Finding Home? - Dar Es Salaam & Mafia Island

Over the past 7 years I've been on all types of trips. Cruises with family, volunteer trips with strangers who became my friends, vacations with my daughter and sisters. I've been to 21 countries in that time, most recently to Tanzania. It's the first time I've instantly felt at home almost immediately upon arriving. Maybe it was the welcome from my Airbnb friends, I don't know.

Kariakoo Market Neighborhood

The sounds of motorcycles, horns, the call to prayer, people speaking in Swahili, the constant clacking of the cigarette man and his shells letting you know that he's around carry on late into the night. Staying in Kariakoo Market was one of the best places I could have stayed because it was vibrant and alive with people selling everything from car parts to rope, halal meats, fruit, clothes, shoes and anything else you might need.

The market area was just a bit on the crazy side as well, trying to walk on the way. They're for merchandise displays, cars, fruit, clothes or anything else except walking. So walking around the neighborhood down the main street, Sikukuu, you have to walk in the street, avoiding the vans, motorcycles, bikes and other people. 

Cars, motorcycles, 3 wheeled motorbikes maneuvering through the main street driving just close enough to brush your shoulder with the side mirrors makes walking an adventure in itself. The sidewalks that do exist in the area of the market are very narrow and not really made for walking, they serve as extra display space for the shops. So the only option is the street. Most of the time cars or motorcycles will honk to let you know they’re behind you. Most of the time.

For some reason I expected Dar Es Salaam to have a similar feel to Nairobi. I guess because both are major cities in neighboring East African countries. But they're very different. The influence of Arab, Indian and European cultures are very evident in the faces, food, architecture and religions. I was only in Dar for 3 nights total but it impressed me because of the ease of getting around, the relative safety of Kariakoo and the mix of cultures. Obviously, as with any city, you have to be mindful of your belongings and stay alert, but I never felt unsafe walking around. 

Kariakoo Market Dar Es Salaam

I was most certainly the only tourist walking in the neighborhood, blending in until someone speaks to me in Swahili asking me about my camera or asking me to buy something. One older uncle came up to me asking me if I wanted to buy some really really strong string, demonstrating for mr how strong it was and how much was in each pack. I chuckled and told him that I didn’t speak Swahili, he switched to English and joked that his English was better than my Swahili. He named a couple of African countries that He thought I might be from and was surprised when he was wrong. He laughed and gave me a fist bump when I told him I was from the U.S., we both walked away laughing. I saw him later that evening while waiting for my dinner at an Indian food shop across the street from the Airbnb I stayed at, he smiled and waved, I waved back.

These types of exchanges represent why I love to travel, the people. Just going about their daily lives, getting a happy surprise when they run into a stranger they didn't know was actually a stranger from farther away than they could have imagined. Smiling, friendly and curious, most speak good enough English and if you speak good enough Swahili, which I don’t, you’ll be able to communicate with no problem.

Kariakoo Market
Dar Es Salaam

Even though I realize that Dar Es Salaam is on the coast with the Indian Ocean within arms reach, it's still a beautiful sight to see the beach so close to the city center. Sometimes you need to really spend a lot of time in a place to really to get know it, but with Dar what you see is what you get. There's no pretense about it. Yes, I'm sure there are underlying cultural customs as with any city, but it just felt like an easy city to live in, visit and spend time in. Everyone speaks Swahili, no matter where they're from which seems to work as a unifying factor for the people that live in the city.

The Cliffs Dar Es Salaam Tanzania
Dar Es Salaam

Breakfast, courtesy of my wonderful Airbnb hosts. I chose Airbnb because it's better than staying in a hotel in a city that I've never been to before. My Airbnb hosts, Widy and his wife, are from Indonesia and they treated me like family. They told me where to go to explore the city and the best way to get there. They made time to take me around the city, made a traditional Indonesian breakfast for me. I love the fact that they, as a young couple, decided to leave their country to explore the world and live in another country, open their home to meet people from all over the world. While I was at their place there was an older couple from Pakistan, another traveler I can't remember where he was from and Vincent from Nigeria, living in Doha. Absolutely amazing. This is what I love so much about travel.

Breakfast in Dar Es Salaam.jpg

I ate much more on this trip than I normally do when I'm not traveling, but that what you do. It's required. In order to understand a culture you have to experience it through the food. Anywhere you go in the world, people show their hospitality, love, friendship through food. It's a delicious way to see the world. When you visit Dar Es Salaam, there's only one dish that is an absolute must. Chicken Sekela. It's the only dish that is Dar Es Salaam. Of course you can find Indian, Chinese, Thai, American, Middle Eastern and just about any other type of you want. But Chicken Sekela is Dar Es Salaam, you won't find it anywhere else in Tanzania.

Dar Es Salaam
Chicken Sekela

After spending a couple of nights in Dar Es Salaam I headed over to Mafia Island. I stumbled upon Mafia Island about a year ago while searching for eco-friendly lodges to add to my list of places around the world. The lodges I looked at were simple, elegant, using traditional materials, sensitive about the environment and most of all, relaxing. Mafia Island is about a 40 min flight from Dar and unlike Zanzibar, you can't get there by boat. 

Dar Es Salaam Airport
Butiama Beach Resort

Mafia is pretty much unknown by most travelers and this means an island that feels like you have it all to yourself. It's just a place where you can go to enjoy simple activities and be present in your moment. Forget about wifi access except in the reception areas of most of the lodges on the island. Who needs wifi anyway when you're exploring 12th century ruins, swimming in the blue lagoon, eating the catch of the day or lounging on powdery sand beaches?

Mafia Island Tanzania
Sunset on Butiama Beach

I am a wanderer at heart, it's hard for me to sit still in one place for too long. But if I can travel in the meantime I'm fine. When I get to a new city, after about 3 years I start to feel like it's time to go and see something new. I've only lived in the U.S. so I don't know if I'd feel that way living outside of the States. 

I think what I connected to the most while on Mafia Island was just the ease of being and the warmth of the people that I met. Granted there was a very clear language barrier sometimes, but after a few minutes of trying to communicate I was always left with the words, "Welcome." followed by a smile or laugh. I amused a lot of local people due to my lack of Swahili speaking skills because they just expected me to speak the language.

Meremeta Lodge Mafia Island Tanzania
Mafia Island Tanzania
Mafia Island Tanzania
Sunset Chole Island Tanzania
Mafia Island Dar Es Salaam Tanzania

There aren't many places that I've visited where I've felt instantly at home, but I felt that in Dar Es Salaam and on Mafia. I expected to visit the lodges, explore the island, eat incredible seafood. The wonderful people, chance encounters, beautiful's a place I'll return to many times in the future. For more info about Mafia Island check out my latest Trip101 Guide. 

Kunduchi Hotel Dar Es Salaam