I applied to nearly every law school in Canada, was accepted to more than one, and then struggled to decide where to go. Halifax or Vancouver? Toronto or Victoria? East or West? Snow or rain?
In the midst of this self-inflicted agony, someone turned to me and said, nothing is better than this, this moment where there is only possibility and you get to choose where to go and what to be. Next year, you could be living in any corner of this country, in any apartment, on any street. There is beauty in this choice.
Last night, I spread my travel books on the kitchen table and thought, that’s how I feel right now. Like a woman with a handful of acceptance letters. A few tomorrows from now, I could be in Harare or Lilongwe or Maputo or anywhere in between.
My parents are going to move out of the house that I grew up in. It’s a strange thing to watch from a distance as they spend their weekends packing and selling and giving away. My dance costumes, childhood toys, and old clothes all must go, I’ve been told.
They have agreed to keep my books until I get home. I think this was before they realized exactly how many I have. A preliminary inventory revealed hundreds of books in dozens of boxes, tucked away upstairs in the attic. Too many books for one person, I know, and yet I can’t bring myself to get rid of any of them. These books that have followed me from childhood to adulthood, around the world and back again.
Last weekend I came across this article, which tries to convince book lovers to liberate themselves from the dead weight of the printed word.
I remain unconvinced.
Books are not just glue and macerated tree. They cannot be given away and replaced with a Kindle. I disagree. They are memories and fingerprints and dog-eared pages. They are characters I used to know and people I love and moments both remembered and forgotten. They remind me of the person I used to be and the places I want to go and they are a window into what I will become. Pieced together, these thousands of pages and millions of words are a map of my heart.
When I was a child my grandfather used to bring me dolls he had collected from his travels around the world. For many years I had figurines from Switzerland, Japan, and China on big white shelves on the wall above my bed. So many dolls from so many places with so many stories. The shelves sagged under the weight of it all.
And then we both grew older, my grandfather and I. He stopped traveling and I stopped playing with dolls. So he started buying me books. Every year for Christmas the winner of the Governor General’s Award. Also, best sellers, non-fiction, and a two-volume edition of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights with a gold-embossed spine. And then, best of all, my own copy of a book that a biographer had written about my grandfather’s life. The inscription to me, in his messy cursive writing, reads “from your partner in adventures”. These are the books that are in the boxes in the attic of the house where I grew up.
I have an anthology of the collected works of Chaucer. A giant tome of a book written in Middle English. It weighs about ten pounds and can be slammed into the table with emphasis to win an argument. It reminds me of the fight I had with my professor, the one who tried unsuccessfully to discourage me from writing my term paper about the role of women in The Canterbury Tales. “Chaucer wasn’t a feminist and neither am I”, he told me disdainfully, “pick another topic”. I refused. I won the prize for the highest mark in The Study of Chaucer that year.
The Collected Works of Beatrix Potter is there too. These stories that I still love. I bought a second copy for my friend when she had her first baby.
I still have the travel book about North India that I carried with me the first time I went out traveling on my own, that strange summer before law school, right before I moved out of my parents’ house. It’s traveled by plane and train and bus, been to the home of the Dalai Lama, was almost stolen by monkeys in Shimla. The pages are stained and the spine is creased. I don’t care that the information is outdated.
My favourite bed time story was Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. My father used to read it to my brother and I every night. The best story is a simple one, he used to tell us. These pages were turned by my father’s hands, these corners folded by him to mark the spots where we fell asleep and he stopped reading aloud.
I have books by Michel Foucault and Judith Butler and Wendy Brown. By theorists with names that I can no longer remember. With titles like Sexing the Body. Books accumulated during a time in my life when every day was a discussion about politics, an argument about gender roles, a social justice campaign. They remind me of my three best friends, the ones I met in my introduction to women’s studies class, of the protest signs that we hand-painted in my garage one cold winter day, of the marches that we attended. These books and these women are part of who I am.
Last year, before I moved to Tanzania, I sold all of my belongings except for my mattress and my books. These are the only two things I will need when I come back home, I thought.
My collection of books isn’t shrinking, it’s growing. I’m not leaving Dar without a book called Street Level, which is set in my adopted city and has drawings of buildings I’ve visited and streets I’ve explored, side by side with my new friends. And this coming Thursday, at a celebration for International Women’s Day, I’m going to buy a collection of short stories written by Tanzanian women, the proceeds of which will be donated to the only women’s shelter in Tanzania. I will bring these two books home with me and they will remind me of the piece of my heart that still lives in Dar.
If, at the end of my life, I have boxes and boxes of books and nothing else, then I will consider that a sign of a life well lived.
So, no, I don’t want to give my books away. Not even one.
On Saturday morning, ER and I moved into our new apartment off Rose Garden Road.
We weren’t entirely surprised to find that construction was not finished. The paint wasn’t dry, the water didn’t run, and the lights hadn’t been installed. We opened the front door to find a construction worker hastily assembling something and a cleaner sweeping the rooms.
By Sunday evening, most of these problems had been resolved and, under the glow of the stars, our landlords introduced us to our neighbours, a family from Colombia that has been living in Dar for eight months. Our landlords are Tanzanian and live with their three children in a house directly underneath our apartments. The conversation was part English, part Spanish, and part Swahili, and was accompanied by a lot of hand gesturing and laughter.
Somehow we all made ourselves understood. Our Colombian neighbours said, our door is always open and please let us know if you need anything, even if it is only a pinch of salt. They called over their daughter, who joined us on the balcony and immediately used her smart phone to look me up on Facebook. Our landlord’s brother said, yes knock on our door if you need anything. Our landlord’s 14-year-old son said, you are my new favourite neighbours and can I borrow your internet modem?
After dinner, I ran over to the duka across the street to buy credits for my modem. The store owner introduced himself and said, I’ve noticed you are new to the neighbourhood and welcome. On the way back, two Maasai wearing red shuka gave me high fives.
Back in my apartment, I heard the call to prayer from a mosque somewhere in the neighbourhood. And I thought, I think I’m going to like it here on Rose Garden Road.
This post is inspired by my friend, MW.
Since arriving in Tanzania, it has become evident that I will somehow have to immediately become fluent in Swahili. Court documents and legal proceedings are drafted and conducted in English, but all of my co-workers converse in Swahili and bajaj drivers give far better rates if you can haggle with them in their own language.
I have been trying to set up Swahili lessons with J, who is highly recommended. The following is our recent chain of emails:
Sent: September 30, 2011 at 3:00 pm
Subject: Swahili Lessons
My friend and I have just moved to Dar for six months and would like to take Swahili lessons. We are both beginners and are wondering if it would be possible to try an hour long lesson with you this coming Tuesday. We work during the day so are only available in the evenings after 6 pm.
Sent: September 30, 2011 at 3:49 pm
Subject: Swahili Lessons
Sent: September 30, 2011 at 3:51 pm
Subject: Swahili Lessons
Sent: October 2, 2011 at 2:00 pm
Subject: Swahili Lessons
Mikocheni A. Mikocheni B. Kinondoni. Kijitoyama. Ada Estate. Msasani. Kigamboni. Garden Road. Mlimani. University of Dar es Salaam.
ER and I have toured all of these neighbourhoods this week while looking for an apartment. We have probably looked at about 20 apartments, but it feels like hundreds. Each apartment viewing is a three to four hour time commitment and is all too easily derailed by one of many potential complications.
There is no Craigslist in Dar. Instead, the rental market is ruled by the dilali (real estate agent). Prospective renters must contact a dilali and explain what type of apartment they are looking for, their budget, and their preferred neighbourhood. The dilali will then schedule (and I use that term as loosely as possible) viewings at the various apartments that are available for rent.
Our first difficulty was locating a dilali. Our monthly rental budget is $800 but most of the agents that we contacted refused to show us anything below $1500.
We finally found two agents that would show us apartments that were more reasonably priced, but appointments generally involved a lot of waiting. And waiting. And more waiting.
A productive apartment-searching-day involves waiting for the dilali to show up (1 to 2 hours), taking a circuitous route around the city via bajaj to locate keys and arrange permission to see several apartments (another 1 to 2 hours and a small fortune in bajaj fare), and then, if all goes well, waiting around at an apartment for the landlord to show up to negotiate rent. At that point, the landlord usually informs us that the rent is significantly higher than originally reported by the dilali. It is in the dilali‘s best interest to push the rent as high as possible because he receives a commission of one month’s rent if he is successful in finding an apartment for us.
A bad apartment-searching-day involves waiting for hours for the dilali to show up for a scheduled appointment, becoming resigned to the fact that the dilali is not going to show up, waiting a bit more, and then returning home several hours later without seeing a single apartment.
We thought we had a good lead when a dilali told us that he had found us an apartment in a nice house in the up-and-coming “best bite” neighbourhood. Best bite? I thought maybe I had heard wrong, or there had been an error in translation, until we turned the corner and saw this:
Best Bite was apparently one of the first fast food places to open in Dar and is famous amongst residents. The apartment the dilali wanted to show us was around the corner. It had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a huge balcony. We fell in love with it immediately, and the dilali called the owner so that we could negotiate rent. Sure enough it was significantly out of our budget, but it turned out that that there was a two bedroom available in the same building. The dilali told us that we couldn’t see it right away, but that we could come back later that night to view it.
We had to return three more times before we could finally see the Best Bite apartment. Unfortunately, it turned out to not be as nice as the three bedroom. We kept looking.
Today we finally found an apartment with two bedrooms (and, inexplicably, three bathrooms). It is on the border between Mikocheni A and Mikocheni B and about a five minute walk from the beach. The catch is that the apartment is still under construction, but this also means that we get to help pick out all new furnishings for it. The landlord assures us that the apartment will be ready by Saturday morning, and we drafted and asked her to sign a contract to that effect.
We have resigned ourselves to one more week of Q-Bar, and the corresponding disco beats until 5 am. But then we get to move into our apartment by the beach.
I have officially made it to Dar, but I am still reeling from the flight(s). The entire journey took about thirty hours and by the time I arrived this morning I was tired, grumpy, and sweaty. When I arrived at my hotel I was told that there was no electricity today and that showers would not be available for another few hours. Thankfully the generator has now kicked in and I am feeling a bit more refreshed.
CU, another lawyer who works for the CBA in East Africa, took me out for dinner and introduced me to some of her friends. We had dinner on the peninsula overlooking the Indian Ocean. Even in my exhausted and sweaty state it was pretty spectacular. CU and her friends also gave me a lot of good advice about finding apartments, avoiding purse-snatchers, and coping with the heat. Although it was about 18 degrees here at 9 am this morning, they tell me that this is the coldest it has been in Dar for years and that it is just going to get hotter and hotter until it feels unbearable.
K, one of CU’s friends, is going to come by tomorrow to help me get my cell phone unlocked and maybe check out some apartments near her place. It is so nice to have already met some people here!
Since I took a nap this afternoon, I don’t have any pictures of Dar yet. But here are some pictures of the hotel where I’m staying.
My bonsai tree has found a home with CM, who is a friend of MW’s, and who read of the bonsai’s plight in my blog posting last week. The adoption was initiated by MW, who wrote me the following email on Wednesday morning:
Do you still have that damn bonsai? CM wants it.
CM was kind enough to bring me a bottle of wine in exchange for the bonsai, which has almost helped to numb the pain of the Craigslist nightmare.
Here is to hoping that the bonsai will have a long and happy life in CM’s office.
I knew that it was going to happen sooner or later. I could feel it coming. Just under my skin. Lurking in that unpacked box.
Blind panic. We’re not strangers. And I’m sure we will become even better acquainted over the next few weeks.
I spent the better part of today harassing those closest to me. Why I am doing this again? Say it again, louder.
LK offers the following advice to my google chat freakout: I can’t believe you’re doing this. It is insane. But it is also really really cool. You’ll be more than okay, in the end.
Right…Okay… Back to packing.
I really do have the very best friends.