Remember how a long, long time ago I promise to begin posting a series of vignettes? Yeah? Well this is #2. My first one was about the sensation of returning to my Gramps’ house several years after his death. You can read it here.
Long weekends are meant for exploring, and I was in no rush to return home to Ottawa following a May long weekend camping trip in Mattawa. Headed south along Highway 17, I decided I had driven that route one too many times. I pulled into a gas station and bought a road map of eastern Ontario and Quebec.
The sun was shining and my voice was only half gone from belting summer tunes. I had a whole day before I was due back at work, and decided to take a detour through the back highways of Quebec. Would I discover anything? Would I get lost? All was unknown, all was possible.
Just half an hour into my road trip, I knew I had made the right decision. As I drove through the town of Saint-Joseph on L’Isle-aux-Allumettes, I saw it: a two-storey, wood-panelled house. Some 300 metres away, it looked as though the windows had been punched out.
Possibly abandoned. I was stoked.
I made a U-Turn in the middle of the empty road, and pulled onto the gravel shoulder.
Walking across the grassy field, my destination became more clear. The house was definitely unoccupied – a derelict mess of faded wood and peeling paint. I hopped the metal fence, and wandered cautiously up to the side door. I use the term ‘door’ loosely. The white frame was empty, the stoop sunken and rotting.
Climbing inside, it was clear no one had lived here for awhile. In the first room was an armchair with teal cushions, an antique armoire, and a maple bed frame with rusty springs. There was a lot of – pardon my French – shit on the floor, much of it, I suspect, in a literal sense. Broken glass and dirt had been blown into piles by the wind.
The next room was my favourite. There was an old torn couch and, standing in the middle of the room, a classic blue cruiser bicycle. I gasped at the discovery. As an avid cyclist, I’m always pleased and slightly surprised to encounter bicycles wherever I go. For a moment I seriously considered whether I could load it onto my car’s bike rack. I decided to leave it for the next curious adventurer to discover.
Upstairs, the rooms were empty and bright, early summer sun filtering through dusty air. I’m struck by how special it is to be alone in a place so often left unexplored.
The rest of the road provided a foil to the route I would normally take along Highway 17 and the 417. It offered charming small town scenes, a ferry ride across the Ottawa River, and an unexpected Elvis spotting in Quyon.
Next time you’re travelling back along Highway 17, give yourself a bit of extra time. Head off the main route, and opt for the winding two lanes of Quebec’s Highway 148.
As Robert Frost advised, how happy I was to take the road less travelled.
There’s eating local, and then there’s buying fresh Nile Perch from the edge of Lake Victoria and carrying it 17 kilometres home, strapped to the back of a bicycle.
I’ll give you one guess as to how I spent my Saturday.
The day started as any good weekend morning should: with a bike ride out of the city and into nature.
For me, that city is currently Mwanza, the second largest urban centre in Tanzania. Located in the northwest corner of the country, closer to neighbouring Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and Rwanda than to Dar es Salaam, Mwanza is a city on the water. It’s hard to go anywhere without spotting it. Lake Victoria is Africa’s largest lake, second in the world only to our own Lake Superior. It’s immense, and its shoreline juts and pivots around the city, forming peninsulas and bays, inlets and ports.
My cycling partner in crime for the day was Gabriella, my British airbnb roommate who has been in Mwanza for six months. Gabriella has kindly been my social convenor for the past two weeks, inviting me to curry nights, trivia showdowns, birthday parties and, most importantly, on bike rides. She was kind enough to rustle up a spare mountain bike so we could embark together on a couple of weekend rides.
On this Saturday we headed north of Mwanza town and rode along the main highway until we reached the airport. Taking a left off the tarmac, we made our way down a strip of very well packed dirt, past the end of the airport runway where, if we were to return at the right moment, we would experience the sensation of being landed on by an Airbus A319 (note to self: do this).
We quickly came up on a steam roller that was compressing the grit and sand into our heavenly bike path. From there, it was all semi-loose sand, a flurry of dust and smoke whenever a construction truck, bus, or piki-piki would pass. I closed my eyes and held my breath at their approach, trying to remember not to lick my dusty lips.
Lake Victoria was a constant presence, and we were never more than 100 metres from the lake.
In her half year in Mwanza, Gabriella has explored many a bike trail around the city. Today we were bound for what she described as a clearing close to the water where you could see the fishing boats and the rocky outcrops for which Mwanza is so famous. Having been needy for nature in Dar, our final destination could have been a garbage dump. I was just happy to leave the city.
The next 10-or-so kilometres passed through the middle of rice fields and small towns. It is near the town of Igombe that the path again reaches the shore. Sure enough, there were the fishing boats bobbing gently in the calm waters, their clean painted stripes making them appear as a collection of collegiate rugby sweaters.
A bit further down the road were clumped bushes with blooming bright yellows, Tanzania’s equivalent of a field of sunflowers. Behind, the geological feature that pairs so nicely with Lake Victoria’s blues: black and grey granite boulders shaped round with weathering.
We were a couple of hours into our cycle and hangry-ness was approaching fast. I suggested we head back the short distance to have a Dorito break near the fishing boats, though Gabriella suggested (correctly) that we would get a lot of heckling if we were to stop for any amount of time.
That’s when we noticed the wood table set up by the shore.
Assembled on the table were three large fish – foot-long Nile Perch caught on the water that very morning. Gabriella and I approached the table, a collection of men and children following us from the road.
Perhaps it was the hungry talking or maybe it was because we knew this fish couldn’t get much fresher, but we decided we wanted roast samaki for lunch. We deliberated for 10 minutes. We had a backpack, but nothing to put the fish in. I took my buff off my wrist and stretched the length of it next to the fish. It would fit, but both the buff and the fish would be disgusting by the time we got home, accidental seasoning the result of fish sweat and human sweat and a piece of fabric satiated with dust. Gabriella had a plastic bag attached to the pannier rack on the back of her bike. We decided to go for it.
As soon as we gave word, a woman began hacking at the fish, yanking the guts and neatly tucking them into the crack of the table. The removed scales shone brightly in the morning sun. Carefully placing the fish in the bag, we wedged our precious cargo onto Gabriella’s pannier rack, hoping it wouldn’t be indented by the time we biked the 17 kilometres home. A man ripped a series of tiny holes in the bag for good measure. Fish pre-cooked in the midday heat is never a good thing.
Home we went, being oh-so-careful not to lose our lunch on any of the road’s more iffy patches.
I would say my mouth was watering, but I think it was too full of dirt. Once home, I dashed down to Kirumba Market for potatoes, peppers, carrots, and lemon.
Soon, Gabriella and I had a set up that would put Jamie Oliver to shame. We delicately lay our miraculously un-squished fish into the casserole dish and got to work chopping, slicing, juicing, and seasoning. Gabriella plucked some fresh rosemary from the garden and I tried to contain my excitement in getting to use an oven for the first time in seven months.
A lengthy bit of time later, dinner was served! The only thing better than good food is having awesome friends to share it with. Gabriella and our airbnb host, Anne, fit the bill.
There’s nothing quite like the taste of a meal you’ve cycled home.
There are certain things I have no choice but to do. One is a childhood beach ritual, a request kid Hilary made to all future iterations of herself. It starts with a story.
Every other summer when I was growing up we went to Ireland to visit my dad’s family. For most of our stays we lived with my Nana and Pop in Skerries, a sleepy seaside town about 30 kilometres north of Dublin. There we spent our days playing grounder with our cousins, snacking on wine gums and Maltesers with my Nana (true evidence of the origins of my sweet tooth), and jumping the metal fence to get to the windmill where we would eat my Pop’s favourite dessert: warm apple tart with ice cream. I remember these trips with an uncharacteristically strong sense of clarity.
One of the activities I look back at most fondly are the hours spent walking along the strip of beach in Skerries – tide out, with gelatinous rounds of jellyfish left served on the shore like pizza pie. My dad stepped on one once and we thought we were going to have to pee on his foot to neutralize the sting.
When the tide was in we would occasionally dare to take a dip. The water was ice cold, and I sucked in my stomach so strongly I thought my insides would forever remain concave.
But I digress. Tide out times were the best.
During our walks we would collect seashells in all shapes and sizes. Despite their beauty, my favourite finds were not the shells, but instead the white stones you could find, buffed smooth and supple by pounding hydraulic force. After we sorted through our bounty (childhood fists and pockets were inevitably full), my Pop would place our choice shells and pebbles out to dry on top of the stone wall next to their townhouse. I was always amazed by how different the colours looked after a day spent baking in the sun. During our last visit before my Pop died, my brother and I accidentally left our treasures on the wall, a blip of forgetfulness the Canadian Border Services no doubt appreciated. When I went back the next time, the shells were still there, despite him being gone.
Here’s where I attempt to draw a comparison where for argument’s sake there should be none.
Tanzania is different from Ireland in almost every possible way, yet it has made me miss the country with an intensity that can only be described as a fierce longing. Maybe these are the emotions necessary to justify my possession of an Irish passport.
It’s because of the ocean. These are the two times in my life when I’ve had an extended and immediate proximity to a salty body of water. Because of that, the flashbacks come at rapid pace.
Dar is a city on the ocean, and when it’s not smelling like other things, it smells like the sea. My regular bike route takes me along Toure Drive, a stretch of road that follows the coast of the Msasani Peninsula. It reminds me of days walking along the seawall in Skerries, taking the long way around so my dad could get a chocolate flake ice cream from the truck parked by the playground. During bike rides and during drives along the seaside Barack Obama Drive, I need to actively remind myself that I am not in Ireland. It’s a bizarre sensation.
This past weekend, myself and three coworkers went to Paje, a beach town on the eastern coast of Unguja, one of the islands in the Zanzibar Archipelago. Paje is known for its excellent kite-surfing conditions, something evident from the hundreds of bright kites that whip back and forth in the wind. The occasional one slams against the water with a thunderous clap.
On our second and last afternoon (we were unfortunately there for just over 24 hours, but I will certainly be back) I went for a walk down the beach. I collected shells and dug my feet into the sand, heels and nails scarred from Mount Meru still feeling the cut of salt on wound.
In Paje the sand is claylike and reminds me of drywall plaster. I realize this is probably the least sexy of ways to describe sand, but don’t get me wrong, it’s fantastic. It deeply satisfies my love of textures and turns to gritty putty in my hands. It’s the perfect consistency to sling out a baker’s dozen of vanilla mud pies. When the tide comes in it rushes hungrily into the tiny pools it left empty just 12 hours ago, filling them with tepid water and foam. In Ireland, we used to race sticks in these currents.
As for the shells, they are covered, uncovered, rushed in, and rushed out. Plucked and put on shelves, on windowsills, in decorative pottery. The shells are memories, stories, sadness, and happiness. The shells are links between kid me and adult me.
It’s funny how thoughts can rest dormant and be reignited in different places, with specific smells and certain sounds. I closed my notebook and daintily dropped the shells I had picked up earlier into my bag.
An invisible line became visible shortly after I came to Tanzania. That line has been there my entire life, but I’ve always been so detached from it that I haven’t noticed its presence.
This line is the reason I haven’t been blogging as much since coming here. The line is the reason my Instagram photos have been primarily taken from rooftops, from private beaches, and from places where I’m surrounded by lots of people I know.
It’s the line between safety and danger, which, for the purpose of this post, will be classified as anything causing bodily or lasting psychological harm. Lately, I’ve been walking this line like a tightrope, trying to find the balance between protecting myself and my belongings and still living a semblance of the life I’m used to.
Internally, I struggle with my own description of a single line. Because it divides the world in two – into black and white, good and evil, two concrete categories split by an opaque, 20 foot high wall. I know there is a grey area. I know this is a spectrum. That’s acknowledged and let’s move on.
Since coming to Tanzania the issue of personal safety has taken over my thoughts. My Google Docs folder and notebook are full of half-written blog posts on this topic. But I fear they have all sounded too angry, too spiteful, too worried.
I’m going to reference the podcast Serial here (season two is out now and I am so hooked already). In the first episode, host Sarah Koenig references the kid’s book, Zoom. The first page is an image of two red cones, then the scope zooms out to reveal one scene, and then another, and so on and so forth, until you realize those two red cones are part of a much larger scene, a much larger system.
My version of Zoom – or I should call it our version of Zoom since it has affected a number of my coworkers as well as myself – starts with two individual incidents.
The first involved my female co-worker having her bag hooked by a car mirror. She was then dragged behind the car for several metres until she was able to untangle herself. The second incident involved two of my co-workers, male and female, who experienced an aggravated assault while on the beach near their house.
We spent a number of days dwelling on each of these incidents, picking apart the most minute details of what had gone wrong, what they could have done differently. Though it was difficult, we tried to alleviate feelings of blame.
Over the coming weeks my mind attempted to zoom out, and I tried to put these highly personal, individual incidents into context. Into context with the Westerner experience in Tanzania, into context with the experience of women in general, into context with the role internal (police corruption) and external (colonialism) forces may have played. I didn’t realize that by zooming out I was also dwelling, spiralling. I dug a hole where all I could think of was my personal safety and the limitations put on it.
I feel so dirty and guilty and privileged writing this post. This is perhaps the greatest reason I have not said anything about this to-date. I have told myself again and again that I am so fortunate to live the life I live. But this is still my reality and it is still scary based on the circumstances in which I was raised, so I need to get these thoughts out there.
Another reason I have hesitated to write about this publicly is because it reinforces a narrative of Tanzania, of “AFRICA” that I don’t like. It reinforces stereotypes of violence, of anger, of a lack of control. It is fuel for everyone who has ever uttered a racial slur against the diverse group that is “black people.”
I came here wanting to write about the culture of Tanzania, the beautiful moments in everyday life, the people behind and beyond those negative stereotypes. And I still want to do this.
But I realize that my desire to write about those positive stories shrouds the reality of everyday.
Which is this: bad things happen to people all the time. And it’s not just white people – it’s everyone. And this is a lot of people’s reality, day in and day out. It’s fucked up.
Feeling unsafe bears a heavy weight. Just as that line of personal safety is an invisible one, so too is this unseen pressure. It’s the unspoken rule that it is not safe for me to go out after dark, that I will be targeted based on my skin colour alone. It’s the assumption that I am wealthy, that I am promiscuous, simply because of what I look like.
One day I was lying in bed watching the Sex in the City movie. I don’t watch a lot of movies or TV, but when I do it is because I need some sort of escape. My latest dystopian novel couldn’t offer a fluffy enough alt-life, so I retreated into the realm of my roommate’s external hard drive and came up with Carrie.
As the movie ended, I thought of all the freedoms those women in New York had – waltzing around the city at night in their high heels and designer dresses. I thought of all the times in Ottawa I have walked alone at night, with my laptop, iPhone, money in my wallet.
I always felt safe, but I never thought about it until I got here. I realize how much I hate feeling as though I can never leave my Rapunzel’s Tower of an apartment.
I looked out my window at the silent road below, and felt the crushing feeling of being trapped.
I’m not the best travelled person in this world, but I have been put in circumstances that could be perceived as dangerous in several countries. I have never, with the exception of a few minor incidents, felt unsafe. The weight in which I feel that in Tanzania is worth noting.
The other week my roommate Alex and I were biking along Barack Obama Drive, a lovely bit of oceanside road that follows the city edge to Kivukoni, the local ferry port. It was beautiful, but it was also sad, in a way. I knew I would likely never be able to share this view with those back home. How many places on Earth bear that same burden? Beauty, without the ability to share.
Reflecting on this later, I realized the real tragedy is that this is a mere aesthetic inconvenience for me, but the everyday reality for millions.
Fear is the mightiest of prohibitors and I feel bullied into submission, teetering on the edge of that fine line.
I need your help. I usually try to neatly wrap up my blog posts with a “the moral to the story is…” but I’m at a loss. I feel disempowered and small. I feel angry and guilty. I am still eager to explore and to learn but at the same time I feel there is a dent in my armour that needs a little TLC.
Have you ever felt like this when you’ve travelled? What have you done in these situations?
In Ottawa my bike is what gets me from Point A to Point B, from friend to family, grocery store to coffee shop, home to work. In travel, cycling has opened up cities for me, and I have explored Beijing, Lumbini, Copenhagen, Whitehorse, Paris, and beyond from the saddle of my bike.
Since moving to Dar a few weeks ago, the lines between home and travel have started to blend. With it, the role of cycling – which I already knew to be a key element of what makes me happy – has shifted into an even more important role.
Let’s talk about safety. During the orientation for my new job, our Country Manager was upfront with us: the way you look at security here has to be different than the way you consider it at home. Bags can get swiped by passing motorbikes, purses can be snatched off of laps while sitting in cars, pockets can be picked. As a woman, walking by yourself is not recommended, especially after dark.
Anyone who knows me knows I am independent to a fault. It’s an independence mixed with a slight invincibility complex and a desire to explore. It’s a confidence elixir that has helped me travel solo in countries around the world. As a partial introvert who loves the outdoors, I do not take well to being told I should not be outside by myself.
In Ottawa I bike for the practicality of it, for the environmental benefit, and because I just damn well love it. The satisfaction of beating public transit during rush hour can only be described as euphoric. Biking gives me freedom from traffic, freedom from relying on cars and buses, freedom from sitting still.
Here, biking gives me the freedom to.
What I mean is this: biking gives me the freedom to be outside by myself as a woman. It is an unanticipated benefit of cycling, one I could not have predicted before coming to Dar. I’ve always known biking would be an important part of my life, but I never knew it would be so essential in simply allowing me to go about my daily activity as a single 20-something female.
(By the way, anyone who thinks this “freedom from” vs. “freedom to” concept sounds familiar, here is a full disclosure: I just started reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. She talks about this idea of “freedom from” and “freedom to” in the context of having rights taken away as a perceived means of safety and security.)
As a mzungu (white person) walking around Dar, you already get called at. You become even more of a spectacle when you’re a female mzungu on a bike. Men yell “mambo!” from the side of the road, from the back of boda bodas (motorcycles). A puckering sound is directed at you through pursed lips. Much of this is harmless, but it is still unwanted attention, unwanted attention that may be able to follow me down the road or along the beach while I walk by myself.
Biking provides me the ability to out-cycle these fears, and to escape the expectations that men may have because of the brief eye contact I offer, because of the polite smile my Canadian-ness predisposes.
But while part of this post is me discussing the role cycling has already played in equalizing my experience as a woman in a new country, part of it is also to lament and demand a change to the way women are perceived in different parts of the world.
It is not fair that I am somehow less at threat as a woman if I walk down the street with a man, no matter the capacity of that man to defend me. It reinforces the perception that women are weak, insecure, and easy, and that a man is her protector. I understand that gender roles differ by culture, but I don’t have to agree with that difference.
The past few weeks have shed light on the incredible privilege I have as a woman in Canada – a country, mind you, no less scarred by its disregard for missing and murdered Indigenous women, its continued inability for women and men to have the same salary in the workplace. Let me be clear: no country is good, while another is bad, and we have not reached the point where we can say one nation has eradicated gender inequality while others have not. It is a spectrum, and we should all be fighting to make our way to the right end of it.
Which brings me back to biking.
The other day my coworker Alex and I decided to go for a golden hour cycle in our neighbourhood. We were both wearing dresses with shorts underneath, and we were peddling at a comparable speed to traffic. As expected, we got stared at by women and men, the latter group offering a generous selection of cat calls.
Women, I’ve been told by a former Tanzanian coworker, do not bike. I am not here to say that women need to bike to be liberated, but I do want them to know that it is okay to do so, whether you’re wearing a dress or shorts and a baseball cap. I want to get so many shocked stares that this little tidbit of daily activity becomes a norm for women in Dar, not an exception.
I want women to know that biking is not just an activity for men, and that cycling can be a viable and safe way to travel in this city.
For the first time ever it’s the confidence boost I need, too.