Deep into Dar es Salaam Tanzania MzansiBride

Winona Griggs

Discovering Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Think of East Africa, and a colorful tapestry of images unfolds in my mind – the awe-inspiring Maasai people with their vibrant culture, the enchanting landscapes adorned with acacia trees, the mist-laden peak of the Ngorongoro crater, and the azure sea filled with graceful Arab dhows. I had the chance to explore this captivating region during a month-long adventure, although my journey was unexpectedly cut short due to a bout of malaria that has left me with fragmented memories of Dar es Salaam. Yet, amidst the haze, I still cherish the vivid moments that have etched themselves into my heart like a beloved, well-read chapter from a captivating novel…

When I flew from London to Dar es Salaam, I was expecting a difference. But as soon as I stepped out into the sticky, suffocating heat of East Africa, I realized that the contrast was more extreme than I had imagined. It completely envelops you. It leaves you feeling disoriented, excited, and completely out of place. That’s the first thing I learned in Tanzania: you can’t expect to blend in. You can’t expect to seamlessly integrate with the locals or feel comfortable in the scorching heat, the rushed immigration process, or the melodic chorus of Swahili. Most importantly, you can’t expect to feel like a local the moment you squeeze into a crowded bus or hail a dilapidated taxi. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Even before the 13-hour flight and the three-hour layover in the soulless confines of Dubai International, I had already started dreaming about Dar es Salaam. I pictured a palm-fringed harbor, worn and abandoned. A city slowly unraveling at its edges, chaotic, dusty, but full of African charm. The name of this bustling port city was bestowed upon it by an old Arab sultan from Zanzibar, the renowned “Spice Island” just off the coast. In 1865, Majid bin Said arrived, glanced at the prosperous fishing village, and declared it a “Harbor of Peace” – Dar es Salaam in Arabic. Over time, the small town grew into the administrative and commercial heart of German East Africa during the colonial era. Today, it’s home to almost 2.7 million people who work in the gleaming skyscrapers of the city center, sell their goods along the contrasting dusty streets, and wander the humid harbor in search of business.

So, off I went on this wild adventure with my boyfriend, Andrew. He’s a Scottish bloke, always up for some excitement. We were quite the odd couple, a blend of Scottish and South African, leaving behind the bustling city life of London. Andrew was drawn to the trip by his love for exploring edgy cities in Eastern Europe. Plus, he was looking forward to some quality beach time and finally finishing that never-ending book, Vanity Fair. Yawn.

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We had already proven to be great travel companions during a previous trip to the Scottish Hebrides. We navigated the heathery hills with nothing but a map and a half-eaten jar of peanut butter. If we could conquer that adventure, then surely exploring the “third world” would be just as thrilling!

As for me, this journey marked the beginning of a long-anticipated trip to the continent. I had been saving up for this grand adventure and had always felt a pull towards Africa. Looking back now, I can say with certainty that Africa truly gets under your skin. Although, my reasons for feeling this way are quite different from what I expected.

I’m back on the ground at Dar’s airport – the Julius Nyere International. It amazes me how our first impressions of a place are shaped by that initial glimpse from high up in the sky. I recall seeing patches of green fields, clusters of human settlements resembling ants, the sudden emergence of a gleaming city, and then (I gasped) the never-ending expanse of the sea. It looked magnificent and captivating from up there, accompanied by the rushing sound of the airplane’s air conditioning; it seemed like a miniature town that we could play with and rearrange. But the surprise always comes when we land, realizing that the reality of the place is a vast and chaotic maze, quite different from the orderly world we saw from above.

As I step off the plane, a wave of humid air engulfs me, seeping into my skin and hair. Air traffic controllers guide me across the concrete, their English surprisingly fluent compared to my stumbling attempts at Swahili. “Jambo!” I quickly learn that saying hello is the best way to break the ice in East Africa. Waiting by the baggage carousel, I feel a sense of patience, like a caterpillar patiently waiting to transform. And then, suddenly, I’m outside, surrounded by the open air. That’s the beauty of this airport – the warmth and recycled air inside makes it feel like stepping outside is a relief.

But here’s the thing. As I realize that I arrived without a plan, I can’t help but feel conspicuous. I stick out like a sore thumb, a bright white person with a towering backpack that makes me feel like a clumsy tortoise. I nervously clutch my Lonely Planet guide, desperately trying to look like I know what I’m doing. But it’s obvious to everyone that I’m a vulnerable tourist, eager to take in all the new and surprising sights around me.

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It starts with the taxi drivers. They spot me from a mile away – after all, white people are hard to miss in East Africa. They call out to me, offering their services and asking where I want to go before I even have a chance to figure out where I am. Then there’s the man who beckons me over, looking like he holds the answer to all my questions. But instead, he shakes a begging tin at me, hoping for some spare change.

And just when I think I’ve got a handle on things, someone else breaks through my defenses. They take me by the arm and lead me to a waiting car, insisting that they’ll take me wherever I need to go. As all of this unfolds, I can’t help but think to myself, “Oh my god, I read about this in the guide book.”

All I ever hear about African locals is how friendly they are. And yes, most of them are, but it’s important to understand that Tanzanians are more than just friendly people. They are complex hosts who know how to seize opportunities and have every right to want to benefit from visitors like you. After all, as an outsider on vacation in their overcrowded and underdeveloped country, you represent a walking stack of US dollars. The gap between travelers and locals becomes apparent as soon as you step off the plane, and it’s all about money. It’s a gap that never fully closes. So it wouldn’t be honest to ignore the obvious differences, the uneasiness, and the guilty conscience that creeps in when you become a tourist in a very poor country.

We finally arrived at “˜Riki Hotel’ after a two-hour journey filled with rain and a sticky traffic jam. The taxi driver, as it turns out, was completely trustworthy (observation #1: they always are). I peeled myself off the fake leather interior, leaving behind a large and sweaty bum-print on the seat. Yuck. (Observation #2: you don’t just sweat in Tanzania; you pour.) We hurried from the mildly ominous outdoors into the hotel, which had low ceilings, dim lighting, and nostalgic 1970s brown wall paneling. Riki’s, as we had read in some British pub that felt like a million miles away, was comfortable and clean. Our room had a tiny balcony that overlooked a row of trees where crows perched and cawed. It offered a wide view of the towering apartment blocks that lined the outskirts of Dar es Salaam. As the sun, low in the sky after the rain, cast a beautiful yellow glow over the chaotic architecture and laundry lines, I couldn’t help but daydream about what Cuba might be like.

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As me and my companion stood in the room, we felt a mixture of excitement and nervousness. We spoke in hushed tones, flipping through our guidebook for guidance. The moment we arrived, we were thrust into the heart of Dar. The outskirts of the city were a mess of unkempt buildings and rough sidewalks. These sidewalks also served as emergency lanes for the infamous “dalla-dallas” taxis, which grew impatient with the traffic. Pedestrians and cyclists scattered to make way for these loud, blaring vehicles. The taxis were packed with commuters, their luggage teetering dangerously on top.

The traffic inched forward, occasionally interrupted by a stressed-out traffic cop waving frantically at the four lanes of aggressive drivers. Among the sweaty lines of cars, there were hordes of hawkers and beggars lining the road. Some were oblivious to their surroundings, being guided by young children. Others had withered legs and dragged themselves painfully along the pavement, holding out their hands to beg for money.

Swiftly maneuvering around the cars, numerous young entrepreneurs presented their goods on cardboard trays. They offered a variety of items, from roasted cashew nuts to fizzy drinks and even mobile phones. To grab the attention of annoyed travelers, they smacked their lips, making a distinct sound that filled the damp and polluted air.

It was a chaotic and overwhelming scene, but it was a necessary introduction to the city by the port, which drew closer with each passing moment.

As I stood outside Riki’s on that evening, the night began to settle in. From somewhere in the city, the haunting voice of an Imam echoed through the air. The guidebook warned us about the dangers of Dar at night – a city known for its thriving drug trade and unfriendly atmosphere towards adventurous visitors. “Stay indoors after sundown,” it cautioned. But as I breathed in the muggy coastal air and looked longingly at the dusty streets, I couldn’t resist the allure of Dar’s Indo-African cuisine.

We decided to ignore the book’s advice. Gathering our identification papers, some cash, and our cameras – just in case our room was targeted by thieves (note to self: Tanzanian budget accommodations require caution) – we nervously held hands and embraced the chaotic urban outdoors.

Little did we know that this was just the first step of a thrilling and contradictory adventure.

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