Yesterday, we gave a Christmas gift to Rachel: the wonderful, warm lady who spends two days a week in our apartment. She bristles with energy, and we do our best to exchange information about our lives through amateur Kiswahili and gestures. Somehow, we communicate something – although Rachel has a tendency for doubling over with squeals of laughter when the whole process breaks down.
Rachel is one of the most open hearted, dear people I have met here. She seems to genuinely care about me and my flat mate (Kari), takes such incredible care to make our home tidy and clean, and has an astounding knack for reorganizing our wardrobes so that all our clothes can be more easily found. This is achieved by categorizing our items – tops; shorts; dresses; trousers; jeans; undies - and making beautifully laundered piles of them.
Admittedly, there have been a very few occasions when I have failed to locate something as a result of my inability to fully grasp Rachel’s logic but, on the whole, her system is remarkable.
Last week, Kari and Rachel shared thoughts on my bikini. We had some old magazines lying around which Rachel was keen to flick through, if only for the pictures. She approached Kari with a page showing women wearing what must seem like very skimpy clothes to someone who has never been beyond Dar es Salaam although, to you and me, they were nothing too outrageous. What was outrageous, however, was my bikini – which Rachel managed to slide into the conversation after having asked Kari why western women wear small clothes like those in the magazine.
It soon became clear that Rachel, whilst washing my bikini on a weekly basis, had been pondering its purpose and, more significantly, seriously questioning its decency as a garment. Why, she enquired, would I choose to wear such a thing in my daily life. Why would anyone do this? Was this normal behaviour?
Rachel, in short, thought I was a bit of a loose lady who wore practically nothing and probably had very little dignity. Kari did her best to explain that bikinis are for the beach and that even she has a bikini, whilst undoubtedly stifling laughter at this almost poignant cultural misapprehension and, we hope, the matter was settled.
When I heard this story, I did not know whether to laugh or cry. Whether to laugh at the idea of myself gallivanting around Dar in a bikini with gay abandon, or whether to cry because the lady whose approval and care I actually value thought I was hussying about her hometown.
I think we’ve cleared the air. A barrel of biscuits, a sprawling hand of bananas and a kilo of sugar was our gift to Rachel and her family and I think she has seen my pyjamas enough times now to know that I’m not entirely without shame.
So hot is it at present that one might, indeed, be forgiven for resorting to a bikini at any time of day. The sun positively heaves its weight with a mighty punch onto the people of Dar es Salaam, as though it has expanded in the last month; somehow slipped closer to the earth; or has actually become hotter.
Has the sun got hotter? It certainly feels that way. I cycled less than two kilometers at lunchtime yesterday and, within the first one hundred metres, I started to feel the burn. The earth seems to be baking and all who walk on it are trying to live, work and stay healthy in this giant open oven. At dusk, a breeze occasionally rises from the sea to nudge away some of the intense heat of the day but, last night as I sat by the ocean sipping a glass of wine with a friend, there was barely a murmur of freshness in the air.
As mosquitoes tucked into a feast of Pen leg, the ultimate Christmas treat, we bemoaned the distinct lack of crispness and envied those who have found themselves gripped by the chill clinch of snow. Whilst wearing dresses, shorts, cotton tops and – in essence – as little as possible (though not, let me advise you, bikinis anywhere other than on a beach!) is freeing and simple, I miss cold weather attire.
This Christmas, I would dearly love to dig out warm, thick socks or opaque tights; long sleeved tops; chunky knit sweaters (preferably borrowed from a man- don’t ask why, it’s just a penchant I have); hats, gloves and scarves. Oh, I miss my fleece, my Gortex and my sturdy walking boots.
More than this, I miss the unparalleled sensation of coming in from an invigorating, brisk walk through silent woods, where one’s icy breath dances in the still, cold air, and finding a home lit by the low, soft lights of early evening and a fire in its early stages of crackling life.
I yearn for the spicy aroma of mince pies, the first glow of wellbeing that floods through the veins after a sip of Christmas spirit, and the intense, immediate relief-laden sigh of a still slightly cold body submerged in a warm, bubbling bath.
This Christmas, I will mostly be taking cold showers. I will eat syrupy pineapples by the basket, so abundant are they at present that, for me, they have assumed a quasi status as a seasonal symbol. On the 25th, I will spend time with my surrogate family in Dar es Salaam: the friends who give me the support and strength to keep going when I sometimes feel like packing my suitcase and coming home.
No doubt, there will be some Savannah involved.
There will be a little messing about on boats, hopefully on a benign ocean, and some safari-ing. I will escape the city for a few days and connect again with the Tanzanian bush. I hope to swim, to walk, to talk and to be.
Just to be.
I hope, too, that everyone I love is able just to ‘be’ this Christmas and into 2010. I have an intimidating list of resolutions that I hope to honour, many of which are less about quitting and more about not quitting.
May you all have a truly wonderful Christmas, very much fun, succor for the soul, and a brilliant 2010. I’ll do my best to accompany you through it with some thoughts, observations and news. If I can share a little of your from time to time, it would make my New Year that much pleasurable.
23 December 2009