Has something ever made you so terribly happy that your heart began to ache?
I don’t mean in the poetic sense of the word. Not a sympathetic adjective.
I mean a verifiable, physical throbbing, behind your sternum and slightly to the left. A happiness shaded with such broad strokes of love and longing and nostalgia that there’s no way you can comfortably hold it all within your chest…
I get waves of that kind of happiness when I laugh with my nieces. When my extended family gathers to have a cookout together on someone’s back deck. I get it when my 17 year old cat affectionately licks my cheek, I got it every morning I woke up on the left side of a certain boy’s sleepy smile…
And I get it each time I fall head over heels for a brand new city.
Call it deja vu. Call it love at first sight. Call it whatever you like. But all I know for certain is that there are some cities on this great wide planet that, in an instant, seduce my soul in an unspoken language I all but didn’t realize I knew.
It’s happened six times before and I remember each one like I remember the first time I read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116; down to the very last detail. The smells, the colors, the sounds and most of all, that welcome, dull ache.
The sentiment struck me again as we wound, like merry rats, through the maze of narrow roads leading into Stone Town. As we zipped past ancient stucco-walled structures, marked dramatically with the dark scars of water damage and age. With it’s lightless corners illuminated by stacks of brightly colored oil paintings and it’s out of place neon signs screaming “Gelato” and it’s all too obvious small town charm. I was in love before we even hit the heart of it.
And then the cab stopped.
He couldn’t go any further. The roads in the center aren’t wide enough for cars.
That’s what the man in the driver seat was trying to communicate to me through broken English.
I cursed myself again for my lack of polyglotism, smiled and told him I understood.
I looked out the van window. We were a parked in front of a low ceilinged, white mosque with a big gold door. A mass of men and boys wearing beautifully adorned kofia and all white konzu robes were congregated outside, talking animatedly with their hands, doling out charming grins liberally.
Their handsomeness and grace momentarily distracted me from the internal panic rising up to replace the happy ache in my chest. Stone Town is notoriously impossible to navigate. And I didn’t even have a map yet.
I took my time putting on my backpack, stealing another moment so I could scour the small library of Swahili words I’ve memorized. Did I have anything that might come close to,
“Oh, christ. Please don’t leave me. How the hell do I get to my Airbnb from here?”
But before I could embarrass myself with incoherent begging, the kind driver got out of the car, smiled, gestured with his hand for me to follow him and took off along the side of the mosque.
I chased after him, babbling ‘thank yous’ and he laughed as if I were the most ridiculous little American lady he’s ever seen.
We twisted through alley-like cobblestone streets in a way that seemed unsystematic to my foreign eyes. But he seemed to know just where to go. He pressed on, expertly dodging motorbikes, shaking hands with men who sat on benches with their legs crossed in a stately fashion. And I trailed behind him like his lost little, pale-skinned duckling.
He kept waving at me to keep up, but I couldn’t help it. I was marveling at everything. The batik dresses that hung from the empty door frames of tiny empty shops. The hand crafted wooden masks set out on rickety tables. The beads and the spices and the unfamiliar instruments I imagined I had heard before in an exotic dream.
Women with colorful, silk hijabs and striking eye makeup sat socializing along the edges of the road, all of them so beautiful I looked around for a moment to see if I had accidentally wandered through a movie set. They smiled sweetly and shouted collective welcomes at me, despite my disheveled hair and sweaty t-shirt.
And we walked further still. Past cafes and galleries and a tiny little stand that sold nothing but artfully distressed window shutters.
And we were walking so quickly that he barely caught us. The man with the kind face who stepped forward and asked my guide if we were looking for the Airbnb.
“Yes!” I told him excitedly! How uncanny that he should find me on the street.
“I assumed so!” he laughed “I am just who you’re looking for! Karibu!” He said. Welcome. “We’ve been waiting for you!”
As it turns out, he was not who I was looking for…