Dar kind of sucks. Lacking the ability to be either genuinely scary or unpredictable (as with Nairobi), it settles for being big, ugly, hot, and crowded. The center of the city, or the business district, is called “Posta,” after the post office apparently, but the vast majority of the city is just sprawling shacks, shops, houses, and roads,as far as I can tell. We arrived on the ferry, getting a good view of the enclosed harbor that, way back in the 1890’s, helped Dar become the main administrative city for the bara that would eventually become Tanzania; first a Zanzibari liked it (back when the coastal swahili were on top), then the germans, then the British. I’m not sure if the Tanzanians like it; they call it “Bongo,” which means “brains,” but its not clear if that means you have to be smart because otherwise you’ll lose your shirt or if its just big city swagger in a country of little villages.
Either way, Liz had more smarts than me and she took the lead as we disembarked, leading through the forthy surge of people at the port and negotiating with cabbies. I was carrying my suitcase and a backpack and though I had initially been proud myself for how light I had packed, I was starting to secretly hope that some thief would take that albatross of a suitcase off my hands, or at least just the books. No such luck, but I struggled through the teeming masses by carrying the stupid thing on my head; I may not have impressed a Tanzanian mama with my lack of grace, but it does get the job done. We piled into a taxi that, after Liz demanded to see their papers and grilled them about the state of their gas tank, promptly sputtered and coasted its way to a gas station to procure the necessary quart or so of gasoline required to take us to our destination, and then we were off.
While Liz was staying with friends that lived near the university, I stayed in a little hostel on the edge of the university which, while pleasant in most ways, seemed to have about a thousand dogs that subjectively seemed to snarl, growl, and bark all night, and apparently directly underneath my window. I never saw head or tail of them in the day, but from the sound of the carnage I would have expected to find a canine version of the Somme spread out in the morning. Weird.
In any case, as I’m thinking about it, I had my turning point here. Up until this point, I was really following Liz, deferring to her, and watching more than participating in the moving picture show before me. On the one hand, it is disorienting to go from Washington DC to a third world African nation, and jet lag definititely plays into the picture, too (I hadn’t really slept for two full days while I was crossing the Atlantic and the Equator). But, on the other, Liz’s comfort and ease in negotiating everything meant that I wasn’t forced to use my swahili, to re-remember how to socialize here, to take the initiative and try to figure out what to do next on my own. And the thing about being here, like I was trying to express in the last post, is that since nothing happens the way you expect it to, you’ve got to use your Bongo if you want to get anything done, you’ve got to constantly plan and replan and replan again. That’s the frustrating thing, the thing that knocks the wind out of your Wazungu sails, but its also the joy of it once you get your balance. Sort of like snowboarding or surfing, if I can make a wild simile, you’re hopping back and forth never really balanced, always in motion, and always reacting. So, since we had decided that I would need to procure two things (a sheet and an adaptor for my computer) and change my travellers checks before leaving Dar, when she texted me to take two Dala Dala’s into posta by myself, and I did it (all by myself mom!) I took the plunge and started to get my balance back. You don’t really know where you’re going, you don’t really know how you’re going to get there, and you don’t know what you’re going to find, but the more you do it, the more confidence you have that you will. There’s a joy in that. A woman showed me which dala dala I needed at the teeming (what a great word that is) bus station where I changed to go to Posta and once in Posta, I rambled all around the city, going to every bank I could find and getting rejected at every single one (note: don’t take travelers checks to Africa!), and generally having a good old time. Dozens of people gave me directions, some contradictory, I got lost, I got found, and I got sweaty. Later I took a daladala trip from my hotel to the bus station to buy sundries and as the rain came down on the teeming swirl of humanity around me, it felt like a baptism of sorts; I dashed from stall to stall, dodging mud puddles, arguing over prices, talking politics with random folks (I had the “Bush conversation” which I’ll discuss in a further post), and just generally surfed that sea of teeming on my own. When I got back to the hostel, I wanted to crow and exult (and the text message proved not to be the right medium) but suffice it to say that suddenly I felt at ease, as I hadn’t until now. Suddenly it made sense why I was here, even if it didn’t necessarily fit into the plan I had made before. I’m still not sure that I’m going to have a particularly productive “research” trip, though my swahili is definitely coming along, but around this time I started feeling confident that I was going to find something.
PS – this didn’t fit into the flow of the post, but I did want to mention it. I had the experience one reads about in Lonely Planet where, while you’re in the midst of a crowd getting it’s teem on, one guy walks in front of you so you have to stop while another grabs for your bag from behind. I lunged gracelessly in several directions at once–but retained my backpack–and came to rest with everyone around me looking askance at the strange mzungu. No one seemed to be there; had I just imagined it? Someone had definitely bumped me from the front and someone had definitely put his hand on my shoulder, but it was so fast and its very hard to separate subjective paranoia in a new city from objective reality, not to mention that sometimes random strangers do greet you by grabbing your shoulder and sometimes people do get in your way in crowds. Did that happen because I expected it to, because I read it in Lonely Planet and that ilk? Did it happen at all? Nothing to do but trudge on. But it is worth mentioning that while Wazungu are always asking each other if this or that place is safe, devising more and more elaborate measures to foil thieves, and getting warned by locals how dangerous everything is, I’ve not talked to anyone who has ever actually gotten anything stolen from them, with only one exception: Liz’s cell phone was stolen out of her backpack once. So is it as dangerous as our paranoia indicates? Or are we just crazy? Nothing to do but take precautions and trudge on.