There is something strange about the way that time seems to expand and contract when you are travelling. Some days it seems like there’s aeons remaining, then suddenly you realise you’re leaving soon and want to do all those little things you’ve not got around to. Such has been our situation these past weeks.
We had one final trip away from Nairobi, but left rather later than planned as Orri was bitten by a dog, so we wanted that to heal a little first. Continuing in the vein of Swahili culture which we had so enjoyed in Old Town Mombasa and Lamu, we went this time to Zanzibar – an island off Tanzania. The name alone is enchanting…one of those Faraway Place names like Timbuktu, but also a word that gently works every part of your mouth as you say it.
I had been many years ago and had fond memories, but this time we were in for a surprise. On arrival I noticed it was rather noisy and this was down to a great many generators whirring away. The reason is confounding. Zanzibar gets its power through under-sea cables from the mainland, in Dar es Salaam. Dar had to do some maintenance work back in December so had to turn off all the power. When the work was complete, without informing the Zanzibari distribution plant, Dar turned on all the power and the sudden surge caused the Zanzibari distribution plant to blow up! The poor Zanzibaris have had to put up with 37degree heat and no power (=no fan or A/C) for 3 months already.
Despite the noise and heat, somehow we enjoyed ourselves immensely. The island itself is famous for its spice production, especially cloves. We took a trip to a spice farm where we were able to see many spices fresh from the tree, and taste them. Above is a nutmeg enshrined its sibling spice, mace. There are also myriad weird and wonderful fruits (in the topmost image are rambutans, similar to lychees), some so weird they’re quite revolting…has anyone tried durian? Something I can only describe as a combination of pineapple, banana, onion and garlic, but certainly not as good as any of them! And so it was a culinary feast, but also a visual one…the carved wooden doors, beautiful old houses and stained glass in their faded beauty being even more stunning than in Lamu.
There is a spectacular coastline around Zanzibar and we made a couple of journeys around the island in the beautiful dalla dallas – large pick up trucks with an open sided wooden canopy built on, the roof of which seems strong enough to hold a ton of pineapples, 20 sacks of charcoal, a basket of yellowfin tuna and a lot of bundles of firewood. It is the best way to see the island as you get the breeze rushing past, you sit sideways so the passing scenery is like a real life cinema, and the cast is a continually changing crowd of characters and comedians. You also redefine your conception of ‘full’ on dalla dallas. We once waved one on seeing that it was ‘too full’ to fit us in. On a later ride however, I remember thinking to myself, “that other dalla dalla was so far from full!”. Seat belts are not required as you are literally wedged in.
But overall what we enjoyed most was roaming the streets of the ‘capital’ (traversable in 10mins by foot) Stone Town, getting chatting to people and peering into dusty antiques shops and woodcarvers’ workshops. One such individual, our new friend Fundi Humudi (Fundi = Kiswahili for ‘specialist’ of any craft or discipline) seemed to be a woodcarver and antique/ ‘junk’ collector all in one.
The only problem was that he collected them in piles. And there was a lot. And this is how the story goes. One day towards the end of our stay we walked past Fundi Humdi’s shop. The reason we walked past is because it didn’t seem like a shop. He was repairing an old bed in the doorway and something made us backtrack and go in. Through the piles of Wooden Things and dusty gloom I could see he had some beautiful objects. Tucked in a gap in the wall was a broken rack of hooks with a coloured glass and mirror mosaic that had been dropping of for while. We murmured to each other that if you cut the ends off to make it two good hooks instead of four broken ones you could use the pieces of glass from the ends to repair the middle.
We knew there was a lot to see so agreed to come back the following day to see it in better light. On our return, Humudi handed me a mosaic hook rack with the ends cut off, and a pot of glue. “Just following your idea,” he said. “But I haven’t even said I’m buying it yet!” I responded. “Don’t worry”.
And so we got to work renovating this piece, digging out old adhesive, replacing bits of mirror, putting new wooden ends on, sanding and finishing. Everyone had so much fun that we never did look at the other things in the shop.
Of course we returned the following day too! By this time we had become good friends with Humudi, and his neighbour, Mr. Khanbai who has sat on his doorstep all day everyday since he retired and desires to be nowhere else! I finally had a poke around in the shop and, hands covered in dust and a bit tired of having to move large furniture to find anything, I said “You know Humudi, if you just gave this stuff a good clean and displayed it well this could be an amazing shop.” And so our fate was set for the forthcoming days.
We all worked hard removing the big furniture, sweeping out wood shavings and broken glass, giving the clocks and pots and Wooden Things a good wash, and even finding a little patch of the day on a little patch of the floor for Humdi’s daughter to decorate my feet with henna….
And then all of these Beautiful Things were displayed in a Beautiful way and we were pleased with what we had done.
The rapid make over drew a lot of attention from locals and tourists alike, on a previously quiet street. The final touch, which we managed to complete minutes before having to leave, was a signboard. Seeing as Humudi had so much beautiful ‘junk’ I thought it would be a lovely idea to make the sign out of random bits and pieces from around the shop.
Humudi was so chuffed he let us have whatever we wanted from the shop, which in my case was the mosaic hooks, and for Orri was some carving tools. We really missed him when we were back and our spirits were lifted when he called the next day to say someone had bought the wooden sideboard we had brought out to be centre piece of the shop, for $300, which in Tanzania is a very good days’ (indeed month’s) work. May his luck continue!
We learned so much by being in the same place (Humudi’s shop) for four days, getting involved. It is so much more rewarding to get beneath the surface of things and really engage with people. I only wish we had met him earlier, but I am sure we shall return.