Monday, January 25, 2010
Water, whale sharks and wonder
I was cycling through a favourite neighbourhood of mine last week as the final blush of orange-pink sunset glow was consumed by the deepening black sky. It was transformed, under cover of darkness, into a warren of alleys lit by spitting fires of taka taka (rubbish), carts heaving with heady-scented slices of crimson watermelon and syrupy pineapple, stands where giant pans of hissing oil fry chipsi, donuts, fish.
My nostrils barely know what to relish and what to reject when assaulted by so many smells. Is that the acrid, toxic whiff of molten plastic, or is it maize grilling to a popped crisp? Is that the aromatic, vanilla-laced aroma of an over ripe fruit, or is it something I should refrain from inhaling?
Then there are people. Many many people, criss-crossing, zig-zagging, meandering, chatting, shouting. Sometimes, local banter – harmless as it is – transposes in my ear drums as shrill shrieking. Even today, I can be alarmed by passing resemblance to high-pitched fury. Mostly, it is an innocent, excited exchange of news. It is simply shared at a volume I find challenging…..
I was, plainly, the only white person anywhere in the vicinity. If I hoped to be more conspicuous that this alone, I achieved it seamlessly by riding a bike through the scene. There was little chance that I might fade into the night for, tanned as I am, it remains the case that I am a Muzungu and must surely shine like a beacon as I pedal through the dark. It seemed to be so on this occasion, attracting as I did much merriment, laughing and general interest.
Naturally, this reached a hilarious climax when I gambled that a puddle was but a shallow dip. Not only was I naïve in thinking that it was no more than a drop of rainwater, infinitely navigable, but I also failed – as one would in the darkness – to anticipate that the content of said puddle was a little less sanitary than plain old rain. Only as I wobbled, striking some submerged contour and suddenly unstable, did I realise my error of judgment. Keen to upright myself, instinct drove my right foot quite without inhibition into the murky depths of what transpired to be a thick, gluey, black-grey soup of…. well…. let’s avoid four letter words and describe it as excrement.
Does that make it any more palatable?
Twenty minutes later, as I scrubbed my right foot to within an inch of its life, I realised how much more relaxed I am as a result of being in Tanzania. I’m not sure if this is always a good thing, though. Perhaps I should draw the line at going ankle-deep in dung. Whoever it belongs to.
The recent, fleeting rains bring with them all manner of new challenges. Please understand that I am a tropical rain enthusiast, admiring the sheer volume of water that sheets out of the sky and the rapidity with which the roads become inundated. In some places here in Dar, concave sections of road are rendered truly impassable after such a deluge and make cycling here an even more adventurous sport. I once braved what looked like a puddle only to end up somewhere between knee and thigh deep in warm, muddy rain water. Not only that, but it seems that local vehicle drivers positively delight in veering into surface ponds at an angle of such precision and with such timing that their maneuverings result in a great wall of water crashing over whoever may be passing. Two weeks ago it was me, bike bound, heading to work. I reached my desk soaked head to foot in sandy, silty water, splattered and caked. At least the cleaning lady laughed. Oh yes…. She laughed!
From one drenching to another. Two weekends ago I flew, with two great female friends of mine, to an island which lies south east of Dar, dazzling in the Indian Ocean like the truly unspoilt gem that it is. A poor island, infrastructure is highly undeveloped and the inhabitants live a basic, subsistence existence primarily based on fishing, and plantations of coconuts. Cassava, pineapples and bananas – the finger sized kind which thrill me with their sweetness. It is famed for its marine park, and snorkeling and diving are the lure for travelers who make it beyond safaris and Zanzibar. It is also renowned for the whale shark population, which pass through around Christmas time, and are magnificent, up to ten metres long, and completely unique in their taste for nothing more than plankton. My friends and I were fortunate enough to swim with these benign giants, having endured a rocky boat trip accompanied by two local guys who knew exactly what to look for.
On occasions like this, I have no inhibitions. Snorkel and mask fitted, flippers that had me careering about the deck like an unbalanced penguin, I took to the water without hesitation when the opportunity came to join one of these creatures as it swam serenely about a metre under the surface. Grabbing the hand of the guide, I swam with the unabashed delight of a child about a foot or so above the shark: completely in awe of its sheer size, its apparent lack of concern at our presence, and its gentle nature. It was only ten minutes later, when I popped my head up to see where the boat was, that I found myself to be encircled by the flashing fins of ten of these fish. A Jaws moment, and one that will remain with me for all time.
My time on Mafia, time with friends who I hold in such high regard and with such affection, soon washed away some of the city stress I’ve been experiencing of late. I call it ‘Dar madness’ – a sense of claustrophobia and lack of perspective, privacy and personal space that sweeps over me from time to time here. Walking barefoot along the beach, picking up giant shells and wondering at their perfection, letting the sea cleanse every part of me inside and out (including a nasty motorbike burn I acquired on New Year’s Eve!), I was restored. I truly believe that the sea can do that for people.
A fortnight on and the weather has taken another turn. The sun is biting back with a vengeance these days, somehow more fierce and passionate than it has been for some time. This weekend, I felt its rays quite pierce through my skin, pricking every inch of me and challenging me with its ferocity. By seven thirty this morning, large drops of sweat were trickling from the nape of my neck to the curve of my lower back, sliding down the backs of my legs in rivulets. I eat oranges, watermelon, pineapple, passion fruit the colour of lemons in an attempt to assuage thirst. I crave salt. I find it hard to focus on important tasks, such as the reports I am trying to piece together and the poems I wish to see manifested on paper. Concentration is hard. I can barely imagine the chill which grasped England in the past month, wondering how I would react to being plunged from this heat into that cold. Perhaps my skin would sizzle upon contact with the cold? It seems possible.
Tonight I took a bajaji (it’s like an Asian tuk-tuk, for those of you well travelled enough to understand) into the city centre to do some work. I asked the driver to take me along the ocean road, so that I could feel the breeze that is carried on the waves. The air was filled with the stink of sewage, as it often is en route to the centre of Dar, but I barely notice it these days. I’m simply too absorbed by the crashing of the waves and the scale of the visa as the ocean sweeps round my curvaceous coastal home.
I came home to find, variously: an army of pinhead sized ants convening on a single papaya seed which went astray this morning as I chopped my favourite fruit; a shining maroon cockroach disappearing under my bed; a thumb-sized gecko creeping up the wall of my shower room. I am now sitting with the doors open, shutters closed against mosquitoes, with the sounds of the street vibrating through the room. Children chattering; a woman yelling; buses screeching; a cockrel crowing; music thumping from various quarters.
I feel alive.