First Contact in Africa


I arrived at OR Tambo feeling quite tired due to all the flying but I was quite happy the real journey is about to begin.  The line through customs was long and I was held up for almost an hour.  I just wanted a transit visa because I will be coming back to South Africa in a couple of months and I don’t want to lose any visa days.
Still having some time, I ventured into the departing hall to check into my flight.  The cheapest flight to Dar Es Salaam is through FastJet, one of those cheap airlines where you have to pay for your bags and  meals.  The airline check in doesn’t open until an hour before departure.  I also had a lot of confusions when I booked my flight that I had to book through Priceline, which I normally don’t like to do.
Half an hour past getting through the customs, my genuinely lack of sense of direction finally took me to the departure hall.  A man with an airport badge greeted me at the door and asked me if I needed any help.  Not knowing anything about this continent, I asked him where the check in desk is because OR Tambo is an incredibly huge airport.  He took me to a check in machine first, and after failing to check in using the machine, he took me to the check in desk.  Then he told me he was expecting a tip and I realized he probably doesn’t work at the airport, a badge probably doesn’t mean shit here.  So, I gave him a dollar and instead leaving he told me that I should be giving him 19 more dollars because “one dollar wasn’t even enough to pay for the exchange fee for the Rands.”
Well, that really put a damper on all the excitement of arriving in Africa.  I told him, ” If you help 19 more people you’ll get your 20″.  He disagreed and persisted arguing for that 19 dollars until he saw another person was walking around asking for directions.
That was the first glimpse of the “aggressive” approach which some Africans use to get into your pocket.  To use the word “aggressive” is not exactly correct.  “Persistent” is probably a better word to describe their method.  However it wasn’t the aggressiveness or persistence that annoyed me, it is that these people settled to be beggar.  What I envisioned as a group of proud people battling through everything going against their way since so long ago was shattered by my first interaction in this continent.  The persistency was utterly lacking in self respect, and some of that same persistency could have took someone far in another area.  I suspect that years after years of aid from these first world countries had taught some of the people that that taking with earning is just a way of life.
**I knew that encounter won’t be the only one, it will continue.  What troubled me more is that the airline cancelled its flight at the very last second due to passenger shortage.  Most of the seven people follow lead of the old man who seemed to have that happen many times to him before, and went to ticket booth to get on another flight.  The Dar flight with South African airline.  Quite unfortunately for me, my ticket was booked with priceline and the incompetent airline couldn’t retrieve my booking.
That left me quite stranded at the airport.  I went to talk to SA, thinking of snatching a seat, but they wouldn’t let me fly without a returning flight, which is maddening.  I want to bus cross to Moçambique or train cross into Zambia, not flight back to Jo’burg.  I have no certain plan or schedule, just going to wing it as I please or my budget allows me.  I tried to explain to the ticket booth lady my great overland trip in Africa, and I showed her my return flight back to the states in April.  She doesn’t understand how I’m not just going to burn money and look at animals with binoculars, that I actually want to travel in Africa.
I found internet at the food court, abid only 30 minutes of it.  I was able to find Kenya Air, which has a midnight departure to Nairobi, then connection to Dar, which happens to be a lot cheaper than the one to Nairobi.
Same thing that happened at SA happened again, but despite the wide eyes of “the fuck is this kid doing”, they accepted my explanation and allowed my one way trip.
While I was waiting I did talk to a few Africans.  I found them quite talkative and friendly.  One man from Zimbabwe who works as a curio seller in Asia and I talked about engineering.  Another wanted to know if California is cold right now.  Three girls tried to have me buy them a cold drink, but I explained to them that I’m more poor than they are.  They didn’t believe me, “you came from America to Tanzania and you don’t have no money?” “I had money, then I used it all for the plane tickets.”. They seemed to believe it and found another person to buy them cold drinks.
After much waiting, and a lot of delays, I was finally on the plane.  I was worried about not making the Dar flight because of the plane being late, but the airline serves food during flight, and that made me a bit happier.  Airlines in America don’t even give you peanuts anymore and here in Africa they serve you real food with fruit.
It wasn’t long before we arrived at Nairobi and I didn’t miss my flight.  I thought about staying, but visa costs 100 dollars and I didn’t want to waste 100 dollars just to take a bus down Amboseli Lady.  It is constantly cloudy and raining, and I wouldn’t be able to see the classic Kilimanjaro over plain in Amboseli anyways.
It turns out the flight to Dar is a Cessna.  A small plane, of only 2 passengers.  A girl who studied in finance and has a temporary passport with notarized stamps who is going to work in Dar for the week and myself.
We were quite excited and even this airline served food.  I was really glad it didn’t cancel because that plane needed to be in Dar to carry some “rich folks from thr UK to Arusha to see some animals”.  It was an easy ride, an economy price for a private jet despite the Malawian captain trying to brag how he used to study finance but decided to learn to fly in the UK and rose through the ranks in Malawi airline.  It didn’t really match his captain profile in this lonely Cessna, but I didn’t dare to contradict.
The plane landed and the Dar airport is a whole new level of ghetto.  The airport at Galapagos look better than this international hub.  I guess all the tourists all flew to Kilimanjaro airport that no one gave a fuck about the most important international airport in Dar named after Julius Nyerere.
I got my 100 dollar visa quite easily because there were no one there. The cancelled flight earlier, and the lonely Cessna sort of indicated it is not quite tourist or visitor season in Tanzania.
That was quite alright with me until I walked outside.  Outside and inside aren’t quite differentiated in this airport.  Once you clear customs and got your bags, the arrivals is in the open air with makeshift booths and atms all over the place.  There is no one around excpet about 100 taxi drivers looking eagerly at you.
The Kenyans have a good grasp of the English language, but Tanzanians are the opposite.  It is very hard for me to understand what they are trying to mumble.  This is probably because their previous president had denounced English as the colonial language and Kiswahili is their true tongue.  I do agree with this, and I wish to bring back some Swahili with me when I leave.  However at the moment, the taxi drivers approached me asking where I want to go, they didn’t give me a chance to take a breath, to look around, or to take out money.  They seem to follow you around like a bunch of zombies.  100 taxi drivers with nothing to do, one passenger.  There is a listed price and it costs 40000 schillings to a hotel near the bus terminal.  I know I can get a cheaper price looking at the situation but at that moment I needed to get out of there so I accepted the 40000 sch, and went off with a young driver.
He didn’t talk much and the traffic was insane.  We talked a bit about how the traffic is in Dar, and that is the norm everyday except sunday.
Going in the taxi pole-pole (Swahili for slow) really offered me a glimpse of the big city of Tanzania.
Just like the books I read, it is a different place than anywhere I have been.  Shitty road, dusty sidewalks.  Countless Africans having no work, gathered around trees for shade.
We passed by clothing stands where Africans sell used clothes from African relieve donations.  The government gave them the clothes from these drives and they resell all of the clothes back to other Africans.  One of my favorite has to be the Sonoma Country Half Marathon shirt I noticed a day later in the bus.
I got to the hotel and fell right asleep after a shower.  Shower barely worked but after 4 days of filth, I didn’t really cared.
I woke a bit later and had to purchase my bus tickets.  The area away from the city center is ran down and in decay.  The road is wide, and motor taxis and taxis are everywhere.  It was sad to discover even in Swahili, I’m still a chino.  The stores are just shadily built kiosks, the store names are on some plastic boards given out by some donor probably and they all have a huge coca cola sign on them.  Everything is strange and beat down.  Tons of Africans wonder around the streets and just walking around.  This reminds me of the book, everything falls apart, but it’s for a totally different meaning. Kurtz went crazy in the Congo in Heart of Darkness, will I?
I don’t know where is the unbungo bus terminal because it wasn’t listed on the map.  However, I knew the general direction and I just walked.  As usual, a hord of Africans came up, “chino, where you going?” “Going to Ubungo? Bus to Arusha? Moshi?”.  “Buy me bia baridi (cold beer) man”.
Thinking that I don’t actually know much of the terminal, I let one of the more standout ones lead me.  There are bunch of make shift offices next to a huge parking lot filled with buses and that was the Ubungo terminal and those offices are the ticket offices.  Africans know how to do with what they have with a minimum effort in improvement.  Or maybe the government took all the money and wouldn’t upgrade the bus station.  Or the donors aren’t building them a new bus terminal, who knows.
The man took me to the office and said mambo which is what’s up in Swahili but my dictionary only taught me jambo which is hello.  Thinking he called me a muzungu, which is gringo, I stayed quiet and didn’t reply or say anything.  At first he tried to rip me off and pocket some extra for himself, but I have been at this for too long, I never agree on the first price as an automatic response.  It turned out he was trying to bullshit me and I got a fare at the normal price.  They like to market their buses as luxury but they are all designed to pack as much people possible that leg room doesn’t exist.  They have TV but their AC never works and Africans don’t seem to like open the windows sometimes, just sitting there in the heat.
I went back and got some kuku(chicken tenidori) at a nearby restaurant and some tusker beer and some Kilimanjaro beer.  The chicken is marinated and cooked on a grill, one cook, 20 waiters.  Everything is served with chipsi(fries).  There wasn’t too much hype but the lagers are quite satisfactory and sitting there drinking beer watching the news on TV was the first moment of happiness and peacefulness that I felt since landed on the continent.
Someone else sat next to me and we had the normal where you from and what you up to conversation.  The same gentleman also later found my hotel key that I accidentally dropped.  I was quite grateful for that because many hotels charge foreigners more in Dar and many lists in dollars and they are sure to charge me for the stolen key.  They convert the dollars to schillings by 2000, but the official rate is 2170, so every time I pay in schillings I’m losing money.  I try to argue about my case but looking at the receptionist punching in the easy 25×2000 on the calculator, my case wasn’t received at all.
I was woken up by a strange sound on the roof at 4AM.  Thinking the AC was broken I turned it off.  The sound continued.  It was a bit later that I realized it was rain, pouring rain hitting the roof of my room.  Then suddenly power went out and I open the window blind to see a giant arc of lightning striking down on the now pitch black city.  The grumbling thunder followed the lightning and this continued for a while.  I didn’t expect the power to be back but Tanzania was quite quick with that.
The time quickly turned 5AM and I was out in the rain to board the bus to Arusha.  I took a taxi where the man charged me 6000 even thou he told me 600 at the time of boarding.  The distance isn’t long but it was raining and he used the I can’t speak English technique.  I hate taxis and later I learned to come to hate all type of transport in Africa.
The rain was hard, everything is in the dark.  Potholes filled with water up to the ankles are everywhere in the parking lot at Ubungo.  Despite the rain, people comes in droves with luggage on their heads shielding them from the rain.  Many people ask where I’m going and I wasn’t falling for that again while I looked for my bus.  One person asked me if I have tickets already and already having it, I decided to ask him and he showed me the way.  It was very nice to get a honest aid sometimes.
I got on the bus and the space was tight and the air con doesn’t work and people don’t open windows.  A 9 hours bus ran for 12, an express bus that made numerous passenger pickups.  These are all reasons why I don’t want to take another bus again.  The rancid body odor in the tightly spaced bus.  Hot and humid with sweat dripping and the person behind you kept pushing the window you just opened close.  My budget is real tight, and I’m going to be back on those buses and lose those many hours of my life that I will come to hate.
They played a bunch of really stupid movies in Swahili, all african originals.  Some fat dude married a girl who forgot her memory and her mom hates him.  Some fat dude ate his brother’s food and his brother makes him exercise with a knife.  They did play the old district 13 movie with David belle, but it was English dubbed, not the original french.  I love that movie and that made the trip slightly better.
The bus did pass by several really interesting sites that I will make a stop on my way back.  That includes the Usabamra mountain range.  A majestic cliff rise above the plain, overlooking the vast bush of Africa.  I will attempt a trek up there later.
The bus finally arrived in Arusha where I was greeted with more “chino you need a taxi?”. It won’t be long before I will use full comand of the word that starts with the letter N, probably in a fit of rage from all the annoyances.  I even existed the bus and walked before the central bus station because I didn’t want to get tagged by a bunch of human hyenas.
I had prepared for the landing this time, so I had no problem finding where I’m staying by myself.  Got some beer as usual and thought about my game plan for the next few says.  Unlike Dar, Arusha is a tourist town and I talked with the few foreigners that I can find about what they did and if anyone wants to do Kilimanjaro with me.  Some Sweden girls told me they took the train all the way from Zambia and you can take it all the way to Livingstone.  I also coincided to find that flights to Joburg is extremely cheap from Livingstone and that gave me another new itinerary.
I went to sleep determined to be a bigger asshole because I have a busy day ahead trying to find a good outfitter for Kilimanjaro.  The tourism in Tanzania is their only revenue, so going to a national park here is extremely expensive.  So expensive its almost not worth it.  However, Serengeti, Kilimanjaro, Ngorongoro are places that I have read about since I was a kid looking at national geographic pictures. They have a special allure on me.  I want to find that cheap option to do it all, but at the same time I don’t want to go with the wrong person so that I will have a bad time.  Judging from all the haggling and deceiving, I will see a lot of that, that 100 dollars cheaper might just bring me more than its share of misery.  I had to do my veting.  Fortunately, I have became pretty good at it, even though I despise it vehemently.  I see it as a waste of time and eventually it won’t save me much money because the people willing to compromise alot for you in Africa don’t care about you and it could be potentially dangerous.
Truly, I want to go with a group like the old times and have some fun trekking and of course succeeding.  It isn’t asking much and I’m trying to do Mt. Meru by myself, but judging by how many tourists there are, I have my doubts about being able to hitch hike to the entrance.  There are two entrances to meru, Arusha National park entrance, and Momela gate entrance.  You can’t walk between Momela and Arusha Park entrance due to wild animals, and organized treks are 700 dollars for a 4500m mountain.  The park fee itself for a mandatory 3 days is almost 400 dollars.  As great a trek I heard it is, 4500m doesn’t deserve a 400 dollars price tag and red tape stretch beyond Zanzibar.
I set out to talk to agencies that day, but not before talking to a girl from Yale and her friend who works in Tanzania, whom are on their way to Serengeti and had done Kilimanjaro before.  The price they told me further confirms my believe that I really can’t get a great deal for the value.  They said its worth the money and I think I agree.
Turns out Tanzania isn’t like Peru or Ecuador, all the outfitters are in gated mansions, so I just ended up emailing them and I went around asking other people if they are looking to do the Climb.  I can imagine myself sitting in a corner and asking passerby’s if they are going on a safari, it would be such a great prank.
Like breakfast, lunch and dinner, except with more consistence, is the haggling.  This time, there is less people, just one or two at a time and I got to have some fun.  They asked me where I’m from, I told them I work in Colombia and we talked about cocain, Shakira and what not.  I feel telling them I’m from a country that they feel is more dangerous than their own they are less likely to bullshit me.  They try to ask me if I’m looking for safari, and I even told some I’m on a human safari looking at human hyenas circling their pray, that’s why I’m just wondering around the town.  I told them following me is fruitless, waiting for some other muzungus offers them better chances.  They don’t seem to get it and pester on.  Without fail, everyone ends their walk with me trying to have me buy their shitty bracelet and pictures.  Without fail I would offer to sell my expired mosquito bracelet for 5000 schillings and they walk away instantly.  Only once I got slightly annoyed that a dude was following me claiming we are friends even though I would never befriend him.  His is constant following prevented me from going yo withdraw at the ATM. However I found a better bank after he was gone.
All the pestering isn’t without merits.  It helped me practice some Swahili.  I learned that when people say mambo, you say safi, which means clean, which means you are fresh.  Or sawa, which means good.  You can ask na wewe, and you?  And people reply nuzuri. All kinds of slangs and stuff.  I also learned the correct Tanzanian way to ask for how much is schin Gapi, not the dictionary ina bei gani which means which is the price.  I also practiced my number game selling my bracelet.
I really didn’t get much done that day except that I found the city of Arusha quite charming.  There is alot of greens and even a river.  They are over shadowed by the chaotic market, the Arusha clock tower, which is a sad little thing with a coca cola sign on the clock face, and the Arusha momenument, which is just a bunch of animal statues.  The city is in poor shape, but given its smaller size, it doesn’t look as bad as Dar, but not as impressive and peaceful as the farm filled country sides.  There are many bars and restaurants tucked away.
I went with some other travelers to a Mexican restaurant that the owner just recently acquired.  The food is quite good but the cooks don’t know how to fold burritos.  The owner gave us free shots and told us she acquired the restaurant as a Mexican restaurant and do salsa nights and stuff.  I told her about some of the food I ate in mexico and we had an interesting conversation.  The owner is very driven and intelligent.  She has been to Europe many times for work and live in a nearby village.  She also does couchsurfing and I wish there are more of her and less of the hyenas on the streets who insisted we are friends.

***It seems that I’m just out here bashing on Africans, but I’m merely making my observation.  So far I have observed no change from what I have read in The Dark Star Safari, a book written about a trip in Africa 15 years ago.  I see people who are capable, but are put into a difficult situation.  Yet, not everyone responded the same.  Some came out proud, some came out coward.  It is the choice you make that makes you who you are.  Not the corrupt government, not the aid agency, definitely not the Europeans and Americans giving you all their old clothes.  I don’t despise some of them because they are African, I despise them because they let poverty be the excuse of their lack of dignity.  I’m still just observing and my journey had just started, so I can be eating my words a month from now.  My opinion can change anytime and I do hope I would leave here with nothing but good memories.  It is not the fact that their antics annoys me, its that their antics made them untrustworthy, which is bad for a traveler.  The haggling isn’t equivalent to the “selling you shit” you see in Latin america.  The haggling here is more like they insist on offering helps that you don’t need and asking for money because they have nothing to sell.


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