Tanzania, to be specific.
We’ve just finished our first month of residency in Dar es Salaam. In the past month we’ve gone on safari, had a car accident, and found out what it was like to do banking in the 1950s. Yesterday I found myself stranded on a desert island.
I once thought I would probably never visit Africa, let alone live here. I’m not going to lie – I like comfort. As I get older, I find myself more willing to pay for the comforts that the first half of my life didn’t afford me. The thought of staying in a hostel now gives me shivers. I did all of that in my twenties, into my thirties. Those days are long over. And since I am increasingly fond of comfort, I would have never expected to agree to living in a place where the city roads are no better than the safari roads, nor where you should keep your car doors locked just to drive to work.
On the other hand, I have learned never to say never (I just really really hope I never have to stay in a hostel again.) We’ve lived in Mongolia, and before that, Korea. What? Korea is uncomfortable? It is for a guy with an intolerance to garlic. So I kept my mind open about Africa. Then we moved there.
Shortly after arriving, we visited Mikumi National Park. It’s said to be “about 4 hours from Dar” which really means it’s 9 hours. During our two-day visit, we were fortunate enough to see giraffes, monkeys, zebras, impalas, hippos, crocodiles, wildebeests, warthogs, and immeasurable counts of exotic birds.
Then we saw the lions. You’re never guaranteed to see lions, but there were four. Three lying about 30 meters from the road, and one young male who was too lazy to leave the roadside – sleeping on his back in the grass with his belly to the sky. Perhaps he’d been rejected by the two females further away, or the male that accompanied them had bullied him out of the trio.
Just after sunset on both nights, a pack of elephants came down to the hippo pool for a drink. The large crowd of tourists that had chattered fell silent as the elephants lined the water, stepping down into it, and used their trunks to fill their mouths. One hippo wasn’t having it. He slowly made his way toward the elephants in protest of sharing the water space, but by the time he got close enough, the elephants had drank their fill and were ready to move on.
Life in Tanzania is not always safari. All of the game parks are far from the big city, and the biggest ones are the furthest. The Serengeti is a trip for a later time. Zanzibar is in October. Beyond that, we haven’t planned anything. Currently we’re still trying to adapt to life in Dar es Salaam. The traffic is bad as they say, because people drive as they wish, dodging potholes and speed bumps everywhere. There are no standards on vehicle emissions, so large black plumes of exhaust fill the streets. Masai men lurk around car parks, hoping to make a thousand shillings here and there (roughly 45 cents USD) by providing protection for cars from thieves, or to help people back out onto hazardous roads. You lock your doors when you drive. You never leave bags in sight. You quickly get used to these things. If you get too used to it, you get careless. Mongolia has prepared me to always be aware of my surroundings. I thought it had prepared me for bad roads but Tanzania is definitely worse. Who are worse drivers– the jury is still out on that one. Tanzanians are definitely a lot more relaxed though. The car accident mentioned earlier was probably an overstatement. My wife turned too sharply into a tree, pulling the bumper off. A few of us managed to pop it back on, and while the rental company noticed the scratches, they didn’t even mention it nor charge us for the damage. That definitely is unlike any rental experience I had in Canada!
There’s not much to say about the banking here. Imagine life before ATMs. All of that hassle is real.
Life in Dar definitely has its sweet moments. As a matter of fact, I think once we have a car and have settled in more, the sweet moments will be a lot more frequent. We work with some great people. There is a much larger expat community here than in Mongolia, so that should make for a broader social scene. There are two beautiful islands within an hour of the city by boat. There is Zanzibar, Mafia and Pemba islands for longer breaks. There are the Seychelles and Mauritius for pure luxury, though they’re much further away.
Last weekend we visited Mbudya island, 30 minutes by car, 15 minutes by boat. Despite the attempted shakedown by the ramshackle restaurant there (I would recommend you bring your own food and drinks) it was a great time. All of that white sand / blue water you’d expect. I stupidly attached my Joby tripod to a banda there (grass hut) and didn’t listen to the little voice in my head that said “don’t do that…” Then I forgot it there.
The next day I was on the next island over, Bongoyo, on a school trip. One of the water taxi guys agreed to take me to Mbudya to check for my tripod, but I needed to get right back to Bongoyo. He brought me over and I had told him I’d be five minutes – but when I returned from the banda the boat was nowhere to be seen! A guy standing up on the beach saw my exasperation and said “he’ll be back later!” What did that even mean? When was ‘later’?
So I paced around the beach for forty minutes, waiting for a glimpse of a boat headed my way. I laughed at the irony of being impatient and pissed off about being on a tropical white beach with clear blue water lapping bits of coral up onto it. I stared off at the island that I was supposed to be on, thinking about how I told my coworkers I’d “be right back”. I hadn’t brought my phone or even water.
Around 40 minutes later I saw a wake somewhere in the distance. The boat was returning. By the time it reached me I was pissed off yet elated, and said nothing except to ask if this was the boat that would take me back to Bongoyo. It was. When I returned to the island, lunch was just being served.
I won’t fool myself into thinking everything is marvelous here. Beach weekends, great people, mind blowing vacation prospects – those parts are all great. But this is not the reality of the majority of people here. We work with, for, and amongst great wealth in this developing country. And so with this in mind I still can’t shake the feeling that we are colonialists here. We are part of the long, living history of this place. And so it’s very much on the forefront of my mind to mind myself and our existences here. To give what we take.
I hope we stay for a while.