I wander in the evening, creating for myself the malleable goal of seeing the sea. With a destination in mind, even one with arbitrary significance, I find more courage to progress past moments of irresolute fear. From Jambo Inn, I know that the sea is due east, so no map in hand I can navigate the streets of Dar es Salaam. The sun is sinking behind the buildings, making every road a shadowed alley. Certain areas happen to be devoid of people; I dread moving through these, until I notice another walking commuter within beckoning range. The fear that I feel is familiar, an old nemesis born from the days of social anxiety. It is partly a response to the unknown, a human reaction towards awareness and self-preservation; but also a type of stage fright. The moment I leave my room, I am watched. My whole body can sense the gaze of people, as physically as an actor can feel the heat of the spotlight. And every moment contains nuances of history and the current state of affairs. ‘Does this girl of Western coloring and clothes, this stranger, belong to the colonizers and their enforcers of apartheid? Or is she an emissary of the President of progress, our kinsman? Is she a friend or an other?’ Travelers are ambassadors and performers either of culture or nouveau-colonization, regardless of how conscious one is of the responsibility. Every interaction matters, every step is efficacious. This awareness is the cause of stage fright.
Ahead the buildings make way for the sea. The street empties onto a large four-lane avenue, and between the traffic and the ocean, a fence. I wander north along the dirt path aside the road, admiring the silver ocean between patterns of metal chain link. A sultry breeze breathes against the skin, whispering of salty voyage and seaweed.
Soon I am walking with others along this path. Small crowds draw wanderers, individuals joining magnetically, all walking north along the eastern edge of Africa. There is no reason really for the collectivity, no common destination. Some are strolling with family for the sake of it, some heading home from work; a few are speaking quietly, none move with anxiety. Swallowed by the current of wanderers, I am one of them. For the first time, I sense no gaze, merely mutual acknowledgement of presence—the kind of sensitivity the crowd holds for each one sharing this path. The course would have otherwise been lonely. The breeze spreads the darkness from sea to city. Dirt accumulates dismally next to the black pavement, some trash is wedged next to the metal fence. But lights blink on in some buildings across the road and in the passing cars; fire glows in makeshift grills, and groups of men and women are illuminated around small shebeens next to the water.
There is a bar I had read about, one of six recommended in the whole city of Dar es Salaam, where travelers may meet and share stories or advice. It is at the top of a hotel that is next to the harbor, and I had a mind to make that my new destination. But the fancy hotel is characterless, an exclusive cube of mirrors reflecting the outside world, barricaded by a white gate and a guard. The stream of locals bypasses this structure, and so do I.
The local wanderers disperse at the harbor. I walk past fish merchants that are packing up an inventory of eclectic sea creatures. The street descends to the water, where many board a passenger ferry. I opt out of boarding the boat, though the thrill of going somewhere unpredictable is tempting. Next to the landing is a cafe bar, where people sit around plastic tables, waiting and carousing amid festive meringue music. I sit timidly at an empty table, to watch the last sun stains fade from the sky. A waitress appears, stands imploringly over me. Because I fear my presence strange, I do not order beer or liquor, rather a glass bottle Pepsi to be safe. I sip it through a straw, watching stray cats bound across concrete blocks piling into the sea. They chase giant rats that nobody seems to mind, cornering the creatures to a watery grave. I walk back as the deepest dusk turns black, and the stream of locals wanes.