At long last, Africa!
Delirious after a grueling flight, we spent most of our drive from the airport into Dar Es Salaam — which was a long time because the traffic in Dar is really awful — freaking out over the fact that we were actually in Africa. I mean, who watched Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom as a kid and didn’t dream of coming here? I had a fabulous teacher in high school, Dr. Hackett, who had travelled through Africa and climbed Mt Kilimanjaro in the 1960’s after doing his doctoral research sailing around the Indian Ocean (he was such a bad ass!) He exhorted us to go and see Africa while there was still something to see. “You can go up the Eiffel Tower in a wheel chair when you’re 80!” he would say, and in the half dozen times I’ve gone up the Eiifel Tower the past 25 years I’ve thought of him and his words with a tinge of regret every single time, but finally I made it. We’re here.
I planned a couple of recovery days in Dar, thinking we’d catch up on sleep, run some errands (phone, train tickets, bus tickets) and walk around a bit, but Dar’s downtown and our hotel weren’t very appealing, and I suddenly couldn’t handle the thought of another musty museum. Instead, last minute, I arranged for us to go on a ‘Dar Reality’ tour through some of the city’s outer neighborhoods offered through a local company called AfriRoots – that we could do it by our old friend the tuktuk (called bajaj here) was a bonus. After the fact I considered that this probably smacks a little of the tours of Soweto I’ve seen questioned for voyeurism and “poverty porn”, but we weren’t there to gasp at anyone’s living conditions or judge and golly, it was fascinating.
Our guides, Ferdinand and Meck, were energetic and fun. They taught us Swahili words, happily played hand games with the kids and made everything a story. The coffee sellers that roam downton Dar with their portable charcoal burners, coffee pot and box of peanut candy? They evolved from the days when Tanzania was experimenting with socialism and would round up young men hanging around on the streets with nothing to do and would send them to collective farms. The coffee is silty, Turkish style, and the peanut candy is in place of milk and sugar. The local movie theatre? It’s little more than a dark room behind a grubby curtain with rows of plastic chairs and a not very big tv at the front, but what is wonderful about it is that for all the movies they play, be it Hollywood, Bollywood or Nollywood, someone has watched them repeatedly and then added an explanatory voice over in Swahili. Not a word for word translation, but enough description of what’s happening for everything to make sense. We walked through a market piled with fruits, vegetables, spices and mounds of secondhand clothes. Are you too self conscious to join in the scrum in the big market? We visited a secondhand shoe store, where the owner and his guys curate a nice selection of high fashion shoes (most of which would have caused me to break my neck.) In a shop selling women’s wraps or kanga we got a lesson on the phrases printed prominently on the front. Living in close quarters in a society fond of gossip there are lots of opportunities for hurt feelings among the women. The phrases on the kanga are a passive aggressive form of conflict resolution saying things like, “you can boil over with other people but with me you have to cool down” or “if you have a problem with me, don’t frown, just say it.” So many fun nuggets of information, I ate them up and was fully sated.
From Dar we traveled by bus. Leaving traffic and billboards behind we soon were in lush green countryside cultivated with corn, dotted with banana and mango trees and the occasional baobab (!!) before we wound our way up to Lushoto in the Usambara Mountains. Ah, for the fresh cool air and lush green hillsides after the grit of Hanoi and Dar Es Salaam! Here we continued to reset our body clocks, and did a great walk with a guide named David, who was gifted with a delightful ability to spot chameleons in the trees and shrubs we passed en route to Irente Viewpoint. He would stop and say, “this one!” and we would would look and see nothing. Then he would say, “okay, this half” and we would still see nothing, and then he would narrow it down further saying, “okay, this branch” and then perhaps two of us would spot the green two-horned chameleon sitting there blinking at us. Best. Game. Ever. Honestly, the kids were so excited about the chameleons I’ve started to worry that seeing lions on safari would be a letdown.
From the Usambara Mountains we came back down to the plains and continued jolting our way along by bus to Arusha. I took pleasure in the spreading acacias and portly baobabs scrolling by outside, since there wasn’t much to be had inside! Arusha is the launching pad for safaris to the Serengeti and beyond and gets a bad rap for its population of persistent touts, but we’ve got tough skins at this point; our hotel has a pool, Arusha is just fine in our book. Tomorrow we meet our guide Mussa and head out for ten days of safari winding from Lake Manyara to Ngorogoro Crater, Olduvai Gorge, the Serengeti and finishing on the shores of Lake Victoria. I can’t tell you how thrilled we are. I hope Dr. Hackett would approve.