My Travel Map

My Travel Map

18 May 2016

Dar and Arusha: cities in Tanzania


The view of part of the skyline of one of the biggest cities in Africa.  Dar es Salaam is not officially the capital of Tanzania, but it may as well be.  It is the nation's biggest city, the administrative and economic heart, and the major port connecting it to the rest of the continents.  And this is a rich and relatively peaceful city by African standards... it's no wonder that peace and prosperity go hand in hand, but which must come first I wonder?  These are some of the tallest buildings in East and Central Africa, and the city looks so nice and shiny and welcoming from the ferry to Zanzibar.  But there is a hive of complexity and activity and pure humanity hidden under those glass towers, and at the heart of all that lies a core that has some rancid and rotten spots.  

This is just a quick post on two Tanzanian cities, Dar es Salaam and Arusha.  By choice, as is the norm for tourists traveling throughout most of Africa, we didn't spend a lot of time in these cities.  Our time in Dar and Arusha was carefully minimized to allow us only what was necessary in transit between our true destinations.  African cities are not the most pleasant places, but that doesn't mean they don't deserve some coverage on this blog.  Millions of people live there, which means there are millions of interesting stories to tell, let alone all of the food, culture, and history that comes with such congregations of humanity.  So here it goes... like I said, a quick post, but hopefully enlightening to at least someone.


First thing first: food.  We arrived at Dar's international airport and cleared customs just before 5am local time.  Mind you, this was after around 30 hours of travel time from the Western US.  Our taxi ride from the airport to the ferry terminal was during sunrise, and our moving vantage out the window let us watch the city waking up, though I have to admit, it seems like so many people had already been awake for hours before the sun rose that day.  We got to the ferry terminal and had little trouble finding the official ticket office while politely refusing the plethora of disreputable characters trying to lure us into buying tickets on the spot or going to the variety of unlicensed ticket vendors set up as "travel agencies".   The kind young woman working at the ticket desk entertained our questions and pointed us towards an area of town nearby that had some cafes.  And so set the stage for our first meal in Africa.  Breakfast at this quaint bare-bones shop consisted of fried goodies, plantains, empanadas filled with mystery ground meat and curried vegetables, and whole deep-fried hard-boiled eggs.  Oh, and coffee, which really was quite tasty even in the already oppressive early morning heat and humidity of the tropics.  The cafe was popular with locals, we had to wait in line and sit up on the second floor since all the spots on the first were taken.  But that's a good thing; any place that is popular with locals is probably good and if nothing else, trustworthy for not food-poisoning its customers.  The meal turned out just fine; it was filling, which was just what we needed after such a long trip.  It was also cheap... I think all four of us ate and drank for less than US$5 total.


Welcome to Dar.  This is the view of the real city below our own glass tower of a hotel.  We stayed one night in Dar es Salaam on our second trip through the city, en route from Zanzibar to the Usambara Mountains.  

Welcome to Africa.  Dar is one of many cities across the continent that is developing at an explosive rate.  New buildings rise up out of the squalor of the pre-existing infrastructure.  Millions from the countryside are pouring into these cities for the economic opportunities that they offer.  This has led to the growth of some of the world's largest slums and shantytowns, but more on that will come in my Nairobi post.  In addition to rampant poverty, these cities are also known as very dangerous places, since, sadly, many see stealing from others as their "economic opportunity" of choice.  

With such a reputation for violence, it was no surprise to us - though still very eye-opening - to see so many heavily armed security guards on our short walk through downtown from the ferry port to our hotel.  Sharing the street with men armed with AK-47s and Super-90 semi-automatic shotguns is a disconcerting experience; you really have to just hope that they really are not bad people.  Hope is about all you can do being completely helpless to stand up to such weaponry.  Then there were the Maasai.  These fearless warriors also serve as security guards for the various businesses downtown, though I'm sure at a much lower hourly rate compared to those with the heavy machinery.  The Maasai security guards were armed with their trademark spiked clubs and short swords, traditional weapons used for tribal warfare and personal protection against lions.  Surrounded by the many, many reminders that we were in a big African city, the walk was a good one, and we made it safely to our hotel without any negative incidents.  And honestly, walking around during the day, any incident with muggers would probably result from just bad luck or outright stupidity - putting yourself unknowingly into a dangerous place due to a lack of common street sense and situational awareness.  We also had no problem walking at night between our hotel and a local restaurant/bar.  This was a short walk, and we weren't stupid about it: we were a group of four people; we had no valuables other than some petty cash for dinner/drinks; it was a short walk (~0.5 km) and we stuck to well-lit streets with other people on them; and we knew we were in one of the safest parts of town.  Anyway, it is sad that there are such problems, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Dar isn't entirely the den of scum and villainy that so many travel books and sites imply it is.  The restaurant/bar was good too, so I'm glad we ventured out from the hotel.  We had some tasty fried chicken and some deliciously cold beers in on outdoor patio setting with loud music and an active dance floor.

Being a huge city that has grown much, much faster than its own infrastructure, Dar has crippling traffic troubles.  And now corruption comes back into the story.  On our taxi ride from the airport to the ferry, we ended up stuck in several near-apocalyptic traffic jams.  It turned out that each of these was being caused by major intersections.  Now, the messed up part is that each of these intersections was equipped with functioning traffic lights.  However, those traffic lights were being outright ignored by the drivers, since in the middle of each of these intersections were police officers... "traffic police" that were directing traffic at the intersection.  Now, I don't know if those officers were there because the city's drivers just don't respect traffic lights and have caused fatal accidents, but what I do know is that the officers were doing a very, very poor job directing the traffic.  There was no organization to it and they were clearly making the traffic jam so much worse than it would be with functioning lights that were properly timed.  However, that is when our driver stepped in and mentioned something else that was critically important to understanding the situation.  At each of these intersections, we saw vehicles pulled over with police talking to the drivers.  Our own driver explained how these officers will trouble whoever they want for bribes, and they make a lot of money doing that.  So the way I saw it, the city's traffic police were disrupting what could be an efficient traffic management system (stop lights at major intersections) to prey on civilian drivers out of pure greedy corruption.  These officers are not helping anyone; they are actually hurting everyone by stealing from them and causing them hours of inconvenience from the traffic jams they create.  They are a scourge.

Our last experience in Dar was a pretty negative one thanks to the atrocity of chaotic madness that is Dar's main bus terminal is infamous and rightfully so; it is an overwhelming hive of unchecked, unregulated capitalism at its very, very worst.  First of all it is huge.  Second of all, if you want to go any long distance, you should get there early, that is before sunrise.  Third, there are seemingly countless different bus operators and there are several different ways of purchasing tickets: through the aggressive and disreputable ticks that work for commission, through the drivers/operators at the bus itself, or at the ticket counters.  Trouble is, finding the bus you're looking for is impossible.  The terminal is a maze of buses with no clear organization whatsoever.  Trouble continues: finding the ticket offices is no straightforward task either.  Our horrible taxi driver that early morning dropped us off at the periphery of the terminal, a road at the very edge of the enormous parking lots housing the buses.  It was dark and my friends and I had all of our possessions for the trip on our backs.  We were set upon immediately by the ticks, who were aggressively trying to pull us in whatever direction they thought would get them the highest commission.  They even got physical with each other struggling over who could try to offer us their services.  We weren't ready for this.  We knew we needed the ticket counters, but we didn't even know where those were.  I hated the taxi driver at that moment for abandoning us there, since he clearly knew we were not familiar with that horrible mess of a station.  Maybe he didn't know himself where the ticket offices were... who knows.  Anyway, we were completely out of our element and comfort zone, and we were in a place that set every single one of our senses off: this place was dangerous.  We could easily be separated from each other in the madness and clamor of humanity and maze of buses around us, and we could very easily be isolated in the darkness of that maze and mugged - or worse.  This was one of the most uncomfortable situations I've every faced while traveling.  We managed though... my friends and I grouped together and stayed close.  We shook the ticks off quickly and moved toward the first bus.  We asked the driver and a manager in a "uniform" where the ticket office was.  They called a man over and said to follow him.  We had to trust someone in there, or else we were lost, so we followed.  Being pestered continually as we walked, our guide navigated us through the maze of buses.  There were hundreds of them there parked in all different directions with no clear row or column organization.  I lost my bearings almost immediately in that chaotic mess.  But we made it to the ticket booths.  Then the frustration and confusion continued.  We kept being told that the agency we wanted had closed.  We knew that was a trick and wasn't true.  The agency we wanted was one of the largest bus operators in the country and it had a reputation for safety and reliability, two traits that the vast majority of the others could not claim.  This was infuriating... the majority of those companies were predatory, working through lies and fear-tactics applied to their unwilling customers and through dangerous and unlawful operations of its buses and driving.  The fact that there were so many ticks working for commission tells you just how many people they dupe every day into buying tickets for the more disreputable and dishonest operators. And this terminal continues to operate like this because of the absolute lack of oversight and regulation by the government.  This was just another example of blatant corruption and a system gone so completely wrong.  That is unregulated, unchecked capitalism at its utmost pure form.  It is disgusting.  This is one of the most important reasons why we need government: to protect people from predatory and criminal operations.  And again, we saw how the Tanzanian government was just outright failing its people.  Disgusting.

We finally ended up getting our tickets on one of the two bus operators that we wanted.  It took forever though to find someone, anyone that would actually point us to the right desk.  There were dozens of bus operators spread out in shanty kiosks over a huge area with poor signage, when there was any at all.  We probably should have just busted out some cash and offered a bribe for an honest answer, but our naivety and sense of idealism overpowered that sensibly strategic move.  Horrible experience, but it was tremendously educational.  It also made me truly appreciate the sweet and wonderful sense of relief, sitting in a padded seat of the bus as we pulled out of that miserable terminal and drove out of that huge city as the Sun rose on another day.



So, that was Dar es Salaam.  Few pictures but a lot of words.  Here are the parting shots, this one above on departure from our ferry to Zanzibar looking back at the ferry port.  Those smaller boats are some of the "ferries" run by the unlicensed operators... operators with horrific safety records that rely on bullying and lying to customers to get their business.  Boats go down, people die, they stay in business, just like the buses: buses crash, people die, but these operators stay in business. I wonder just how many bribes it takes at the right levels to ensure that they do? Seriously, pure unregulated capitalism is an awful thing that just hurts all consumers.  But systemic government corruption is even worse, since that hurts the entire populace.




Now, onto city number 2: Arusha.  This is the one picture I have here, and I have no others because I left my camera in the hotel during our very short time there.  This city is also known for its violence and crime.  Arusha sits under its namesake mountain, Mt. Arusha, pictured here.  What to say... there was good and there was bad.  The bus terminal was much smaller and an ease to navigate after Dar.  We got to our hotel without incident.  Walking around town was mostly pleasant.  There were still "ticks" here and there trying to bring you to safari operators or different souvenir shops.  They were aggressive, annoyingly persistent, and honestly really unsettling.  You don't feel safe with these people following you, especially when they do so in groups and hang around outside of the banks.   We actually walked around much of the town, and we personally had no problems.  That didn't stop us from seeing a mugging happen to some poor pedestrian on one of the bridges over the river.  Apparently, this is a common occurrence on the bridges.  The town has left the river banks as park space, and it is densely forested. So, thieves hide there, then pop out and grab passersby to be pulled down against their will into the vegetation and taken for everything they have on them.  The man we saw get plucked out was done so forcefully, he was beaten.  It was awful, and noone did anything.  The worst was, the police were sitting right down the street... just a few hundred feet away and they didn't even notice.  This is despicable for several reasons.  First, that such criminals are known to operate here routinely and yet there is not constant police presence.  Next, that the police are so close but completely and utterly useless at protecting their people.  Finally, that the other pedestrians did nothing to stop it or help that man.  And we are just as guilty.  I wanted to run to the police and tell them what had happened and make sure they helped.  My friends however talked me out of it... we were afraid to deal with the police at all, as I'm sure all the rest of the people there were too.  That is so so so wrong.  I felt dirty.  I felt guilty.  And I was.  We all are.  I hope that poor man is OK.

Not all in Arusha was bad though.  We actually had a relatively good time there.  We were walking around for three reasons: 1) to see a bit of the town; 2) to get some cash before our safari since there would be no more ATMs for the next 5 days; 3) to grab some food.   It was recommended that we checkout the old German Boma.  The boma is an old fort, left over from the German colonial era, when Tanzania was known as Tanganyika.  We found this place with no problem, walking down a pleasant street lined with old trees that were full of giant fruit bats.  We ate at a restaurant/bar/night club called Via Via, which was awesome.  The food was delicious and the drinks were cold and tasty.  Our server was a really friendly young Ugandan man with an incredible story of how he got there with practically zero money but was put up by friendly locals who helped him while he sorted out a job.  Now he is paying rent for a room with the same family that helped him at the start, and he is studying at one of the local schools.  He was incredibly positive and had a keen will to learn about us and where we came from.  He expressed how he was happy to be seeing a bit more of the world than his home in Uganda, but also how he missed his grandmother and the rest of his family and friends back home.  I wish him all the best for a happy life.  We also met the Finish woman who ran the place; as awesome as she was, it was frustrating that she wasn't local.  I'm getting a little sick of frequenting businesses in impoverished but beautiful places that are owned and operated by Europeans/North Americans/Australians.  Yes, they are creating jobs locally, but they are also taking the vast majority of the profits for the business.  It is almost like a new form of colonialism... Anyway, Via Via was a great place to hang out, and supposedly, the party they throw each weekend night is something not to be missed.

The other thing I really liked in Arusha was the area around the central market.  It was alive and full of sights and smells of people going about their daily lives and preparing and eating their daily meals.  Given more time there, I'd spend more time around the market.  It seemed like a place where you could learn a lot about the locals, their food, and their way of life.


So that's that.  Two cities and a few tales from each.  This last picture was our only glimpse of the pinnacle of the continent, Mt. Kilimanjaro, as we escaped from Arusha by plane to Nairobi.  These were not the most positive of my travel experiences, but they were experiences nonetheless.  Actually, they are some of the most memorable and educational of my travel experiences.  And that's something that I've come to appreciate... travel isn't and shouldn't be about 100% pure positivity and comfortable escape from reality.  Travel should open your eyes to true reality, the reality of humans in different places around the world, places and realities that are so very, very different from yours.  There will be a level of discomfort associated with that, but that's a good thing.  It pushes your boundaries, expands your awareness of reality, and hopefully makes you more appreciative of your own life in one way or another.   Forget luxury, experience is the true reward of travel.

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