Monday, 16 November 2009

In which we meet the Indian Ocean for the first time

November 1st

Dawn breaks somewhere around Morogoro, about four hours after Dodoma and another four hours before Dar. We find ourselves in a hilly area with jagged, blocky peaks tearing holes in surrounding clouds. People we pass are wrapped in blankets against the early morning chill, and smoke from a thousand cooking fires rises from huts in every direction. We pass through an area with enormous sisal plantations stretching as far as the eye can see.

Eventually we have our final stop before Dar; we all decide we need to freshen up and within a few seconds there’s a line of people at the edge of the road cleaning their teeth and spitting into the sudden sunlight. It is already much, much hotter than Gitarama and it’s only about seven in the morning.

Traffic gradually builds up; the road becomes a dual carriageway, and we enter the outskirts of Dar. The international bus terminal at Ubungo is way out of the town centre, and is a maelstrom of people milling around, taxis aggressively trying to force past each other, and endless touts trying to persuade you to buy their produce or get into their taxi or go to a “very nice hotel” (at which the driver will get his commission). We negotiate for a taxi and all four of us are taken to a hotel which Soraya has arranged in advance. The receptionist isn’t quite sure how to allocate us to rooms; there is a room for 3 and a room for 1; she makes the obvious assumption that I’ll have the room for 1, but in reality we haven’t at this stage agreed that Rachael is coming with us so I end up with Épi and Soraya. Tanzania is a profoundly Moslem country, and I’m pleasantly surprised that nobody seems to raise eyebrows at the prospect of me sharing with the girls. It bodes well for our accommodation on Zanzibar, too.

Our beds are squeaky, but there are ceiling fans and after the heat and clamour of Ubungo bus station it is so refreshing to shower and cool down and stretch out on the beds and have a rest. It has taken us 29 hours to reach Dar on the bus from Kigali; by now it is mid day and we want to make full use of the afternoon. We decide we want to find the sea so we set out and walk into the breeze. Sure enough, a few blocks down from our hotel, we come face to face with real tropical sea – Kurasini Creek, otherwise known as Dar harbour. Even here the sea is brilliantly blue and there is a sandy beach at the water’s edge.

Tanzania was a German colony up until the first world war, just like Rwanda, and the evidence is there if you look for it. The old administration building looks Bavarian, and the cathedral shows its Lutheran, rather than catholic, architecture, all glistening white stone and a single, enormous spire piercing the blue sky and competing with the endless minarets of mosques. (Unfortunately any attempt at architectural eloquence is ruined by the proliferation of satellite dishes and the festoons of random electric cables which snake over everything like some form of malignant creepers).

A funny thing – Dar es Salaam is a very Muslim city. Mosques are everywhere, and the calls to prayer ring out every few hundred yards, never quite synchronised, but overlapping in a wave of sound that seems to come from everywhere but nowhere specific. Yet today is Sunday, and most businesses seem to be closed. Why do the Moslems shut up shop on Sunday?

Across the harbour from where we’re standing is the commercial port; big ships are unloading and up to a dozen more are waiting their turn out at sea. Safe harbours are not common in East Africa, and Dar has one of the best in the entire coastline.

Behind us are all the main Government buildings (or at least those which haven’t been transferred to Dodoma). We are at the heart of the original colonial town, and the very place where the first white people landed and settled.

Fortunately we seem to have plonked ourselves right next to the ferry terminal for Zanzibar. We decide to buy our tickets for tomorrow and avoid any last minute queues. As soon as we move we’re pounced on by touts who want to “help” us (i.e. try to negotiate on our behalf and get their commission). There are at least three ferry companies, all using catamarans to go to Stone Town. We’ve been warned off the fast ferry; word has it that it is too bumpy and sick making for comfort. We brush off the hustlers and put our names down for the ferry, saying we’ll return later in the afternoon and pay. (One of our problems is that we need to change money into Tanzanian shillings and everywhere seems to be closed).

We stroll through the full heat of afternoon along the side of the creek. People are living on the streets; the usual unfortunate tide of cripples, beggars, country women with no man and no support, elderly with no family to look after them.

We pass the car ferry that runs across the harbour; there’s a spectacular traffic jam waiting to use it; every car is frying in the heat but people seem remarkably patient. We pass the creekside bus terminal, just like Nyabugogo with matatas jostling each other to gain a few seconds or just that one extra passenger’s fare.

We pass the fish market, with moray eels, octopus and every manner of strange tropical fish laid out to buy. Fish are being landed all the time, and where a new consignment has just come in, people push and jostle each other. The market is new (Japanese sponsored); everything is wet with being hosed down and the whole place reeks of fish. Outside the market are stalls selling freshly fried octopus in a violent red sauce; we decline and decide we’ll wait until we reach Zanzibar before we eat food from street stalls. However, fresh coconuts are a different matter altogether and we drink coconut milk in the shade while we watch fish being fried and other fish being smoked in a far corner of the market.

And every time we move more than two paces someone comes up to us to try to sell us a taxi ride.

We pass the swimming pool, very much a British institution from the 1940s and 1950s; what we’re really looking for is somewhere to eat (we haven’t eaten since our midnight stop at Dodoma and by now it’s past 3 in the afternoon); what we find instead is one of the public beaches. It’s a jaw-dropping moment.

There in front of us is the Indian Ocean. The blue is so vivid it’s difficult to describe and do it justice. The sand is fine, white, and relatively clean. There’s a line of litter at the high tide mark (Dar needs to organise a “beach clean”), and lots of remains of seaweed, pine needles, coconut husks and beautiful conch and cowrie shells. Unfortunately there are bits of coral, too, which means that offshore the reefs are being pulverised by fishing nets or similar. And just occasionally there’s a piece of natural sponge, – something I’ve never seen before but which I know from fossils. Soraya wins the prize for our first paddle in the ocean. Around us children are swimming and playing in the water; families are strolling past to enjoy the sea breeze, or picnicking in shade under casuarinas trees. Out to sea there are big boats waiting to enter harbour, but also I have my first sight of dhows and their lateen sails. Dhows, to me, sum up the exotic-ness of Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar like nothing else can. And here are a dozen or more, some close in and bringing their fish to the market; others far out at sea. The distant dhows have their hulls below the horizon but their sails gleam like jewels in the sun. Their masts slope forwards; their sails can be adjusted in an infinite number of ways to make best use of the wind. They are efficient and beautiful boats. Most of the fishing boats are trimarans, with an extremely narrow hull stabilised by outriggers which themselves are nothing more than vertical planks of wood strapped to the main hull and about six to eight feet away from it. (See pictures in later postings).

It’s too hot to stay long, and we’re hungry, tired and jaded from the long journey, so we don’t linger on the beach. We’re excited because what we’ve just seen exceeds all our expectations of the ocean and its beaches, and we know that Zanzibar will be even better. We take a matata back to the creek side, pay for our tickets for the ferry from a charming man called Bashir who runs the “Flying Horse” ferry terminal (you’ll hear more about him on the return trip), and eventually find a café which is open. With eating sorted, our priorities become changing money, buying replacement batteries for my camera and earphones for Épi’s iPod, and getting food for the ferry journey to Stone Town tomorrow. Unfortunately so many shops are shut that we don’t make headway on any of these things. Not to worry; our ferry doesn’t leave until mid day tomorrow so we have all morning to shop.

So back to our hotel (the “Econolodge”, which sounds dire but turns out to be clean, efficient, and one which I’d certainly recommend to other travellers). We’re on the fourth floor, at the back, with a view of water tanks, satellite dishes, the car park, and high bare walls streaked with mould. And to think of the ocean views we’ve just enjoyed!

As it gets dark Rachael joins us and we go out to find somewhere to eat. Épi’s beyond eating and has crashed out on her bed. We return to the creek side, but decide to walk in the other direction. Surely there must be a nice bar on the water’s edge where we can get a drink? Well, actually, no – there isn’t. We pass the railway station, busiest in Tanzania and a hive of inactivity (I think there are about three or four passenger trains per week). We walk for miles until we find the “Port View Café”. It sounds promising; there is live music coming from inside. We discover the “Port View” is a panorama of oil storage tanks and railway sidings; the harbour itself is in the far distance and you can barely see the sea at all. The music is too loud; the food is pricey and we are being hassled so much to buy their chicken and rice special that we get fed up with the staff. We stay long enough to sample the local beers (i.m.h.o. “Safari” is like Primus; “Kilimajaro” is weaker but still acceptable; “Castle” is more like a stout than a lager), and return to our hotel. We do eventually order food but because we don’t want the full meal they decide not to serve us (but they also don’t bother to tell us that), and there’s a big arguments over change. We encounter for the first time the Tanzanian custom of trying to short change customers by either not giving any change, or not giving enough change, and then playing games by denying it was this particular waitress who served us. It means that very often a pleasant meal out ends in a confrontation over the bill. It’s also not helped by being given 10,000 shilling notes whenever we change money, with local people rarely having enough change. I know we’re rich tourists to them, but it’s squalid and I don’t think the Tanzanians have got any idea just how irritating we find it and how much it puts people off returning to the country. As we’re leaving “Port View”, taxi touts try to frighten us by saying the area is unsafe at night and we need their services, but we reason that people won’t attack three of us together.

Just before our hotel we discover a really lovely restaurant. It’s being patronised by the locals. Food is good (but not particularly cheap), and we decide to eat there. The place is strictly Moslem; there’s no alcohol at all. I have my first encounter with Tanzanian spices and I’m immediately hooked on the local food.

Back in our hotel room we’re still sticky from the heat and humidity. The fan in our room is going flat out; it has a slightly wobbly orbit so every few seconds you get a positive gale washing over you, followed by nothing at all for a minute or so. For some reason the hotel hasn’t given me a top sheet, so I wrap myself in the bottom sheet like a shroud. There’s no mosquito net, either, but there are few insects in the night and those that do try to attack us find it difficult to compete with the ceiling fan.

Despite our squeaky beds we sleep soundly.

Best things about today – I like Dar – its Moslem-ness; its beach. It’s not as ordered or cowed as Kigali but not as strident as Kampala, either. But I already know I’m going to have to adjust to the heat and sticky humidity. If it’s bad in Dar it’ll be even worse on a small island!

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