The Gambler: Uncanny Meetings Make for a Adventurous Outcome

(May 2014)

Sunday night a softly spoken karibu sana greets me on arrival at Kilimanjaro Airport. We head straight to the Sal Salinero which was very quiet this time of year before the dream-seeking tourist season gets underway. The heavy rains cause multiple power outages and no wifi access but the night is peaceful and the air is moist. I sleep well the first night in prep for my day of meetings on Monday and awake refreshed ready to taxi to Union Cafe for updates and brainstorming with my representative for the choir. We exchange warm greetings, order a sweet banana smoothie then share affirming updates on the choir. I then head back to my hotel for a meeting with my new sales distributor where we agree on our terms and finalize our sale. Sipping on our coca-a-cola, we satisfactorily shake hands and wish one another good business moving forward as we work together to test and release the album in the local tourist shops. The evening concludes with another visit from my choir representative and his two daughters for an introduction and chat about entrepreneurship. His daughters are both devoted students, one with an affliction for design, so I openly shared my experience in building a small business and hope a trace of my “start-up” advice resonates.

Tuesday is started by running errands with a local friend including a stop at Union Cafe to meet some volunteers. He is a full-time tour guide running a taxi-service in the off-season and needs to drive the volunteers back to their home base and then run to pick up some arriving guests at the airport. I decide to ride along, not fully understanding the itinerary ahead. We arrive to the airport and I serve as the welcome committee for the arriving group before starting the drive to Arusha. After two hours of inhaling exhaust in the stop-and-go-traffic, we arrive in Arusha. I am then informed that he has another pick-up back at the airport, so we trot back to the car and rev up the engine. My glum expression disclosed my warring patience, so he offered to call a friend to pick me at the airport and bring me back to Moshi…I was relieved.

Wednesday, I worked from the hotel and continued to arrange my plan for my remaining time in Tanzania. My approach of immersion and work is a bit of a double-edged sword. Immersion is the only true way to learn about the complexities of a society…but it also can quickly spiral into unexpected directions that become consuming and/or the tyranny of the moment. The challenges of those you are with become your challenges, indirectly hindering specific work goals. I try to carefully choose a balance that falls somewhere in between and don’t always get it right, but I feel it is necessary.

Thursday, I started to get restless of the hotel walls in Moshi and was ready to move on so I could continue to network and learn about possible synergies for the album. Another colleague who had been living/working in Tanzania for a few years picks me up for a meeting at the Coffee Lounge. We chat over lunch and I make some new introductions. I then change cars and my local friend picks me up for my official trip to Arusha. We run some more errands, pick up his family and friends and set off for Arusha. Upon arrival, I get settled in at the African Tulip Hotel, freshen up and meet in the lounge before heading to dinner at Le Patio. We decided we were ready for a fun night out so we continued on for a beer at Mango Tree and finally to Via Via for dancing. The scene at Via Via includes a critical mass of 20 and 30 something’s out to party and have a good time. The majority is Mzungu (foreigners) who mix with the young locals to dance, but as the alcohol rapidly flows; the sloppy ones are quickly distinguished from the rest. Like anywhere, the young and dumb personalities start to prey. As the night wears on, my pleasure-seeking continually persists in the burning of energy on the dance floor as this is typically the fitness and fun I find while in Tanzania. As the clock turns 4AM, fully drenched in sweat, we all agree it’s time to call it a night. As I walk out I am stopped by a gentleman for an introduction, quickly I say hello and pass along my card, but then rush off to not miss my ride.

Friday, I sleep in before my meeting at the Ethiopian Restaurant. I meet with a Danish fellow who is a tour operator among other things. We chat business and ideas over a beer and then of course move onto a local bar tucked off the dirt roads of Arusha. We continue our chat and I get further insight into the Mzungu world of Tanzania. He then informs me of a small recording room that is attached to the bar and managed by a local. The manager shows up just as we were about to leave  – he played some of his recorded music for me and then I played some of the Voice of Maasai recording for him. We gave one another thumbs up and shook hands in approval as the language barrier compromised our verbal exchange.  I then ask to be dropped back at the African Tulip to avoid redundant fatigue.

Saturday I meet my friend from Moshi at Fig and Olive in Arusha – while I excuse myself to the bathroom he picks up a biz card from a lodge manager from Tarangire. We then bum around town … get some repairs done on his car …talk shop with the owner….visit locals friends where we share tea and talk. We sit in a closet sized room watching a pixelated Tanzanian version of “so you think you can dance.” I then shared a song from the Voice of Maasai in spirit of local celebration chased with something of my own, The Gambler by Kenny Rodgers. We all gave thumbs up as we hummed along and then excused ourselves again to meet some of other friends for dinner. After dinner, we head to Le Patio for a Bob Marley/ Caribbean celebration. Vehicles lined the streets and we could hear the humming of large crowds. I bumped into the gentleman from earlier at Fig and Olive, so I introduced myself and started our chats about the lodge he manages. So after hours of dance, friends and drinks, an informal invitation to visit his lodge is exchanged and we go about our way.

Sunday AM at the hotel, I again felt I needed a change of pace so I made an impromptu stop by Mount Meru Hotel to see if they had rooms available. I arrived to tight security and a red carpet and thought to myself, wow, you didn’t have to go and do all of this. After chatting with the reservations manager whom I had worked with in the past, he booked me a room and informed me that the President and his entourage would be arriving shortly. I immediately looked at my shoes and mud rimmed jeans and thought again about the unforeseen shifts experienced in Tanzania. While standing there, trying to politely stay out-of-the-way, I thought about my local friends and their sense of emotional rhythm that consistently conflicts with the challenging social and political nuances. Then the procession started and I watched and wondered. I couldn’t believe that I was standing there in front of the president of Tanzania, when I have never even been close to a president of my own country. I started to get a bit symbolic as my last trip to Tanzania I had fallen ill and checked into the same hotel so I could recuperate some energy. I had then arrived to the hotel feeling completely defeated, but when I entered the lobby I heard rhythms of a live band playing “The Gambler” which was “my song.” I suddenly questioned why that song and this particular scenario, did it mean my pursuits were risky or affirming? Was I on the right path or the wrong path? I didn’t know and knew I wouldn’t find an answer that night.

I went up to my room and exchanged a text message with the guy I passed my card to at Via Via and invited him to the hotel for a chat and beer as I wanted to stay around the hotel to scout the possible executive opportunity at hand but also wanted some company. I made my way down to the bar and then to my surprise, the guy who managed the lodge walks in. So the three of us end up in the bar enjoying our beers and as the evening persisted our chats turned to discussions, then invitations and next we were confirming a plan to visit his lodge. He informed us that a young backpacking couple would also join.

Monday, five of us meet at Mt Meru hotel at noon for our departure to the lodge – about a two-and a half hour drive from Arusha. We load into a 4×4 land rover and I am unexpectedly offered the front seat and the others hop on the bench in the back stashed next to the barrel of gasoline, stacks of luggage and other miscellaneous gear. Just as the lodge manager gets done briefing us on our “story to avoid any potential questioning from officials” we are stopped by the police on the way out of Arusha. Within a few minutes and an exit from the 4×4, the lodge manager negotiates a minimal fee to let us pass. We wipe our brows and move along. We soon hit the countryside, stopping at the local village for a bite, refreshment and toilet break. Refueled, we load up and make our way to the local butcher, acquire a slab of meat that ends up in the back with the other gear, gasoline and miscellaneous things and continue for the final bumpy “off-road” route to the lodge. The Maasai were awaiting our arrival with wash cloths and apple juice. I was completely taken back by the lodge…it was exquisite. I was guided to a (lux) tent suited for discerning tastes and my sense of perspective was again jarred, I felt like I was sleep-walking, silenced by this land of great contrasts.

We all took a few minutes to freshen up, then back into the 4×4 routing to sunset hill…we arrived just as Mother Nature perfected her casting of light on all of the land. We all knew then – that we were no longer 5 strangers but 5 new friends that share a unique time and space with one another.

Tuesday morning we rise at 6 am, exhaustively I try to eat breakfast and mentally battle with thoughts of lounging at the tent for the entire day as the whiskey from the night before made for a restless night. I lose the battle however; as I knew straight away that it was going to be a day that I didn’t want to miss, so I sucked it up and loaded into the truck. The first two hours I was a complete zombie and tried to ignore the nausea as we bumped along. Then with enough self-talk and intention …I snapped out of it and started to come alive. I would not squander such a rare intimate opportunity.

The congestion of tourism season had not yet arrived; our drive to the park was scenic and quiet as we bumped our way through the woodlands. The grasses were a brilliant green glistening from the rains. We spot some speedy impalas, towering giraffes, rumbling elephants and the kaleidoscope of bird species humming about. Our safari was nothing less a grand adventure as we relied on the driver to navigate the rain intimidating soaked roads. One mud-run got the best of us and we ended up spinning with little prevail. Three passengers, one being me, exchange a glance then step out of the 4×4 and push, eventually releasing the tire from the grips of mother earth. The driver charges forward to get beyond the sloppy risks and we all follow behind on foot with the distance widening, hoping there is not a lurking predator in the midst. We pick up our step and arrive to the 4×4, exchange a job well done and a sigh of relieve as we hop back in the 4×4 and get back to the task of animal spotting. As we cover some more ground we become hypnotized by a double rainbow and are then stopped by an army of ostrich trotting across the road. The driver then feels a hunch and leads us in a new direction. We approach one lion, then two, three with a final count of 9 females and two cubs. This wraps up our safari as we were left mesmerized by the day.

I believe much of the richness of Tanzania is the diversity of people, places and Mother Nature’s creations. This trip was full of surprises and I again learned so much from all those I met. I experienced grace and smart silence, mindful and crafted language, politeness and self-confidence and the subtle sense of humor that can only be appreciated with patience. I also experienced frustrations, barriers and social contradictions but all of the above help me to make decisions about my work in Tanzania, as it is not just a music product, but a celebration of culture, people, entrepreneurship and helping to improve lives.

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