Thursday, September 30, 2010

'I've Gotta Feeling / That Tonight's Gonna Be A Good Night'

[Horombo Hut --> Kibo Hut]

It’s time to leave now-familiar Horombo Hut for higher grounds. We depart after breakfast, passing Zebra Rock, Mawenzi Peak, getting higher above the clouds, a view we keep turning around to enjoy. It’s hot but I keep my hoodie on to protect my already scorched and flaking ears.

Moorland subsides into the monotony of desert for the next 10 km. Large rocks and boulders shrink into small stones that climbers have arranged to spell names, countries and turn into smiley faces.

The minute we stop moving and sit down to eat lunch on a rock outcrop, the cold wraps around us hungrily. All-knowing ravens join us, expertly finding all the bread and biscuit crumbs we throw in their direction. Little mice crawl about the rocks, thrilled at bits of hardboiled egg and sandwich stuffing that miss our mouths and fall to the ground instead. They are cute—karibu, Hosea greets them—and I remember their cousin, our restless friend from last night, who insisted on trying granola, chocolate, glucose and whatever else he could open while rummaging through our stuff and interrupting our sleep.

Katana engages in lively debate with whoever he meets, standing out as the only local climber, and blending in with the guides and porters as just another Swahili-speaking Tanzanian. He’s the perfect climbing buddy—a doctor, a native, an experienced climber, a friend. He has our back in too many ways to count and I am eternally grateful to him for spending this week with us.

The flat ground makes the peaks swooping above us that much taller and more angular. We walk through this valley of triangles, Mawenzi behind us, Kibo ahead, and start preparing ourselves for the climb that night. We will not spend a full night at Kibo Hut like we have at the 2 previous camps. Tonight we leave for the summit, starting at midnight, and 24 hours from now, will be on this same path but headed back to Horombo and leaving the summit behind us. Will we make it, will the weather cooperate, will altitude sickness suddenly hit us? Only time will tell!

We pass Onja, who is feeling a little uneasy and walking slowly with her guide who encourages her with a calm voice and small steps. It’s amazing that someone can show up here, alone, partner up with a guide, trust him entirely, and climb a mountain—or do her best to, anyway. The mountain brings out the courage in you, offering you company along the way to make you feel comfortable. Really incredible. Good for Onja, and all the other single climbers we encounter—mostly women, I notice.

At Kibo Hut we have a snack and head out for a short walk. The air feels significantly thinner here, 4,700 m above sea level, and our impromptu dance party outside the dining hall, DJ’ed by Katana’s iPhone, is a result of oxygen-deprived delirium, view-induced excitement and the physical and mental thrill of being hours—not miles, not days—away from the highest point in Africa. Our rave lasts about 5 minutes as we’re quickly out of breath, breath that we need to conserve for climbing, silly! The guides, porters and fellow climbers around us seem unhappy that we’ve stopped entertaining them with our brazen dance moves. I’m glad I can’t see myself!

From a rock outcrop that we climb up, the trail snaking away from us back to Horombo Hut looks too narrow for people; Mawenzi Peak looks disarmingly small. We feel disarmingly small.

Every bite of our early dinner is the magic potion of physical energy, mental strength and altitude sickness antibody that we need to make it to the top, and we chew deliberately and mull silently. Katana plays 'I've Gotta Feeling' by Black Eyed Peas on his iPhone and we remember to smile. We’re so close, so close!

We aren’t sleeping in huts tonight, but a dormitory-like room with several bunk beds. We reunite with the Coloradans, Onja, the Swiss man in his neon orange jacket and his quiet wife, and the half-Tanzanian half-German brother-sister pair, and freely share sleeping pills, Vaseline, tissues, chocolate and stories. It’s a slumber party at the almost-top of the world! Once lights are out, I toss clothes from my hiking pack onto my bunk bed to change into: a writhing and wriggling affair in darkness. Taking layers of tight-fitting clothes off and putting layers of tight-fitting clothes on is hard with just a headlamp on to see what’s what!

We have a few hours to rest before we start climbing at midnight. Obviously, I can’t sleep.

Mawenzinfinity

[Horombo Hut --> Mawenzi Peak --> Horombo Hut]

We take our time emerging from our sleeping bags and huts this morning, where we have struggled all night to preserve warmth. I am pleasantly surprised at the unadulterated sunshine at this altitude and how effective it is at dispelling illusions of cold, inertia and lethargy. The view is stupefying: a layer of cloud the thickness and depth of an ocean. We are above the clouds—an implacable ocean, an infinity of whiteness—and I am just dumbfounded by the abyss of earth that lies below this cover, and the prickles of life I can see—mountains, porters, Senesia trees, the wind. Hardly prickles when you are up here, living, feeding and breathing by the sun.

Today is our acclimatization day, so we’re staying at the same camp tonight and spending the daytime walking to Mawenzi Peak and back. It’s a secondary peak on the mountain, craggy and rocky and dangerous, you have to be a trained (rock) climber to ascend it, so it’s off limits to the throngs of generic, amateur climbers who scale Mt. Kilimanjaro every year. The trek is long and arduous, we clamber over rocks and my hamstrings are sore by the end of the day. The beauty of Nature, especially at this scale and magnitude, is that conquering a mountain or completing a day’s climb only humbles you, as you are deeper immersed into the intensity of the wild. There is no urgency here; Nature is not perturbed that you are visiting. The view of the clouds framed by the uneven rocks of Mawenzi will still be there an hour from now. Basking in the sun, wincing in the wind—a clash of the elements I notice without clouds getting in the way—I eat and digest my lunch slowly (which includes cracking my hard boiled egg on the rock I'm sitting on, how badass) before succumbing to photos. Where did the red color of this rock come from, I wonder. How does Nature create and distribute color? How does she turn straight lines of horizon into cloudy blurs of curved planet?

Mountain walls beckon for echoes. We shout our names, greetings, and Mawenzi yells back, mambo! Back down toward the clouds, beyond which is Horombo Hut, I shout freedom! which sinks into the cotton-like carpet that floats steadily 4,000 meters above sea level. Hemmingway wrote about the Snows of Kilimanjaro; did he mean the snow-like spread of cloud and the white patches trickling down Mawenzi, too?

The sky is a vast expanse of depth—a blue so rich I can feel it pulse and move, containing other colors, serving as intangible contrast to the solidness of rock and hill jutting into it. It stretches out into silence, one that I try to return. Katana says: I keep thinking I am getting closer to the clouds, but they still seem so far away! I figure, the clouds mark some sort of boundary—a ceiling, a milestone en route to a glacier, something. It’s an altitude sans urgency, cadence, ambition: we are temporarily a part of the landscape, exploring phenomena like tree lines, alpine deserts, foothills, the sticky mist of cloud cover and a night sky more frenzied than the New York skyline. They brush past my face, tickle my nose, yet are out of reach. If I was a pilot, I’d pause my plane above this canopy to meditate.

Infinity is perplexing.

We slip and slide and stride our way down to Zebra Rock, where mineral deposits on a wall of rock have created a black-and-white striped appearance akin to a zebra. Our journey down to camp is laughably short, compared to our scramble up. We arrive at camp just as the clouds begin to mist my sunglasses, kiss our huts and aggravate my face, that I just realize is horribly sunburned. For the first time in my life. Ouch!

I clean up with a tub of hot water and half a tub of Vaseline and befriend 2 Colorado natives on a 3-week vacation in Africa. The Jews have left and these 2 friendly men have taken their places in our hut.

Evening reels the sun in. It burned above us during the day—I repeat, ouch—and now the remnants of the sunset settle softly above the cloud canopy, a summary of red, orange, green, violet, from what I gather was a spectacular sunset down below.

I must 2 noteworthy things about dinner: 1) Today, Hamsa is “incandescently happy.” 2) They serve pumpkin soup and I dedicate this moment to my sister Anusha.

Bedtime is dedicated to New York City’s subways: there’s a rat in our hut furiously nibbling at plastic bags, chips packets and other eatables. It takes all 5 of us getting out of bed—Katana, Hamsa, the Coloradans, me—in turn to chase the little guy out, but he’s resilient and keeps coming back!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Smote by Motes

[Mandara Hut --> Horombo Hut]

We wake up at Mandara Hut to birds. The sky hints at the colors to be unraveled above the cloud canopy that’s as thick as the ocean tide. A few porters are up and about, a few climbers make their bathroom runs, the birds continue their squall. An orange arc pokes through the clouds, glowing defiantly. Within seconds the entire ball of sun has emerged, announcing the start of day or, in Swahili time, twelve o’ clock.

The sun glares down at us as we begin our first full day of hiking. We stop frequently to drink water, catch our breath and snap photos, and I realize I need to pee as many times. I claim to be a bold public pee-er, but I wend my way from shrub to shrub until I’m convinced no one can come around a bend in the mountain and catch me in a crouch. Not that bold after all.

Sunshine spills over the hills mercilessly; the vegetation is shorter, more arid. My every step is a thought, a decision, and I am struck by the clouds in the distance, whose movement is effortless, wistful. They rise and float and hover with ease, carrying themselves with lofty poise through the hills. I envy their lightness as I feel the weight of the pack on my back—and it’s a measly day pack, not even my full hiking pack! What a wuss!

We’re walking with our heads in the clouds—literally! They toy with the distance we have traveled and the distance remaining—sometimes we can see the hills we have surmounted, other times it looks like we have walked out of thin air. The shrouded pathways ahead of us make me imagine that the end of the world is the grey abyss that we are about to step into.

I get contemplative. What is dust and what is cloud? What is hill and what is sky? Where is the earth and where is heaven? Where does our path begin and where does our journey end? Everything is obscured, hidden behind whispers of water vapor powerful enough to distort landscapes. Our hiking shoes leave prints in the sand—autographs of the anonymous climbers daring to scale Mt. Kilimanjaro—and an afterthought of dust in the air.

The Senesia trees we pass look like stunted banana trees on drugs. An experiment in metamorphosis that ended abruptly? Perhaps the clouds got in the way. Perhaps the banana trees smote them. Who knows—they make me giggle every time we see one. Hamsa declares them her favorite tree.

We admire and coo at every chameleon and beetle we pass, some are on their backs, flailing until their right themselves; we assist a few along the way and feel righteous. We spot a tiny black lizard; 2 rats scuttle past.

Hamsa asks Katana how much farther to Horombo Hut, our destination, and Hosea gestures into the distance. “Quite far away,” Katana cheekily translates and ten minutes later we climb a hill and see tents a few hundred feet away. In fact Hosea had said we were nearby, but Katana decided otherwise. Our surprise is well worth his fib!

Signing in at camp, we find our hut and meet our roommates: Onja (christened as such by her spirit guide) from North Carolina, and buddies Az and To from Israel. We sponge ourselves clean in hot water, which we leave brown with dirk kicked up and inhaled over 11 km.

Hosea and I take a walk after tea, we reach a large rock and sit there, waiting for the view—that is, Kibo peak. Like the previous day when Kenya said karibu, the clouds today acknowledge our presence and seductively lift along the outline of the peak, inch by jagged inch. Pole pole sana, Hosea complains, but I am enjoying the pace; it slows my breathing and opens my eyes to the vista of cloud, hill and peak around me. The longer I stare, the more I want to become a part of the view, be defined in the context of Nature. I want to meet the silence of the sky with my own; it envelopes me in its grandeur.

Our Israeli hut-mates share crazy stories from their time in Ethiopia—Molo, the infamous beauty in the coffee village; their first night in Addis Ababa hazy from drugs and unprotected sex, prompting one to say to me, “I cried, I did not know which was worse—to be the father of a black Ethiopian boy or to die of HIV, or both.”

Dinner is many hours, many courses and simply languorous, accompanied by photos, stories, letter writing, national anthem singing and concluded with a dance party while the only other table of people left in the dining hall politely ignores us. We exit the dining hall, holding our breath in anticipation of the cold and it blasts us, finding all our exposed skin and freezing it. We seek refuge in the constellations clustered above, they glow and egg us on towards greater heights, closer to them. There are patches of grey in the sky; the Milky Way. Back from the deserts of Egypt, the ribbons of galaxy greet me, Salaam Aalekum. ’Sup!

In bed, wrapped in layers of clothing and sleeping bag, I feel the stillness and purity of the air around me. Quite a contrast from the dance of dust and smoke that occupies the daytime, that has followed me since arriving in Africa. There’s been jet streams from the plane, ocean trails following boats off the Tanzanian coast, clouds of dust belched out of buses on the dusty road from Dar Es Salaam to Arusha, wisps of grey from the sporadic fires in the settlements along the main road. Now it is dark, the grey has turned to black and the smoke has turned into stardust. I am smitten, I am smote.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Safari Njema!

[Arusha --> Mt. Kilimanjaro]

On the morning of our departure, rain lingers on the clothesline like upside down dew drops. Katana’s parents wish us safari njema before they leave for work. It’s a handy phrase: safari means journey and njema means good, so asked with the right intonation, it bids people bon voyage and receives them at the end of a journey as well, especially when followed with the ubiquitious karibu!

The weather taunts us with cloudy skies and a blurry sun. Where on earth is that damn mountain?!

We drive two hours to the Marangu Gate, the entrance to the Kilimanjaro National Park and one of the routes to take up the mountain—there are six in all—where we meet our family for the week: a cluster of guides, a cook, and our porters. We surrender our heavy packs to our porters and carry just the day’s necessities in smaller packs—2 bottles of water, lunch, a jacket, snacks. They hoist our hiking packs onto their heads with hardly a change in expression—they do this for a living, after all—and depart briskly for that evening’s camp. Our porters, cook must reach camp before us so that by the time we arrive, tired and sweaty, they have tea and dinner ready, and a tub of hot water to wash ourselves in before bedtime. They’re young, old, hardy, smiling (or “cheesing,” as Christopher Barry likes to say), intimidatingly fit; an indelible part of the Kilimanjaro experience. They’re not as curious about us as I naïvely expect, and I remind myself that this is their livelihood: they live in the foothills, climb the mountain hundreds of times a year, have seen all kinds of people, all sizes of groups, all ages and colors and people along the spectrum of low-to-high maintenance begin this trip. It’s thanks to the guides, porters and cook that most climbers complete the climb to their satisfaction.

We’re given two walking poles each; they will come in handy on muddy terrain, steep slopes, on ice, during the descent; I develop a love-hate relationship with them over the course of the week. We sign in the Guest Log at the park entrance, take pictures, and start climbing, giddy with nervousness and excitement.

Our chief guide, Hosea, leads and sets the pace, announcing, pole pole—slowly! He sucks water through a tube attached to his pack and reminds us to drink constantly. Everywhere and everything is green. The path is gentle, welcoming, the plants rustle on either side of us, wishing us karibu. Sunlight pokes through when it can, but the canopy dictates how sunny it feels on the ground. This is rainforest, and we’ll be passing through moorland, alpine desert and, finally, glacial climate when we summit. The diversity of vegetation is breathtaking, and we’ve only just begun!

If I stand still I hear…nothing. Nature is so impressively quiet and we are so embarrassingly loud, and the clash amazes me. I delight in a chance to become a part of the peace, in spite of the earth crunching under my feet, the loud cadence of my breath, my chatter with Hamsa, Katana, Hosea, Allen. Pole pole, the mountain says.

We reach Mandara, our first camp, in the mist of the afternoon. The sky is the color of wet paper, each wrinkle on the damp surface a cloud. We find our packs in a hut with 4 beds; the porters are shrouded in mist on the other side of camp in their own tent, playing cards, drinking tea, eating ugali (a local cornmeal porridge, pervasive in Tanzania): effortlessly acclimatized, completely at home.

After cups of tea and hot chocolate we take a 30 minute walk to the Maundi Crater. Already the vegetation has changed: the dense foliage has been replaced with “Old Man” trees, as they’re known, whose leaves, branches and ferns droop. The sun is bolder now and has less foliage to fight through: hills and tree lines are tinged golden. At the top, the earth gives way to a crater. Once volcanic, it is now covered in a carpet of dry grass that look like enormous dandelions swishing in the breeze. Little white flowers poke through the grass. We descend into it and climb up the other side where valleys are vague contours of sloping greens. Hosea points in the direction of Kenya and Lake Chaga that is half Kenyan, half Tanzanian. “Do you see it?” Hosea asks me, and I shake my head: a froth of cloud obscures everything and I only see shades of grey and white. Then, as if on cue, the clouds roll apart and Kenya is sprawled out in the distance. A black and white Colobus monkey is visible in the trees miles away, he makes the branches dance as the clouds drift. Nature lifts her skirt a little, and I’m hooked.

Hosea and I walk 50 feet to the other rim of the crater where we see Kibo and Mawenzi peeking through the clouds—Kilimanjaro’s peaks! Birds sustain a melody as we stand in awe, then march our way back to the dining hall for dinner.

Mealtime is a candlelit affair, everyone’s eyes flickering with the flame as they sit with their guides and wonder aloud about reaching the summit. We muse over zucchini soup, spinach, potatoes, bread, rice. A man at the far table plucks a guitar—simply tuning it is musical, at this refreshing altitude!—and adds music to the chatter and clink in the large hut. My first thought: a climber who plays guitar! My second thought: there is a porter in our midst who has to carry that up the mountain. I think of the porters transporting food, tents, water, clothes, shoes, medical supplies up and down the mountain; what unexpected items have they carried up, besides a guitar?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Going Bananas

[Arusha]

Katana’s mother—call me Mama, she insists—introduces Hamsa and me to Bahati, their cow. His name means lucky and his bellows are as prolonged and persistent as a conversation of greetings in Swahili—habari nzuri mambo poa karibu asante—that goes back and forth. I quickly lose track of who is the host and who is the guest, who's starting the conversation and who's responding, and not because I don't speak Swahili.

Mama wants to make a special dish for lunch, Katana’s favorite. Armed with a scythe, she asks a passerby to help her cut down some banana bunches from her farm and he cheerfully obliges. He hacks at the trunk, it folds, bending over, and he is now tall enough to cut as many banana bunches from the treetop as Mama wants. Then he hacks at the rest of the trunk and once the tree falls over, pierces the trunk with the scythe to drag it out of the way. Mama cuts and peels the fruit in preparation for a large meal of ndezi zaku pika – banana with coconut milk and beef – and its vegetarian sibling, ndezi zika kanga, fried banana.

Katana shows us around his home town. We visit his sister, play with her darling son Eli, visit some ATMs, milk them dry and buy sandals off the street. We visit the Arusha Snake Park with Gloria, pick up mountain climbing snacks and camping supplies at a grocery store and return home for a late dinner. Ndezi is waiting for us in various forms and we indulge hungrily, while Mama refills our plates even before they’re empty.

It rains steadily through the night and the constant drip outside our window keeps me up a while. I watch the moon peeking out through the grey drapery of sky. She parts them coyly to reveal more cloud and more grey—while continuing to hide a mountain.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Hills Before the Foothills

[Dar Es Salaam --> Arusha]

Eyes open to sunshine, ears awaken to the perennial construction outside Hamsa’s window where a team of laborers demolish a building brick by brick. We breakfast, strap our backpacks on—click, click—and wait downstairs for Hamsa’s friends Katana and Gloria, students at the nearby Muhimbili Medical School who are traveling north with us to Arusha, the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The taxi ride is a jostle of bodies and giggles; if our overstuffed hiking packs aren’t enough, 2 containers of Katana’s fish swish in the trunk. The bus station is expectedly but not overwhelmingly crowded. Exactly as the digital clock behind the bus driver blinks 7:30 we set off, inching our way out of the throngs of the bus depot and onto the main road. What follows is 10 hours of pure, relaxing entertainment. We chat, snooze, and are treated to a cocktail of local soap operas, vintage MTV—O Town, Tina Turner, Celine Dion, Michael Jackson, Boyz II Men, Enrique Iglesias— and refreshingly popular Bongo Flava. The Angrezi—English—soap opera subtitles, Gloria informs us, are mostly inaccurate. Regardless, we deduce that Richmond, one of the characters, is quite notorious.

Our fellow passengers are couples, older women—traveling solo, to their credit—and young boys in crisp white and navy uniforms, their tickets folded neatly in their shirt pockets. They watch the TV open mouthed and bounce along to the music, and when they get off the bus at Moshi 8 hours later they skip and stride like determined students not yet corrupted by adolescence.

The weather cools—feeling like early Fall in New York—and Gloria is prepared with a sweater; she is cold in 60 degree weather, how quaint!

The landscape tells a story of geography, history, culture: I stare into farming horizons, maize farms grow brittle post-harvest and baby coconut trees proudly brandish their bouquet of daggers bursting out of the ground. Villages remind me of the Three Little Pigs: huts are made out of brick, sticks, hay; roofs are thatched and made of cement. Larger villages boast cars and their signs boast a surprising array of services: car mechanics to stationery stores to schools to pubs. “Tanzania Department of Infrastructure” boards pop up frequently, near construction sites and railway crossings, as do signs for Primary and Secondary schools—several English medium. The more urban centers boast tall buildings and Montessori schools. Everywhere people are lounging, talking; the women are bursts of color made even brighter by the bold fabrics they are washing. A mother carefully places a bucket on her young child’s head, he clutches it with excitement in his eyes. How long will that excitement last?

We wind our way north and the ground rises too, upwards into grassy hills. When distant, they are 2 dimensional jagged trapezoids, each layer a lighter shade of grey. Up close they are invitingly green; the trees standing on the silhouetted surface look like humans and animals in different postures—standing, walking, crawling, crouching; an evolution of/by Nature? Each tableau interrupts the next: half-built huts stand next to schools with colorful murals which swallow up parts of hills. The brown remnants of farms muddy the lush green adjacent to it, readying our eyes for the red earth surrounding the villages lined parallel to the highway. Hills approach from the left and encroach on the right. The vastness is intensified by railroad tracks that seem narrower than usual and rivers that, now in dry season, are diminished in level and current.

At bus stops big and small our windows are crowded by baskets of wooden tools, oranges and jewelry, held up by hopeful arms eager to make a sale. The old woman across the aisle buys a pack of oranges through her window. It is unclear if she pays the seller in time because the bus is moving again and she still clutches money in her hand, her window still open. I wonder how often a transaction like this goes unpaid. She does not seem too concerned, and is soon asleep again.

Residential patches of landscape announce themselves with a tantalizing poster of a woman drinking a bottle of Coke—her head tilted back, her eyes closed, the anticipation of pleasure thick. At first this poster is attached to signs for pubs, restaurants and the odd hostel; then I see it liberally announcing teashops, markets and fax/photocopying stores. I think about it long enough to accept and interpret the sign as representing beverages, efficiency, ease, entertainment—applicable to a stationery store and a pub. Brilliant in its versatility!

Our lunch stop, about 5 hours into our journey, lasts 20 minutes. Tables laden with fresh fruit arrest our eyes, the smell of cooking meat and fried snacks tugs at our noses. Back on the road, we pick up speed, darting between the 2-lane 2-way highway the way Indian truck drivers do, except without any honking. Impressive.

At a major fork, after unloading half the bus at Moshi, we turn right and Katana promises us Mt. Kilimanjaro past the clouds. For now, it is hidden.

Katana’s father greets in Arusha where our bus journey ends, and we walk a few minutes through banana plantation to his beautiful home. Katana’s parents repeatedly greet and welcome us, karibu, and we repeatedly greet and thank them with respect, shikamo, and they repeatedly acknowledge our formal greeting with their own, marahaba, and welcome us again, karibu, and we thank them again, asante, and this goes on until Hamsa and I have been shown to the guest room, taken showers and are seated in the dining room with plates full of steaming, freshly made, fully vegetarian food warming our laps. There is nothing like coming home after traveling for 10 hours!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Mambo? Poa!

[Dar Es Salaam]

Hamsa and I leave the house bright and early to meet some friends for breakfast. The employees at Glory Café serve food with a smile and dollops of sunshine; glorious, indeed. It’s bang opposite Helen Keller International, where Hamsa is volunteering for 6 months, and a 5 minute walk from Hamsa’s apartment (which becomes important later, when I break my shoe on the way back from her office). But back to Glory Café. There are a few tables outside where flies and crows aggressively buzz around, eye and attack our plates of food, which includes boiled eggs, chappati (a cross between an Indian roti and a crepe), bananas and other fried delicacies.

Hamsa introduces me to her colleagues: Rafiki angu Aditi—this is my friend Aditi—from New York. She recommends that I visit Slipway, a bazaar of shops and restaurants by the beach, and return to her office in time for lunch. One of her colleagues calls his friend Anton, a taxi driver, to ferry me there and back, and we enjoy catchy Bongo Flava music – a mixture of reggae and pop – during the drive. Anton and I chat a little and he teaches me a few more Swahili words. Mambo is ‘how’s it going’ and Poa is an affirmative response: going well, cool. We drive along the beach past large, pretty bungalows and bougainvilla trees swishing in the sea breeze. This is the posh part of town, away from the traffic and city center, where diplomats, ambassadors and wealthy expats (forgive the redundancy) live.

Slipway is an indoor and outdoor market place selling all kinds of fantastic African crafts. The unfinished sign on the long roof above the row of shops reads “The ” – I wonder what it was meant to say. I start in the outdoor section where Anton drops me off. It is barely 9am and the stalls are just being opened. Owners are splashing water on the floor and cleaning their spaces; I’m impressed at how many of them are women. The stalls are numbered, most have names – “Anna Ndeja”; “African Antiques.” It is reminiscent of the Christmas markets that sprout in Union Square and Bryant Park in New York, or the maze of stalls in Bombay’s Fashion Street. Being so early in the morning, the crowd has not yet arrived – nor all the stall owners – and I am free to wander in and out of the few that are. Slipway is on the beach, and between the markets and the inviting blue of Msasari Bay is a boat yard with boats in varying states of repair. The inviting hotels here include a playground, sheltered seating with a view of the water, and a pub.

The sole customer, I am treated to singular attention by the vendors. I assure them all their wares are mzuri—beautiful—and promise to come back after I have been to all the stalls. Large canvases of Tinga-Tinga paintings hang on and are propped up against the stall walls. Each stall is maybe 6x4 and there is just enough space for me to stand inside while the vendor points out key chains, necklaces, and sugar pots. There are belts made out of coconut shells, bookends with elephant heads, animal print scarves and dresses, jewelry made out of paper, zebra napkin holders, masks, toy safari trucks, sandals, rings, placemats, pencils, hippo paperweights, plates, bowls and cushions, to name a few.

A cheerful looking man calls out to me, mambo! Poa, I respond, and he is delighted. His name is Samson and this is his store, he has made all these things. His friend has done these paintings and that is his sister’s store but she is not here today. He shows me the toy safari jeep, shows me how the roof opens. He points inside: wazungu!—Swahili for white foreigner. He imitates them standing up in the safari jeep as they drive through a national park, calling out, elephant, giraffe! It is hilarious to watch him make fun of safari goers; that’ll be me in about two weeks. Our conversation continues:

Samson: What is your name?

I repeat it several times, he finds my name difficult.

Samson: Married?

Me: No.

Samson: Friend? (I assume he means boyfriend.)

Me: Yes. (That’ll stave off questions, right?)

Samson: Where from?

Me: India. Are you married?

Samson: No. I want a wazungu friend. Swahili women are…meh.

I am cracking up by now. But I must be supportive.

Me: There are so many wazungu here, coming to buy things. Do you talk to them?

Samson: No. I want a good one.

Pondering his final statement, I let another vendor accost me, she talks non-stop, assures me good prices for being her first customer – a superstition I learn from Hamsa, that if the first customer buys something, the store will have good luck for the rest of the day. Another vendor insists I remember her store, #22. When she sees me 2 hours later, she waves – “I am waiting for you,” she reminds me. A third shows me her necklaces, including the Big Five necklace –the 5 animals that make a safari an official success: lion, elephant, rhino, giraffe, leopard. Mambo, rafiki, they say; welcome, friend. Habari dada – how are you sister. I feel completely welcome and safe, left to browse and smile and leave empty handed without any hassle.

The indoor souk has scores of jewelry, clothing, footwear and other trinkets on display. Inside ‘A Novel Idea,’ the bookstore, I am most taken by the children’s books: The Greedy Zebra and The Handsome Hog are brightly illustrated and Tom and Jenny go to Tanzania is a funny comic strip by David Chiko about an American couple visiting Tanzania for the first time.

Anton returns to pick me up 4 hours later. We drive back to HKI along the shore; Anton points out Coco Beach and I watch the blue of the ocean for as long as I can. Back at HKI, Hamsa and I order lunch from Glory Café and 3 large plates, like South Indian thalis, are delivered to the office almost immediately: rice, bananas, kidney beans, spinach, pickle: delicious, and all for $1.

Post-work, we embark on a frustrating series of attempts to withdraw money and buy our plane tickets to Rwanda, where we’re headed 3 weeks later with some of Hamsa’s friends. We exceed ATM withdrawal limits and lose money exchanging Tanzanian shillings for American dollarsfifteen hundred shillings to the dollar. My traveler’s cheques are worthless and one of 10,000 shilling notes Hamsa withdrew from the ATM is a fake; we watch the woman with tired eyes at the Bureau de Change rip it up. We conclude our ill attempts with local beer at the Hotel Movenpick Bar, which the bartender serves with a mixture, the Indian take on a bowl of peanuts. We gobble down 2 bowlsfull, watching WNBA on one TV and cricket on another while wealthy wazungu order pretty cocktails and the Japanese men next to us light their cigarettes; I forget that I’m in “Africa.” Back home with bursting pockets and an empty stomach, we finish packing for Mt. Kilimanjaro—we leave for the foothills tomorrow—and watch John Wayne in Hatari! about a group of people in East/Southern Africa catching wild animals for zoos around the world. Hamsa perks up at every Swahili world and I picture myself on a safari. Goodbye for now, Dar Es Salaam.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Karibu!

[Dar Es Salaam]

The Immigrations officer at Dar Es Salaam’s Julius Nyerere International Airport is struck by my first and last name – “no other names?” he asks. I compensate with a series of Swahili words – mostly greetings or one-word commands, mostly nonsensical when concatenated – and he nods me through, amused at this girl with no middle name.

The drive from the airport is replete with stories and giggling – 3 months of gossip and random ponderings with my long-lost roommate to catch up on, after all. “Karibu,” she squeals, which means ‘welcome’ and is a popular way to greet a newcomer or guest. A few men nonchalantly straddle traffic medians selling mobile phone accessories and cashewnuts, and I wait for the next layer of poverty – the beggars – to knock on our windows, but no one follows. Large billboards tell us to choose the CCM political party – loved in the villages; disappointing to the urbanites, Hamsa tells me – and to get Visa credit cards. Shoprite is the fancy supermarket run by South Africans; the majority of Dar shops at smaller stores and road side marketplaces. Hamsa points out the large Swami Narayanan temple – “karibu” – built for the large and self-segregated community of Indians. They own most stores in Dar and local Africans work for them, complicating relations and making it rare for the 2 communities to mingle socially. One of Hamsa’s friends is a medical student, keen to specialize and begin his own practice so he doesn’t end up working for someone (especially an Indian).

We pass the Muhimbili Hospital and medical school on our left – one of 4 medical schools in Tanzania, and very highly reputed; the student body is entirely scholarship-funded. Population Services International (PSI) has painted elaborate murals on the walls around the university and the adjacent school, warning students, pedestrians, children, loiterers – anyone – of the dangers of AIDS. Use protection, focus on your studies, don’t talk to strangers, and so on.

Hamsa’s building is tall, parrot-green with a perimeter of parked cars. The gate is manned by friendly security guards who, like the airport officials, strangers and taxi drivers I’ve met so far, welcome me with a smile and a “Karibu!” “Asante!” I thank them. Hamsa lives in a beautiful, spacious 3 bedroom-2 bathroom apartment that would make any New Yorker cry. The floors are tiled and there is a veranda in the back to hang-dry clothes. New to me are the mosquito nets hanging above the 3 beds; they are helpful reminders for the malaria medication I need to take once a week.

We go for a walk. Hamsa tugs at my arm as we turn out of her building and I think she has forgotten something. “Pole pole,” she says, meaning slowly. “You aren’t in New York anymore.” She’s right; everyone here walks very slowly. She jokes, “people in Africa walk slowly because we have nowhere to go!”

There’s a fruit seller on the corner, a vegetable shop across the street, a restaurant down the block with the persuasive name, “Delicious Foods,” opposite “Yes Restaurant” on the other side of the road. Men and woman chat and laugh as they saunter home and children return from school in crisp uniforms. Oranges are in season and fruit sellers tempt our noses as they rapidly peel the fruit for on-the-go consumption. An ice cream seller trundles past on a bicycle playing music; he gives us a toothy grin. It feels like a quiet street in Madras, but with a fraction of the people.

The best part? Tanzanian men aren’t aggressive or lecherous. Everyone minds their own business and I walk around completely relaxed, barring general alertness that my bag or camera not be stolen. Compared to India, Egypt, and even New York City, I feel free. I slow down a little more.

We walk past a dala dala stop – a bus stop; what a fun way to say bus! – where several mini buses are lined up and filling with passengers. “Filling” is an understatement; these little vans are crammed to capacity with colorfully dressed men and women sitting standing leaning elbowing bending to maximize the space inside. No one hangs off the sides or rides on top, as they do in India, but the bus is impressively stuffed with scarf-swathed heads and lean limbs. Accidentally meeting eyes with a stranger does not invite lewd stares; I peer into the dala dalas with unabated curiosity.

We meet 2 of Hamsa’s friends for dinner at a street stall on a dark street with no street lights. The vendor has a grill for meat skewers and a table with several upturned bowls for the stew we’re about to eat, urojo. He points to 2 benches on the sidewalk where we settle ourselves. 10 minutes later, 4 bowls are produced, filled with stew. A yellow liquid is poured into each and 2 kinds of pickle – tomato and mango – are provided. Urojo is hot and tasty, an array of textures in every bite. Ingredients include potato, cassava chips, onion, herbs and spices. We eat in the darkness, debate vegetarianism and share travel stories. Karibu, the stars twinkle at me. Asante, I answer, my mouth full.