We didn't realize we were in trouble when our driver ran the red light, at least not right away. After all, we were in the middle of Sunday morning go-to-church traffic in Arusha, Tanzania—cars, carts, cycles, confusion all around, and besides, TIA (this is Africa).
But no, you don't run a traffic light in full sight of a policeman, especially such a visible vehicle—a small, black, shiny Toyota with flashy gold customized trim at every angle. It's a middle finger to authoritarian ego. So our car, hired by our guide Erick to take us to the base of Mount Meru for a daylong hike, was stopped by the police. Our driver Joseph, the proud owner of the vehicle, had to get out and show his driver's license. His plate number was registered by the cop, and then we went on, thinking we had surmounted that hurdle.
But no. The route we were to take to the beginning of the trail—about 10 kilometers from downtown Arusha as the crow flies—was completely blocked by road work. We had to back up and start on another route, with more traffic, churches, and congestion. At this point, half an hour after we had set out, the same policeman caught up with us again (he must have been following us the whole time) and insisted that everyone except Joseph get out of the car, along with our backpacks and water bottles. The policeman and Joseph drove off together in the gold flash car, not to be seen or heard from again.
There we were, Erick, my son Sacha, and myself, standing on busy Himo Road with mountains of traffic but no buses or taxis in sight. What to do?
Here's where it helps to have a former flycatcher as your guide. A flycatcher is a freelance guide in Arusha, beholden to no agency, bound by no rules, playing all the angles, always hustling. Erick, 30-something and ultra-savvy, had tired of the street game and gone legit with a TripAdvisor-sanctioned company and his own website. He was playing it straight (well, pretty straight) but knew all the tricks.
We had realized this the day before, when we hired Erick to show us the city sights of Arusha. I had written to a few tour guides before arriving in Tanzania, since we had two days to chill before our safari began. Erick had responded immediately, answering all my follow-up questions with patience and professionalism. So when we were ready to do a city tour, we contacted him. He showed up on the appointed Saturday morning on time and with excellent English. Although we had contracted for a walking tour, Erick arrived at our hotel with a roomy white sedan and a grizzled driver, King Geoffrey, to take us to our starting point.
Then we walked and walked. We started out at the Central Market, a major attraction in Arusha on Saturday mornings, where Erick introduced us to a younger colleague, Thomas, explaining that the latter was especially well-informed about the market, the foodstuffs, the spices, the crafts to buy, the crap to avoid, and the Maasai medicine counter within the market. We tried a Maasai "toothbrush", cut from the Salvadora persica, aka the toothbrush tree. We eyed a variety of acacia leaves used for everything from appetite enhancement to afterbirth cleansing. We saw cuttings from shrubs and trees used to treat malaria (and acknowledged as such by modern medicine).
Thomas's presence ensured that we were barely bothered by the opportunists who home in on white faces here in town...or so we thought at the time. We found out later that Erick was keeping an eye on us from a distance, and would have intervened had we encountered problems during our tour of the market.
After Thomas took us to a second-floor panorama of the food stalls, he handed us back to Erick for the rest of the tour. We passed by the city Clock Tower, the major landmark of Arusha, built in the middle of a roundabout where the city's two major road arteries cross. It dates to the early 20th century but was constructed on the site of Germany's first headquarters in (then) Tanganyika in the late 1880s.
Legend has it that the clock tower sits at the halfway point between Cairo and Cape Town, two focal points of the British Empire at its peak. We weren't about to measure the accuracy of this disputed claim, but can testify that today's clock tower is a testament to American imperialism: a Coca-Cola sign adorns the face of the clock.
We climbed up to the top tier of the soccer stadium for an elevated view of this city of 1.7 million, with Mount Meru's 4,550 meters looming as backdrop. Then Erick took us to the second-hand clothing market, where many a "donation" from well-meaning Europeans winds up. This market was huge, an economic focal point for the city. In its own monothematic way, with mountains of blue jeans, towering stacks of neatly-folded t-shirts, hills of sneakers, and mounds of colorful socks, it is as impressive as the variegated confusion of the Central Market.
We were so impressed by Erick and his organization that we engaged him for the following day. Thank goodness, we realized, when we found ourselves stranded on Himo Road.
Whizzing around us on this four-lane thoroughfare were plenty of motorcycles, all Toyotas, and it turns out that these are the Ubers of local transport. Erick signaled with some flycatcher code invisible to me, and suddenly three Toyos (as they are called) stopped in front of us. All three had white license plates. These are the desirable ones. As our guide knew, those with a T on their license plate means they are unregulated and therefore unreliable.
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