Things I wish I had known before visiting Tanzania (Dar es Salaam)

I’m sure you wouldn’t expect to carry toilet paper around with you or that a stranger would hold your hand for minutes, correct? So, here’s all you need to know before traveling to Tanzania for your first time:

Toilet paper & bathrooms

A toilet where you can sit down, toilet paper, a working faucet where you can wash your hands – who needs all of that? Some places in Tanzania clearly don’t. My worst experience was at a bar frequented by hookers, where I had to use a squatting toilet with spit on the floor, no toilet paper, no hose, no lock, and – as I found out after finishing a number 1 – no working faucet. G.R.O.S.S. My surprisingly “best unusual toilet experience” was at a safari camp where I had a toilet that didn’t flush, but also did not smell at all because you covered your shit with dirt (literally).
Anyway, all of this may have been TMI, but it needed to be said! Therefore, if you’re in Tanzania frequenting areas and toilets that are not typically used by mzungus (white people) or wealthier Tanzanians, always prepare yourself by carrying your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer and working out your glutes in case you have to squat. In some cases, you may also have to flush with water out of a bucket next to the toilet or share your bathroom with ants or BIG ol’ cockroaches (dead serious). If you’re not accustomed to developing countries: You will never know what awaits you. Deal with it and embrace it because it’s part of the experience.

Languages

Since the 1950’s, Swahili is the official language in Tanzania and its neighboring countries as well. Wealthier and more educated Tanzanians speak English; bajaji or bus drivers, servers and vendors mostly speak a bare minimum and only know what’s important to their business. You’ll notice that Tanzanians love the “i” because they put it at the end of words, such as “saladi,” “mixi,” or “sexi,” which I thought was cute and funny!
Tribes speak their own language(s). You definitely get around with just English; however, you should make an effort and learn the basics because it makes locals happy and will open more doors for you. Here are the Youtube videos I started with (check out her series):

Holding Hands

Now this may seem very unusual if you haven’t experienced it before: Tanzanians like to hold hands, even two men as a sign of their friendship, and also when doing business.
I had known this before I visited, but here’s how it felt when I experienced it for the first time: I went to meet with my German friend Lena at Coco Beach, a public beach for mostly locals, which gets super crowded during the weekends. She has lived in Dar es Salaam for two years. On the last Saturday of the month, she always helps cleaning up Coco Beach and therefore is recognized by locals quite a lot.
When they came up to her, she always introduced me as well. After exchanging our names and telling them where I’m from, one of them kept holding my hand while talking to mostly Lena. I was standing there, listening to them, and he losely held my hand. What the…? I had never experienced this before and it felt a bit awkward. I didn’t know how to remove my hand from his without coming off as rude. About ten minutes later, he let go.
A few moments later, as we walked further down the beach, this scenario happened again and I thought, “Well, now I know what it’s like at least, but it still feels weird AF.” Lena told me that even after two years, she still shared my feelings.

Staring

As a Caucasian (Latino, Asian, or Indian) in a place full of other people that resemble you physically, have you ever found yourself looking at the only black/Latino/Asian/other person who’s present? I have, admittedly. Why? Because they look different and I’d be lying if I didn’t notice that. And this makes me curious (in a good way – no discrimination intended here). So yeah, if you’re a white/Latino/Asian in Tanzania, people will stare, too. And they’ll stare hard. You’re an obvious foreigner. This staring may be uncomfortable at first, especially if you’ve never been in a situation like this, but it’ll pass. Just smile and you’re guaranteed to receive a friendly reaction back.
Did you know that Germans stare too? If not, read this.

Money

While doing my research before Tanzania, I read that people here welcome their own currency (Tanzanian Shillings) as well as US dollars; however, during my four weeks here I never saw anyone pay with the latter. The only thing that has to be paid in USD is your visa at the airport (50 USD for a tourist visa). As of January 2016, it’s easiest to remember that a bit more than 2.000 Tanzanian Shillings equal 1 USD or 1 Euro.
Most ATMs in the city will accept your credit, debit or even Maestro card.
Knowing that “Shingapi (long: Shilingi ngapi)” means “How much” is helpful to know. So are:
elfu moja – 1.000
elfu mbili – 2.000
elfu tatu – 3.000
elfu nne – 4.000
etc.
Again, for more lessons, check out the helpful YouTube video series above.

Food

You haven’t properly dived into Tanzanian culture if you haven’t had mishkaki and chipsi mayai at a local restaurant with your hands and waiters come to your table with a bowl, a can of water and soap to wash your hands before and after eating.
Tanzania also has the absolute BEST mangos and pineapples I’ve ever had: sweet, juicy and full of flavor. And for all my guac fans out there: You can get 4 huge avocados for 1 USD!
Imported goods and things that are more difficult to produce and conserve in Tanzania’s heat are pretty expensive and can definitely come close to or even surpass US or Western European prices. Examples are yogurt, cheese, and other milk products. Fruits out of season are available but also more expensive, such as apples, plums, etc.

Mishkaki with a grilled banana.

Mishkaki with a grilled banana.

Tap Water

If you can drink the tap water totally depends on your location and the conditions of the place you’re staying. Is it a newer house or apartment, tough stomachs are definitely able to handle it; however, be careful in old or not so progressive buildings. Also, be cautious in safari camps. Always ask if it’s safe to drink the water where you’re at before you decide to drink it!

Animals

As mentioned prior, if you reside in Tanzania, you’re guaranteed to encounter flies, cockroaches, ants, and other bugs in your house or in other’s houses. Or on the counter of coffee shops (#truth).
I have seen scorpions and even spent the night with one of them in my tent (read about it here), but apparently the ones I saw are not as dangerous or life threatening as long as you’re in reach of quick treatment.
Tanzania is home of the black mamba and the puff adder, two incredibly dangerous snakes, the black mamba’s fatality rate at 100 % without antivenin.
Hippos and lions are also listed as a danger to humans; however, please try to find one first, get close (especially when they’re with their babies) and see how long you’ll live.

The first wild giraffe I've ever seen!

The first wild giraffe I’ve ever seen!

Criminality

The first two warnings I received after arriving were “Do not take anything with you which you can’t afford to lose” and “Do not carry a purse.” I listened to these and thus made my boobs look bigger without having surgery aka I stuffed everything into my bra. With this advice, I had nothing ever happen to me within the month I was there.
However, I’ve heard stories about theft and robberies, and one about a kidnapping (also in order to steal valuables) in Dar es Salaam.
The other extreme I have experienced was at a safari camp, where I left all my electronics in an unoccupied, unlockable tent (in the middle of nowhere, but still) just like all other guests and nothing was stolen.

Tipping

If you’re on a safari or guided tour, it’s definitely a nice gesture to tip your guides. Locals do not tip barbers, taxi drivers, or in restaurants; however, rounding up the bill to a convenient number (let’s say from 9,000 to 10,000 TZ) won’t hurt anyone, especially a Western traveler and even 1,000 TZ (0.5 USD) will be greatly appreciated and put a smile on most waiters’ faces.

Malaria

Disclaimer: I’m not the biggest fan of doctors, unnatural medicine, hospitals, etc. On second thought: Had I known this statistic, I would have probably taken malaria prophylaxis.
Because I had booked my Tanzania trip super spontaneously, I had not even thought about malaria prophylaxis until my friend brought it up. But she also mentioned that it’s expensive, she had to take it daily, and got diarrhea from it – all kinds of sh*t I didn’t want to deal with – literally.
So I asked people who had been there for a long time and decided against it because officially, you don’t need malaria prophylaxis to get into the country or stay there. I’ve heard of people who’ve lived in Tanzania for years and got it only once or twice. Malaria is as common as the flu and easily treated as it; however, if you’re really unlucky, you’ll catch a dangerous, quickly spreading and potentially fatal version of it. So I’ll leave it up to you to decide on a prevention. There are several ways to protect yourself from malaria and they vary due to age, pregnancy and geographic location. Consult your doctor if you need it.
So, my personal experience: I ever slept under a mosquito net, only used insect repellent and mostly stayed in longer clothes at night even though mosquitos love me and I had quite a few bites. So far, I’m still kickin’ it.

Transportation

Cars are the way to go if you travel throughout the country. Most locals and Wikipedia do not advise on the train system.
In Dar es Salaam, make sure to only use registered cabs. Uber is available from approximately 7 in the morning until 2 at night. The usual waiting time is 20 minutes and because there are no house numbers in Tanzania, you’ll always have to describe the driver where you are and call them if they don’t call you. Prices are super cheap (1.5 USD or 3.000 TZ for a 15-20 min ride) and you can pay via credit card or cash. Note that some drivers may not have a lot of change on them (and sometimes they pretend to).
Bajajis (= three wheeled motorcycles, in other countries known as tuk tuks, or auto rickshaws) are a great way to get around in areas such as Msasani, Coco Beach, Masaki, Mikocheni, etc; however, they’re not allowed in the city center anymore. As a mzungu who doesn’t know much Swahili, you’ll pay up to double the price (still cheap but it the feeling of being ripped off isn’t too pleasant).
Last but not least, there’s also the daladala – old busses that stop at street corners. There’s not really any other indication of a corner being a bus stop other than people waiting. Those buses take you to different parts of town and cost 200-600 TZ. Towards the center of Dar, you can ride in newer buses and designated bus lanes.

Communication

Airtel and Vodacom are the most used, recommended, and reliable telecommunication networks in Tanzania. Both seemingly work where you wouldn’t expect them to – in the middle of nowhere – but in different places. Once you’re in a location with good connection on your phone, internet is reliable and pretty fast. In Dar es Salaam, I’ve experienced both great and reliable internet, but also super spotty where I had to reboot the router several times an hour.

I kid you not - we were out here flamingo hunting (shooting with cameras, not guns) and my friend's phone rang!

I kid you not – we were out here flamingo hunting (shooting with cameras, not guns) as my friend’s phone rang!

Accommodation

Rent in Dar es Salaam can be compared to the world’s top locations such as London or Los Angeles with 2000-3000+ USD for a 2 or 3 bedroom apartment.
Airbnb’s are relatively cheap with an average of 20-30 USD in good areas by the peninsula.
Hotels are on the higher end with about 150 USD a night.

 

Want to know more about some unique experiences I’ve had in Tanzania? Check out this post.

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