The Rattling of The Chains*

My final 2500 character entry for the World Nomads travel-writing competition….

I gaze at the massive spire of Christ Church Cathedral on Unguja Island, Zanzibar, as it reaches apologetically towards cotton candy-like clouds that climb hopefully into the brilliant azure sky.

“Is it trying to escape the traumatic history from which it rises in elegant dignity in memoriam, or invoke it?” I close my eyes. Time slips away…

It’s market day. Women wearing bright-colored cloths weave through throngs of waiting buyers with unimaginably large baskets of produce on their heads. Men eagerly set up stalls to sell anything, and everything, that any of us might need. Children scramble for spare change and forgotten treasures. The air fills with voices fervently haggling over the price of one thing or another. The heat of the sun, laced with a subtle hint of panic, is stifling, a harbinger of what is to come. Because today, along with spices and fabric, ivory and precious metals, and a rainbow of mouth-watering fruits and vegetables, a very special commodity is going up for auction – people.

I hear the rattling of the chains around their necks as they are lined up by size. “Whack! Whack!” The stinging sound of slapping against bare skin reverberates across the raw jumble of humanity that stretches out before me. I see the man, no more than a boy really, tied to the central whipping post as a test of his courage. I hear his cries as he, to his owner’s great disappointment, cannot contain his suffering. His tears scorch my cheeks as they fall from his eyes in shame.

“That one has no stamina!” declares a man standing next to me, shaking his head. “He certainly isn’t worth much to his owner now.”

Shrouded by the canopy of despair that haunts this place, I quietly raise my hand and offer my last bars of salt to free his soul. Together we leave the world’s last remaining, legally operating, open slave market.

The sun casts a last long flickering light across the faces of the five nameless slaves who wait solemnly outside the cathedral. Carved in stone and linked as one with an iron chain that once enslaved their ancestors, they stand in sacred silence without opprobrium, half-buried in a solitary cement pit that recalls the human storage chambers beneath their feet. As we look at one another across time, I embrace, as residents of the island have, poignant memories of our collective human heritage, the worst, and the best, because it was also here where we finally brought the heart-rending African slave trade to its knees.




And a revised response to the question “why choose you”


At my age (66), winning this scholarship would be the chance of a lifetime; it could even mark the beginning of one “last” career for me.

When I saw the invitation, I thought “Who, me? A travel writer? Never!” Then I remembered my blog, requested by Peace Corps last year. “Blogging is for millennials, not me!” Still, I had left my life behind, why not try? A virtual landscape was born. I loved it!

Now a new “never” morphs into another “Why not?”

I painstakingly craft a perfect story. I see links to previous winners and Tim’s guide. My pen drops from my fingers as I read…

“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 so that they can have a vicarious experience of the place being described.

I squirm. I cling to my perfect story. But it does not do what it should. I start over. I encounter the unexpected. I fall back in time as 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. Pandora is out of the box and she won’t go back in. New worlds await to be awakened beneath my fingertips. If you choose me, I will strive to become not just a good travel writer, but a great one.

*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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