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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Last Night, in Dar...

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. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Dream Learning

Eyes wide open in the heat, I watch upside-down as the sun emerges over the neighboring rooftops. I flip over a few times, restlessly looking for coolness in the sheets or against the wall. My mind reels from the experiences of the previous day, the trivial errands that somehow became a never-ending induction to my self-imposed Odyssey. Everything ‘normal’ is strange to me now that I’m alone in a strikingly new world; even something so simple as walking creates questions of politics and naturalness. I can hear a fly colliding against the screen on my window— and realize that my senses and perception are heightened to hyper-awareness.

Echoes of yesterday’s acquaintances spiral through my mind as I repeat over and over the strings of Swahili that have stuck. Jambo, Habari? Nzuri Sana, Mambo? Poa, Karibu. Asante. (Hapana, Pole. Ndiyo, Tafahdali). The language is musical. The meaning of the few words I’ve gleaned seems intrinsically bound to each sound pronounced. “Asante” sounds saintly gracious. “Hapana” yells stop, penalty, negative, no. “Karibu” beckons, caring, come here you. Like a newborn, my brain already functions to meld symbols and significations. The slightest tones, expressions, reactions of everyone around me are perceived and organized with words subliminally captured.
I am waking exhausted from dream-learning, from reconciling myself with difference. Today will be passed quietly and meditatively—I must better prepare myself for change.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

One Night Communion

Manon pours a bottle of Kilimanjaro Beer into a tall glass. I sip a delicate serving of Tej, a champagne-colored honey wine, that the waiter claims is his favorite beverage. For a while, we go through the formal ‘first date-like’ motions of getting to know each other, descriptions of family, of friends, studies and work and interests. I explain to Manon my anthropology-based program in Cape Town, she tells me about the volunteer organization that sent her to Arusha. But eventually it dawns on both of us that it doesn’t really matter at this point that we construct our whole personas for one another. This night is the first and last time we’ll know each other; it hardly matters that at home I pass the time watching old movies of Cary Grant, and she follows Dubstep music, and we both played ‘Olivia’ in Twelfth Night. We have sought one another’s company for communion over the things we share that no one in our lives may fully understand, the fluctuating dimensions of self that exist right now within and because of Africa. Thus our departure from normal social routine is signified when I ask Manon whether she looks forward to returning home, and she announces:

“Switzerland is sometimes barbaric. I see that now, in its conformity. I don’t know how I feel about going back. Home is just the end-point, it is inevitable. I want to see friends, but I’m afraid that I’ll sink back into it, and forget. I know I will.”

Barbaric. I think Manon may be the first person in history to call Switzerland this. Barbaric in its conformity. If I am correct in interpreting, she speaks of the inhumanity, the lack of humanness in the daily experience. The technology, the segregating and alienating systems that render face-to-face contact unnecessary. If this is what she means by ‘barbaric,’ then I understand her ambivalence towards returning.

“Forgetting terrifies me too,” I admit. “But when we go back, no matter how much we adjust to our own culture, and how many of the details we lose, it will never be like we’d never gone. Even if you forget the meaning of ‘Jambo,’ you will know that Africa is not really what politicians and newspapers say it is. And the people you met. . . you’ll always know they are real.”

The evening passes as Manon and I replenish ourselves through social communion. Exhausted and satiated, we return to Jambo Inn and bid our final farewell. We part, knowing we’ll never see each other again, though content to have had the chance to share our lone experiences.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Addis in Dar

We flag a taxi right outside of Jambo Inn. Manon takes control, negotiating the fare and destination with the driver in Swahili. I climb into the backseat, observing tableaus of the night as we drive through the city. Men sit in front of closed storefronts, chatting and playing Bao in the dark. New shifts of street venders continue to smoke meat and grill chapatti. Every time the taxi pauses momentarily in traffic, someone knocks on the window, advertising wrapped candies or salvaged Western kitsch. The street color dissipates as we enter emptier and pricier parts of the city, with more imposing edifices— expensive prisons that lack ambiance. Every building looks like an embassy, doubly barricaded by walls and gates. I suppose this is the “nicer part of the city” that an Afrikaner on the plane had wanted to show me.

Entering the outwardly non-descript building, Manon and I ascend a staircase and are relieved to find a lively, ornately decorated balcony. ‘Addis in Dar’ is a restaurant of Ethiopian cuisine—now that I am here I recall ‘Addis in Cape,’ a popularly recommended place in Cape Town, evidentially started by the same Ethiopian woman.

We are seated at the corner of the balcony, surrounded on two sides by the thick, glossy foliage of the tropical trees rooted in the garden below. With the dark flickering of candle lanterns, and the smell of incense mingling with roasting coffee, the restaurant perfects for its Western customers the atmosphere of ‘exotic Africa’. I wonder if the theme of ‘Ethiopia’ strikes Tanzanians with a sense of mystery and foreignness. Looking around, I notice few Tanzanian customers; those that are here appear to be on business dinners. Though I try not to eavesdrop, I am intrigued that they are speaking English to each other, and Swahili to the wait-staff.

Dinner is ceremoniously presented. The meal consists of various kinds of wot, or stews, scooped onto a large communal sourdough crepe called injera. The injera is moist, a gray fermented flour that absorbs the rich spices and herbs of the sautéed dishes and wot.

“We eat with the right hand,” the waiter proclaims. “Use the injera to scoop up the stew. Very nice.”

We have ordered vegetarian dishes, Kek Alicha Wot— chickpeas with ginger and turmeric— lentil stews, and a hummus-textured scoop of sweet simmered pumpkin. The meal is mushy, fragrant with herbs and spices, and wonderfully contrasted by the sour injera.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


“Hello, are you traveling alone?” A Caucasian girl approaches me as I sit for curry at the Jambo Inn restaurant.
            “Yes, for now. How about you?” The girl nods, looking lonely, so I invite her to eat.
            “Thank you,” she responds with a very slight European accent.
Her name is Manon, hailing from Switzerland. She has traveled alone for the first time, to spend three months on a volunteer program in Arusha. The girl has the kind of unassuming attractiveness that is usually passed off as ‘cute’ or ‘pleasant.’ Her features are carefully composed with a straight upturned nose and a faintly mouse-like overbite. With fine, fawn-colored hair, and flawless skin, her beauty is one of Caucasian softness, but would call for a certain temper of ‘joie de vivre’ to really catch fire.

“I’ve been here for three days, and there’s nothing to do in Dar es Salaam but walk around,” Manon vents after we’d exchanged pleasantries. “I was getting so lonely. And everyone here is on honeymoon, or strange business. I’m so glad to talk to you, I use to never talk to strangers. I think Africa has made me braver that way.”

Now at the end of her time in Tanzania, Manon has changed. I couldn’t know how much has internally altered, but I could recognize the outward statements of a transformed identity. She is wearing an orange kanga print dress, handmade on streets of Arusha. The sleeves are thick, just off the shoulders, with a scoop-neck, and fitted upper torso. Her sandals hail from the street markets also, and her wispy mouse-colored hair is pulled tight into tiny braids. She doesn’t look ridiculous, as one might imagine, but genuinely believes that these changes in style make sense here. Like all of fashion, her clothes are a sign. Whether they represent practicality, an inner change, or the greatest self-delusion of having become local, is up for debate.

Before standing to take an afternoon nap, Manon invites me to dinner in a different part of the city. I agree, pleased for the company.

For someone who claims former shyness, Manon seems quite forward. Traveling has a way of accentuating the necessities of life, companionship being an oft forgotten need. It also has a way speeding up relationships, into condensed chunks of pivotal exchanges. I wonder how Africa has made Manon braver; how like Oz, visitors historically find in this ‘mystery continent’ whatever qualities they seek.  

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Back on the street, the sun casts long shadows on the thinning traffic. Mchafukoge, our neighborhood of central Dar, is becoming gradually less crowded. Although street vendors of fruits and meat still tow their wares to afternoon patrons, businesses are shutting their stores and commuters are heading home. After turning a few corners, I recognize myself to be on Libya St, the avenue that eventually leads to Jambo Inn. We pass the gas station parking lot I recognize, where all the taxi drivers wait for patrons, then the dusty construction site with mounds of sand and rebar extending into the car lanes. Then there is an outdoor mall, with a cloth store, a book-shop, and a small Indian takeaway cafe. Under the restaurant, concrete stairs descend to a covered sitting area where two Indian women are chatting—deeper in the tunnel is an ATM.

Safari Seniors was a legitimate company, and George’s brother thoroughly answered all my questions about Kilimanjaro and the treatment of porters. Since they were a local company, and that was my main prerequisite, I decided to book with them. The bargain deal of $1300 USD was paid in half then and there.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Planning a Trek

I have read much about fraudulent climbing companies, sending out emissaries of street children in the towns of Moshi and Arusha. Websites and guidebooks warn about such scams taking place in the safari and adventure industries throughout the world. But almost as insidious, in my opinion, are the international corporations that charge tourists exorbitant prices, then employ the services of local companies at rates that barely cover the real costs of the expedition. The greedy abuses of these companies feed on the fears of travelers who want no surprises after arriving in a foreign land. They undercut legitimate local businesses, and often contribute to the exploitation of porters and other workers. I would rather take the risk of a small-scale scam, than help fund massive corporate swindles and middlemen exploits. So while I remain cautious of the pressure of booking with George’s brother’s company, I am armed at least with the awareness of my own expectations, as well as humanitarian concerns.

George and I trek towards the more residential streets of central Dar. We pass an old building of colonial architecture. George motions to a window on the third story.
“The office is up there. The building use to be a hotel.”
We walk through a dark stucco entryway at the center of the complex. To the right is the doorway to a smoky neighborhood tavern. There is a strange rhythm wafting from the bar, as if some patron or two were drumming quietly on the tables, anticipating a concert of Swahili Jazz. We pass an old woman standing behind what used to be the Reception desk.
“The Safari office,” George mumbles to her, as we squeeze past and ascend three flights of stairs. On the second floor a woman attends to a crying baby, shutting the door as we pass. It seems the old hotel has found many new purposes, business, recreational, residential.
As we walk down a dingy hall, a wooden door at the end creaks open. A heavy-set figure is silhouetted in the door frame.
“Welcome brother, Karibu dada! Come in, come in to the office.”
Past the door, the afternoon sun filters in through large windows, filling the small, neat office. The man who welcomed us hugs George in greeting. He is older than George by more than a decade, wearing a heartened expression and a well-loved gray suit. He turns to shake my hand.
       “Welcome to Safari Seniors. So . . . you have some questions about climbing Kilimanjaro.”