The other day as I went to climb onto the back of a piki piki, the slit in my dress split and briefly revealed the bottom of my thigh tattoo before I had a chance to cover it. It's a fairly unusual tattoo even in places where body art is commonplace, it's even more attention-grabbing in a country where tattoos are few and far between, and thighs remain covered in public. Even still I thought nothing of it, just pushed my dress back over it as I settled onto the motorbike, and the driver kicked the engine to a start and we headed away.
About a minute later, the driver took a phone call as we were speeding down the road. I could hear him say mzungu a few times before he reached over his shoulder to hand me the phone. “Dada, it's for you.”
I met this guy 2 minutes ago, what do you mean it's for me?
I take his phone and say a curious “Mambo?” (What's up) into the receiver.
A man's voice answers: “Poa (cool). Dada, I was on the piki piki next to my friend you ride with now. Do you remember me?”
- Like from two minutes ago?
I'm laughing, like, “Yep I remember you. Habari? (How are you?)”
“Nzuri sana (Very good), where did you get your tattoo?”
“Was it expensive?”
- Yeah pretty expensive.
I lie and say $50. I'm not about to tell the dude I spent the equivalent of his monthly salary getting my leg scribbled on with a needle.
“That is expensive. And it hurt?”
- Yeah they hurt a lot, but only for a day.
The friend and I talk for a few more minutes about tattoos while I'm just chilling on the back of a moving motorcycle, using up the driver's airtime, grabbing onto his waist with my free hand.
We eventually say goodbye and hang up and I hold onto the driver's phone until we reach our destination, then he just smiles as I hand it back to him along with the cash for the ride. He says a quick “Asante,” and takes off.
Just another run-of-the-mill human interaction.
I tell Okapi the story when we meet up later and he just laughs, like, “I love my people.”
In a country of immense natural beauty, of rolling hills and shallow lakes and white-sand coastlines and animal-covered grasslands and forests teeming with birds and monkeys, it is still the friendliness of Tanzanians that I love most about this place.
People have a lot of time for each other here, much more impulse to laugh than to argue, and a lot of willingness to offer their friendship, even if only briefly.
There has been more than a few occasions when I've been at a bar or restaurant waiting for a friend who speaks Swahili much better than English and I'm not able to describe my location well, so I'll just hand my phone to the bartender, going “Hey do you mind telling my friend where we are right now?”
There are no addresses, and many of the business are tucked away in the trees or a considerable distance down unnamed dirt roads, so the directions usually take a bit of back-and-forth before they can describe the accurate location.
The bartenders never mind.
Even the annoying parts of dealing with people here are a much more light-hearted affair than at home.
For instance, the cops. The fucking cops. There are traffic stops everywhere, and they'll get for you for everything. No seatbelt, 2 km/h over the speed limit, you don't have a fire extinguisher in the car, your tire looks a little flat.
A couple weeks ago I took a road trip to Mwanza – a city on the coast of Lake Victoria – with my friend Sam (who appeared in a previous post as Cathy but she hates that name and requested a formal change).
I don't even want to say how many goddamn tickets we got on the two-day drive in either direction. We didn't know we needed the fire extinguisher and triangles (our bad), and try as he might, I was never able to understand Okapi's broken-English explanation of the headlight signals drivers use to warn each other about speed traps. So we got trapped, and badly.
But for every ticket we got we managed talk ourselves out of another one, sometimes because we legitimately hadn't done anything wrong, sometimes because we could charm them with our broken attempts at Swahili, and sometimes because the circumstances were just frankly bizarre.
One older man pulled us over, looked around the car for a reason to fine us the standard 30,000 Tsh (around $15 USD), and when he couldn't find anything, informed us that he was going to get in the car so we could take him for chai. Sam started kicking up a righteous fuss and closing the windows as this mze circled around the car trying every door and repeating that he'd like us to take him for a tea, while his coworker sat under the shade of a nearby tree laughing a huge hearty laugh. Sam's shouting at the old dude who is now trying the back door while I look at buddy under the tree like, “Can we go?”
He's still laughing as he nods and waves us forward so Sam hits the gas, leaving the old cop grasping for the door handle as we leave him the dust, then we burst into laughter as we drive away, like “What in the fuck was that about?”
Another younger cop dinged Sam for driving 56 km/h in a 50 zone, then immediately after filling out her ticket and taking her cash, looked across her lap, pointed to me and said, “I want her number please.”
Sam responded by just closing the window and driving away, leaving the guy laughing in the rear view mirror. I joked that she should have offered him my number for 30,000 Tsh.
Or, for instance, the service in restaurants. The service in many (most) Tanzanian restaurants is remarkably bad. You order beef and and hour later, a plate of chicken will arrive. Then the dada will look at you like you're an asshole because you don't want to eat and then pay for the chicken you didn't order instead of the beef you did.
Most people, expats and locals alike, aren't super fond of this ritual. But nobody gets angry, nobody yells or kicks up a fuss. They'll complain about it, sure. It's annoying, sure, but is it really the end of the world? Either eat the thing you didn't order, it'll probably be delicious anyway, or send it back and wait again. Hakuna shida (No worries). The pace of life here demands patience, and most people have it in spades.
There's a little saying in Tanzania for going to get a last drink that you really don't need.
You've finished dinner and you're on your way home when you happen to pass a bar that looks inviting. You've just spent the weekend camping and you're heading back into town with the same friends you've been camping with, but there's a spot on the way you could stop in. It's 2 am and you've been at the bar all night and you were about to leave when someone you know shows up.
One for no reason?
One for no reason, in reality, is often two or three for no reason. It's the drinks you order when there's a million other things you should and could be doing, many compelling reasons to get going, and no particular reason to be sitting at the bar. The drink you stop for with the same person you've already been hanging out with all night and you were about to split and leave. But you don't want to leave, you're enjoying the company, so you stay for another round.
Driving down the hill to town one day, Joelle and I passed a group of street dogs that always hangs out at the same corner, and I remarked my astonishment at how much the littlest puppy had grown. Joelle responded sarcastically, “Yep, puppies will do that.”
I'm laughing, like, alright smart-ass, I guess my astonishment was not at the predictable growth of a baby animal, but looking at the puppy and being forced to suddenly realize I've been here long enough for a newborn puppy to grow into a small dog.
My plan was to visit Tanzania for one month, tickets booked and everything.
In the end I stayed for two and a half months, tickets changed and abandoned. There are a million other things I could have been doing, many compelling reasons to get going, and no particular reason to have been sitting in Tanzania.
One month according to plan, and one and a half for no reason. I guess I just enjoyed the company.
Tanzania, asante sana for everything, it's been amazing. See you baadae.