31 May 2010

bursting the expat bubble (daladalas, y'all)

If any of my gentle readers are under the impression that I’m living a rugged life in Tanzania, we should probably begin with some clarification of my living situation. What you see below is the view of the Indian Ocean from the second floor hallway of the fortified mansion I live in here in Dar es Salaam.

I have dropped in on the comfortable life of an expat, living with an American family in embassy-owned housing with a small army of guards and housekeepers, all courtesy of you, the U.S. taxpayer. It sounds a little excessive on paper, but I know that if I were in the same situation as my hosts—living here for the long haul with young children—I would want some level of security and insulation too. Especially given that I live on the only street in the country singled out for special mention under “Crime” on the State Department’s website on Tanzania… though that’s probably has more to do with selection bias than anything else, given how many American diplomats live around here.

This is my first real experience with this kind of expat life and its odd combination of privilege and inconvenience. There are moments when it’s almost possible to forget that I’ m in Africa. On Friday evening I was drinking at a yacht club with middle-aged British men, on Saturday I chased small kids around a French-style café with SUV-driving American soccer moms. Even in expat-land, though, it is never long before the fact that I’m in Africa reasserts itself, whether it’s in the potholed moonscape of the local roads, my near-total lack of exercise options, or the restrictions on my freedom of movement that I must accept for safety reasons.

I realized early on that I could probably go this whole summer without exposing myself to a single foodborne illness or sweaty, overcrowded bus ride—and that’s just not my style. So on Sunday, I made my first concerted effort to pop the expat bubble. I met up with a friend of a friend whom I’d only met once and headed outside of “Dar” for a refreshing hike in the Pugu Hills, 2 hours southwest of the city. We arranged a guide through a small resort whose owners take the Soup Nazi approach to reservations: the website urges even would-be day hikers to book in advance and “spare us and yourself the unpleasant experience.”

As is so often the case, the real highlight was not so much the hike but the experience of getting there. We had to take three different daladalas (minibuses), all overflowing with people and stuff, including in one case a stainless steel commercial sink. The directions to this place involved getting off the daladala “at the petrol station,” walking 1 km and taking “the second dirt track,” and asking a local where “Bwana Kiki’s place” is (bwana is Swahili for Mister). Needless to say, there were a few miscalculations and wrong turns along the way. During the long ascent on foot, we really started to feel like we had made a clean break from Dar. I imagine that plenty of foreigners make their way up to the hills, but we still attracted much curiosity for the people we passed by, most of whom greeted and welcomed us. I got to practice many different Swahili greetings, which will surely be the subject of a blog post all their own at some point in the summer. I am always a little camera-shy before I feel like I understand the culture of picture taking in a place, but these boys obligingly asked me to take their picture on our way back down:

Unfortunately, I look godawful in the couple pictures that were taken of me, but hopefully this will give you a sense of the scenery during the actual hike:

Happy Memorial Day to everyone back home!


Lindsey said...

hey shawn, so happy that the blog is up and running again. looking forward to all your entries while you're there! just found out an old co-worker of mine just moved to Dar for a job too.

Anastasia said...

I went to Homer this weekend and thought of our trip. I hope you have a wonderful time this summer and I am glad to see you got out. I hope you lear some great recipes!

Dustin said...

Also, one thing I forgot on my last comment, was about 'Hakuna matata'. Hakuna matata is Kenyan Swahili, in Tanzania, it's 'Hakuna matatizo', but they often say the former, obviously due to the wazungu and the Lion King.

As for the picture taking, I believe a friend of mine told me it was something along the lines of the picture capturing their immortality.