Sunday, January 27, 2008

"Dr. Livingstone, I Presume?"

(With time off from my new jobs at CBS Evening News and Drax, I head to Africa to do some writing, interviewing, and adrenaline-adventuring!)

"Patricia Sexton, I presume?" I giggled to myself as I stepped from the plane onto the tarmac of the Dar Es Salaam International Airport. I'd been to Africa before, but not "the real Africa" that is written about by the Theroux's and Conrad's of the world. The thick smell of tropical musky humidity hit me first, then the familiar chaos of being somewhere new. I expected a long wait for a port-of-entry visa, but instead was greeted by a stocky black man with a coy grin who processed my visa before all the others who had been waiting in line in front of me. I was one of a few blonde women to get their visas before anyone else. After finding my bags, I eagerly searched the arrivals hall for my taxi transfer to the hotel. After waiting long enough to know that my taxi wasn't coming, I decided to bargain with one of the locals.

"20,000 sister! I take you wherever you want to go!"

"No, thank you," I said, pointing to my Lonely Planet, "I think a taxi to the city costs about 8000 shillings."

"10,000 my sister?" he offered.

"Done." I said and hopped into his cab, dodging a loud and rowdy parade which was apparently celebrating the homecoming of the Tanzanian president from an official visit to Nairobi. Once we settled in, my taxi driver introduced himself as "Godlove" and showed me his identification card when I expressed curiosity about his name (namely, that it was actually "Godlove"). Godlove and I drove the ten or so kilometers to the Sleep Inn Hotel, where I was due to spend the following two evenings before my departure on a month-long driving tour of East and Southern Africa. Within just 15 minutes, I both checked in and checked out of Sleep Inn Hotel.

"Mahm, you are not happy with our hotel?" the manager asked me with a mostly bored stare.

"No, it's not that, it's that I received a phone call and I realized I am at the wrong hotel," I lied.

"Oh, this happens a lot. Must be a lot of mistakes," she said, with apparent surprise. I stifled a chuckle as I walked out, escaping the misery of a room with a door that didn't lock, a sign insisting guests leave all their valuables with the front desk, and two dank and stained twin beds. I figured I'd splurge for the relative comfort and safety of the "poshest hotel in central Dar", the Swiss Movenpick. Money has never been more well-spent.

I took a bath, washed my clothes in the sink, and sipped a cucumber-lime-honey smoothie, breaking the first two rules I'd been warned to not break: Don't eat ice and don't eat vegetables, no matter how posh the hotel. Later, I'd break another rule for which I'd been repeatedly cautioned, and I'd be sorry for doing so.

I relaxed in my big spacious room, packed and unpacked, the sort of thing I do when I'm in a new city and a little apprehensive about leaving the comfort and safety of my hotel room. Finally, I hoisted my backpack onto my back, donned my sunglasses and mosquito spray and left the hotel.

"Where are you going?" asked the concierge as I left. I replied that I was headed to "Kariakoo", an open-air market whose name is derived from the Carrier Corps that paid visits there in the early 20th century.

"You must be very careful madam," he warned me, "your mobile phone will be stolen if you are not careful." I thought it odd that he singled out my phone, but in the end he would be right. My phone was tightly (I mean, Houdini-tightly) tucked into a very small elastic pocket on the bag I was carrying. I left the phone in its tight pouch, scoffing at the notion that This Traveler would be relieved of any of her possessions.

I carefully followed my map of the city, walking southeast from the hotel into the city center. I passed a lot of friendly people, mostly men, who simply greeted me with "Hello, sister" and let me on my way when I politely bade them farewell. Occasionally, someone would try to sell me a taxi ride or a painting. Tired of walking after a steamy mile or so, I hopped on a local bus, asking only for "Kariakoo". I was surprised when the driver readily agreed, as if he were my personal chaffeur. I double-checked the price, to make sure that he wasn't re-routing his other passengers so that he could make a few extra shillings for transporting the tourist to her destination. Except there weren't any other passengers. Other than the driver, the only other person on the bus was the man with whom I'd negotiated my fare. He'd hopped on behind me, and he and the driver laughed nervously while eyeing me shiftily. As they started to ask me questions in local Swahili, I got the cold sick sense that I was being set up for a robbery or worse. I rarely get that tingly sensation over the back of my neck, but when I do, I know it's time to act. At the next traffic light, I paid the bus driver the agreed-upon fare, and jumped out.

"Sister, where are you going?" asked another bus fare negotiator. I replied again that I was going to Kariakoo, refusing to give in to my internal pressure urging me to catch a taxi. "Taxi?" he suggested, as if reading my mind.

"No," I said firmly, "daladala," or "local bus". I checked my bus schedule and asked him where I might find the Number Two bus.

"Num-BAH two!" he shouted to a crowd of onlookers. The crowd began to giggle. "NUM-bah...two!" he shouted again. His fellow bus-fare-negotiator colleagues began to parrot him, and soon both the crowd and I were laughing. "Number two," I'd say, and the negotiators would shout, "Num-bah two!" Soon everyone was either shouting "Number two" or laughing at me, the negotiators, or all of us.

Just as I was about to hop on any crowded bus at all, a rotund young woman dressed in traditional bright colors and bandana-cap approached me. She was selling water, and was headed to Kariakoo. She offered to take me. We both tried our best to communciate, sharing at first our names, and then mostly giving up for my lack of knowledge of even basic Swahili. She spoke at some length about I-don't-know-what, but it was pleasant and very comforting to be escorted by a woman and chatted to like an old friend. While I admired her clothing: red sashes and banana-leaf green prints, I heard someone shout at me. Just as I turned around, a young boy darted off into the crowd grasping my mobile phone in his hands. How he managed to release it from its snug little coffin, I don't know. But I was angry, and only at myself.

I said goodbye to Loffwasa the water seller woman, and headed to the police station to file the report that I would need to show to the insurance company to reimburse me for the loss of my phone. As I entered, I passed half a dozen plainclothes police officers who wore rifles slung around their necks. I waited in a short line for the next available agent.

"Name-religion-caste-nationality," the officer fired off in quick succession. She was filing my report and taking down information. I wrote down my name and "American" and "New York". I thought by "religion" she'd asked for my "region". A friendly man next to me corrected me, "In order to file a police report, the officer needs to know your religion and your caste. "Oh, umm Christian," I said.

"What caste? CASTE?" the officer repeated somewhat less patiently than the first time.

"Catholic?" I replied meekly, not at all sure what sort of specifics she was after in trying to ascertain my "caste".

Without any irony whatsoever, the officer asked me for a description of the thief. Had I seen him?

"Well," I said, pausing without the slightest hint of irony, "he was about twelve years old, high cheek bones," and I paused here wondering what sort of racial tension there was in a country where white was the minority, "he was black." The discomfort was mine and mine alone, because she nodded, and went about her note-taking. She handed me a copy of the police report, which was a tiny scrap of paper torn out of a notebook with numbers and dashes on it. "Come back tomorrow at 8am to proceed with action."

I imagined myself seeking out this wayward youth, accompanied by the plainclothes agents with rifles slung over their shoulders. Instead, I asked the officer where I could buy a stolen phone. Unamused at my entirely serious question, she insisted I come back to "proceed with action". I'd hoped to buy my stolen phone off a shop that sells stuff back to its rightful owners. Instead, I left the police station and made a futile attempt to look around the Kariakoo grounds for my phone or its liberator. To no avail. Instead, hot with irritation at myself, I climbed into a car and headed back to the comfort of my hotel.

"Lock the doors. Put your backpack on the ground. Do not pick it up to look into it while the car is moving, and definitely do not do so while the car is stopped at a red light. This," he said, "is how we prevent theft here." I obliged while silently chastising myself. Hadn't I heard all this before? And why hadn't I heeded the warnings? In any case, this kind man refused payment of any kind for the ride from the market to my hotel. He even offered to give me his own mobile phone to make up for the fact that I'd lost mine to a thief in his country. I politely declined, humbled by his generosity.

Stay tuned for Monday's adventures where I'll go with rifle-toting officers to find the mobile-phone-liberator (we'll see how humble I'm feeling then!).


Hebe said...

This is so exciting - I can't wait for the next episode - sorry that it has been a bit of a bummer but it makes GREAT reading !!!

tchaka owen said...

That sure sucks! But it could be worse...I still think you have a lot of awesome experiences coming up.

BTW, your caste is 'white'. Blanca. Babylonian. Honky. You choose. LOL!

That's a term I haven't heard since I lived in Ghana. Odd considering African countries generally don't have caste systems. And it's taken on a color reference as opposed to class (or class AND color). When I was younger I was referred to as half-caste which made me wonder if my white half or black half qualified as a caste. :-D