Travel Stories

New Year’s Day - Moshi, Tanzania

         My initial feeling of immense disconnection upon being robbed of my iPhone on the last day of the year 2012, a sense of almost panicky aloneness, fades quickly although there is also a very real residual sense of separation and loss, a dis-ease stimulated by what might be considered the “normal” anxiety one might feel being this alone in the middle of an unfamiliar, at times friendly, and at times truly hostile, foreign country, and also of old neural connections being relinked, and not so deeply buried memories being stirred, particularly the feelings of utterly helpless panic I experienced in 1945 as a four year old sent away over my every desperate and terrified screaming protest on a transport train to what I believed was an extermination camp.  And yes, Katie, this is true, I absolutely know it is true, and while without the thought I might be more delightfully freer (and not just a little shallower and less empathic) the big payoff occurs, as you know, when I turn around my underlying beliefs about being a weak disappointing frightened little baby, not the big boy I’m supposed to be at age four, and become the brave, courageous, unafraid of the truth, deeply exploring, curious, and truly caring man I am.
         As for where I really presently am, as opposed to where I once was,  I’m in the Kilimanjaro Crane Hotel, at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, a mountain I have always dreamed of seeing, listening to people joyously harmonizing and offering praise in a church not a block away, birds singing, chickens and ducks calling, car horns and truck horns only occasionally punctuating the air on this slow hot holiday, hotel workers washing dishes outside in the backyard in a series of decreasingly filthy big pans, the first of which sits in a metal frame above dry split wood being burned to heat the water, women laughing, chatting, and sneezing, dishes clinking, a Philip Glass kind of opus, a gloriously flowering tree outside my window, my shirts and underwear hand washed in the leaky sink and hung to dry over the rail outside my room, still reading “White Tiger,” a funny, painful, revealing book about India that I picked up in the lending library at the Warere Guesthouse in Zanzibar, about to do yoga and to meditate for peace on this first day of the new year in honor of Yogiraj Bates (you can Google him), who passed away suddenly last year, to then eat the hardboiled eggs taken from the hotel’s complimentary breakfast buffet, which have fallen more from their perch in my room onto the floor and cracked and that I will still eat, much of my pretense at sanitation having surrendered to African realities if I want to consume anything other than bottled water, beer, burgers, and fries with ketchup (a vegetable), and then – finally – not unlike how time often passes at home – having written, corresponded, and sat in absolute wonderment - to finally step outside my self enclosed computer dominated reality into the real world of Africa, to find a good cup of coffee, to make decisions about safaris and treks, to try to call my missing cell phone and see if it wants to come home for a cash reward, to encounter the unknown and unforeseen, on this day I’ve gifted myself, the New Year’s Day holiday, to rest, recover, and reflect - without negative self judgments (which I disposed of in a campfire outside Soweto), to be alone, in love, excited, filled with hope, anticipatory, alert, alive, in a state of amazement, grace, gratitude, and immense curiosity, open pretty much to anything, from being eaten by lions to flying home, and eager to see what happens next.  Kudos to the scriptwriters, I say, I’m definitely renewing your contracts.
         One of my favorite sights in Moshi, something I so wish I could photograph, is a high metal table, too tall to sit behind, that the user works at standing, permanently stationed on the not so busy street corner where my hotel is located, painted in a now faded and chipped industrial pale blue, with streaks of paint running down the sides a la J. Pollack, and with a prominent sign affixed to the front of it that reads in capital letters, “WRITER.”  It is the “office” of a man who hand letters signs and presumably serves as a correspondent for the illiterate.  I saw him at work here yesterday, but today, being a holiday, his shop is closed.  I envy a man with a sign on his office door reading “Writer.”   I think I’ll change the sign on my office door to read, “The Writer is in” and see what it brings.
         Further into the streets and I am joined by yet another wondrous tout who wants to help me.  His name is Thursday.  The last potential aid worker’s name was Innocent, the one before him, Good Luck.  Thursday has a friend with a shop with original paintings.  He runs safaris.  He can find me a good phone.  He calls my phone.  He tells me the sim card has long since been removed and that the line is dead.
         “I still want my own phone, Thursday, isn’t there some way to find out who it was sold to and who has it?”
         “Yes there is Mr. Bruce,” Thursday says, “but it is far too dangerous, and the people who do these things do not want to be known to white people.  Come let us find you a phone a different way.  I am a simple man.  I only want to help you.”
         So off we go, to places only fools dare tread.  Up deserted staircases to areas of closed shops on the second floor of decrepit malls where I can get an old iPhone for a mere four hundred dollars, surrounded by able young men who could rob me of my every possession with little effort.  Out to the farthest reaches of the city, to streets where men at ease drink and gamble, to shops with the same paintings and sculptures as every other shop, shops – given their locations - that I can’t imagine have had a customer in weeks, where I do meet a lovely older man at work on an original – if not very original - four by six canvas he has been painting on for days.  And we chat as older men can.
         “Sorry, Thursday, I am not going to buy anything and I’m not going to be able to help you earn a small commission.  Here, let me give you a little something for your time.”  I have in mind a five thousand shilling note, a tad over three dollars.
         “But, Mr. Bruce, I will only be happy if I can help you.  Come, I have changed my mind.  Let us see if we can find your phone.  Let us go to the man I know across the tracks.  Shall we walk or take a cab?”
         “I want to walk, Thursday, I want to see all I can.” 
         So off we go, quite literally across the very picturesque abandoned railroad tracks into the shanty part of town known as Njoro, with no curio shops, no paved streets, and certainly no tourists.  You know the tarot card The Fool?   I do, but I also want my phone back, and although I am aware I would never do this if I was traveling with someone else, Joy, Steven, Sam, my sister, would never put another person in this position, I’m quite enjoying the flow of events, the mystery, the adventure, the unknown, the script I have no idea where it will go, and other than robbery, the actual risk to my person seems to me to be minimal.  Hey, what do I know?  I just wish I’d left my laptop, passport, credit cards, and acres of cash back in the hotel rather than carrying them on my person.  What was I thinking?  That they’d be safer with me?  Maybe if I were walking down a busy street in the main part of town, but I’m not, I’m deep into Njoro, a neighborhood of small green grocers, teeny restaurants where men cook greasy meats on outdoor grills and potato fries in deep woks filled with oil, tin roofed shanties side by side, beauticians washing women’s hair in open doorways who teasingly call out to me to get my non-existent hair done, gorgeous children by the dozens, a church named The Sixth Pool of Shiloh, a modest mosque, motorcyclists, no cars, no cats, no dogs, no chickens.
         “You wait here Mr. Bruce,” Thursday tells me deep into Njoro on a small side street, “they will not be comfortable seeing a Mzungu (a white person).  I’ll be back.  Even I am not comfortable.”
         Okay, that’s fine, isn’t that a small tailor shop over there?  Didn’t I bring my pants with the hole in the pockets with me just in case I found a tailor in my wanderings?  (I did.)  See you back here, Thursday.  Maybe.
         So I take out the pants from my pack, show them to the tailor who cannot quite fathom a mzungu in his shop, ask him as best I can how much it will cost to sew new pockets in them, am told 100,000 shillings (seventy dollars !), show my shock and surprise at the ridiculous price, ask how much to just stitch up the hole, and am told thirty cents.  Fine, I say, let’s do that.  And soon thereafter my pants are sewn, the beautician across the street is still beckoning for me to join her, it’s funny, maybe even sexy, and Thursday is back.
         “Mr. Bruce, I have seen what I think is your phone.  The man paid 100,000 shillings (also approximately seventy dollars, a very popular number apparently) for it.  He will give it back to you for 100,000 shillings, but he must see the money first.”
         “I can’t give money to a stranger, Thursday.  Even you.  You understand.  Not without at least seeing the phone.  You know that.”
         “But, Mr. Bruce, this is very difficult, the man cannot just show you the phone.  He fears you will take it and run, that he will lose the 100,000 shillings he paid for it, that you will identify him to the police.  He does not want to be seen by you.  I have seen inside his house, he has four phones, video cameras, a laptop computer.  Give me something to show good faith.  Maybe just 30,000 shillings.”
         I’ve seen this movie before, haven’t I?  Haven’t we all?  Anyone want to bet on the outcome?  Regardless, I’m willing to risk the twenty dollars.
         “Wait here, Mr. Bruce, in that restaurant, have a soda, I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.”
         I sit in the restaurant.  I chat with someone who says he is a student at the university.  He tells me I must trust no one.  He asks me where I am from.  I draw him my famous map of the United States showing the Pacific and Atlantic, Canada and Mexico, California and Texas, Florida, Miami, Washington DC, New York, Cape Cod.  I place a dot right on the edge of Cape Cod Bay, in Orleans.  Come and visit me I say.  I give him my email address.  Time passes. Twenty minutes pass.  I drink an orange soda. Thirty minutes pass.  The student is here trying to buy a hot video camera.  He too is waiting.  He at least has a friend with him.  At about the forty minute mark here comes Thursday with two other men, one is wearing a knit Rasta cap with African colors, the other man has shifty eyes and looks like an addict.  He gives Thursday back my thirty thousand shillings in a very obvious fashion and leaves.  Thursday and I chat.
         The man has now said he paid 250,000 shillings for my phone, and is willing to give it to me for what he has paid for it.  But he will not give me the phone without seeing the money first.  And I will not shell out any more money without seeing the phone.  It’s a classic ransom stalemate.
         “Mr. Bruce, you are a lawyer,” Thursday says, “you fix problems.  What way is there for us to solve this problem?”
         “Well in America,” I say as if I knew what I was talking about, “the man with the phone would give it to someone he trusts, and I would give the money to someone I trust, who I was also sure knew what my phone looked like, and they would meet somewhere and make the exchange.”
         “That is a very good way, Mr. Bruce, but you have no one to trust in Moshi.  What can we do?”         “Here’s what I suggest, Thursday.  Have the man with the phone give it to someone he trusts.  You come with that person to my hotel.  Without coming into the hotel you have the man with the phone show it to me.  If I think it is my phone he puts it on the ground and steps back.  You come into the hotel.  I give you the money.  You bring the money to the man and then bring the phone to me.  You keep the thirty thousand shillings.”  (I suspect he’s keeping my 30,000 shillings no matter what anyhow.)   It’s the best I can do.  And although I doubt it will work it also will an end to the drama.  Or so I hope.  And at worst, I again hope, what am I out, the twenty dollars that Thursday keeps no matter what?         So I walk back alone to the hotel, past the Sixth Pool of Shiloh Church, passed two white goats with big balls butting one another over some scrawny brown doe, passed a busy bar, and the woman seated on the ground nursing an infant who holds out her hand begging, passed the writer’s office.         When I reach the hotel gate the security guard comes to greet me as if he knows I need a friend.  He reaches out his hand I think to bump fists, but as our hands meet he takes my hand in his and we walk together hand in hand like lovers toward the hotel entrance, where I park myself on the seat in the lobby window, and write, and wait, and finally surrender.  No Thursday.  No phone.  No further drama.  I call my phone again.  The sim card has not been replaced.  Tomorrow is another day.  The day after I plan to climb part way up Kili and stay at the oldest lodge on the mountain below the Mandera hut.  I’ve quite enjoyed this “day of rest” in Moshi.  More later.