This past week, I had the cool opportunity to host a friend here in Dar es Salaam. Its not often that I get visitors all the way from the U.S., so I invested considerable thought into how to maximize her week so as to get the best possible introduction to this beautiful city I call home. Now that the week is over, and I’ve had a bit of time to reflect, I thought it would be fun to write a blog post that in some small way welcomes all of you to Dar es Salaam. So, KARIBUNI!
When you arrive at the Julius K. Nyerere International Airport, the first step is to obtain your visa, which generally, if you are American, means handing over your passport, the little blue visa application you received on the plane, and $100 to the nearest immigration officer. After waiting for awhile, another immigration officer will eventually return your passport, at which point you can proceed through passport control and collect your bags. Outside, as the wall of heat and humidity hits you like a slap in the face, start to scan the mass of faces standing outside the arrivals entry. Most likely, I’ll be the only mzungu (white person / foreigner) in a sea of black faces–as I told a recent arrival, “Look for the tall white girl with dreads. I won’t be hard to see.” As we walk out to whatever borrowed car I’m driving that evening (most flights seem to arrive at night?), don’t forget to get in on the left–the driver is on the right here!
Hopefully traffic won’t be bad, but either way, the bajajis, motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians on all sides of the vehicle at all times will likely be a shock to you. Don’t worry, its normal. I have driven here long enough to anticipate boda bodas (motorcycle taxis) zipping past both sides of my vehicle at high speeds, while avoiding the sometimes aggressive dala dala (bus) drivers. If traffic is bad, it might be a great time for your first Dar food experience: ice cream from a bicycle. Azam ice cream isn’t anything amazing, but it is a cool, sweet treat that makes being stopped in traffic less of a bother. The smells and sounds of Dar es Salaam range from the salty smell of the ocean, the appetizing aromas of street foods, to the odors of the garbage dumps, the overpowering smells of the fish market, from the beeping of horns and shouting of vendors hawking their goods on the streets, to the comforting regular sound of the mosques, of children laughing and playing, and even the pounding beats of nightclubs, and the blaring speakers of churches and trucks with loudspeakers driving down the streets advertising some mobile company or other. Throughout the course of your week, you will hear Swahili, English, and most likely, a number of other languages: Korean, German, Dutch, Spanish, Afrikaans, Danish, etc. It is a wild, diverse city that is predictable only in its being unpredictable.
I live (for better or worse) in the suburbs of Dar es Salaam. It is much quieter and closer to the beach (and work) than city center, but has less amazing street food. Over the course of your stay, you will experience buying fruit and vegetables from a roadside stand, a “genge,” where the salesman chooses the best fruits based on whether I want to eat them today or “kesho” (tomorrow). It only takes the first bite into a fresh mango, passion fruit, or pineapple for you to realize you are in heaven. Even a short walk down the street will look vastly different from many streets in the U.S., with enormous walled homes, small tin shanties, and various “dukas” (shops) selling everything from hardware to medicine to basic groceries all side by side. You will see people of all ages walking down the street in full suits, formal dresses, school uniforms, office wear, gym clothes, and the bright colors of traditional African fabrics. The streets are full of colors, activity, sights, and sounds. Even the money is colorful.
Eventually, we will make our way into the center of Dar es Salaam. Typically, the best way to do this is via dala dala. From my house, we can walk to the bus stop and take a bus straight to Kariakoo. Kariakoo is the largest market in the city, and the source of all things. The joke is that if you need something and can’t find in elsewhere, you can find it somewhere in Kariakoo. Beyond a large central market of fish, spices, fruits, and vegetables, there are streets upon streets of stores selling literally everything: clothes, auto parts, fabrics, household goods, hardware, home appliances, musical instruments, art supplies, etc. Kariakoo is exploding with life. The streets overflow with people and activity. It is probably one of my favorite places to just hang out and watch life happen (probably because I’m a bit crazy). It is also an easy place to “lose” your wallet or phone if you aren’t careful. From Kariakoo, we can walk towards City Center, which is a bit calmer and hosts untold numbers of vendors selling incredible street foods–samosas, chapati, sugar cane juice (its freshly pressed with lemon and ginger–delicious!), kebabs, and so much more. In City Center, one of the places I always take my guests is KT Shop–a small Indian tea shop that has been in existence since before independence. They serve chai and kebabs (and other things, I’m sure) that are, I think, the best in Dar es Salaam. If there is still time, we could walk a bit further, to “Temple Street” (I don’t even know the actual name of the street), where numerous Hindu temples line each side of the street, surrounded by various Indian restaurants, or even to Posta and the National Museum (which I have never actually been to).
The other part of Dar that you should venture through is Masaki, or “the peninsula.” This is the hub for the majority of expatriate activities in Dar, and depending on when you are visiting, you might be able to join me in playing volleyball or ball hockey (or any number of other sports). Most weekends, there is live music at some lounge, and often craft workshops. Masaki is also the home of various restaurants (Tanzanian, Thai, Korean, Mexican, Italian, etc.), cafes, bars, and lounges boasting a variety of dining and nightlife experiences. Because you are a mgeni (visitor), I will probably also take you to Slipway, which contains a number of shops where you can purchase souvenirs of all kinds, as well as a walk out onto the jetty to watch the sun set over the bay.
Because Dar es Salaam is right on the Indian Ocean, at least one day of your stay needs to be spent at the beach. Depending on your interests (and the weather/conditions), we could go stand up paddleboarding, kitesurfing, surfing, scuba diving, or kayaking. I would suggest a day, or at least an afternoon, at White Sands, one of the local beach resorts, as well as a full day at Mbudya Island. For around $40, you can take a boat to the island, pay your marine park entrance fees, and relax and eat fresh fish and chips on an island paradise. Its not a bad life.
Obviously, even if you have the fish and chips (which are amazing) on Mbudya, you should also take the chance to try some fresh seafood during your stay in Dar: prawns, calamari, tuna, kingfish, red snapper, lobster, etc. You could get these from almost any restaurant, or, if you’re feeling adventurous, we could make a trip to one of the fish markets. And, because every visitor to Tanzania should try some local foods, I recommend first trying chips and mishkaki (french fries and meat skewers). From there, rice or ugali with beans is a good option. Of course, street coffee, a good samosa, some chai, and a chapati or two are necessary foods. There are also a number of Tanzanian beers that could be considered “worth” trying. The most adventurous “foodies” could also try one of the many soups for breakfast.
Finally, if it is your first visit to Africa, its worth spending the cash to go on safari. Where you go depends a lot on how much money you want to spend and how much time you have. One of my favorite short trips is to Sadaani National Park. There is a small family-run eco lodge that is about 30 km north of the park that is my absolute favorite place of anywhere I have ever stayed–delicious food, friendly and helpful staff/owners, and beautiful lodgings. It is right on the beach, so gives the option of combining a beach holiday with a safari. On this last trip, we also managed to stop in Bagamoyo to see a bit of the history surrounding the East African slave trade, the German occupation of Tanzania, and Livingstone’s journeys through Tanzania. Mikumi National Park is only a bit further from Dar, and offers greater chances of seeing more animals. If you have more time and a higher budget, Ruaha National Park (feasibly accessible only by plane) is really nice, and of course Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park in the north. Zanzibar and Kilimanjaro are also popular holiday destinations, but I don’t typically consider them part of a introduction to Tanzania.
If you also accompany me to school, church, Bible studies, grocery shopping, Young Life club, and in general through every day life, these things will easily fill a week’s visit. But, if you, like me, catch “the Africa bug,” and find yourself homesick before you ever leave, then, KARIBU TENA!