I strolled up to the taxi stand in front of the Seacliff Hotel armed with the knowledge that a ride from the tip of the peninsula to the center of town should cost no more than 8,000 shillings. In a nearby café a South African named Denise, who has lived in Dar with her businessman husband for nearly a decade, gave me the scoop on taxis, tipping and good restaurants.
Up until this point, every time I’d get in a cab it was like the lottery: I tried to play but I knew I was going to lose. My first day alone I spent US$50 in taxi fare – for one day. A good sense of the exchange rate can help, but as with many African capitals, Dar is expensive, and you need insider information. And confidence.
It was about 1 p.m. and the afternoon sun was beating down on us like a spotlight, radiating heat. I approached in my flip flops and sunglasses; five drivers leaned against a wall and stared back at me.
“You need a taxi?” One of them came forward.
I squinted against the sun and nodded.
“Fifteen thousand,” he said.
“Seven,” I said. We stared at each other like river boat gamblers.
He took a deep drag on his cigarette and shook his head: “Mnazi Moja is far, seven kilometers. Ten.”
He laughed. “No, no. No less than ten. That’s the rate, no less.”
Now normally I would have said: "Okay great thanks, let’s go, and sorry for being such a pain." But I was emboldened with the knowledge of what this ride should cost, so I persisted: “Eight.”
One of the other men who had been sitting, listening in the shadows, suddenly spoke up: "What’s one or two thousand shillings to you?”
At dinner some friends were talking about the obsession some expats have with not living in the "expat bubble" (i.e., trying to avoid $3,000/month apartments and full-time drivers and expense accounts). The reason it’s important to them, my friends said, is partly because they want to experience whatever is the most authentic Tanzania, and they are pretty sure the expat bubble is not it. But it is also important -- to try to live with a little less rather than a little more -- because most Tanzanians they meet are astronomically poorer than they are. And the discrepancy is uncomfortable.
Eventually the driver agreed to 8,000 tsh. When we got in the car the gas tank was empty, so we stopped for petrol: 5,000 tsh. It barely moved the petrol indicator.
On the way we ran into some traffic on Ali Hassan Mwinyi Road. I had a bag in my lap with a computer, wallet and camera inside. Our windows were rolled down because of the heat, but when he noticed me clutch my bag as some men walked close by selling things, Michael, the driver, whose name I now knew, rolled up the windows and told me not to worry -- he turned on the air conditioning.
I asked him, with a sort of panic almost, to turn it off.