I was standing in the middle of the road wearing a sweaty tank top and a 30 liter backpack with my hand grasped in a stranger’s tight handshake.
I had just been left alone in a city I had never been to with a mystery man who stopped me on the street. He insisted, rather confidently, that he was the owner of the Airbnb I rented.
How he could have been so sure, as he didn’t know my name or what I looked like, I didn’t know. But for some bizarre reason, I didn’t ask either. I just rolled with it, Africa style. Pole Pole. Hakuna matata.
(Ah, 15 countries later and I’m still as naive as ever.)
He shoveled one last bite of rice into his wide open mouth with a pair of chopsticks before placing his bowl down on a wooden bench. He chewed greedily and gestured for me to follow him through a small blue door. Above it hung a sign:
I followed him into a small room completely drenched in darkness except for the dull glow of an off-color film being projected on a distant wall. Love seats were set in rows in an attempt to forge a movie theater vibe, but really it was just cozy and kind of weird. The mystery man led me to the front row and told me to put my backpack down and have a seat. And then he disappeared like a regular Houdini behind a dark, velvet curtain.
I sat awkwardly perched on the couch as an obscure Matthew McConaughey film played for three quiet strangers and I until a few minutes later, when just his head appeared again.
He looked at me expectantly. I grabbed my backpack and, without any further indication, headed to meet him behind the fabric wall. I was half imagining Mr. Mystery Houdini’s body had disappeared, leaving him as just a floating head. But I stepped behind the curtain to find he was there in full. How ordinary…
And the small office, with it’s foldable table in the corner would have been perfectly ordinary too had every little bit of it’s walls not been entirely hidden by fabric-bound books. I squealed with delight and his smile was illuminated by the bright glow of his Macbook.
“I don’t see your reservation, but don’t worry! We have rooms available anyway,” he told me politely, breaking the subtle spell the books had cast over me.
I snapped to attention, and pulled up the reservation on my phone.
He examined it for a moment, rubbing his chin contemplatively before making a confession. He was not, in fact. who I had been looking for. (Shocking.)
But he could bring me to him! And he would!
And so I was walking through the maze that is Stone Town, yet again. The colors and the charming, sing-songy Swahili chatter sent me off in fits of dreaminess that impaired my ability to listen to Mystery Man’s polite conversation. We walked and he talked and I dreamt and not ten minutes later he was depositing me into a large courtyard.
This. This is where I was supposed to be. The word Kiponda was painted on a sign. I matched the name to my email and showed it to the man at the front desk.
“I don’t see your reservation, but don’t worry! We have rooms available anyway.” He said the familiar words before showing me up to a room on the 4th floor.
Surrounded by whitewashed walls, I sat on the hard, yellow bed for a moment, unsure and a little disappointed. I had booked a place that had declared itself an artist commune. Music was said to radiate through the rooms. The photos showed brightly colored silks and lush green plants and people… where were all the people?
I went down to the reception desk and asked the man hopefully, “Are you sure I am in the right place?” I showed him my reservation one more time.
“Oh no. This is not the place you are looking for.”
But he could help me find it! It was on this road!
And so I grabbed my backpack and set out again.
The kind man from the front desk walked me around the same three winding Stone Town roads for over an hour as we searched for my unmarked Airbnb. My tank top was wet with sweat again and my 30 liter backpack was crushing my tiny shoulders and my usual saint-like patience was worn thin.
And then out of nowhere a handsome man carrying a box of t-shirts came up and nodded towards a door made of plywood. It was slightly open revealing a slanted, jagged set of steps.
“I think this is just the place you are looking for! Karibu!”
I’m not sure whether it was the naivety or the Hakuna Matata or heat stroke but I listened to yet another stranger who stopped me on the street. I shrugged and I followed him up the stairs.
And once we reached the top I could hear it. The music. A man with a guitar sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow. In a room 15 feet away, deep bass was beating the wall furiously. The sweet smell of weed and cigars filled the air. There they were. The brightly colored silks and the lush, green plants and the people.
And I met all of them. And they told me their story. This place was Stone Town Records: the one and only local recording studio. They showed me their rooms filled with equipment and brought me to the producer and asked me to sing songs with them. They introduced me to the first female DJ Zanzibar had ever seen and they promised to take me to live music that night (A promise they made good on.)
A man handed me a glass of sweet avocado juice and said, “Welcome home.”
And for the next two days, that is exactly what that place became.