Street Boys


This blog entry about the events of Friday, May 14, 2004 was originally posted on May 20, 2004.

DAY 209:  The touts of Stone Town usually hang around the main ferry port area where tourists come and go on the two-hour ferry ride to and from mainland Dar-es-Salaam.  Most of these touts, which Willie refers to as “Street Boys,” are good-for-nothing drug addicts usually strung out on crack cocaine, desperately using a facade of charm or friendliness to score any cash from unsuspecting tourists with bogus tours.  A suspecting tourist can usually tell a Street Boy a block away; they often just look all drugged out, or they reek of booze, and they look all disheveled like they just got out of bed.  Street Boys make Stone Town look more like “Stoned Town,” and I’m sure any suspecting reader might have seen that pun a mile away.

I HAD MY COMPLIMENTARY BREAKFAST at the Jambo Guesthouse on the other side of town away from the port and its Street Boys.  I dined with another guest across the table:  Anders, a Danish songwriter/inventor on holiday from his job in the U.K.  Over fried eggs, toast, fruit, spice tea and coffee, we talked about travel and politics, which these days are very related to each other — particularly since I had an American passport.  He told me that I would probably get by, even in the Middle East because I don’t look like a typically American tourist.  In fact, one guy on the street mistook me for Israeli.

From foreign affairs the conversation with the Dane switched to something more local:  harassment from all the Street Boys in town.  It being the low season, the Street Boys were more desperate than normal; usually if you give them the hint that you don’t want to be bothered, they leave you alone and move onto the next person, but in May, they are a bit more insistent. 

Anders told me he was usually good about picking out the Street Boys and avoiding them, but there was one well-dressed guy that gained his trust and confidence over a course of a couple of days.  With this trust, Anders and his friend decided to go to on a spice tour with the guy — only to have the guy’s shadiness revealed at the end.  Threatening the Danes with emotional blackmail (crying after getting lost in a forest) and then violence (“If you don’t give me more money, I’ll beat you up”), the guy turned out to be just another Street Boy — but an elusive one at that. 

ANDERS AND I WENT OUT for a morning stroll around the Arabian maze of streets known as Stone Town, with its many, many stray cats.  He tagged along as I went to look for the location of the one dive shop in all of Zanzibar I heard about that would possibly replace the SSI Diver Certification Card I lost during the mugging in Cape Town, so that I could take advantage of being near one of the most popular dive sites in the world.  (Most dive shops are on the PADI network.)  Even with the help of Willie at the Grace Tours office, I couldn’t find it.  Eventually I just looked on the internet and saw that it was all the way on the east side of the island.

After discovering that, I really didn’t have any plans for the day.  Anders went off on a dalla-dalla to the north to meet up with his friend who had gone on bicycle.  I was just tired and vegged in an internet cafe to work on The Blog.  I was unusually tired, and I figured it might be because of the redness in my eyes; they had been red for a couple of days and I suspected some sort of an eye infection.  With the directions from Eddie at the Jambo Guesthouse, I took a dalla-dalla out of town to a nearby hospital.  The eye specialist wasn’t there, but the in-house pharmacist prescribed some medicinal eye drops.  I walked back into town from there, passed kids playing soccer in a field by the beach.

The walk gave me an appetite, so I went off looking for pilau rice, a spicy rice dish that Zanzibar was known for.  I went off to the Grace Tours office to get some suggestions from Willie; he wasn’t busy at all and just walked me around town to find a place.

“I just walked here from the hospital,” I told him.

“Oh, I live near there, in Kilimani!” he told me excitedly.  “Maybe I can show you later.”

I couldn’t help but think about Anders’ story that morning.  Was Willie one of the elusive Street Boys gaining my confidence with all these strange coincidences?  First he pulled the familiar names of Tony and Helen out, and now this.  I wasn’t sure yet.  However I did know though that the guy that started following us around town was an obvious Street Boy; he “kindly” escorted the two of us to a cheap locals restaurant where they didn’t have pilau rice, but wali, a curried rice with beef that would suffice.  Willie remembered that at that time of day on a Saturday, most restaurants would probably be out of pilau rice and so I settled on the dish that came out of the kitchen in about five minutes.

“What would you like to drink?” the Street Boy asked us.  I ordered a Stoney Tangawizi, a sharp ginger beer produced by the Coca-Cola Company.  Willie just got some water and the Street Boy, after pleading with his kindness, asked if I could buy him a drink too.  What the hell I figured — What’s another 30 cents for a soda? — until I found out he got a beer for more than twice the price of my soft drink.

The Street Boy and his beer came back and forth to our table to “check up on us.”  When he was away, Willie told me that the guy was actually embarrassed that he was trying to hustle me in front of him.  The Street Boy was using the same tactics as the ones the night before:  gain my confidence by associating himself with Willie, who had gained “the good guy” reputation on the streets.  The Street Boy sat down with us for a while for conversation; most of the time he and Willie spoke in Swahili that I didn’t understand.  I did make out the word “cocaine” though.

I paid the food guy and the barman separately, but in person instead of handing the money to the Street Boy like he requested since he had been playing “waiter.”  Willie and I were on our way out when the Street Boy was distracted, but he caught a glimpse of us near the door and rushed to “accompany” us.  Willie and the Street Boy had some words in Swahili, and magically the Street Boy left us alone after thanking me for the beer.

“I told him, ‘Don’t you remember you telling him that you are a cocaine smoker?’” WIllie told me.  The Street Boy was too drugged up to realize that perhaps I didn’t even hear anything about drug use since it was in Swahili, but was also too embarrassed to carry on the charade.  For assurance that he wouldn’t follow us on the main road, Willie and I took a scenic detour along the beach.

WHEN IT WAS CLOSING TIME, Willie invited me over to see his house, and to meet his boss Mr. Ali.  Sure it sounded shady, but Willie had been a good guy all this time, I figured he was just being friendly.  However, I still kept my guard up after the story that Anders told me that morning.

We took a dalla-dalla to the hospital and met up with Willie’s friend Baraka, another tourism student working at another agency in Stone Town.  The two of them had matching button-down blue shirts and navy blue trousers.  We sat around a food stand while Baraka got something to eat; he told me that he knew Tony and Helen too.  Hmmm… were these guys trying to gain my confidence with association with other “good guys,” the way the shady Street Boys tried to do with Willie?

“Tony only stayed in Stone Town.  He didn’t come here,” Willie told me.  Perhaps Tony was smarter than I was and didn’t fall into the possible trap?  In Moshi, Tony nor Helen never mentioned Willie or Baraka or Mr. Ali; they only sort of said “Grace Tours was good,” but they didn’t exactly rave about it or its employees.

After Baraka ate, we walked down the hill into the ghetto of Kilimani, where the two tourism students shared a room.  Walking the dirt paths of the little village (picture above), I greeted the residents sitting outside with standard Muslim greeting “As-Salaam-Alaikum” (“Peace be upon you,”) or the standard Swahili greeting “Jambo” (“Hello”).  They brought me to their dark, very-modest and unfurnished room where a friend of theirs was sleeping on a mattress on the floor after an eye operation.  It was getting dark, which wasn’t a good thing.  Is this it?  Did I just walk into a trap?  Would the shadiness be revealed?  Man, I’m outnumbered three to one now.

For some reason, I still had trust in these guys; you can tell when someone is lying by the way they behave, or the way they often slip in the consistency of their story.  So far, all the details of their encounters with Tony and Helen and even Chetan were all jiving like it was the truth.  In the end, the visit went exactly the way it was intended; it was just a visit for me to simply see how they lived:  in a small dark room with things scattered on the floor and clothes hanging on a line across the room

I BID BARAKA FAREWELL and then Willie and I walked down the dark road that led back into town.  We stopped at a shop to wait for Mr. Ali who would arrive to collect the money for the dolphin and rainforest tour I booked with Grace Tours earlier that day.  While waiting, Willie and I sat outside a barber shop and taught each other languages; he taught me Swahili phrases and I taught him Spanish.  Soon, Mr. Ali rode by on a Vespa to meet me in person, collect the money from Willie and call the driver for the tour the next day.  Afterwards, Willie courteously escorted me back to the Jambo Guesthouse in Stone Town.

While a suspecting tourist may find it easy to spot a Street Boy in Stone Town, it is perhaps a bit more difficult to spot a legitimately good guy that you could consider a friend.  The next day, I received an e-mail from Tony in Moshi confirming the good people at Grace Tours, and I knew that perhaps I had found one.

Next entry: Dolphins, Monkeys and Queen

Previous entry: The Zanzibar Connection

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Comments for “Street Boys”

  • so glad you are back..  we missed you. 
    God bless…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/20  at  02:25 PM

  • Those are some nice yachts in the background of the beach picture. Did it seem like a big stopover for those kinds of people? Just wondering. smile I’ve never really read much about Zanzibar - just heard the name.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/22  at  08:57 AM

  • Erik,

    Glad you’re back.  Yeah, I didn’t mention Willie and Baraka because I figured what are the chances that you’d actually meet them, right?  Go figure!  I’m glad things turned out well and that you got to see the non-tourist side of Zanzibar.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/23  at  08:27 AM

  • Aren’t the Backstreet Boys on the same path of the “Zanzibar” Street Boys nowadays?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/23  at  09:44 PM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Next entry:
Dolphins, Monkeys and Queen

Previous entry:
The Zanzibar Connection


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