Backpacking seems to have become deeply unfashionable lately. If the style gurus of the new century are to be believed, those of us with little or no ready cash who still like to travel the globe are nothing more than overfed, over-educated parasites, spending Mummy and Daddy’s money as we gain more and more ammunition for our braying tales of sex, drugs and hedonism in faraway, hitherto unspoiled places.
Once the fun’s over, we apparently return to our city law firms or Oxbridge digs, leaving ruined environments and destitute locals prostituting their wives and their culture in preparation for the next attack. I blame Leonardo. Although he does look rather scrummy in a vest and a sharks-tooth necklace, he’s giving travellers everywhere a bad press. My advice to those who mock, is to try it.
The weaver birds’ cheeping and scratching, and the doves’ cooing in the tree outside my window wake me up with the sunrise. Awakening at this time to grey London drizzle would mean only one thing: turn over and go back to sleep. But here the cool of the dawn is the best part of the day, and I sleepily kick free from the folds of the mosquito net, wrap a sarong around me and lean back against the cool concrete wall of the tower room. I watch Abdul and Mustapha squatting and gossiping in the garden under the big palm as they pound squid against a rock for lunch.
Abdul and Mustapha are real Rastafarians. Their dreadlocks reach down to their bottoms, and the stoned, peaceful look in their eyes never changes. Only selected friends, says Mustapha, are allowed to know about his place – part hostel, part commune, on the south coast of Zanzibar – as too many mzungus (white people) would ruin the concentration he needs to pray and meditate, which is sometimes on the beach by moonlight.
Other, less devout types hang around the beach looking slightly shiftier; Rastafari to these guys means finding a stripy hat or a ‘Jamaica’ T-shirt and smoking a lot more hash than usual. The mzungus can’t get enough of it if you say ‘peace and love’ often enough and charge four times the going rate for pot.
Leonardo’s idyll of a perfect, empty beach, though, is a lie, a ridiculous conceit. Sometimes the beach here causes a sensory overload that’s almost unbearable; it’s hard to decide what to look at next as the setting sun illuminates the seaweed beds with a weird orange glow, as transparent crabs scuttle out of their holes towards the water and the children shout while running makeshift cars in circles.
Everything happens on the beach. It’s a main road, supermarket, bicycle repair shop, barber’s salon, crï¿½che and pickup joint all rolled into one. They call it ‘beachcombing’, and the latest craze is to ride up and down on mopeds, cruise to a halt next to a girl who takes one’s fancy and say, ‘Have you got a boyfriend?’ If the answer is yes, then they reply hakuna matata (no worries), then speed away to the next port of call without wasting undue time on formalities.
In the evenings the small boys of the village race painstakingly constructed model dhows along the seashore. They’re made with infinite care during long afternoons in the shade, perfect in every detail with sails stitched together from old carrier bags and tiny names painted on the side.
The tiny craft scoot along the shallows with surprising speed, and the boys pound after them, dodging the old women plodding out of the sea with bags of seaweed on their heads. Seaweed is harvested to be dried and sold, and at low tide all you see along the horizon is a row of bent backs as the seaweed beds are stripped bare within the corral of sticks, like a watery paddock, that reaches far out into the ocean.
At night, groups of up to 20 or 30 gather along the beach on little stools to drum or to sing Tarab music and dance ecstatically around a fire. Often you see two or three mzungus seated there too, eyes shining, clapping out of time, minds racing as they imagine how they’ll regale the gang at the Student Union bar with their tales…