One Month In

Categories Tanzania, Travel


 It’s been just over a month since I arrived in Dar es Salaam, and I’ll be staying til the end of April, give or take a few weeks.  Some of my foreign service friends may laugh at my commentary, but let’s remember, I haven’t lived overseas since I was an exchange student in France and Germany in 1999 and 2000.  I’m overdue. Compared to your average person, I travel a lot, from 6 up to 15 weeks a year so far, but parachuting into a hotel in the capital for two or three weeks for a particular project design, or an assessment, or an election… you don’t often get to absorb too much. If you’re lucky, you’ve got a weekend  you’re not working, to go see something, and you have some dinners with colleagues around town.  This was a big factor in my seeking out this opportunity, wanting to get the rhythm of life in another country, and see how the work we support from Washington plays out in the field.  So Tanzania came pretty quickly to the top of my list of possible destinations.  I’ve got some great colleagues here, and I’m excited to work with them! (The sun-washed proximity to the Indian Ocean doesn’t hurt either.)


The day to day facts of life aren’t different at a macro-level — I live in a nice apartment, commute to work where I have a cubicle in an office building, come home and cook dinner and sometimes work out.  But the details and the execution of this routine makes it a bit different.

Much of the expat community lives in pretty upscale part of town called Masaki, also known as “the Peninsula” that juts out from the coastline toward Zanzibar. Unlike some places I’ve visited, it’s perfectly acceptable to walk around (though the bajajis will honk at you, assuming the white person must want a ride). That said, it is HOT during the day just south of the equator, no matter whether the temperature is 80 or 90, which makes walking very far a pretty unattractive idea. You more people out walking for exercise in the neighborhood at dusk.  There are, however, some things you have to keep in mind.   There are no sidewalks, and many locals seem insistent on walking IN the road rather in the dust at the side, so keeping a close eye on the traffic for general safety is necessary.  Petty crime levels are very high across the city, from regular bag snatching to as the more dangerous “grab and drag” theft carried out by guys on a motorbike or even a car, targeting people walking along the road.   I know of two recent instances – a Canadian woman who nearly lost her arm from being dragged, and an American who just got a bit scratched up, and certainly shaken.  Bottom lines, you need to stay sharp and alert; it’s a bad idea to walk along the road with a shoulder bag or anything that might be seen as desirable; and best to walk facing traffic as much as you can. If you must carry a bag, make sure there’s little or nothing in it you don’t mind letting go of.  For grocery shopping or if I’m out on my own, the wallet and shoulder bag have been sidelined in favor of my phone and a small pouch with my cash, ID and ATM card that more or less fits in a pocket. Anything nonessential stays in the safe in the apartment.  I’ve definitely realized how much of my clothing does not have pockets.  Of course, for groceries, you have to carry bags, but the store is about a 10-minute walk from the apartment building, so this isn’t a big deal.

Many places I’ve been in the last few years had security concerns, and it was discouraged, if not actually forbidden to use any kind of public transportation or taxis.   Here, there’s a choice of dala dala (minibus of indeterminate age and safety, running fixed routes), bota bota (motorbike), bajaj (moto-trike with a cab for 2-3 people) or taxi.  The first two are discouraged for safety reasons. Taxis are our most common means of transport, but “taxi” means “guy whose number you have who drives a semi-beat up minivan and coordinates business with 4 or 5 other guys who also have beat up minivans.” My main guy, Michael, gets a lot of business from the Embassy community.   He moved to Dar from Arusha a year or so ago seeking economic opportunity and education.  Fares range from 5000 Tsh ($2.50) within the neighborhood to 10,000 Tsh ($5) to get to the Embassy and $10-20 to downtown, maybe $30 to the airport.  Rather than take the Embassy shuttle to work at 6:47am, I carpool by taxi with 5 other women who are living in the same apartment building. That half an hour makes a huge difference to a non-morning person, and it ends up cheaper, $8-12 a week instead of $25.

Groceries are comparatively expensive, Even staying away from imported specialty items, I easily spend $100 if not more per week. Since it’s a primarily cash-based economy, and I don’t like to carry too much cash if I’m walking, I’m careful not to buy too much at once. I buy locally produced products as much as I can if I’ve tried them and found them decent, but a LOT is imported, be it from India or the Gulf or Lebanon or Europe or the States. Cheese will run you $8-25 depending on the kind. Canned tuna runs about $5 a can.  A lot of kitchen utensils must be imported because — $15 for a crappy plastic cutting board? $22 plates from France? I remind myself that I will be getting per diem reimbursement, so that takes the sting out.  Still, I’d rather be saving! Including social obligations (dinner out, a ticket to Marine Ball, park entrance fees for a day trip), I’m running $200-250 in cash a week. I write a check at the Citibank teller at the Embassy and take away an envelope of cash ~ 500,000 Tsh, where the largest denomination is 10,000 Tsh ($5), and the smallest is a 50 Tsh coin (2.5 cents). I keep $50-75 on me most times, and the rest is in the safe.

Anytime I buy something I have to do the mental math, which is fortunately reasonably straightforward. I see 20,000 Tsh or 30,000 Tsh for a bottle of wine, and get preemptively outraged at the number, til I remind myself it’s $10-15. And then I find the cheap bottle I bought on a whim that I really liked for 9,950 Tsh. 🙂

Work wise, some interesting work has been side-barred for a bit in order to get through annual reporting season, but hopefully we’re looking at the light at the end of that particular tunnel.

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