The hotel’s scarlet roof was the first thing that caught my eye as my bus pulled into the small mining town of Kahama after eleven long hours on the road. It looked nice from the outside, and after two weeks of cold bucket showers, squat toilets, and alternating between sleeping on the ground and concrete in Arusha and the Serengeti, a night in a hotel sounded like an attractive option.
Quick side note: If you are ever looking for a nice exercise in mental fortitude, start taking cold showers. I don’t mean just once. I mean repeatedly. Take them every day for a week, for a month, for the rest of this year without any days off. I did so for a month before departing on this trip, and I am happy I did, not only because it trained me to take them, an unavoidable obligation, but because it is an effective way to teach yourself how to tolerate discomfort. In a travel experience like this, that is an invaluable skill to have.
Anyway, I took note of the hotel’s name as the greyhound-style coach proceeded through the city to its station. It was my first night on a five-day trip from Arusha, Tanzania to Kigali, Rwanda and back, and the dearth of hotels with internet access in this region and limited English in the region made it difficult to book in advance. Turning on my phone, I typed “Buzwagi View Hotel” into the search bar. My Google search revealed that the hotel was only $15 a night. I smiled. A private room here was the same price that I had often payed for one bunk in a ten-bed dorm. I scrolled through the amenities list: satellite television, mosquito nets, restaurant, telephone, complimentary breakfast. It all sounded great, but there was one item that made me giddy with excitement. They would have a hot shower waiting for me in my room. Exhausted and rather lacking in the mental fortitude that my cold showers had taught me, I was sold.
The bus pulled in, and I climbed off. The athletic shorts I had elected to wear for the ride coupled with my pale skin immediately singled me out as a target for ticket sellers, or “fly-catchers” as they are called. I pushed past the swarm of highly-aggressive salesmen and found an office selling tickets to Kigali before catching a three-wheeled moto-taxi to the hotel and, more importantly, to that most coveted of prizes: the hot shower.
I imagine it was strange for the neatly dressed hotel manager, sporting a pair of tailored khaki slacks and blazer, to watch as a new guest to his upper-class establishment arrived in a beat-up moto-taxi, donning dirty athletic shorts, a sweaty shirt, and mud-laden military boots. The looks I received from him, the staff, and the other guests sitting around at the patio tables, confirmed my suspicion. Regardless, he showed me to the private room that I would have for the night.
I noticed the trail of mud my boots had left along the pristine white tile just as the hotel manager closed the door to my room. I felt a momentary twang of guilt, but that feeling vanished quickly as my attention turned to the door behind me and the shower that awaited me beyond. I stripped, cringing at the smell of my socks now re-exposed to the air after eleven hours on the bus and confined to waterproof army boots. The mud on the floor, the smell of the socks, and the moisture on my shirt all combined, and I felt truly repugnant.
Folding up my clothes. I grabbed my flip flops and headed for the shower. After a few minutes of fumbling with the unfamiliar hot-water mechanism, I finally managed to make it work. I angled the shower-head, adjusted the spray, and tuned the water pressure to exactly my liking, reveling in the glory of the moment.
And then I took that amazing first step. I dove in head-first and felt the grime of all my time in Eastern Africa start to melt away. I felt liberated, like I had discovered the fountain of youth and was on my way to rejuvenation.
And then the bathroom lights went out; and then the red light on the hot water box turned off. I knew what was coming next as it happened. The gentle enveloping warmth of the water turned into a frozen hell-storm of ice cold liquid, repelling me from its depths back to the relative warmth of the air. I muttered an expletive and looked up at the ceiling light with the hope that the power-outage would be short-lived. It was not. Still dirty, with an air of fateful acceptance, I sullenly plunged my head back into the bone-chilling torrent.
Such have been the events of my time in Eastern Africa. Every day engenders a new surprise, each moment is as unpredictable as the last.
Sometimes these situations are funny. One such instance occurred when my brother was coming into town to visit me. I was staying somewhere in Arusha’s southern suburbs, no address on a nameless dirt road. He would stay with me, but I figured it might be helpful for me to show him the way there from the airport. I had arranged for a taxi to pick me up from my room two hours before his flight would land. At the prearranged time, I stood outside the heavy iron gate to the house, looking up and down the sparsely populated street for my taxi, but obviously, he was running late (as does everything that happens after 8 AM here).
I realized that I needed to grab some extra money. I walked back to my room and retrieved some bills from their hiding place. When I returned, there was a young man in his early twenties standing at the gate, motioning to me. I walked up to him and realized that he was pointing at a motorcycle parked in the street. Confused, I asked him, “Are you my ride to the airport?” to which he replied with a high pitched moan and more excited pointing at the motorcycle. I paused, slightly confused, and said something to him one more time. Again, I was met with the same high pitched noise and a lot of gesticulation. At this point I realized that my driver was both deaf and mute.
I shook my head to tell him “no”, not wanting to get on a motorcycle to go to the airport, knowing that it was a grossly insufficient vehicle for the task at hand. However, he was very insistent, even to the point that I began to think that I was the one missing something. I turned to one of the teenagers working at the butcher’s shop next to me, and gave him a “could ya help me out here?” kind of look, but he just smiled and turned away. At that point it dawned on me. Maybe my real shuttle driver sent this guy to retrieve me from the neighborhood and take me to where the shuttle was waiting to go to the airport. I didn’t know how else this guy would know exactly where to find me. He walked up to my specific room after all.
I pulled out my cheap Tanzanian phone and did an image search for a car. I needed a way to find out if he was going to take me to the airport car. I pointed at the motorcycle and shook my head “no”, while pointing at the car on my phone and nodding my head “yes”. When the motorcycle driver saw the picture, he let out another excited noise and started nodding rapidly. I was glad we finally had an understanding.
I hopped on the back of the motorcycle and we began our drive to the shuttle. I took a moment to embrace in the absurdity of the situation. I was in the same country as Kilimanjaro riding on the back of some random guy’s motorcycle, to catch a taxi to meet my brother, so that we could go see lions and elephants and rhinos in the wild. It was crazy to me. The breeze blowing over my face was freeing and though I was nervous about the situation, I also felt incredibly relaxed. (Side note: I was later informed (reminded) that I am not allowed to take motorcycle taxi’s and I haven’t since… sorry Rachel). After about six minutes of driving, he turned and started heading down a rather empty street, something that I did not like, something that made me very nervous. Just as I was about to tell him to turn around, he pulled over and pointed at the building next to us. It was at that moment that I finally realized what had happened. He was pointing at a car dealership.
Earlier, when I had pointed at the picture of the car he thought that had meant that I wanted to buy a car, not go to a car. With that understanding, he happily provided that service, much to my dismay. I put my hand on my face in frustration and pulled out my phone again, now seeing three missed calls and a text from one of my housemates informing me that my real driver was there and waiting for me. I told them I’d be right there and hopped back on the bike. Not fully appreciating the strangeness of the situation, also confused and slightly on the defensive, hyperaware of possible scams or accomplices to a robbery, and not sure if I had been the butt of some practical joke, I just pointed him back to my house with an aggressive look on my face, much to his confusion. When we arrived the cab was waiting and I pointed to it saying “this car” to which the motorcycle driver gave me a look of understanding. Meanwhile the kid at the butchers shop who had offered me no help at all, was dying with laughter. Embarrassed, and hyperaware, I handed him money for the pointless ride and got in my cab, shaking my head.
It wasn’t until about twenty minutes later that I let my guard down, realized that it was really just a huge misunderstanding, and started to laugh at myself. A few days later, I ended up seeing him at the neighborhood bar, and we shared some beers and laughed about the whole thing. For the rest of my time in Arusha, whenever he passed me on his bike, he would honk and wave happily.
I often find myself in situations like those, that I think are going great, until all of the sudden they aren’t. There was the Couchsurfing host who offered me free lodging and advice and then suddenly asked me to pay him out of the blue. There was a mosquito net that ended up being full of gaping holes. There was the cab that I hopped into to hoping to escape the rain that got a flat tire three minutes into our trip, and then after fixing the flat, ran out of gas a kilometer away from my hostel. At one point I had an incredibly early bus. Wanting to maximize my sleep for the night, I pre-planned my morning activities down to the minute. Wake up, drink water, brush teeth, pack bags, use toilet (this is important because the busses don’t have bathrooms), catch a cab to the bus station, and arrive on time. But of course, when I get to the toilet phase of my plan, with not a minute to spare, every toilet in my hostel was clogged and out of toilet paper. Needless to say, it was an uncomfortable bus ride. Beyond that, there was my decision to sleep in on a Tuesday morning in Arusha that was foiled by a random church choir singing outside my door, literally 3 meters from it, at 6:30 in the morning. And how could I forget walking through the basement of the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, next to cases of skulls and bones, when suddenly the lights went out and I was in a dark room full of human remains. On top of that I was not sure if it was a typical power outage or something more sinister, having read that the memorial was a potential target for terrorist attacks.
These “curve-balls”, as I have elected to call them, have become so frequent that in many ways I am no longer surprised by them. I feel at home with them. The unpredictable has become a part of my daily routine, and as plans fall through and my situations perpetually change, I’m getting batter at laughing at the absurdity of it all, not taking anything that happens seriously, to the greatest extent that I can. I think it’s impossible to travel this much without that attitude. I am at the point of such extreme acceptance of my random situations that I often have to stop and ask myself whether what’s happening at any given moment would be considered “normal” back home. Things like passenger busses stopping on the side of the road for a bathroom break--so 10 different people can go squat in the bushes in proximity to each other--don’t strike me as odd as I’m sure they would have when I began this trip.
And I’ve noticed that this way of thinking towards the unpredictable is the prevailing attitude among the people that live here. It’s necessary for survival. There’s no way someone could have a happy life here without a full acceptance of things over which he or she has no power. A need for predictability would destroy any chance at happiness, because there is no way to predict anything here. And that has created more of a challenge for me than I anticipated it would. In other words, I failed to predict the extent to which I would fail to predict the things that happen to me in daily life here.
For that reason and others I think that Arusha, Tanzania has been the most challenging place I’ve been so far. The combination of that unpredictability, language deficiency, lack of normal comforts, and an in ability to blend into the crowd made my time there very difficult.
One part of the trouble for me was language. After what basically felt like a vacation in English-speaking South Africa, arriving in Arusha, where relatively few people speak English, was like being back in my first day in Santiago without knowing any Spanish. Of course there is a tourism industry here where more English is spoken, but in the interest of avoiding the tourist/vacation lifestyle, I elected to stay with a Couchsurfing host in the southern suburbs of the city, on a street with no name, in a neighborhood where myself and a Colombian girl were very much the only light-skinned people and English speaking is very limited.
Living in this community as the only white was challenging for me. Yes, read that absurd sentence again. I, a 6 foot-tall, anglo-saxton, educated male, had problems because of my identity. Which was interesting and eye opening as I think it is the first and probably only time I will ever have that experience.
You see, generally, when I travel, I do my best to blend into the city around me. I try to mimic the clothes of the people there. I try to avoid carrying a backpack. I do this partly because I want to avoid making myself a target for crime, but also because I don’t want people to change their day to day habits simply because I am present. But I found that in Arusha, making a scene just by my mere presence was inescapable.
Every morning, I would start my day by walking down the nameless dirt road that led to the entrance of my habitation. Passing small shops that sell essentials: bottled water, laundry soap, bread, I would make my way towards my favorite hole-in-the-wall chapati shop for breakfast. Along the way, my eyes would trace the small stream of road run-off that flows along a dirt ditch off to the side of the road. I would spot hundreds of children with improvised toys floating plastic-bottle boats down the stream or wearing cups as hats, and playing drums with pots. And as I passed by their dirt-and-concrete playgrounds, they would unfailingly shout, “MZUNGU!”… White man. Like a car alarm that went off wherever I went. Almost in the same way, I imagine, that an American would should “Zebra!” upon seeing that beast in the wild for the first time. To those children I have a sense that that’s what I am. Some mythical beast that they’ve only ever seen on TV, a rare game suddenly spotted locally. Though the word can sometimes have negative connotations, I’ll admit it’s cute when you hear a chorus of 40 little voices shouting “Mzungu! Mzungu! Mzungu!” as they tag along with you down the street.
Such was the alarm that sounded wherever I went, from the excited shouts of children, to the hushed murmurs of adults, speaking lowly in Swahili where “mzungu” was the only word I could make out. There was no way of avoiding the fact that I was out of my element and extremely out of place. The fact that the people around me knew that was immensely unsettling.
Looking back, I doubt that much of what was being said in hushed tones by the adults was malevolent, aside from maybe the man that hit my brother on the shoulder and shouted “American!” as we drove by in a bajaji (tuk-tuk). But that sense of having eyes on you that you can’t see, doesn’t do much to make you feel calm.
When I’m in an unfamiliar place, which now, is all the time, I like to practice situational awareness. I like to know fully what is happening all around me, watching the world as the world is watching me. But in Arusha, there was a strange chaos to the city that I couldn’t seem to get a handle on. I would look in front of me and scan the world, turn and check behind me and turning back around to my front nothing would be the same. Really, the only constant was that regardless of when I went, I could see and feel eyes on me from every direction but I couldn’t look back at them all.
That being said, I can’t say that I think what I experienced is exactly the same as what a black person from America or South Africa must experience on a university campus or in the halls of wall street or in the confederate states, because despite the experience of isolation I haven’t experienced hostility, subtle or open. The racism (and maybe racism isn’t the appropriate word here) that I experience here is more an unfounded expectation of wealth.
Although I do my best to avoid the appearance of wealth, my light-skin and the fact that I am traveling at all, gives the impression that I am selfishly hoarding some mass aggregation of money. I think for many, I have the appearance of a walking-ATM. I have found that often locals will feign forming friendships with me, only to ask me for money a few hours later.
Of course the typical western-traveler to these parts doesn’t help the situation. Backpackers are few in Africa and most travelers to this region stay in nice hotels on organized vacations with extra money to blow. Children have learned that if they hold out their hand and say “give money,” sometimes white people will oblige. Westerners, especially Americans, often over-tip guides resulting in an economic system where people who directly interact with tourists end up making the most money, such as safari guides who end up making more money than the park superintendents who run the very parks that the those guides use to make their money. Additionally, the UN courts that were held here following the 1994 Rwandan genocide resulted in an influx of westerners and a mass increase in prices that hurt many locals.
After years of foreigners arriving and spending excesses of wealth, completely changing the economy, I’m not surprised that this belief exists among locals. It is a telling sign that every young person that I have met here wants to become a safari guide and eventually own a tour company. I have yet to meet a future doctor or engineer or human rights worker. That being said, the expectation of loose spending on the part of foreigners that exists here is immensely tiring. I have to constantly reaffirm that I don’t have enough money to afford things and barter with taxi drivers and food sellers not to charge me the “mzungu price”, which is usually double to three times the local price.
This experience has given me a lot of empathy for the women of this country who face harassment, albeit of a different sort, on the streets of this country every day. And I can’t begin to imagine how tiring walking down the street in these countries must be for the women in my fellowship cohort, who have to deal with both sexual harassment and monetary harassment.
Another exercise in empathy for me has been dealing with prostitutes in bars. I remember a few days ago in Dar es Salaam, I was at a beach club, and they would not leave me and my table alone. They would come over and touch me, butt into my conversations with friends, and try to take my hat and play with it. At first I had fun with it, lying to them about my name, my background, telling absurd stories, always finding a creative way to get them to leave. But after a while I got really tired of it, eventually shouting at one woman who was especially annoyting to make her leave, and I found myself thinking, “Why can’t I just enjoy a night out with my friends without being harassed by all these women who I don’t know and have no physical interest in?” A phrase that echoes the sentiments of many of my female friends in the bars of my home town. But of course, these aren’t exact comparisons, just circumstances that have made me more empathetic to other people, who, due to no faults of their own, stand out and are reminded of it every day.
The best thing I’ve been able to do to combat this perception of me as a rich, ignorant, mzungu is learning and using Swahili. I have found the when I ask for something in a sentence of perfect Swahili or tell someone accosting me on the street for a safari tour that I’m not interested by using the local language, they begin to view me in a different light. I become more of a person in their eyes, less of some foreign money tree, and more someone who is in touch with the local customs, and also the real costs of goods and services. Scott Haber had a nice piece on the benefits of learning new languages which you can read here.
All and all Tanzania has been immensely challenging for me, but I think it is exactly what I needed it to be. At the end of South America and especially in South Africa, I didn’t really feel challenged at all. I wasn’t having new revelations, I wasn’t seeing the world in different ways, and I didn’t feel like I was growing. While here, I can say that I’ve done nothing but mature, adjust, and change. I hope the tone of this post doesn’t sound to terribly pessimistic, because Tanzania is a beautiful country, with amazing features and incredible opportunities, and I have met some fantastic people while I’ve been here. But growth can be painful, and sometimes it’s nice to complain about it even though you know it’s making you better.
I leave Tanzania in two days. I know that I will leave it a more relaxed, more flexible, and more empathic person.
Thanks for reading. As always more to come.