Pole Pole - A (Refreshing?) Mindset Shift
Updated: Oct 27, 2021
You can’t spend time in Zanzibar - or Tanzania, in general - without hearing the phrase pole pole. Pronounced “po-lay po-lay,” it’s Swahili for “slowly, slowly.” But, it means so much more. In Zanzibar, this oft-repeated phrase embraces an entire lifestyle, a laid-back culture that just oozes a what’s-the-rush outlook on life.
For people used to a trains-will-run-on-time philosophy, the pole pole approach definitely comes as a culture shock. But, once you embrace it, things go much more smoothly. Alternatively, you’ll lose your mind trying to fight it!
German Efficiency vs. Pole Pole Restaurants
Some things are just easier to deal with when you know to expect them. Case in point: the pole pole approach to restaurant service in Zanzibar. If you go into an eating experience building a realistic from-sit-down-to-food-on-fork wait into your timeline, no issues. Actually, this slowed-down approach to life can be quite refreshing.
On other hand, not anticipating these delays - especially when used to German-style punctuality - will inevitably set you up for disappointment (or losing your mind completely!).
We saw this latter experience clearly unfold during our first meal out in Nungwi. Located on one side of the town’s main square, M & J’s Restaurant is a delicious, streetside cafe serving up local dishes, smoothies, and desserts. (Unrelated: Nungwi’s town square is a wild combination of soccer pitch, cow pasture, taxi stand, and local gathering point). Always expecting a slower-than-usual food delivery in this environment, we embraced two techniques: 1) never go to a restaurant absolutely ravenous; and 2) always order a smoothie - usually comes out before the food and helps cut the hunger.
Sitting at a counter spot at M & J’s, we had a perfect vantage point for people coming in to make takeaway orders. Enter an older German lady, clearly in a rush:
German lady: “What do you have for takeaway, something quick?”
Guy at the counter: “Sambusas - how many?”
German lady: “Okay, three orders, but make it quick - we have a taxi waiting.”
Fast forward 15 minutes - and no sambusas.
German lady, losing patience: “Where are my sambusas? You said they’d be quick!”
Guy at counter: “5 minutes - everything’s freshly made.”
Fast forward another 15 minutes - still no sambusas.
German lady, visibly losing her mind: “I just want my money back! We have to leave!”
Guy at counter: “Just another 5 minutes.”
German lady: “I don’t even want them anymore!”
Almost on cue, a cook brought three takeaway orders of sambusas up to the front. With what seemed like a lady-you’re-absolutely-nuts-and-I’m-mildly-entertained-by-it smirk on his face, the guy at the counter handed over the food. Without another word, the German lady grabbed the boxes and stormed out to her - still waiting - taxi.
First lesson learned: “fast” food doesn’t exist in Zanzibar. Second lesson learned: no amount of foot stomping will change the first lesson.
Russian Tourists, Zanzibarian Curry, and American Christmas Music
This story is only tangentially related to the pole pole philosophy in life. It’s more a case of cognitive dissonance - one of the many we experienced during our travels (e.g. listening to Drake blaring over the sound of a muezzin…).
Spending early- to mid-December in Zanzibar - a tropical, Muslim-majority island - we missed out on the standard holiday vibes of snow-dusted streets, decorations, and Christmas music. Well, we at least missed out on the snow part.
Talking with some locals at the Highland bar, we learned about a cool-sounding, off-the-beaten-path restaurant to get some seafood curry. Always up for a delicious meal, we decided on a late lunch there the next day.
Food: Absolutely delicious. Zanzibarian curry is an incredible mix of Indian-style curry and local seafood. While meant to eat with a spoon, you just want to drink the sauce it’s so good.
Fellow patrons: More Russian tourists, big bottles of beer in tow (while you can buy beer at a couple little shops in Nungwi - and the big beach bars - most local restaurants don’t serve booze. But, they have no qualms about people bringing their own).
Decor: Open-air dining area under one of the thatched roofs ubiquitous in the area. But, just outside, dozens of palm trees surrounded the restaurant, all covered in Christmas lights.
Music: Classic American Christmas music. Softly playing in the background, we listened to Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry and dozens of others singing tunes that immediately transported us back - if only nostalgically - to Christmas in America.
Definitely not the standard holiday scene - but a wonderful one, nonetheless!
The Drinking “Carve Out” - a More Relaxed Approach to Islam
As stated, the philosophy of pole pole means more than just the literal translation. In addition to a slower approach to things, it also encompasses a more laid back approach to life, in general. We saw this in spades catching a taxi back to Highland from a night out at a beach bar.
Most taxi drivers don’t speak a ton of English. So, the enterprising linguists in the area sell themselves as “taxi promoters.” When you stroll into the town square looking for a ride, these hustlers hawk lifts for any and all available taxis. If people bite, the promoter will hop into the shotgun seat, chat up the tourists sitting in the back, and take a cut of the fare. Decent middle-man model.
Our particular promoter this night was an entertaining fellow named Ali. Clearly drunk, he entertained us during the ride back to Highland, big beer in hand. More precisely, Ali explained to us a part of Muslim dogma neither of us - albeit not Islamic scholars - had ever heard. In Ali’s reading of things, the Islamic prohibition on alcohol was waived every night between the last prayer of the day and the first prayer the next morning - a drinking “carve out” of sorts.
Hmmm… Interesting. Can’t say Ali sold us on the legitimacy of his religious interpretation, but what a character!
Bricks of Cash a la 80s Cocaine Bosses
Jumping ahead a bit, we’d need to get a PCR test before flying from Zanzibar down to Cape Town, South Africa. In a blend of pole pole culture and general bureaucratic inefficiency, this wouldn’t be a quick process.
Before testing, we’d need to pay for the test at a local bank. Then, you bring the receipt from the bank to the testing center, get swabbed, and come back a couple days later for the results. Seems relatively straightforward - if not somewhat cumbersome. Welp, with Tanzanian shillings trading around 2300 to $1, the bank part would take a little (a lot) longer than expected.
When Chipp walked into the bank, he breathed a sigh of relief. One guy was sitting at the teller’s desk, and only one other was seated in line. This shouldn’t take too long. Wrong!
As the first guy wrapped up, the second one - duffel bag in hand - grabbed a seat opposite the bank teller. With the teller on one side of the plexiglass, there was a large metal drawer that could be used to pass things back-and-forth with the customer. Okay, just one customer - wait - why’s he opening the duffel bag?
In stunned disbelief, Chipp watched as this guy reached his hand into his bag and proceeded to stack about a dozen thick bricks of shillings on the counter. When did we leave Zanzibar and enter a scene from Blow?
For the next 30 minutes, the guy deposited his cash - brick-by-brick. As he’d slide another one through the drawer, the teller would take off the rubber bands, run the cash through a painfully slow bill-counting machine, then meticulously re-brick the money.
Thinking about it now, Chipp’s torn. Tough to tell what this process reminded him of more: an 80s cocaine boss, or Flash the Sloth from Zootopia!
“There Was An Issue In Zanzibar City”
95% of the time, working at Highland was smooth sailing - easy getting a cup of coffee or a bite to eat, and the wi-fi was pretty reliable. That is, until it wasn’t. One morning, we faced that dreaded situation for remote workers - no wi-fi. Unfortunately, as a freelancer on the other side of the world, no wi-fi equals no pay.
Trying to get to the bottom of the problem, Chipp asked the manager if she knew of any local internet outages.
Manager: “There was an issue in Zanzibar City - should be good in a couple hours.”
Okay, no big deal - just a little technical problem that’ll be resolved shortly.
A couple hours later, wi-fi still down, Chipp was chatting to a friend and long-term Highland guest, a great Georgian (the country) guy working on his PhD dissertation.
Chipp: “You hear anything about the internet issue down in Zanzibar City?”
Friend: “Internet issue?”
Chipp: “Yeah, the technical problem that dropped wi-fi up here.”
Friend, through heavy laughter: “‘Technical problem!’ That’s a good one! Someone here just forgot to pay the internet bill…”
Technical issue, overlooked bills - what’s the difference? Pole, pole!