Buenos Aires, Argentina
Holy Shitballs – What a Week!
Disclaimer: There are no pictures with this post. The reason why will become evident 3/4 of the way through.
After 2 months in Africa, experiencing wonders from the Sahara Desert, the Atlas mountains and the bustling Medina in Morocco, to skydiving, a safari, swimming with wild penguins and swilling vino at countless wineries in South Africa, four of us decided on one last adventure before departing the continent: an exotic beach vacation in Zanzibar, cuz, you know, we need a vacation.
“Where the hell is Zanzibar?” you ask. I did. Well, it’s off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa and a pain in the arse to get to, it turns out.
So, loaded up with nearly all of our luggage for the year (fellow Remote Year traveller, Leo, took my big-ass, overweight suitcase directly to Buenos Aires for me) – consisting of 12 bags totalling nearly 300 lbs., we set off from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania where we would catch the last ferry to the tropical paradise of Zanzibar in time for a late afternoon swim.
All was fab till we landed in the hot and chaotic Dar es Salaam airport, where we were faced with purchasing $100 visas to enter the country. We knew about this (though told they were $50), but we didn’t know that credit cards don’t work and there is no way to get cash. Luckily, I had just enough USD on me and Coco adorably had $400 in birthday money from her grandmother in her luggage. Thanks, Nana!
By now we’ve missed the last ferry and have to take a plane costing $77 a piece. Credit cards still don’t work, the ATMs gave us each about $45 (plus $5 transaction fees) before they all ran out of cash. Somehow, we cobbled together enough Tanzanian Shillings, leftover USD from Nana, South African Rand, spare Croatian Kuna, Moroccan Mad and Bulgarian Lev to buy four tickets on the 5:30 flight.
There is no 5:30 flight.
And our bags are overweight which requires an ever-changing amount of money required to get them on, so it’s back to a new ATM for more money plus fees.
At 7:00, we finally board the most horrific-smelling flight – a cross between rotting fish and intense BO that slaps you in the face and makes your eyes water – for the longest 15-minute flight on record.
Because we are five hours late to arrive, we need to rearrange our hotel pickup at the airport. No go. Not until the last second before boarding does someone answer the phone at the ZanZest resort and confirm a car will be waiting.
Once we arrive and get in the taxi, I realize that I had tweeted our situation and reservation name at the hotel, but that neither the car nor the driver displays any hotel branding and that anyone could have responded to my tweet.
For the next hour, I’m 30% certain that I’ve orchestrated our own kidnapping and silently debate telling the girls. I decide against it as there is nothing we can do and suffer in silence. I’ll tell them when we’re shackled to a cinderblock wall and they wonder how we got there.
We were not kidnapped.
We proceed to spend a glorious, rustic, makeup-free and braless five days in exotic and unique Zanzibar!
Time to go. We’ve arranged for Rama, our taxi driver, to pick us up at 2:00 for the 4:00 ferry – the last of the day and the only one that will enable us to catch our 6am flight the next morning. At 1:30 I ask David, the resort owner, for the bill and hand him my credit card. No go. The WiFi, not surprisingly, isn’t working. I offer him 9 different ways to pay this bill, and each time he says, “not possible.” He’ll only take cash, which truly is “not possible” to get in time for us to make the ferry or in the amount needed from any ATM on that side of the island.
Commence 5-way yelling, threats to call the police to have us arrested as we try to depart, leaving an actual credit card behind for them to run when the WiFi returns. We get in the cab, tell the driver to go and David blocks our way with his body and threats of arrest. Finally realizing he has no options, he relents and takes the card and we speed to the ferry, arriving in the chaotic port town a mere 10 minutes before departure.
We still need to buy tickets – another no-credit card/ATM fee sitch – unload and haul our 300lbs of luggage the several blocks to wherever the ferry is docked. Porters materialize out of the ether but won’t unload our luggage till the three girls buying the tickets arrive at the van where I’m waiting.
I see Emily first, tearing down the alley waving the tickets, sweating profusely, boobs bouncing everywhere as she decided against a bra for our leisurely ferry ride, while Coco and I opted for our bikini tops under gauzy blouses. Katie and Coco are right behind her.
I yell, “go!” and the porters start throwing our bags on a flatbed cart and, like the last 3 minutes of The Amazing Race, we all RUN through the streets, dodging cars, vendors, pedestrians and the occasional large animal while the ferry horn signals its imminent departure. We each have the wrong tickets and passports, the porters are demanding money at every juncture, we’re frazzled, sweating and a little panicked. With one minute to spare we manage to get through all the checkpoints, put money in every outstretched hand and plop into our seats for the 2-hour ride back to Dar es Salaam, where we will be met by a driver who will take us to our hotel where we’ll spend the night before our flight to Johannesburg.
Not so fast.
On the other end, one guy in a 1985 Chevy Impala parked many blocks from the ferry – of course – meets us. There is no way we are going to fit all our stuff in this small car. For the next 45 minutes, he confers with another driver, stares at us in silence, while the Impala remains parked next to a truck with a speaker on the roof blaring high-pitched children’s music that sets my teeth on edge.
It is finally determined that for $5 more we can use a van. Awesome. We load our stuff and head to the hotel as the sun sets.
We drive through increasingly dangerous neighborhoods. The pavement gives way to bumpy dirt roads, electricity becomes scarce, shoeless people roam the darkness and the driver tells Katie to put her cell phone out of sight, as the windows are down since there is no AC and it’s hot.
We take a left and stop. We’ve arrived at our hotel: An abandoned building under construction on a nearly unlit side street. I immediately state that we are not staying here. Emily insists on seeing the room. She is clearly delusional. We walk in and, yes, it’s all under construction: cinderblocks, 2x4s, buckets, no electricity, no guests, no staff, NOTHING.
Emily again insists on seeing the room which is at the top of a rickety staircase. Katie and I follow incredulously as Coco stays in the van with the luggage. We walk into the room that has NO WALLS! It is just a straight drop down into what will, one day, be an atrium. Curtains cover the missing door and walls and cellophane-wrapped light fixture with a single bulb hangs from the ceiling over 2 randomly placed beds. Did I mention there is no door and no walls? Everything about this place is super dangerous. If we don’t fall to our deaths in the dark, the odds are great of getting robbed or worse in our al fresco hotel room in the hood.
“We’re not staying here,” I state.
“I just need to shower and send a few emails,” Emily responds deliriously. Does she really think there’s WiFi?
“EMILY!” I shout, which seems to break her spell.
“Um, ya. We’re out of here,” she finally conceded.
We get back into the hot van and head to the airport which is about 30 minutes away where we know we will be safe.
Optimistically, we decide to look for an airport hotel online. At a stoplight, just as I’m calculating the distance from the Doubletree to the International terminal, a hand shoots through the window of the cab and snatches my phone from my hand! The hand’s owner jumps on the back of a motorbike and disappears into traffic. The whole incident took less than 5 seconds, leaving the four of us stunned and the driver completely unfazed. He didn’t even flinch.
As the reality of my stolen phone sets in (as well as my crashed computer – I forgot to mention that I’ve now been plunged into a tech blackout, making accessing any pictures for this post “not possible,”) we make our way towards the sanctuary of the airport.
That’s when the storm sets in. Not just any storm, but an African storm with rains that blind the driver and lightening that cracks the sky. It’s so hot that the windows instantly fog and Katie, in the front seat, keeps wiping the windshield so the driver has a tiny bit of visibility. We crack the windows to let out the heat, but let in the driving rain.
The rain we wished for in Cape Town to solve the water crisis and allow us to take longer than 90 second showers is visiting us in the very last place we want it.
We’re driving in quiet, sweaty tension when we hear it: Ka-thunk, ka-thunk, ka-thunk. We have a freaking flat tire!!!!
We pull off the busy road into the mud. The rain has subsided but lightening still flashes. A steady stream of men walk and ride motorbikes by our disabled car, alerting us to the truly vulnerable situation we are in. As obvious tourists with means, stranded on the side of a road in an impoverished city, we are sitting ducks. We know it and we are scared in a whole new way, but we keep our cool.
We stay slumped in the car and tuck our heads, trying to make ourselves as invisible as possible and drop a location pin from Coco’s cellphone to our Program Leader, Sara, so she’ll know where to begin looking for us when we go missing. Just in case. Sorry to panic you, Sara!!!!!
Nearly an hour later, our poor, poor, poor cab driver has the tire changed and finally drops us at the airport. Nobody has ever been happier to see us leave!
We spend the next eight hours on the rows of metal chairs that make up the seating in the hot, stark, singular room of the airport check-in terminal before, blessedly, boarding our 6:00am flight to Johannesburg where we FINALLY shower and change in the comfort and safety of the Star Alliance lounge.
Next adventure: Buenos Aires!
Now for Loren’s HotFlashes
Loren’s HotFlash #1: Cash is King! Always carry cash outside the US and have a stash of USD as it is desirable in many places and exchangeable everywhere. Even in Europe, many establishments won’t accept credit cards and in Africa and South America, even fewer places do. ATMs are sometimes hard to find and transaction fees are exorbitant, so take out a lot of money at once to save on fees: $10 a pop in Buenos Aires for instance. ProTip: Open a Charles Schwab checking account as it charges no fees for foreign ATM withdrawals.
Loren’s HotFlash #2: Always give yourself much more time than you think you need for travel and transactions. This is true in Europe and even more so in South America and Africa. NOBODY is in any hurry to get you where you’re going, to sell you what you want to buy or bring you what you ask for. As someone who always cuts it close, this has been a hard practice for me to adopt, but I’m getting there.
Loren’s HotFlash #3: Pack a backup cellphone! Thank God for my cracked old iPhone 5 that I was able to charge up and pop an Argentinian SIM card into after my phone was jacked! It ain’t perfect, but it does the job.
Till next time from some place far, far away,