Travelling aside, my main reason for coming to Tanzania was to visit Joelle, an old friend from my university days in Montreal. She came here four years ago to do a 6-month contract with her cousin's tour company, fell in love with the country, fell in love with a safari guide, and stayed.
She and her partner, Sylvester, live in a little house up a series of winding dirt roads in the banana tree and coffee-covered hills above Arusha.
Arusha is an inland city near the Kenyan border, at the base of volcanic Mount Meru. It's a small city that feels like a large town, depending on if you judge it by its half million inhabitants or its low buildings and modest geographic expanse.
Like Dar, the whole place smells faintly of smoke and vegetation, but the salty humidity of the seaside is replaced by a refreshing mountain cool. It smells incredible.
A two hour drive from Kilimanjaro, and the gateway to the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and Tanzania's innumerable other wildlife parks, Arusha is the undisputed tourism capital of the country.
Take a quick walk through the center of town, and this becomes immediately evident.
“Jambo rafiki (Hello my friend), where are you from?”
- Sijambo. I'm from Canada.
“Vancouver, Montreal, or Toronto?”
- Vancouver and Montreal.
“Alors tu parles français?”
“C'est très bon. Karibu Tanzania (Welcome to Tanzania).”
- Asante (Thank you).
In a tourism-based economy, multilingualism means upward mobility, so many people here speak two, three, five languages. Most Tanzanians speak their tribal language and Swahili, but in a tourist hotspot, they tack on a Western language or two or three. Sylvester speaks Iraqw, Swahili, English, and French every single day. I lived in Montreal for six years and his French is infinitely better than mine, but he's never been outside of East Africa.
While I hoped my newfound ineptitude would subside once I was in the company of friends, in Arusha it merely transformed.
My second night in town, I went with Joelle and a few of her friends to see a Congolese dance band at Triple A, a mostly local nightclub in the center of town. I meet this guy, we'll call him Okapi, and I give him my number. We go for beers the next day, he's a nice dude, worked with Sylvester at the same safari company a few years back, we have fun.
The next afternoon, Joelle and I run into him into town and he wants to take me to dinner. I'd just need to go home and change, and come back to town later to meet him. Simple, right?
Simple in theory, but not in practice.
I don't get reception at Joelle's house, I have no idea where it is, no idea how to get back to town. There are no street names and no house numbers, so it's not like we could just give Okapi an address to come pick me up.
So now I'm just standing there dumbly while Joelle and Okapi figure out how to orchestrate our date. She'll call him when I'm ready since she gets reception, she call me a piki piki, or motorcycle taxi, and tell the driver, Rassi, where to go. Rassi will bring me to the first paved road junction and wait with me until Okapi arrives since I can't stand there by myself at night. Okapi takes Rassi's number down so he can call him in case any of us are running late.
I feel like an 8-year-old standing between my mom and a friend's dad while they try to negotiate the schedule of a playdate, but I'm 27 standing with my friend and a man I'm trying to go on a date with, while they work out the details of a more adult sleepover. I express this to Joelle and Okapi and they both laugh, but for them, it isn't strange.
If you're not from here, independence is a skill that takes a while to develop. A luxury afforded only once you understand the place much better – speak the language, know how to get around, know how various transactions function.
I failed to buy beer from a local shop one day because I didn't show up with empty bottles. At the small shops, if you don't have empty bottles, you can't get full ones. Who knew.
Same with milk. I watched Joelle's friend Raru leave to pick up milk for coffee, empty water bottle in hand, then return 5 minutes later with the water bottle filled with milk. If I'd been assigned the task, I would have left empty-handed and returned the same way.
Honestly, nothing is intuitive.
But Tanzanians understand this, and expats who have been here for a while understand this. As a result, most people are very willing to help you. Strangers you meet on the street will walk 10 minutes out of their way to guide you where you need to go. Friends of friends of friends will drive you into town so you don't have to travel alone in the dark. A mama left her fruit stall to walk me around the used clothing market and help me bargain for dresses, and after 15 minutes she just asked for 500 Tsh, about 20 cents, for a soda.
Time is not money here, and most people have it in abundance.
You learn quickly to rely on your friends and their network. You meet the people your pals trust, and get their numbers. You call them for things you'd never call casual acquaintances for at home. You rely on the people you know because getting by on your own is incredibly daunting, if not flat-out impossible.
There's no typical backpacker's route, few hostels, no tourism offices. There are no standard prices, from vegetables to transportation to clothing to accommodation, basically everything is up for bargain. If you don't know ahead of time what the price should be and you don't speak Swahili, you can be guaranteed you'll pay too much.
Getting around is a different story. There are no ticket counters where you can inquire about bus schedules, because there are no bus schedules to inquire about.
The buses are just crowded minivans called dala dalas that pass constantly on every main street. They're easily identified by their artwork – brightly coloured emblems covering the entire van, which range from religious imagery to pictures of various musicians to fantastical images of animals with any combination of Swahili, Arabic, and English written below. Sometimes they make sense, sometimes less so. Sometimes “PRAISE JESUS” is scrawled in block letters across the flag of Israel. “IN TRUST WE GOD” covers the rear-view window. A picture of Jay-Z is labelled Snoop Dogg.
There are no bus stops, they'll pull over to pick you up or drop you off anywhere. A coloured stripe on the bus identifies its destination, black for Njiro, red for Miazani, etc.
If you don't know already your colour, welp, good luck.
Micro-economy is everywhere. Every fence is draped in used clothing, every sidewalk covered in rows of shoes, electronics, bowls of peanuts, beaded jewelry. Mamas in colourful khangas sell roast maize under the shade of every tree. Young men in flip-flops push enormous wooden wheelbarrows full of bricks down the shoulder of the main road. A hair salon and a cell phone store operate out of the same small room, two men transport a full-grown goat on a dirt bike.
But while economy is abundant, it's also slow. Underemployment is rampant. Piki piki drivers sleep slumped over their handlebars waiting for someone to require a ride. Families relax on the wooden bed frames they've built for sale in the lumber yard. The fruit goes rotten at its seller's feet, slabs of meat collect flies as they lay in wait on the butcher's hook.
One night Okapi and I are going for dinner, but he's set to pick up clients in the early morning and needs his safari truck worked on first. We drive to the out-out-outskirts of town, down a long dirt road to a small-scale industrial neighbourhood. A - tires stacked outside of corrugated iron shanties - kind of small-scale.
We pull up to an unmarked door, next to a group of people huddled around a pot of hot oil and a tray of fried fish. The moon is a low sliver and the darkness is punctuated only by the cooking fires at the side of the road.
A teenage boy walks over to chat to Okapi about the truck, then lifts the hood and starts looking it over while his brother stands behind him holding a cellphone flashlight to the engine. A minute ago these kids were eating dinner with their family, now they're fixing a truck in the dark.
There's no work schedule for most people here, no 9-5, no weekends, no vacation. Working hours are whenever work is available, leisure time is when it isn't.
We leave the boys with the truck and wander down the street to meet Okapi's friend for dinner at a local spot. When I say local, I'm never referring to proximity, but to custom and clientele. In Tanzania, there are local things, and mzungu (tourist) things. Local accommodation and mzungu accommodation, restaurants that serve mzungu food, restaurants that serve only local food.
Middle and upper class Tanzanians go to some mzungu places, some tourists and expats go to some local places. But there are some local places foreigners would never go. They'd usually have no reason to, they're not necessarily invited. This was one of those places.
When I walked in, every single face in the room turned to stare at me. One man's mouth literally fell open, his hand suspended midway to reaching for his beer. The waitress took a good long pause before offering a quiet karibu.
I may as well have walked in wearing a live octopus as a hat.
We greet Okapi's friend and order a few beers, baridi (cold), otherwise they'll assume you want them warm. In local spots, there are only a few things on offer. Ugali, a firm, dough-like dish made of maize flour and water. Nyama Choma, barbecued meat. Pilau, oily white rice. Mnavu, spinach stewed in spices. Ndizi kaanga, fried plantains.
Sometimes you can choose your meat, choose your starch, add a side of mnavu. Sometimes you have whatever they're serving.
Tonight it's ugali and barbecued goat, served with a bowl of salt and a bowl of fresh pili pili (hot sauce). If arterial clogging didn't exist, I would happily eat this every day.
The waiter comes around with a plastic wash basin, a kettle of warm water, and a bottle of soap so everyone can wash their hands at the table. You eat with your right hand, the left is your bathroom hand. There are no plates, just a tray of food in the center of the table for everyone to share. After the meal, the waiter comes around with the wash basin again so you can wash the sauce from your fingers, then finishes off with toothpicks for the table.
Okapi and his pal are chatting in Meru while I pick goat meat from my teeth and watch Tanzania lose a soccer game to Mozambique. When we get up to leave, I feel such a burn from so many eyes boring into my back that I briefly forget how to walk, tip into the door frame on the way out.
But over a couple of weeks, the pieces slowly start to fall together.
I grow accustomed to the constant staring, I stare back, smile, say mambo (what's up). I learn enough Swahili to get through a few basic exchanges, learn to slow my English and affect a Tanzanian accent to be more easily understood the rest of the time.
Sylvester's niece teaches me how to fry fish the Tanzanian way, extra cooked, and how to wash my clothes by hand efficiently. I get better at balling up ugali in my palm to pick up mnavu. I develop a preference for squat toilets, a fondness for showering with a bucket of hot water and a bowl, and a reluctant tolerance for faucet showers that spit cold water.
I learn the way to Joelle's house so I can come and go on my own. I eat breakfast at the same café every day, make friends with the other regulars, become part of the furniture.
Every Tanzanian I talk to tells me I should stay. They're incredibly welcoming and incredibly proud of their country. And for good reason.
Despite a 40% / 40% split between Islam and Christianity, despite nearly 100 different ancestral tribes, despite decades of persistent poverty, it remains a country with no significant history of bloodshed. It's beautiful, it's fairly safe, it's fun, the people are unfailingly polite.
“Karibu Tanzania, do you like it here?”
- I love it.
“You should find a job here, there's lot of opportunities for mzungu who speak English.”
- I'm looking into it, I'd like to come back.
“Karibu tena, (welcome again). You should definitely come back.”
I just might rafiki, I just might.