January 25, 2010

Gettings Around.

Today I write with extremely happy news, although to be sure this is may be news that makes my mother’s heart palpitate, I now have my very own bicycle! I am smitten with this new purchase, not because my newly acquired secondhand bicycle is actually anything to get excited over (as compared to my cherished Surly cross-check tucked carefully away in our door-to-door storage box whose exact location remains a complete mystery) but because having a bicycle at my disposal alleviates one of the most challenging aspects of everyday life in Dar es Salaam. While the options are several, it is nightmarish to rely on public transport to get around the city.

The cheapest option is the dala-dala, a mini bus designed to seat anywhere between 15-25 passengers, depending on the make and model of the vehicle. The turnboy, in Dar slang Mgiga debe, is responsible for soliciting passengers, collecting money and issuing tickets. This nickname, meaning literally “he who forces things into a tin can,” is well earned as a typical dala-dala in rush hour traffic carries upwards of 50 people, involving acrobatic twists and contortions of the passengers to accommodate even further passengers. The name dala-dala derives rather simply from a loosely pronounced “dollar-dollar” because the cost of a ride originally was equivalent to one US dollar. Given rapid inflation rates of the local currency, the Tanzanian Shilling, this is no longer the case. Today January 23, 2010, one US dollar is equivalent to 1,347, it was 1,323 when I arrived into Tanzania on October 28, 2009. The price of a dala-dala ride now roughly equates to a little over 18 cents. While cheap, this transport option is less than pleasant. Sometimes my eyes tear up with the intense smell of body odor around me. When idling in traffic, sweat drips from parts of my body I previously thought impossible, including the nape of my neck and the backs of my knees. And then of course there is a fear of people doing you the favor of lessening your load by riffling through your pockets and belongings when crammed into such a tiny space.

Next up transport option is the bajaj. These three-wheeled, motorized vehicles are known as tuk-tuks in most places around the world. Here in Tanzania they have taken on the name bajaj after the Bajaj Auto Manufacturing company. Bajajs have flooded the market to fill demand for a transport option at a median price point between the dala-dala and a private taxi. While efficient and often fun, safe is not a word that comes to mind to describe these vehicles. The typical bajaj driver is a 15 year old boy who much like his teenage peers throughout the world has not developed a mature sense of risk aversion. In their mind, faster is better.

Exclusive reliance on private taxi transport would certainly crush my very modest budget for the year. At 250 Tsh per dala-dala ride the bicycle would pay for itself in a mere 320 rides to and from work. By comparison, for the price of the bicycle I could fetch a whopping 16 rides to work via private taxi at a consertatively estimated rate of 5,000 Tsh each way. One of the most frustrating aspects of securing private taxi transport is the lack of a fixed price – everything must be negotiated. Effective negotiations are enhanced by strong Swahili skills, and patience, including the ability to walk away in search of another taxi driver willing to take you to your desired destination at the price you know to be fair. In the minds of the taxi cab drivers a white face equals money.

A walking city, this is not, given perilous levels of dust, heat, and exhaust fumes combined with erratic driving behaviors and a general lack of sidewalks. But luckily, my route to work is lined 99% of the way with one of the few paved sidewalks Dar es Salaam has to offer. To date, Andrei and I remain carless, which is something we begrudgingly may be forced to reconsider at some point in the future. In the mean time, the search for a bicycle for Andrei begins.

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