It all started with Richard.
I walk into the dive center for the first day of the four-day PADI course. At the sight of Richard, dormant desires are jolted awake and I am in trouble. A head of dark blond hair bleached to a blinding gold by the sun, barely contained under a cap. A killer British accent with fine lines around the eyes, twinkle of intelligence and mischief within. He channels Robert Redford when he smiles, and the deadly charm is offset with a goofy snorting laugh.
There are three teenage brothers who are also doing their PADI certification. I am secretly thankful for the lack of competition for young Robert Redford’s attention. He sets us up for the morning’s course work and leaves to dive. In the mean time, Armani, dive master borne and raised here in Zanzibar comes in, sees me, walks over for a hello and holds on to my hand a fraction longer than etiquette requires.
The mating desire is instinctual. The flirtation mechanism is triggered automatically at the first scent of a desirable partner. I find my body flirting with coded signals before my conscious mind joins in with wit and language. Richard returns in the afternoon and talks us through the last two section of diving theory. I am too distracted to be a good student and keep on screwing up the math questions. I exert considerable effort to suppress the giddiness against his smile and attempt to be the smart Asian overachiever I am.
I run into Armani everywhere I go. The night is just starting; he’s cleaned up from his dive and finds me trying to sort out a SIM card in the last few moments before all the shops close. He reaches for my hand for a hello and keeps a moment longer, again. I am too focused on getting a SIM card and didn’t register the signal until I found myself admiring the cool suave of his long stride away in a bleached white shirt and olive green pants. What a sight.
The bartenders at Livingstone’s Bar has gotten used to me over the last two days. I’ve been working at the bar in the evenings, keeping a safe distance from the romantic candle lit restaurant out front. Tonight the bartender asks me if I would like to meet him after his shift, we could go dancing somewhere he says. Tonight would be good because tomorrow is Ramadan. No…not tonight. Why not tonight? I have to dive in the morning. If Jaipur and Fez had a love child and raised it in Africa, the child would be Stone Town. I wonder through the town set against the turquoise blue ocean and sync my own rhythm to it. Young man in Forodhani Garden’s night market chats me up, first trying to sell me food, spices, tours and when they realize I am not interested in of those on offer, they inquire if I am alone and if I would like company. I am not really listening and I politely decline everything.
Day two of the PADI course. Faridu, another dive instructor greets me. Is hotness a prerequisite for dive instructors? My god. I fear for my life as I could hardly pay attention with Richard teaching me theory, what will I do Faridu leading the practical? Faridu lacks Armani’s swagger. In place of Armani’s mystery and sleepy eyes, Faridu is easy to read with a slightly shy smile. Are you traveling alone? Yes. Don’t you get lonely? No. I am starting to get confused by the offer of company and no privileges will be granted until I understand the full spectrum of what is implied in the question.
During the first day of the open water dive, alternating between Armani, Faridu and the rest of the crew, there is always a set of eyes on me. I can feel Armani’s eyes and Faridu’s mild jealousy when Armani came over and sat down next to me. The captain and crew talks about me in Swahili but keep on referring to me as China, giving themselves away as they make fun of Armani. After the completion of each skill test, Faridu high fives us, and seeks his revenge by turning our high five into a bit more and holds on to my hand for a moment longer. I am far from innocent. My eyes linger on Armani and Faridu just the same when they are half zipped from their wet suits, lapping up their chocolate skin and impeccable built, silently noting the difference between the two men. Is my subjugation of them the same as theirs of me?
That evening when I returned to my hostel, the manager stops me. Do you want company? All of us are available. He then points to himself and the two other men working the desk.
I really wanted to ask them point blank what does it mean? Instead I run straight up for my room and lock it tight from the inside and pull out Emergency Sex. In the book, Heidi goes on a sex and drug binge in Mombasa with a Masai man for three days and didn’t realize the nature of the engagement until the end. Needing some kind of reference, guidance of any sort, I pull out the book and re-read the chapter.
First thing in the morning, Faridu tells me tomorrow is his day off and he can show me around to the north side of the island and help me with my book if I like. My head is swimming with the logistics of tomorrow’s travel up north to Kendwa. I still lack clarity on the nature of the company I am being offered so I fumble an answer that sounded like a no.
Richard, can I ask you a question?
You just did.
I suppress the eye roll; Can I ask you another one? Outside, it’s kinda delicate.
I am being offered company continuously. Is it what I think it is?
Yes. It is exactly what you think it is. There are 40-50 year old Italian women who come down here. It’s reverse sex tourism. It’s a Swahili thing.
How transactional is it? Is it as itemizes as prostitution for women tend to be? Or is it more like beach boys in Kenya where you are paying for their up keep?
I don’t know…I am a guy.
And what if I were to tell you that your diving instructors are hitting on me? Armani and Faridu. I no longer have any sense of why I am being hit on. Is be because they think I am attractive? Is it because I am foreigner? Or….?
Faridu is probably just looking for a woman; he’s been divorced twice. Armani surprises me. He usually likes big women but he is hard to read.
You are not single are you?
No. The expat community here is so small; there is usually a bet on how long someone new lasts before they get snatched up. A South African guy who just moved here lasted a week and a half. I lasted about a month and a half.
Endless thoughts flow through my mind including the most cliché notion of all, demeaning to them and myself; the exotic savage with the loose American woman. Amongst my traveling sisterhood there is a rule regarding road romance: no locals, foreigners only. There are good reasons for the rule. Irrespective to what the locals would think of me, how would I judge myself?
I won’t lie. Months ago when I decided on Zanzibar as the half way point for this trip, I had spun a lovely fantasy that I was somewhat determined to make real. A decent hotel with a large Zanzibar bed, bellowing white mosquito nets, a view of the crystal blue ocean and drowning in a week long of passionate insatiable sex with a handsome someone (preferably love of my life but I wasn’t particular on this point). In this fantasy, the handsome stranger was not my African dive instructor who I have zero common ground with, nor was there a tinge of implied transaction beyond our mutual desire for one another. Somewhere along the way, I gave up the decent accommodation for the diving course. And now the thought of walking into the hotel, where the manager has explicitly offered up himself and his staff, with either Armani or Faridu in toll, making love to them in the shabby room seems like a long fall from grace.
Yet I seem to be unable to reach neutral buoyancy.
Faridu comes up behind me, stands a little closer to me than necessary and adjusts my weights. His hand lingers across my stomach for a moment. Richard’s hand deliberately and slowly rubs sun block onto my naked back; my body is awake and alert even if he is off limits. Inhale, inhale, I can feel myself sinking.
Its time to run away to Kendwa, an hour north of Stone Town, to a poor man’s version of a resort. Maybe I will find a better answer there. Nope. Every foreigner here is either in pairs or in a large group and I am disinterested in them all. I am the only one here alone and the beach boys and the waiters won’t stop asking me if I would like company. Being single all of sudden feels like a punishment. In the early morning hours, I lie in the middle of the bed and I crave.
Maybe I will leave Kendwa early, head back for Stone Town and find Armani. The only way to do this would be to do it on my terms. I would have to orchestrate it. I play out different scenarios in my head. What would be my opening line? You’ve been looking at me since I got here. How observant are you Armani? (Hoping for ‘Not really’ as the answer). Or should I just, simply, ask, Would you like to spend the night with me?
Inhale, inhale. I am sinking.