Most of the Swahili words I knew before arriving in Zanzibar were from The Lion King. Simba. Rafiki. Hakuna matata. But there is another word that’s quickly becoming much more relevant as I begin my life on the island. Polepole.
Polepole means ‘slowly’ and there couldn’t be a more apt word for an achievement-driven westerner arriving in this chilled out country. I heard polepole dozens of times in my first week. Waiting for the bus to arrive. Waiting for the shop assistant to return. Waiting for the torrential rain to subside. Polepole isn’t just a word here. It’s a way of life.
All sorts of things are standing by the railway track hours after Ulaanbaatar has dissolved and the steppe has reclaimed the landscape. Camels. Horses. Plastic bags. Every now and then a lone Mongolian appears outside the window, seemingly hours, possibly days away from civilisation. There’s never a car or horse or motorbike near them. The desolate landscape stretches away in every direction.
It started with a fight. Two Mongolians jumped into a pen packed with farm animals and emerged dragging the back leg of a brown sheep. The sheep fought all the way up the hill but eventually lost the battle when its owner Damdin, slit its chest, slid his hand in and snapped the aorta.
The animal died silently.
Luke-warm dumplings, luke-cold beer and a room full of smiles welcome me to China in a small luke-clean restaurant, deep down a dimly lit alley in the bowels of Beijing. Grinning through my dripping dumplings, I can’t believe how willing everyone for me to try my Mandarin out on them, casually joking as I fumble with a battered old phrase book I’d found last minute in a small bookshop back home. Aimed at a traveller from an earlier generation, I skip the Do You Know Where I Can Find a Girl? introduction and move right on to Getting Conversation Started:
“WHAT IS YOUR NAME?”
“I LIKE YOU”
“CAN I TOUCH YOU HERE?”
A glassy-eyed kid my age walks into a toilet that doesn’t match his gender and sheepishly backs out again, stupidly grinning at me as he passes. He enters the toilet and leaves, probably oblivious to the entire event. His dreadlocked mate is in a better state. His homemade flares flash past me as he decorates himself around the room. Top 40 and classic hits are on the TV: “Afroman featuring Silent Bob and Jay – Because I Got High”. Four fashionably alternative girls and a boy walk up to the table next to me and steal all my chairs. Luckily, I’m not expecting any friends.