Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Reflections on Tanzania and East Africa

We ended up spending over a month and a half in Anne’s beloved Tanzania, a country I have been hearing stories about for years.  Traveling here was made significantly easier for me having Anne as a personal translator.  She has been dubbed the ‘communications director’ for this trip (not just in TZ but everywhere) largely because she speaks so much more clearly than my mumbling, non-annunciating, fast talk.  Of course this role was much more pronounced in Tanzania, and it was fun for me to watch people’s reactions to this mzungu speaking Swahili.  A few people were largely indifferent to hearing her but most were noticeably excited.  There is a long-ish series of greetings in Swahili and as these would escalate you could see people getting more and more excited that Anne knew the proper response.  As we would walk past a person older than us and Anne would properly greet them with “shikamoo” it really was fun to watch pure delight overtake some faces as they greeted Anne back.

Although knowing the language was a huge help for us, sometimes it was more of a burden.  Many Tanzanians rely heavily on tourism as a source of income, and there are touts everywhere (the more numerous and annoying culprits were in Zanzibar and Moshi).  It seemed at times like every other guy on the street would either approach us or greet us (“Jambo”) and Anne would naturally reply in Swahili which made them follow her with more fervor than usual.  It was easier for me to ignore them since it’s all Greek to me.  The touts and children were especially persistent in wanting our attention even when it was obvious we were ignoring them.  One “Jambo” ignored would turn into “Jambo, Jambo, Jambo, Jambo,” “hello, how are you?,” or my least favorite a noise like “hsst, hsst” and men would follow us for entire city blocks trying to get us to buy their wares or book a tour through them or go look in their souvenir shop (“looking is free” – if I hear that one more time I think my head might explode).  I guess I thought traveling as a white person here would get me some looks but not a lot more, instead as Anne wrote in a previous entry, many people see us as nothing more than a walking bag of money.  I am definitely exhausted from being constantly approached.  It makes me feel like I’m always on guard and often unnecessarily so.  Some people are super friendly and helpful; it’s just the bad ones that always try to nickel and dime you.  Aside from the constant stream of beggars, people are always trying to squeeze some money out of us (our hotel staff asking for Tsh 500 because she brought us up our laundry, someone insisting on being our tour guide even though we either know exactly where we are going or don’t want a guide).  I’m tired of being on the defensive.

The touts are the worst but also many random men will greet or approach us I assume just because we are white.  It’s impossible to just walk down a street here and be anonymous.  As a tout or random stranger is chatting us up they always want to shake our hands and while I don’t want to be rude, picking your nose is socially acceptable in this country so I just don’t want to touch people.  I really, really miss my personal space.  Until this trip I have never really been conscious of how Western cultures, while being friendly and polite, also really respect one another’s personal space. 

While every country has its distinct differences, there is a similar feel to Malawi, northern Mozambique, and Tanzania.  It may largely have to do with how developed these countries are (or seemed to me).  There were rarely any supermarkets or large stores.  There are kiosks everywhere selling things, and there will be 15 kiosks in a row all selling the exact same things – rice, water, fake butter, toiletries, some candy, sodas, etc.  Mixed in with these will be kiosks selling kangas or other fabrics.  Outside of South Africa, Namibia, and large cities, women all over the continent wear kangas, basically a thin colorful fabric with varying designs and a quote in Swahili at the bottom.  They come in a set of two so one can be wrapped around your waist as a skirt and the other around your shoulders.  They have infinite uses (we use ours as towels) and can be made into anything.  I actually had one made into a shoulder bag and another into a pair of pants.  The tailor wasn’t very good though so one leg is extremely narrow, the other extremely wide, and the crotch of the pants sits somewhere on my left thigh, so I will have a friend try to fix this for me in FL (hint, hint Lynn).  None of these kiosks, or anything in any store, has a price tag on it.  You always have to ask, and in tourist areas there is a regular price and a wazungu price.  All tourist items are highly negotiable in price.  It’s funny sometimes when a salesperson is really taken with Anne’s ability to speak Swahili as the price they quoted at the beginning will be dropped significantly after a few minutes of conversation.

Most people in Tanzania tend to abide by daylight hours.  This is especially true in the villages where there is no electricity and no excess money for fuel.  Even in cities though the electricity cuts out frequently, and we’ve heard numerous complaints from people about the corrupt government.  People are angry and frustrated, and I will be curious to follow the politics here to see if the uprisings in the Middle East and northern Africa make their way here.

Along with personal space, in Tanzania no regard whatsoever is paid to the level of noise one makes and its proximity to others.  People are loud.  At the break of dawn someone will talk at full volume just outside of your hotel window or door, or play a radio really loudly, or work on a construction project, or drive down the street honking their horn.  We have definitely gotten on an early to bed, early to rise schedule, but I sleep with earplugs most nights.  Religious buildings tend to be some of the worst noisemakers with mosques leading the pack.  The call to prayer goes at about 4 AM every morning via loudspeakers and this sucks when your hotel is right across the street.  We’ve also had the misfortune of staying near Christian revivals where music will start blaring out of really bad speakers as early as 6 AM.  And there was a Hindu Temple in Moshi that rocked out until well past 11 PM.

Once we left Malawi the roads everywhere have pretty much gone to hell.  There are a few main roads that are paved, but often not going in the direction we want to.  Northern Mozambique was probably the worst with parts of Tanzania giving them a run for their money.  However, in Tanzania we’ve been able to use large buses for our long distance travel and that has made things easier and more comfortable, with the exception of a 17-hour bus ride from Anne’s old village to Arusha to catch our safari when Pipa, Pam, and Jay were here.  We had the very back seats on a long, bumpy ride.  The dalla dalla’s in Dar es Saalam were bigger than most other minibus style ones we’ve taken, and Anne wasn’t kidding about them being crowded.  There are about 20 seats on them with a narrow aisle, and that aisle is packed like sardines with people to the point that I didn’t even notice I was being pick-pocketed until I got off to pay and my wallet was gone.
You can buy just about anything you want out of a bus window and many things that you don’t want.  Every time a bus makes a stop, which is frequent despite the word “Express” in many company names, hordes of people will swarm the bus windows selling water, soda, fruits, vegetable, sunglasses, peanuts, snacks, and random things made in China.  In Mozambique you could easily but a chicken out of a bus window, sometimes a goat.

I would say more towns than not that we’ve gone through have a major garbage collection problem.  Some streets are lined with trash and fields littered with trash.  There will be a large “dump” in many towns that looks like an abandoned lot where everyone just decided to throw their trash.  It’s pretty bad how often people litter.  Whenever you have a window seat someone will inevitably ask you to open it so they can throw out their soda can, banana peel, water bottle, etc.
Tanzanian food is generally rather bland consisting of rice, ugali (corn mush), beans, greens, chicken, and chips (French fries).  In fact, you can get chips virtually anywhere and is probably the most popular food item for sale on the streets.  Tanzanian food is surprisingly full of copious amounts of oil – chips, mandazi (balls of deep fried dough), chapati (tortilla-like fried bread), and chipsi mayayi (fried eggs with French fries—per chance one of the best foods ever created, especially covered in cheap tomato sauce/ketchup (can you tell this is Anne jumping in?)). 

Tanzania was really good for our budget in that street food and guest houses were really cheap.  We ditched our tent and sleeping pads in Dar es Saalam so our packs are much lighter and roomier. We pay $10-20 a night for a double room, usually en suite.  The toilet is sometimes of the squatting variety and the shower is just in the same room as the toilet with no separate walls, so you have to move the toilet paper before you shower or it will get soaked.

Kenya seemed similar to Tanzania in some ways, however the parts we’ve been to are more developed.  Nairobi is one of those cities you always hear about following the words “crime”, “theft”, “pick-pockets”, “street boys”, but we were pleasantly surprised by it.  We stayed in the city center area and had no trouble walking around.  The roads to Masai Mara National Park and Mombasa were mostly paved and in good shape, and Nairobi even had a small mall culture going on, a la Johannesburg. (You could get everything from good shampoo to quality chocolate for not that much. It was awesome. A totally different world from Dar, though Dar’s choices are quickly expanding. This is Anne again.)

Tanzania was very scenic which helped on many of the long bus rides.  People are friendly and really enjoyed chatting with Anne.  Whenever we took a taxi anywhere the driver would talk nonstop with her whether she wanted to or not.  Unfortunately we didn’t get to the west side of the country at all mostly due to time.  Tanzania had some major highlights of the whole trip for me - going to Anne’s village, seeing the Serengeti, and climbing Kilimanjaro.

Okay, this is Anne writing now. I loved going back to Tanzania. It was so easy for me to slip right back in. I had never really spent time in Moshi before so I didn’t know how annoying the touts were, but overall I wasn’t terribly bothered. I think it helps significantly that when some random man shouts “I love you,” I can respond in Swahili with “I don’t care.” Everyone just cracks up, diffusing the annoyance of the situation. East Africa was much, much easier for me than for Jeanette for the obvious reason—I called the region home for three years. My Swahili came back very quickly and I feel like I could even have deeper conversations with my friends in the village than I could before. Sometimes age and experience are wonderful things. Of course, even with age and experience, I was still massively over charged on occasions. I don’t know if I could live in Tanzania again, though probably, but I loved going back. I am kind of over the long bus rides, though.  

No comments:

Post a Comment