“Oh man, this is not looking good” I whispered to Arie as we followed our newly found ‘friend’ further into the darkened alleys of Stone Town, Zanzibar. We were on a mission to the banking machine so that I might buy my dinner at the Forodhani Night Market. An open air market that barbecues freshly caught shrimps, squid, fish and more caught daily from the Indian Ocean.
I had made a series of foolish decisions that led to us being in this position. Namely, arriving at the market with too little money to purchase anything, agreeing to buy from a specific vendor, then I capitulated into walking with said vendor on a half hour adventure to get enough money to pay. Stupid, stupid and more stupid. A mere five minutes into our escapade and the discussion, and the mood, turned serious.
Out of nowhere our group leader declared “I can be a very bad man”. He was much bigger than Arie or myself put together. Also, he was more physically fit (even while recovering from malaria) and had obviously experience a great deal more hardship than Arie and I had ever imagined. According to his tale he was an orphan from Northern Africa and had proceeded South to fish in Zanzibar. Once a member of the army, though he didn’t say which one, he also had held a number of manual labour jobs before settling here off the coast on Tanzania.
Briskly walking a few steps in front of us he advised that he “Once had a close friend that I found out was indeed not a friend at all. In fact, we were walking in an alley just as this when I made this discovery and confronted him.” Our guide described that he knew that his so-called friend was about to jump, and rob him, so he acted first. With knife in hand he subdued his would be assailant and properly turned the tables. I thought to myself, “wow, just like in the movies — the bad guy narrates the story”.
I had met Arie only a day earlier. He, a lawyer from New York City, and I had met while on the short plane from Mombasa, Kenya, to Zanzibar. The only two folks without reserved lodging we split a cab into the city then went about finding a place to stay. For about $20 I found the Kiponda hotel. A modest tourist hotel that included a continental style breakfast with the rate. Arie was intent on spending the week learning to SCUBA dive. With a considerably larger wallet he was able to spend money on both more extravagant lodging and lessons for the week. For my part, I was content on being alone and we parted shortly after arriving while agreeing to meet this evening at the market.
Now, here we were, bound in terror, listening to a story that surely ended with us weakly fighting off an assailant and running blindly off into the darkened alleys. Or worse yet, ended with no struggle at all. But it didn’t end that way. Instead the adventure ended just as promised. After a 15 minute walk we arrived at the ATM. I grabbed money (not much money though) and we headed back to the market. We agreed upon food prices. I purchased then ate while sitting with a group of predominantly Western hikers. Everyone was happy. I was happy. We were safe.
I tell this story because I was genuinely afraid that night but I also learned a valuable lessson. I suppose the decisions I made were foolish — but then again maybe they weren’t. It was a fairly high traffic tourist area and though we were in a darkened alley we were still on an island and, I would guess, only minutes or steps away from safety if anything were to arise. The lesson learned is that only by stepping outside of our comfort zone can we really experience anything beyond what is currently normal. Maybe it is the only way we can experience anything worth experiencing.
While travelling I try to stay safe while also pushing this envelope as much as I can. This may include an unplanned arrival in a strange city (or continent), faithfully using public transport while not fully understanding the logistics, and trying food that I have absolutely no idea about. Push the envelope. Have an experience. Blindly trust a stranger.
I wrote a song about hanging around Stone Town. You can listen to it by clicking on the link below.