“I am very happy with you,” declared Geoffrey, my regular waiter at Dar Es Salaam’s Chef’s Pride.
I stared at him, perplexed. Had I over-tipped last night? He simply grinned back at me in response. Finally, I had to ask.
“Why are you happy with me?”
“Because you come here alone. And you are attractive. And you seem happy.”
With that, he left to fetch me a passionfruit juice.
I’d come a long way from my first day in Cape Town, when Shawn had told me I was “not as much fun” as I used to be. (Shawn is not known for his tact, having once told me I had orange in my colored-hair, and that my trousers looked “German,” whatever that means.)
It wasn’t just the SMS attentions of the Cape Town builder perking me up. Nor was it the comforting embrace of Dar, a worn-out city with a multi-cultural heart of gold. Or the personal revelations embarrassingly brought on by reading page 131 of He’s Just Not That Into You in the bookstore.
No, it was being on the road. The chance interactions with random strangers, the innovative solutions I was forced to develop daily, the gamble of eating the food placed in front of me.
Traveling through East Africa by public transport was easier this time around, now that I had no particular place to go. I’d left few corners unturned in 2001, and had no agenda short of finding a housing for my broken mobile phone and locating a double chocolate cookie at Subway (“the dough is imported frozen from the U.S.” according to the proud franchise owner).
The Kenya press trip I’d come up here for had been delayed until April, and I found myself with ten days to kill before I was due at Entebbe’s airport.
I couldn’t face another bus trip the day after the 29-hour Lusaka-to-Dar epic, so I lazed around Dar, coloring comics and hanging out with my new pals—Arafat at the Econolodge, Abdollah from the mobile phone store, and a number of incredibly friendly taxi drivers (who all sipped water from plastic bags instead of bottles).
I’d become good at fending off The Jambo Brigade—the touts who start trying to sell things with a “Jambo” and a firm handshake. My new pals never said “Jambo” to me or tried to sell me a safari. In 2001, anyone who “jambo’ed’ me post-9/11 had gotten an earful. Now I just laughed and moved on.
When the inevitable would happen, and I’d get cornered by a member of The Jambo Brigade, he’d ask where I was from.
“I am living in Uganda,” I would reply. They’d lose interest immediately. There was no blood smelled here.
“Welcome to Tan-ZAN-ia,” people said to me. They meant it. Even the day when the whole downtown ran on generator power (“happens a lot during Ramadan”) and the municipal water supply cut off did not dampen my enjoyment of Dar. Because Dar has a history of sheltering me.
The television in the lobby of Econolodge, unfortunately, had not changed with the years. CNN was still spouting the latest in terror. After 9/11, I couldn’t tear myself away. Now, I prayed to the Hindu and Muslim gods of the hotel that someone would put on a Bollywood film instead.
Abdollah escorted me deep into Kariakoo—the sprawling outdoor market–after work one day. He took me to a dozen stalls until we’d found the right housing for my Siemens GSM cell. Half the market seemed involved in the project. A guy from Zanzibar had it, but the shop was closed now. A man from Central Asia addressed only Abdollah, not me, but nevertheless he tried to find a fit. After we found a housing, Abdollah insisted on escorting me back to Econolodge, lauging whenever anyone Jambo’ed me—then pushing me onward.
On the morning that I fully worked up enough interest to catch the bus to Arusha, my taxi driver explained something to me.
“No one in Tanzania wants to go to France. Or to Holland. No, it is three places: Germany, the UK, and America.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because these are countries where there is money to be made. And America is the best.”
“Why is America better than the other countries?”
“Because,” he said with a laugh. “In America, there are many Africans and everyone is an immigrant. No one will be mean to us. And it is easy to disappear. I could go to America and work very hard as a houseboy or taxi driver and no one would question me. No one would check my papers. Then I would come home a rich man.” I didn't have the heart to tell him about the cost of living.
He dropped me at the Scandinavia Express terminal. I put on my backpack, reached down to get my water, and the backpack’s weight knocked me flat on my ass. To the taxi driver’s credit, he did not laugh. But I did.