Monday, May 25, 2009

au clair de la lune,

There’s a certain romance to cities after dark, when the soft glowing streetlamps burn up the deserted avenues. Whether you’re strolling down the boulevards in Montreal, traipsing through muddy streets in London, or riding atop the handlebars of a rickety red bicycle through the stony footpaths in Ljubljana, you can’t help but take notice how busy quarters transform into hollow jungles at sundown – places where only the shadows dance and twist with the haunting movements of late-night commuters.


It took me nearly three months to muster the courage to walk through Dar after dark. I let the labels (third world, crime, night) get the best of me.
But then, at nearly ten weeks in, (and thanks to some familiar faces camped out at the Econolodge in the downtown core) we decided it was time to make the effort.
It was 10pm on a Saturday, and we hailed a 3$ cab to take us to the corner of Morogoro road and Libya street. Stepping out on the dirt sidewalk, it took only moments to spot the sign for the hotel. It was a half-lit blue and white eyesore with a giant red arrow pointing towards the lobby (conveniently located at the far end of a Hitchcock-style dark and ominous alleyway – lovingly dubbed ‘crack-alley’ by the hotel guests).
It wasn’t a love-at-first-sight introduction. We stood, three jailbait tourists staring into the shadows, trying to work out how to get to the entrance without being attacked by a hooligan or radioactive rodent. But crack-alley was just the tip of the iceberg.
I’ve wandered through a few moonlit cities, but the combination of dark and deserted has never been so startlingly complete. For two hours, there wasn’t a sign of life beyond a few sleepy-looking taxis that rolled through the abandoned streets, starved for fares in the twilight hours. From the high-rises office towers to the low-income apartments, every window was filled with the same blackness. We walked single file, following the lights of neon-tinted shop signs, to a late-night Lebanese café that served hot mint tea and shisha. After all the anticipation, it was a fairly sweet and underwhelming first impression – no violence, no debauchery, just a soft and settled sort of charm.

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