Tanzania is a large populous country in East Africa bordered by Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, and the D.R.C. Home to some 81 million people, Tanzania has long been one of the poorest countries on earth. Today the country’s economic prospects are quickly changing thanks to growing foreign investment, large new infrastructure projects, and an extended tourism boom.
From the gleaming skyscrapers of Dar Essalam to the misty mountains of Mbeya and rustling bushland of the Serengeti, Tanzania is probably the most destination-stacked country in Africa. The Tanzanian government aware of this and makes a concerted effort to fleece tourists of as much cash as possible.
Be warned that although everyday living expenses are quite cheap, travel expenses are very high thanks to unrestrained government rent-seeking in the tourism industry. Paying all the taxes associated with visiting Zanzibar cost me an arm and a leg, so I had to skip all the national parks, the inflated fees of which were worth a fortune in their own right.
The Long Road to Dar
Riding buses in Sub-Saharan Africa can be pretty painful, so we hitchhiked the entire diameter of Tanzania starting at the southwest border with Malawi. We slept two nights in a slum at the edge of Mbeya, Tanzana’s fourth largest city, before continuing the long journey to the capital, Dar Essalam.
Our truck driver seemed confused when we asked him to leave us in the middle of Sao Hill Forest. The sun was setting, so we knew we had better set up camp. We pitched the tent on a plantation at the edge of the forest where we heard the distant hum of machinery. We angled the tent to be hidden from the view of the watch tower.
This was John’s first time camping in Africa. From then on, the two of us would often squabble about where and when to set up camp. Our gut instincts told us different things. And there was a lot of pressure. If we got dropped in the wrong place, then we’d be screwed. If camp wasn’t set up before sunset, we’d be screwed. If the wrong person or animal discovered us, we’d be screwed. There were dire situations and a lot of ‘I told ya so.’ But through it all, there was an exhilarating sense of freedom.
In total, we spent five days and five nights on the journey to Dar Essalam from the border. We passed through mountains and forests, grasslands and deserts.
At one pit stop in a village that specialized in garlic production, I wandered around alone while John ate with the driver. I was confronted at every turn by loud and abrasive hecklers calling after me “Mazungo!” I soon realized that what looked like aggression was actually just excitement. They wanted to show me their garlic. They wanted to welcome me.
At last, when the vast expanses of arid scrubland were interrupted by an abrupt burst of greenery, we knew the coast could not be far.
Arriving in Dar felt like a breathe of fresh air after months of wandering Africa’s dusty interior. Dar Essalam, Tanzania’s sprawling coastal economic and cultural hub of more than 6 million inhabitants, is one of the fastest growing cities in the Africa. With skyscrapers, orderly streets, a great food scene, and a rapid transit system, downtown Dar was brimming with the cosmopolitan thrills and comforts that had evaded me since Cape Town.
Dar Essalam hosts a huge centuries-old South Asian community that owns and runs most formal businesses in Tanzania. Dar also boasts sizable Arab and Persian communities and a multicultural food scene to rival anywhere in the world.
Our host in Dar was a shady guy named Abbas who placed us in a hostel, payed for it, then ghosted us after our first dinner together in Dar. What was that about?
A short ferry ride away from Dar is the fabled island paradise of Zanzibar. More than serene beaches and idyllic honeymoon spots, Zanzibar was one of the great trading hubs of the world in the premodern period and the global epicenter of the East African slave trade.
Islam came to Zanzibar through trade with the Arab Gulf, Persia, and India during the 8th century and flourished under subsequent Omani rule. The vast majority of Zanzibaris today are orthodox muslims.
Zanzibar was governed by the Portuguese for nearly two centuries until the Omanis of the Arab Gulf invaded and captured all Portuguese holdings on the Swahili Coast in 1698 at the invitation of disgruntled local elites. The capital of the Omani Empire even moved to Zanzibar for a time during the early 19th century.
Zanzibar is famous for its intricately crafted doors, which reflect a blend of Omani, Persian, Indian, and Swahili influences. Door-making is a dying art, however, and most of the original doors have been sold off to wealthy tourists and luxury hotels, leaving behind only the frames.
That the world’s preeminent maritime power at that time, Victorian England, was militantly abolitionist did not bode well for the 19th century Sultans of Zanzibar, whose vast fortunes were made from the global slave trade. Ongoing squabbles between the British and the Oman-Zanzibar elite over the future of slavery culminated in a recalcitrant Zanzibar being forced into the position of British protectorate in 1890.
After dismantling the slave market, the British built an Anglican Church on the site as a monument to the extraordinary suffering the market saw over the centuries. In Zanzibari society today there is still a classist stigma attached to being a descendent of slaves.
We met around a dozen American peace corps volunteers at out hostel in Zanzibar. They invited us to join them at a beach villa they rented out on the other side of the island. We thought it would be interesting hearing their stories about daily life as Americans living in remote Tanzania, so we decided tp join for a day and night.
The ocean by the villa disappeared the next morning pre-tsunami style, receding for miles, giving sea farmers a few hours to cultivate their seaweed patches before the water comes surging back in the afternoon.
A Belgian guy we met at the hostel invited us to sail to a small island off the coast of Zanzibar called Prison Island.
Traditional dhows sailboats, which have been plying the Indian Ocean for millennia, continue to dock in Zanzibar loaded with goods from across the Swahili Coast, Arabia, and South Asia.
As the name suggests, Prison Island is home to an infamous decommissioned prison where rebellious slaves were kept and which later became a quarantine hospital for folks with yellow fever.
The British governor of the Seychelles gifted four of these tortoises to the Sultan of Zanzibar in 1920, some of which are still living on the island today along with dozens of their descendants. The tortoises actively seek “massages” from guests. They lift their shells up so you can reach inside and make them feel good.
When we got back to mainland Tanzania, I felt over-traveled and done out. I was ready to go home, but my flight out of Mombasa was still a month away. John was to continue on to Arusha regardless because his trip was much more compact the mine.
I hinged my decision on John: If he decided to take a bus to Arusha, I would wish him safe travels and remain behind in Dar until I feel motivated to move on. Alternatively, if he decided to hitchhike, I would accompany him (because that made the itinerary forward more palatable to me).
John decided to hitchhike because apparently he wasn’t ready to say goodbye.
Around midnight on our first night camping on the road to Arusha, I woke up to John tapping me and bright light shining into my eyes. Instinctively I screamed before I could even register what was happening. There was a man with a machete outside our tent.
An extended back-and-forth conversation ensued between he and John. John was tense, his back hand reaching for his knife just in case it proved necessary. The man asked many questions. He said he was a farmer on his way to visit his fields when he noticed our tent, which is what I had assumed
When it was all over, John wanted to move the tent, but I vetoed the idea. “It’s the middle of the night. It’s dark. We have nowhere to go,” I protested. “Let’s just go back to sleep.”
Moshi, the gateway for Mount Kilimanjaro, was our first city in three days. We were just transiting, but I wanted to visit this beautiful white mosque before we left. A man in a white tunic and skullcap invited us to come inside and pray to Allah, which I gladly did while John looked on uncomfortably.
We then continued on to Arusha, Tanzania’s second city. Our host in Arusha was a sharp, high-functioning Cameroonian expat named Christelle. She was in Tanzania to work as a high-end tour guide. She lives in a typical American-suburbs-style house with a yard which quickly became our escapist hideaway from the city’s chaos.
Arusha wasn’t the gleaming light at the end of the tunnel that I had hoped it would be. As Tanzania’s second most populous city + tourism capital and the seat of big multilateral institutions like the East African Community, I imagined Arusha might have some of the organization and comfort of Dar Essalam.
Instead the city was as squalid as anywhere on the continent. Getting anywhere in the city was an exasperating chore. Regrettably, I spent most of my time in Arusha just laying on the floor reading the Qur’an and daydreaming about New York City.
Not Your Mother’s Route to Rwanda
The bus-vs-hitchiking scenario resurfaced when it was time to leave Arusha: If John decided to take a bus to our next city, Mwanza, I’d quit, flee across the border to Nairobi, and recover my mood within the comfort of a well-appointed city. If he decided to hike it, I’d join. Just as before, he decided to hike it to maintain my fragile companionship. Off we went.
My goal was never to coerce John into hitchhiking. For the sake of compromise, I did try several times to endure the bus. But I was never very successful at that:
On the bus, sweaty strangers would box me in on all sides and sit in my lap. Sand storms would sweep in through the open windows and fill every orifice. We were jolted and jerked and thrown about like rag dolls as the moribund buses barreled down cratered dirt roads. We had to brace for the imminent possibility that the bus would flip over at any moment.
But that was when the bus was actually moving, which is a comfort in itself because buses in Africa spend most of their time idling. There was no way to know what time a bus actually was to depart. It could be leaving in 20 minutes or 12 hours. Nobody, not even the driver, could tell you. But you don’t get out of the bus during this time or you risk losing your seat, so you just wait inside patiently, beads of sweat cascading down your face, as the sun transforms the bus’s packed metal cage into a broiling vector oven. Once the bus actually starts moving, it could be held up for hours at checkpoints by rent-seeking police or pause indefinitely in a random town simply because the bus driver is tired.
Hitchhiking was rough but riding the bus was abject misery.
After the spooky visit from the farmer with the machete, John wanted to try a different approach to sleeping in the wilderness: Instead of illegally squatting on someone else’s land after dark, we would approach the land owners and ask permission to set up camp on their land.
We climbed up a steep hill to a cottage where we found a farmer lugging bails of wheat. He was a young guy, bundled in sweater and scarf, with a stern mirthless demeanor. He agreed to put us up for the night and led us to a ranch house where he offered us his own bed. We told him we would just camp inside the living room, which was empty.
I used Google Translate to translate the farmer and his families’ voices to English and mine to Swahili. I do not recommend this. GT was not only strikingly inaccurate but also downright malevolent, turning the most innocent niceties between us into threats and dark comments. In the end, just hand gestures and body language would suffice.
There are three things that I remember distinctly about our very last ride in Tanzania.
One was the freakishly large marabou storks that stalked many of the settlements we passed through on the road to Rwanda .
The second was that our driver, a middle-aged Rwandan man, threw newspapers and morsels of sugar cane out the window. Children scrambled to pick them up. We let one eight-year-old school boy ride with us (a huge no-no in the United States!) and dropped him off at his family’s thatched hut an hour’s drive down the road. How could he possibly walk that far to school and back every day?
The third thing was that our driver and his co-pilot began acting very suspicious as we neared the border. They stashed bags of rice into the cavities under their truck. The co-pilot got out in a random village and the driver dismissed us at the border and avoided eye contact with us in the immigration queue. Whatever he was smuggling, he didn’t want us to get entangled, which we appreciated.
Our Tanzania experience was atypical: we couldn’t afford a safari through Serengeti or Mikumi, nor a hike up Mount Kilimanjaro or the Ngorongoro Crater. These are Tanzania’s mainstays. What was our trip without them?
Yet we saw a side of Tanzania that most visitors never will because they have too little time and too much money. One day I will return to Tanzania. I will have money. I will hit all the spots that I was priced out of. And, regrettably, I will probably never hitchhike, couchsurf, or camp through Tanzania again. I will never be that young and broke.
So I am glad that I did. And I am glad that I was.