April 23, 2010

Jekyll and Hyde.

Andrei has teased me endlessly since his arrival into Dar es Salaam that I convinced him to join me here on a juxtaposition of “sales pitches”. One moment I was claiming this was a tropical paradise and he would be a fool to miss out on the opportunity to join me here, the next this was a hell hole from which he needed to save me.

Admittedly, these competing insights into the new place I was learning to call home reflected an incomplete and unsubstantiated understanding of the city. But, the truth is, as we continue to experience it, Dar es Salaam seems to offer a split personality. An evening of drinks at our favorite bar overlooking the sea with a perfectly shaped crescent moon hanging in the background precedes our exit that will surely include a heated, ugly argument with a taxi cab driver to secure a fair price home. Tropical rainstorms that ease the burden of equatorial sun and heat are followed by an onslaught of hungry, swarming mosquitos coming in to feast. An afternoon diving into the Indian Ocean and snorkeling with tropical fish around a sunken ship allows us to forget the frustrations of work and the intensity of our commute come Monday. A fridge full of the fresh catch of the day brings great excitement and introduces welcome variety to the otherwise mundane line-up of food options only to be spoiled by prolonged power outages the next afternoon.

And so it seems, my original assessments may have not been so far removed from the truth. I believe we are privileged to experience, or at least have insights into, some of the best of what Dar es Salaam has to offer, and we are certainly shielded from some of its very worst. We live in a neighborhood deemed “unworthy” and “uninhabitable” by some ex-pats that reside in $4500/month expansive houses on the peninsula (of course, largely subsidized by their employers according to safety concerns). Yet, our apartment is home to running water, modern sanitation services, a (sometimes functional) back-up power generator, and 24 hour security guards, luxuries unthinkable to most of our Tanzanian counterparts.

We once received poignant advice from our friend’s 17 year old daughter, she said, “You have to look around and be appreciative, you have so much more than most Tanzanians.” She is right of course, but there was something surreal about receiving such advice from a surly teenager who lives off the full support of her parents. Andrei was also keen to later point out that most of our “peers” are not Tanzanian, they are instead the very ex-pats along the likes of her parents, here on fully supported packages, who by comparison appear to have much, much more than us here.

At the end of the day, whenever we feel trapped or stifled, we need only remind ourselves that we are a mere few clicks of a mouse away from an escape route out of here. We have options, and above all, we have the ability to choose the lens through which we decide to make sense of our surroundings.

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