Lost in Zanzibar (Joshua Clayton Satterfield)

        The salty air blew into our room and circled around with help from the ceiling fan. I could hear people talking Swahili in the street below our window and a circular saw screamed from across our window. The streets of Stone Town were beginning to wake up. Our room was on the third floor and only one street away from the beach, but the view was not grand because outside our window was a four story building that was being renovated. I rolled over and tugged the sheet from under me and gave Emma a kiss on the cheek.

            “Happy honeymoon, dear.”

            “Morning.” She rubbed her eyes and smiled.

            We rolled up into one another and shared a kiss.

            “What time is it?” Emma sat up.

            “Eight, thirty.”

            “Let’s go get breakfast.”

            She smiled, parted the mosquito net to get out of bed, and went to the bathroom and I followed her. I could taste a hint of salt in the water as we showered and we had to apply lotion after bathing so our skin would not feel dry. 

            Our hotel, Hotel Al Johari, was tall and thin, with a stair case climbing up the middle that went to the restaurant at the top. Each landing was decorated with African statues and bookcases with small sculptures of animals on the shelves. Shields and spears and paintings of people with long arms and skeletal fingers covered the walls. Breakfast was served each morning from six until nine. We would get pancakes, eggs, sausages, and juice. Breakfast was buffet style and the food was always hot and the juice was always fresh. We took a table near the window and we watched a couple on the rooftop beside our hotel watering a few plants while having tea. Further away we could see fishing skiffs heading out to sea for the day.

            “That massage is going to feel so good.” Emma sipped her mango juice.

            “Definitely. My back feels tight from the plane and that damn bed.”

            The breakfast was nice and we sat there for a while. We looked out at the sea and watched those fishing skiffs get smaller. We watched our fellow patrons come up for breakfast, some looked ready for the beach and others looked ready to get back to bed.

            We rushed downstairs to brush our teeth and finish getting dressed to spend the day exploring the town. I washed my hands and soap got under my wedding ring and I had to take it off to clean the soap from it. The soap smelled like clove and was wrapped in a coconut leaf. It was made of seaweed and coconut oil and other organic ingredients. That soap is handmade on Zanzibar’s East coast, in the town of Paje, and is a staple of the island.

            “Jared, are you ready?” Emma yelled from the bedroom.

            “Yeah, yeah.” I dried my hands and we hurried out of the room.

            We came through the lobby and were greeted by the man at the reception desk.

            “Good Morning.” He said.

            “Good Morning, how are you?” I asked.

            “Very fine.” He wore a big smile.

            We gave him a smile as we walked out onto Shangani Street toward the massage parlor that was only a few buildings away. Most of Stone Town’s buildings are connected and are as old as the town itself. After about twenty-five steps we were at the door of the massage parlor, but we did not see any lights on and we thought it was not open. We had been told it would be open by the gentleman at the front desk when we checked into the hotel the night before. We pushed the door open to find a spacious room and the silence and darkness were part of the spa’s ambiance. The walls and floor and ceiling were painted brown and lavender scented candles kept a dim light. White couches lined the walls and a large, round, wooden table in the middle of the room was covered with magazines and those scented candles. Two women stood behind the front desk looking through a British tabloid magazine.

            “Hey, how are you? My wife and I wanted to know the price of a one hour massage.”

            “One hour is forty-thousand shillings.” said the heavy set woman, with a blue scarf covering her hair.


            Forty-thousand Tanzanian shillings converted to twenty-five US dollars. We agreed and the heavy set lady took me to a room on the right and a much skinnier lady, with a yellow and orange scarf covering her hair, took Emma to a room in the back.

            “You can undress and I will return.” the heavy masseuse said.

            “Okay.” I looked for a place to put my jeans.

            She left and I undressed. My wallet and room keycard and everything else in my pockets fell out after I laid the jeans across the chair. That chair was under an open window with a nice view of the alley and a man riding a bicycle looked at me with a blank stare as he rode by. I laid down on my stomach and covered myself with the white sheet that was draped across the massage table. Just then the heavy masseuse came back in the room.

            “You’ve been here in Zanzibar long?” She rubbed warm oil between her hands.

            “No, we got here last night.”

            “So, you are just new.”

            I could tell she was smiling.

            “Yes. We’d asked last night where to get a massage.”

            “So, this’s your first time in Zanzibar?”

            “Yes, yes. We’re on our honey moon.”

            “Ah, this’s a very nice place for honeymoon.”

            She didn’t keep up the small talk and I was glad for that, because I wanted to enjoy the massage in silence. The masseuse started with my feet and up the back of my legs. I nearly fell asleep while she was rubbing my back and she had to shake me awake to massage my face and scalp. The hand and arm massage was immaculate and I hoped Emma’s massage was equally as relaxing. The masseuse wiped the massage oil off with a small towel and left me to get dressed. I sat on a couch and looked through a travel magazine and read an article on the beaches of Kenya while I waited for Emma. She came out of the room with heavy eyes. When we paid, we tipped them ten-thousand shillings, about six dollars.

            We left and walked through Shangani Square, which was a small park surrounded by several hotels that Shangani Street passes through. There were a few people sitting on a long concrete bench beside the walkway and one man slept against short bushes with his arms crossed over his face and his knees bent. The street wrapped around to the right, keeping in line with the coast, but became narrow. Metal sheets were used as a wall on the left side of the street and a row of tan buildings lined the right side. There was construction underway on an old hotel and we could only see the hotel’s roof over the sheet metal wall. Cars did not slow down as we walked the narrow street. We had to hug against the metal sheets to keep from being ran over when a white Toyota taxi came speeding through with a pair of tourists leering out the windows. The narrow street led to a bustling area with locals and tourists mingling and taxis parked beside the road and one driver zealously tried to wave us down.

             We were hungry from the massage and we had planned to eat at a different restaurant every day. We were not very particular about which foods, though I did not want Indian food. We saw an alley lined with cars that lead to the beach. In that alley was an open doorway with a sign that read: “Archipelago Restaurant.” A stair case in doorway led to the restaurant on the second floor. The stairs came to a landing with a large vase with nothing in it and a young hostess with menus in her hand.

            “Jambo, how are you?” She smiled.

            “We’re good.”

            “Just two? Come this way.”

            “Could we sit looking over the ocean?” Emma asked.

            “Yes, of course.” She looked for a table in the back.

            She sat us against the back wall at a square table that had wooden chairs with blue pleather cushions and rounded backs. From that table we had a beautiful view of the beach and the ocean.

            “Can I start you with a drink?”

            “I’d like a Coke.” I said, looking for Coke on the menu.

            “I’ll have a pineapple juice.” Emma said.      

            “I’ll have it right out.”

            There were two fishing skiffs on the beach, with fishermen in them folding nets and tying ropes. Children played in the water and tourists walked along the beach. A young, tanned woman kicked the water while she walked through small waves. We could see more fishing skiffs set out at sea as tiny black sprinkles on the dancing water and the sea was silver from the sun reflecting off the waves.

            The young lady came back with the drinks and I ordered a beef burger with fries and Emma ordered a traditional Swahili chicken dish.

            “How was your massage?” Emma asked.

            “It was good. She had strong hands and she got the soreness out of my back. How was yours?”

            “She was great. Especially on my feet! My goodness! I didn’t know my feet were hurting like that.”

            Emma held my hands while we looked out over that splendid little strip of beach. I felt her rubbing each of her fingers along the length of mine.

            “Where’s your ring!” Emma yelled and she grabbed my hand with both of hers.

            I looked at my left hand and there was no wedding ring and I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. Emma looked distressed and the couple at the table beside us was staring.

            “We’re good.” I smiled at the staring couple.

            “No, no, no. We’re not good. We’ve got to find your ring!”

            “Babe, let’s get our food, they’re cooking it now.”

            “I refuse.”

            I took one last look at those tiny sparkles on the sea and the two skiffs resting on the beach and we left the restaurant. We only paid for our drinks and the manager of the restaurant was still yelling at us in Swahili as we ran down the stairs.

            “It’s got to be at the massage place. I bet that fat lady stole it right off your finger!”

            “Okay, calm down. I probably just dropped it or something.”

            When we got to the massage parlor the door was closed and locked. We knocked on the door, which was a traditional Zanzibar door, but there was no answer. Emma gave the door a weak kick out of anger.

            “I can’t believe this.” Emma said.

            A man from the shop across the street came outside.

            “You’re okay?” He asked.

            He was dressed in a long white shirt that went down to his thighs with khaki pants and very nice brown dress shoes and a shaped beard that must have taken years to perfect.

            “We’re okay. Do you know where they went?” I asked.

            “You need a massage this bad?”

            “No!” Emma was not happy with him.

            “Sir, I think I may have left a ring in there.”

            “This is not good.” He shook his head.

            “I am sure they stole it.” Emma said.

            “Well, sometimes these things happen. Not always here, but sometimes.” The bearded man said.

            “Could they have sold it somewhere or taken it home?” I asked.

            “This is unbelievable.” Emma was trying to peep through the window.

            “I do know where you can find rings.” He told us.

            “But we need his ring.” Emma said.

            “Can we look there and come back here to see if they’re back, if we don’t find it?” I offered.

            “Yes, but first you should come into my shop and look. I have nice things, very nice things for her.”       

            “Do you have rings?” I asked.

            “No, but I do have necklaces.”

            “We need a ring.”

            “Okay, my friend. I’ll take you” He crossed the street and locked his shop.

            The bearded man led us back through the narrow street and back to the busy intersection, past Archipelago Restaurant, and into a tunnel that ran through a building. From here we saw the Old Fort and the House of Wonders and Forodhani Park. The bearded man took us into the Old Fort, through one of the rear entrances, to the back corner where there were small stands with people selling jewelry.

            “Okay, my friend. This is my cousin, Abdul. He should have something for you.”

            “What?” I said with a blank face.

            “So, I could maybe get something for the trouble of closing my shop for this walk.”         

            Emma rolled her eyes and looked through the jewelry.

            “This is a beautiful necklace, sister.” I heard the stand owner say to Emma.

            “Man, here.” I gave him a ten-thousand shilling note.

            “Asante, sir. Thank you.” He scurried away through the same doorway.

            We looked through the rings and tried to ignore the marketing efforts from the owner.

            “Do you have anything new? Something you just got?” I tried to play detective.

            “Yes, yes. I have this necklace.”

            “No, I need a ring, something gold.”

            “Here is gold, sir.” He picked up what looked like a spray painted key ring.

            “No. Real gold and thicker.” I said.

            “Hapana, no, but this ring looks so very good for you.” He picked up a plastic yellow ring.

            “Thanks. We’re sorry to bother you.” Emma had calmed down and pulled me away by the sleeve.

            We looked through the other stands, there was no real jewelry in them, only cheap touristy necklaces and bracelets and bright colored plastic rings. We left and headed back through the tunneled building, past the busy intersection with those excited taxi drivers and down the narrow street with fast cars to find the massage parlor still closed. We did not know where to go and Emma felt bad. We went back toward the heart of Stone Town and did not talk for a while.

            Getting lost in Stone Town is easy. Stone Town is tall, almost ancient buildings hovering over a maze of thin alleys lined with souvenir shops and currency exchange bureaus and general stores with private homes peppered among them. Crowding the streets are poor beggars and police armed with AK-47s, extroverted shop owners and filthy rich tourists, muslim women covered in bright colored shawls and thick bearded men talking loud. The old buildings wear as many different shades as Zanzibari skin. The streets are covered in simple slabbed concrete or tightly placed bricks. Your eyes bounce from dark stained wooden balconies to sheet metal awnings over shop doors, to plaster arc ways and manhole covers printed with the House of Wonders’ silhouette and you cannot overlook the Zanzibar Doors.

            Each Zanzibar door is a work of art. The doors are thick cuts of hard wood, carved and shaped into magnificent monuments of Swahili culture. They are large double doors with thick golden studs on the face. I was told the studs originated in India to keep elephants away from the doors. Each door has a thick post in the middle that is decorated with elaborate filigree, floral or abstract designs. Historically, the level of intricacy showed the wealth of the owner. The door frame is equally decorated with a rectangle or arced top and a thick metal latch and chain to keep out the unwanted. I began to think every piece of this Stone Town was meticulously crafted to make your eyes weary and your heart dream with all the magic of the island.

            If you spend only one day there, you will see Zanzibar’s ingredients: a slice of Africa, a pinch of Islam, and a splash of India. And it will astound you.

            “I think I love this town.” Emma said.

            “I think I do, too.”     

            That afternoon we found an empty park on Shangani Street and sat on it’s calm beach. We stopped at Forodhani Park, where we sat on the cannons that are pointed out to sea. We had a picture made with The Big Tree, the thickest tree we had ever seen. We stood near the port and watched ferries come and go to Dar es Salaam. We walked through too many streets to count and too many alleys to remember. We visited the old slave market and Anglican Church where we got a harsh glimpse of the East African slave trade. We walked down one street I could never find again and stumbled on to Freddie Mercury’s birthplace. We rubbed shoulders with what seemed to be everyone in Stone Town and now the sun was on the other side of noon and would set within a few hours.

            The Zanzibar Curio Shop, on Hurumzi Street, was the only shop we walked into that afternoon. The shop had every souvenir you could find in Stone Town, but it was not a souvenir shop, but an antique shop. In the many rooms were brass figurines and old hanging lamps, a few old telescopes and small toy boats, tea kettles and wooden statues of African warriors, and all carelessly placed on the shelves that lined rooms. One room was full of African masks and the shop owner’s son told us about one particular mask, which I could not stop staring into the eyes. That mask came from West Africa and was cursed by a medicine man.

            We had almost forgotten about my ring and noticed they had many fine pieces of jewelry. Their rings were not plastic or metal and I picked a thick golden ring and you could get lost in imagining it was once owned by a Persian prince or a slave trader’s daughter or even a tourist’s lost ring.

            “Are you looking for anything in particular?” The shop owner’s son put the ring away.

            “We were looking for a ring.”

            “A real souvenir.” he smiled.

            “Well, not exactly. I lost my ring this morning, after we got a massage, and we’ve been thinking the masseuse took it, but we don’t know.”

            “I see. You lost it, so someone must have taken it.” He fingered a large ring with three diamonds on the top.

            “No, we just—” Emma didn’t finish her sentence.

            “Did you contact the police or hotel manager?” He asked.

            “Not yet.”

            “Do you see it here?” He smirked.

            I shook my head.

            “Someone could do this, yes, but you should not think someone else is to blame for your misfortunes. I think you should keep looking and you will find it.” He put the tray of rings back in the glass case.

            I looked at Emma and she was already looking at me.

            “My friend, you go find your ring and come back tomorrow and shop properly for something nice to take home.”

            “Thanks. We will.”

            “Karibu, you’re welcome. We will see you tomorrow, kesho.”

            We made our way back toward the House of Wonders and the Old Fort. We walked back through the tunneled building and down the street with speeding cars, and finally back through Shangani Square, past the closed massage parlor, and into the side alley that led to Hotel Al-Johari’s own Zanzibar door.

            “Good evening.” The man at the front desk said.

            “Jambo, how are you?”

            “Very good, sir.” He was reading a local newspaper.

            In our dark room the wind blew in the same salty breeze from that morning. Emma turned on the television and sat on the bed to remove her shoes. I went into the bathroom and turned on the light. I looked at my toothbrush, still laying beside the sink, and the seaweed soap was in a small soap dish. And in that soap dish was a thick, gold wedding ring. Emma came in and my ring was the first thing she saw. Her mouth was slightly open and she did not say anything.

            “Let’s just take a shower.” I said.

            She took a deep breathe and walked to the shower and turned on the salty water. We dressed quickly and left the hotel for Forodhani Park for the nightly cook out. We walked to the park in silence and we did not say anything until we got there.

            “You can never, ever, ever take that ring off.”

            “I’m sorry. I love you. And this ring will never leave my finger.” I gave her a kiss on the cheek.

            Forodhani Park was busting with excitement. Every night local fisherman and cooks come out and set up tables to prepare and sell fresh sea food. There was octopus tentacles, fish on kabob, crab claws, and even grilled corn on the cob. Sugar cane stalks were squeezed with a press to make juice and ginger was added for a kick. We filled one plate with one of everything and took two cups of sugar cane juice.

            We sat at a small table beside a soda and snack stand and watched everyone in Stone Town eating and talking and laughing. I counted a dozen stray cats running in the gardens and scurrying for food scraps. A group of small children played near the cannons and a group of young women covered their mouths with their henna painted hands as they laughed. I could see the bright lights of a large ship being unloaded at the port and out at sea was the sparkle of a ship going to Dar es Salaam. The black ocean blended with the dark blue sky to ignite the blanket of stars that covered us and we shared a kiss under that Zanzibari moon.

One thought on “Lost in Zanzibar (Joshua Clayton Satterfield)

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