Dar es Salaam Day 1

Tue, 15 Jul 2008 06:11:01 +0000

Nairobi to Dar Index Dar es Salaam Day 2

I can hardly describe how good it felt to be lying in a nice, private, comfortable, safe room all night. I never felt comfortable in the Nairobi youth hostel because it was a huge room of over 20 beds, albeit mostly empty, and I barely exchanged a word with any of my roommates. But this room was my space, where I could put in my earplugs, lock the door, and ignore the rather odd noises coming from the streets outside. I'd forgotten what that feels like.

Still, I had to get up eventually, and I forced myself out around seven. They do breakfast here, and while it's only two slices of toast with butter and jam, there is also mango juice (the proper chunky kind) and a banana. A banana! Actual fruit! The Egyptians would have been appalled at such indulgence. Despite that, I decided I deserved a bit extra, and found a rather nice cafe in a rather nice little shopping centre in town. I got some cheesecake. Sometimes, you've just gotta let yourself have a bit of cheesecake.

The main task for today was to go to the railway station and verify that I could get a visa on arrival in Zambia. I went to the railway station, which isn't far, and was quickly informed that "the" railway station isn't where the TAZARA train leaves from. It leaves from the TAZARA station, halfway to the airport. Duh! And they don't have a phone number, so I'd have to go there in person.

So I took a taxi. You can take a daladala (in Kenya it's "matatu", in Tanzania it's "daladala"), but only if you know where you're going, which I don't. At least haggling the taxi fare wasn't hard: the receptionist had advised me that 6000 shillings is a reasonable price, and the taxi driver accepted that after a bit of prompting.

The TAZARA station is a rather imposing lump of reinforced concrete. The whole thing, line, trains, and terminals, was built by the Chinese as part of some cold war-era diplomatic chess move, and was clearly designed to impress the Tanzanians and Zambians with the triumph of Socialist Industry. But the building is a bit over-engineered for the traffic it supports, and I'd have much preferred if they'd economised on concrete enough to join the tracks up to the main line, so that I could catch the train from downtown.

The queues in the place are horrific. There's two, one for first and second class passengers, and one for the hoi polloi. The former was much shorter than the latter, which snaked its way around the lobby. But neither moved at anything faster than a snail's pace.

There was an English girl ahead of me in the queue, and she turned to ask me if she needed a visa. An excellent question, exactly what I was queueing to ask. We spent much of the wait speculating about precisely which hoops we'd have to jump through to actually be allowed on the train. Again, no matter what's happening, it's always nice to have an ally in the same position as yourself.

When we eventually got to the front, we were told that we did need visas in advance. Actually, he wasn't very explicit about this, but it was clear that we were at least being strongly recommended to get them in advance. So just as in Cairo, my time in Dar es Salaam looks set to be dominated by the hunt for a visa. However, this time there was someone else in the same boat, so at least we could share taxi fares.

Except that in fact, we opted to take a daladala back. Probably a mistake actually - with two people a taxi would have been economical enough, but I suggested it because I was keen to try figure the daladalas out. They look safe enough. We eventually found the right place to jump on. It was absolutely packed but after a few stops we both had seats, even if they were only tiny spaces. In a moment of confusion my friend managed to shout tickets for her two neighbours in addition to herself, and they spent the rest of the journey trying to chat to us in Swahili. This wasn't enormously successful, but I recognised a few place names and managed to describe my itinerary of the last few days.

We were delivered to the post office in the centre of town safely enough, and plotted our next move. It was only about midday and the Zambian high commission didn't open until 2:30, so we just went for a random walk around town. We had to fend of the occasional hawker trying to strike up a conversation, but there are also quite a few genuinely friendly locals who just want to say "hi". Picking which is which gets quite tricky, but I'm determined to break out of the shell I developed in Egypt and be civil to people.

We did have to get photos for the visa application, but I knew that they were available from the little shopping centre I'd found earlier. That also means I can't shave at least until I've safely got my Zambian visa, which is a disappointment. The beard currently resembles a saucepan scourer, itches constantly, and tends to velcro to my hair when the wind blows. It does not make me look even the slightest bit intrepid. But it's being recorded for posterity in visa applications all across Africa.

We also needed money. We tried lots of ATMs. My visa card worked after we'd tried two or three, but my poor companion, who was fresh off the plane and hadn't tried her card yet, seemed to have no luck at all. She wound up changing US dollars, but that's not a sustainable solution.

After grabbing some lunch from, I regret to say, Subway, it was time to visit the embassy. This is quite a plush place with the most wonderful soft sofas. It also has a rather neglected-looking plaque exhibiting all the products to which Zambian minerals contribute: lead pipes, copper wires, etc. I guess that's a lot more impressive at today's prices than it was when it was made. There were forms to fill out in duplicate, each requiring a photo, and a hefty fee. Actually not quite so hefty for me - British visitors have to pay 77000 shillings, but Australians only 30000. Who knows why, some half-forgotten diplomatic spat I imagine. The good news is that the visa should be ready by tomorrow afternoon, which means I have a couple of days to visit Zanzibar. Things are looking up!

My friend had to go off to phone her bank and get her card sorted out, and I headed off to the museum for the afternoon. The museum is housed in a horrible dim grubby concrete building, but it had a decent and well-organised collection of artefacts and really quite excellent English and Swahili captions. I didn't have much idea of the history of Tanzania, and the displays gave a great overview. There were good maps showing how Tanzania integrated into the Roman and Arab trade routes, with old pots and bottles to prove it. There were also fascinating pieces from the German imperial period, including administrative documents concerning the ownership and freeing of slaves. My favourite piece of all though is certainly Dr. Livingstone's actual laptop:

For dinner, I decided on the spur of the moment to visit the pub. And when I say "the" pub, at least going by Wikitravel, I mean the one and only pub in town, the Florida pub and restaurant. It's a bit of a walk downtown, and it was dark, but I thought if I strode quickly and purposefully I could make it without getting mugged. And I did find the place, only to discover a sign on the door saying it was closed until July 27th. Damn. So I purposefully and quickly strode all the way back again. Instead I just went round the corner for some cheap chicken and chips. Which was extremely unremarkable. There's good Tanzanian food out there, so I hear, but I haven't managed to get hold of any yet. I did get a bunch of finger-sized bananas from a vendor out the front. These taste so much better than the huge gassed things you get in Europe.

In the end, that ranks as a pretty good day. I was wrapped up in bureaucratic nonsense again, but this time transport wasn't so fraught, and I had some company the whole way. I even managed to get in some proper touristing. So I'm feeling quite pleased with myself right now.

Nairobi to Dar Index Dar es Salaam Day 2