Getting back into the backpacking mode
05.07.2012 - 05.07.2012
This article has to begin with where we were before we got to Africa. We spent a nice comfortable month (June) in Poland with my mom taking care of us in her own apartment. We got to drop our backpacks and live out of a closet for the first time in months. With Poland being a relatively safe country we finally got to dress in something other than backpacker gear and carry around our jewelry, wallets and cell phones without worry. My mom took pleasure in preparing wonderful home cooked Polish meals for us and we took an even greater pleasure in eating them. After spending the previous 6 months on the road, often in places with less than stellar safety records, and fending for ourselves, this was just what the doctor ordered.
Throughout the month though we started getting fat and lazy. The idea of strapping on our backpacks and going into yet another country where we don't know the culture or the language was not as appealing as it had been at the start of the trip. The thought of having to deal with touts, rip-off artists, third world traffic congestion and safety issues was making us cringe. In other words we have become soft and were now considering spending the last month of our trip taking trains around Poland. We had to snap out of it! Thankfully the signs all started pointing in the right direction when we found a great deal on a return flight to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania. This combined with the idea of going back home from our "World" trip without visiting Africa was enough to push us over the edge. We decided to leave our comfortable little enclave and get back out there.
We started of by looking for accommodations in Dar Es Salaam on the regular hostel web sites but quickly realized this would be futile. The places that were listed were mostly hotels and they were extremely overpriced. It seemed this was going to be a bit like India and Nepal where booking ahead was usually a bad idea. However, given that we were flying in over night and would likely be too exhausted to look for accommodations we decided to book one place called Uplands Centre that seemed to be alright for a decent price. It was near the university so how bad could it possibly be? More on that later.
We landed at the airport in Dar early in the morning and right away we had our first cultural experience. We needed to get on-arrival visas which were not exactly cheap at 50 USD each. We filled out the forms and there were windows with government officials where we assumed we should line up to get those visas like we would anywhere else in the world. The surprising thing was that even though there were 7 or 8 windows only one of them appeared staffed despite the fact that there were at least 20 people behind the glass. We approached the window but the lady there quickly pointed to a guy on the other side of the room holding a stack of applications, passports and.... stacks of cash. Apparently we were supposed to give our passports, $100 in CASH and the applications to this guy.
We had no choice and we saw other people doing the same thing so we somewhat reluctantly followed the directions. Once the guy had collected what seemed to him to be the appropriate sized passport/cash/application stack he approached the window we tried approaching earlier and gave the entire stack to the girl behind it. There was no way as far as we could tell to determine which dollar notes belonged to which passports or which application so we obviously started worrying about what would happen if the count was off. The process behind the windows was very difficult to follow as it appeared only 3 of the people were actually doing anything, while the rest of the 20 were just looking over their shoulders. We stood there waiting and stressed out since we didn't have another $100 with us, and if our money got "accidentally" misplaced, we wouldn't have enough money to enter the country. There were no ATM machines around. The good news is soon enough both our names got called. We approached the window one by one, got our visas and passports and even a hand written receipt for our $100, and proceeded to enter Tanzania.
We used the usual negotiating tactics to get a slightly lower price on our drive into town to our accommodations. I hate having to get taxi's at the airport since you are more or less a captive consumer. The only chance you have is to get the taxi drivers to start bidding against each other but even that can only go so far when they size you up as a foreigner.
As we were passing through the city we were relieved to see that even though it was definitely the third world it was relatively maintained and clean. However as we entered the University grounds we quickly noticed it wasn't exactly what we thought. There was no campus in the western sense to be seen but rather sporadically spread out classroom buildings. We saw absolutely no foot traffic and nothing that looked like living quarters. We started getting even more uneasy as the driver kept on going and exited the University grounds on the other side entering what appeared to be a run down village. Then we saw the rusted over sign that Uplands Centre was just to the right, down this dirt road with giant pot holes that clearly wasn't meant for Taxi traffic.
We arrived at Uplands and quickly two things became apparent. The center/hostel/hotel was not finished and it has been in this half-finished state for at least a decade. Sure there was a couple of guys at the top banging their screw drivers against the bare metal beams and pretending to work but it was clear it was a show created on our account. The rooms were thankfully in the finished section of the building, which I think was once meant to be a conference center of some sort, but they were already falling apart. The door frames were badly bent and even cracked making the whole place look like it was sinking. There were TV's, sinks, western toilets and showers in the rooms but there was one minor problem with all this. There was absolutely no electricity and no running water.
We thought we're only staying for one night and after all the chances of the building collapsing exactly today are pretty slim. We don't really need electricity or TV so we decided to ask about the water. The girl that checked us in said "Oh, no water in your room? OK, she will bring water." pointing at what appeared to be the housekeeping girl. The housekeeping girl grabbed a broken plastic bucket and headed for the village well. We felt horrible and offered to help but she refused and put the water on top of her head walking it to our room.
We needed to pick up our tickets for our ferry ride the next morning so we asked how much a taxi ride to the port area would be. It turned out we were so far our of town that it would cost $20 and take over an hour each way. This was the last straw. We figured we could probably find something in the port area for $30 per night (we were supposed to be paying Uplands $35) and save money overall but also be closer to our departure point tomorrow. We asked for the check-in girl to call us a taxi to the port area without telling her why. We then appeared with all our bags and she knew what it was all about. She made a half-hearted attempt at getting us to stay or at least to pay the $35 for the night but to her credit she was very friendly throughout and did not push this.
Thankfully we had our trusty Tanzania guide book with us and we quickly found some recommended hostels in the port area that were all nearby each other. It was important to find an area with a number of them so that we could easily go from one to the other if they were full or asking unreasonable rates. We asked the taxi driver to take us to Jumbo Inn and he started talking about how it's a good place and he recommends it. Having been to other countries where taxi drivers take commissions we already knew what was coming so we were not surprised when he got out of the car with us. We told him that we didn't need any help and that if we didn't like Jumbo Inn we would just walk somewhere else but he persisted in acting as if he recommended it and brought us to the hostel. In the end we were too tired to play games and Jumbo Inn looked great so we just booked. I am not sure whether he got a commission or not but I did see him in a heated argument with the front desk lady a bit later. I think she read our expressions and knew very well this guy did not get her the customers.
All-in all everything worked out well and we got a good place to stay and picked up our tickets for the ferry to Zanzibar the next morning. There is nothing like a little adventure to get you back to backpacking mode. Welcome back to the third world Derek and Kristine!