Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania: Take One

Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania: Take One

By: Rad Wood


Dar Es Salaam, affectionately known as Dar by locals, is the capital of Tanzania and anything but a tourist town. I think that’s what Rick, Brian and I liked most about it. After a week climbing kili and four days in the tourist haven of Zanzibar, it was comforting to walk down the street without being sold something, it was calming to speak with someone without debating on whether you had to tip them. In short, it was nice to finally be ignored. Unfortunately, the feeling would last exactly one day. The hustlers of Dar would find us.

We arrived in Dar on Friday the 13th. We did so in waves. Rick was flying back to Ljubljana that Saturday so he wanted to get to Dar early, giving him more of an opportunity to check it out. Thus he and Brian caught the 9:30 am ferry from Zanzibar. Meanwhile, Jamie, who had already spent a day in Dar, Alan, who is not a big fan of cities, and I, who knew I had more than one day in Dar ahead of me, stayed in Stone Town a couple hours longer before hopping on the 11:30 ferry.

The ferry ride was two hours. We pulled into Dar, I was fairly well sea sick and desperately wanting to find the hostel. This is when Jamie took over. He used his previous knowledge of Dar and deftly navigated us to the doorstep of the Jambo Inn, our residence for the evening. After dropping our stuff in the room, the three of us returned to the lobby to eat at Jambo’s Indian restaurant and wait for Brian and Rick to return from their tour of the city.

Minutes later, Brian and Rick pulled up seats at our table and quickly began giving us the inside scoop on what they had discovered over the past few hours. During this conversation, Rick let it be known that he wanted to do one thing–go to the national museum. Alan, Brian and I agreed to join him on this mission. Jamie chose to stay in the hostel and get some much needed work done for his company back in Austin.

The walk to the museum took about half-an-hour and taught us much about Dar. For instance, despite having a population of over two million people, Dar had never really invested in sidewalks. This design forced pedestrians to mingle in the streets with cars, which made drivers use their horns almost constantly, which gave the city a very unpleasant soundtrack. Also of note was the fact that the cars outnumbered the pedestrians, in Dar. This didn’t mean that the streets were meant for so many vehicles. To the contrary, traffic during the day was often an endless standstill. Indeed at times we would navigate a block faster than the cars would drive it. The city seemed to lack a singular identity. New glass sky scrapers towered next to small wooden shacks. Modernity taking hold in small doses. Much too small to make a marked difference in most people’s lives.

The walk to the museum was long. But the museum itself was short. It had no art of any kind, but was more of a natural history museum, which would have been fascinating, if any of the exhibits were real. Tanzania is one of the birthplaces of modern man. Human bones dating back over two-hundred thousand years have been discovered in its land. Yet no such bones were on display. Only six-foot placards describing these discovers. The museum was more of a textbook printed on the walls. Indeed it looked as if someone had cut out the pages of a science book on human evolution, enlarged and laminated the pages, before attaching them to the museum for our reading pleasure. Thanks.

That night the five of us–Rick, Brian, Alan, Jamie and I–went out for Ethiopian and then finished our evening at a dive bar where we bought dollar pints of beer. The restaurant and bar were in the residential outskirts of Dar. The people were extremely friendly and did not seek to make any additional profit on us. Again, a nice contrast to Zanzibar.

The next morning Rick had an early flight. We all got up to eat breakfast together and say goodbye. After Rick, it was Alan and Brian, who hopped a bus toward Kenya. The Kilimanjaro crew had split up. Jamie and I remained in Dar–our flight out was not till the next morning. We would spend one more day preparing for our upcoming safari. A day that involved multiple errands–passport photos for our Indian visas, airline office visit to change our flight, Internet cafe to book our safari, etc. As soon as we put ourselves back into the purchasing market, the hustlers in Dar had found us. Or, more appropriately, we had found them. For example, when we went to buy passport photos we had been shopping around getting prices. After a few stops, we knew we could get four photos for 3000 shilling ($2.00), but wanted to check and see if there was something cheaper. We went to stop by another shop. It was closed. A local man standing near by asked what we were looking for. We told him. He told us to follow him. We did. A minute later, we’re standing at another photo shop and our guide and the owner are speaking Swahili. I could only imagine the conversation–“I have a couple American suckers, charge them three times the amount and split the profit with me.” “Deal.” I asked how much. 10,000 shilling. I reprimanded the store owner for trying to rip us off and the price dropped to 3,000 shilling, immediately. We walked off. Our guide following us still trying to make another sale.

We finally settled on a small photo shop run by an older Indian man. Dar had a sizable Indian population. In fact, our hostel as well as most of the stores and restaurants in our neighborhood were all Indian owned. Indians ran the city, the Tanznians only lived and worked there. You could feel the tension. But our Indian photo guy was offering us the $2.00 price and we were tired of looking. Plus he was very friendly and inviting. His shop was tiny and the walls were covered in glass paneling. He pushed on a glass panel behind his desk and a door opened. He asked us to follow him into his studio.

The studio was large and brightly lit. In the far left-hand corner was an old sink, which I soon discovered did not work. On the sink laid combs and brushes in case we wanted to “freshen up.” The far wall, which was to the right of the sink, had a row of coat hangers upon which hung numerous clip-on ties as well as a single blue sport coat that was older than Jamie or I and had not been washed since its purchase date. In front of the wall, to the right, sat a solitary chair and behind it a blue screen. The wall we had walked through had a large work table against it. On the table laid photo books of old clients, film, camera parts and a blow dryer. Our host repeatedly told us to feel at home. We did. I walked up to the sink to “freshen up” and then over to the wall where I began clipping ties to my shirt. A large smile had crept across my face. You couldn’t make this place up. Why not have fun with it. “Jamie, pick one of these sweet ties,” I said, finally getting a beige tie to stay clipped. Jamie laughed and joined me at the wall of ties.

A moment later, I looked over to find the old man helping Jamie with a blue-striped tie. Our elderly companion was delighted. “You should put on the jacket,” he explained to Jamie, who was gently protesting. “Yeah Jamie, it’ll look nice,” I added in support of our old haberdasher. Jamie begrudgingly acquiesced. Looking as dapper as possible considering his attire, the old man placed Jamie in the chair and positioned his arms in a way to ensure Jamie looked “smart.” Jamie tried to hold back the laughter as the photographer snapped his shots with a very old-school professional grade Polaroid. The camera shot out four photos , which the old man took over to his work table. At which point, of course, the blow dryer came into the process. The old man switched on the blow dryer and proceeded to blast the pictures till they began to curl from the heat. During that time, like all Polaroids, the pictures also filled up with color. I’m still not sure what role the blow dryer played, but it seemed crucially important to our old host.

Now it was my turn. Jamie had taken off the jacket and was handing it to me. I tried to refuse, the jacket was filthy–covered in years of dirt and dandruff. But the old man was insistent. He took the jacket from Jamie and began putting it on me one arm at a time. “It makes you look smart. I had an Asian client one time. When he put on the jacket, he looked so smart. You try.” I relented. How could I argue with that logic? Plus I had laughed at Jamie’s predicament. Now it was his turn to laugh. I sat in the chair, our friend snapped the photos and was soon back at his table giving my pictures the blow dryer treatment. We now had photos for our Indian visa applications and a new friend in town. The old man gave us a map of the city and told us to stop by to see him if we ever needed any help.

The rest of the day we spent planning our safari. We did some research and settled on a company called Basecamp. I had communicated with the owner, Achmed, via email for a couple hours that evening. His timely responses and good reviews online won my business. That night on our way back to the hostel, we met a couple guys, Noah and Hans, who were hocking paintings. We chewed the fat with them for awhile before I eventually bought a couple paintings. We let our new acquaintances know we’d be back in town on Thursday. If they were back in the neighborhood, we’d grab a beer with them. Our two days in Dar were jut about up and we were ready for our next adventure.