Lou's On Safari!


It means 'welcome' in Swahili. I'm in Tanzania and, by the time you have read this, will have been here for nearly two months. Only those who live under a rock don't know that the U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were blown up by terrorists. Only those without e-mail whose e-mail addresses, I have, (As long as I'm at it, you can e-mail me at louisdesrosiers@hotmail.com. For you net surfers, pictures will be on my web site. Now that the blatant plugs are out of the way, on with the letter...) know that the company I work for was given the contract to renovate a villa where the embassy will be on a 'temporary basis'. I mockingly emphasize the temporary because I've been through that before and can safely state that temporary is as undefined in length...sometimes years and decades.

Our project is located in the 'suburbs' of Dar es Salaam. It's not far from the old Embassy in the very ritzy suburbs...a vast change from the overcrowded downtown area. The job was supposed to be over before Christmas. My initial impression, and usually the right guess, is that I'll be out of here in March. We've had a tough time trying to import materials. The Embassy is situated in a temporary location and processes American visas on an emergency basis. The son of a Tanzanian diplomat just popped into the consulate office demanding a visa without notice or identifying himself as a diplomatic descendent. Of course, he was rejected. After the proper channels were followed, he was given his visa. On the same day that he got his visa and just as spontaneous, he sent down his buddies to get visas. He'd decided to convert his trip to the US to a bachelor party. Like before, the visas for his friends were rejected. The Tanzanian diplomat put all customs shipments on hold. We were used as a political pawn. Our materials remained in customs for over a month. Now, they are being released slowly but the damage was done. We're also dependent upon the government pulling some of their strings and buying many of the materials...they've been lukewarm on this.

Typical to most projects, the owners try to skimp on costs while the tenants try to add all the things cut out for cost reasons pushing you to get their place done NOW! It puts the contractor in a very difficult situation. Fortunately, this is the first project I've been on where the government and the contractor seem to have a real partnering attitude. It helps.

We've entered into a joint construction agreement with a firm out of South Africa who is licensed to do business in Tanzania. They're doing the bulk of the construction, using local labor, while we do the work in areas classified as American only.

The local laborers have three speeds: slow, slower, and slowest. They're deliberate and constant working a full day for about $6.00 including living expenses. They're quite resourceful workers who resist any concept of safety (I'm the safety officer). They deem shoes to be optional frequently working heavy tools and equipment while barefoot. Hard-hats in their opinion are for others to wear and a major inconvenience. There just aren't many safety regulations in Africa. Frankly, this job would be shut down in a few minutes if it were done in the US. It makes part of my job...interesting.

There are many things that the locals do differently that we Americans shake our heads and say "oh well, it works". They make hammers out of two pieces of reinforcing rod welded together resisting the factory-made hammers. We place a concrete slab in one lift finishing the top surface in one application. Here, they place the concrete to approximately three inches to finish level and use a dry concrete mix that is troweled in place. We'd use a back hoe to dig a trench. Here, it's dug by hand using pick and shovel. We do as much of the elevated work as possible on the ground. Here, it's all done in place in the air. The locals are as labor intensive as we are machine intensive...cheap labor seems to win out in the cost battle.

They have their own 'trade unions'. In international projects, it is very common to make your own concrete. Here, we do it manually measuring the sand and stone by the container. Two groups of two men shovel sand (laborers) and stone into two containers carried by two men each (teamsters). One man each on two mixers (operators) runs each of two mixers and one man loads cement into the mixer (laborers). The concrete is mixed and transported in motorized buggies to its final destination. None of the trades cross into the others' jurisdiction...they specialize in that trade. It's far cheaper than redi-mixed concrete. I figure our laundry girls are the highest paid. They're given a regular wage and we pay them a buck each to do our weekly load of clothes. There are other women...mostly the finish trades...painters, cleaners, and plasterers.

We have loads of private vendors who come and serve lunch in a common area of the job site. Mostly women, they work on credit but show up on payday, Friday, to collect their money. I haven't tried the lunch on site but I'm told it's quite a feast available for a buck. Some privateers come by with snacks and sell them straight from their bikes.

Before the bombing, Tanzania was classified as a low to moderate risk country. My first impression of the people here in Tanzania was that they didn't have the ill-will nor the ability to execute a bombing of the US Embassy. It had to be someone with major resources from outside this country. That opinion hasn't changed. Just the other day, we nearly caused a disaster when someone asked for separate checks for a group of eight at a recent lunch engagement. That impression remains. It's very difficult to keep in mind the need for security when dealing with the local population but during work related discussions, it isn't far from many of the US expatriates. A lot of the more stringent security rules make sense when the word 'bomb' comes up. Driving past the old Embassy each day on the way to work is a good reminder about security.

Generally, we work six days a week from 07:00 to 18:00. Like the other foreign jobs I've worked on, we aren't left much free time. I haven't done much cooking for myself yet. It's cheaper to eat out but it's still a drag. We eat out at lots of different restaurants. It's a given that in any capital city, you'll find a great ethnic variety. Unfortunately, the restaurants aren't that varied serving mostly Italian, Indian, and Chinese. I figure it costs me more for one meal than one of our laborers earns in an entire day. Most of the local eateries have outdoor dining as their standard dining area. Some have grass thatch roofing just like the tropical environments. I'm surprised that these thatched roofs are quite cool even on the hottest days and remain dry in the wettest ones. Most of the local cuisine is served with beef and rice. They are generally curries. Seafood is abundant while chicken is the most expensive. Pork is available from some places. Pineapples, mangos, bananas, and coconuts are grown locally. Did you know that the trunk of a coconut tree had steps notched so that climbing was easier...not even in my younger, foolish years would you get me up there.

My 'apartment' is an extended stay motel. It's very nice with a studio bedroom and a kitchen...with an overnight rate of $169 US (paid by my company). Apparently, someone publicized what the US government hotel allowance per night and that is what the local hotels charge for international tourists. This place has its own uniqueness. It was built around a local drama theater. They put on productions every two months. The theater holds about two hundred people and has a bar that remains open to the public every day. The complex has full time security guards. A strong concrete and wrought iron fence keeps out the masses. We get CNN International so we can keep up on the news.

One of the guys staying here was irritated that he couldn't get his leaky kitchen sink fixed. He told the mechanic the problem and the solution...remove the drain pipe and install the new one. The mechanic said it all in a simple grin. He knew but was prolonging the whole ordeal just trying to keep employed. No more maintenance requests...we'll fix it with our people.

By and large, the Tanzanians are friendly folks, willing to help when they can. They are single-task oriented. For example, eating at restaurants. While the locals clear your table, if they see that your table needs wiping off, they stop clearing and wipe the table off. They can't clear and wipe at the same time nor can they hold the plates in one hand and wipe with the other. If there's water condensed on the exterior of the glass they'll pick up the glass repeatedly wiping away the moisture off the table not being able to conceptualize that a coaster or a napkin would shield the table from damaging water. If you ask for the check or something to be brought to the table, they drop what they were doing and get what you asked for.

The most annoying aspect of doing business at the local businesses is that they never have change if you don't have the correct amount. Someone always gets the short end of the deal.

The local currency is the Tanzanian schilling. One U.S. dollar is worth around 677 schillings. So far, I've seen coins in 20, 50, and 100 denominations and paper currency in 200, 500, 1,000, 5,000, and 10,000 denominations. The 200 denominations show a lot of wear and tear while the lack of wear on the later currencies indicates that they haven't been in circulation too long. Unless you're in an international hotel, these folks don't even recognize the phrase 'credit card'. They do recognize the trade names of Visa and MasterCard but shake their heads negatively when you ask them if they accept them.

The local language is Swahili but there aren't many who don't have at least some knowledge of the English language. Most are somewhat fluent in English while many are quite fluent in conversational English. Regretfully, I haven't learned any Swahili.

Dar es Salaam, where I live, has a population of around 0.7 million. Its translation means 'peace haven'. It's located right on the Indian Ocean. The temperature doesn't vary much from 85 degrees. Humidity is high and constant making it seem like 100. I recently overheard a new Peace Corps recruit complain that her temporary accommodations at a local hotel did not include air conditioning...time to wake up and feel the humidity. Only the ocean breeze and sunset provide any relief. Rain generally falls at night during most times. Rainy season is generally in March.

Transportation is varied. Most of the masses walk the well-beaten path...not a lot of sidewalks here. Diesel costs about $2.50 per gallon and gas is $2.75. There isn't any public transportation inside Dar es Salaam. You can catch ferries to the adjoining islands for about $50 one way or trains to take you to the outer lands. There are lots of private bus owners cramming their busses with passengers for a fare of 22 cents. Taxis seem to spring from nowhere. Young, strong, males haul cargo heaped on two-wheeled bicycles which cost around $80-$90. Also common are two wheeled carts being pushed by those who have parleyed their bicycle earnings into major transport. Women still carry large containers on their heads. Perhaps, an appropriate souvenir would be one of the bean bags they have to balance their ballast on their heads. I could use it to carry one of my foot lockers.

It's sad to say that I've noticed a lot of people with birth defects here. The handicapped use three-wheeled bicycles for transportation. These tricycles are hand propelled and hand steered. It's an ingenious mode of transportation.

There are lots of cars and vans competing with the motorcycles and bicycles for road space. Like most countries with a heavy British influence, they drive on the wrong side of the road (left). Most automobiles are poorly tuned spewing out black soot from the exhaust pipe. With the high cost of fuel, diesel fuel is the norm. Four-door, four-wheel drive mini trucks are by far the most popular vehicle. The affluent drive four wheel drive Land Rovers, Land Cruisers, or Nissan 'sport utes'...essential for driving during the rainy season where it isn't uncommon to be driving through two feet of water. Being at sea level, that can happen quickly and isn't rare. Rather than rebuild the roads at a higher elevation where water wouldn't impact the traffic flow, they remove and re-compact the roadways to withstand the water and vehicular traffic. Go figure. The main roads are paved but city side streets are not. I'd sure have a blast here on my old four-wheeler cruising the streets of suburbia.

Like most foreign projects, we have drivers to take us where we need to go...mostly to dinner or a point of interest. Their personalities are diverse and interesting. Perhaps, there's another letter in there somewhere.

The traffic lights are some of the most interesting places of commerce. Police manually operate the stop lights screwing up the natural traffic flow in the interest of giving themselves a job. At the intersection adjacent to my apartment, there are a dozen vendors walking the median hawking newspapers, flowers, household goods, or other items of retail sale. When the light turns red, the pitch goes on. They start at the light and work their way back. It's very competitive. If someone pulls over, every salesman makes a run for the customer and jams their goods into the view of their potential sale. Even beggars hang out there joking with fellow beggars...then they put on the act for the passerby...show time! The same show happens at the upscale filling stations.

So far, I've been to one night club. I've ever seen so many folks move so slow on the dance floor. It's like playing a tape at half speed. There's a local night club adjacent to the casino that it's almost mandatory for guys to bring dates. If you don't you're hounded by aggressive hookers. One of the guys brought his wife to Tanzania. We went out to dinner with a few of the crew and called it an early evening. He didn't feel like calling it an early evening so he headed off to this bar. He said he was hit on so hard that he excused himself to go to the bar and get more drinks and just kept going to the door. A few weeks later, he went back with his wife. She went out to the dance floor and he went to the bar to get more drinks for the table. The hookers hounding him for drinks and possible business even after announcing he was there with his wife. The following week, it was girl's night out and the male patrons were hounding her thinking she was a hooker. Then the hookers started sizing her up as one of them trying to figure out their new 'competition'. I guess you just can't win. One of the guys had a line that these girls couldn't match. He asked how much it was for a month. She quoted him the nightly rate. No, one month. She got all flustered and walked away. I haven't been there. With one in three having AIDS in Tanzania, it's just enough incentive not to go 'shopping'. We tried one night but it was totally dead at the time we tried to get in there. The bars here don't pick up until 11...way past the time my body tells me I need to be sleeping. Chances are very slim that I will go there but if I do, it will be in a group of mixed company so as to avoid the world's oldest profession....and that won't work.

It's interesting to go walking around here. It's not really encouraged. One day, I walked about three blocks to a restaurant. It was daylight and everybody could tell that I wasn't from here. (Tanzania is 99% black so I stick out no matter what I wear) They all say that native English greeting "hi" and it's almost like its instinct...outstretch the hand seeking a buck or two. At night, I could hang in the shadows and nobody hassled me. Hey! I may be from the US, but unlike my government, I don't give out my money to everyone who gives the facade of being down on their luck. I'm not callous. Heck, I've even been given money by someone who thought I was a beggar. For me, it's hard to figure out who is legit and who is just too lazy to find a job.

We had one guy, about my size, get mugged the hard way. He went walking at night when two thugs tried to take him by surprise by putting him in a bear hug and taking his wallet. He broke free and they never got a thing. The same guy told me of a tale of two FBI agents, here to investigate the bombing, who went jogging only to be held up. On both occasions, they lost their jogging shoes to the thieves.

The first three weeks, I was here, were spent in a hotel. Every morning, as I was riding to work, a man whom I gave the name Walkin' Willie...don't ask his real name...I never stopped and asked...would always be walking down the middle of the roadway with shirt unbuttoned singing and valiantly daring cars to drive around him or they'd hit him for sure. It was all part of the morning routine. It just wasn't a day without Willie.

There are lots of churches and missions here. My first visit to the local cathedral was interesting. The masses are scheduled so tightly together that the people from the later mass are there waiting for the earlier mass to leave so they can get in...or at least...they should. Generally, they don't. You've got three-hundred heading out while a hundred clueless early birds are trying to force their way in. Communion was much the same story. Communicants waited five deep and thirty wide while those leaving the altar played bumper pool. There was no 'traffic control'. It was a free-for-all to the altar and a free-for-all to the seats. I swore that the next time, I'd wait for the rush to die down. Luckily, I moved into my apartment and the church next door has a congregation that has better social and organizational skills. They do the simple things like waiting in line...and...waiting.

The cathedral is conditioned by the air that flows through the windows..not very effective. I was fortunate to see the open windows and move next to them prior to mass. My current church has a roof but the walls are perforated and open to the top leaving it fully ventilated and exposed to God's winged creatures....fascinating architecturally and acoustically to someone who builds for a living.

Remember the biblical story where Jesus threw out the vendors and tax collectors from the temple? They don't do that here. There is only one English mass on Sunday...that's when the vendors make it a point to be at the door when the crowd exits...those with the big bucks attend the English mass.

I'm surprised to communicate that there don't seem to be many God-fearing adult males in Tanzania. Most of those in attendance are women and children...the men seem to stay at home. The hardest thing to convey is the Tanzanian pronunciation of 'God'. The local pronunciation rhymes with 'goad'. Forget about understanding the sermon or any public announcements. We may speak the same language but it's as different as left and right.

I went to a local computer show. You can buy any computer you want, as long as it's made by Compaq. You can buy any printer, as long as it's by Hewlett Packard...software...Microsoft...you get the idea. Prices are for hardware are the same as in the US...until you add in the 20% value-added tax. While there are lots of vendors competing for your money, there isn't much money.

Believe me, they know who has the money and who does the buying. I went to the show with a fellow American and my local AutoCAD draftsmen, Benny. Competent AutoCAD draftsmen in any third world country, are very rare. Benny has lots of dreams but not much money. Benny is the son of a former Tanzanian ambassador. He's bright and would probably do well for himself if he had the money. He wants to find out about everything hoping to be able to buy nothing but the best when he has his own business. Unfortunately, the vendors didn't seem to be interested in him...just me...because I knew the right questions to ask and, more important to them, they could just tell that I had the finances. What the vendors didn't know was that I wasn't in the market for anything. We bought everything we needed at the very start. I just wanted to see what they had for sale.

One day, Benny asked to go home early. He said his wife had malaria. The buzzers and bells went off in the head....Oh my...malaria! We inquired about her well being after Benny returned to work. Benny laughed. We were far more panic stricken than Benny. Here, it's as common as the cold.

Fashion is very interesting. Most of Dar es Salaam has adopted the modern dress but women haven't given up the long flowing multi-colored dresses. I think the whole city is the dump zone for all the bargain rack t-shirts that never sold in the US department stores. The Masai, Tanzanian warriors, both male and female, still wear the long flowing robes and have the earrings that stretch the ear lobes. The native dress is more common as you get away from the city. I'd guess only about one-percent wear the local dress.

The local water...we're told not to drink it as it has a high fecal content. About the only time we consume it is in ice in our sodas. So far, no problems. The most annoying thing I've experienced are the numerous bug bites I have all over my body from my toes to the top of my head. The bites harden and resemble a large welt with a pimple on top.

Beer is mostly locally brewed. By far, the most popular brew is Castle. I don't know what the ingredient is but after about two twelve-ounce cans, I awake the next morning with a hangover equivalent to drinking a whole case. Coke and Pepsi are available for about fifty cents for a returnable bottle. Coke Light, aka Diet Coke, is available for over a buck a can. You can buy Mars candy bars for about a buck each. Mars ice cream bars run around three dollars each. Ice cream cones cost a buck and a half a scoop.

I'm pleased to report that there aren't many smokers here. Most are upper class. I'd take an uneducated guess that the cost of a pack of smokes is just too much of a bite out of the take home salary.

Thanksgiving was spent working...surprised? One of the local restaurants put on a feast that would rival even those meals made by many families in the good old USA.

A few of my associates and I recently made a one day safari to Mikumi National Park. We awoke at the crack of dawn to get an early start on the traffic. The trip was around 200 miles but we got stopped by the local authorities an average of six times each way. As our local driver referred to it, he had to give these officials 'tea money'...i.e. bribes. As I've written before, in every city I travel to, I try to visit their zoo. Well, this was far better than all of the zoos I've been to...combined. We saw crocodiles, elephants, hippos, monkeys, zebras, giraffes, and impalas. We didn't see any tigers as they generally are visible around sun up or sundown. A brief afternoon shower brought the animals to the close proximity to the roadway within a short viewing distance to our vehicle. The monkeys were, by far, the bravest of the creatures. They'd sit on the shoulder of the roadway. We tossed a couple of apples to the really brave ones. I didn't have my digital camera and had run out of film so this one was for the memories...or rather treasures...I'll possess for my lifetime. It was like a dream, we'd see a couple of animals here and then a few hundred feet away, several others. I kept waiting for the cardboard figurines to fall over but they never did. I will confess that this was the first time I've ever traveled along a roadway and saw an elephant crossing sign.

The houses along the way were made from corrugated tin walls or adobe block and tin or grass thatched roofs. They were quite small, about the size of single room of a house in the US...what I'd call a shack. I wouldn't live in one of these places but, the locals weren't raised under the same conditions as I. It's normal to them but not to me. I don't know if this is rationalizing or not but in my country, I'd be considered middle class. Here, by far, I'm in the upper class. To be a "have" in the land of "have nots", at least in my opinion, by my standards, raises lots of questions I can't answer. One question I can't answer is how can 99% of the people, the blacks, be dependent upon 1%, the whites for their economic well being? I guess it all depends on ambition, resources, education, and financial backing.

If you get beyond the philosophical questions of if they really need help and would they be better for it, the question of you would achieve it is the next question on the list. I'm probably going to catch some heat for this but I'm going out on a limb to say that these people don't nseed charity...or the missions to give them a better way of life. They need jobs and industry...foreign investments. Don't get me wrong. I'm a firm believer in God and believe that one's spiritual health is just as important as one's physical well-being but I believe that if you make someone earn a buck, they appreciate it a bit more than just giving it to them. 'Give me a fish and I will eat for a day. Teach me to fish and I will eat for a lifetime.' I'd start much in the same way the US did...build up the infrastructure...roads, railways, utilities. There is plenty of room for improvement here. The rollover impact of money spent is astronomical. Unfortunately, there isn't much capital. How would I raise that? I'm not sure but Dar es Salaam is a port city and that seems to be a good place to start. Travel and tourism seems to be an untapped resource. The Serengeti, Mt. Kilimanjaro...just for starters. I'm told that Tanzania has the most stable government in the entire African continent. Diamonds and gems are already a viable market commodity. The big surprise for me was the high volume of expatriates from India. They own most of the downtown businesses. Don't the locals have the capital and desire to run their own businesses? From what I've seen and heard, no.

To fill all of you in on what has happened in the past year. We finished the job in Armenia in early April. I was chomping at the bit to get out of there. It wasn't a successful project and that put a strain on everyone associated with the project. To the credit of everyone, nobody quit. I left Armenia in late March and spent a month in Omaha getting caught up on home life and readjusting to the US. I had to learn that the TV networks try to solve all of life's woes in a two minute segment...and not many apply to me. I moved to Birmingham Alabama to our home office, working on two claims against our Armenian client and our designing business partners. While the battle was far from over, we were awarded 3.8 million in damages (80% of our claim) from the client. No doubt that this will stretch out for some time. If we see a dime, I would be very surprised. I worked with consultants and lawyers for seven months on that one. The big benefit was getting a seven-day trip to Dublin Ireland to work on the claim. During the day, we worked. At night, we were free to do as we wished including my hobby, testing the local brew, Guinness. We didn't stray far from Dublin but we did take one of those half-day tours. Rural Ireland is much more beautiful that Dublin...a tourist trap. If you're a golfer, this is like golfing heaven. I'm not a golfer but I did appreciate the potential. For the non-golfers, the scenic beauty breathtaking.

I didn't really care for my stay in Birmingham. The home office scene didn't do it for me. There's enough tension in that office that you can slice it off with a knife...just too formal for me and I don't have much ambition to climb that corporate ladder. I can be civilized but have no ambition to be politically correct and I HATE neckties. My main ambition was for the people at the home office to get to know me more than just being a name on a fax or a voice on the other end of an international call. In my opinion and in feedback from others including the boss, I've established a positive reputation for my work inside the company I'd do it again.

The Alabama heat was oppressive. I'd considered that to be a place to settle down at in some future date but the mercury rose to 100 when I arrived in April and didn't dip until I left there in late October. I wasn't particularly pleased with my company furnished living accommodations (cockroach races in my motel room were the highlight of every Friday night) and the lack of a commitment from the company to keep me employed but I survived. I did some traveling including a couple of trips to Virginia...my adopted home...and two trips to the parents).

Birmingham is a city with either too much happening or nothing all. Sometimes, there were concerts galore. There's plenty of sports entertainment and movie theaters to attend. There were plenty of interesting restaurants and places to shop but nightlife was scant. Atlanta, two hours away, had everything going on all the time but the two-hour drive made it a weekend only visit and only if I was willing to spend the night.

I did add a brother-in-law to the collection. Yes, Barb tied the knot. The last, unmarried Des Rosiers, at least in my family, is me. Don't count on that changing any time soon.

As for the future for me, there have been no communications about what I do after I leave here. I was supposed to go to our Embassy project in India before we got this job. I assume that whatever I was supposed to do there, the position has been filled. I've been playing it by ear since I left Armenia. I hope to visit my sister in Saudi Arabia...just a hop, skip, and a jump from Tanzania. Also, I'd like to travel on a safari in the Serengeti. Right now, we're investigating that possibility for Christmas weekend.

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