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ZANZIBAR’S FUTURE AS A TOURIST MECCA IS BEGINNING TO TAKE HOLD

SHARE ZANZIBAR’S FUTURE AS A TOURIST MECCA IS BEGINNING TO TAKE HOLD

I have this thing about Tippi Hedren. It's not just that I think Tippi Hedren is a handsome woman; it's that I see Tippi Hedren look-alikes everywhere. I'm sure you know the type. You must have seen Tippi Hedren in the movies - she was the star of Hitchcock's "The Birds."

But there I was in Zanzibar, alone in the Dolphin restaurant, a lonely, sweaty guy struggling through another piece of curried fish, when a cool, composed Tippi-type walked in, sat down, looked at the brief menu scrawled across the all - grilled this and curried that - looked at me and said in French, "I just can't do it again," and left, disappearing into the island's hot, wet labyrinth of passageways before I even had a chance to say howdy.Wherever you are, lady, I know what you mean. I know part of the charm of travel in exotic places is eating the exotic food. But here's the truth: In many parts of Africa, the food may be exotic because it's African, but unless you're the type of tourist who goes temporarily native, it really isn't very good.

Here's an illustrative scenario: Let's say you're in Zanzibar, and you get hungry. Stranded on a tropical Indian Ocean island 25 miles off the coast of East Africa, you work up a real sweat bouncing around the neighborhood in old taxis looking for political gossip and Persian ruins in the extreme heat and the wilting humidity, then you come back to town hungry and find that your hotel has run out of brown curried solids. You know that there are other restaurants in town, and that if you were in, say, New York, a Zanzibari restaurant would be crowded with half the student body of the New School, all happily eating curried fish and reading the Voice. But you're stranded in Zanzibar, and your notions of exotic food have become extremely situational. So what do you do?

Until recently, this would have been a trick question and the answer would be, "Nothing." Because until quite recently you could have wandered through Zanzibar's dark warren of markets and alleyways, crowded with ornate but neglected Arabic architecture - huge, ramshackle, once-whitewashed buildings built around beautifully carved ancient wooden doorways - only to find that there wasn't an ethnic restaurant on the whole island; that, gastronomically speaking, the place was like Toledo with nothing but hash-brown diners.

After a quarter-century of a kind of political quarantine, Zanzibar is just now reopening for tourists' business. The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world's (and the island's) Ismaili Muslims, has announced plans to build a luxury 200-room resort on the northwestern coast, and within two years there will be a crop of new hotels - a half dozen have already been announced - and, doubtless, not a few new restaurants.

While today the tourist population in Zanzibar rarely exceeds two digits, by the early '90s Zanzibar will be a major tourist destination and its white, sandy beaches will be decorated with thousands of sunburned Swedes, Brits, and Germans plumping like steamed bratwursts in the equatorial sun. But that's then. Now, if you asked somebody in Zanzibar where he wanted to eat, the reply would probably be, "On an airplane."

No sense blaming the Zanzibaris. They want a night life, too, just like the one they used to have when the island was, relatively speaking, an oasis of wealth on a continent well acquainted with poverty.

Zanzibar, at one time, was one of the richest, most important places in Africa, a bustling free port through which most of Africa's resources - including its slaves - were funneled to merchants in Europe, the Americas, and Arabia. At one time, most of the East African coast was nominally under the suzerainty of the Sultans of Zanzibar.

But the end of slavery and other colonial era reforms cost Zanzibar dearly. When independence caught up with mainland Tanganyika, Julius Nyerere, that ambitious socialist experimenter, took one look at Zanzibar and, employing Zanzibari political minions, swallowed the island nation whole, brutally suppressed dissent, made it dependent on the mainland for electricity and communications, and sent an army and a police force there to make sure his rough annexation of Zanzibar into the new nation of Tanzania would stick.

Today, Zanzibar is an occupied country, and if Tanzanians were white-skinned, the Zanzibaris' situation would generate the hot rectitude of modern morality instead of the head-scratching of old-fashioned geography. The islanders despise the mainlanders, whom they disparagingly call "Africans," and dream of the day Nyerere goes so they can regain their former independence and maybe reopen some of their swell hotels and restaurants, just like back in the good old days when the currency was a little less theoretical.

There are places to eat, of course. There's the Dolphin, the placec where the French Tippi materialized, near the old Post Office. It's not bad. There's the dining room of the New Africa Hotel - once Zanzibar's English Club - which is atmospheric, but the terrace bar overlooking the sea is the attraction, not the kitchen. And there's the Spice Inn, which sometimes serves food to nonresidents, but where the sullenness of the staff eventually becomes tedious.

The Hotel Ya Bwawani has a real restaurant, but the hotel is run by the Tanzanian government, which means the cooks are underpaid civil servants, and the meals are decidedly institutional, the sort of stuff third-world postal workers might feed each other.

Finally, there's "Local Food in Zanzibar," a dark and eternally empty cafe. The owner's looking to draw tourists, but when I suggested to him that he'd be better off hanging out a sign that said something simpler, like "Mustafa's Eats," he only smiled shyly. All these places are extremely inexpensive, of course, and they all serve large helpings of rice along with some local protein source, and tropical fruit, which grows with enthusiasm all over the island.

Fortunately for recent travelers to the island, a thin, sandy-haired, raggedly debonair Kenyan chemist and a burly, hearty French butcher from Mulhouse were both stranded in Zanzibar when their plans for a seaside resort disappeared under the weight of bureaucratic meddling. The two became so desperate for money that they opened a restaurant in an empty building near the old yacht club. That was last spring. Now the Zanzibari epicurean spectrum has been widened to accommodate some fine seafood dishes and a wildly spiced vinaigrette sauce.

"It is real progress, the restaurant," a man from the Tourism Ministry told me.

"It's a nightmare," Rene Hairsine, the white Kenyan chemist, told me.

To Mr. Hairsine, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Put yourself in his shoes: A young and ambitious man with several thousand pounds to spare, Hairsine gets a call from a rich stranger one afternoon, and the next thing he knows, he's in Zanzibar as a partner in a scheme to build a big luxury beach resort. He'll give up chemistry, he'll buy a motorcycle, he'll eat fruit all day and carouse all night, and he'll be as rich as Trump would be without Ivana.

A year passes. Then, oh-oh. Something goes wrong. The beach resort becomes a muddy building site overgrown by jungle. The motorcycle breaks down. Hairsine finds himself living off the land and shedding weight like Oprah. He's broke, and in one sun-drenched afternoon his paradise falls apart. While the rich stranger explains what happened to his money, a man from Immigration interrupts to tell him he should give up hope of ever working. Hairsine rubs his eyes.

Everywhere he looks there are ruins: cluttered Arabic architecture collapsing into narrow alleyways and grim bazaars; dark shops half-filled with things no one can afford; red roasted tourists - stranded by an airline with an Einsteinian concept of time or by the vagaries of a hovercraft that occasionally provides escape to the mainland; a foreign army occupies the place; and the authorities observe him with a kind of scientific curiosity. Egad, he says, this isn't Pleasure Island. This is Zanzibar.

While he probably wouldn't choose to view himself as a pioneer, Hairsine is among the first to recognize the potential for tourism in Zanzibar. Until recently, tourism was actively discouraged by the mainland government, apparently afraid that outsiders might help the Zanzibaris discover the shortcomings of their political status.

But late last year, the Aga Khan revealed that Zanzibar would become a tourist mecca and now tourism is the only subject of conversation in Zanzibar's cafes. Taxi drivers discuss tourism with hotel operators, waiters discuss tourism with shopkeepers, and everybody discusses tourism with tourists, making every casual visitor a consultant.

"It (tourism) is the perfect business for us," an ambitious Zanzibari told me during a trip to the site of the proposed resort. We passed through a countryside lush and green with abandoned produce: Bananas, papaya, strange apple-like fruits, nutmeg, pineapples, citrus, cinnamon, and pepper grew everywhere. Zanzibaris strolled through small settlements shaded by thick groves of coconut palms. Children stood alongside the rutted trail offering food for free. Over all this floated the pervasive aroma of Zanzibar's most important cash crop, cloves.

"We are very poor here," the man said. "But at least we don't have to work for our food. We only have to pick it." When the Aga Khan's new hotel is opened - sometime within the next two years, according to common gossip - the rough track we were following would be paved, he said, and "we will have minibuses for the spice tours."

He spun a tale of what must have seemed to him to be economic miracles - "discotheques and duty-free," among other manifestations. From my point of view, the coming tourist revolution seemed likely to be destructive to the island's fragile social structure. I've been many places in Africa, and only in Zanzibar did virtually everyone I met want to give me something for nothing. But my companion was on a roll: "We'll have lots of money here," he was saying. "And many Europeans."

We arrived at the resort site. It's a beautiful, deserted place near the slave cave, where captives from the mainland were taken before they went off to market in Zanzibar Town. The clear, deep blue water washes up on a blindingly white beach lined with coconut palms and rocky outcroppings. A few locals fished in the surf and young boys played nearby in a half-finished dugout canoe.

For the white population of Zanzibar tourists will be welcomed not only for their hard currency, but also for the conversation they might make. After all, the permanent stranding of the chemist and the butcher meant that the island's resident white community had swollen to eight or so: Hairsine and his partner joined a couple of low-level diplomats and a Danish family named Mortensen - an ambitious father and daughter who, under the trade name Zanea Tours, are trying to get the tourist ball rolling.

Unfortunately, most of the whites in Zanzibar have little good to say about one another, so Hairsine's restaurant's clientele tends to the tourist crowd - if crowd is the right word to use for the two dozen or so foreigners who occasionally turn up on the island. Hairsine lives upstairs; at night, he is the maitre d', and his partner is the chef.

If opening the restaurant was a desperate ploy by the two men to pick up some cash, its immediate success has both frightened and amazed them. The first night I tried to eat at the restaurant, it had only been open for two weeks, and I foolishly hadn't booked a table. The place was full. "It's been quite a surprise, really," the Kenyan said, adding that he expected the restaurant's good fortune would invite trouble from his nemeses, the local bureaucrats.

After a series of brief encounters, I had suggested to Hairsine that we meet for a more formal interview. We discussed meeting in the restaurant, but he said he was tired of the place, and so we ended up at the yacht club looking at the usual food and watching the lateen-sailed dhows in the harbor.

I asked him if he would do it all over again, and he looked at me with that special scorn we reserve for unexpected fools. "Not on your life," he said.

Denis Boyles is a journalist and writer who has spent many years in Africa. His articles have appeared in such publications as The New York Times and Geo magazine. His book, "African Lives," was published last year.

(c) 1989, The Christian Science Monitor Publishing Society. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate