On Hating Beets (Travel Diary: Bagamoyo, Tanzania)

The Port

I stand by the gate, hesitant, and call out to the guard.

Naweza kuingia?” I ask. Can I enter?

Ingia, ingia,” he ushers me in.

It’s dark, but the beach is busy. A crew of about thirty men wades back and forth through the shallows, carrying sacks from a truck to the dhow, loading the boat for Zanzibar. There are no docks here, no ramps or vehicle bridges over the water. The boats can’t come all the way to shore without beaching themselves in the sand, and so loading means wading, sacks above heads.

Salaam aalaykum,” a man rasps as he walks behind me.

Waalaykum assalaam,” I respond to the greeting, but pull my scarf close around me. It’s a polite greeting, but I can’t help but tense at the sudden appearance of a voice so close behind me. Late night, dark port, new city, and I am the only woman. 

The scene is so foreign, but the feeling of it so familiar. There is no moon, just a few lights along the shore, and the noise is split between the quiet collapse of the waves and the voices of the crew as they heckle each other and laugh, in the way that twenty-year-old men across the world do. I can see faces written with thought, those who clearly just started working and want to impress. Those who have loaded many boats and wonder what else they might do in the future. Those who have given up hope, and those who still hold it close. Those who are serious, intense, thoughtful. Those who splash and are joyous, the class clowns of the nighttime sea in Bagamoyo.

My original tension dissolves when I see that, only to be replaced by the guilty tension of having ever felt tense at all.

The Fish Market

The next afternoon, I walk to the fish market, from the old road down into the tarry blackness of the cooking shacks, where big metal pans on open fires sputter out piles of fried fish, stinking and cooling on wooden boards. I know better than to buy my fish from here, pre-cooked and pre-rotting. Everything is black with soot, and I pull my scarf over my face.

Fresh ni wapi?” I ask a woman, stewing a bucket of tiny silver fish. Where is the fresh fish?

Enda hapo pwani,” she directs me down a narrow walkway, towards the beach.

Fish doesn’t smell when it’s still fresh, and on the beach, the market hardly smells. Tables with umbrellas, and men stand next to the options. These mostly aren’t the fishermen, but middlemen. Big fish, little fish, long fish. One fish, two fish. An octopus. 

I know nothing about fish.

I ask a kind-looking man to approach a table with a fish I like, and ask how much it costs. To avoid the foreigner tax, I ask him, and he laughs. He walks over, asks the merchant the price, and then waves me over.

Elfu kumi,” he repeats the merchant’s price, his eyes sparkling as we watch the merchant catch onto our game. Ten thousand shillings — about four dollars — much less than what I would have been quoted had I asked myself. We negotiate to eight thousand, and I agree to have the scales removed “professionally,” bringing the price back up to nine thousand. I buy a cloth shopping bag for a few hundred more (plastic bags are illegal in Tanzania), and sling my purchase inside, the tail sticking up into the air.

I buy charcoal on the way back, from a teenage boy seated outside an old colonial building. I am unaccustomed to carrying home an entire fish in one hand and a bundle of charcoal in the other, and I am buoyed by the joy of a completely new errand accomplished in a foreign country.

Monday Market

The other women glance at me as I approach the pile of secondhand shirts, but pay me no further attention. I settle onto a corner of the tarp, and join the movement of shirts from one side of the pile to the other, searching for something.

Mia tano, mia tano,” the owner of the bale calls out. Five hundred, five hundred, and he tosses me a shirt. It’s a secondhand import from China, and I toss it aside. I’m larger, and the tiny sizes they send from East Asia never fit me. I look for the Arab styles, from Saudi, which seem to come in larger sizes. A woman sitting next to me, an older lady, holds up a shirt in suggestion, like my mother would do. Amusingly, also like my mother’s clothing suggestions, I hate it, and can’t help but smile as I shake my head.

Chicken and Chips

I storm out of the hotel, frustrated. Shakshuka is supposed to be mostly tomatoes, not beets. I can’t decide whether I even like beets, but I definitely didn’t like them just now. I hate beets, I decide, and step into the street, off to find some actual food. Fancy hotel food didn’t fill my stomach, and there were too many beets! Hate beets. Hate them.

I have a childish desire to stick my tongue out. I might be hangry.

Left and left and there’s the spot, some plastic tables and a bit of hot oil, a glass case of chicken and fried potatoes lit up on the edge of the street. A young man greets me as I approach.

Karibu,”  he says.

Asante,” I reply, and order. “Wote, tafadhali.”

Everything is chicken and chips, with both salad and sauce. He nods, and steps over to prepare the order, while I settle at a plastic table in the corner, back to the corrugated metal walls. I like sitting like this, settled slightly into the shadows, observing while avoiding being observed. Perhaps it’s because I’m a foreigner, perhaps it’s because I’m a woman, but this position, and the periodic escape from attention it provides, is a relief.

He brings the food to the table, piled onto a single plate, with no utensils. I wash my hands from a bucket tap next to the street, and then dig in hungrily. Golden fries, thick with spicy tomato sauce and cabbage, fried to a softness that hasn’t quite lost its crunch. Two enormous pieces of chicken, rich and oily. I’m sure it’s no good for me, but I’m hungry, and this feels like honest food in a way that the hotel’s overpriced egg boiled into a tiny pot of beets never will. I eat, and it feels like home in my stomach.

I hand my host a 5,000 shilling note, and toss my scarf over my shoulder as I begin walking up the hill, back towards the hotel. I pass a group of men, seated around a box television. The sign advertises a schedule of football matches, but there is no cheering. The TV is tuned to a Swahili broadcast about the war in Ukraine. The group of men is silent, thirty faces fixed on the screen. I stand back a few feet, in the street, also taken by the coverage. Images to disturb you from your daily reality, thrown in so casually, as though we should swallow them like dessert.

Soon enough, though, a few of the men notice me, and heads begin to turn, tugged in my direction by my foreignness and femaleness. I steal a few more moments of news coverage as I adjust my scarf, and then head back, dipping in and out of shadows.

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