People always tell you not to get into cars with strangers.
On our return from Zanzibar, we packed up our backpacks and bid farewell to Paje, which had been nothing short of paradise. We took a taxi through the lush interior to Stone Town, ended up running through bumper-to-bumper traffic to catch the ferry, and arrived back in Dar Es Salaam, the rat scandal from the week before still fresh in our minds.
Claire had arranged a hostel for us to stay at called 4T Tavern before our flight back to Johannesburg and she spoke with the owner over the phone as we got off the ferry. I expected 4T to be a nicer hostel than Juba Hotel, where we had stayed our first night in Dar, because the owner of 4T had arranged for one of her taxi drivers to pick us up.
As we walked toward the taxi, a man fell in beside me and started asking questions like what my name was and where I was from—you know, the real friendly type. When I said I was from America, he actually stopped, laughed, and started telling me how beautiful I was. “Goodbye, Black Beauty!” he called. My friends, for another time, found this to be absolutely hilarious. The taxi driver greeted us and we squeezed into the car (4 in the back), with me at the right window. As the driver began to back out of his parking spot, the man who had talked to me reappeared and started kissing my window even as the car pulled away. “Black beauty! Black beauty!” he called. Everyone else cracked up as he gave the window one last smooch, slapped the side of the car, and waved as we pulled out onto the road.
In hindsight, I can shrug off the situation as ridiculous, although at the time I definitely didn’t know how to react. I guess I can say that I had felt embarrassed and special at the same time. It was surreal being a novelty: being a black woman in Africa, but not being African.
So, traffic in Dar Es Salaam. My god. I thought it was bad in L.A., but I had no idea. We inched through the congested streets for about an hour, until the driver realized it was futile and we had to get onto the highway to get anywhere. He got on his phone every now and then and spoke in Swahili. He told us as well as he could in English that the other taxi driver for 4T would meet us and two of us would go into the other cab, since police gave out huge fines for cars with too many people in them on the highway. Splitting up sounded a little strange, but we went along with it. The other driver met us at a gas station and Wendi and Christina went with him. After maybe an hour, I felt like we had to be close to the hostel, but our driver exited the highway and went down a street that steadily morphed into hilly, rocky back roads. He drove through more forested, deserted areas up on hills and I could see the city getting smaller behind us.
Jess, Claire, and I kept trying to ask how much farther we had to go, but our driver didn’t speak much English and we spoke next to no Swahili. At some point we drove through a university campus that looked just a nice and outfitted as some American ones. Then we started driving through villages and the crowded main streets of towns where shacks and small houses made from wood and scrap metal lined the unpaved road. The streets wound on for what looked like forever in every direction.
The whole “maybe we’re being sold into sex slavery” trope reemerged in the conversation between me, Jess, and Claire. While we were mostly joking about it, I was concerned just because yet again, we were being driven by a stranger at night in city, country, and continent we were unfamiliar with in the middle of nowhere. We had no cell phones and had no way of communicating with anyone else, including Wendi and Christina, wherever they were. The driver spoke on his phone every now and then in Swahili, but as expected, we had no idea what was going on.
Just when I felt like we were all going to lose it, after over 3 hours of driving from the ferry, we arrived at a walled property on top of a hill. The other taxi driver was close behind. Grinning in relief and frustration, Christina emerged and told us she had been just on the brink of bailing on the taxi. Inside the wall were two houses: the owner’s house and a guest house that they had converted into their hostel 4T. We went inside, having no clue what to expect and as it turned out, the woman in charge was one of the sweetest people I had met in a long time. The inside of the guest house was clean, simple, and modern, complete with a flat screen tv, which was the last thing I had expected. The lady sat us down at the dining room table and gave us a home-cooked meal! Her daughters helped out and while they were sweet too, they were definitely shyer. Not to mention, there was air-conditioning. 4T was pure luxury compared to where we had stayed the first night in Dar. Although, the drive from the airport to Juba Hotel on our first night in Tanzania had at least not given us mini existential crises.