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.

Thoughts on Packing for Three Months in a Backpack

Today, I stared at a backpack.

It was given to me, and it was going to work. No matter that the packing list recommended an eighty-litre pack, and this one was fifty litres. No matter that I don’t have a compression sack, and my sleeping bag was taking up half the volume. No matter, no matter. Everything I needed would have to fit in this backpack.

If it didn’t fit, then I didn’t need it.

I had packing cubes, but they were already tearing apart at the seams, having been stuffed one too many times. Would the mesh last for three more months? Three more months, one backpack. Go for minimalism, I told myself. Just wear the same clothes over and over.

I stared at the pile of shirts.

I smell, you know. I am a sweaty, stinky human. I can rarely wear shirts more than one day in a row, especially in the company of Americans, who have a strange preoccupation with body odour, and in whose company I would be. I needed to pack more deodorant. I packed six shirts.

I needed pants. I don’t really own pants. I wear long skirts and dresses, so my mother gave me a pair of old hiking pants she doesn’t wear. They have become my only pants, and I folded them on top of my skirts. I wonder how often I’ll actually wear them, but regardless: I am the proud owner of a pair of pants.

Once packed, I strapped the backpack to my back, and stand there, just wearing it. I didn’t go anywhere, didn’t even bother to walk around the house. I’ve always liked the feeling of backpacks. I stood there for a few minutes, feeling it. You have to meet a new backpack, you know, get acquainted. 

“Nice to meet you,” I told the backpack.
“You too,” she replied.
“Three months…” I trailed off, unsure of myself. “Are you ready for this?”
“Don’t worry. I got you.”

Red Lines (Washington-Dulles Airport, USA)

“Next,” he calls from behind the glass, and I cross the yellow line.
“Hello,” I greet him. I slide my passport and customs form across the counter.
“Where are you coming from?” he asks, glancing at my passport and tapping at his keyboard.
“Somalia.” The US doesn’t recognize Somaliland as an independent nation, and I figure this isn’t the moment for the distinction.
“Somalia,” he repeats, and abandons tapping the keyboard.
“Yes.”
“How many days were you there?”
“Three and a half months.”

He looks me over for a moment, his gaze apologetic, and yet not quite. He takes my passport and places it into a red plastic box, like a narrow shoebox, and points to a red line on the floor — one I’d never noticed before. I’ve come through this customs line dozens of times, and I’ve never before noticed this line.

“Take the box, and follow the line to the end. Do you have a connecting flight?”
“Yes.”
“How much time do you have?”
“About an hour.”
“Tell the next officer you’ve got a connection.”
“Okay.”
Pause.
“Welcome home. Good luck.”

The red line snakes around the baggage claims, past two desks with customs officers, around corners, behind large glass windows, through which you can see the rest of the airport passengers. They claim their luggage, and walk through the “green lane.” I can see the families waiting with their reunion signs, the businessmen rushing to make their connections. Nobody else is holding their passport in a red plastic shoebox.

I follow the red line into a large room, where a uniformed man sits behind a desk and points to a cluster of papers taped to the glass, each showing some version of “no phones,” written in different languages.

“Read,” he says loudly, not looking at me.
“Got it, no phones,” I reply. “The other officer told me to tell you I’ve got a connection.”
He still doesn’t look at me, and doesn’t respond.
“Passport,” he demands, and I hand the box to him. “Sit and wait for your name to be called.”

I am not surprised by who is sitting here, from what I know about uniforms in America. I wish I were surprised. Other than myself, every seat is filled by someone with brown or black skin. White men in dark uniforms are taking apart suitcases on large tables. More dark uniforms wander around, tapping at computers, walking back and forth across the room. Nobody is in a rush.

I can’t find a clock. Someone pulls out their phone, and it is immediately noticed. They are reminded to READ the papers taped to the glass. Another plain piece of paper taped to the wall instructs us to request an escort if we need to use the bathroom. Otherwise, the uniforms don’t acknowledge us. 

I wonder how much time has passed. I wonder if I’ll miss my flight, if they’ll pay for a new flight if I do. I wonder what they really want from me, what they’re doing when I wait. I wonder if they’re doing anything at all. It occurs to me that this is the power of authority, how quickly autonomy and agency can slip away. I don’t know what happens next. I don’t think I can just leave. I don’t know how long they’ll keep me here, or who decides when I can go. I am not the person who decides when I can go, and as much as I try to calm myself, that fact makes me nervous and frustrated.

Do the others know? Do the families with their luggage, the rushing businessmen, the anticipatory sign-holders, do they know that this room is here? I am acutely aware of my privilege, not having known of its existence until now, not having noticed that red line, never pointed this way before. I wonder about another traveller, having never passed straight through, always pointed towards the red line. I hope they don’t exist, but I’m sure they do.

A female officer calls my name, and I stand and walk to her. She smiles grimly, and asks me a lot of questions. I don’t know why, or if she’s allowed to ask so many questions. I just know that I have a connection, and I’m not the one who decides whether I get to leave.

Where were you?
Why?
Can you spell that?
Who is that connected to?
Why did you decide to go there?
How did you find out about it?
Where did you live there?
Who did you live with?
Did you have many friends there?
Why are you coming to the US?
How long are you staying?
Are you going back there?
What is your job now?
Where in the US are you going?
Are you from there?
Where are you from?
Why are you going there, then?
What is his name?
Can you spell his last name?
Where does he work?
Where does he live?
Do you know the address?
How long will you be there?
Where will you go after that?
Do you know anyone else there?

She writes down every answer, and then gives the paper a long stare. Then, she gives me a long stare, and gives the paper another long stare.

“Okay,” she says.
“Okay?”
“Okay, you can go,” she nods once, handing me back my passport — free from its red plastic container. And just like that, it has been decided that I can go. 

Welcome to the United States.

Stained Glass Ceilings (Hargeisa Airport, Somaliland)

I arrived so early to the airport, I was the first one there. I was so early, the security guard’s name is Ayaan, and we got into such giggles during the security screening that the male guard asked if we knew each other.

At immigration, the officer asks me which guesthouse I stayed in. I tell him I was working here, that I had a house here. It’s always strange, the first time you articulate a change. The first time you use the past tense.

Past security and immigration, the terminal is quiet. The roof is stained glass, with a second floor balcony, framed by wrought iron railings. The gate between the terminal and the tarmac is wrought iron to match, with golden flowers along the top, and great flowering bushes of deep pink on either side. A clock shows the time in Dubai. A small coffee shop makes espressos for a group of men, and for a moment, the sputtering of the coffee machine is the only sound. Nobody is wearing masks.

The stained-glass ceiling of the Hargeisa Airport.

For a moment, I cannot help but feel that this is not an airport, that I am waiting for a tiny cup of coffee instead of an airplane to take me out of the country. For a moment, it feels as though I am staying, as though I will relax by the flowers and the stained glass and then return to my house.

There are still four clothespins on my clothesline.

But I will not return to that house. I have already been stamped out of the country. Airports are a one-way stream of people, pushing us towards the beyond, towards the tarmac past the gate, to the collapsible staircases leading us to the great flying machines. For the moment, I know my fate. I chose it. The bird will swallow me, and spit me out across an ocean.

Getting on the plane in Hargeisa, headed for Addis Ababa.

Lemon Juice and Fleece Blankets (Hargeisa, Somaliland)

There is no conductor on the bus, no ticket collection — only a Zaad number, written on the roof in permanent marker. We send our fares without acknowledgement or question to the driver, a cashless society. 

As Salat al-Maghreb approaches, the air loosens around us. We drive with the door open, rolling down the street with the city beside us, traffic to thick to allow for enough speed to close it. Gas station, bakery, computer shop, pipe fitter, tyre supplier, supermarket, bookstore.

A man scatters water from a bucket to hold down the dust. White people with laminated signs in Somali stand in the intersections, palms outstretched. The driver says they’re from Syria. Fifty men gather around bundles of imported cast-offs, holding up tailored shirts and jeans to their hips while the merchants shout about discounts. Two women sit on white, plastic chairs, the hems of their jilbabs fanned out against the ground. A old man in a kofia and perfectly-circular gold glasses sticks his head out of the front passenger window of a bus, grinning. A woman sits on the corner, holding up a piece of paper with her Zaad number, hoping the phone will buzz from a stranger’s kind deposit. Businesspeople in dress clothes walk home from the office, holding binders and briefcases.

Inside the mall, across from an eight storey hotel covered in glass windows, there is Cookies Time. Three booths and two tables, nestled next to a glass case full of bakery and cheesecake. Three women order a plate of cookies and flip their niqabs up over their foreheads to eat. The table on the other side of us is four young men, wearing black sweaters with gold letters, and immaculate tennis shoes with dark skinny jeans. I order an Americano, which comes in a pink ceramic cup, and a lemon juice.

Outside, we get a rideshare and go to Cali Jirde. 

You can hear the music from the street, on Wednesday nights at Cali Jirde. If there is a place to see and be seen in Hargeisa, this is it.

Onstage, one man beats the drum, one plucks the strings, and one belts into the microphone. There is no use describing Somali music in English, but still — like waves, crashing and endless and somehow taking you home, wherever you are from. When they get tired, a woman comes to sing. When she tires, a group of teenagers in white, gold, and navy blue costumes comes to the stage to dance. Women across from men, they line up and dance across from one another, each daring the other’s next move, spinning so fast the fabric billows up like parachutes.

A man stands and takes the microphone, delivering and impassioned speech about the importance of dance and music and culture. The crowd applauds, as we are those who have come to see these things. The performers return to the stage, and we listen as we eat dinner, seated in our chairs, wrapped in fleece blankets.

As the end of the evening approaches, the music and dancing expands from the stage as the beautiful people of the city introduce themselves. An old woman in a gilded yellow hijab grabs everyones’ hands and plays match-maker, dragging couples together relentlessly, not in the slightest discouraged when her offers are declined.

But, at exactly midnight, the music cuts, as though we are all Cinderella. The lights go up, and the place empties within minutes, the crowd vanishing into taxis and ride shares and vehicles with private drivers, to be redistributed to houses across the city. The next call to prayer is in five hours.

If you’re in Hargeisa and would like to attend Cali Jirde’s music nights, these happen every Wednesday evening, from 8 o’clock (ish) until midnight. You can read more on their website.

Salat al-Maghreb (Berbera-Hargeisa Roadside, Somaliland)

The women’s prayer room is in the back of the restaurant, where the men sit and drink tea and soda. Compared to the main mosque, out front by the road, the women’s space is austere. Dirt floor, corrugated iron for walls and roof, tacked onto the building itself. We wash in a small fenced area outside, and then line up along the edge of a straw mat.

Allahu akbar.

When we kneel for the first rakat, I realize that the mat is plastic, not straw. We press our foreheads against it, and repeat three times.

Subhana rabbiyal a’Allah.

Standing for the second rakat, my shoulders touch those on either side of me. I am one of many, and there is a certain peace to it. The darkness of the room becomes a blanket, and I am glad we do not pray in the well-lit mosque, with the doors open to the road. These moments are not for the passer-by.

Wa laa hawla wa laquwwata illa Billaah. There is no strength nor power except with Allah.

Repeat until it is true. Repeat until that is where we find our strength. Repeat until we stop looking under the corners of old rugs, until we stop digging between the cushions, looking for strength like it’s a lost coin. Repeat, and find strength in the consistency. Repeat, and find strength in Allah.

While the first two rakats are spoken, the third rakat is silent. Be lost in yourself, together.

Allahu akbar.

Pause and remind yourself of what is true, and what is a distraction. Remind yourself what is important. Remind yourself five times a day. Remind yourself until you don’t forget, knowing that you will always forget. There is peace in accepting your own fragility.

Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah.

Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah.

The drive, just before we stopped for prayer.

On Floating (Mansoor Beach, Berbera, Somaliland)

“Can you teach me how to float?” she asks, standing in the waist-deep water. 

With my support beneath her legs and back, she lies back in the water — body tense, head bent forward away from the waves, hands raised to hold the edges of her hijab against her face.

“You’re going to have to relax,” I tell her. “You can only float if you relax.”

She takes a deep breath, and then another one. As a wave comes, I lift her up to keep the salt water away from her face. The motion scares her, and she raises her head sharply.

“I don’t want to die,” she tells me, suddenly becoming young.

“You won’t,” I say.

It takes her a minute, to finally let go. She lets her arms down, and her head falls back into the water. Her hijab begins to flow away from her scalp, and I turn to block her from the shore, where the soldiers and guards are.

When she no longer seems to be thinking about it, I move one arm away from her, leaving just the water to hold her. With no response, I remove the other one, and she floats on the turquoise water, suspended. Her face breaks, and the smile has shifted from nerves to serenity.

“This is amazing,” she whispers, and then repeats it again, to herself. This is amazing.

What a blessing, to witness awe which I’ve long since forgotten. I’ve been floating for years, been swimming in the ocean too many times to count. I don’t remember the first time. I don’t remember whether my face looked like hers. I suppose we never know what our own faces look like. 

Something snaps, and she breaks her relaxation. Her body begins to sink, and a wave crashes across her face. The burning saltwater surprises her, and she sputters, feet unable to find the bottom.

I grab her shoulders and pull her up, placing her on her feet. She wipes her eyes and nose, and then immediately splashes off towards her friends. She says nothing of the first sensation of floating, already having forgotten. We forget so easily, not knowing what we’ll wish we remembered.

I didn’t take photos in the water, because of dress and local/Muslim standards of modesty. Here’s a shot as we approached the beach, with the water behind.