The Traveller's Sixth Sense: 'I know my rules... and when to break them'
Adventures in Africa
Usually I'm wary of street food, but when I heard about the night food market in Stone Town, Zanzibar, my interest was piqued.
I'm a cautious traveller, but that doesn't stop me from going places that are a bit scarier, a bit more unusual, a bit off-the-beaten track. I pride myself in being savvy, and I have a lot of rules when travelling. Sensible ones, that work for me.
Like, don't eat street food. Don't wander around an unknown town after dark. Don't go somewhere where you are relying on someone else for your get-out route (i.e. a taxi driver). I know my rules, but I think you also need to know when to break them.
Why? Sometimes, it's better to trust your gut when travelling. It leads to all kinds of adventures. And that's what happened in Stone Town.
The sun was going down quickly, as it always does near the equator. We had wandered the maze-like streets of the old town, getting atrociously lost (breaking one of my rules - always know where you are and where you are going).
The streets of the capital of Zanzibar are designed so that any invader (or foreigner) gets lost. Town planning really works.
Our afternoon had been a success, but we were footsore and hungry, so we found our way back to the seafront. The energy was immediately apparent.
Young lads were showing off, taking running jumps into the sea against a backdrop of orange and pink sunset hues. Their flips and dives were marvellous; it was no wonder a small crowd had gathered - some looking on, some trying to catch a photo mid-flight.
A gentle, smoky flavour was starting to fill the air; a scent mixed with the smell of kerosene and spices. The night market was beginning. The smaller-than-expected park was crammed with stalls, all selling hot street food. Large portions of skewered fish, spiced and ready to heat up were stretched across plastic table clothes, while wily chefs with head torches tried to reel us in.
The catch of the day was the mzungu (that is, white person in Swahili). Be savvy, I told myself, don't get sold something you don't want. So I trusted my gut.
Crowds built as the sky darkened. The orange and pink quickly dimmed as the sun slipped into the ocean, the colours turning to a more navy blue, with the white energy saving lamps lighting the market. Usually, I would head home. Dark parks are not friendly places. But the vibe was nice, a calm energy reigned, and so I went with it.
I had been told by a fellow passenger on the plane to Zanzibar to try the Zanzibari pizza, which would be found closer to the harbour. And that was when we met Solomon.
The smiley chef greeted us from behind his stall with a list of ingredients for the traditional pizza - chicken, mince, lamb, fish, some vegetables and, of course, cheese.
"Photo free, smile free, fun free, hakuna matata!"
Solomon said he had the best pizza, and looking at his wares, the clean cooking environment, we believed him. We ordered some street food.
The Zanzibari pizza is somewhat different to the pizza you might find in the frozen aisle or see on a menu. Different is good. A small ball of chapati dough is rolled out, the ingredients (mince, peppers, cheese and chilli) are then piled on, and an egg is then cracked on top.
The corners of the thin dough are folded up and then the wonderful creation is carefully transferred to a hot plate with lots of vegetable oil. Sizzling cheese drips down the sides of the pizza onto this plate, only to be expertly caught and loaded back on.
Potential customers continually stop by, curious but wary, not willing to be sold something they don't want. As with any market, the keen salespeople lure you in, but instead of finding yourself buying a fridge magnet or string of beads, you are being sold food. Trust your gut.
The short wait was worth it. Crisp thin base "pizza", dripping with cheese, held together with egg, seasoned with chilli... it was mouth-wateringly good.
We shared one pizza, and then went back for more, this time trying some of the skewered meat from a nearby stall that Solomon bargained for on our behalf as one of the pizza toppings. We were not disappointed. We told those potential customers to go for it, that the pizza was good, and Solomon was delighted.
It was pitch dark now, and we realised we needed to get home.
We wandered towards a landmark we hoped our taxi driver had understood as our pick up point. Never look lost. Never look confused. More rules... I still hadn't relaxed.
Then lo and behold, a figure started wandering towards us.
"You ready?" he said.
It was our man. Perfectly on time, having waited for us.
Travelling is all about experiencing new things, so sometimes you have to set aside those hardy rules and trust a sixth sense, go with the flow.
Trust your gut; that's the lesson I'm taking from Solomon's pizza.