from 2014 to 2015

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2014 is behind us, and 2015 has started with fresh vigor. Happy New Year! I’m left with a couple in-between days of down time and a whole lot of feeling reflective…so back to the blog it is.

2014 started in Tanzania, and it will end in Tanzania—very. happily. so. It seems unfair to sum up the travels, experiences, sights, and sounds that I’ve come across this entire year (and especially to sum up those that occurred in the latter six months, where my posting on the blog was irregular, at best), but let’s try anyway, shall we? Consider this post my end-of-year letter that would have, twenty years ago, been mailed right to your door. Mambo from Africa!

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2014 marks the longest I have spent abroad without having gone back to the US. This is less a complaint and more of simply a cool fact, and also propelled by the fact that I know the end date to my expatriatism (which, Microsoft Word does not think expatriatism is a word, according to spellcheck).

2014 bent time and space, creating a weird time warp bubble that is simply every day life in Dar es Salaam. As I write this, I realize that my arrival in May 2013 seems ages ago, and that since my being home, babies that have been born and new jobs attained and relationships started and ended. Lots of new babies that I can’t wait to hug and kiss and smell their babyness (also, not a word)!

2014, though, was very much focused on my corner of the world (to me), and in this time warp bubble, things are all good. I was particularly bad at being in touch with friends this year, but like many things I blame it on the weird Dar space-time continuum. It took awhile to get to know and love my new home, but in the last several months I’ve really come around. What was hard is now easy, what was frustrating is now easily managed. The DiploMan may not be as smitten as I am in this place, but he is happy here, too. He is doing his suit-and-tie thing during the day (although at Embassy Dar, more like khaki-and-button-up), fighting the good fight. As just one of two Americans in his office, he still manages to take significant time off to travel and have fun, and not bring any work home with him or allow bureaucracy and Embassy dynamics skew his view of work and life. I envy him for these seemingly carefree qualities. Having a better grasp on work-life separation is one of my goals for 2015.

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2014 allowed us to call Dar home, and it’s been a good home indeed. Our equatorial setting means year-round weather ranging between the very pleasant 85-95 degrees F, with daylight a fairly constant 6am-6pm. It’s a blessing and a curse, for although I have become an avid ocean creature and my skin dewey in the above-average humidity, I do miss my sweaters and boots and coats and beanies and scarves.

2014 allowed me to experience small-town type living. I miss big-city living, but this small-community certainly has its rewards. In our second year here, we have come to meet some really great, inspiring, and true friends. Some have since left, but we know they are ones we will know forever. Like our first post in Guangzhou, where we met some of our best friends, I know we will continue many friendships long after we leave Dar.

2014 was a good year for work, too. Home, climate, and social life aside, I found good opportunities that allowed me to grow in confidence and abilities. For most of the first year, as I somewhat reported in this blog, I was freelancing and writing copy and articles for various small companies and magazines around the web and world. I got a few big jobs in Dar, editing a local city magazine, as well as writing press kits for a local fashion designer. I also had the very exciting pleasure to hone my photography skills on a variety of projects, including an intensive five-day commercial photo shoot for the first Tanzania-based fast food concept, Bongo Flava. I’ve since eaten at Bongo Flava more than I’d like to admit I eat fast food, but it really is very tasty, so I’m quite proud to have supported that project.

2014 capped off my freelance work with a part time job at the Embassy, as a CLO (for those of you familiar with FS-life) which was rewarding but all-consuming. As my freelance work dropped off and I found less time and energy to blog, I decided that I wanted to get back into media, communications, photography, and writing. I had planned to return to freelancing, but quite fortuitously, I was able to score a contract with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and work in their communications department, full time. I am thoroughly enjoying this work, as it feels it finally combines many of the skills I have learned in my decade-plus of seemingly scattered work.

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2014 brought me outside my comfort zone, not only in work, but in play. It shuttled me around to places I never imagined I would, like the Serengeti. I climbed volcanoes, trekked through forests, camped amidst wild animals, boated to remote islands, and in general, explored the grandeur that is the country of Tanzania–and beyond. I wish I had the time and the energy to write posts about each and every adventure—which I always intended, but never got around too. Perhaps they’ll stay stored in my memory and I’ll one day share. I actually do intend to.

2014 also invited a slew of friends and family in Dar to experience some of these majesties with me, including visits from my parents and my sister. The recaps and photos from these trips I’ve meant to share for some time, but again, it’s a matter of getting around to it.

And now, what lies ahead?

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2015 will bring the very best of my time in Tanzania, and then will close the chapter. With a departure date set sometime around May, it will be sad, but also a welcomed ending. I like it here in Dar, but I am looking forward to what is next. And frankly, this town is a bit small for me! So soon, we’ll be back in the US for some travels and time off, then spend some months of training in DC. After that, we’re heading back to China!

2015 and beyond is going to be crazy. China wasn’t the plan, but things often aren’t. This time we’ll be in the sprawling metropolis of Beijing, one of the greatest and most important cities in the world, both historically and contemporaneously. I can’t say I’m particularly excited, although I am very eager to live there. The recent bidding process for the DiploMan was a beast. High on our list were cities like Rangoon, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Kiev, Bratislava, and Athens. The Diploman was very close in getting some of those (unfortunately, being a second choice isn’t quite the as consoling as one would think) and very distant in others, but the final offer was for Beijing and for that we’re pleased.

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So, on a very satisfied and positive note, I raise my coffee mug to the year 2015. Hopefully it includes a lot more blogging. And a new iPhone, which was gone along with 2014.

Dagaa

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Before I arrived in Dar I imagined a full-immersion of local foods and ingredients. After all, it’s what I look forward to the most when I travel. It was a bit more difficult in Dar, partly due to the saturation of international cuisine in our expat neighborhood, partly due to the lack of a varied Swahili cuisines (centuries of being a trade port has welcomed influences from far and wide), and partly because the local cuisine, when you find it, isn’t always that good.

With that said, in the last year and a half I have been surprised, many times, by the simplicity and flavor of some of the local dishes here (when I find it). I can never get enough of the mangoes at this time of year, or the watermelons in late summer. I love the various spinach-like greens stewed in coconut or peanut, the peppery grilled seafood–always grilled to perfection, the beef and plantain stews, and have even come to enjoy the plain, flavorless maize paste, called ugali, that is just as much a staple starch as it is a vessel to shovel aforementioned stews into one’s mouth.

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I’m also pleasantly surprised by these little guys– called Dagaa. Dagaa is usually sold dried, and are available at most local, open air markets. They can also be procured fresh, slippery and silvery, from the fish markets. The dagaa is a small, sardine- or anchovy-like fish, used to accent dishes (usually, greens) when fresh but more often consumed in dry form, either in cooking or simply as a snack. It’s not for the faint of heart, these little salty fishy chewy snacks that pack a flavorful punch, particularly when they’re in the markets in these massive mountains.

Kivukoni Fish Market >> Fish Auctions

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Kivukoni Oceanfront near City Centre is a lively place in town; a peek into the REAL Dar es Salaam: Where Tanzanians flood the streets, old German colonial-style buildings line the ocean front, an old painted ‘Tanganyika Swimming Club’ sign restricts intruders from its long-since popular facilities, where the Kivukoni Ferry shuttles hundreds of passengers and vehicles to and from South Beach several times a day, and where the fish market, the biggest in Dar es Salaam, has been operating for decades.

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Here, fishermen in wooden dhow boats bring in their daily catch, once at 7am and again at 10am every morning, selling to restaurants and individual patrons alike. Anything that is caught in the water is up for sale, from tiny sardines, to huge kingfish, to stingray and octopus and squid, to shrimps of all sizes. Fish and crustaceans are hawked for some of the cheapest prices in town within these narrow concrete aisles of the downtown fish market.

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Perhaps the most fascinating scenes at the Kivukoni Fish Market, aside from the outrageous species of sea animals that are sold (for food? fodder? who knows.) are the continuous auctions for fresh catch pulled in.

It may be hard for a common bystander to tell exactly what the circular crowd gathered around a low scuffed wooden table is doing.  But give it a few moments, and one will quickly be able to pinpoint the main players in any auction: auctioneer, sellers, buyers, and money collectors. Suddenly an old scuffed wooden tabletop is transformed into a platform for exciting possibilities and tension. Much like an art auctioneer at an art sale, the fish auctioneer at Kivukoni calls out bids in monotone drone, starting at a base amount and raising in increments of 500 to 1000 Shillings. His pace is not terribly quick, but it’s slurred and it’s faster than my rudimentary knowledge of Swahili is able to decipher.

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On one side of the platform-made-auction table are the sellers, and on the other side, the buyers. These women–and the buyers are almost all women–line the auction table in a seated row, firmly planted on buckets that are later used to carry their purchases home on their heads. They are the meanest-looking, most serious women I have seen in all of Dar es Salaam. Like card sharks around a high-stakes game, they sit entranced, staring from fish to auctioneer to seller and back again at the fish, and occasionally cast a brief scowl towards the likes of any one (me) who distracts this ping-pong vision of theirs. I barely see the minute notions that are given to the auctioneer that indicates bids, but it seems the auctioneer does not miss a beat.

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From shrimp, to squid, to giant eel-like fish and tiny sardine-type fish, all creatures of the ocean are presented for auction. If there is a science or logic behind the auctions, I certainly haven’t figured it out. Then again, I’m not about to ask one of these women. I mean, check out the scowl on that one in the front…

Kivukoni Fish Market

Located on Ocean Front Blvd. just before the South Beach Ferry terminal. Entrance is facing the street. Price and availability of seafood vary…especially price. Don’t forget to bargain!

Sandzibar

IMG_1839 Dar can be a very polarizing place to live. Sometimes it’s nothing but love for this amazing country, and other times there’s nothing but sheer frustration for this backwards country. A lot of days, when your tire is flat from running over one too many potholes, and your power is out the half day that you spend waiting for the water delivery to come, and all you want is a jar of kalamata olives so you can make a Greek Salad but NO ONE is selling kalamata olives…well, life is rough, my friends.

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But then, every once in awhile, on a perfect weekend afternoon, you will pack your coolers with beer and wine, pick up sandwiches from a local cafe, and head to the Dar Yacht Club. You will hop on a friend’s boat and motor out, away from land and to the vast blue beyond, seemingly away from every day problems and towards something much more blissful. You will use your Google Maps GPS to look for a sand bar that you’ve only seen from above, on the way from Zanzibar to Dar es Salaam. You will find aforementioned sandbar, and nickname it, “Sandzibar” (said only in a grand, vibrating baritone voice), then spend a great deal of time debating important matters (where to anchor, whether to re-apply SPF 50 for the 15th time), and hop off to watch the tide recede and slowly uncover an entire island in the middle of the ocean. You will drink said beers and wine, eat said sandwiches. You will be surprised by two kite surfers that have come from the coast of Dar, and be even more surprised when you see that you know them. Gosh, Dar is a small place. They, too, will be surprised that at the end of their journey they have a beer waiting for them. You will talk about everything the way friends do, effortlessly and aimlessly, with topics ranging from ‘the 5 signs of showing love’ to ‘how to be a human bobsled on the dance floor’, all while silently baking under the hot Indian Ocean sun. You will decide that it’s getting too hot, after four short/long hours on the island, and pull up the anchor that was, in the beginning, such an ordeal to anchor. You will head back to shore, but not before taking a long cruise around the bay, stopping to watch the sun set and to take another dip in the ocean. And to polish off that last bottle of white, of course.

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So in the end, we must all keep in mind that Dar is really not so bad after all; that for all the insanity in day to day life, there are some major pockets of sanity out here.

Painted Walls

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Good day from a very rainy and very dreary Monday in Dar. I thought it was dry season…?

Anyway, one of my favorite things about African cityscapes is not the rain, but the usage of hand-painted signs and advertisements on various buildings and walls around town. From advertisements, to store signs, to government-funded AIDS propaganda, African sign painting is a lucrative profession that exists in large cities and small villages alike. While this practice has since been lost in the Western world, here in East Africa they can still be found in most parts of towns and along roadside villages. I’m treasuring the ones I see on my trips in and out of City Centre, as I sense they will soon be lost to the emergence of blinding electronic billboards (I’m looking at you, you eyesore on Ali Hassan Mwinyi Blvd!).

Anyway, here are a few of my favorites from a (much less rainy) recent visit to City Centre. Also called, Pepsi vs. Coke, who wore it best?

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Asian Thanksgiving

Each year the full moon that appears on the eighth month of the Chinese calendar calls for great celebrations, heralding the past year’s harvest or praying for the next year’s bounty, and celebrating the full moon in the sky. In the old days, royalty and peasants alike would take a break from their regular routines to celebrate with friends, family, and feasting. Called Mid-Autumn Festival (Zhong Qiu Jie) in China, Chuseok in Korea, Tsukimi in Japan, and Tet Trung Thu in Vietnam, this year the lunar holiday falls on this date, September 8.

Me, full on erudite in Chinese, circa 1983.

Me, fully erudite in Chinese, circa 1983.

Those who knew me growing up are familiar with my 12-year struggle in the once-a-week Friday night torture session that was more formally known as Silicon Valley Chinese School. (How better to traumatize a high school student than to rob her of her Friday night dances?) But of course, like all things your parents say you will eventually thank them for in the future, of course I now thank them for sending me to Chinese School; for instilling a good sense of Chinese language, both spoken and written, and for the various aspects of culture it cemented within me. It was at Chinese School, in addition to at home, where I learned the romantic folklore surrounding the Mid Autumn Festival, telling of a famous archer who shot down nine out of ten suns in the sky to save the earth from the scorching heat, who was subsequently rewarded with a magical elixir of immortality. The story continues to tell how the love of his life then drank this elixir and was transported to the moon for the rest of eternity–along with a rabbit, although how this rabbit came to be in the moon, my memory fails to recall.

Myself aside, many of the Chinese diaspora who have since emigrated to countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and elsewhere, brought this holiday and its lore to their overseas communities. Unbeknownst to me until this year, the Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese cultures also celebrate this harvest moon, though with different folklores and slightly different rituals.

Hong Kong Holiday

Streets of Hong Kong during the holidays

Chinese culture is something I rarely recall in my life here in Dar, other than the fact that Tanzanians always scream out “China! China! Japan! Japan!” When I pass by them on the streets of City Centre. I actually tried speaking Chinese the other day, only to find myself stumbling over the most basic of words, and leading the Chinese man who asked me where the milk was in the grocery to ask/accuse, “You’re not Chinese….? What are you?” A bit offensive, but unsurprisingly Chinese of him.

I find myself yearning to celebrate holidays so heavily traditional and culturally rich as they have in China. Here in Tanzania, Muslim holidays aside, the year is chock full of non-celebratory bank holidays: Workers’ Day, Independence Day, Nyerere’s Birthday, Boxing Day…you get the point.

A typical Asian potluck--too much food.

A typical Asian potluck–too much food.

This year, myself, a Korean friend, and a Singaporean friend decided that we needed to round up the Asian population in Dar for a feast in celebration of this great festival to the moon. We called it Asian Thanksgiving– because how much more appropriate could you call this Pan-Asian merging of family and friends and supreme feasting?

We had what was likely to be Dar’s all-time best Asian cuisine: An Asiatic mix that included Japanese pork belly, Korean bulgogi and fried chicken, Vietnamese chicken salad, two different kinds of Philippino Adobo and fresh homemade buns, Thai Green Curry and coconut fish stew, and tons of homemade noodles, and rice. Best of all, we had sweet sticky rice and moon cake for dessert. Moon cake, here in Africa…what a treat!

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I was too busy running around the party to remember to take detail shots of the party, but here are a few overview shots of the group. Happy Mid Autumn Festival….or, more appropriately: 中秋節快樂!

My Asian family here in Dar.

My Asian family here in Dar.