Taking Care of Business
Dar Es Salaam is the biggest city in Tanzania. It is right along the Eastern Coast of Africa, with many sandy beaches where you can walk into the Indian Ocean. Originally it was settled by the Arabs, and that is why it has a Middle-Eastern sounding name, and like many other coastal cities (including those in Kenya), there is more Islamic influence, history, and a somewhat higher Muslim population. While not the capital, it is definitely the city of Tanzania.
Our arrival to Dar Es Salaam from Arusha came after a 12 hour bus ride, where one of those hours was spent on the final 2km stretch of road into the bus station. This was our first introduction to the infamous Dar traffic. We had read and been told that the bus ride from Arusha is usually about 10 hours. The bus driver insisted it would only be 8 hours. Usually you would then take those two pieces of information and say “ok, I’ll estimate it to be in the middle of those, about 9 hours”. But in Africa your math would be all wrong. 11-12 hours would be the correct estimation and pretty much what the journey time was. This was also the first leg of our journey we witnessed overturned semi-trucks either in or on the side of the road. There were about three we passed on the road that day. Later we would come to learn this is also quite normal.
Despite the long journey, we arrived in one piece and were very fortunate to be met by our local host, Elias, at the bus station where he had kindly offered to pick us up. Elias is a friend of Miriam (the girl we had spent time with in Jordan). They had both just finished their masters degrees from a university in Haifa, Israel. Elias and his family opened their home to us and made our stay in Dar so much easier then it would have been on our own. And the time we spent with the family was probably our major highlight of our time spent in Dar.
Between seeing some of Dar Es Salaam’s highlights we tried to take advantage of our time in the capital by getting any ‘business’ done and running errands. Unfortunately the universe didn’t seem to agree that this was the place to get things done. We had one unsuccessful attempt followed by another, much like dominos building up momentum and frustration for us. First we found out after two visits to the Indian Embassy that they would not issue us a visa because we didn’t have flights booked. This shocked Amanda since India is a backpacker’s heaven. No one has pre-planned travel arrangements. We even got to speak with the ‘higher up’ (we assume since we were patient US citizens). A bit puzzled, we asked him: “What about all the other people that just backpack around?” He replied that we should simply book something fake or that we never intend to pay for –with a travel agent perhaps–and then just cancel it. This would allow us to have the documentation they required…. even if it was a load of bull-cocky and we never intended to take the flights. For those of you who know how much Amanda loves government and playing bureaucratic hop-scotch, you can probably imagine her reaction. “But why? If you yourself sir know that we won’t be taking those flights and they aren’t really booked can’t we all just save the hassle and you just issue us a visa? No can do.
Despite our extreme frustration, he was kind and tried to be helpful. He explained that in the last year they have been tightening the visa and immigration process. It is not mentioned on the government website that the advertised ‘six month visas’ were rarely issued anymore (now it is three months). His suggestion was to go to another embassy in another capital in Africa along our route, closer to our date of departure, and present the blatantly false paperwork in hand. Amanda cringed at the idea of spending a week in another capital, as we have quickly been discovering that most the travel bloggers are correct in advising overland travelers to avoid the less charming capital cities in many African countries. Regardless, we left empty handed and feeling like we had wasted many hours both that day and the day before both at the embassy and on public transportation to get there. Reflecting on it now we guess it is good for us to have these experiences. Our experience with the visa process in Dar Es Salaam is probably much more typical of how things work (or don’t work, we should say) for many many other people from other countries when attempting to obtain a visa: many wasted hours, money spent, etc. all because of bureaucratic bullshit.
To keep our unlucky streak going that day, we then carried on straight to the Airtel Headquarters to deal with a SIM card issue. We had purchased data on an Airtel card in Kenya because we had been told it could be used in all of East Africa (meaning we would still be able to use it when we crossed the border). Our experience here wasn’t quite as kind or straightforward as it was at the Indian Embassy.
First we were told to just buy more credit and the problem would be fixed.
Could we buy the credit there? No.
Even though it is the headquarters? Nope.
Is there anywhere nearby that sells the credit vouchers (these are usually sold EVERYWHERE by the way)? Nope, nowhere nearby. Just go back to your hotel and there will be a place near there.
Not satisfied with this Amanda walked out of the headquarters about 300 meters where she found a shop that sold phone credit. Wanting to be sure we did this right she then took the credit voucher to the very same guy we had been talking to so he could show us what exactly we needed to do. Oh man, was this guy unhappy to see us come back so quick with the credit in hand. His ploy to get rid of us didn’t work.
The next hour was a painful one – definitely for him as well as for us. He made a couple half-hearted attempts. None of them worked. We kept asking him why he couldn’t just transfer the credit to a Tanzanian SIM card if we bought that, but he failed to give us a real answer or solution. After an hour with no luck and what seemed to be just stalling on his end (rather than attempting to provide a service) he told us to go to an Airtel store in the mall. There would be a guy there that could fix it.
Um, wait… aren’t we at the headquarters, talking to a dedicated serviceman? There is a guy at some small shop that can fix this but you guys at the headquarters can’t? Can you call him and just ask him what to do? Oh, no… he can’t because the said guy wasn’t working today.
Are you starting to get the picture? What we didn’t understand is even if your company is crappy at costumer service and won’t at least refund us the credit or transfer it to a new SIM card, why do you insist on making our lives harder by sending us on wild goose chases? Please just tell us that we lost the money and data – there is nothing you can do. This was probably the most annoying part of it all.
Walking out defeated, we decided it wasn’t worth our time to pursue the issue anymore. But they sure gave us one more reason to really hate some of these big corporations. Additionally, we had another run-in with Tigo (a different communications company) when we found out after waiting three days for the card to activate (as we were told to do) that the SIM card was actually ‘bad’. When we went to get this problem fixed they wanted us to buy another ‘new’ card to replace the old one. You can imagine the blank stares we gave that guy.
You want us to pay again for this SIM from your company that you are telling us never worked??
Let’s just say that between these few days in Dar combined with having data ‘stolen’ from us by Safaricom in Kenya, we truly believe that these big communication companies are repulsive, repugnant, and probably some other epithets that begin with an ‘r’ and other letters as well.
But on to the better news! Despite our frustrations, we did enjoy our time exploring Dar Es Salaam. Dar Es Salaam is a unique city that has a lot to offer, even on days things aren’t going your way. Below are a few of the highlights we discovered in Dar during our stay.
Despite the stench you will inevitably experience, the Kivukoni Fish Market is a cool spot and bustling with life. We visited the fish market twice. Once was around noon time, and the other was later in the day around 4pm. The earlier you can get to the fish market the busier it will be. On our first visit we weaved our way through the many fish sellers and buyers standing around the cement slabs with the freshest catches out on display. The auctions start daily at 7am where buyers will gather around slabs covered with fish based on what size and type of fish they are looking for. The auctions will continue throughout the day as boats continue to bring in catches to be sold. But the excitement definitely seems to wind down after late morning with less aggressive buyers and less commotion.
Once you make it past the array of fresh fishes and hoards of people doing business, you will emerge at the back of the market to the ocean. This is the spot the fish boats will come in all morning long delivering the catches straight from the boat to the salesmen. The tide was out on our first visit and the small bit of beach was occupied mostly by young boys playing soccer and relaxing. Others were swimming out to the boats that had just come in to carry baskets full of fish from the boats to the shore. The scene was ironically peaceful since it was ultimately a place of hectic business and stinky fish. But there was something about the crystal blue waters and the ease of people going about what they needed to do, and enjoying themselves while doing it.
Just to the side of the market was an area where food stands were set up so you could buy lunch knowing you would be eating the absolute freshest fish. The most common way to cook fish in Tanzania is to fry it. This means putting the entire fish into a big pot of hot oil and letting it cook. Once done it is served to you as a whole fried fish – ready to be devoured. Ben and I weren’t quite sure about this whole fried fish thing yet and the smell and sight of fish guts nearby didn’t really spur on our appetite. But the visit to the fish market in Dar is something not to be missed.
Making it to the coastlines along Dar Es Salem we got our first glimpse of the Indian Ocean. Dar is a huge shipping hub and the use of the coastline for freight ships, fishing boats, and ferries can be seen all around you. But as soon as you start heading north from the center of the city, surprisingly there are also many stretches of beautiful beach that lack these commercial uses.
In fact, most of the coastlines we walked along were stunning – with or without the many boats out in the water going about their business. The sands are a fine soft white as well, making the turquoise blue waters pop out even more. When you are on the coastlines it is hard to imagine the bustling city with people stuffed daladalas and traffic filled streets so close-by. While many people skim by Dar and rush to Zanzibar (which is beautiful as well and not to be missed) we think there is more to the forgotten coasts of this city. Msasani, Kigamboni, and Oyster Bay are just a couple of the beaches you will find right outside the busy city center. If you are looking for peaceful beaches without wanting to pay the price of visiting Zanzibar don’t overlook the quieter spots along the coast outside the city center of Dar Es Salem.
Street Food Overlooking the Indian Ocean
At the end of Maktaba Street next to the Indian Ocean between the fish market and the ferry port you will find a small fenced in area where you can order local foods. When we walked through here, the horseshoe-shaped path brings you right along the edge of the beach, passing a stretch of about 200 meters that boasts many cookeries or street food vendors. Most of the little stands and buildings were made of cement, with the women prepping the food outside by the water, and in many cases cooking on portable charcoal grills just off the ground outside, which we had become used to seeing after a month in Kenya. We managed to have some lunch here one day, sitting at a table overlooking the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. At first glance it may not look like the cleanest of spots, but fear not… the food is good here and things are generally clean. The vendors pretty much all serve the same dishes, so where you eat is really only a matter of where you want to sit. Most locals will be eating the staple dish of ugali for lunch with a side of meat or fish stew. We opted that day for chips (fries) and chicken with salad on top (chips is another local favorite for a quick and inexpensive lunch). We ate as we sat in the shade of small trees and watched locals paddle by in homemade canoes. After having spent a few hours walking through the hectic streets of Dar, eating a local staple food and letting the waves relax us was as good as one could ask for.
Meeting Elias and the Family
We were lucky to have meet a girl in Jordan who had studied in Israel with Elias, a local Tanzanian who now lives in Dar Es Salem. Before our arrival she was able to connect us with him and he immediately opened his home to us and welcomed us to his city. He was waiting for us when we arrived after an 11 hour bus ride from Arusha, and he took us back to his place a little while out of town. There, we met his wife Magdalena, his 15- month old son Joshua, and helper in the house Eisha.
Elias and his family was very gracious and extremely helpful. Magdalena works six days a week, and Elias was working on his final paper for his Masters degree. Eisha, their helper in and around the house made us feel welcome and kept us well fed, despite not knowing any English. Amanda took full advantage of this, by trying to initiate conversations using the bits of Kiswahili she had picked up in Kenya. She soon had Eisha filling in her notebook of phrases and teaching her new words.
Eisha also found it funny that sometimes we had learned words from the little girls in Githurai, Kenya that were inaccurate or used differently in Tanzania. The Swahili in Tanzania is known to be more formal while that in Kenya is more informal and usually combined more frequently with English.
We even got close with their communal cat (who we named Oscar even though it was a girl). She would hang out with her baby black kitten and play with us and Joshua in the evenings. Spending time with the family was something we really enjoyed and was a great way to slow down in such a busy city. And one of our favorite meals we have had since coming to Africa was enjoyed with the whole family and cooked by Magdalena, crispy fried pork.
As Elias was not working at the time, he was able to help us out quite a bit. One day, he took us to Buguruni Market to buy produce for a meal we would cook for the family. This turned out to be an experience in itself from start to finish. After driving closer to downtown Dar es Salaam, we parked the car as a group of six young guys started “assisting” us with our parking spot. Of course this resulted in a scratch on the bumper. Not a good start. Ben assumed the guys were there trying to get a couple coins for assisting with the superb service of parking cars, but then they sold us a shopping bag, and followed us into the market. Apparently, these kids are known for making themselves a job – assistant shopper. Elias told us afterwards, as we had expected, if you refused to use their assistant shopping services and tip them for it (in addition to paying them for the bag they provided), your car would end up not looked after and sometimes damaged. Immediately we had flashbacks to the bums that would create similar jobs for themselves near the Civic Center Farmers Market on the weekends. So, along they came. The market didn’t look like much from the street, but as we entered, young men sprinted past us sweating as they carried enormous woven baskets full of chickens, melons and other produce on their heads toward their stall in the market. As we continued in to the market (now as a group of about seven), we would tell the boys what item we wanted and they would direct us to what they said was the best stand to buy that product, and would carry the bag for us. Another bizarre example of underemployment. After wading through the market we had bags full of avocados, pineapple, tomatoes, onions, cabbage, and fresh fish in hand. Elias thanked the boys with a tip (which they argued wasn’t’ enough) and promised to return in the future. With that we were on our way back home.
The following day it was our turn to make a dish with the food we had gathered at the market: fish tacos. It’s hardly possible to overestimate how much us Californians miss Mexican food when traveling, so at almost every opportunity we have, we jump at the chance to cook or purchase it when available. Needless to say, as there has been an abundance of impressively cheap and delicious avocados, guacamole is always on our menu in Eastern Africa. So fish tacos was a no-brainer after having recently learned to make our own flour tortillas just a couple weeks earlier in Naivasha.
Yet nothing on the road is as easy as it is at home. Elias and his family were intrigued by our plan for fish tacos and helped when they could. Instead of using the full-sized stove (which consumes a lot of more costly propane) we used a charcoal stove outside where we planned which items should be cooked in which order. Since we had been living in Githurai, where there was only one charcoal stove for multiple people, cooking this wasn’t as difficult for us as it sounds. Little baby Joshua was also intrigued by such innocuous items as the large knife and wine bottle we were using as a rolling pin. The next interesting part came to cooking the fish. We had never really had to gut a raw whole fish before so we turned to Elias for his expertise. Both him and Magdalene suggested that we fry the fish first (whole) then it would be easier to take the bones out.
Again, this whole business of frying a fish in it’s entirety was new to us, but since we really had no other knowledge of how to prepare the fish we agreed this would be the best plan. It actually worked out really well – we watched as the little fish mouths opened wide after they entered the pan of hot oil. When they had completed being fried and cooled off we were able to pick out the bones leaving us fleshy chunks of fish for the tacos.
Another cooking skill now in our tool belt for preparing future meals. Over the coarse of a few hours our meal was completed, and we think the family really enjoyed it. Taco (which actually means ‘tush’ in Swahili) night in Dar Es Salem was a success!
Dinner at Elias’s brother’s House
For our final night in Dar Es Salem we headed to Elias’s older brother Pios’s house for dinner with the entire larger family. Elias had wanted to take us to his brothers’ house since we came, so on Friday night we took a 20 minute daladala and went to meet Magdalene there, who had gone direct from work. Pios still lived outside the center, and the neighborhood appeared fairly similar and was near to Elias’s. But when we arrived to Pios’ house, we knew it was not going to be the same, based on the size of the gate and fence around the compound. Pios was probably the wealthiest Tanzanian we would meet, with a good job working for the government. The tax board, to be more specific. When we rang the doorbell, two boys (one of them being Elias’s oldest son) answered and introduced themselves to us. But the boys led us in, past the parking are and basketball court, to the main house. Used to having guests, the well trained boys showed us where to leave our shoes and asked us which beers we would like to start with, and within a minute they had served us using a tray and opened the beers for us. After meeting Elias’ sister and cousins, we started in on the meal preparation, contributing a fresh salad. When we were wrapping up, Pios had arrived from work and after a drink the feast began. There were probably about a dozen people total eating, and they insisted the three of us start off first. Multiple chicken dishes, beans, rice, salads, chapati – it was all delicious. After we were completely full, we watched the end of the under-19 world cup semifinal game, which was drawn out into a very dramatic double shootout. This was entertaining to us in itself, but watching the kids be overly excited and dramatic about the shootout and screaming their heads off in excitement was just as good fun. When 10pm rolled around, we all piled into Elias’ family car to head home to bed. The entire family smiled and wished us back next week, and we promised to cook if we were still in the Dar area. This night had probably been one of our highlights as the entire family came together to cook, laugh, and relax after a full week of work.
After about 5 days in Dar and the outskirts, we had not only seen enough, but were sufficiently worn by the city. We had decided it was time to go to someplace more relaxing – Zanzibar island. So for now check out our photos from time spent with Elias and his family, the fish market and more. Island time with Chris and a special guest appearance in the next post!
Check out our view of Dar Es Salaam HERE.