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Visions of paradise in Zanzibar

We Don't Sell That Here

Most people come to Zanzibar looking for palm-fringed beaches and tropical breezes. Martin was looking for something else.

by Martin Wierzbicki

My pulse quickened just a little.  I knew what I had to do, but I didn’t want to do it.  Hesitating for a moment, I paused outside the shop, watching people walking in, walking out.  Finally, I stepped inside.

It was a small shop, no bigger than my bedroom at home.  Three aisles cramped in the center and a counter in the back, where a woman stood, looking at me expectantly.  I looked away, down at the shelves and the neat rows of small boxes.  Some were labeled in English, most I couldn’t understand.  Still scanning the labels, I paced through the first aisle, then the second, and the third.  I couldn’t find it.

Reluctantly, I approached the woman at the counter.  She was young, perhaps twenty or twenty-five, but it was hard to guess the exact age—her head was covered with a blue veil and her body wrapped in a white sheet.  She wore the same clothes that most women did on this predominantly Muslim island.

I leaned in close so the other customers wouldn’t hear and whispered the question.

She turned away, then looked back at me uncomfortably.  “I’m sorry, but we don’t sell that here,” she said.  Her voice implied a trace of disapproval.

“Do you know where I can find it?” I asked again.

“There is another shop near the bank,” she explained hastily. “You can try there.”

I left the shop, turned left into the busy street, and walked toward the bank, dodging the hustlers and hecklers who cried out from both sides of the road.  I didn’t need a new hat today, or new shoes, I was looking for something much more important.

Closed doors everywhere I turned

The other shop was nearby, on the ground floor of a decaying concrete building.  The shelves were packed with postcards, soft drinks, film, batteries, everything a traveler could want.  Well, not everything.

Again I asked the question.  The man behind the counter laughed.  “Ahhh, yes, that is very difficult to find here,” he said, then translated my request to his friend and they both laughed.  “Many people is asking me this.  Sometimes we have, but today no.”

“Here is a Muslim country,” he explained, referring to Zanzibar, a largely independent island off the east coast of Africa.  “In Muslim country, it is very difficult to find.  Sometimes possible, but today no.”

“My brother is living in America,” he continued.  “In America it is easy to find, no?” he asked, looking at me.  I nodded my head in agreement.  “Sometimes my brother is sending it to me by mail.  Then I can sell, but today no.”

“But I need it today,” I insisted.  “Is there another shop?”

He looked at me sympathetically and discussed the situation with his friend.  “My friend is saying you can try the clinic.  It is not far away.”

I found the clinic at the end of a long alley.  A narrow doorway led into a small room where a handful of people waited in line.  The old man in front of me wheezed and coughed with each heavy breath.  The woman behind me walked with an awkward limp.  What I needed was trivial by comparison

After twenty minutes, I reached the front of the line.  The woman behind the counter studied me carefully, as if she was trying to diagnose my ailment.

“Are you ill?” she asked, a little perplexed.

“No, it’s not that at all,” I said and explained the situation.

“I’m sorry, we don’t have that here,” she said, neither angry nor embarrassed; I probably wasn’t the first person to ask her that same question.  She gave me the directions to another shop.

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Nice bracelets, but not what I'm looking for

I followed the maze of narrow streets and alleys, through a dark passage where kids played soccer with a ball of newspaper, past the fruit market where farmers sold ripe mangoes, pineapples and papayas, through another market with stacked cages of birds and animals.

I stopped to ask an old man for directions.  I didn’t mention it, only the name of the shop.  With his hands, he pointed to a nearby street, then shook his head, paused, and pointed to a different street.  Yes, it was definitely on the other street, he told me.

At first, it looked like any other shop, an unassuming open doorway, a small wooden counter, a row of neat shelves.  Then I saw it, hidden between a tube of mosquito repellant and a bottle of sunscreen.

“I’ve been looking for this all day,” I explained jokingly, picking up the small box from the counter and handing it to the clerk.  She gave me a weak smile, then wrapped the box in a plastic bag, keyed the price into a handheld calculator, and held it up for me to see.  Two thousand shillings, or about three dollars.

I handed her my money, she handed me the bag, and I walked out of the shop strangely satisfied, with a white plastic bag hanging from my hand, and a box of condoms bought in the most unlikely of places.

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