Many people arrive here with preconceived notions that it's little more than an awful stop-off en route to safari destinations inland or a terrible place to pass the time before a flight connecting them back to Europe. Although there's a relative dearth of real attractions, Dar turns out to be more about a feeling that about sightseeing, and there are a few intriguing corners to simply watch and imbibe the local life, color, and day-to-day routine. There's some mildly interesting architecture scattered around the city's colonial quarter, but nothing stands out as obviously impressive, and much of the built heritage is in a slightly tattered state. You can spend a couple of hours getting a feel for the rhythm of the city by setting off at the crack of dawn to visit the bustling fish market, where straight-off-the-boat merchandise is graded, sorted, and displayed in some elaborate, unfathomable system designed to catch the eye of prospective buyers -- from housewives laden with plastic buckets filled with finger-size fish to restaurateurs searching for top-quality tuna that might be transformed into your lunchtime sashimi. You can become engrossed in the raucous parlaying that goes on as basket after basket of early morning catch makes its way up from the boats, or turn your eyes to the water to witness the action amid the colorful tangle of fishing dhows and ropes and nets. Look out, too, for the wandering kahawa (coffee) hawkers and fuel up with a dose of Swahili "espresso" -- it's a strong, bitter black coffee best taken with a bite of the candied nut brittle provided. Don't be afraid to try out your Kiswahili here -- a heartfelt "Jambo" (Hello) and "Habari?" (How are you?) goes a long way toward coaxing a smile out of even the toughest-looking fisherman, although you'd better be on standby with "Sisema Kiswahili" (I don't speak Kiswahili) before you confuse a friendly local into assuming that you're being rude. Although a few people don't like having their picture taken, you'll usually get a positive response if you politely ask these guys, "Mikupige picha?" (May I take your picture?) -- you won't regret making the effort.
When you've had your fill of the fishy stench, take a stroll along the Kivukoni Front to experience the city as it comes to life. From here you can watch the harbor scene on one side and the confluence of modernity and colonial leftovers on the other. Between it all, the taxi drivers and shoe-shiners, hustlers and hookers, dock workers and diplomats make for their particular corners of the city. Later, if you want a sense of how modern Dar's population goes about its business, stop by Kariakoo Market, where the city's pulse beats hardest -- its vivid sights and pungent smells and frenzied, frenetic sounds are Dar in its most concentrated form (except perhaps for the mayhem you might witness at any of the larger bus stations). Once a small village, Kariakoo takes its present-day name from the German carrier corps that resided here during the war -- the name is simply a corruption of "carrier" (karia) and "corps" (koo). At Kariakoo's heart is the Eastern Bloc-style concrete hulk that comprises the main market building; I'm told that people travel from all over East Africa to shop here, and some go so far as to call it the "Dubai of Tanzania," which is perhaps a little far-fetched. Step inside for a gander at a disparate array of goods -- everything from industrial fertilizers to electronic appliances can be bought, and mixed in with the high-tech gadgetry is the smell of freshly cracked coconuts, the tang of green peppers, aromatic spices, and sweet citrus juice. Outside, illegal vendors line the streets, pushing bribes into the hands of potbellied police officers who, in return, allow them to sell their fresh fruit and vegetables alongside racks flogging beautifully patterned kangas. And amid it all, scores of people throng in every direction -- women out to shop, traders gathering their gear, pedestrians dodging traffic, and heavily loaded carts being dragged through it all by tough, bedraggled workers. A word of caution: You'd do well to leave all valuables at your hotel when exploring here (or pretty much anywhere in the city, for that matter); the crowds can be thick, and your overtly displayed jewelry or purse will be gone long before you notice.
If you're feeling particularly adventurous, hop on the Kigamboni Ferry, which launches not far from the fish market and transfers you -- along with hundreds of fellow passengers -- to Kigamboni, an eclectic mix of market stalls as colorful as they are chaotic. Here you can watch fishermen working on their boats or pick up local transport for a trip to beaches along the south coast.
If you want to get a feel for Tanzania's emerging art scene, there's no beating Mawazo (at press time, searching for new premises), which hosts exhibitions showcasing the very best in contemporary art. If there's a chance of finding collectible, exciting local work, this is it. There's also a new art gallery at the city's national museum, properly known as the House of Culture (reviewed below), where you can fawn over the skull of one of our earliest proto-human ancestors, unearthed by Richard Leakey in the Rift Valley.
Few people know that author Roald Dahl once lived a life of relative luxury in Dar es Salaam when he worked for the Shell Petroleum Company in the 1930s. When World War II broke out, he captained a platoon of askaris and went on to serve in the Royal Air Force, with missions across North Africa. Dahl, my sources tell me, lived in the exclusive enclave of Oyster Bay, at the southern end of the Msasani Peninsula, which remains a hub of expatriate luxury living, replete with enormous mansions, 75 embassies, and real estate averaging $1 million. It's also the setting for the most sociable swimming beach in the immediate vicinity of the city; pretty Coco Beach is a good place for a walk or a dip, and there's a casual beach bar and restaurant with plastic chairs, cold beers, and a straightforward menu.
Finally, one of the favorite daytime pursuits for visitors to the city is a dhow cruise to Bongoyo, a small island marine reserve close to the Msasani Peninsula. The boats set off on the 1/2-hour trip every 2 hours from 9:30am, returning an hour later -- you can easily spend half a day exploring the island. The all-inclusive trip costs Tsh25,000; you can call Sylvester Bigona (tel. 022/260-0893 or 071/332-8126) or simply turn up at The Slipway on the northern end of Msasani. Or, better still, skip the city and head for one of the virtually untouched beaches along the south coast. There you will come to remember the meaning of the word paradise and discover hushed alternatives to the development that has occurred on popular, over-exploited Zanzibar.
Tanzania's Signature Artists
Ubiquitous pretty much all over East Africa -- especially where there's the chance of a tourist sale -- the paintings that have become synonymous with modern Tanzania tread a thin line between fine art, graphic design, and cartoon. Chief among these are the naïve, childlike depictions of wide-eyed animals that comprise the famed Tinga Tinga school. Few people who head home with a handful of paintings in their luggage realize that this particular style has its roots with one man, Eduardo Saidi Tingatinga. Born in Southern Tanzania in 1937, Tingatinga was the original artist who inadvertently founded a movement, having found himself inspired by some Congolese paintings he had seen. With no training at all, he tried his hand at creating images of wild animals and village scenes using enamel liquid paint bought at a local hardware store. His images of simplified human figures or wild animals painted from one side with the head turned toward the viewer are two-dimensional and give the impression of almost childlike simplicity, with no background, no depth. Yet with the absence of any pretense at realism, and by cutting the subject to its bare essence, revealing only what he saw as the main elements, Tingatinga's works have been described as atmospheric and poetic, capturing the fragile spirit of his subjects. His paintings have been called "a sort of essential art" in which he uses subtle color, form, and shape to convey a charming sense of beauty, which some critics have suggested represents the artist's reality, albeit in a straightforward, graphical medium -- an adult artist who managed to preserve the original and unabashed spontaneity of childhood. Sadly, Tingatinga -- who probably began painting only in 1967 -- was accidentally killed in a police shootout in 1972. During his brief time as an artist, however, he trained members of his own family in his style, and his technique has become Tanzania's most popular art form -- the Tinga Tinga School.
Other famous images that have come to epitomize the spirit (literally, in this case) of the Tanzanian art world are the quirky, cartoonesque shetani ("spirit" or "devil") figures realized by George Lilanga during his illustrious career. Widely considered to be one of the world's major contemporary artists, Lilanga was greatly influenced by the Pop movement, and the impact of Keith Haring is particularly evident in his work. Whereas Tingatinga's style teeters on the edge of the banal, Lilanga (1934-2005) explored a realm of magic and fantasy that spans the space between reality and the spirit realm. His paintings are ironic explorations of common themes in everyday life, and history, too, is transformed through tongue-in-cheek juxtapositions. His paintings and sculptures have titles such as There's a World but I've Forgotten It and Wait a Minute, My Neck Is Itchy, and there's little chance of remaining a casual, uninvolved observer when trying to make sense of the fantastical scenes that he created. His figures twist and writhe on the canvas, and his carvings are alive with energy -- it's a rhythm said to evoke the traditional dances of Lilanga's people, whose mythology and culture are represented in his art. Using an imaginary, graphical world populated by fantastical, grotesque characters, Lilanga draws inevitable parallels between universal psychological demons of the traditional spirit world. A member of the woodcarving Makonde tribe, Lilanga learned to sculpt wood in the traditional way, first using soft cassava root and then later working with hard black wood. He continued to carve when he moved to Dar but found his break when, while working as a security guard at the Nyerere Cultural Centre, he managed to show his creations to one of the organizers. In 1978, his work featured in an exhibition in Washington, D.C., following which he was in great demand internationally. His worldwide repute made him a living icon for Swahili art. In and around Dar and Bagamoyo today, you'll come across hundreds of artists trying to reenact Lilanga's legacy, hoping to make it big. There are countless artists throughout Africa who are destined to try flogging their canvases and carvings at streetside stalls or from curio markets where original and unique creations are always a rarity.
You can find knockoff Tinga Tinga and Lilanga paintings everywhere (imitative works in Lilanga's style will include a copy of his signature, or that of his grandson, Henrick John Lilanga). For the widest selection of canvases (of varying quality and pretty much indeterminate value) in Dar, visit the Mwenge Craft Village (well known to taxi drivers, it's close to the Village Museum), where you can also browse for kangas, masks (most of them from West Africa), drums, and some intriguing musical instruments. You'll be expected to bargain and will need to endure some pretty pushy sales talk, but the stall keepers are ultimately engaging, entertaining, and eager to show you behind the scenes, where many of the handicrafts are being manufactured by a hardworking team, most of whom taught themselves to carve at an early age. There's an established group of Tinga Tinga artists at The Slipway (tel. 076/274-4054); they've been creating within this niche genre since 1982.
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