Sunday, November 16, 2008

Travelogue: Mobassa, Zanzibar, and adventures with T-shirts

I'm in Zanzibar. I never thought I'd be able to say (or even write) that with a straight face, but it's true. Zanzibar is an island off the coast of Tanzania. We took an organized tour of the Jozani forest where red colobus monkeys posed for our cameras. Before Zanzibar we were in Mobassa, Kenya, and saw elephants, giraffes, baboons, and cape buffalo. In between there is heartbreaking poverty mixed with a surprising amount of optimism and industriousness. The story really needs photos to do it justice, so I'll leave most of it for later, but there's one story I have to tell:

If you've never been to a third-world country I have to explain that the local street vendors have some very well developed techniques for extracting money from tourists. These range from endearing (dressing in native costumes and hustling photographs for tips or a visit to their shop) to annoying (dogged persistence) to dangerous (taxi drivers who take you someplace other than where you want to go and then shake you down -- this actually happened to a fellow passenger in Mumbai). Having been to a great many third-world countries now I've developed some effective countermeasures, the most effective of which is to not carry any money when I go out.

Going completely impoverished is not always practical. Sometimes we actually want to be able to buy stuff, and when we go on organized tours I always make sure to have enough cash to tip the guides at the end. So it came to pass that after the trip to the Jozani forest in Zanzibar I still had a few dollars in my pocket when I decided to walk around on my own for a bit. I managed to shake the street vendors and taxi drivers clustered around the pier, but a local tour guide named Ali glommed on to me and would not take no for an answer. He just started walking alongside me and talking. I did my best to ignore him (I've developed a pretty well honed ability to act indifferent -- it can be a vital survival skill in some places) but he was quite persistent, and after a while I decided that I actually liked having him around. He seemed quite knowledgeable, his English was good, and I thought that having a local with me might not be such a bad plan. I figured I'd let him show me around, I'd give him the rest of my money, and that would be that.

I got pretty comfortable with Ali, and let him take me to some places I would not have ventured on my own, like the local fish and meat markets. Tourists don't shop here. There is no refrigeration. It's 95 degrees with 95 percent humidity. There are flies everywhere. I've got a pretty strong stomach, and it started getting to me after just a few minutes. That Zanzibarians don't all succumb to food poisoning is one of the world's great wonders.

Up to this point there had been no mention of compensation, but I knew what was coming: we were walking down a little alleyway when Ali started on the standard spiel about how tour guiding is how he supports his family. I pulled out the wad of bills in my pocket and was slightly dismayed to find that there was a lot less money there than I thought. I was sure that I had a few fives, but I didn't, just a fairly thin stack of one dollar bills. It was still a pretty good payday by local standards (a factory worker in Mombassa makes 50 dollars a month) but what Ali was doing was skilled labor and I thought he deserved more than minimum wage. And the look on his face made it pretty evident that he thought so too. But it was all I had.

At this point it occurred to me that I had made a pretty serious tactical mistake. I had only a vague idea of where we were, and while I probably could have found my way back on my own it would not have been my first pick. And Ali could easily have walked me into a shakedown. But he didn't. He just took me back to the port, accepted the money that I had, and suggested that I might have something in my backpack that I could give him "as a souvenier". I didn't. I had sunscreen, bug spray, my camera and a pair of binoculars. So he said, "How about your T-shirt?" I said, "This T-shirt? The one I have on?" (And thought, "The one I've been sweating into all day?) He said yes. I figured anyone willing to accept a sweaty T-shirt as compensation for work needed it more than I did, so I took it off and gave it to him. If you are ever in Zanzibar and meet a tour guide named Ali wearing a grey T-shirt with an embroidered logo from Costa Rica, hire him. He does good work.

I liked that T-shirt a lot, but being able to tell this story was more than worth giving it up for.

1 comment:

rabagley said...

Not too long ago, I remember watching a show about a re-creation of Captain Cook's travels through Indonesia (a variant on the reality show craze of the day). At one point, the sailors happened upon some fishermen and scavenged up various goods to trade for fish as a relief from the crap rations the crew had been eating so far.

During the negotiations, clothing went over like gangbusters. Shirts and shorts. Nothing else ended up being traded. US-made Hanes heavy duty T-shirts are of such utility to people in Indonesia that the fishermen immediately latched onto the shirts and did not let go.

I suspect that your T-shirt ended up being quite valuable to your guide and was fair compensation for his time and trouble.