The Sultan of Zanzibar*

So, some of you may wonder why I have been so silent lately.  Well, actually I have been quite chatty, I just haven’t been talking to you.   That is because I have been busying myself  with other audiences:   planning a workshop for my new job at the University of Rwanda, writing about my profession life for an application to be English Language Specialist, or and English Fellow, with the U.S. Department of State; and last but not least, trying my hand at writing a travel story for an application for a travel writing scholarship.  I’ll return to the earlier topics in later posts.  Today, I am sharing my travel writing adventure with you, such that it is.

What is not included in what follows is that the entire experiment of applying for a travel writing scholarship came about because many of you have told me that I should consider writing a book.  Now, writing a book does not, at this in point time anyway, really interest me.  However, I have just discovered that travel writing does.  And it is all because of your kind words of encouragement….

So here is my story about this story.

About a month ago, an interesting email dropped into my computer.  It was from WebNomads, the company from whom I buy travel insurance.  It was an invitation to enter their annual travel writing contest.  A 4-day workshop in Argentina being mentored by a well-known travel writer, followed by 10 days of traveling in Argentina.  I had many reasons to drop the invitation into my virtual trash bin, which I initially did:   I was currently working for Peace Corps, they probably wouldn’t give me the time off to go.    I wasn’t really interested in going to Argentina.  I don’t even speak Spanish.   And, of course, I couldn’t possibly become a travel writer.

But I kept thinking about this blog, and your comments about it, and finally decided, why not?   If nothing else, winning would confirm that you are right, that I could  write professionally.   I wouldn’t have to go to Argentina, if I didn’t want to although I really would want to be mentored by a professional writer, who wouldn’t be?  They were only selecting 3 winners, we’d get a lot of individualized attention in 4 days.   However, the likelihood that I would get chosen was probably less than zero.  According to what I read when I fished the email out of my trash to reread, they had had 4500 entries last year.  There are already 2000 posted for this year.   If I were to enter, it would need to be for the pleasure of the exercise itself, and not because I thought I would — or could — win.

There was one final reason not to enter, and it  caused me to set down my virtual pen and decide to “forget it” not once, but several times over the weeks since the interloper  dropped into my mailbox.   In addition to this year’s entries, previous winning articles are also posted.  And the winning stories from last year were very very good,  intriguing and moving.  None  fit my definition of what I thought a travel story was.  If they had won, well, then I wasn’t sure that I understood what  travel story was, or if I could even write one.   The basic entry guidelines on the application were not very illuminating in this regard.  At last, I found a “guide to travel writing” prepared by one of the judges, and the mentor for this year’s winners, and things fell into place.

In the end, as when Peace Corps first suggested that I keep a blog, I let go of my fears, badly camouflaged as logical reasons for why I shouldn’t enter,  and decided to throw caution to the wind.   As it turns out, instead of winging my way through more and more exercises in a language that I love, but will never be able to use once I leave this place, I am enjoying trying my hand at using the language of my birth in new ways.  Who would have thought?

Here is my answer to their question:  “What would winning this scholarship mean to me and why should we choose you?

Please note that it is written using 1500 characters, including punctuation and spaces.   Not words, mind you, but characters.    It took me a long time to figure out what to say, how to say it, and how to say it within the designated frame.  Every time I started a new paragraph, for example, it costs me a character.   Judging from some of the submissions for this year that I read, some people cope with this by submitting one continuous stream of text, with punctuation but no spaces; their entries are very difficult to read and, I think, reflect their inattention to the matter at hand, learning how to write a publishable article, with the requisite number of characters for an allotted space although, in the real world, perhaps this is where an editor would jump in.

Fitting into a specified limit of is not as easy as it might sound but it is actually a lot of fun as it forces to you tighten up your writing, discard the unnecessary, swap vocabulary around, so you can say what you want to say and still stay under the wire.  And, apparently, it is how the industry works:   A magazine allocates so much space and then tells you that you have to write something that will fit into it.   My heart quickens at the thought.  The task delights me.   I’ve always enjoyed arranging things perfectly into available spaces in the physical world. Now I can arrange, and rearrange, to my heart’s content anywhere, anytime.

Also as an FYI, in the following text,  “Tim” refers to Tim Neville, a well-known  free lance travel writer, assuming you are familiar with the genre, and one of the judges for this year’s contest.  He is also the writer who will be mentoring the winners.

______________________________________ MY RESPONSE ____________________________________________

Without a doubt, winning a scholarship will herald a new era for my writing.  If truth be told, it already has.

When I read the invitation, I thought “Who, me?  A travel writer?  Never!”  Then I remembered my blog, written in response to prods from Peace Corps.  “Blogging was for millennials, not me!”  Still, I had left my life behind, why not try?  A new virtual landscape was born.  I loved it!

Another “never” morphed into “why not?”

I painstakingly craft a perfect story.  Then, I see links to previous winners and Tim’s guide.  My pen falls from my hand.  I begin to read.

I learn that “travel writing” is not writing about travel.  It’s crafting a narrative that takes place while I am traveling in a way that captivates readers and transports them, aka “beams them up”, into the life I am living as my story unfolds.  Like a good song, it has texture and rhythm, and opens the door to deeply feeling life.

I squirm.  I cling.  My perfect story fails to awaken me as it should.  I start over.  I encounter the unexpected.  I fall back in time.  I relive what I am describing.  I savor the process of finding just the right word to recapture each moment.  The experience of writing mesmerizes me, and I am shattered by my longing to do more, to do better.

I’ve found new magic in old words.  If you choose me, I’ll fiercely dedicate myself to improving my ability to use words to unfurl the world in new ways.  Pandora is out of the box and she won’t be going back in anytime soon.


Here is the first story I wrote, but it will not be my entry.  My next post “The Rattling of Chains” will be.  But this will always be my first attempt to try my hand at a new genre of writing.

This time, I had  2500 characters with which to play.      Some of you will recognize my main protagonist from an earlier posting.

_______________________________________ MY TRAVEL STORY______________________________________

The Sultan of Zanzibar

I gaze into eyes that silently echoed wisdom from a century and a half of living and wonder what she thinks of me. As she stretches her long elegant nape past the scalloped edge of her 400 pound carapace to reach my waiting fingertips, I notice how, apart from the cool, dry, scaled skin, her neck felt just like mine, with bumpy vertebrae all in a row. Despite differing appearances, we are very much alike.

Her magnificent dome is adorned with her age –152– but not her name. Longing to prolong my moment of interspecies intimacy, I ask for it.

“Oh, she doesn’t have a name”, Fatuma, my guide, cheerfully replies, glancing curiously at my obvious distress at this news. “None of them do.”

I look over at the sea of enormous shells drifting around me in the dappled shade created by the rays of an eager sun diving through the canopy of green that protected them and sigh.

Perhaps they would not be endangered if they had names and could have their stories told, I think. I mean, if you’re going to live 300 years, wouldn’t someone want to remember who you are?

“How did they get here?”

“They are descendants of  four giant tortoises from the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles, a gift to a Sultan of Zanzibar. They were first received at his palace. But not being suited to urban life, he brought them to Changuu Island.”

“Did he visit them?”

“Of course. They were like his children, and it was only a short boat ride from the palace.”

In my mind’s eye, I see the Sultan, in a long flowing dishdasha, covered by a black besht to mark the auspiciousness of each pilgrimage, as he climbs into a handcrafted acacia dhow to be carried to his adopted offspring by winds sweeping off the turquoise- and sapphire-ribboned Indian Ocean. I know that he, at least, has dignified his rarest of possessions with titles of distinction.

In the quiet evening hours, I peruse the internet to learn more about my new, still nameless, acquaintance.  There  I find a different version of her origin story. I read that the creep of four giant tortoises was sent directly to Changuu by the British governor of the Seychelles in 1919. I shake my head and close my computer.

I reflect for a moment and make my decision. The tale of the Sultan of Zanzibar and his beloved tortoises quietly slides into the pool of treasured memories in my heart.  The power of story is that I can choose which ones to believe.

The End of My Story

*The content of this website is mine alone and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Rwandan government.

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