October 12, 2015 by Pastor Ben McIntire
It’s a strange feeling, stepping into a foreign place, stepping onto a continent where you’ve never been before. On stepping off the plane in Amsterdam, my first thought was, “It looks just like home. Deciduous trees, green fields, cars and roads; I could be in Iowa or Minnesota or Pennsylvania.” The interesting part, the time when you really feel that you’ve left the familiar is when you’re surrounded by the new varieties of people, the strange languages and accents. One could make the point that a similar experience may be found at our local Walmart in Storm Lake, a small town in Iowa where 12,000 people nevertheless bring 27 languages into the public schools. Still, one can tell, not only by hearing, but also by sight that this is indeed a place unknown. Facial features, hairstyles, strange brand logos, not to mention skin tones and the obvious exotic clothing lend clues to the origins of these people. Slender Scandinavians with their fine straight hair and light-colored eyes. The stylish and dark people of Italia. The underdressed and overfed Americans, of which I am firmly in keeping. The obvious Indian in sari, the East African wearing the colorful dashiki that makes me think of pajamas. The exception is the ubiquitous business suit, filing American, Asian, European, and African under E for Executive.
It feels strange too, to hear and read so much English when you travel. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great when you are an American and don’t know much in any other language. But it feels a bit selfish, or like you’re being indulged for your ignorance as a citizen of the richest and most powerful nation the world has yet seen. For me it was a surprisingly uncomfortable and humbling feeling. Still, I managed to find a Starbucks, order the same latte, and pay in American dollars. So how uncomfortable could I have been, really?
Arriving in Africa at Dar es Salaam, however, was a much different experience. Stepping onto my second new continent of the day was a far greater adjustment. For one thing, we arrived around ten o’clock at night and could see very little of the landscape. English was still spoken to us, but with greater difficulty by those speakers. Our first encounters were friendly enough, especially with Frank Mwakatundu, our escort and guide in Dar. Transactions with the airport personnel, currency exchange, and hotel staff were more awkward, but not a bad experience at all. Even the little things that you learn when you travel abroad added to the sense of adventure and the unknown: foreign power outlets that required our adapter, remembering not to brush your teeth in water from the faucet, little spray hoses to assist the flushing of toilets, and measuring the temperature of the (thank God!) well functioning air conditioners in degrees Celsius.
By the grace of God, the skills of Dutch airline pilots, and the generosity of our congregation members at St. Mark Lutheran Church, Monica and I arrived safe and sound in Tanzania. Tired but happy, (and not even crabbing at each other!) we spent our first night in Africa at the Rainbow Hotel in Dar es Salaam, about twenty minutes’ drive from Julius Nyerere Airport. Frank Mwakatundu got us and our hiking packs and suitcases loaded into a clean and well-maintained van. I tried to sit in the driver’s seat, forgetting that Tanzanian drivers sit on the right and drive on the left side of the road like the British. Tanzania was a British colonial holding after Germany lost its rule of Deutsche Ost Afrika following World War I. Tanganyika and Zanzibar gained independence from British authority in 1961 and 1963 respectively, then joined to form the United Republic of Tanzania in 1964.
The short, dark ride to the Rainbow Hotel did not avail much besides city roads still crowded even at midnight with vans, motorcycles, trucks, and ancient Japanese cars decorated with dents, patches, and the scars of traffic in close proximity with little regard for the lines painted on the roadway. Also a bit unnerving was the fact that Frank locked the van doors at the first stoplight and rolled up the electric windows any time we stopped. Still, we made it to the hotel without incident, the greatest danger seemingly the other drivers, especially the ones in buses and trucks larger than us.
My first impressions during that dark ride were not very generous toward Dar es Salaam, I’m sorry to say. It must be a very crowded place for so much activity at midnight. I suppose you’ll have that in a city with over four million souls. The streets were lined with trash and dirt. Everything looked like it had once broken down but was now operating in some new reincarnation, occasionally for the same purpose for which it had originally been designed. But in a place where “working order” is a blessing and “new” is nearly unheard of, making due and repairing are invaluable skills.
Our hotel was not bad, first and foremost the air conditioner worked well. Next, the toilet was basically what we were accustomed to, something we had heard tales about from travelers who had gone before us. My one complaint was the awful pillow on the otherwise average bed. It was so lumpy, it felt like I was laying my head upon a sack of potatoes.
Maybe it was the tuber-filled pillow, or perhaps it was simply adrenaline from our arrival in Africa; whatever the reason I just could not fall asleep. And so it was, after nearly twenty-four hours of travel and perhaps two hours of sleep over the previous two days, I lay awake until after two in the morning with my alarm set for five o’clock.