There are moments in life when one reflects on the serendipity of one’s situation: “I never thought I would find myself here.” This thought can come with anxiety, as in the case of a car accident, robbery, or other sudden misfortune, but, in the midst of chaotic and foreign surroundings, it can be comforting. The feeling of serendipity occurs when we realize the connection between an abstraction that we have long held in our minds and the reality in which we find ourselves. Before coming to Mauritius, I had never seen the Indian Ocean, though I had a clear sense of its existence in the abstract. When I first hopped into its waters and stared at a strange fish, I thought, “Oh, this is that blue area on the map.” Tanzania has furnished many such moments. My abstract idea of the country’s existence came predominantly from a family friend, who used to kick my ass in chess when I visited his house and who purported to hail from a country full of elephants. The reality of Tanzania has stunned me.
Vedant, Denise, and I arrived on Monday. After a bit of an immigration hassle, we stepped out of the airport and were immediately shocked by the complete lack of elephants, giraffes, or feline predators. A friend of Vedant’s from Yale named Imran kindly agreed to host us for the first few days of our time in Tanzania, and he and his driver met us in the parking lot. Though I had every intention of being keen and observant during our drive home, I found nothing especially out of the ordinary (except Rold Dahl’s former house) to keenly observe. Dar Es Salaam is a city made out of concrete and steel, like the rest of the Third World. Imran’s house is in a well-off section of the city, where the houses have gardens and security guards. We were shown to his guest room, where we have rested our heads these past few days.
Through Imran, we have glimpsed a unique and close-knit community. He grew up and hangs out with a group of second generation Tanzanians, whose families hail from all over the world, and some of whom split their time between houses in Dar and elsewhere. We had a good time eating, drinking, and being merry with the crew. It is certainly a group that I never thought I would step into.
The other side of Dar has also made a strong impact. To my suburban American eyes, it seems that a haze of chaos hangs over and pervades the city. It is hard for me to list the exact contributors that make up this impression, but I will try: The streets do not meet each other at right angles; traffic laws are not readily apparent to an outside observer; construction materials are all over the place; portions of the sidewalk are missing, exposing the sewage ditches beneath; the air is thick with particles from sources ranging from car exhaust pipes to street-side grills—each breath smells different. Dar does not have the order and geometry of an American city, but it has an organic flow to it, in which one can happily submerge. We are now staying in the YWCA downtown, a place in which I never thought I would find myself.