Archive | November 2011

Mountain madness

We were halfway down the mountain when we heard the low, warm sound of the marimba reverberating between the jungle-topped peaks.  It sounded like rain.

Our guide thought the music was coming from a small grass house nestled between the trees and asked us to wait while he went to talk to the musician.  I am a musician too, he said, as he climbed down the hill.  We sat down on a rock and listened to the marimba raindrops fall onto the banana tree – pineapple plant – mint leaf- jackfruit forest.

We had arrived in Morogoro on Friday night after a four-hour bus ride from Dar and had difficulty finding a place to stay.  At 10:30 pm we decided we had no choice but to spend the night in a faded hotel owned by a rude foreigner and completely overrun by five dirty white dogs.  We fell asleep to the sound of the dogs fighting amongst each other and woke up to the sound of the hotel owner yelling at her staff.

As the hike was 12 hours long, we had to start at 7 am to make it back down the mountain by sunset.  This left us without any time to get a good breakfast or to pack a lunch, and we stuffed my backpack full of bananas, which felt heavier and heavier as the day wore on.

On our way up, we trekked through a small village, encountered monkeys flying up above us in the trees, and crossed a waterfall.  The climb was steep and we had to scramble and manoeuvre ourselves across rocks and fallen trees.  By 9 am the sun was everywhere and there was no shade left underneath the palm trees or the banana trees.  The cool 16 degree temperatures when we finally reached 2,000 feet were a reward.

As we climbed up, our guide repeatedly asked me for the time, telling us that the climb down was much worse than the climb up and letting us know that we had to turn around by 1 pm or we risked having to negotiate the last part of the steep descent in the dark.  We turned around shortly before reaching the peak, after we ran out of water.  We climbed steadily downhill until we reached the merimba musician.

Having located the musician, our guide rejoined us.  He explained that the musician had refused to speak with him.  “He’s mad”, he said.  “I greeted him and asked him about his instrument and he ignored me.  Maybe some people prefer the solitude of the mountains and the music, but I don’t understand it.”  I thought to myself that maybe I was the one who was mad, for attempting a 12 hour climb with little food and not enough water under the blazing Tanzanian sun.

The climb down was much worse than the climb up.  The incline seemed steeper and at times I was scrambling on all fours, falling backwards, and grabbing onto trees for support. To distract us from the pain, our guide asked about our favourite hip hop artists and named Michael Bolton and Elton John as his favourite R and B artists.

We made it to the base of the mountain shortly before sundown, drank two litres of water, and asked for directions to the closest restaurant.  We were told that Cha Cha’s makes the best chipsie na kuku (chicken and chips) in Morogoro.  To the surprise and delight of the waiter, we each ate two orders, which amounts to a whole chicken each.

As we ate, a marching band crammed into the back of the pick up truck rode around the block, belting out song after song into the stillness of the night.


Traffic Jam

Sunday afternoon, after a weekend amongst the jungle-topped mountains, we are packed into a bus on our way back home.  Everything grinds to a halt about an hour out of Dar. Car after car after car are suddenly jammed together.  Horns are blaring and the air inside the bus quickly becomes stagnant and sweaty.

We don’t move and we don’t move and there is word that there has been a bad car accident further up the highway.  We can hear the wail of the ambulance in the distance, and it moves slowly past us, zig zagging through the cramped traffic.  A construction truck follows closely behind, ready to clear away the debris.

Crowds of people stream down the road, to gawk at the accident site and, perhaps, lend a helping hand.  Passengers inside the bus get out of their seats and crane their heads out of the windows to get a better view.

Vendors walk between the cars, selling water, soft drinks, cookies, and chips.  One hops up to pass packages of cashew nuts through the windows of the bus.

Several hours later, we pull into Dar’s central bus station as the sun is setting.

Fish and Chips

Stalls that sell chipsie na samaki (Tanzanian fish and chips) are located on almost every one of Dar’s dusty street corners.  The dish tastes almost the same everywhere – slightly salty fish with slightly soggy fries.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Selous, some friends took ER to Kawe Beach House for the city’s best fish and chips.  Not salty or soggy, apparently.

Last Friday night, ER and I went to the beach house for dinner so that I could try the fish and chips.  Although Kawe Beach House is only about a fifteen minute drive from our house, the bajaj driver managed to get lost.  He turned off Old Bagamoyo, puttered down a long and dark dirt road,  dropped us off in front of a quiet hotel, and told us that the beach house was a short walk down the street.

Almost immediately after the bajaj left, the owner of the hotel and some of his employees came out to ask where we were going.  This is not unusual; I attract a lot of attention in the less touristy areas of Dar and people frequently call after me on the street to ask what I am doing, where I am from, and where I am going.

The owner told us that the beach house was about a ten minute walk down a dark and deserted road and that, under no circumstances, should we walk down the road alone.  It’s not safe for a mzungu, the owner insisted, even I am too scared to walk down that road.  When we appeared indecisive, the warnings escalated into the realm of the bizarre: just turn around and go back home, these fish and chips are not worth your life.  And: if you stay here I will make you some fish and chips at the hotel restaurant.  When we continued to contemplate walking to the beach house, the owner offered to drive us in his car.  Although the darkened road began to appear ominous, we politely declined.

The hotel owner’s warnings were strange.  We were in a safe neighbourhood and it was difficult to determine whether there was a real threat or whether the owner was simply paranoid, joking, or trying to convince us to eat at his restaurant.  After deliberating for several minutes, a taxi stopped in front of us and offered to drive us the rest of the way to the restaurant.

Kawe Beach House is not quite a restaurant.  Rather, it is an assortment of plastic tables and chairs strewn on a beach.  There is music but there are no utensils.  A water fountain has been installed in the middle of the yard so that customers can wash their hands.  Three spotlights are staggered around the beach and provide limited light. Fish and chips are the only item on the menu, and the beach is alive with cats who feed on the leftover bones.

The fish and chips were fantastic.

We stayed until the waiter came over tell us that the generator had to be turned off for the evening and waited while he phoned a bajaj to come pick us up from the restaurant.

Not sure whether we had successfully evaded a lurking danger, or just a hotel owner out to profit off our insecurities, ER gave me a high five as we turned off the dark road back onto Old Bagamoyo.

50 years

A few weeks ago, Prince Charles and Camilla visited Dar as part of the celebrations leading up to the 50th anniversary of Tanzania’s independence.  I learned of the visit only because I happened to get caught in a traffic jam caused by the royal procession.  Horns were blaring, sweat was dripping, and our car was inching forward at an exasperatingly slow pace.  When I expressed my frustration, the taxi driver said, its because the Queen is here.

The royal visit to Tanzania was in sharp contrast to the royal visit to Canada last July.  From what I saw, there were no swooning crowds of locals waiting to welcome the royals and the coverage in Tanzania’s English newspapers was minimal.  The visit was not mentioned at work, which is where I usually find out about current events.  Attention was focused instead on an upcoming presentation, a wedding, and the increasingly frequent electricity cuts.

The photo of Charles and Camilla’s visit, set out above and printed in colour in Hello Magazine, is striking.  It could have been published 50 years ago and bears a broad thematic resemblance to the picture commemorating Princess Margaret’s visit to Tanzania, slightly before independence.  In both pictures, the royals have distanced themselves from the Tanzanian population, both in dress and demeanour (Margaret protected by the royal vehicle, Camilla sheltered by the small white parasol).  Both photos show the traditional Maasai greeting ceremony being transformed into a cultural spectacle for royal enjoyment.

In a recent article in the East African, Elsie Eyakuze analyzes the implications of the royal  visit, and criticizes continued western involvement in Tanzania post-“independence”, as well as Tanzania’s continued reliance on development money from the European donor community.  It is a messy, complicated relationship, she says, and governed by inequalities.

It’s a relationship I have thought about a lot since arriving in Dar.

Last week, on a perfect balcony set against the palm trees and the midnight sky, I had dinner with a group of foreigners who are working in Dar.  Most foreigners in Dar work in development.  M works for a cigarette company.  He criticized the inflated salaries that are paid to foreigners who work in development and who live in big houses with pools and generators on the peninsula.  Working on long-term projects with intangible results.  The cigarette company is the second largest employer in Tanzania, he said.  Fair salaries and benefits.  Last year, it was recognized as the best employer in Tanzania.  A fair point, but at what cost?  My internet research also shows that the cigarette company is a subsidiary of a Japanese company.

N works for the government.  When he learned that I work in a legal aid office he asked whether we can provide legal aid to the president.  He wasn’t joking.  He said he needs legal advice for a project and there are no in-house lawyers he can ask for an opinion.

S told me about his new apartment, which is paid for by his employer and which costs slightly more than $3,000 USD per month.  The average Tanzanian salary is approximately $50 USD per month.

C told me about a group of expats who called for a guard to be fired, and a management company who complied, after the guard inadvertently turned a generator off at night, which caused the apartment complex to be without electricity and water for a morning.

The slogan “50 years of independence”, which is increasingly being splashed around town, needs to be read as part of a larger, more uncomfortable, narrative.

Lights out

I woke up immediately on Monday night when the electricity went out.  The fan stopped spinning, the breeze in my room died, and I started sweating.  It was a long night.

On Tuesday morning I turned the taps in my bathroom sink and discovered that there was no running water.  This has been an ongoing problem because the plumbing was not installed correctly in our apartment.  We typically have water for two to three days before the pipes go dry and our landlord calls a plumber.  I showered with what was left of my 750 ml bottle of Uhai mineral drinking water and left for work and the promise of AC.

There was no power at work either.  As there had been a scheduled electrical outage in the neighbourhood on Monday, the inverter had not been charged and none of the computers were functioning.  I packed up my belongings and headed to a coffee shop at Shoppers Plaza to plug in my laptop and get some work done.  The whole shopping complex is powered by a generator so there is electricity 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

I was not the only one who tried to set up an office in the coffee shop.  Within twenty minutes, the place was packed and people were fighting over the limited number of plug- ins.  One-by-one all of the lamps in the restaurant were unplugged as customers began recharging their laptops and cell phones.  Long cords snaked into the adjacent computer store, which had a few free plug-ins along a wall.

I stayed at the coffee shop until late afternoon, hoping that by the time I returned home both the electricity and the water would be functional.  No such luck.  Somewhat ironically, though, there had been a rain storm and large, deep pools of water covered the streets. Deep enough to bathe in.  On a quiet strip of Old Bagamoyo, a small corner store was an island in a sea of rainwater.  The shopkeeper stood on the front steps, resigned to the water that swirled around him. Another store owner had set up four small tables between the road and his shop to make a small bridge over the flooded parking lot, and was leading people to his store entrance by having them hop from table to table.  An SUV raced down the road, spraying and drenching all of the pedestrians.

I discussed the plumbing situation with the landlord, who was supposed to arrange for a plumber to come during the day.  She didn’t call the plumber.  By way of explanation, she simply shrugged and said, this is Africa.  This is one of her favourite sayings and one which I find infuriating.  It doesn’t seem fair to blame the entire continent for plumbing problems, especially when the problem could have easily been resolved by calling the plumber.  I noted, as well, that our landlord still had running water so the problem could not have been endemic to the whole continent.

The next day there were rumours that one of TANESCO’s transformers had caught on fire and that this was responsible for the extended power outage across the city.  Our landlord told us that the plumbing issue in our apartment could not be fixed until the power came back on.  Another shower with a bottle of water.  Another day working in the coffee shop.

On Thursday morning there was another thunderstorm and I tumbled down the flight of stairs leading to my apartment.  The gutter releases the rainwater from the roof straight onto our front steps, transforming them into a death trap in the rain.  I limped, bruised and bloody, to work and, confirming that there was no power, on to the coffee shop.  Another set of stairs slick with the rain.  Another fall.

The power and the water came back on Thursday evening and lasted until Friday morning when I left for work.  It is now lunchtime on Friday and the power at work has gone out again.  I hope against hope that this doesn’t mean the power will be out at home.

At least it is Friday.  And if the plumbing goes out again this weekend I can go for a swim in the Indian Ocean.

Water for elephants

On Saturday evening, shortly before sunset, we took a boat ride down the Rufiji river and came across five elephants playing in the water.  Two of the elephants were rolling around on their backs, and three others were splashing themselves. They froze when they smelled us, but resumed their games when we moved downwind.

After bathing, the elephants decided to cross the river.  They formed a cautious procession, each one surveying a different direction, trunks held up to sniff the air for potential predators.  Clumped together, they shuffled awkwardly and slowly across the river, pausing frequently to reassess whether it was safe to continue.  All went smoothly until the elephant leader, who had almost reached the river bank, stepped on a hippo who shot up out of the water.

The elephants roared in surprise and tripped over themselves in their haste to flee to the forest.  Several crocodiles, who had been sleeping lazily in the sun of the river bank, jumped quickly into the water.  The hippo retreated to the depths of the river and then, only after the elephants had long disappeared, rose back out of the water to bark in indignation.

Lessons learned

On Tuesday evening, ER and I took our neighbour out for dinner to celebrate her 17th birthday.  KK moved to Dar eight months ago with her parents and two brothers and was not looking forward to a birthday away from her friends at home.

We went to a Mexican restaurant located at Sea Cliff Village, a development with dozens of restaurants, three coffee shops, an ice cream parlour, and a flashy outdoor square.

A few lessons from the evening:

  1. Although most of the food is breathtakingly good in Dar, Mexican restaurants should be avoided.  You can walk into almost any Indian restaurant and legitimately declare it to be the best Indian food you have tasted.  Addis in Dar, the Ethiopian restaurant on Ursino Street, is my new favourite restaurant.  There is an Italian restaurant on the Peninsula that makes pizza so good that it rivals Nicli Antica in Vancouver.  And the Chinese restaurants are equal to those I have been to in Hong Kong.   Dar, however, doesn’t do Mexican.  I am still trying to figure out what exactly was in the “sour cream” that was served with my fajita.
  2. Do not trust a 12-year-old kid to drive you home in a bajaj, even if he quotes a lower fare.  The bajaj will break down, the route will be bumpy and the turns will be sharp, and your arms will be sore from trying to grip the side of the open vehicle so that you do not fly out onto the road.
  3. The cinematic masterpiece that is Dirty Dancing was released in 1987, which was before KK was born.  During a conversation about our favourite Hollywood movies, KK disclosed to me that she had never heard of or seen the movie.  An anxiety provoking fact on the eve of my 30th birthday.
  4. Despite the above, I do not wish that I was turning 17 instead of 30.

The places in between

This past weekend, almost by accident, my parents, my brother, and I all found ourselves in Tanzania.

My parents arrived in East Africa in late September, planning to visit me in Dar towards the end of their trip. A few weeks after they left home, my brother received an unexpected job offer in Edmonton, quit his job in Eastern Canada, and booked a last minute ticket to Tanzania.

We met in Zanzibar on Friday night and decided to fly to Selous for the weekend.  Selous is a UNESCO world heritage site and the largest conservation reserve in the world.  Early on Saturday morning, we boarded a small unsteady plane and landed on a tiny airstrip set amidst the jungle.

Selous is a landscape of blue, green, and brown, where life and death have entered into an uneasy alliance.  Piles of bones are abandoned on the brown earth; carcasses of elephants, hippos, and giraffes picked clean and bleached white under the strong midday sun.  Birds soar out of trees, fantastic flashes of black, green, orange, and yellow, while blue butterflies flutter near the ground.  Lizards play hide-and-seek in elephant skulls. Grey branches litter the ground, bone dry and twisted into impossible skeletal shapes. Herds of impala kick nervously while giraffe float above the trees and appear to defy time.

A thousand stories a day unfold against the backdrop of the East African sky.

On Saturday morning, we ran into a half-eaten giraffe and, a few feet away, a pride of lions were lazily digesting their breakfast.  By Sunday morning, the giraffe had disappeared. Later, we found it being finished off  by a pack of hyenas, one of whom ran away with the giraffe’s leg in his mouth.  Another passed by our car with trails of blood running out of his mouth.  Later still, some vultures made a meal out of the giraffe’s ribs.

On Saturday afternoon, we found a newborn baby impala being guarded by its mother.  It is about two hours old, our guide said, and will learn to walk in the next few hours.  These first few hours are the most difficult, because the baby impala is helpless against predators.  As if to demonstrate this point, the impala’s mother hissed at us to leave her baby alone and we retreated.

We drove on through the trees and stopped at another pride pride of lions.  This time we were impossibly, fearfully close.  Alone in the jungle with lions that were close enough to touch.  We watched the two small cubs play with twigs, playfully stretch out on their backs, scratch the trees to sharpen their nails.  Our guide explained that we were not appealing to the lions and that we smelled of rubber and exhaust.  This did not sound very reassuring and I hoped that the lions would not become hungry or angry. After many moments, the lions got up, walked past the car, and disappeared into the jungle.

We were lucky to find a family of wild dogs sleeping under a tree.  Panting in the afternoon heat and curled up in the shade.  There are only a few hundred of these dogs remaining in the world and most of them live in Selous.  The puppies do not have a high survival rate, and are frequently eaten by the hyenas.

On Saturday night we slept in tents on the edge of the Rufiji river.  The camp has eight tents and no fence.  It is guarded by members of the Maasai tribe who are armed with spears.  All night long, we listened to the low, flat grunt of hippos in the river, the splash of the water buffalo, and the high-pitched squeal of the cicada.  In the morning, a hippo wandered out of the river and sidled up to the camp to chew on some grass.

I have long been skeptical of safari vacations.  Africa is a diverse and fascinating continent that is too often reduced to its animals and exploited in the name of adventure.  I would rather learn about Tanzania by sitting in a small cafe in Stonetown, drinking spiced coffee, eating chapatis, and watching the people walk by.

And, yet, there is no denying that last weekend was magical, offering a rare glimpse into another world, one where a baby impala gasps its first breath, where lions feast on a giraffe under the shade of a tree, and where human presence is rendered insignificant.

Life, death, and everything in between.

The beauty and the agony.