Happy birthday to me. Happy birthday to me. Happy goddam birthday to me.
So I got waylaid by an injury on Kilimanjaro. Well, not so much an injury really. My feet froze on the way to the summit and stayed frozen for a good 8 hours. I lost all feeling in my toes. Most of them came back the next day, but I still haven’t got much going on in the two big ones, and as a result I’m not very good at the whole walking thing. It’s not frostbite; there’s no discoloration or blistering, I can move them, and they’re warm. But there does seem to be some nerve damage.
My sister’s husband’s dad is a doctor and he was generous enough to give me some long-distance medical advice: mainly, stay away from needles in Africa and consider leaving to get care in a region with a better health record.
For now, I’m ignoring that solid and sensible advice.
I spent five quiet days in the town of Moshi waiting for signs of recovery and slipping into a clockwork routine: wake up late and decide to stay another day, lunch at the Indian restaurant while I work on some old journal entry I’ll never finish, several hours at the internet café where they let me plug my laptop straight onto the network (kind of a big deal here), back to my room to watch movies and TV shows I pulled off Andy’s laptop, then dinner at the hotel, which includes liberal amounts of alcohol from their $0.70 a shot bar.
I don’t usually drink much. But it’s so derned economical!
Here’s my room:
After five days there was no improvement in my feet, but I was getting better at hobbling on stumps. Then yesterday, things in Moshi started getting weird. There was suddenly a whole lot of hostility in the air. The worst of it was some drunk guy who was pissed at me for being American. He called me a motherfucker a couple times and nearly took a swipe at me. I decided it was time to get going.
I’m tired of being stared at. It gets old. Innocent, curious looks I can deal with, but the kind I’ve been getting have been downright predatory. I think they’re pretty fed up with white people here. They’ve figured out our main interest is wildlife and we don’t much give a crap about the people. I can’t begin to understand the deeper, historical layers of resentment, but I can feel them.
I can’t walk ten feet down the road without getting approached. I’m used to this from other countries, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying.
“Hey, my friend, welcome, where are you from, you go on safari, you come to my shop look souvenirs, please wait one minute, let me talk to you, why you are so rude to me, it is the color of my skin, you do not like the black man, I am the same, please, my friend.”
I left Moshi this afternoon and took an hour bus ride to Arusha. Here’s the plush office of the man who sold me the ticket:
Taking my seat on the bus, I nearly stepped on a small plastic bag by my feet. On closer examination, I found it contained a live chicken.
Arusha is Tanzania’s main point of departure for Serengeti safaris and the epicenter of all things irritating. I studied the city map and formulated a route that took me past all the errands I needed to run: pharmacy, ATM, bookstore, hospital, hotel. The moment I stepped off the bus I was tagged. The guy said he was from the department of tourism and it was his job to show me hotels. I thanked him and told him I wasn’t going to a hotel anytime soon and I didn’t need his help. He explained again that it was his job, he could not leave me and he would be happy to show his credentials.
“I believe you have credentials, but it doesn’t matter. I know where I’m going. I don’t need help.”
“Please, sir. I am just to provide information.”
“I don’t need any information and I’m not going to give you any money.”
“No money. Please, let me show you to a hotel.”
“I already know my hotel. You’re not getting a commission.”
“You do not pay me a commission. Over here, sir, is the Kilimanjaro Hotel.”
“I know I don’t pay a commission. The hotels pay a commission and they charge me extra to cover it. But they’re not going to pay you because you’re not helping me.”
“Please, sir, over here is the Arusha Crown Hotel.”
In Asia, blowing your top works wonders. Just a little froth and vitriol will do. The hangers-on don’t like the spectacle and they often back away. In Africa, it has the opposite effect. They see that you’re beginning to crack and will soon explode, piñata-like, in a pile of US currency. The only way to handle things is calm, polite, but firm. I’d already tried that.
I did a little red-light-green-light on the sidewalk. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. He didn’t miss a beat. I crossed to the other side of the street. He beat me to it. I spontaneously changed directions and darted around in random patterns. He clung like a barnacle. I ducked into stores, hoping the proprietors would do something. No luck. I tried ignoring him completely for ten minutes while he rambled on about every hotel and it was his job and please look at his credentials. Then he started in with the race thing.
“Sir, I think you are judging me because of my color.”
“Yes. That’s why I came to Africa; to indulge my hatred of black people.”
“I think this might be so, but please, we are the same.”
I reached the ATM and still hadn’t gotten rid of him. I really really really didn’t want to take money out with him standing behind me. But I was out of cash and I had no choice.
“Look, it’s not about your skin it’s about you’re annoying. I hate to do this, but I’m going to the police.”
“Yes. Let us go to the police. They are right over here. They will tell you who I am and that it is my job to help you.”
I wasn’t about to call his bluff. It seemed reasonably possible that they’d go his way.
“Okay, you can follow me. I’m not going to stop you. But I’m going to the hotel I already picked, I’m going to tell them you didn’t help me, and you’ll have to walk around all day for no reason.”
“I have a reason. It is my job. Please, sir, over here is the Oasis Hotel.”
Hands down: the single most relentless tout I have ever encountered. And making it all the more frustrating was his insistence that he could lose his job for not providing me with his vital services. As absurd as the idea seems, I don’t know for certain that it isn’t true. Maybe the Arusha tourism board thinks they’ve hit upon a brilliant technique and I’m just making his job difficult.
Whatever. I’d had enough. I signaled a cab driver. He asked where I was going. I told him I didn’t care and go t in. The to ut opened the front passenger door and sat down.
I shouted to the driver, “Hapana!”
He took over from there, erupting in a ferocious string of what I imagine to be wholly unpleasant Kiswahili curses and threats. The tout wouldn’t get out. Slapping happened.
He came over to me and stuck his head in through the window.
“Please, sir. Do not do this. It is my job.”
The driver turned around, waiting for my signal…“Go.”
The tout clung to the door as we started moving – his head still inside, still begging. The driver sped up. The tout kept an iron grip, far exceeding what I imagined to be the speed threshold for running alongside a car with your head inside. At last, he couldn’t keep up. He got swallowed in our swirling dust cloud.
A short pause. The driver smiled, then burst out in hysterics. He enjoyed that tremendously. I couldn’t help but join him. It was, in so many ways, a nature documentary. “The cheetah loses his meal. He will not eat today.”
We went about two blocks and I told the driver to pull over.
I walked the rest of the way to the hospital and paid $4 for an immediate consultation. No forms, no insurance, no identification, no fuss. The doctor looked at my feet and told me exactly what I wanted to hear: the problem will go away and I don’t need to worry about it. It’s nerve damage, but the nerves are intact and will heal within a week or two. He said he climbed Kilimanjaro himself when he was younger and had the same thing happen. He suggested taking vitamins B6 and B12 to speed up the process, which I’m already taking in my morning multi-vitamin, so hakuna matata.
Continuing on my way, another guy approached me with an unexpected introduction:
“Have you lost weight?”
“As a matter of fact, I have. Thanks for noticing.”
“You want safari?”
“Oh. Uh. No.”
As I was getting directions from a bank security guard, another guard walked up next to him and took his hand. They stood together talking to me while affectionately swinging their arms back and forth like a couple of Care Bears. It’s common for men to hold hands in this region – like it used to be in Vietnam before American GIs beat it out of them – but watching a couple security guards get all lovey-dovey was more than I could handle without some stifled facial contortions.
When I came back that way some time later, the same security guard asked, “Are you sexy?”
“Are you sexeed?”
“Are you succeed?”
“Oh. Yes. Very successful. Thanks for the directions.”
As a birthday present to myself, I checked into a fancy, high-end hotel. I’m writing this by the pool after a delicious Chinese dinner. My room is on the top floor with a kingly view of Mount Meru, the second-highest peak in Tanzania.
I didn’t intend to still be here on my birthday. I was hoping to be chasing mountain gorillas or laying on a beach in Zanzibar. But here I am.
Not that I’m feeling sorry for myself, because:
a) I put myself here.
b) I’ve got a belated birthday to look forward to.
c) I don’t really care much about birthdays anyway.
d) I’m getting plenty of undeserved e-pity.
e) Toes and touts aside, I’m having a wonderful time.
Maybe everyone does this: on my birthday, as part of taking stock, I think about one year ago today, the year before that, and so on. Where was I? What was I doing?
My dread is that I will come up with the same answer year after year. Change is good. Change is healthy. More important, it happens whether you want it to or not. I’m in Tanzania this year, riding with the current, not against it. And I’m safe for my next birthday too – the odds are inconceivably slim that I’ll be in this same spot doing this same thing a year from today.