Vespa Island

“Where do all the Vespas come from?” Chaggy stops the wrench and looks at me with a raised eyebrow over the rim of his neon orange sunglasses. Then he starts laughing. As if he had never heard a stranger question in his life ever before. “Sure, I’ll tell you,” he replies. Then he tips the sunglasses with his oily fingers and continues to repair my Vespa, which I had borrowed not even two hours ago.

“Fifty years ago a container ship stranded here on the reef of the lagoon.” He points with his finger vaguely towards the sea. “Back then, they had no modern technology, GPS or anything. The captain manoeuvred on sight. Very dangerous. When you see the rocks in the water, it is already too late.”

As he speaks, he nimbly takes the Vespa apart and neatly separates screws and nuts on an old football shirt in front of him. Every move, every grip sits. “My grandfather,” he continues, “was a fisherman. Like my father. He was on the water close to the reef when the accident happened. Luckily. It saved their lives. ” He pauses for a moment. ”Back on land, he had not only saved the sailors. Guess what they brought with them too”. He points to my now completely dismantled Vespa, laughs briefly but stops at the same moment and points to something. “The sealing ring. Typical. That is the only thing that ever breaks on these bikes. Because of the dust and sand here. There is nothing you can do about it.”

He carefully takes the broken ring down and puts it aside. As if he could use it for something else. You never know. Then he gets up and pulls out a plastic bag with countless sealing rings from behind the counter. There are Chinese symbols on the bag. He immediately feels that I am staring. “Don’t worry, they are cheap but last forever. At least you don’t have a Honda or anything expensive from Europe. You wouldn’t find spare parts out here. “

“Anyways,” he continues, “it was such a big thing back then that a woman named her child after the ship’s captain: Pirato.” Chaggy puts on the new sealing ring and reaches for the screwdriver. Again the same story: with perfect movements, he assembles the machine that looks like rocket science to me within seconds. Then he looks up, right at my raised left eyebrow. “Seriously, if you don’t believe me, go to Bwejuu and ask for Pirato. Everyone knows him. ” Then he kicks the Vespa. It starts immediately. “Old is good,” he says, “because you can still fix that.” The entire effort costs five euros.

I ask Chaggy why he has not become a fisherman like his father. Before he answers, he wipes his oily hands on the football jersey. “As a fisherman, you earn little money. And I love Vespas. So I fix Vespas. I make money, a lot of money,” he says emphatically. “Then, one day, I can get down from this island and drive through Africa in my own van.”

I got the Vespa from Charles in Stone Town. He approached me when I was failing an attempt to make a reasonably acceptable picture of a dhow sailing past container ships. His laminated business card offered all kinds of services: taxi service, pick-up service, airport service, restaurant service, laundry service, tourist service. But no Vespa rental service. He still organized one for me. From his brother.

“Do you really want a Vespa?” He asked me. “Seriously they are for old men,” he added with a laugh and shook his head. “I can also get you a Honda XLR. Good for terrain. And proper sound. ” But I wanted a Vespa even though I was never a big fan. I don’t own one and have never intended to have one. Still, I wanted to drive a Vespa now. Not in Rome at the Trevi Fountain. Here in Zanzibar.

Maybe it was the story that a close Tanzanian friend once told me. Italian-speaking men in black suits and dark sunglasses brought the Vespa to Zanzibar. In the eighties. From Sicily, “to offer tourists the most authentic Italian atmosphere possible.” Strawberry sundaes, resorts in the front row, Ferrari red Vespa. La dolce vita 365 days a year. To feel a bit like home 8000 km away.

On my way from the airport to the hotel, I counted over a hundred Vespas alone (vs. 15 in my street in the Berlin neighbourhood). In all colors, shapes and conditions. In white, black and gray, in almost every pastel shade, rust-brown, but also in neon green and yellow. As a means of transportation for fresh fish, live chickens in cages, live chickens without cages, building materials, mattresses, families of five, a refrigerator. Many adorn stickers of global brands, also with slight changes: playboy, apple(z), windows 98, Gucci, Mercedes Benz, two hearts pierced by Cupid’s arrow, a bald eagle with USA flag, a hemp leaf with Bob Marley’s portrait. What I didn’t see: other tourists on Vespas. I wonder if Chaggy’s friends were so amused when I rolled into the workshop with the Vespa. A tourist with a broken Vespa.

Simba, the founder of the Vespa Club Zanzibar, the first Vespa Club in Africa, understands business with tourists and Vespas. He looks like his name: a wrinkled face and hair like a lion’s mane. He is Swiss and soon opens a hotel for international Vespa fans and tries to bring a serious picture into this story.

“The Vespa is perfect for this island,” he said in a smoky voice during a visit before my little jaunt, “because Zanzibar is like Sicily in the 1950s – everything is possible, nothing is forbidden.” His eyes shone sassy and he always winked again while he was smoking chain. We were sitting on plastic chairs at a plastic table. In the middle a full ashtray. His wife brought us sugar-sweet iced tea. In the background the buzzing sound of a generator.

“Here I can also drive on the beach without a helmet,” he continued. His customers from all over the world, but especially Italians, were looking for the “1950s feeling of freedom” when the world was still in order. For him, driving a Vespa is “cosiness, nice weather, meeting people, and never going faster than 50 km / h – pure nostalgia.”

Simba previously worked in marketing. In his club, besides him, there are only men from Italy, all lodge owners from “Rimini”, as he calls a stretch of beach in the northeast of the island, where a particularly large number of resorts are said to be Italian-owned. “But one thing is clear right?” He asked me, “The Vespas here are no Vespas. They are all replicas from India.” He enjoyed the moment and soldered a new cigarette to the old one. Then he cleared his throat.

“Yes, LML is the name of the company. Insolvent now, I think. The original Vespa from Piaggio is a different price range. You can get a LML Vespa here in Zanzibar for less than 600 euros. “He said that as if it were a bargain. After a short pause, he continued. “But seriously. The people here don’t even know what treasure they are sitting on. In Europe absurd prices are paid, here they just rot away. “He added thoughtfully,” There used to be so many Vespa in Italy. It is slowly dying out here too. But there are always freaks like me who continue such hobbies. “

I am now on my way to Bwejuu to find a man called Pirato. As I am driving along the country road at 45 (my preferred speed) I come across cornfields, spice plantations, herds of cows and buildings with East Berlin charm. A bus overtakes me at a speed of at least 100 km / h. I have to brake sharply. On the back, I read in large letters: Jesus holds my wheel! In a village on the side of the road, about 200 people stand in a row and dig a ditch. Next to it are huge plastic pipes and blue construction machines with Chinese characters. Policemen in white robes stand at village entrances and exits. But they are only interested in many cars, vans and trucks. Women walk on the side of the road with large raffia baskets on their heads. I see donkey and ox carriages, but no horses. The story of Pirato comes to my mind. So many questions. But a creaking stutter stops my thoughts. The engine has stopped.

There is probably no greater bonding moment with other Vespa fans as when your Vespa suddenly goes off and you desperately try to kick-start it again. I am in the middle of nowhere at a traffic light without an intersection when my Vespa is no longer starting. My brief professional analysis (I studied mechanical engineering) shows that the tank is dry. One of the people who rushes to help me immediately is a man in a black suit and red bow tie. He is holding a red helmet in his right hand. Further back I see a red sparkling Vespa. I immediately have to think of the story of my Tanzanian friend about men in dark suits and Ferrari red Vespas.

“No fuel?” he asks me politely. “Wait, let me try.” He puts the Vespa on the side of the floor and shakes it a bit. Then he sets it up and kicks it. The Vespa starts immediately. “You’ll come a few hundred meters. Up there they sell fuel in plastic bottles on the corner. Make sure you don’t forget the oil. ” He smiles kindly at me. I thank him and drive to the corner shop. A short time later he joins too “to look over the shoulder of the guy.” For one euro, he pours 1.5 litres of a liquid that looks like Fanta Tropical from a plastic bottle into the tank. Then he pours a coffee mug full of oil behind. At least a third goes next to it on the floor.

The man in the red bow tie and I go for lunch. Plastic table, plastic chairs, ice-cold cola and something like fried egg fries. He wears a suit at 30 degrees and his name is Kitiku, works as a manager at the central administration of Zanzibar and is just about to fulfil a long-awaited dream: building a big house for all his friends and family. “The Vespa,” he explains, “belongs to Zanzibar. It stands for the many influences: Italian, Indian, Tanzanian, international. “He continues,” Real men drive Vespa. Everything else is uncomfortable, expensive and has no class. “

I remember Charles, the Vespa guy with the many services, and what he said about Vespas. “The central administration uses Vespas for shopping and transportation. Because LML is no longer in production, I have recently been buying motorcycles from Honda, which has increased the purchase and operating costs.” He gets a bit angry while he’s talking. “The problem with these Hondas is that there are simply no spare parts.” I ask him if he knows Chaggy. Chaggy knows a lot about spare parts and Vespa business. He says no. I ask him if he knows Pirato. He doesn’t know Pirato. But I’m not in Bwejuu yet.

Back on the street. Two young men overtake me on their Vespas. One of the two is driving on the rear wheel, laughs loudly and sticks his tongue out. The other sits strangely cramped with only one bum on the seat and howls the engine. Both are incredibly fast. Both look incredibly wild. I try to catch up with them. But from the speed of 60 on, I no longer sit on a Vespa, but on a hammer drill. Simba’s words come to my head. “Driving a Vespa is easy going. Like with a gondola in Venice. That’s why there are so few accidents with the Vespa in Zanzibar.” So I give up the chase.

The hostel owner Christine in Bwejuu tells me that the two probably belong to the Tako Modja Gang (translated: one bum). The exclusively male members of this gang organize races, tuning events and other meetings – exclusively for Vespa fans.

“They are so well known that even the President intervened personally and threatened that if they built an accident, they would not be treated in the hospital,” says her husband, who walks up and down the room with a sobbing baby in his arms. We drink Tanzanian instant coffee – Africafe – with fresh milk and a hint of cardamom and cloves.

Bwejuu is in the east of the island directly on the blue lagoon. However, there are few tourists here. Many houses look like they have been here for ages. They are built from shell limestone. All houses shine in white. Everywhere there are huge coconut palms that swing back and forth in the wind. Life feels slow. I ask Christine what comes first to her head when she thinks about the Vespa. “When I think of a Vespa, I see a man as a driver and the woman behind. On the side, like on a pony. And at least 100kg of goods.” I ask her if she drives Vespa herself. “No, I have a car.”

The heat of the day slowly fades away. I am exhausted like never before, even though I did not drive more than 20 kilometres. I ask her if she has an explanation for an observation: why so many women walk on the streets.

Before she answers, she gets up and takes an ice-cold bottle of water from the fridge, puts 3 glasses on the table and pours. Then she answers slowly and carefully. “Mobility is a matter of money. Women who have little or no income walk to save 20 cents. Other women have a Vespa and rent it. For example, an employee wanted more money because the bus prices had increased. She never goes by bus, but walks every day “

I tell her that I have never seen a single woman driving a Vespa myself in Zanzibar and ask her if she has an explanation for it. “There are many reasons for that. But no women at all? Ha, not in Bwejuu! You haven’t met Wanu yet. ” They laugh. I laugh. What is the matter with this Bwejuu..

I meet her with her best friends on the beach. Wanu drives a black Vespa, wears an orange veil with a light blue dress and flip-flops. Two huge fish lie on the loading area of ​​the Vespa. They look fresh. The mood is exuberant and cheerfully loud. We greet with a fist bum. Wanu is in her late 30s and has 4 children. Her husband is a construction worker at least at times when there is work.

“Sometimes life is good. Sometimes it’s bad. But it always worked, even if there is sometimes not enough money for electricity or the children’s school, ”she says. Her friends nod at everything she tells. “Driving a Vespa is complicated and unsafe. But that’s life. I am a businesswoman and I know my way around it. “

I ask her what she thinks of when she drives her Vespa. “When I drive my Vespa, the first thing I think of is the money I will earn. The good food I can cook for my family with it. Or maybe a new smartphone. I also just love the sound of the Vespa when I accelerate.”

I ask her why she believes that so many women don’t drive Vespa in Zanzibar. Suddenly the mood gets serious. “The women in Bwejuu think they are too weak for everything. Too weak to work, too weak to drive a Vespa. But that’s not true. I am a living example. ” Her friends nod. Then one of them makes a joke that I don’t understand. Everyone suddenly laughs loudly and taps their belly. The seriousness fades. I ask her if she has ever had problems with the police. “Sure, I don’t have a driver’s license.”

When I park the Vespa in the hostel at the end of the day, I feel nostalgic. A cat jumps on the seat, makes itself comfortable and purrs. I think of all the people and impressions that I have gained since the beginning of this little trip. Chaggy calls the Vespa “Haya ya Paka.” Cat’s soul. Immortal. Unbreakable. The Pirato story comes to my mind. If Chaggy is right, everyone here knows him. So I ask the next person on the street. He actually knows and brings me to him. On the way we walk through the village past small food stalls, where locals sit on plastic chairs around plastic tables and pound their fingers on grilled chicken or fish, past cheering fans in front of a small television – Manchester United may have just scored a goal. We walk past schoolchildren in bright white uniforms and green sashes and socks. It’s the golden hour, the last hour of the day before sunset when the world is suddenly under a golden glow.

Pirato lives in a house on the outskirts of Bwejuu. On the way there, several children follow us at a distance of about ten meters. A woman opens the door for us and lets us into the yard. A pot of steaming brown liquid stands on an open fire. It smells of cooked beans and smoke. Three chickens are fighting over fresh carrot shells. I am introduced. Greetings are exchanged. The woman’s name is Brenda and is Pirato’s sister. “Welcome,” she keeps saying. Then the children come from earlier. They are her daughter’s children. Now they’re doing gymnastics around me. “Do you have any presents for the children?” Brenda asks me. I shake my head in embarrassment. “Better so,” she replies, looking a little amused at the children who are now running after the chickens.

Then we take off our shoes and socks and go through a pearl curtain into the house. Pirato sits on a purple and white couch and looks into the distance through a small round window towards the sea. It is dark in the apartment. And unexpectedly cool. Chaggy told me that the boat was stranded in the 1980s. Pirato should, therefore, be around fifty years old. In fact, he looks older. The shirt he wears is as pure white as the children’s school uniform. Brenda introduces me to Pirato. No Answer. I do not feel well. Brenda notices that. “Unfortunately, he has become relatively hard of hearing and old,” she tells me, “but you should have seen him earlier.” She smiles. Then she goes into the kitchen to get Coke out of the fridge. Pirato registers that I introduce myself again and tell him that I have met Chaggy and he sends his best regards, and then I ask him if his mother really called him Pirato because the ship’s captain was called Pirato and I am immediately ashamed to have asked a stupid question. No reaction. Brenda is coming back. Coke is all. But I could have a glass of water.

I am already standing in the door when Pirato suddenly waves to me and points to a white plastic wall clock. It looks old but well cared for, it only hangs a little sloppy. The hands have stopped at 2:48. I ask him if the watch is broken or why it sticks at his time. His sister answers. “The clock? It has always been hanging here. It’s from our mother. “

I ask her what’s so special about the watch. She thinks for a moment. Then she answers. “I think the watch was a gift to our mother. Or someone brought it with them. I don’t really know that anymore. ” Then I ask her why the clock has stopped. Now she has to laugh briefly. “Oh, it has always been there and has never worked. At least not since I can think. “

We say goodbye. When I turn around again, I discover the children. They were waiting for me in the shade of a mango tree. No matter, I think to myself, go to the other side of the street and buy a couple of candy bars in a small shop and divide them evenly among the children. Together we stand on the street and silently eat melted chocolate bars. An old Vespa chugs past and disappears in the evening sun. Maybe that’s one of the ships that ran around here, from India, or maybe from Italy. Then I move on.

"I started photography because I was always too lazy to write. Now, I am in my thirties and out of excuses. In my professional life, I am a Berlin-based field researcher and strategic designer, writer, photographer, and co-founder of the design collective Lovolab. I specialise in identifying patterns in human interaction and behavior. My work has brought me to countries such as Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and, well, Germany. Sometimes I turn the things I hear and see into visual and written stories, such as Vespa Island. Also, I've got a thing for coconut trees and coffee grinders."

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