Oh Tanzania.

I can’t decide whether I love Tanzania or hate it.


The flight from Lusaka was smooth and self-seating, I got to choose my own seat and had a whole row to myself. I got the aisle seat, AND the window seat, and I got to lay down, and I got two seat-back trays to hold my food and drinks, which means that for the first time in my life I actually had enough room for all the little boxes and packets and cups that come with an airline meal. It was magical, and has never happened to me before, and left me favorably predisposed towards Tanzania. It was almost as nice as being bumped to first class.


Customs, however, was a nightmare. I filled out my entry sheet on the plane, so I was in good shape there. I smugly passed the dozen or so people who had not gotten their forms on the aircraft, and were left fighting over the two pens in a room full of blue forms. There was a water-damaged sign with an arrow that demanded I “GET VISA BEFORE PROCEEDING TO PASSPORT CHECK!!” The sign was aimed at a service window. The woman at the window was busy talking on a pink, glittery cell phone and polishing her nails, but she helpfully gestured me to the passport checkout counter. I frowned and mentioned that I needed a visa, and she frowned back, blew on her nails, and spouted a stream of rapid gibberish into the phone as she waved me forcefully onward. I took the hint.


The woman at the passport check counter had been sleeping in a nest of empty soda bottles and snack wrappers and was not amused when I tapped on the window and interrupted her nap. She paged through my passport like a flipbook before slapping it back down on the counter and giving me the stinkeye. “You got no visa. Go over there.” One pudgy, quivering finger thrust back to the counter I had just left. “Ma’am, I was just there, and she told me to come here.” “There, here, there.” She declared cryptically. “Ma’am, I don’t understand.” Her finger, still pointing insistently, waved in the direction of the visa counter. “No visa, no go. Go back.” I turned away, defeated.


I wandered around (presumably looking lost and confused, since I was), and eventually I was accosted by a large, angry fellow in a blue beret. “You need a visa to pass this point. The cost is one hundred dollars US.”


The man was standing under a large sign stating “VISA. $50US.”


I did a double take. “But the sign says-“ He held up a hand to interrupt. “Yes, the sign says fifty dollars. The cost is one hundred dollars.” I tried to argue. It was like arguing with a politician. He agreed, reasonably, with every single thing I said, and then told me again that the cost was one hundred dollars. We went through this cycle three times before I gave up. The man was immovable. Making conversation as I scraped together a hundred dollars from the contents of my pockets, I asked him if he had ever thought of running for a government office. His expression did not change from stony disapproval, which I took to mean that he was seriously considering it. He scooped the money and paperwork out of my hands and passed them through the counter glass before walking over to a man with a Chinese passport. As I watched my own passport disappear into a room full of bored men at computers, I heard the official tell the Chinese man, “You need a visa to pass this point. The cost is one hundred dollars US.”


Half an hour later, I was jolted awake by the man next to me, who pointed at the visa window, where they were holding up my passport and uttering a series of clicks and grunts that was either my name or a moderate asthma attack. I walked over to the counter and was photographed and fingerprinted. They gave me back my passport, and I paged through it to find that the all-important document that declared me yellow-fever vaccinated was no longer tucked into the back cover. As my heart rate elevated, I tapped on the glass. The man behind the window raised an eyebrow. “Hey, my yellow fever vaccination card is gone.” His mouth made an O shape and he tilted his head left and right, halfheartedly scanning his desk before looking up at me. “It’s not here.”


Not really the answer I was looking for.


“Man, I kind of need that card.” He contemplated this for a moment before thrusting himself out of his rolling chair and wandering out of sight. A moment later, he passed going the other direction. Another moment passed, and he came back. He eased himself back into his chair and took a sip of coke before he looked up at me again. “It’s not here.”


I might have raised something of a fuss at this point. He called over the politician from before, and that guy also made a cursory scan of the space behind the window before declaring my papers missing. He asked me if I had checked my backpack. Aflame with righteous indignation, I informed him that at no time in the past ten months had my vaccination papers left my passport, and there was no way they were in my backpack. I insisted he look again. To humor me, he turned in a circle and looked at each wall of the office. Upon completing his revolution, he leaned on the counter. “It’s not here. Look in your bag.”


Frustrated, I pulled out my travel documents folder and waved it at him. A yellow square of paper fell out.


It was my yellow fever vaccination. I felt a blush begin to creep up my face as I stammered an apology. The man raised a single eyebrow, conveying his scorn for everything in general and me in particular. Then he spun on his heel, took three steps, and demanded three hundred dollars from a trio of nuns.


I thought: I hate this country.


I made my retreat. The woman at the window barely looked at my passport before she waved me through. My bag had long since been pulled off the silent luggage carousel, and I grabbed it and breezed through customs. A pleasant man wielding a DEREK FELDMAN sign was waiting for me. He introduced himself as Theodore (call me Teddy), and one of the Word for the World translators from Morogoro, and called for a cab.


As we waited for the taxi to arrive, he told me that we’d spend one night in a hotel in Dar Es Salaam and move on to Morogoro. I acknowledged this and started looking around as we made small talk- and was astonished. Dar es Salaam was green! There were palms and flowering shrubs and trees and waving grasses, and not a single plant was dried or withered. I had not seen so much chlorophyll (or really any at all) since I left South Africa. I was hopelessly besotted, and my visa woes were forgotten. For this much green, I could forgive anything.


I thought: I love this country.


The cab rolled up and took us to our hotel. It was a short drive, just fifteen minutes or so, and Teddy ushered me up to a gorgeous room, complete with air conditioning and an oscillating fan. The room also had not one, but two mirrors! I hadn’t seen a mirror that wasn’t attached to a car since Lilongwe, and I moved back and forth gleefully between them, noting the tiny imperfections on my face that I had known were there but couldn’t examine minutely. After a bit of that, I noticed the bathroom. The shower was huge, and there was a water heater prominently displayed on the wall above the sink. I decided then and there that I was going to stand under the water until the water heater ran out.


I thought: I love this country.



And that thought lasted until I turned on the water. The entire building smelled like Port-o-pooper and rotten eggs slushie, and I wondered what was making the smell right up until the moment the shower water came down in an icy septic rain on my face. The water heater turned out to be just for show… which may have been for the better. Cold, the water smelled pretty bad. I shudder to think how it would smell when heated. The air conditioner didn’t work, either, although it did make some pretty sparks and lights and arcs of electricity when I turned it on. As I was wringing two hundred and thirty volts of invigoration out of my hand, Teddy knocked on my door and called me outside for dinner.


It wasn’t until we were eating that I noticed that his new cologne matched mine. He heard me sniffing and looked up from his goat platter with a chuckle. “This is a very nice hotel, but the water, hey! Does it smell. And the shower! Phew.” He laughed his easy laugh again and grabbed another handful of goat.



I thought: Oh, Tanzania. You confuse me.


Tomorrow: Morogoro.