Hamid stands brandishing a red umbrella outside The Tembo Hotel wearing a kanzu robe and prayer cap. Gathered around him are a motley bunch of tourists who have been foolhardy enough to sign up for an Old Town tour under the midday sun. Most are dressed suitably with shoulders and legs covered in loose fabric, but Cathy has to rush back for a hat and Mindy, to grab a bottle of drinking water. David wears long shorts with an expensive camera slung around his neck. When everyone is finally ready, Hamid clears his throat.
“Wakaribishwa,” he says, arms outstretched. “Karibu Stone Town. Today we visit a palace, a fort, hidden caves and a house of wonders. Follow me!”
“Er, how long is the tour?” Asks Cathy, clearing her throat.
“Just four hours.” Hamid says casually. The group exchange worried glances. Mrs Mungai asks if she might be able to return to the hotel midway through the tour and Hamid nods in agreement.
“Endelea” Hamid says, heading off feelings of uncertainty. He takes a bold step forward, followed by a hasty couple of sharp steps back as a moped driver, white shirt flying, nearly mows him down. Hamid shakes his fist as the moped disappears around a tight corner, horn honking.
The group crocodile down narrow streets lined with tall, whitewashed buildings. Iron roofs, peeling paint and ramshackle wooden balconies with power lines and cables that crisscross overhead. Ornate carved wooden doorways are flanked by stone seats positioned for weary travelers seeking refuge from the sun. Occasionally a door is left ajar giving a glimpse into a sunlit courtyard replete with washing line, pot plants and perhaps a fountain. Hamid explains the history of the carved doors but the group turn at the sound of a cat fight taking place down a side alley, so they move on.
“And this was Freddie Mercury’s House.” Hamid says with a flourish. “Where he spent many years of his childhood.”
David says,”Freddie who?” but takes photographs nonetheless.
“Real name Farrokh Bulsara.” Hamid continues, undeterred. “He spent his childhood years right here.”
“Bohemian Rhapsody!” Mindy pipes up. “My absolute favourite movie, you must watch it.” She tells Mrs Mungai who is fanning herself wearily.
On with the tour and shops selling fabrics, spices and paintings spill their wares onto the streets over tables or strung up on walls. Bicycles, mopeds, handcarts are parked to one side while vendors lounge on doorsteps calling out to passing customers. Ladies in full veil with henna-tattooed hands go about their shopping quietly. The delicious smell of freshly brewed coffee floats in the air. Some streets are so narrow that the party has to walk in a single file. There are brief stops at the Hamamni Baths and the famous Jaws Corner intersection where ‘international calls are free’. Mrs Mungai shows signs of flagging when the muezzin’s call to prayer starts ringing out from Stone Town’s 50 mosques and David suggests the group take a break, which everyone agrees is a good idea.
“I know just the place.” Hamid says, “Not far.”
The group magically emerge at the seafront, signaled by a warm breeze and half a dozen touts offering boat trips and spice tours.
“No thank you. Not today,” says Cathy.
“Perfect stop for a soda!” Hamid beams, crossing the road to the Sunshine Bar and Grill. The group gratefully pull up plastic chairs in the shade and, buoyed by sugar and bubbles, ask what is next on the itinerary. The Arab Fort and then the House of Wonders. On with the tour!
Frances Woodhams is author of the blog: www.africaexpatwivesclub.com