October 21, 2005

one day in dar

So I may or may not get bounced at the Zambian border tomorrow. (Canadians now need visas; said visas may be free, and should be available at most ports of entry, but not necessarily the Tazara Rail point of entry.) It's not that big a deal - worst case, should just mean another long uncomfortable day on a bus - but now I'm all anxious about the border. It's the Lariam, I swear, making me neurotic. Like the half-hour of gloom I fall into if I smoke a cigarette in the absence of alcohol, knowing that the emotion is purely chemical only partly blunts it.

Also, rumour has it that Book Two will be reviewed in this Sunday's Washington Post Book World. Gulp. Let's hope that the paper that brought down Richard Nixon will be kinder to yours truly.


Dar es Salaam is a typical African city, so an accounting of my day spent there may prove, I dunno, instructive, or if you're easily amused, interesting.

12 hours in the Haven Of Peace

9.00 Arrive ferry terminal. Wander through dusty, cavernous customs hall to gauntlet of would-be taxi drivers. Bargain halfheartedly with a couple of them, determine that taxi prices have doubled from when my guidebook was printed. Employ none of said drivers and stop by at nearby French bakery. No bread - curious - but good coffee, served with steaming-hot milk.

9.30 Continue through downtown streets. The sidewalks tend to be pillared walkways to provide shade for pedestrians. The buildings are mostly 1960s monstrosities or cheaply-thrown-up concrete shells, but there are a couple nice old colonial buildings. Everything permanent - walls, roads, signs - is faded, shabby, cracked, peeling, crumbling, dusty, mottled with sun and water damage, drained of colour. Men dress in drab slacks and short-sleeved shirts, women in colourful wraps. They pour past me in a slow-walking stream. Stores sell stationary, tools, textbooks, clothes, dry goods; street hawkers sell shoeshines, Cokes, sunglasses, used books, newspapers, etc. Taxi drivers and would-be moneychangers call for my attention. Generators whir on both sides of the street. I see a headline: 'DAR PLUNGED INTO DARKNESS'. It isn't until then that I realize that none of the buildings around me have power.

10.00 Take a taxi to the YMCA, which is faded, shabby, cracked, etc etc. Also full. They direct me to the nearby YWCA, which is not full. I pay $10 for a double room, which is faded, shabby, crackd, etc etc, but reasonably clean. Mind you, there is no power and no running water. They can't make change - lack of "small money" is often an enormous hassle in the Third World - so the lady writes "3,000", the change I am owed, on the back of my receipt, and tells me to ask for it later.

10.30 Walk a short distance down the street, past gleaming Citigroup, Subway, and Emirates logos - in a building which has power, from its own generator - to the Movenpick four-star hotel, which of course has power too. Such islands of 21st century civilization are both common and welcome in downtown African cities. Enjoy A/C, Eat a jam donut, check expensive Internet, ask them if I can use their gym. No, I can't; they want to help me, you can see it, but their bureaucracy doesn't allow it, they don't have a Procedure for day memberships.

12.00 Complete long, hot wander through downtown. Through the area of walled ministries, hotels, and banks, into the thronging, pounding, intertwining streets near the post office, the nexus of all dalla-dalla (local public transit) activity in Dar. It's very hot, and I'm wearing jeans, but as long as you keep moving, and stop off in A/C places (such as the shiny bookstore A Novel Idea which, I'm pleased to see, sells both Book One and Book Two) it's not so bad. In most places, despite the power cut, business continues almost as normal. It reminds me of a Zambian joke: "What did we use in Zambia before we had candles?" "Electricity."

13.00 Back to YWCA for brief siesta in midday heat. A me-shaped puddle of sweat has appeared on the bed by the time I get up. Still no small money for change. I argue with several taxi drivers before finding one who will take me up to the Masiki district, 5K north of the city, for 5,000 shillings (US$4.50).

14.00 It's like a different world up here. Huge estates beyond whose high, broken-glass-topped walls can be seen huge houses, huge satellite dishes, and manicured lawns and gardens. Security company logos are emblazoned on the gates, which open to allow huge 4WD vehicles. I stop at the Slipway, a wealthy shopping mall with a supermarket full of Western goods, a Japanese restaurant, a smoothie bar, a sheesha bar, a coffee house, a pizzeria, another branch of A Novel Idea, a movie theater, a flashy hotel, and docks used by oceangoing boats - including yachts. This is where the other half lives; expats, embassy staff, Asian merchants and rich Africans.

Most African cities are set up like this. The bustling, busy, fun but disagreeable downtown; the ministries-and-NGOs district; the green, wealthy, pretty surburb where the rich live lives of Western standard, with pseudo-Western stores and logos all about; a tiny belt of houses where the vanishingly small African middle class live; and then a long, long stretch of poor exurbs and poorer shantytowns, home to the overwhelming majority of the population.

15.00 Work out at the Dar Fitness Centre, a very nice gym. The hostess speaks English with I've-lived-in-America fluidity. I'm the only one there. I've definitely lost some strength this trip.

17.00 To yet another wealthy enclave, the Sea Cliff, a luxury hotel at which many presidents have stayed (but they seem proudest of Angelina Jolie) and another nearby luxury minimall. I eat an enormous pepper steak at a branch of a South African steak house, and have a beer and read on the cliff over the Indian Ocean, washing the waves dash themselves against the stones as the sun sets. The local paper reports that the power in central Dar es Salaam will be out for two weeks - two major transformers have blown. But this district, with better and more recent infrastructure, is unaffected.

19.00 Night has fallen. I argue with taxi drivers outside the Sea Cliff, who tell me that while it may be 5,000 shillings to get from downtown to there, it's 10,000 to get from there to downtown. "Never mind," I say, annoyed, "I'll take a dalla-dalla." The drivers laugh, calling my bluff. Then they look at me incredulously, as a dalla-dalla appears with Hollywood timing, and I hop on - with, I have to admit, a certain amount of smug self-satisfaction.

But they're probably right most of the time. I suspect only a vanishingly small proportion of the Sea Cliff's clientele would be willing to take public transit, particularly at night. Partly out of inchoate (and totally irrational) fear, and partly, I think, out of a never-articulated belief that it's Just Not Right for a rich white person to get on a minibus packed with poor black commuters.

In practice, said commuters don't give a shit about me; nobody even looks twice. And at this hour the minibus isn't even overcrowded. The conductor helpfully gets me to change dalla-dallas at the right place, and I'm back at the YWCA about as fast as I would have been via taxi, for a total cost of 400 shillings.

20.00 Still no small money at the dark YWCA. They give out candles at reception. I talk to a couple American girls in a nearby room - they're appalled by the news of the two-week powercut.

21.00 In bed and nearing sleep. And I'm a night person in the West, I swear, but in Africa, you adopt a dawn-to-dusk schedule whether you like it or not.

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