Dar es Salaam
After visiting a few mostly white enclaves and small African towns, Dar es Salaam
was my first predominately-black, major city heading north. Aside from decaying old European-era buildings, because there is not much to see, the drab capital of Tanzania serves mainly as a commercial center and transit point for tourists visiting the offshore islands of Zanzibar.
A small contingent of foreign aid workers and businessmen are hardly noticed alongside African born Indians busy managing hotels and stores. From dusty, congested street-markets to grimy corner cafés, Dar es Salaam
has become pure African with little Western influence and no Western franchises. In matters of race, it’s a reversal of roles now being a minority judged by a suspicious majority.
But passive Tanzanians lead simple lives and don’t require overbearing authority to keep order. Except for scattered unarmed men in worn-out, blue polyester uniforms directing traffic, it’s hard to find a cop.
With rougher edges than villagers, city folk are always harder to approach, but even when idle young men stand staring from street corners, most are happy to talk if acknowledged properly. Swahili
was easier to learn than I first thought and like everywhere, greeting in native language buys instant acceptance and conversation. “Jambo! Haguri gani? Jina langu ni Glen. Nimekuja kutoka amerce kuku tembelea”
Hello, how are you? My name is Glen and I’ve come from America to visit you.
By five o’clock, I had made my first Tanzanian friend, a tall, heavy-set motorcyclist, who, although a third generation Indian, considers himself African. Preparing to meet his family for dinner, the unshaven Ali Hussein was closing his motorcycle workshop when struck with an unexpected vagabond’s wish-list for repairs. Shiite
Muslims are strict family men and staying late to work on some distressed foreigner’s faltering bike was the last thing on his mind. But once hearing my situation, he offered, “Since you are traveling such a long way, me and my men will work tonight.” But wrenching in the dark leads to errors and lost parts so we agreed to wait until sunrise.
In the morning, uncomfortable with his non-English speaking crew, when an overly concerned Ali Hussein suggested disassembling the entire drive section for inspection and cleaning, I argued that the rest of the motorcycle was fine and all that was necessary was to unbolt the rear swing arm to replace a worn chain and sprockets—a one-hour job with the correct tools. Fluent in Swahili
, Hussein turned, yelling words to his men that made them laugh aloud.
Curious as to the joke, I asked, “What’s so funny?”
“I told them that you are afraid of their skin.”
Embarrassed because he was right, I tried to deny it, “No that’s not it, I just prefer not to take things apart unless absolutely necessary. You never know what can break or get misplaced in the process.”—Still, the truth was, I foolishly questioned their competency because they weren’t Germans in white smocks.
“You worry that they won’t remember how to put it all back together?”--more comments and more laughter.
But Hussein is forceful and to my dismay, wins our debate, directing two young black men with callused feet, to disassemble the suspension mechanical arms for further inspection.
An hour later they handed me two sets of rusted bearings—the same ones we had just replaced in Borneo.
After riding the washed-away coast near Banda Aceh
, saltwater from low-tide beach-runs had leaked past protective rubber seals, corroding hardened steal balls and needles designed to spin free. Had this damage gone unnoticed, they would have disintegrated and left me stranded on the most rugged section ahead in Africa.
Hussein continued, “See, you don’t have to worry about my workers, they know their job.” Thirty minutes later, a winded errand boy returned with new bearings and fresh oil while another prepared a homemade arc welder to remove a stripped-out drain plug.
Annoyed at my constantly questioning each maneuver, Hussein takes me by the arm, “Come, let’s get out of their way so they can make everything new for our traveling brother. You need to see my empire”
Importing a dozen shipping containers a month, except for South Africa, Ali is the largest motorcycle parts distributor on the continent. This will be good news for Internet linked international riders who until now, have been unaware of his presence. In a Developing Country with limited industrial base, I am amazed to see a warehouse stocked with hundreds of tires and engine re-build kits. Yet skilled labor remained questionable.
A one-hour chain and sprocket swap had turned into eight with a lengthy list of replaced parts, but by the end of the day, a minor job turned major repair was complete. Preparing for the worst, my meek request for the bill was met by Hussein’s stern gaze. “There is no bill for you. My shop is absorbing the entire cost for our traveling brother.”
And he wasn’t listening to steady objections—even when insisting that I at least pay for parts only made him angry. “I have made up my mind, this is between Allah
Convinced of his determination, I made a final demand. “Okay but I’m taking you to dinner.”
Every big city has good restaurants but for travelers to find them unassisted requires extensive exploring with more misses than hits. Hussein knows of the best, where only black Africans go to eat. In north Dar es Salaam
, an empty block normally jammed in daytime traffic becomes a nighttime bazaar of street barbeque kitchens and temporary dining rooms of uneven wooden tables and flimsy plastic chairs. Hussein is well-known among crowds of jabbering patrons—even cooks and waiters shouted back and forth as we approached.
At first, ordering food was awkward as he issued commands to the cook without asking me what I wanted. With fierce expressions and aggressive verbal exchanges, both men dickered as though in serious confrontation about to turn violent. Suddenly, each was laughing and clasping hands while shirtless waiters in baggy shorts set down huge platters of sizzling lamb and chicken. Hussein translates. “I told them that this is my motorcycling brother who knows Judo and if the food is not good, he will kick your ass.” When the bill arrived for far more than two men could eat and drink, the scribbled numbers on a piece of torn paper only amounted to a fraction of a tourist area price.
Two days accompanying Hussein on his daily rounds of slapping countertops while shouting negotiations ending in laughter, was a fascinating side-journey into the business culture of Dar es Salaam
. Even the briefest glimpses into the lives of those in distant lands are the ultimate prize of adventure travel.
But the sourest moment of this unforeseen detour neared and after reminding Hussein of the sacred coin he promised, the time had come to say goodbye. As he closed his eyes reciting an ancient Shiite
prayer, a hundred-shilling
Tanzanian coin carefully folded in a printed handkerchief became a belief from the both of us that continued safety lay ahead. “When you reach Ethiopia, you must stop and give this coin to a poor man and Allah
will guide you the rest of the way.” As he shuffled his feet while looking down, I noted that Hussein also disliked goodbyes. With two sets of watery eyes, we touched cheeks Muslim-style with an enormous American bear hug. Tomorrow is Christmas and a long ride toward the northern plains of Serengeti.