Monday, August 19, 2013

July 20, Dar Es Salaam. The Program Begins.

(As written in my journal that day; grammar and minor edits only. Italicized portions are additions written after the trip.)

Meggie takes a nap, and I'm too nervous to rest. Instead, I find a little 4-aisled supermarket in the hotel complex! My favorite thing when traveling is browsing a grocery store. Everything looks exotic, and everything gives a sense of how people really live. I also spot a "biologique" (organic) store, and please note the sign:

Gluten Free products! Even in Tanzania! Oh Americans with your made-up sensitivities. There's a need for your money everywhere!

(The sign that reads "movie theatre" points to a building where no movies are screened. Perhaps they used to be - or hope to be some day?)

In the store, I want to buy all the local jams and jellies for John, and try the milk and yogurts in a bag, but I only buy chicken curry snack crisps and they're Wonka-esque. Getting them to taste like curry seems manageable; but how do they get them to taste so much like a roasted chicken!? There are so many kinds of rice, a huge bag of refrigerated ginger I can smell, fritters behind the deli counter with meat rolls and big glazed sweet doughnuts. I even want to buy the little bok choy cabbages - if I had somewhere to cook - and a beautiful eggplant, as I'm already craving vegetables. I haven't had a good one since Portland. But I'm too scared of germs to buy more than the crisps and a big bottle of water.

I linger in the open-air lobby of the hotel, writing, appreciating the breeze, when a man in a blue Global Volunteers shirt pauses to look at me. I jump up and smile, and he ignores my attempt at a handshake. This is Edward, the country manager for Global Volunteers and our team leader for the next two weeks. He gives me a long hug, welcomes me to Africa, thanks me for coming. His energy is powerful, and commanding, but still gentle. He has a playful twinkle in his eye but also an intense authority.

We meet as a full group for dinner at 6 PM - we are 14. Our 15th person had an unusual reaction to a vaccine and had to cancel at the last minute. (I'm changing all the names here, as I didn't exactly ask direct permission to use them!) 

There is a family of 6 - parents Joe and Marie, and kids Kathy (16), Sophia (14), Gretchen (13) and Michael (11). At first I think Joe is kind of a dude's dude, and then I realize, he is the only man volunteering with us. And he is protecting his whole family from getting sick or hurt (physically or emotionally) and he's not a dude - he's just on High Alert. There are three older women friends from Denver: Diana, Jane and Leslie. And finally, there are three older women solo travelers: Nancy, Joann and Peg. Peg was here last year and at around 70, she strikes me as a bit frail; I think, how hard can this be if she's done it once - and is doing it again?

Now that we're together as a group, all our needs will be taken care of - and are included in the program fee. We're told the program will not pay for "strong drinks" and I roll my eyes when someone asks if that includes beer or is just spirits; yes, Edward says patiently, it includes beer. We're told to keep our meal selection at this waterfront restaurant to 18,000 Tsh (Tanzanian Shilling) or less; roughly speaking, 10,000 Tsh = $6. We can pay the difference if we want to go over or have strong drinks - I have an amazing chicken curry and am happy to pay extra. After all, we're close to the spice island of Zanzibar and the food in Dar is heavily influenced by Arabic and Indian residents, some of my favorite flavors these days. I offer Edward the 5,000 Tsh difference at the meal's end; he laughs and laughs, and waves it away. I'm confused. Did I misunderstand him?

The alcohol bill comes around, bypassing Meggie and I. We decided no drinking while in the program; this is a spiritual journey for us, and it feels like using anything that could numb us, or dilute any intense feelings, isn't fair and is an easy escape hatch.

There's much confusion about the bill and the toy-looking Tanzanian money in 10,000, 5,000 and 2,000 bills. Peg says, "If I spent only 14,000 on food, do I get 4,000 back for my wine?" She laughs as if joking - but you know the type of comment. She's actually looking for a favorable answer. In a sweet, firm response, Edward says, "Ah, the answer, well, the answer is no." And he goes on to explain that it means there can be a little more left for food at later meals or when grocery shopping, and he turns to me and says, "See? She has a little less, you have a little more. She haggles, you offer money - " He laughs, and I laugh. He holds his hands up as balancing scales and we both say, "Balance!" while laughing and I add, "You find it everywhere." He nods.

It's a very fitful sleep tonight. There is an all-night party out on the waterfront (it's not yet Eid, but it is Ramadan, and so the city comes alive at sundown). I get up at 3 for earplugs. Tomorrow's breakfast is at 7, and we have a 12 hour drive from here at sea level and a city of 3 million to the town of Iringa - population 200,000 and situated at 1600m (5200 feet of elevation). There we'll stay the night, and do all the shopping for Monday's journey to the village. 

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