iSTEP Tanzania

Dar es Salaam City Centre: Going to Town…

Posted on: June 5, 2009

I am going to try to describe my travels to the city center or town of Dar es Salaam. The hostel we stay at is away from the city center, but I spent a lot of time going to town and back this week and part of last week to deal with paperwork issues – not fun! Turns out, bureaucracy is a headache no matter where you are.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania seems oddly familiar to me because I think it resembles Colombo, Sri Lanka (where I am from) in many ways. The heat, traffic, masses of pedestrians, crazy driving (breaking the rules is the norm) and packed buses – all very characteristic of both cities. I’ve been spoiled though – I didn’t take the bus very often in Sri Lanka. So, taking the dala dalas (buses) here has taken some, um, getting used to. Besides, after living in the U.S. for the past 8 or 9 years and being on huge buses in comparison, squeezing into the dala dala van-buses is quite a change. I should add that even Sri Lankan buses seem big compared to most dala dalas here.

I had my first “swooped into the bus by the crowd” moment on Monday. I think at one point I was stuck under an arm-pit. That was most certainly unpleasant. But I made it onto the bus with little effort of my own – the crowd pouring into the bus pretty much pushes you in – it was definitely a “wtf” moment. Heh… While on that bus, I also had the pleasure of having some dude’s rear on my shoulder – “at least it was a nice one”, as one of my team members pointed out – ha! Personal space is a luxury here… Yesterday I jumped onto a moving bus, which was kind of dangerous but also a little exhilarating – sometimes dala dalas don’t come to a complete stop, although they do slow down quite a bit. Some dudes get on the bus while it’s moving kind of fast – pretty skillful. I like the fact that bus fare is the same no matter where you go – 250 Tanzanian shillings per trip. I am not sure how they decided on that amount, but it is very convenient for travelers. All in all, traveling by bus here is usually an adventure – especially if you want to go into town (the city center).

The town itself is pretty chaotic, but it seemed to me that everyone except me knew where they were going, which was probably true. Pedestrians clearly take second place to vehicles. Driving here must be a nightmare though. If you obey road rules, you’ll probably get hit! I think it’s pretty amazing that I have not seen a single accident here – not that I want to, but it just seems so probable the way people drive here. Even sidewalks aren’t entirely safe, because there will be bicycles with cargo racing through them and occasional vehicles driving up onto them to park. Of course, pedestrian crossings don’t mean a thing – vehicles always have the right of way by virtue of them being much bigger and moving a lot faster! Still, it is obvious that people who drive here are very accurate because I would have seen many accidents if it were otherwise. The city just moves to its own beat and has some kind of code that people seem to know in terms of how to survive the stress, frustration and danger associated with traveling here. I think it will take me the whole time I am here and then some to crack that code! Although, I must say I am now a little less shocked when I all of a sudden notice there is a vehicle behind me about an arms-length away… Good times!

The city is sadly pretty dirty with lots of vehicle fumes, dust from the sandy roadsides and the massive amounts of litter strewn across the sides of the roads, under bridges and around (not in) trash cans. People just throw stuff out of vehicles or while walking. It doesn’t help that there aren’t too many trash cans around, but I also wonder if that would help very much.

One of the most impressive aspects of the city is its street vendors. I’ve seen my share of street vendors, but these guys are something else. They don’t just do business with stopped vehicles they actually sell to people on moving buses and other vehicles that have begun to drive away. All in all, I’d say they have about 10 seconds before the vehicle speeds off, but in that time they manage to take the order, collect the money, count change and pass both the product and change back to their customer – oh, and they also need to make sure another vehicle doesn’t hit them! To them this feat is business as usual…

So far what has impressed me the most, however, is the fact that while I’m looking exhausted and frustrated by the journey to town and back, people here appear to be pretty unfazed in spite of the madness around them. To them I guess it’s just another day on the road.


~Bea (


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June 2009
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