It was only 9:00 pm local time when we landed at Kilimanjaro Airport in Moshi, Tanzania. But it felt more like a year’s air travel, and our exhausted expressions had that typical cloudy-eyed confusion that says “I just landed, where am I, which way to the luggage?”
Although it was dark, I could tell Moshi was larger than I’d expected it to be. The airport’s proximity to Moshi is similar to Regan National Airport’s distance to DC. Because we were climbing Kilimanjaro, I was expecting a smaller city, like Cusco, Peru, the gateway town for those hiking the Inca Trail. More importantly, I was anticipated landing in a place easy to navigate on foot (with shops, restaurants and a few sites to visit).
Moshi is not that. It’s spread out and visitors are encouraged not to walk around after dark. The hotels are happy to call you a taxi. Our guide confirmed it’s not safe, which is about where everyone left it. We didn’t contest that guidance. My number one, golden rule for Kilimanjaro is “on, or off the mountain, always listen to your guide.”
By day, we discovered Moshi hums like any large city: people walking to work, catching buses, people generally going about their lives. One thing you’ll notice about Moshi, is that westerners really stand out. Thus, be prepared for people to stare at you. It’s a welcoming and warm curiosity, but it can be intimidating if you aren’t used to it.
As a redhead, I’d experienced being stared at once before in India. It gives one a good idea of what a hassle celebrity must be.
Moshi is welcoming, but to get the most out of visiting make friends with your guide. A distant second recommendation is to keep on the lookout for ex-pats (who speak Swahili, the language of Tanzania). It appeared that most ex-pats lived in the “Shanty Town” neighborhood. Anyone familiar with that name knows it usually describes a poor area. In this case the name’s ironic.
Moshi is friendly, but staff in grocery stores, restaurants and banks don’t always speak English. Additionally, prices can mysteriously increase at grocery stores—if you argue, it’s nicely explained that you don’t understand. Now you understand.
Taxi’s can also be a source of frustration. The hotel will arrange transportation and provide a price. But it’s important to confirm things with your driver. What is called “Chaka-Chewa,” or funny business, is part of the experience.
For example, our first cab driver argued once we reached our destination that the price quoted was dollars, and the price in local currency is higher. I will grant this can become frustrating. But it’s also important to point out that—although you don’t want to be a sucker—ultimately you’re arguing over not a lot of money. We bickered because we didn’t carry a lot of cash—and you never use a debit card.
It helps not to look at Chaka-Chewa as dishonest, as much as opportunistic. Wealthy people take taxis—people who can afford that extra couple bucks that can make a big difference for the individual. It helps keep things in perspective, and maintaining that outlook prevents premature aging.
With that, here is a Travelers Tip: Before getting in a taxi, confirm your destination, number of passengers, repeat the agreed upon price and currency. Make certain the driver agrees to this before you get depart your hotel. That said, if the bill is 9,000 Tsh (Tanzanian Shillings), be a sport and let the person keep the change. Tipping is not part of the culture, but it is very appreciated and there is a growing expectation that westerners will tip.
I’ve focused on this point more than I’d expected to, so let me sum it up as follows. Consider it not so much as “buyer beware” as a “buyer be aware” thing, and plan accordingly so that you can enjoy your time prior to climbing Kilimanjaro or heading off on a Safari.
These frustrations are by no means unique to Tanzania. Do not get overly frustrated or allow it to ruin your holiday. Instead, write it off as local customs and ways of doing things.
Author’s note: My personal travel philosophy is never to write while I’m away. I do keep notes in a journal. Observations help me to remember my impressions and experiences for your enjoyment. To me, travel is about being in the moment, not documenting it on a computer.