Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Dar es Salaam: Impressions

I’ve been walking around the neighborhood where my hotel is located for the past hour or two, waiting for an internet cafe to open its doors. But apparently a lot of places don’t open until 10 AM, and we’ve just been accosted by a mini rainstorm, so I’m now taking refuge in the hotel, where I have a fairly luxurious room to myself.

Hotel & restaurant, viewed from the street
Hotel reception

My room. With a mosquito net!

Dar es Salaam is a colorful city. Buildings, signs, and especially women’s dresses are often done in bold, bright, contrasting hues. Add to that the low buildings, the popular rounded block letters (think MS WordArt) and the Anglicisms left over from British administration (1915-1960), and this neighborhood has almost a quaint feel -- surprising for a city of over 2 million.

There is a side of the city that isn’t so quaint, and I’ve felt it a few times. I went out early yesterday evening, looking for some dinner, but I only got a few blocks before I turned around and headed back to the restaurant attached to the hotel; maybe I was just being paranoid, but there was something I didn’t like about the combination of the shadows, the number and look of the people on the street, and the fact that, being white, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Beijing is a city where I could walk home alone at 2 AM and not worry about a thing; in Dar es Salaam, foreigners would do best not to go out past dark. Even this morning, as I was cutting through an alley in the full light of day, I became very conscious that the street was the nearly exclusive province of young men sitting on the curb with nothing to do. There seem to be a lot of those men in Dar – sitting on street corners during the middle of a day in the work week – which is also a definite change from Beijing. Though to be fair, maybe that’s because the young Beijing men with nothing to do just stay inside playing video games...

Another change from Beijing is the street vendors: not that they exist, but what they sell and the way that they sell it. There seem to be a few common types of roving vendors. One sells single cigarettes, matches, and a snack (usually peanuts); he carries a basket in one hand, and jingles coins in the other to announce his presence. Another sells water and sometimes soda; he makes a hissing or squelching sound with his mouth as he walks. A third sells tea by the cup; he makes no particular sound that I can tell, but carries a tin pot or two and a small plastic container with water, which he uses in combination with his thumb to wash the cups between sales. I have yet to see a woman doing any of these three jobs.

The port of Dar es Salaam was founded by Arabs (1866), administered by the Germans (1891-1915) and English (1915-1960) and finally incorporated into the newly free Tanzania as its capital (1960). I haven’t seen any German influence so far – I read that it shows up in the buildings, but I could run face-first into Teutonic architecture and not know it –  but imprints of the other three administrations are pretty evident. The most obvious is skin color: alongside the charcoal of pure African blood is a swarthy Arabic complexion, and alongside that a grayer shade that you would almost swear was South Asian. And you’d be right: during British rule, large numbers of Indians were encouraged to settle in Dar, and you can see their influence in the food (I had a chicken tikki masala last night), the architecture (4- to 6-story apartment blocks that look strikingly similar to those of Mumbai), the businesses (“Taj Majal Sweet Mart”), the street signs (e.g., "Indira Gandhi Street"), and the clothing. A mix of religions is pretty evident, too, although I don’t know the proportions: I browsed through a stall of Qurans on one street corner and saw several copies of the Bible being sold on the next.

Well, it seems like the rain has abated, and if it hasn’t I may just need to suck it up and buy an umbrella. The power is out in this whole area of the city, which seems to happen fairly often (a shopkeeper told me, ‘Maybe it will be back on tonight? We don’t know. This is Africa!’), but maybe I’ll be able to find someplace with a generator to eat lunch.

Until next time,

P.S. ...Bonus photos!

Outskirts of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Ethiopian countryside

Iceberg in the sky

Sailing on top of the world

Approaching Dar es Salaam; I'm staying off past the left border of the photo

Flying over Dar

Tin-roofed houses near the Dar es Salaam airport

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