I was standing at the railings of the fast ferry to Zanzibar. Next to me was a man in impressive sunglasses – a Tanzanian tourist, a domestic tourist, I figured – and we were both looking at a fisherman in a tiny canoe, wandering how he was going to cope with the wake of our big tourist boat. The larger dhows had bucked and bobbed alarmingly enough; a tiny wooden dugout seemed perilous. But the fisherman kept pulling on his handline, not particularly bothered, and the waves fanning out through the warm ocean behind us never did quite reach him. Nonetheless, the smart bystander in the polo shirt said again: ‘A risky business.’ It took quite a lot of convincing (on Sofie’s part) for me to leave a hot, windy Cape Town and embark on a holiday to somewhere as oversubscribed as Zanzibar. Slavery, honeymoons, too many Z’s, resorts and spices – it all seemed an uneasy mixture. I was all for staying in the new flat at Bradwell Mansions: paintings on the walls, greenery through all the windows. No sooner had we moved in than I was carrying all my pot plants out again, taking them downstairs to be looked after by Arthur: old man, migraine sufferer, and (I slowly began to pick up the signs), a bit of a racist.
‘Why you wanna go all the way to Zanzibar to experience Africa?’ he asked, ‘Just go to Khayelitsha. Only six murders a day during the festive season.’
Our block of flats – Art Deco, just off Bo-Buitenkant – sits next to another, almost identical in design. But whereas next door is surrounded by asphalt and secure parking, ours disappears behind the foliage: riotous hydrangeas, ferns, geraniums, trees everywhere which take the edge off the wind. Arthur has a nursery round the back which churns out plants at an amazing rate; he rams every inch of the gardens (and even the vacant lots outside) full of greenery, all of which is then watered and kept tidy by the groundkeeper Wiseman.
‘The garden boy, Wiseman’, says 85-year-old Arthur, referring to someone who must be at least 60.
Sofie said she was going to write a column about this: the loveable old gardener who was also a bigot.
‘I hope the racism doesn’t rub off on my plants’, I said. The spekboom and money plant and chilli and ten or so other specimens that I didn’t know the names of were wedged into a corner of his nursery.
In the end Sofie wrote a column about something else though: plastic waste in Zanzibar; 'Plastic in Paradise'. A scurf of empty bottles and bag shreds trailed us as we left Dar-es-Salaam, stopped briefly mid-channel, and then resumed as we came to dock in Stonetown. Touts and taxi drivers were waiting at the port gates - papasi, 'ticks', as they were called locally. The most insistent were wild-eyed Rastas who looked like they needed a fresh dose of something asap. We were semi-escorted to our hotel, past Mercury's, one of several establisments paying tribute to Stonetown's most famous son: Freddie Mercury. This conservative Islamic port, it seemed, ddin't quite know how to celebrate a promiscuous gay rock star, but went ahead anyway, tentatively, for the tourists.