Seattle, Washington The Tchotchke to End All Tchotchkes

I moved in with Melissa. This is a first for me. As is living in a house. A town house, anyway.

Apparently I’m stinking up the place. This hasn’t been a problem in the past, when I wasn’t a full resident, but suddenly the furniture is laden with my scent and in need of chemical treatment.

Melissa says this is a common problem; that in those ads for sprays that remove "pet" odor, it’s really just code for "boy." Women all understand this, so the advertisers needn’t clarify.

Two days ago, a demo went out on Xbox Live for a game called Bioshock. It’s the best demo I’ve played in years. The game is actually literate, which is a quality I stopped hoping for long ago. The situation they drop you in is absolutely riveting and the quality is at a level that no amount of money can produce. Having worked in games, I know all forms of bodily fluid were excreted in its creation. A lot of people put a lot of passion into making this game great.

One of those people is Garry Schyman, who makes the music for my dancing videos.

Playing Bioshock makes me really glad I don’t work in games anymore, as I wouldn’t be able to derive any pleasure from it. Just envy and self-loathing.

I scoured YouTube for a sampling. The trailer they put out is excessively gory, a bit clich├ęd, and it doesn’t do the game justice. So I went with less-is-more.

I don’t tend to buy many souvenirs when I travel. There are several reasons for this. The first is the basic logistical dilemma of where I’m going to put it in my luggage. I also don’t much enjoy wandering in and out of shops all day — particularly in regions like Africa and Southeast Asia, where you can literally be dragged in against your will.

The other reason is because what you tend to find in tourist shops is crap. It can serve a purpose. If you need a gift for a friend and you know all they want is something that comes from Africa and looks like it comes from Africa, one of those wooden masks or figurines will do the trick just fine. But one is about as good as any other. And you know there’s a thousand guys under a tree somewhere carving them out as fast as they can be sold.

It’s hard to find something special. And usually it means shelling out an extraordinary amount of money. I regret that my living room is not festooned with reminders of my many thrilling adventures. I come up short in that regard.

I say all this by way of preface, because I finally found something I’m genuinely proud to place on my coffee table. It came from a curio shop in Zanzibar.


Remember the Chinatown shop in the beginning of Gremlins where the dad finds the mogwai? That’s what it’s like. You get the vivid sense that on one of the high shelves or in one of the musty corners, you’ll spot some strange, mystical artifact that the proprietor will swipe from your gaze and mutter, "Not for sale!"


The origins of the Zanzibar Curio Shop are sufficiently dramatic. In 1964, the mainland Africans in Tanganyika ousted the Arab government of Zanzibar and seized control of property and possessions. Thousands were killed, many more were booted from the island, and the impoverished Tanganyikans who moved in found themselves the proud owners of all sorts of weird crap. For centuries, the inhabitants of Zanzibar had been traders. Many of them had collected antiques of great value from all over the world. And suddenly these antiques were in the hands of people who saw little value in them.


One long-time resident, Mr. Akbarali, didn’t flee from the revolution. Instead, he went door-to-door, purchasing the entire contents of abandoned households and using it to fill his new shop. Mr. Akbarali’s son is Murtaza. Murtaza now runs the shop, and he’ll cheerfully tell you the whole story if you look like you might buy something.


From the front, the shop looks pretty ordinary. It has the usual wood carvings and t-shirts that fill every other store. But if you poke around, you’ll find room after room packed full with the remarkable and the inexplicable.


I bought a lot of stuff. That’s Murtaza trying to think of what else he can sell me.


Big gifts for various family members, and one thing for myself.

I asked Murtaza if he had any antique puzzles. He said no, but instead produced what he called an "Arabian dungeon lock." It’s German-designed, with four separate keys. Each key is given to a different dungeon guard, and all are needed to open it.

All my sirens went off simultaneously. I bought it and had everything shipped home. The process took some time; I had to pay through Western Union and shipping from Zanzibar is probably slower than it was four centuries ago. I finally got the thing a few weeks ago. Here it is.

Img_5606 Img_5616


My friend, Pete, did some research, and found out it’s a 15th century design, possibly Indo-Persian. He also found a disturbing warning that there are inauthentic fakes floating around. I suppose it’s likely my lock isn’t more than a couple decades old, but it’s still a lot of fun to play with and to watch other people try to solve.

Someone down below is going to ask how to find the Zanzibar Curio Shop. I can’t offer much help with that. Stone Town is a labyrinthine tangle of alleyways. I’d been there once before on my first trip to Zanzibar, and it took hours to track the store down again. And anyway, if it was easy to find, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

It’s not far from the Portuguese fort, so you can start there and just wander for a while.

Oh, by the way, the handy folks at LUX have fixed the archive section of my journal. It’s a lot easier to sort through now, as you can now see the location and title of each post.

Now I’ve just gotta fix the map page and rewrite the way-outdated FAQ.

Have you signed up to dance in the new video yet? The first batch of US and Canada invites goes out next weekend. Do it!