“If you can drive in Dar Es Salaam,” says my taxi driver cheerfully as he peers at the chaos in front of us through an extravagantly cracked windshield, “you drive anywhere!”
In front of us, a slightly flustered lady is attempting to reverse a four-wheel drive back up the unsealed city street where my hotel is located in order to allow our car to pass. Her task is made rather more difficult by the fact that there are about three lanes of traffic crammed into the narrow street behind her, along with another two lanes of parked cars, several bicycles, two motorbikes, and a steady stream of pedestrians, including a guy with a huge bag of some sort of foodstuff balanced on his head, another guy with one of those long two-wheeled cart type things laden with what appear to be televisions, and several dudes from the local street food vendor offering different opinions about which way she should turn her steering wheel. There are tooting horns aplenty, but no sign of aggression or frustration from anyone involved — the general impression is of an impromptu quorum debating the solution to a giant version of one of those puzzles where you have to unscramble a picture by sliding one piece around at a time.
Eventually, there’s the inevitable dull thud as the 4WD lady backs into one of the parked cars. She throws up her hands in disgust. My driver grins ruefully and claps his hand on my shoulder as he maneuvers the car deftly through the sliver of space she’s managed to vacate. “Very difficult to drive here, my friend,” he chuckles. “Very much traffic. Very many people.”
If you had to pick a couple of phrases to describe Dar Es Salaam, “Very much traffic” and “Very many people” would be pretty good choices. The city seems to polarize people — if you check its requisite Lonely Planet forum, there’s a pretty sizeable “It’s a dirty, chaotic shithole” majority and a “No, it’s actually awesome” minority, so it’s probably good to make clear at the outset that after four days here, I’m an enthusiastic member of the latter group. Dar is dirty and chaotic, and you could even make a case that it’s a shithole, depending on your tolerance for dust, unsealed roads and the occasional open sewer — but if you give it a chance, it’s a pretty fantastic place to spend time.
The thing with Dar is that if you’re looking for aesthetics or sights, you’re probably best off elsewhere. Apart from its beaches (of which more later), it’s not a pretty city by anyone’s standards, although there is some pretty architecture to be found if you look hard enough for it. But there are certain cities that have a kind of indefinable energy about them, and Dar is one. There’s a real feeling of life here, the sense that there are things happening, things that you want to be a part of. It’s really only big cities that pulse with this sort of energy — it’s the sort of thing that attracts people to places like, say, New York or Tokyo or Bombay, places where you have to brave high rents and a relatively low quality of life, places where the rational realization that it’d be more logical to live somewhere else is outweighed by some irrational sense that this is the place to be.
Dar’s other appealing feature is that unlike some of the aforementioned big cities, people are refreshingly and honestly friendly — not in a “Let me make small talk while I work out a way to separate you from the contents of your wallet” kinda way, but in a genuinely pleasant and curious way. It’s also surprisingly multicultural — in particular, there’s a large Indian population, which manifests itself in everything from the fact that most restaurants serve masala tea and biryani to the large number of Hindu temples and the decidedly subcontinental architecture along the appropriately-named India Street. All in all, it’s a pleasant surprise of a city, and a place that’s worthy of being far more than a brief stop over on your way to Zanzibar or the Serengeti.
One of the reasons I included Dar on the itinerary for this trip is that it’s the home of bongo flava, which is basically Tanzanian hip hop. The music is everywhere — even my driver in from the airport has the dial tuned to some sort of pirate radio station that’s got an announcer rapping live over a thumping old school beat. There are certain languages that just work in a hip hop context — French is one, and it turns out that Swahili is another. It’s percussive and rhythmic but also mellifluous and graceful. It sounds awesome.
The Lonely Planet forum consensus is that heading out after dark in Dar is a bad idea, and you can see why — there are virtually no streetlights, or not in the area I’m staying, anyway — so when the sun goes down, the only way to see your way around is by the light of various fires and the headlights of passing cars. It’s definitely a wee bit spooky, but still, I didn’t come all this way to sit at home in the hotel, so I eventually summon up the courage to ask the dudes in the hotel lobby — as with every hotel in Africa, it seems, there’s always a crew just kinda hanging out, occasionally opening the door for someone or taking a guest’s bag up to his/her room, and the rest of the time kicking back and watching the football.
They confer briefly and suggest that I head across town to a place called the Maisha Club. I take a deep breath, hop a taxi, and head out into the night. This turns out to be an excellent move — even on a Tuesday night, the Maisha Club is rocking, with a couple of local MCs rattling out rapidfire raps, along with a host of unfeasibly attractive locals bumping and grinding to some pretty filthy beats. (Apparently there are strippers on Saturday nights, suggesting that the place may be less than salubrious when it’s packed, but sadly I’m not around to bear witness to such action.)
The evening turns out to be a killer — the MCs are great, it’s someone’s birthday party (which culminates in the birthday boy getting doused in champagne, which I’ve sort of “captured” above), the drinks are cheap and my taxi driver is happy to take a bit of extra cash to wait outside for me and take me home at 4am. The downside is that I’ve rarely felt more hopelessly white than I have on the dancefloor at the Maisha Club, but then, we all have our crosses to bear, eh?
As far as headline tourist attractions go, Dar Es Salaam’s big selling point is that it’s the place to get a ferry (or a plane) to Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous island that’s by all accounts home to some of Africa’s most beautiful beaches. It seems a shame to be so close to the island and not visit, so I resolve to head over for a night on the early ferry the day before I’m due to leave. The day before, I head down to the terminal to get a timetable and find out how much the trip’s gonna cost. It’s unpleasantly windy, and since I basically get seasick at the first sight of a wave, I give silent thanks that I’m not crossing today, and head back to the hotel.
It’s only on the news that night that I find out what’s happened: one of the ferries heading to Dar from Zanzibar has foundered in heavy weather and sunk with 280 passengers on board. At that point, the number of casualties is unknown — it’s only the next day that some 20 people are confirmed dead, with many more missing. Over the coming days, it’s confirmed that 145 people have died.
Unsurprisingly, the ferry port the next day is a complete shitfight — there are no tickets being sold for any boats, and after a quick look around I give up on the whole Zanzibar idea and head back to the Sapphire Court. Unsurprisingly, the accident dominates headlines for the rest of my time in Tanzania. I spend a couple of hours chatting to the guy at the local shoe shine place, who tells me that this is the second time in as many years that there’s been a ferry accident — last year, another boat sank, this time with more than 200 people killed, making it Zanzibar’s worst maritime disaster.
My new friend tells me that the boat that sank last year was 44 years old — it entered service in Greece in 1967, was sold onto Cyprus a decade later, then to Malta, and finally to Tanzania. There’s palpable frustration in his voice as he explains how such a thing could happen — he’s proud of his country, he tells me, citing its efforts to combat AIDS (its progressive policies on condom distribution mean that its rate of HIV has declined sharply in comparison to its neighbors) and malaria — but “the problem is the corruption.” Sigh.
Given the circumstances, being back in a city I rather like anyway doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the world — two days earlier and I could quite easily have been on that ferry from Zanzibar. Still, I decide that since I’d been planning a day on the beach anyway, this could be the day to explore Dar’s beachfront action. The main beach is Coco Beach, but again, travel guides are ambivalent at best on the wisdom of tourists visiting — the fact that the beach is so long and unpatrolled means that there have been robberies, etc. there. Since I’m on my own, and thus already nonplussed about the idea of leaving my clothes/wallet/phone on the beach, I decide that in this case discretion is better than valor and follow the hotel’s advice to go to Slipway Beach, which is apparently “better for tourists.”
This, I think, turns out to be a mistake. Sure, Slipway is beautiful — there’s little in the way of actual beach, but the setting, a shallow cove on the leeward side of a peninsula that juts out into the Indian Ocean to the city’s north, is pretty spectacular — but it could also be pretty much anywhere, from Fiji to the Seychelles to Greece. I choose one of the myriad seaside bars at random — they’re all pretty much identical, with thatched palm frond umbrellas, and menus with prices that place them out of the reach of locals.
I sit and have a beer and watch the local fishermen deftly maneuvering their small boats around a placid sea as the sun starts to descend toward the horizon. It’s an impossibly picturesque scene — the sun is doing a dramatic hand-of-god sort of thing from behind the ominous bruise-grey clouds. The bar is largely deserted — apart from me, there’s a German dude reading a book, three bull-necked UK rowing types sinking beers with mechanical regularity, and an American couple who are being menaced by a bee that seems to be attracted to their empty Coke bottles. I sit and watch as they spend 10 minutes trying to get the waiter’s attention to move the bottles. It doesn’t seem to occur to them to stand up and move the bottles for themselves.
As I get up to leave, Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” comes on over the PA. The next travel blog I write may be entitled “Avoiding Gotye — Travels to North Korea and the Moon.” In the meantime, though, the next stop on this East African odyssey is Maputo, the idyllic and surprisingly quiet capital of Mozambique. Check back in tomorrow to find out what goes on!