Somehow, I have the great fortune of currently living on the peninsula in the striking city of Dar es Salaam. The apartment I’m hosted in by my kind friends features a yard filled with palm trees and exotic flowers and a deep, saltwater pool that I spend every afternoon in. Beautiful coastlines, yummy restaurants, novel shopping areas and hip bars are all just around the corner. It’s lovely and relaxing and sexy and the heat is a welcome change after coming from snowy Massachusetts.
But as I woke up yesterday morning, my heart craved a different scene. A wilder, more bonafide Dar. I wanted to see where the locals were.
Just a few days earlier I had found a list online. ‘10 Best Things To Do In Dar es Salaam’ it boasted. And right at the top was the Kariakoo Market. “Authentic” they called it. The locals spot. “But bring a guide!” it warned. No, not me. I got this.
So I called George, the taxi driver, and he picked me up. “Are you meeting someone at the market?” he asked as soon as I flopped down onto his leather seat. I started yanking the hem of my long skirt into the car. “Nope,” I said with a polite smile. He said nothing more about it and we talked and laughed all the way.
As we got closer the traffic backed up and there were people flooding the streets. I noticed he had stopped chatting and every so often he was looking at me through the side of his eyes, concernedly. “It’s big, Brynna. Very big. I think I should come with you.”
“Oh, that’s okay, George! I appreciate the offer very much, but no thank you,”
He shook his head and laughed at me. (I didn’t know it then, but that would be the first of many times I got laughed at that day.)
Just moments later he announced our arrival. He told me to put my wallet “here” as he tapped his breastbone and looked away uncomfortably. “Don’t take out your phone,” he said, paternally despite the fact that he’s around my age. “Call me when you’re done.”
I stepped out of the cool, air conditioned car and onto an uneven dirt road. It was sweltering hot and the air was thick with exhaust, and smoke and humidity. Cars were honking and people were screaming. I’m too stubborn to have admitted it even to myself, but I think I regretted not asking George to stay with me almost instantly.
A little nervous, I quickly chose a street and began to walk down it. Both sides of the road were packed with stalls and carts and tarps laid on the ground and covered with goods to sell. Tupperware and textbooks. Q tips. Countless pairs of unpackaged nylons, tangled up and being emptied from a duffle bag into the dirt. Piles of loose sandals stacked three feet high; a shoppers memory-matching game. Groups of women stood before mounds of unfolded clothes racing and digging to find the best loot. There were kitchen knives next to cell phones and avocados alongside hair relaxer.
I wandered, in awe for a while before I realized that almost every vendor was staring at me. Either fascinated or offended by my very existence, there seemed to be no in between. People waved hello with broad smiles or glared at me with an angry judgement I have only ever felt from a stranger when I met a new boyfriends former fling.
My apprehension caused me to forget all of the Swahili I had been teaching myself and whenever someone addressed me and I would nervously rack my brain for something non-english, I usually ended up blurting out a random Italian word. (Very awkward for all parties. Don’t recommend.)
All of my fellow shoppers were Dar native and seemed to know just where they were going and how to get there quickly. Multiple men shouted at me to “MOVE.” I began to walk so fast as I tried to stay out of the way that I barely stopped to look at anything, let alone buy. And I dared not take out my phone. George the driver was already right once. I didn’t want to make him right twice.
“Banana, Banana!” a man behind a grill yelled at me. He was grilling plantains. “Sure,” I smiled warmly and nodded, happy to stop moving for a moment. I gave him some money and he split one in half and pressed it down into the metal grates. He asked where I came from. “Mimi ni Mmarekani (I am american)” I said, thrilled I had remembered a bit of my Swahili. He didn’t seem to understand. I repeated it, trying to adjust my accent. He laughed heartily.
Another man came up and put out his hand. I placed mine in his and he shook it excitedly. He began speaking quickly with a thick accent. Some words in English but most in Swahili and I couldn’t understand. I kept shaking my head apologetically. His friends, sitting in chairs along the wall behind us laughed and laughed and laughed. Eventually he said, “Trump?” I gave a thumbs down and he grinned, “My sister!”
Soon I was alone again with my plantain grilling friend. As I watched him work, he bent down and pulled newspaper off of the top of a dirty construction bucket. He stuck his hand inside and yanked a fist full of raw meat out and placed it on the grill, most of which landed right on top of my plantain. He eventually deemed it finished, put it in a bag and sent me on my way. And I, the street food queen and the eater of cookies off the floor, decided it might be best to leave this particular plantain in the bag.
And so I found myself back in the winding maze of streets. After an hour more of the pushing and screaming and staring, I became overwhelmed by an emotion I rarely felt: intimidation. I wanted to find a main road and call George to pick me up right away. But once I got there I realized I had somehow deleted his number from my phone.
Lost and anxious and advised against hopping into random cabs but unwilling to admit defeat, I took off walking down the main road. I walked and walked for over an hour. Every so often I stopped to ask for Chagga Street, and would follow the direction of pointed fingers. The sun was beating down and my skin started to burn. And then it began to break out in dark red hives; heat rash. I kept walking.
I passed rows of people selling random goods along the freeway. A little girl on the ground beside her mother’s booth hopped up and ran to me with her hand out. I naively put mine in hers. We walked two blocks holding hands before I realized she was begging for money.
I walked, still. Was I passing the same torn and sun-beaten Pepsi advertisement over and over or are most of the walls here covered with these out of date posters? Some people waved hello. A car honked. I turned down dirt roads lined with vendors selling colorful fruits covered in flies.
Finally I stopped walking. An old man showing off a not so toothy grin came out from behind his soda cart. “Help?” He asked warmly. I put my hands together gratefully and smiled. “Chagga street?” I asked him. “Ah, right there, my sweet girl! He said, pointing. “Just left! Chef’s pride?” “But, of course!” I told him laughing.
He patted my back and sent me on my way.
I walked another block and took a left, as directed, and finally I saw it. The sign for the locally renowned Tanzanian BBQ joint. Food would make it better. Food is always the answer.
I walked in and a woman sat me at a table with two random men.
“What’s the best thing on the menu?” I asked the man with the Tanzanian accent.
“The chicken,” he said.