Arusha Impressions - City Life in Tanzania
Updated: Oct 27, 2021
After getting settled into our Arusha hotel and taking a much-needed nap, we headed out to A) explore the city, and B) get some food in our stomachs (maybe reverse that order). Neither of us had ever been to Africa, so staying right in central Arusha gave us an opportunity to “get our feet wet.”
Here are some no-particular-order impressions of our first few days!
An Arusha Overview
Located in the country’s northeast near the Kenyan border, Arusha is the third-biggest city in Tanzania (~500,000 people in the city proper). And - something we definitely didn’t know before arrival - it’s informally known as the “Geneva of Africa.” Not due to cheese and expensive watches, but because multiple international and intergovernmental organizations have set up shop there. The East African Community is headquartered in the city, and - while operational from 1994 to 2015 - so was the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
And, due to Arusha’s location, it’s generally considered the gateway to many of Tanzania’s most famous national parks. Kilimanjaro’s an hour or so away, and Serengeti’s about six hours to the northwest. As a result, most visitors to these parks fly into the city, spend a night acclimating, then head out on a safari.
As this was both of our first trips to Africa, we didn’t want to take this standard route. We didn’t want to stay in a walled compound on the outskirts of the city and bypass it en route to a national park. And, we had the luxury of time - no excuses to not explore for a few days on the front-end of our own safari. On a compressed trip from the States, this isn’t always an option.
Staying in town it would be. Jenna found a room at a cool spot - the Hotel Venus - a block away from Arusha’s central market. With Mount Meru towering in the distance and the city spreading around us, we were definitely in the heart of things.
The Hypervigilance of New and Chaotic Places
Arusha is chaotic. It seems like an absolutely buzzing hive of activity.
When you walk outside, vendors’ stalls line the sidewalks, with many haphazardly jutting out into traffic. This makes strolling down the block more like solving a maze. You go around one stand selling local produce, jump out into the street (dodging cars in the process) to pass the next spot hawking electronics, then hop up onto a ledge to get by a third stall with a case of grilled chicken on skewers.
With this system of bobbing and weaving around local vendors, walking a block is really like walking three blocks. The rain complicated things even more. When we left the hotel to find a bite to eat, it had been drizzling for a few hours, creating rivers of muddy water along the sides of the road. Normally, you’d just stay on the sidewalk, avoiding these flows. But (see above), this added another obstacle course dimension to walking from Point A to Point B. Not only did pedestrians need to dodge the vendor stands and crazy traffic, they had to make sure they didn’t get washed away (slight hyperbole…).
People who’ve never played the game of rugby say it looks like absolute chaos. But, once you understand the rules, it becomes organized chaos. We didn’t understand the rules of Arusha, so it was all chaos for us that first trip walking around town. Naturally, this leads to massive hypervigilance - head-on-a-swivel, everyone’s-a-threat, keep-your-knife-in-hand sort of outlook.
We needed time to acclimate, to learn the rules and see the patterns in Arusha’s organized chaos.
A Snack, Smoothie, and Sunny Change of Perspective
When we left the hotel that first, rainy afternoon - still definitely jetlagged and quite hungry - we had a destination. We were off to a grocery store about a half mile away. Which, with Arusha’s maze-like system of street-side vendors, felt far longer. But, the city itself - or at least the city center - follows a pretty convenient grid system, making it easy to follow a route.
Never go to a grocery store hungry. Anywhere. And, we understood this written-in-stone rule, so we went to a big market with a cafe inside. Instead of strolling through the aisles, we went straight to the cafe and ordered a large pizza with a couple fresh fruit smoothies. A good friend who’d spent some time in Tanzania insisted - quite forcefully - that anytime we saw a place selling mango smoothies, we had to buy one. Sound advice (thanks, Kev!) - absolutely delicious. No preservatives or frozen fruits - just fresh mango blended up with some milk.
With bellies full of smoothies and pizza, we started to feel a little more alive. And, it’s funny how checking off an item from the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy can change your outlook on things. After grabbing some snacks and bottled water (for drinking and brushing teeth in Tanzania), we walked back outside. In the time we’d been in the grocery store, it had stopped raining and turned into a beautiful, sunny afternoon.
The chaos was certainly still there. But, having experienced the walk on empty stomachs in the rain, looking at the return journey bathed in sunlight and pleasantly full just felt easier. Strolling back, we had a better understanding of the art of moving down Arusha’s sidewalks. And, as more people came out from under cover into the nice weather, we started seeing the rhythm, how locals navigated this organized chaos.
An afternoon anywhere does not make one an expert in anything. But, we’d at least broken down that initial hypervigilance that comes with jumping into a new, unfamiliar world.
Cultural Appropriation, or “Do As the Romans Do?”
In today’s world of social media justice, it seems like someone’s always being crucified for cultural appropriation. But, what if you’re trying to blend in somewhere? Is that cultural appropriation, or just a good old example of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do?”
Back to Arusha. Demographically, mainland Tanzania is 99% African, with the other 1% a mix of Asian, European, and Arab. A tall, pale white woman, Jenna stuck out like a sore thumb, which led to a ton of curiosity-driven interactions. As we strolled around town that first day, it seemed like every other person approached us, either to sell us something or just ask why we were there.
In Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, you expect this approach. That’s the social contract there - you come to the bazaar, and people try to aggressively sell you their wares. Just walking down any random street, these interactions eventually become too much. Not because of any feeling of perceived threats, but just because it’s stressful and draining to have people accosting you every few feet. Especially for introverts like Jenna, people who inherently avoid the spotlight, this level of attention can be a lot.
With roughly a third of its population Muslim, Jenna decided to take a different approach on Day 2. As we got ready for a day exploring town, she came out of the bathroom with a sheepish smile on her face - and a makeshift hijab on her head… Chipp was understandably skeptical - and amused - with this approach. But, hey, what the hell, can’t be any worse.
Our experiences were night and day different. With the exception of one entertaining fellow in the central market who yelled out a “salaam alaikum my Muslim sister!” to us, no one said a word to Jenna. By extension, no one said a word to Chipp. We just went about our business like everyone else.
Quite clearly, Chipp had been wrong and Jenna right. People must’ve assumed Jenna actually was a local Muslim woman (albeit quite clearly not an African one) - not a clueless American tourist / fish out of water in a new city.
Still don’t know what the social media standard bearers would say about this behavior, but it made the rest of our time in Arusha far more relaxing!
Finding Indian Food in Arusha - Hot Plate Deliciousness
Continuing her TripAdvisor skills, Jenna found us what sounded like an incredible Indian restaurant in Arusha. Tanzania has a ton of Indian influence, and it reflects in the food - plenty of good, curry-based dishes throughout the country.
At Hotel Venus, we scouted the route on our phones, and we walked the mile or so over there. Welp, don’t let first impressions fool you. Named Hot Plate, the restaurant just had some picnic tables under an awning outside and a small dining area inside - didn’t look like much. Hands down, this was the best Indian food either of us had ever eaten (with the massive disclaimer that neither of us had ever actually been to India).
So yeah, outside of India, Hot Plate in Arusha offers up some of the best Indian food you can get. We had massive dishes of palak paneer and murgh makani (a.k.a. “butter chicken) soaked up with satellite dish-sized servings of naan - all washed down with the obligatory mango smoothies. Thinking about it now makes the mouth water.
And, we had the good fortune of meeting our first “African cat” while eating out on Hot Plate’s front patio - just not quite the lion or cheetah we expected.
Drinking Safari [Beer] and Konyagi (Tanzanian Rocket Fuel)
What’s a story about a new place without talking about the booze in that new place? Arusha - and Tanzania, in general - would offer plenty of great local liquid deliciousness.
In the heart of historic Arusha, there’s an old German fort. Now, it hosts a local academy that teaches and certifies students to enter the service industry. And, in its back gardens, there’s a hub of local party life - at least at night. If you ask someone in Arusha where to party, you’ll likely hear: go to Via Via. Well, we went there, but at four in the afternoon. One of the bartenders was hanging out watching a movie with a couple friends, but there wasn’t a patron in sight.
No matter - plenty of hospitality. He welcomed us with open arms and asked what we’d like to drink. Chipp asked for a local beer recommendation, and Jenna said she liked a gin and tonic.
Via Via bartender: “Okay, that’ll be a Safari for you sir, and ma’am, a Konyagi for you.”
Turns out, Safari is an absolutely delicious Tanzanian beer. And, it never seemed to be served in a bottle less than 500ml and just a tad above freezing - unbelievably refreshing on a hot Arusha day.
And Konyagi, what can we say about that? It’s not a clearly categorized liquor, but Konyagi is often lumped in with gin on menus. It’s a distinctly-flavored, sugarcane-based clear liquor that’s absolute rocket fuel. It’s only around 70 proof, but it tastes incredible and takes you to some weird places.
This blog post about Konyagi explains it far more eloquently than we can, so give credit where credit is due: “It’s not vodka, it’s not gin, it’s not water and it’s barely legal outside of East Africa. As soon as that distinctive taste hits your lips, all aboard! You’re in for the long run; the Konyagi train has just departed.”
Welcome to Arusha!