My name is not Mzungu

Reciprocity is expensive
No matter how many borders I crossed it always surprised me how lengthy and complicated a process it can be. Most of the time I bought a single-entry visa upon arrival but at the Malawi-Tanzania border I was told I could only buy multiple-entry which cost twice as much as the single-entry. A man cheerily explained that he likes Obama, and since the US charges Tanzanians $100 to enter the US that’s what they charge Americans to enter Tanzania.

After a long back and forth I found a hidden option, a transit visa. It cost less ($30) but came with the conditions that I could only stay in the country for two weeks and I couldn’t go to Zanzibar. Since Tanzania is a republic of two regions, Zanzibar and Tanganyika, I was limited to transiting through mainland Tanzania to Kenya so I would have to wait to see historic Stonetown and the famed beaches on Zanzibar. But I was getting fed up with struggling over every transaction, fighting to bargain down from the foreigner price was exhausting and I was still overcharged. So I stubbornly chose the transit visa to keep from feeling like I was being scammed again.

Finally through the frustrating border I found a bus to Mbeya and raced over hills of banana trees and past dozens of villages selling avocados and cabbages. It was after dark when we arrived and I fended off taxi drivers charging ten times the bus fare to town. I ended up in a dingy I-hope-there-aren’t-bed-bugs hotel room but at least it had a roof, if not much else.

Being a Mzungu
At the station the next morning I was told there was a bus leaving right now for Iringa so I quickly bought my ticket and hussled over to claim my seat. I looked at the ticket and the departure time written was 5am, in more than an hour. In Tanzania the day starts at 6am, not midnight, so 5am Tanzanian time is 11am to a foreigner. The tout tried to explain away the mistake on his poor English but I wasn’t buying it, his English was fine when he was selling me a bogus ticket for 10am. Our disagreement escalated and I refused to leave until I got a refund, which I eventually got. I tried to find another bus that left sooner and another man said he knew of a bus leaving right now. He led me back to the same bus and I realized he was selling the same false story. I begrudgingly re-bought the ticket and waited an hour to leave. It wasn’t the delay that bothered me, it was being lied to.

Over the next two weeks in Tanzania I met few tourists, most stay in Arusha climbing Mount Kili or sunbathe in Zanzibar. I finally met another backpacker in Iringa and we compared experiences of being young women backpacking solo. It drove me bonkers that people shouted “Mzungu” (white person), “Hello sistah”, “Come here rafiki” (friend) as I walked down the street. I couldn’t tell if it was exhaustion and my waning patience but these did not feel like the friendly greetings I encountered in Zimbabwe. Not malicious but there was an attitude that I didn’t belong, that I was an object, a walking wallet. Every time I got to know someone, or even when I didn’t know them, they always wanted something from me. My money, business opportunities, a date, help getting a visa, whatever. On top of that it was harder to find people who understood English and I didn’t know any Swahili. I love to meet locals but I was suspicious when someone was friendly, I wondered what their motive was. They looked at me and saw what I could do for them rather than getting to know me as a person.

Being a woman
I tried to keep my spirits up and headed to Dar Es Salaam. After two days I tried to leave but I was robbed. It was a frightening experience and it really shook me. I had two options: to continue traveling or pack up and end the trip early. Initially I wanted to leave for home immediately, I was exhausted, alone and frankly I hated Tanzania. My parents advised me that I shouldn’t return on this negative note and let it marr the memory of the amazing experiences that I had. So once the shock wore off I continued to northern Tanzania, passed into Kenya and up the coast toward Mombasa stopping at Diani beach. It was a beautiful beach strewn with coconuts, resorts offering scuba diving, and covered with tourists. I didn’t stay long, the US and the UK have travel warnings for the entire Kenyan coast and I didn’t have any reason to get mixed up in tension over terrorism. It was highly unlikely that I would be targeted but I didn’t need to take the risk and left quickly.

It would take all day to get to Nairobi so I left the hostel at sunrise to get breakfast before leaving. I asked the waitress where the bus station was and she found a young man who was going by it. I made small talk until we got to the station and then he asked for my number. I bluntly refused and asked him why should I give him my number, we had only been talking a few minutes. Normally I would be nicer, it was a common pattern but I was tired of being asked for my number, email, Facebook, etc, after barely saying hi. I had tried a variety of “I don’t have a phone”, “I have a boyfriend”, “I have to go”, and many others with moderate success. I didn’t want to make up fake boyfriends, a woman should be free to say no, she is allowed to be simply uninterested, but sometimes that was the safer option.

When I was in Victoria Falls I was unfortunately staying at a party hostel where men were accustomed to approaching women whether they wanted the attention or not. I can only guess that other women said yes, postively reinforcing men to keep asking foreign women for their numbers. I got fed up and made it clear I wanted to be left alone. I considered my response carefully and what I could say to be left alone. If I said “Get lost loser” like I wanted to, most men would leave me alone but I ran the risk of inciting a negative response rather than getting rid of the problem. A nicer reply of “I’m not interested” wasn’t always enough to deter them. The safer option was to lie and say I had a boyfriend or I didn’t have a phone rather than saying “Sorry, not gonna happen”.

So I left yet another young man without my number as I left the coast for inland. We didn’t pick up many passengers on the way so the bus was mostly empty, ideal for the twelve hour journey. As a fellow backpacker remarked, “Bus rides pretty much define this continent”. We got in late to Nairobi and I hopped on a motorcycle taxi, backpack and all, only to find that the hostel was closed for the night. Luckily I had a backup hostel nearby. The driver wanted me to pay extra for driving to the other hostel but I refused, the hostels were very close and he had gotten lost three times on the way. It was exhausting being confrontational all the time.


photo by Freddie Bailey

Walking around Nairobi with other backpackers I noticed that the catcalls were fewer and they bothered me less when I had company. Nairobi has the reputation of being a very dangerous city so I didn’t carry a purse around but I didn’t feel unsafe, just cautious. I spent a few days visiting Lake Naivasha with two British backpackers and we had a grand ol’ time biking through Hell’s Gate National Park. It was a beautiful ride with zebras, gazelle, warthogs and dodging packs of baboons. We hiked through the gorge climbing hand over hand through muddy water and past goats and monkeys. Guideless we missed the path turnoff but didn’t stray too far before doubling back and finding the way out. I returned to Nairobi and took the week off, resting before heading home.

On my way back to the US I had a six hour layover in Abu Dhabi so I visited a bit of the city with two German friends from the hostel. It was beastly hot and humid even at 10pm but everything was air conditioned, from the cab to the bar. I got a quick glimpse of life in the UAE visiting expats in gated communities and looking at the Formula One track on another island. Soon I was on my way to New York where I saw my family and friends at long last.


photo by Freddie Bailey


photo by Freddie Bailey

Intermission is over
For the past six weeks I’ve been at home in Boston attending a wedding, working on the midterm election, figuring out visas and Thanksgiving recipes, reconnecting with friends, and upholding my duty as the favorite aunt to my nieces. It was a break that I desperately needed but it was just a temporary pause in my travels. I have never been to Asia so that is the focus of my travels in Part Two: Kate Has More Wanderlust. I just arrived in Beijing yesterday after a few days in San Francisco and over the next 5+ months I’ll travel to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, Japan, Australia and finally New Zealand. It sounds crazy to me too. On we go, my fellow wanderers!

Categories: Kenya, Tanzania

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