The dhows are clustered along the jetties, bobbing in the wash of the speedboats. Their triangular sails flap from the masts, cracking as the wind gusts. The hill down to the port is crammed with passengers, hawkers, and children weaving in and out of the crowd. A posse of goats on ropes drag their shepherd down towards the sea while a dog barks and runs at their side, making them leap and buck, their ripe smell and a chorus of bleats blowing toward me on the breeze.
I hesitate, my bag heavy on my shoulder. Do I walk down those stairs, blistered with rust, to a speedboat? Do I walk to the beach and wade out hip deep into the water and hand my bag to a sailor on a dhow?
A speedboat drifts across the bay accompanied by a chorus of shouts and warnings, the steersman pulling fruitlessly on the starter cord, his head wreathed in diesel fumes, the barefoot white-uniformed sailor on the bow warding other boats off with a pole as the wind carries them towards the sand bar. They throw out the anchor at the last minute, but the engine won’t start.
The wind is strong and steady. I choose a dhow. Being a white woman is sometimes good – a sailor heaves me onto his back and wades out to the boat, turning to dump me on the prow and then confidently putting his hand out for a bonsella.
The boat packed, gunwales barely above the water, we set sail for the islands. A smudge of green on the horizon slowly turns to waving palm trees and the stone walls of the old town. Seagulls careen and scream overhead as the dhow pitches through the waves. A large grey cruiser cruiser looms, approaching us, and I see the crew muttering, averting their eyes. One old woman begins to pray, clutching two chickens in her lap, rocking back and forth on her seat. “Bismillah, el rahmen el rahim,” she croons, “In the name of God, almighty and merciful”.
The cruiser moors alongside the dhow, throwing down ropes crowned with grapples, binding us tightly to her cold grey side. An official appears, holding a loud hailer, and begins barking commands in Swahili. The chickens cooped up in a box are passed up to him. The old woman cries, softly. The white goat with black ears is manhandled up, a bundle of furious bleats.
Then he points at me. “You. Where passport?” I pass it along, holding my breath. He flicks through it, frowns, speaks to the sailor at his side. “Departure tax! You pay tax for this boat! Show paper now!” I don’t know what he means. No-one told me about taxes. I feel a bony finger poking my thigh, patting my hand, leaving a piece of paper in it, but I can’t take my eyes off the captain, stories of immense bribes, slavery and disappearances running through my head. No-one knows where I am. The woman pokes me again and I become aware of the paper crumpled in my hand. She speaks to the captain. “Mzungu” she says. I know that’s me, I’ve heard it often enough. She takes the note from my hand and waves it at him.
“How much?” I say, suddenly understanding.
A broad smile lights up his face. “One US dollar, only one”.
I fumble in my money belt and pull one out, handing it to the waiting hands that will ferry it up to him.