The ultimate place to get lost

Stone Town, Zanzibar, the ultimate place to get lost.
Stone Town, Zanzibar, the ultimate place to get lost. Photo: Getty Images

There's a guy who buys his coffee from a cafe I often go to. He's a middle-aged bloke, greying hair, always looks neat in a suit and tie. You wouldn't single him out from the regular business crowd.

He comes in each morning with the rest of the soldiers on their way to the financial trenches and patiently waits in the cafe queue, tapping his feet to the music playing over the speakers before shuffling forward and putting in his order. After that he waits, same as everyone else.

But then, the strangest thing will happen. That toe-tap of his will turn into a leg-shake. That leg-shake will rumble up to his torso, coursing through his veins and into his arms. Before you know it the guy has turned the cafe into his own little dance floor, boogieing around with gay abandon while the rest of us, frankly, try to pretend he's not there.

You know that saying "dance like no one's watching"? Well, this guy does just that and it makes him look completely bananas. Fun, no doubt. But bananas.

I thought about that guy a while back when I was half a world away in Stone Town, Zanzibar. I'd been walking around the city and had become terribly, hopelessly lost. Couldn't even begin to tell you where I'd been or where I was going - or even if those two things were one and the same.

As I paused to get my bearings once again, it occurred to me that while I was a little worried by this turn of events, picturing a pointless afternoon of wandering in circles, the guy from the cafe would probably not be bothered in the slightest. In fact, he'd love it. Because the sort of person who subscribes to cliches like dancing like no one's watching would also enjoy the idea of becoming hopelessly, purposefully lost.

There's that saying: you can't find yourself until you've gotten lost. That's him.

Blergh. I hate getting lost. Just the same as I hate the idea of busting out the dance moves in a public place at 10am (or, to be fair, at 10pm). Some people absolutely thrive on it, this idea of aimlessly wandering and having no idea where you are, but it's just not me.

Anyway - Stone Town. Just as Zanzibar is the ultimate place in which to lose yourself, its capital is the ultimate place to get lost.

The Old Town is chaos, a reflection of the island's jumbled history of Arab, Portuguese and African influence. The streets are narrow, far too narrow for cars. It's foot traffic only. And the buildings are just high enough to block out any major landmarks, meaning you have nothing to orient yourself with. It's just a twisted warren of narrow pathways and small squares.

Don't bother with a map, it'll be useless. The best idea would be to get a long piece of string, tie one end to a post on the edge of the Old Town and the other end to your ankle, then just follow the string home when you're done exploring.

But that would look ridiculous. And anyway, where are you going to get a piece of string that long? The only way to go is with a mental piece of string, trying to memorise the route you're taking so you can later retrace your steps and make a triumphant exit the same way you came in.

That was what I was attempting, with limited success. And by limited I mean absolutely none.

It took about five minutes: a left, a right, another right, an S-bend, across a square, another left and a right and I was already stupendously lost, with no idea how I was going to get out.

That's when I thought of the bloke from the cafe, who probably would have been shimmying down those lanes like all his dreams had come true. I, on the other hand, was getting seriously frustrated.

I blame my dad, who's a former ship captain and master navigator. In my family, you take pride in knowing exactly where you are at all times. And if you don't know exactly where you are, you make up something plausible. (It helps your credibility if you make reference to something in 24-hour time while faking it: "I was heading east at oh-800 hours ...")

I was determined to fake my way out of Stone Town as well but there's just no fudging something like that. You could walk around for days, slowly going insane, and you'd still be no closer to sweet freedom.

So I did what every other hopelessly lost tourist does in Stone Town - I asked a local for help. He gave me a few quick directions, round a bend here, up an alley there, and pretty soon I'd popped out on the other side.

And I can tell you, I danced a little jig to celebrate.

bengroundwater@gmail.com

How do you feel about getting lost when you travel? Do you enjoy it, or do you get frustrated?

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