Papasi and Mama Bears

PrintIn my (numerous) travel blog readings, I have come across a term that made me smile at first. Then it made my cringe.


Meaning “tick” (i.e. the insect) in Swahili, Papasis are a name given to the various Zanzibar street touts and other, erm, “solicitors”, who latch on to you and follow you around, offering tours, directions, information, and whatnot. For a price, of course. Always for a price.

They wait for jet-lagged tourists at the Zanzibar ferry and airport, at popular venues and on street corners across from hotels. From other travel blogs, these young men will interfere with your transactions in every possible way as they try to get a commission. Many merchants have signs that they don’t pay commissions to papasis, but others have given up trying to avoid them. I’m of two minds about this: on the one hand, I understand poverty and the desperate need to make money, something, anything. I’d even be tempted to hire one to keep the others the hell away! Yet at the same time, these aren’t local Zanzibaris; they’re pushy young men from the mainland who will prey on the naïveté and fatigue of visitors and scam them. They aren’t welcome by their countrymen either. Bad for business, I guess. Plus, I don’t appreciate being on the receiving end of constant harassment and stalking. It reminds me of a trip to Egypt a few years ago (before the craziness erupted).

Our guide had warned us, as she led us to the Gizah plateau to visit the pyramids, that men would wait behind the Pyramids, away from everyone, and would harass and follow us, trying to sell us cheap trinkets or bogus services. She was right! As soon as we turned the corner and stood on the far side of the Pyramids…sweet baby carrots. Here they come! Half a dozen young men were waiting with hands full of stuff. A pair of them decided my young son and I looked like the perfect catch. I’m usually nice and pretty laid back, but as they accosted us and pushed their crap in my face, my temper went up a notch. And when one of them attempted to put some crappy sheik headdress (I know, sheik headdress in EGYPT) on my kid’s head, my blood pressure went “shooooosh” into the stratosphere. I told him in rapid-fire French Canadian what I thought of his tactics and to not. Touch. My. Kid. Ever. Again. What does he do? He plants the sheik thing right against my chest and let it go, hoping my instinct would be to catch it. Then of course, it would become mine and I would have to pay for it. Smart move. Except by that time, I was past being nice. I let the thing drop to the ground and walked right over it. Oh boy, the guy was not impressed! But he backed off right away. Doesn’t he know the motto: don’t touch a bear cub in front of its mother.

So, Zanzibar papasis, I hope it won’t come to this. Even Canucks get pissed off!

— Nat

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