When I was planning my trip to Tanzania, it was my initial intention to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. But by the time I was on the bus and heading for Kili, I realized that I would rather spend my time learning more about the country and its people than being on a mountain trail (it takes 6 days on average to climb and get back to the base of Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa).
The Kilimanjaro area has 2 major cities: Moshi and Arusha.
Moshi is a small and surprisingly clean town right next to Mt. Kilimanjaro, and serves as a touristic hub for people willing to climb it.
Arusha, for its part, is a booming local capital and major city in Tanzania. (The locals told me that 15 years ago Arusha used to be just a village.) In addition to it being the closest big town to world famous Serengeti National Park, Arusha is also home to the offices of the East African Community and plays host to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights. All of this contributes to the local economy. In fact, it was on the streets of Arusha (and not Dar) where I encountered an ultra-expensive Maybach car, which speaks of the wealth of some of the citizens.
In terms of climate, the elevated altitude of Kilimanjaro brings fresher air and relief from the constant heat of Dar es Salaam, where it typically stays around 85° F year round. I was told that weather in the Kili region was especially pleasant during summer months with temperatures in the low 70s (I was there in December, so temperatures were warmer).
When traveling, I prefer to spend as little time as possible in hotels and try to stay rather with locals in their environment. So when I learned that one of my friends in the US had a good friend living close to Moshi who doesn't mind guests… I jumped on the opportunity.
I stayed 3 days in a typical 2-bedroom village house on the slopes of the mighty Kilimanjaro. The house was very cozy, had indoor plumbing, and in the little yard outside one could find a few chickens, goats and even a couple of cows.
Apart from Mony (my host, who was in her early sixties I believe) and her grandson Antuan, two workers lived in the house: Marian, a 17-year old live-in maid, and her husband Simon, 21, who took care of all the livestock. Mony told me she pays 60,000 shillings (or 36 USD) to each of them per month, in addition to providing them with shelter and food.
Based on what I saw, I doubt Marian and Simon had been in school for any meaningful period of time while growing up, and I even caught myself thinking that… if the 36 USD salary was removed as well as their ability to "quit" their job… that's probably how much of the slavery in the past looked like. People were mostly satisfied with their conditions as well as with the fact that most of their daily living needs were solved by somebody else.
Marian and Simon both seemed very delighted to have those not very well paying, but stable jobs. And while they did not speak a word of English, it was obvious they were extremely intrigued by the presence of a "mzungu" in the house and used every occasion to pass by and see what I was doing.
Speaking of general English proficiency in Tanzania, I have to say that most of the other people I met had at least basic knowledge, but that was all in the big and touristic cities. I am pretty sure that deeper in the countryside I would have found myself in difficult situations not being able to communicate in Swahili.
In the evenings, Mony and I had some meaningful conversations about local customs, life in Tanzania (for example, she said that, with absolutely no exceptions, she runs an HIV test on all potential long-term workers), and of course, business opportunities.
Although not very young, Mony had a sharp entrepreneurial mind and was full of business ideas, ranging from a chicken farm project to importing cars from Zanzibar (cars are cheaper there). I shared with her the microfinance website I once encountered - www.kiva.org - where people from "rich" countries provide interest free loans to partners in the field who, in their turn, fund small entrepreneurs in places like Africa, Latin America and Asia. I hope she will be able to utilize this resource to her benefit. (Mony didn't have Internet in the house, but went to Internet cafes - which were abundant everywhere - to check her email.)
In terms of technology, Mony had, just like anyone else I met, a prepaid cell phone. Even the people from the savagely looking Maasai tribe always carried a cell phone (along with a mandatory warrior's knife of a stunning size).
Most of Africa is far from being crime free, and while Tanzania seems to be quite safe for individuals who exercise street caution, I had an incident in a taxi in Arusha that occurred when the car stopped in traffic for a few moments. I had my window down and my camera in my hand, ready to snap pictures when, suddenly, a hand like lightning came through the window to grab it. Fortunately, I was quicker and the thief's attempt was unsuccessful. Literally a couple of seconds later, he dissolved in the crowds. The taxi driver didn't seem to be overly surprised by what just happened and told me that once somebody grabbed his sunglasses right from his face in a similar way. From that moment on I never had my window down while in the cities and was extra careful when taking my wallet or cell phone out of my pockets.
Next week I'll wrap up my journey in Zanzibar where, thanks to the couch-surfing project, I had a totally unforgettable local experience. Join me back next week...