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October 28th 2010
Published: November 2nd 2010
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You know you’re going stir-crazy when you feel bored and you still have 5 hours left of the second out of three flights before you reach home. I’m trying not to sleep because then I won’t sleep tonight, but during the first flight I could hardly keep my eyes open.

So I’m sitting here in the dark of the plane cabin reflecting on my time in Tanzania. It feels so much different than Nepal. It is not as chaotic, but just as poor. It also doesn’t feel as historical or bound in so much tradition. But the beaches and blue-green of the Indian Ocean make it beautiful, if you can get past the muddy beaches and piles of trash that are accumulating on many stretches. And it’s interesting how quickly the developing world starts to feel “normal” to me now. It only took a week of freaking out about mosquitoes, unpaved roads, avoiding tap water at all costs, and flickering electricity before the whole lifestyle started to make sense to me again. One man I met at the RTI office even said to me, “You look so relaxed in this country, like you so comfortable living in the developing world.”

That day I was just happy to be in a cool office with plenty of clean drinking water and actual toilets (even if they were only functioning half the time), so of course I was relaxed. It’s the small things, you know? And my new friend Meca likes to say, “TIA—This is Africa,” meaning you just learn accept such things as the lights going out at random.

I guess what most fascinated me about the place was the people. They have this very understated demeanor that is not quite shy, but very reserved. Politeness seems to be very important, as even just asking someone for directions requires an entire conversation first—Hello, how are you? What’s the news? Would you be able to tell me how to get somewhere? And being a foreigner, I especially spent a lot of time politely answering questions, especially if I smiled at someone: “How do you find Tanzania? First time in Africa? What is your work? How long you stay in Dar? Do you have baby? Two, three?”

That one was my favorite—“How many baby you have? Two, three?” No, pal, just a couple of cats that unfortunately probably eat better than a lot of people in Tanzania.

I feel like I got to know Tanzanian men much more than women during this trip, which is the opposite of most of my previous travels for work. This time I worked with a lot of men, was driven by them, and most of my food was served by them. And maybe that’s a result of my subject-matter for this research trip—malaria. Next time I’ll be leading a study on cross-generational sex, for which gender roles and the status of girls and women are very important.

But I did like making friends with Tanzanians. I find it much more interesting to hang out with them than my fellow foreigner colleagues in a lot of cases, as I learn much more about daily life. I made friends with the servers at my hotel, the drivers, Meca, and even the Masaais guarding my place (although most of my communication with them was through smiles and hand gestures). I especially loved discussing Tanzanian politics, ideas about international development, and the corruption of so many African leaders.

I was thinking about what it is I love so much about traveling… first of all is the adventure, as I tend to be high sensation-seeking. Just a taxi ride or trying to cross the street can make your heart skip beats in some of the countries I have been. There are also all of the interesting people you meet—the business men, the UN employees, the Peace Corp volunteers, the expats that ran away to a far away country and never came back. There is the learning of a culture that on the surface looks so different from my own. But then once you get to know a few locals and find out they like the show Cheaters and tease their siblings and hate the traffic as much as you, you feel this amazing connection with the other side of the world. I guess what makes me most satisfied is when I can find some small thing in common with them; when you can relate to someone who appears to be so different, it makes the world seem very small, and me optimistic that progress in creating thriving societies all over the world is possible.

I think I also like to have my limits tested in these other societies, even if it does cause nervous breakdowns on occasion. As frustrating as it is to watch every thing you put in your mouth, and for the electricity to go out at the most inopportune times, or for a language barrier to prevent you from knowing what the hell is happening most of the time, it makes me appreciate what I do have when I come home. When I come back from trips like this I am calmer, less anxious, more loving, and take my life less seriously. Of course, that never lasts as long as I would like, which might be why I keep feeling a pull to go back. Luckily my new job will send me to the developing world several times a year, particularly Africa.

And that makes me a very lucky person because I can feel myself falling in love with the continent and the cultures. I was thrilled with the opportunity to visit South Africa a few times, but I am told that East Africa is “the real Africa.” Clearly, I’ve got a lot to learn about it, but there will also be dozens of ways in which it will feed my adventure-seeking soul.


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