sparkling, and carved wooden accents, stained dark to match the mangrove rafters in the ceilings. It’s buried in Stonetown’s maze, off the tourist strip of luxury spas in the old colonial mansions, and not quite to the still-local mess of all-purpose shops and antique sewing machines.

—–

I’m not a very good tourist.

I’ve been in Stonetown nearly five days, now, and I’ve yet to: go swimming at the beach (the mzungu beach outside of town, mind), buy anything in the market (I did haggle – on a friend’s behalf), go into any of the museums, hire a tour guide, get on a dhow to go to Prison Island, watch the sunset from the rooftop bar at the Africa House Hotel, formerly the British Club (… well, fine, I did once, the first day).

I’m not, really, a tourist. I suppose. (Sitting outside the little house on Songo Mnara with flashlights, maps, guidebooks, and several other students, picking the dig director’s brains about Zanzibar – just mentioning his name has opened doors and gets immense smiles here; they all want to know how he is, when I’ll see him again, if he’s coming – he told us to “just go revel in being a tourist”.) I did do a Spice Tour. That counts, right?

I’ve been grumbling about the prices, pretending to barely speak English, and aiming for the parts of town where they’re surprised to see me. I have been taking full advantage of the ocean view (from the small, half-local watering holes with blue plastic chairs and lurching tables), and enjoying the real coffee cup by cup.

“Tourists don’t know where they’ve been [and] travellers don’t know where they’re going,” Paul Theroux said. It’s over-quoted, self-aggrandizing – but true.

I’m not even sure if I’m a traveller.

James Clifford, in a book about the anthropology of travel that I wish I’d brought with me as I hadn’t finished reading it and there’s so many bits that keep springing to mind, said that anthropologist are “homebodies abroad”.

I’ve settled in. I’m recognized as a regular at several restaurants and street corners, say hello to the same young girls walking to school and grandmothers sitting under trees each day. I’ve formed a routine – far more of one than I ever keep at home. Brian and I immediately found what seem to be the only two places in town where you can both get a beer and drink it with locals – a feat, in a muslim town – and I discovered the most incredible, amazing, perfectly spiced, balanced, and brewed cup of chai masala that I’ve ever had in my life – at Passing Choo (it’s had nods from travel books, but is still undeniably a local restaurant, where the men sit for hours and I cover my head before I go in).

I spent the first few days in Stonetown with Brian, an archeaology grad student from the dig, and I hadn’t realized what a difference the “male presence” made until he went back to Dar. I’ve heard women talk about putting on fake wedding rings and creating stories of husbands when they travel; I’ve always been a little disgruntled about the tactic, and after trying it once, to my own shame, I’ve decided to try long sleeves and covering my hair instead. It seems to be working. Instead of the young men asking why I’m not with him, is he coming back, how he let me come alone, whether I want some company while he’s away, how they have a wife/girlfriend far away and isn’t it lonely, the old men are telling me that I am welcome to sit as long as I like and teaching me more Swahili. I was afraid at first that, white and blonde, it would be taken as a mockery of their culture and religion – actually, they seem delighted. When I was loosely draping the scarf (not a proper head-scarf, just barely making a hood) and old man stopped to raise his thumbs, tell me that it was good, very good.

I’d been hoping to write more; I’ve had a terrible case of writer’s block for months on end now, combined with nothing to write about – nothing but my own mundane daily life. Now that I have the exotic locals and interesting people to write about, it doesn’t feel right. I’ve been making friends. You can’t write about friends; it just isn’t fair. You can extract bits, here and there, try to reassemble, but that feels inaccurate. (I think I read too much postmodern anthropology, last term, and not practical ethnographic guidelines. I’ve got Clifford Geertz in my head arguing with himself about “webs of meaning” and contextual systems of symbolic decoding.)

—-

Back to Dar es Salaam tomorrow.

I’ve hit the internet cafes a little more than I would like, with a little less accomplished and arranged than I wish – still haven’t made any final decisions about the rest of my trip. I’ve too many wheres and almost no concrete whens. I’ve an invitation to go visit a family in Iringa and be taken to some nearby villages, there’s an organization in Arusha dealing with conservation and research of rock art sites that I’m desperate to volunteer for (RACC) and a paleoanth conference commemorating the 50th anniversary of Mary Leakey’s discovery of Zinjanthropus. I’m eager to get back to Dar to go spend some time in the library at the University of Dar es Salaam. (Between that and the dual Darwin anniversaries this year, its been a big year for paleoanthropology.)

Photos

Zanzibar

https://www.flickr.com/photos/noellejt/albums/

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