Monday, June 23, 2014

Every Seat Equipped with Window and Aisle

I'm so tired I can barely see straight. Note to self: next year, bring help. Someone stole the purse of one of our students. It's the type of thing that could happen anywhere, except it happened here.  She lost everything: phone, wallet, cash, credit cards, passport. The passport. This was Sunday, and her flight was scheduled to leave on Wednesday. She can't fly without a passport.

I gave her my phone so she could wake her parents. They cancelled her credit cards and put an alert on her driver's license. She used the Find My Phone app to locate or brick her phone, but it was probably disassembled already. Our new BFF's at Africa Impact lent us a local phone and the number of a good driver in Dar Es Salaam. I got online to find out how to replace a US Passport in Zanzibar. Answer: you can't replace a U.S. passport in Zanzibar. The American Embassy is located on the mainland in Dar Es Salaam. They require any evidence you have of the missing passport (photocopy), new passport photos, several forms, and a fee of $135. All in person, no emails or faxes. So.

Monday, 4:30 am. I wake up and get ready for a 5 am taxi to Stone Town. From there, we'll catch the ferry to the mainland. We arrive at 6 and find that the 7 am ferry is sold out. We buy business class tickets (economy is already sold out) to the 9:30 ferry and look for breakfast. That's trickier than it looks - Swahili people eat breakfast at home, not at a restaurant. I figure one of the nicer hotels will have something. The Tembo Hotel let us in (swank!), and we eat like the posh people who eat at the Tembo Hotel.

8 am. We catch another cab to retrieve the money her parents sent Western Union. The forms are in Swahili. Of course the forms are in Swahili. Note to self: next year, learn Swahili. We wait forever behind a man who's trying to send what looks like a counterfeit US $100 bill. The teller refused to take it. They got into an argument. They resolved the argument. The teller wants us to fill out the form again. We don't have time.

8:50 am. Check-in at the ferry. After showing tickets and ID at the gate, we go to Immigration to fill out Customs forms. After our tickets are stamped, we wait in the business class waiting area. After about 10 minutes, the purser leads everyone to the ramp and we board. The Kilimanjaro IV is a fast, modern ferry with a good safety record. More importantly, it doesn't take cars or cargo containers - just people. We pick out seats and get underway around 10. The movie? Captain Phillips. Nothing like watching one ocean on TV and feeling another ocean in your stomach and ear. And pirates! Who doesn't love pirates?

12:17. We get off the boat and found our driver, Alifa a.k.a. Big Daddy. Unlike most of our drivers on the island, he's an older man in his 50's or 60's. He knows Dar and he knows everyone at the docks. He took us to the Embassy and showed us a few sights on the way: "American" street (real name Ohio St.). Obama Street (real name Obama Street). We also see the heavy, intimidating security presence in Dar Es Salaam - luggage scanned and checked before entering upscale hotels, ordinary security guards armed with shotguns and assault weapons, convoys of police and military everywhere. Note to self: next year, stay out of Dar. And traffic! I hadn't seen real traffic in a month. Zanzibar has traffic, but it's different - they have almost no traffic control. No stoplights, only rare signs, no arrows on the roads, no cops directing traffic. There are some roundabouts at busy intersections, and signs blocking road construction. In Zanzibar, everyone flows around each other. Cars, trucks, buses, mopeds, three-wheelers, bicycles, people, oxcarts - somehow it just works. I have not seen a single accident since I arrived on Zanzibar. In fact, I haven't even seen a wrecked car on the side of the road or vehicles with accident damage. As close as vehicles and pedestrians come to each other, I haven't seen a person hit by a car. Dar es Salaam is larger and more regulated. I should think of it as normal but I don't.

1:15. The Embassy guards demand we go away and make an appointment. I explain that we have not taken the ferry to get a visa, but to replace a stolen passport. I explain several times until they understand. We pass through several checkpoints and leave all electronics at the security station. We find the correct building and pass through security again. Then we wait.

1:45. The admin came to the window and I explain the situation. Lots of forms, plus some money and passport photos. We wait. I chat with another expat in the waiting room. She worked in Liberia after I left, so we chat about Liberian stuff: corruption, bribery, the usual. Same as always. The duty officer interviews my student and administers the oath. And then the admin says the computers are down and we'll have to come back tomorrow and here's a number you can call if you have any questions now please collect your belongings on the way out.

2:55. Big Daddy drives like a genius to get us on the last ferry.

3:30. We miss the last ferry by a few minutes. Big Daddy takes us to a friend and ticket agent who says there is a plane at 5:30. And if I'm coming back tomorrow, it's better to book tickets now than wait until morning - the ticket counter in Zanzibar will sell out early. They don't take credit cards, and I don't have enough Tanzanian shillings to buy boat and plane tickets. Then (wonder of wonders) the ticket agent does us a solid. He spots us two tickets on the ferry, payable after we arrive in Dar the next day. We shake hands and exchange business cards. Note to self: get new business cards. Big Daddy took us to the airport, clear on the other side of this sprawling city.

5:30. The counter agent scolds. "Late, please hurry. We hold this flight just for you." We're the first ones on the plane.

5:50. Takeoff. Apparently this is a training run. An older pilot explains the plane to a younger pilot for 15 minutes, then we go. I'm not 100% sure he's flown this particular vehicle before. The plane seats 12. Every seat comes equipped with a seatbelt, a window, and an aisle. Flight time 20 minutes thank you for flying ZanAir enjoy your flight. The sign over the GPS in the instrument panel reads: This GPS not approved for primary navigation. I'm close enough to read signs on the instrument panel.

6:10 I see rusty rooftops over Zanzibar and feel glad to be home. Home. That's odd. I've only been here a month, yet I feel more at home here than I ever did in Liberia. I'm grateful for my experiences there - most of them some of them let me get back to you on that. But I'd never consider living there again. A short visit to see friends or do a specific project, maybe.

When I was in Liberia, I almost married an American woman who took great pride in her appearance. She began wearing local fabrics and local hairstyles, and was once mistaken for a member of a local tribe. The mistake made her positively giddy, even after I pointed out that the "mistake" came from a canny shopkeeper trying to sell her more made-in-Nigeria fabric. She sneered at me sometimes, claiming her African-ness was realer than mine because I, with my large body and American accent and long dreadlocks, could never be mistaken for a Kpelle, or Lorma, or Dan/Gio, or Kru. At best, I could be a long-lost cousin of the Mandingo if I cut my hair and converted to Islam. At the same time, she hated the place. Disliked most of the people she met. I did all sorts of things to try to make her happy. Eventually I stopped. She longed to go home to small-town South, or to the Germany she majored in during college. She used to speak about Germany daily, not caring whether Germany or the German language or German history bore any relevance to Liberia or our lives. I counted once. 82 days in a row. She skipped one day, and then another 57. "They're a deeply misunderstood people," she repeated.

I objected to her frequent attempts to engage me in German conversation. "I don't speak German," I'd say. This, to her (I should name her. A good German name. I don't know any German names. Frau Bluecher? Der Komissar?) was my fault. One day she went on and on about Germany and I blurted, "I don't care about Germany. I've been there. It's a fine country with lovely people. But I don't care any more for Germany than I care for Kenya, or Costa Rica, or Canada, or any other place." She looked shocked, then began repeating to herself, "you don't care about Germany. You don't care..."

I think her marriage to me ended that day. We weren't married yet, but we had been planning, plotting, scheming, drawing up lists, scouting sites, remembering, hoping. We had already started trying for kids. She began asking more questions about our future. In Germany. How would I fit in? Could I learn such a difficult language? (A question of mental capacity, not willingness.) What would I do? And could I just sit up straighter, and lose weight, and not sweat, and laugh less loudly. I began to see her as someone who wanted to become someone else and wanted me to become the someone else her someone else would love elsewhere. German, Kpelle, anyone but a young black woman from a small town and a not-quite-middle-aged black man from New York by way of Texas. It ground at me. I felt rubbed raw, cheated. I threw myself into my work. I wrote until the power went out at midnight and sometimes wrote in my journal afterwards. I've never read any of that stuff since. I drank cane juice with ginger lime syrup. I regretted not having the affairs she accused me of having. I decided to have an affair but never did. I quit trying to make her happy. I got sick; I got better. I hung out with friends in dusty bars drinking warm beer. I jogged in the mornings. Somewhere in there, I grew content with who I am, despite my mistakes and shortcomings and a decided lack of German and affair-having. I am me; me am I. That's when my marriage to her ended. And the Cesna landed on the left wheel, then the back wheel, then all three at 6:12 pm according to the co-pilot's watch.

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