I had been milling over the possibilities of where our group could eat a Thanksgiving dinner together. When my family had spent Thanksgiving in Japan in 2007, I had searched the internet for a place that would be serving a traditional Thanksgiving meal and had come up with two possibilities: the Osaka Hilton and a hole-in-the-wall tavern in the middle or town, the former advertising a price that was twice that of the latter. Avid readers of this blog need not pause for long to ponder which one I chose in the end- the food at “Tins Hall: a Damn Fine Bar” ended up being amazing, but that’s another story entirely. Unlike in Osaka, the internet ended up being fairly useless for finding something akin to this meal in Dar. First of all, most restaurants in Dar don’t even have a website and, secondly, any information one does come across is likely to be years out of date. I was therefore trying to choose between Ethiopian, Lebanese, Chinese, and Japanese cuisine when I was rescued by the U.S. Embassy. Well, not the Embassy directly since, although I had signed up to receive email alerts from the Consular Services section months ago, I had yet to receive a single email. Emily at ACM, however, had forwarded me email from the Embassy that had made its way to her saying that the American Chamber of Commerce was hosting a traditional Thanksgiving meal at the Azura Health Club near Msasani Beach.
Monday morning I made my way to the Embassy in order to buy tickets for said event. Apparently none of the guards outside receive email alerts from Consular Services either, since none of them had heard of the upcoming event. The ones at the main entrance sent me to Consular Services but these also looked at me blankly until I was able to call Brennan and have him read me the contents of the email over the phone. After a brief phone call to the Political and Economic Section of the Embassy, I was told to wait outside in the shade until a representative could meet me there with the tickets. Soon a man named Tabari emerged from the bowels of the Embassy, envelope in hand, and introduced himself to me under my chosen tree. “So, do you need two Thanksgiving tickets?” he asked. “More like 20,” I told him. Tabari was somewhat taken aback by this request, he dug deep into his envelope to discover that he had exactly seven tickets left to sell. “I’m afraid you’ll have to come inside for that,” he finally informed me. Soon, I was wearing an official visitor’s badge and was sitting in his office where he had decided to type out a letter on Embassy stationary stating that it was good for 20 tickets even though I would only have seven in my possession when I showed up. “I guess this is my ‘letter of introduction’,” I told Tabari, and he heartily agreed.
When the fateful day arrived- our family met the students at our usual rendezvous point: the clock tower in Mwenge, in order to organize bijaj rides to the Health Club. While at the Embassy, I had asked one of Tabari’s colleagues how to get to Azura using public transportation and he had suggested this plan of attack, although he had added “we’re technically not supposed to recommend that people take bijajs.” At Mwenge, I held on to the precious letter, while I split the actual tickets into six different groups of bijaj-riders since these contained detailed maps of where the Health Club could be found.
One aside concerning maps: maps are generally hard to come by in Tanzania with those depicting Dar being particularly scarce. Other than those which were printed in my various guidebooks, I possessed no paper maps of the Dar es Salaam metropolitan area. When we had ventured outside of the area covered in my guidebooks, to Pugu Hills for instance, I was reduced to tracing a map off of my computer screen so I could picture where Kajiungeni was in relation to Kisarawe and Chanika. On the way to the health club, it became apparent to me why maps of Dar weren’t very prevalent- (or perhaps this is a side-effect of them not being prevalent, I guess I’m not quite sure) no one in Tanzania seems to be able to read them! While my stomach is not up to reading a map while bouncing along in a bijaj, luck would have it that our particular one had some mechanical issue and had to pull over in order to deal with it. While we waited, I glanced down at my ticket and, based on the map, realized that we must had just passed Azura not long before. I tapped the driver on the shoulder as he was climbing back into his seat, showed him the map, and asked him to make a U-turn in order to return to the health club in question. Instead, he drove further down the road in the wrong direction, turning off at the next side street and stopped to ask four different people where the health club was. Each, in turn, looked at the map and then admitted that they had no idea. It was glaringly obvious to me where we needed to go- we had crossed the narrow metal bridge which was marked on the map then passed the JKT headquarters on our left (also marked on the map). We were now 2 blocks north of our destination and needed to take a right on Old Bagamoyo Road in order to correct the situation. As we pulled onto the road, our driver made a left. “No,” I told him, “you need to turn around and go this way.” When he finally relented, he pulled off onto a side road before reaching our destination to ask more clueless people where the venue was located. I finally convinced our driver to continue down the road to the spot marked on the map- there was Azura Health Club- it had been there all along! As he dropped us off, the driver asked for twice the price that we had agreed on since it had taken him so long to find the place. Since my Swahili was not good enough to fully explain my frustration in the guy’s refusal to listen to me when we had first passed the driveway 15 minutes before, all I could manage in my refusal was English: “That’s not my problem- we had a map!”
Thanksgiving, once we arrived, was wonderful. The health club had been set up with large round tables complete with china and glistening white tablecloths. The students soon figured out that there was an open bar, which seemed to maee the 90 minute wait to be served dinner all the more bearable. The U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania was the special guest, I met him soon after he arrived and told him of our group of American students. I saw him talking with a few of them later and, when the time came for him to make a few mercifully short remarks before the food was doled out, he ended by welcoming the ACM students directly. What followed was a rare treat in Tanzania. Although we had eaten mashed potatoes with our pizza in Bagamoyo, none of us had eaten turkey, stuffing, gravy, corn on the cob, green beans, cranberry sauce, or even pie since leaving America. Brennan, for his part, ate three platefuls, minus the turkey and gravy, of course. After we ate, most of the students went swimming in the health club’s outdoor pool or just walked another 100 yards to the beach and swam in the ocean. As we went to bed that night, our family and friends back in the Midwest were just waking up on Thanksgiving morning. While we would miss the Macy’s parade as well as the Cowboys playing American football, we were confident that not many people back home would be swimming in the ocean in 80 degree weather following their Thanksgiving feast!