Heed The Omens
“BITCH!!!” Momchil screamed in the middle of the dirt courtyard while motioning to the front gate.“YOU WANT OUT???? YOU WANT GO OUT????
But I wasn’t going anywhere. Not at 1:30 in the morning, not in Paje, Tanzania. As nice as the east coast beaches are in Zanzibar, its inland streets are something else entirely. Unlit, unpaved dirt, and unless you can find an open inn or beachfront hotel at that time of the morning, it’s a lot of rundown shacks, shanties, and abandoned, crumbling buildings. Quaint and raw island life by day, but more than a little sketchy by night.
Our argument was about wifi – or more specifically, lack thereof. If there’s one thing I’m learning about the continent of Africa, with the exception of Sumaya’s fantastic place in Nairobi, AirBnB descriptions and even reviews here have proven to be everything from less than dependable to outright fabrication.
“PEOPLE TAKE WIFI!” the sweaty, drunk Momchil had yelled just moments earlier.
I should probably take a moment here to note that Momchil is a man, and, as best I could tell by his accent, Russian. Also, he was wearing nothing but a towel.
Near nakedness aside, “PEOPLE TAKE WIFI!” was just the latest in a series of untruths he had told about what is arguably the most important amenity for a traveler like me, second even to hot water (which his AirBnB also promised, but failed to provide). I need wifi to get around my neighborhoods, find food, get shuttles and flights, find PCR tests, let friends and family know I’m alive, even get my next evening’s shitty accommodations – and Momchil’s had raised the bar on shitty. Trash everywhere. A kitchen sink from which tap water simply drained onto the floor. Stained bedroom floors. Insects all over the bathroom. In a word, it was disgusting.
“You want mosquito net?” he’d asked when I arrived.
“Yes, definitely,” I replied, looking at the empty posts above my bed where the netting should have been.
“Okay, I bring,” said Momchil.
But Momchil never bring.
“Are you saying someone stole your router?” I asked him in the courtyard.
“YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND! NO ONE STEAL! THEY TAKE!” he yelled again, pointing next door.
“I’m sorry, truly, but you’re right, I don’t understand…your neighbor…took your router??”
“YOU DON’T LISTEN!!!” he screamed now, exasperated, this time pointing more clearly to the next door house in the shared compound, another of his AirBnB units. “TAKE TO PARTY!”
What Momchil was claiming, apparently, was that the other AirBnB guests had unplugged the compound’s only wifi router and taken it to the beachfront techno party up the road. With or without his permission, I didn’t ask. But it didn’t matter. I’d been at that party. In fact, it seemed like everyone in Paje was there. It was an outdoor nightclub, and the idea that some tourists were going to take a router that didn’t work and didn’t belong to them to someone else’s outdoor beach club party in hopes of – well, what exactly? – was a lie akin to a paint-covered 5-year-old little explaining to mom that the cat was already shaved and rainbow colored when he got there
Momchil had been pent up, I would later discover, upset that I’d taken space on the community clothes line earlier that day to dry clothes I’d washed, by hand, in his cold shower. I would find them in a ball on a chair mixed with other guest laundry when I’d returned later in the day.
“A month of laundry,” he would write in his AirBnB review.
But three tees, a pair of shorts, two pair of underwear and two pair of socks hardly equate to a month’s worth of laundry. Then again, my pasty, swollen, sweaty host was wearing nothing but a towel, so who am I to say what he considers to be a month’s worth of clothing?
“BITCH!!! YOU WANT OUT????? YOU WANT GO OUT???? YOU SCREAMING AT ME THIS LATE AT NIGHT!!!!”
“Screaming??” I replied.” You’re talking louder than I am right now. You said you had wifi. I just want fucking wifi.”
“YOU WAKE ME UP IN MIDDLE NIGHT TO TALK WIFI!”
“I could hear you on the phone for the past half hour. I didn’t wake you up. I was just outside looking for the goddamn router.”
“YOU WANT OUT YOU GO OUT!!!”
Clearly, this was going nowhere fast, and I had a few choices. I could continue to argue about his nonexistent wifi, but that seemed fruitless. I could grab my gear and head out into the dark streets of Paje, maybe doze off on the beach for the night – but I was tired and hadn’t packed a thing, and waking up covered in sand was even less appealing. I could also start throwing punches with Momchil, I supposed, but it would be no time at all before his towel came untucked and I’d be wrestling in the Zanzibaran dirt with a fat, sweaty, naked, drunk Russian who called himself Momchil.
Instead, I turned, went to my room, closed the door – slipped the latch lock closed – and went to bed, leaving my damp, towel-clad host mumbling angrily in the warm, still night of Zanzibar.
Habari, Ernie and Hads! Happy 10th Birthday to you both!
I hope this finds you both warm and hunkered down on your 10th birthdays, comfortably enduring what I’m told is another cold and snowy stretch on the long road to your first false Spring, on the road to your second false Spring.
I was so happy to receive the video from Uncle Jon of the two of you at Lakeview, though to be fair the claim of a much more svelt Ernie appeared to be a gross exaggeration, as Jason and Rachel sent me this unflattering candid just a day later.
My god man, get your shit together.
Much to what will be our sweet niece Olivia’s chagrin, to say that my time in Tanzania was at best a mix is being kind, guys. True, I would go on even more amazing safaris in Tarangire and Ngorongoro Crater, yet again seeing the Big 5 (Lion, Leopard, Buffalo, Rhino, and Elephant) and so much more. I would meet Peace, a Masai, at Jogoo Pub in Arusha, and we would talk about starting a safari company together. We’re still in touch. I would meet David, my wonderful Tarangire safari guide who has portered Mount Kilimanjaro 138 times (follow his instagram). I would meet the adorable and kind Jane, my receptionist at the Fairmont Hotel, where I had balcony views of Mount Meru. I would meet fellow American Steve in Tarangire and again in Zanzibar. Luke, from Belfast, in both places as well. I would meet Estelle, from Paris, who left her job, sold her belongings, and moved to Arusha to volunteer at an orphanage when Covid changed the world. I would meet the sweet Berlin in Zanzibar. She is from Dar es Salaam and dreams of opening a dress and lotions shop in Paje. Eighty dollars in monthly rent for a store, and another forty for an apartment presents significant challenges for locals, but her eye for fashion and her determination make it more than possible she’ll be quite a success. I would walk the narrow streets of historic Stone Town, and swim in the crazy warm water off the beautiful beaches of Paje, enjoying delicious meals and drinks looking out onto the Indian Ocean. I would attend an amazing beach party in Zanzibar, where I would bear witness to rolling, club-dancing Maasai, which, if you haven’t seen, you haven’t lived.
I would also have the worst safari guide ever in Joel for my tour of Ngorongoro, a man who stared at his phone like a 12-year-old boy waiting for his mother while she gets a perm at the local hair salon. And while their grittiness appealed to me, the streets of Arusha and Zanzibar were maddening and exhausting in the incessancy of locals pitching their wares, from safaris to shirts to bracelets to taxi rides. Being the only mzungu I would see in Arusha for over 48 hours, I was descended upon like I was Brad Pitt handing out Tanzy notes to adoring fans. Even when walking past the crazy, hot, sweaty and dusty bus depot that had the look and feel of a panicked Saigon, everyone competed for my business, as if an unbeatable price would make me skip lunch, abandon everything in my hotel room, and hop a bus to Moshi. When I waived off one attempt with a curt “I’m good, thanks,” I received an “Oh, you’re good. I’m good too, bro.“ But if we’re being honest, Hads, he didn’t sound like he was good. He sounded more like he wanted to kick my ass.
I told another local I was done shopping for the day and would visit his store tomorrow, basking in my brilliance when he said okay and left me alone. I wouldn’t leave my hotel until 5PM that next afternoon, but there he was, waiting.
“Peter my friend! It is James! You promised me to visit my store today!”
But James was right, Ernie. I did. And so I would. And I would buy an awful black shirt with a thick and heavy vinyl decal of Tanzania on its front, for which I would pay twice its value – even after bartering – a shirt I would leave with Jane upon checking out of the Fairmont. But don’t worry. I’ve got a pocketful of handmade necklaces for the two of you to tangle and destroy the minute I get home.
I would have to leave my first AirBnB in Stone Town due to promises of wifi and hot water that didn’t come to fruition, not to mention the endless traffic with music blaring passing beneath my window until dawn, so close I might as well have been sleeping on the cobblestoned street below. I am still chasing Jan, my host, for our agreed-upon refund.
I would experience the same in Zanzibar with the insane, bloated, sweaty, nearly naked Russian.
Walking the streets of Stone Town required and endless parade of “nos.” Even the Maasai on the beaches of Paje were relentless in their efforts to sell their wares, though shooting the shit with a group of ten or so in traditional dress was pretty damn cool.
I was tired, I suppose. Tired of questioning the sincerity of literally every single greeting of “Hello, my friend!” I was tired of negotiating every single price. From tees to taxis to safaris to hotel rooms. I either got a good price, or I got screwed. It was often hard to tell until you talked to other mzungus and compared. And even then, I still needed to talk to a local to discover that the $10 I paid a Maasai for handmade leather sandals, a great deal by most standards, was still the “tourist” price – by double. I don’t mind paying $10 for sandals that would cost me ten times that at home, but the idea that I got screwed by local standards still stings.
This part of Africa, wild and amazing as it is, can be tiring. I’m adjusting – and I’m far from alone in it – but there are growing pains to be sure, and some days I long for a nice hotel room with hot water, a cold beer, a Bruins game on the telly and a
twenty thirty pound cat on my lap (I’m looking at you, Ernie).
And then, of course, there was Momchil. Only the third total dick out of hundreds of people I’ve met in six months of travel. Pascal the Connard. François and Philippe (who I count as one, since Philippe never appeared in person and François was merely a miniature version of a full-sized adult). It’s not that hard to pick up trash, Momchil, though maybe adding an actual garbage can would help. Slap a coat of paint on that disgusting concrete floor. Tighten the p-trap on the kitchen sink. Spend thirty bucks on an actual router. Bring more than one roll of toilet paper for a house of four. Put on some pants. You know. The basics.
“YOU WANT OUT???”
Yes, Momchil, I think I do.
Lots of Photos…
So Tanzania was a mix, guys. I didn’t visit the Serengeti (though Ngorongoro is part of the same ecosystem), or climb Mount Kilimanjaro on this trip. Maybe the next one. They give me reason to return, a little more prepared next time. For now, however, I was ready to board my plane, a trip that would take me from Zanzibar to Dar es Salaam to Nairobi to Lusaka, Zambia, where I would then board a bus for the 8 hour trip to Livingstone, and its famous Victoria Falls.
I’ll finish on this note for now – I said above that you hadn’t lived until you’d seen Maasai dancing in a nightclub.
Now you have (video).
Until next time, be good, and try saying no to those treats once in a while.