Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tanzania Part 2

Continued from Tanzania Part 1:

4. In the movie 'The Last King of Scotland', there is a scene where the not-so-lovable Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin (played by Forest Whitaker) has just seized power over Uganda by a military coup and he is just about to give a speech to some villagers in an attempt to reach out to them. All he does is raise his hands and say 'Habari' (meaning "What's up" for the Swahili-challenged folks including me)and the villagers go into raptures and give him the most rousing welcome ever known to any mass-murdering dictator. I tried the same thing in Tanzania (Swahili being spoken there too) - mouthing a confident 'Habari', but not for me the cries of joy. All I got was a smile and then a long answer which I barely understood. I usually had to slink away smiling stupidly as if my smile made up for my complete lack of Swahili skills. Some morals of the story that I wrenched out of this: (a) Forest Whitaker had the director to say 'cut' as soon as he said 'Habari' and I did not. (b) If all you know in a language is one word, don't try to act too confident and say it, because a hello can be equally conveyed with a smile and a wave of the hand. (c) If you want people to go crazy with joy when you say Hello, become a ruthless dictator. Forest Whitaker/Idi Amin might just have given a new meaning to the Jerry Maguire line, 'You had me at Hello'.

5. Definitely go to a national park. Seeing a lion in the wild may be one of the most thrilling things you can experience.

6. Always carry a photocopy of your passport and visa. Do not take out your passport, if you can get by with the photocopy. The people of Tanzania may be friendly but the police may be not. Worse yet some of them are not in uniform, so it is difficult to find out if you are dealing with a genuine policeman or a con-man. I was stopped by 2 policmen on different days and asked for my passport. Both had identity cards, one in Swahili and the other in English. The Swahili one could have been a con job, I am not sure. But the English one was definitely not. Corruption runs so rampant in the police, that even the Indian police would be put to shame.

7. Expect to see a lot of Indians. Most of them have lived in Tanzania for generations and are mostly business people. Since there were all these Indians around, it does make me wonder how both the times the police knew that I was not a local. Just in case you have any doubt, let me make it clear that I was not exactly dressed like Michael Jackson out on a concert.

8. You will see a lot of Maasai and they are hard to miss because they usually are in their traditional attire - a toga like sheet wrapped around their shoulder and many of them have a long wooden stick/staff in one hand. The Maasai are also much taller than the rest of the locals. The shortest Maasai man I saw was 6 feet tall. I now understand why in the 1994 B-grade Hollywood film 'The Air Up There' , Kevin Bacon had to go to a Maasai village to recruit a basketball player.
One of the professors from the university told us that many of the Maasai we saw in traditional attire could very well be college graduates or even people with masters degrees. They are fiercely proud of their tradition and no amount of modernisation or education would make them leave their traditions behind. Once I was checking my email in an internet cafe and in walked a Maasai warrior in a red flaming toga. He leaned his stick against the wall and sat down at the computer next to me. He checked his email, surfed the net and left. I still smile when I think about it.

9. As you would expect in a poor country, there are lots of street vendors and tourists are approached with a lot of 'zeal'. You just have to learn to deal with it. Growing up in India gave me a really good training for this. Also, if you travel by taxi, always settle on the fare first. Even after you settle on a fare, you are bound to get asked for more during the ride. As I was headed to the Dar-Es-Salaam airport, the cab driver was complaining constantly about how the fare we had agreed on was so little (although I knew it was more than the normal fare). Back home in Bombay there is a term in Hindi for this complaining - 'R.... R...' - a term that I cannot use on this family-friendly blog, but a term that will be recognized by many of my friends, most of all by SB, who uses this all the time whenever some one complains. Just when I could take no more of the taxi driver's yapping, I told him that if he was a man, he should learn to honour his word. That surprisingly shut him up. So maybe this is something you could try in a similar situation.

11. You may go through culture shock when you reach Tanzania or even reverse culture shock when you come back. For me, it was largely the latter one. The places in Tanzania that I visited could have been any rural place in India except that the people looked different, so I had absolutely no culture shock. But when I was flying back, I had a long stopover in Zurich. Just looking at the swanky Swarovski, Dolce and Gabbana shops at the airport made me want to throw up with disgust at the excesses they symbolised compared to the bare-necessity shops I had gotten used to. The reverse culture shock got better by the time I was back in the US and it also helped that I have not gone to any place which houses any kind of luxury stores ever since I came back.

12. If you are an American citizen, this may be the best time to go to Tanzania. Only time will tell whether Barack Obama can resuscitate the economy but he may be the best thing that has happened to American tourists in Africa.

There are many more things I can pen down here but it would be best if you just pack your bags, take a few weeks off and discover this beautiful country for yourself.