Nothing happens quickly here.
You walk into a café for breakfast, greet the people who work there.
“Karibu,” they say - “Welcome.”
“Asante,” you respond, - “Thank you.”
Then they show you to your table, place the menus down, and walk away. You wait 10 minutes and they'll come back and take your drink order, return with the coffee 15 minutes after that. If you don't make sure to order your food while they're dropping off the coffee, it's another 10 minutes or so before they'll return to see if you're hungry. The food usually takes 30-40 minutes to arrive after you've ordered it. The bill never comes unless you request it, but once you do it should just be a few minutes.
You can easily have breakfast until lunch, lunch until dinner. It can be Monday morning until it's suddenly Tuesday, one week until it's suddenly the next.
I've been in Tanzania for almost a month now and this is my first blog post.
There are no pictures yet, pole (sorry). I don't feel comfortable taking pictures of most things here, not the city, not the ramshackle buildings, not the people just going about their lives. Feels like poverty tourism, and in the absence of poverty like fetishization, like I'm leaning uncomfortably close to the National Geographic side of things.
Maybe I'll get comfortable with it one day, but not today.
Pole pole (slowly).
I arrived in Dar es Salaam on a Friday evening, armed with no more knowledge of the country than a Lonely Planet guide to Tanzania that I'd bought the previous day and hadn't yet opened, and a one-night's reservation at a guesthouse my friend recommended.
A driver from the guesthouse was there to meet me at the airport, and an American woman, we'll call her Sharon, was standing with him when I found him. “Is it okay if I jump in on your ride?” She asked, “I'm also going to Triniti.”
Sharon has been living and working in East Africa for much of her adult life, she's smart as a whip, very outgoing, speaks Swahili. We arrive at rush hour, which in Dar means total gridlock, so on the 2-hour, 16 km ride to the guesthouse, Sharon switches between chatting to the driver and pointing out various landmarks to me while I stare out the window and take in my surroundings.
She points to old German buildings left over from late 19th century colonialism. Gestures to Barack Obama Avenue, named for the president when he came to visit a few years back.
She points out the road to the National History museum, which I later learned from a Tanzanian friend, is conspicuously lacking in many historical artefacts. “You want to learn about early Tanzanian history?” He explained, “Go to Berlin.”
As we sit in traffic, there's a near-constant stream of people approaching the van to sell their wares: women with bowls of cassava on their heads, young men with hundreds of power cords draped down their arms, a guy with a bowl of water bottles perspiring in the humidity. Another guy wearing 100 neckties, a young boy selling frying pans, a woman with a nest of pantyhose resting atop her head.
Driving in Dar Es Salaam feels like a race to the grave, the roads are shit and there are scarcely any traffic lights to speak of. Most intersections are navigated through a combination of honks, waves, and who got there first. If there's a pothole on your side of the street, simply swerve into oncoming traffic. If the street was washed out entirely in last month's rain, drive on the sidewalk. The crowds of pedestrians calmly disperse as the cars plow slowly through them, reconvening behind the vehicle like a school of fish reforming after a predator's attack.
We arrive at Triniti Guesthouse as the sun goes down, drop our stuff in our cabins, and get to drinking. The guesthouse is a series of small cabins nestled into a tropical garden, with a sprawling thatch roof bar at its center. It's Friday night, hot and humid; the band is just getting started and the place is about to fill up.
Sharon introduces me to a friend, let's call him David, another American who runs a non-profit over here. David and Sharon are chatting agriculture, the economy, the problems with the national education system, whether President Magafuli is a genius or a moron (jury leaning towards the latter). Meanwhile I sit, ask questions, and try to take it all in.
When I say I showed up with little more knowledge than an untouched guide book, I wasn't kidding. The sheer enormity of things I don't understand about this country is difficult to overstate, and becoming clearer by the minute.
It's not only the broad strokes – the history, the politics, the economics, the endless socioeconomic complications – but the daily movements and practicalities.
I don't speak Swahili, and outside of businesses that cater specifically to tourists, most people don't speak English. I have no idea what anything should cost, no idea where anything is, no idea where I am at any given moment.
Nothing is intuitive, nothing is straightforward. It's the most inept I've felt in my adult life.
I spend the first few days just following Sharon around. We go to the gym, to lunch with her friends, to the shops. I spend a few hours trying to get a phone card while she's at the dentist, a morning idly trying to convince slippery pieces of mango onto my fork while she goes through her work emails. Every time she needs to go somewhere without me, I have to ask her how I should get home, how much it should cost, how do I bargain for that in Swahili.
Sharon lives in a rural area close to the Ugandan border, so when she's in the city she gets her fix of western food. My first night in town we go for dinner at a beautiful seaside restaurant that caters to tourists and wealthy locals.
The entirety of the monied world is there. Fastidiously dressed Africans, young Arabic couples in elegant kaftans and hijabs, large tables of Chinese businessmen, blonde families that look like they just walked out of a mid-90s Club Med ad.
A warm breeze blows in off the Indian Ocean and we're eating seared tuna by candlelight and getting champagne drunk. I feel like a diplomat. Dinner costs $30.
I meant to spend only the one night in Dar, but after a 31-hour flight from Australia, I didn't feel much like moving. I extend my one-night stay to two nights, to three, to a week.
David takes me to a beach on a small island just a half hour ferry ride from the city. Dar's modest skyline lays across the water and we spend the day eating grilled fish and drinking cold bottles of Kilimanjaro on a white sand beach by a turquoise ocean.
I make more friends. Sharon and I meet a Tanzanian man over breakfast at Triniti one morning, we'll call him Alistair, and we spend the entire day just chatting – politics, gender binaries, love, trust, dual citizenship, the hidden benefits of Trumpism. At least now the devil shows his horns, he says.
Nights are spent around the bar at Triniti, as a revolving cast of characters I slowly come to know invite me into their world. Everyone is working, everyone is collaborating. NGO administrators start projects with private enterprise folks, people meet randomly over drinks and end up working together for years. Some topics are discussed freely, others are hush hush. Beers constantly arrive on the table, it takes me a few days to learn the Swahili word for “another round” so I can intercept a beer ordered on my behalf when I'm already 3 too deep.
“Time is a relative concept,” Alistair tells me one day when I call attention to the fact that breakfast had somehow turned into happy hour.
In this way the days just pass.
Over a few days I get increasingly comfortable doing things on my own. I take a bajaj (rickshaw) across town to go the gym and I don't get completely ripped off. It's a small victory.
I wander down to Coco Beach, a beach near Trinti that's popular with locals. I buy a coconut and then spend two hours sitting under a palm tree with the dude who sold it to me. He doesn't speak English, so we just sit in the shade communicating in the language of no words – chain-smoking and gesturing casually at the scenery.
My base emotion is overwhelmed, but somehow, simultaneously, calm.
After a week, I finally decide to head to Arusha, the town where my friend who I came here to visit lives. She's amused but unsurprised that I got stuck in Dar for a week, it took five days before we even bothered to call each other.
Tanzania is a cash economy, so I take out one million shillings to pay my week's hotel bill, and walk the few blocks back to the guesthouse with four inches of cash stuffed in my pants, carrying an empty handbag as a decoy.
Another couple hundred shillings gets you a last minute, two hour flight from Dar to Arusha, and the next chapter is to set to begin.