I forgot it would be dark out when the plane landed. It was only 7:30pm, there would still be another hour of daylight at home, but the sun had already gone down in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. I couldn’t see the mountain at all.
The make-up of passengers on the plane was about 75% folks older than me going on safari – mostly people in their 60’s. There were even a handful of people who looked well in to their 80’s. About 20% were people in their 20’s who were planning on climbing Kilimanjaro. That left about 5% people like me – just a middle aged person living the dream.
It took awhile to get through security at the airport between the ebola declaration (no, I don’t have ebola), the immigration forms, the “I have a visa” lineup (I was surprised how many people were in the “I need a visa” lineup) and the fingerprinting. I guess they must call it finger scanning now.
Leaving the airport there were probably 50 guys with signs containing all sorts of names. I looked for mine, fingers crossed that someone was there for me, since I’ve read it can be hard to tell the difference between real taxis and scam taxis. I found my name and was relieved that at least I found the right driver. Things were off to a good start!
Michael, a representative from my outfitter “Unique Safaris”, drove me from the airport at Kilimanjaro to my hotel in Arusha, about 45 minutes away.
In Tanzania, they drive on the left. Usually. Unless they want to drive in the middle. Or they can drive on the right until someone is coming and then they go back to the left. But honestly it wasn’t as bad as Russia or Peru or Mexico where people just drive wherever they want, and do it with unwarranted gusto. It wasn’t nearly as scary as driving near Miami.
It was really dark with no street lights and no lights coming from the houses we passed. Only the stars and our headlights illuminated the way. There were lots of people sitting outside of their houses in the dark. It was a hot night, still 30 degrees Celsius in the dark. I learned that most people in the small villages don’t have electricity, so that’s why it was so dark, and why so many people were sitting outside to cool off.
As we got closer to Arusha the stars disappeared and I could feel the dust beginning to accumulate in my lungs.
The gates to the hotel were opened upon our arrival and quickly closed behind us.
The next day I woke early to the sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer from the local mosque – a sound I haven’t heard since I was in Turkey over 20 years ago. I had a couple of days before the safari began to adjust to the 10 hour time change, so after breakfast I asked around about taking a walk. I wanted to stretch my legs after the long flight, see Arusha, and get some light during the time it would ordinarily be dark for me. But I got differing pieces of advice so I had to make a decision: to go or not to go?
Lately when faced with this question, I inevitably choose go. After all, as the saying goes, I would rather regret something I did do than something I didn’t do.
Tulisa, the waitress, told me it’s not safe to walk alone to the city. I shouldn’t go. But the hotel manager said I could go, but ONLY if I carry absolutely nothing – no camera, no purse, nothing, absolutely nothing – and as long as I know where I’m going, or at least act like I know where I am going. He even drew me a very easy-to-follow map of the route I should take. I memorized the map so that I wouldn’t have to take it out of my pocket and look like a tourist. But of course, I didn’t need a map to look like a tourist! There’s nothing I could have done to blend in.
He warned me that the locals were “extremely friendly” and told me exactly what to expect.
“Welcome! Karibu! It means welcome! You are welcome in Tanzania! Where are you from? Canada? The Vancouver Canucks! You are very welcome here! How long will you be here? Are you going on safari? You will enjoy it – I know you will. You are welcome! My name is (Gary, Steve, Max etc.). Just down this street is the city centre where you can see (the clock tower, the freedom tower, the market, the german museum). You are welcome! Do you know Karibu? It means welcome!”
They are so like-able because they are so very friendly but I was aware that eventually they would try to sell me something. I didn’t get the feeling that anyone was trying to scam me though. They were genuine. Their tactic is to be exceptionally helpful to tourists so you will feel obligated to allow them to show you their paintings. Seems like a good tactic to me, but I still didn’t buy anything.
My tactic: “Today is my first day in Africa. I’m just going for a walk, I’m not buying anything today.”
I finally got rid of Gary before arriving at the Maasai market, where hundreds of Maasai people sell their wares. I was the only tourist there, which I didn’t notice at first. The stalls were very close together and everyone wanted me to visit their store and view their goods. As I walked through there was an endless chorus of “Please come in. Please visit my store. Please have a look.”
The stalls were absolutely overflowing with some very beautiful things – carvings made out of ebony and mahogany and rose wood. The sellers sat outside their stores, leaving only the narrowest of pathways to walk on without stepping on something. There were no lights, so once I stepped inside a store it was very hard to see the items for sale. It was like a huge maze and I quickly became aware that I could easily get lost in the maze. So I start heading back out to the street, not wanted to get in any deeper.
Walking back down the street to the city centre, I was greeted again with the whole “Welcome! Karibu!” routine, which got old fast. I noticed right away that Steve had a neatly rolled package of canvas under his arm. Like the other friendly locals to make my acquaintance, he was also an artist who would eventually try to sell me a painting.
I went to the food market where things were even more crowded than at the souvenir market. I’m not talking about a supermarket here! It’s a street market where all sorts of folks sell all sorts of food. I’ve never seen so much fruit! I avoided the chicken, goats and cows because I knew I would see something unpleasant and possibly disgusting if I went that way (lesson learned in Russia).
Here, no one tried to sell me anything. There were only locals here. Locals and me that is.
I decided to go into a bank so I could loose the latest guy who latched on to me to try to sell his paintings (after welcoming me many times). Once he was gone, I walked back to the hotel. I noticed that when I was walking away from the town, no one tried to welcome me and latch on. I only got a friendly and emphatic “Jambo!” (Swahili for hello) from many people that I passed. One woman says “Mambo!” which is a version of hello reserved for someone your own age.
When I left the hotel I didn’t know any Swahili at all. On my return I counted how many words I learned without even trying.
Karibu! – Welcome
Jambo – Hello
Mambo – Hello (for your friends or people your own age – I learned that part later)
Assante – Thank you
Assantesana – Thank you very much
Hapana Assante – No thank you
Another thing I discovered is that while I was the only white person walking around town, there were plenty of Maasai dressed in traditional clothing. I thought this kind of traditional dress would be reserved as a show for tourists or during celebrations – like the first nations people do in Canada. But it isn’t so. The streets are full of regular looking people, Maasai warriors in full dress, and women in colourful clothing carrying impossibly large things on their heads.
I wish I took my camera. But then again, if I didn’t take the advice of a local and carry absolutely nothing, my decision to always “go” may not have served me so well.
All of the photos of Arusha in this post were taken from a moving vehicle a couple of days later as I drove through town on the way to my first safari destination.