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Last summer, my cousin, who is based in Dar es Salaam, and I secretly planned my first ever trip to Tanzania. We knew that our family there would be beyond shocked, so we told absolutely no one.

Street in Tanzania

A city street in Tanzania. Photo: Althea Chokwe

I was just finishing up my Masters dissertation, and staying in East Africa for the entire autumn season was what I desperately needed. And, anyways, between graduation and starting work, I would not get another chance to be on vacation for four months straight.

The visa application process was very simple. Tanzania has an e-Visa system where you upload a passport photo and digital copies of required paperwork into an account that can also be saved for later. Requested details may include a departing plane ticket, your host’s identity documents, and a letter of invitation with the trip itinerary, among other things.

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Your visa will be approved within six to seven working days–not a long wait at all. As I was in England at the time, I emptied out my university dorm, gave back the room key for the last time, and boarded a Qatar Airways flight at Birmingham International Airport. I remember watching the plane open its doors for us and feeling an overwhelming sense of trepidation but immense gratitude. It was my homecoming, and nothing could ever beat that moment.

Flag of Tanzania

Photo: Althea Chokwe

Just a few days into my journey is when I fell in love with Tanzania. I am happy to say that my experience was not touristy, where I slept in sheltered resorts, but I lived through the same beautiful, mundane routine as everyone else. Accustoming myself to such a different environment was less than scary, only because I stayed with family and can already speak Swahili. Having at least some conversational proficiency in Swahili is essential if you want to visit the country.

The lifestyle and amenities provided are quite distinct from the West, as well. We lived in Dar es Salaam, but outside the city center, so open-air markets provided our main groceries. The roads are quite hectic–packed minivans individually known as a daladala, large buses (mwendo kasi), cars, motorbikes (pikipiki) and three-seater tarp-covered rickshaws (bajaji) all fight for control of the roads.

Bajaji, travel in Tanzania

Bajaji in Tanzania. Photo: Althea Chokwe

My favorite part of Tanzanian life is seeing all the women wearing flowing, colorful dresses (dera) and covering their hair with a shawl (mtandiyo). Wearing a dera with sandals is much more comfortable than jeans and sneakers. It’s an even more tropical vibe when coastal music like taarab or the more popular bongo flava genre are blasting from car speakers on the roads. The temperature hardly goes below 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the daytime but nights are cooler (sometimes). A major point of irritation for me was the mosquitoes–if you do not cover your entire body or install a mosquito net before falling asleep, you will wake up itchy and regretful.

One significant challenge about living there also was the occasional unexpected power outage. Tanesco is the only energy provider in the country and, moreover, is a government entity. Due to this virtual monopoly, you are subject to the company’s various maintenance checkups and power blockages. If you do not catch any taarifa (notice) the day before, you will find yourself without power (and sometimes water, too) for eight to ten hours straight. My cousin told me that this occurrence is erratic–you can enjoy uninterrupted power for three months and then, suddenly, they will cut the electricity several times in one month. Coupled with the shaky Internet, making do without electricity was extremely hard for me to get used to.

Ferry near Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Ferry near Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Photo: Althea Chokwe

Unfortunately, I could also not skate so easily by when it came to paying by credit or debit cards. Most of this country is powered by cash, so I always sent money to my cousin in order to avoid withdrawal fees. However, if you are solo traveling or hanging out with people you do not know well, cash is your way of staying self-sufficient. A caveat I would add here about walking around Dar es Salaam is to always be vigilant. There is a lot of street crime, and pulling out wads of cash or even your mobile devices on the street corner is more than a bad idea. You do not want to look too flashy either–if you are a Westerner, tone down your appearance by wearing simple clothing, less jewelry, and hiding your phone. One time, on our way back from lunch in Oysterbay-Masaki–which is the most expensive postcode in the whole country–I pulled the car window down and started to use my phone. Let’s just say that I received a harsh talking-to from my cousins about street robbers with fast arms.

A major upside is the food–oh, the food! Everything we buy at the market, save some packaged products, is organic. There is a diverse variety of raw fruits, natural spices, and exotic plants. For someone originally from America, it’s invaluable to not worry about chemical-laden products. Some of my favorite dishes here include cassava (muhogo), pilau rice, chips (or fries) cooked in egg (chipsi yai), and cassava leaves stewed in a peanut sauce (kisamvu). I could also feel the effects of breathing less polluted air; living outside the city is a great balance to my usual environs of tall buildings and honking cars.

The marketplace in Tanzania

The marketplace in Tanzania. Photo: Althea Chokwe

Whilst on the topic of food, I do remember that one cousin and I mostly went to simple joints for barbecued meat (nyama choma) and smoothies. When I stayed with another side of the family, however, we ate out in the aforementioned cushy enclave of Oysterbay-Masaki. I will never forget one Levantine restaurant given the obvious moniker, Levant. The food was amazing and I was psyched to see a wealthier side of the country. I basked in the intimate, carefully crafted vibe and ambiance, oblivious to a female manager eyeing me and my cousins from afar. It only became obvious to me when, as the female manager came out to greet each occupied table, she completely skipped over us and went to the back. While I sat there in confusion, my cousin shook her head and said something along the lines of, “She thinks we’re those girls who date men for money.” Apparently, even with our very modest clothing on, us as young black women eating at a high-end restaurant was a rare spectacle. Rare to the point that we could not possibly be there due to our own money.I had to laugh there on the spot, especially imagining her reaction if she knew I am American, but it was a bewildering predicament. How can native Tanzanians be unfairly profiled in their own country by a foreigner? I understood the same sort of discrimination issues in the West, but it was jarring and weirdly fascinating to observe in Africa. I am not telling this story to scare anyone from visiting this beautiful country, but I must underscore that social awareness is paramount.

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Tanzania may be scary and intimidating if you do not have people to help you navigate life here. Your safety is also at risk if you do not understand any word of the Swahili language. This is why, when arranging to travel to a less developed nation, it is important to have contacts on the ground as I had or at least register yourself with your country’s embassy. Companies like Ivannovation help with translating legal documents, which will help you avoid unnecessary surprises during the visa wait time and let you enjoy a smooth trip. To be honest, English is only really enforced in Tanzanian schools and you can find a couple of translated signs around popular areas, but it is wise to have a Swahili speaker guide you along the journey. All in all, Tanzania is an amazing place to visit for vacation or even business, but take care to look after yourself and observe your surroundings. Safe travels!