As an attraction, the history of the Old Forte is not the only draw. Oddly juxtaposed within the old brick walls, there are numerous vendors selling souvenirs; everything to colorful textiles, to regional artwork, hats, bags, and jewelry. The souvenir world was your oyster here. If you were interested, you could even get henna painted on your hand from a woman called, “Big Momma.” Apparently, the old has seamlessly mixed in with the new, as the locals have created a multi-purpose function for the Old Forte. There is also an annual International Film Festival we missed by a few weeks held in the summer, where they screen the films in the amphitheater.
Sherif prodded us along, as we forward marched. Along the way, deeper in the heart of Stone Town, he brought us to an intersection that formed an open courtyard - the air flooded by crossing lines of red, white and blue pennant flags. Here, was the junction of two major thoroughfares and the local men of Zanzibar. They call this “Jaws Corner.” Yes, Jaws, as in the great white shark that you will need a bigger boat for. I still am not sure exactly how the name came about. But there are great white sharks painted on the facade of several walls under the large painted red letters j-a-w-s-c-o-r-n-e-r. Let’s say for the point of the story, I am going to surmise that it is called that because of the many open mouths that meet here to shoot the sh*t. The men meet here to drink freshly made coffee along the concrete ledges, backs against walls to wax poetic, relax, reflect on the day, talk politics, and best of all, people watch. This is perhaps the best place to truly get a sense of how diverse this island is, with the many hues of colored skin, cultural dress and languages. It is quite the cosmopolitan snapshot. This desire to communally congregate is a universal act. In fact, every day my own grandfather is part of a morning coffee group hang that meets daily at the nearby McDonalds. They are called the R.O.M.E.O’s (Retired Old Men Eating Out). He holds the distinct title of the Grand Romeo. My grandfather is the main character of the group, and he has been doing this since his retirement, over 35 years ago. I know for a fact, that this type of consistent social interaction has had a factor in his longevity as a nonagenarian. I also know that this socializing has helped him to continue to thrive since my grandmother’s death.
We continued to follow Sherif blindly. Narrow passageways wind around the city, and double as home fronts, storefronts, and streets for bikes, mopeds, and pedestrians. And the most fascinating, they showcase the most intricate, and ornate hand carved wooden doors in the world. Oh the doors! The doors…the rich mix of culture is wonderfully displayed in the doors. Before I go off on a tangent about the doors alone, which is a real possibility, I will stop myself. The meat of the story on the doors is this: as stated before, due to the spice trade, the population of Zanzibar is primarily Arab, Indian and African. All masterly crafted, each culture has a distinct door style . First, what they all have in common is that they are not single panels. They are normally two doors, most framed in the center where the two doors meet. The Arab doors are rectangular, and typically have inscriptions in Arabic within the frieze. Indian doors have arched friezes, and brass spikes, originally designed to avert elephant attacks. The Swahili doors are colorfully painted, not ornate, but still as lovely. Both the Arab and Indian doors have symbolic carvings that had many meanings, such as clues to wealth, religion, ancestry, or reference to their trade. The funny part to all of this, is that I could try my best to describe it in words, and for some reason, I can’t or won’t. Let’s say this, I was so enamored by the doors, that if/when I have a home and significant money, I would seriously consider being part of the lucky few, and buy a door in Zanzibar to ship back to install on the front of my home. Until then, I will have to settle for my door keychain, and the small version to mount on the wall.
Unbeknownst to us, Sherif had plans to continue with the long walking tour. We were tired and ready for the tour to come to an end. But Sherif didn’t know this. Being a robot wasn’t an option either. All senses had to be on high alert. In the busy rush hour of Stone Town, you cannot hesitate - neither people, bikes, cars, nor trucks. You must be deliberate with your moves, and with haste. One false move, and it would be a classic domino effect. Picture an amped New York but without all the high rises. He took us next to the Slave Market. Like the Olde Forte, the Slave Market is one of the many important pieces of history that remains, and is part of the reason Stone Town has been identified as a UNESCO heritage site (click for more info about UNESCO ). Zanzibar had the last legally operating slave market in the world, presided over by Arab traders until it was shut down by the British in 1873. Unfortunately, as stimulating as this was, and still is, I am pretty sure this was where most of us internally threw in the towel. Our shrinking energy interfered with our ability to genuinely care. To be fair, it was no reflection on Sherif’s capability as a guide. We were just getting closer and closer to being done.
By now, it was clear that we were ready to get back to the hotel. The pace was quickened while we walked through Stone Town’s central market, Darajani Market, which was on full pulse, spilling out close to the street. If you wanted to make forward progress, you had to balance the thin line of both people and car traffic, stepping out into the street, dodging cars to surpass the oncoming crowd. Otherwise, you would have been at a complete standstill. Towards the end, we were in a single file line, not too different than little ducklings following our mother, still very ready to conclude the tour, and our day. In one of the parking byways, which would off shoot into several streets, came a truck with sirens. At first I was not sure if it was an ambulance. It was the shape of one but there was no writing on the side or any obvious logos. Close behind was an SUV with 2-3 armed guards cradling long semi-automatic rifles. Sherif naturally was trying to guide us away from whatever this was or was about to be. We were going to go around and behind them, up the alleyway back to our hotel. However, this happened to be where the truck and SUV were headed, and the one man standing closest to us with his back towards the caravan of vehicles ordered us to stop. The backs of the doors were opened to the ambulance type vehicle and I still wasn’t quite sure what was happening. The swiftness and seriousness of this was getting oh so close to becoming unnerving. I thought perhaps the alley lead to a hospital or medical center, and there was a person inside that needed either protection, or that the citizens of Zanzibar needed protection from. This was a huge production anytime you involve multiple men with firearms. One of the men stepped back and was carrying a sack on his shoulder like it was a dead body. As our curiosity grew as unwilling space hostages, some of us were going to take a picture of the action, and our captor shot that down immediately with a forceful statement. No pictures! The men didn’t take long. It felt like it took me longer to figure out that behind them was a bank. What I thought was a sack with a dead body, held the stack of dead presidents (well at least here in the states). That explained the seriousness of the situation. Perhaps a group of over 10 people is more than they wanted to take a chance with. Little did they know that we were burnt toast and probably couldn’t fight our way out of a paper bag at that point. They needn’t worry about us. Finally, we were released from our invisible hold as each member in the entourage went back to their original positions and drove off.
Finally, after walking a square mile for what seemed like forever, we landed back at the entrance of our hotel. Some day! We thanked Sherif and headed in. All this walking made us hungry for dinner. The group met for dinner at the hotel’s terrace restaurant. It was nice to settle in for the night and enjoy each other’s company talking, and listening to the live music. All good times must come to an end when you travel. We went our separate ways, and I headed to my room for the night. I attempted to take care of some business and return phone calls and emails. I had some potentially exciting news for the documentary that required immediate action. That took a little while due to communication issues but I figured it out. And soon I was off to bed. Lala salama!