Day 311: Securing Zanzibar Driving Permit - Who Said This Was Easy?


Who likes waiting in lines? Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Daily Updates are not edited and function more as daily journal entries – so if the plot seems to be all over the place or missing entirely and the tenses changes faster than a kaleidoscope, well, that's just the way it is.

AN ACHING pain runs up and down my spine, starting somewhere in my hips and expiring among the thoracic vertebrae. It's too uncomfortable to care how awkward I look as I crouch down, rolling my back forward to stretch it out in the middle of the People's Bank of Zanzibar.

There are three tellers behind thick glass windows at the bank. All three have roasted-honey colored skin, their heads wrapped in white hijab.

There are about 50 of us crammed into the small lobby.

Teller One isn't dealing with customers, she's stacking piles of money into a counting machine and wrapping up fat packs of red 10,000 Shilling bills into bricks with rubber bands.

Teller Two is handling a short line of about seven or eight women, all of which are wearing black robes and colorful hijabs. The brightly colored blues, reds, yellows of the fabric are elegantly embellished with touches of sequence and fine embroidery. Despite the fully clothed, modest nature of their outfits, there is something undeniably attractive in their style.

Teller Three is dealing with the brunt of the work: the men. The long line of men that I find myself in snakes through the entire lobby.

What seemed as if it was going to be an impressively painless process is now pushing a finger against the boundaries of my sanity, like a child poking a taught water balloon.

Though Zanzibar is part of Tanzania, it's an autonomous region, with its own government system. That system has decided that neither an International Driver's license nor a Tanzanian driving license is valid within its jurisdiction. Instead, everyone is required obtain a special license or permit depending on their situation.

Between the hassle, cost of a ferry and the guaranteed police check points demanding the required permit, most adventure riders leave their bikes in Dar el Saalam – as they are only planning on only spending a couple of days on the main island before resuming their journey south or north. However, I'm so desperate to make 150 dollars last an entire month, I'm hoping to join a little permaculture commune on the southern tip of the island.

Zanzibar seems like an island full of potential for dice adventures from days spent freediving in the Indian Ocean to wandering the street of Stone Town to simply droning down white sand beaches. With that in mind, as well as the potential awesomeness of the permaculture place, I had made the decision to bunker down in the Spice Islands to ride out some of this financial storm.

The month stay easily justifies the costs of bringing my dear friend Rafiki along and getting a driving permit sorted out. At least, I thought it would justify the hassle.

A short, middle-aged man is attempting to hedge in front of me in the line at the bank. I must admit, I've been impressed with the orderliness of the bank line up to this point. I've seen African mobs attempting to get on buses in Ghana and orderly was not the first word to come to mind.

I continue to edge the man out. I'm getting my bank shit taken care of right after the dude in the yellow shirt in front of me does, and that's the end of that story. The time moans on like a pregnant woman in her eighth hour of labor. The back pain intensifies.

“No phone,” a guard in a crisp white shirt says.

“What?” I pull out an earbud, I was finding solace in Bieber.

“No phone. Turn it off.” I attempt to argue my way out of it, but there's no option, forcing me to covertly glance at Facebook messages to break the boredom of standing in a line that's going nowhere fast.

I do a head count. The man in the crazy blue shirt marks the end of the first third. The man in the taqiyah hat marks the second third. There are several men in taqiyah hats, as it's a Muslim dominated island. However, I know which one marks the second third of the line.

The line crawls forward. I count heads again.

I try to calculate the man hours being burnt in the room. It's scary when you look at the costs of inefficient systems, such as notorious bureaucracy in developing countries. All these men standing in this long line are unable to do anything productive besides wait. It's as if the only skill one can develop under such circumstances is the ability to wait in lines. There are entire generations, and more on their way, who are going to have to accept that their time is worthless to the system.

I'm wasting nearly two hours to pay seven dollars.

Seven dollars.

It's not the money, it's the time. It's not that they are charging me seven dollars they are charging me seven dollars and two hours of my life.

Online, people made getting the permit sound like an easy process. And, if you're hiring a car, you can have one of them sort out the permit for 10 dollars – much advised.

Mustafa and my Couch Surfing (CS) host, who is a picture perfect example of the CS community, pointed me to the Zanzibar Revenue Board to get my permit. The office is in a handsome, modern building. After only a moment of sitting on a bench, I man wearing a necktie, which isn't so bad in the air-conditioned office, informs me that I needed to go to the Land Transport Office.

Back on the street, a bit unsure of exactly where I should go based on the rough directions I was given, I popped into the Attorney General building – another handsome structure.

The receptionist was confused. However, a nice man about my age, who was wearing a dress shirt and a black tie, spoke excellent English.

“Okay, here, come with me,” he said. “I'll take you.”

“It's okay, if you can just point me the right direction,” I said as we exited the building; I was worried that I was going to be hit up for a tip.

“It's not a problem.”

I sit in the back of the car, as instructed, while the man pulls the vehicle around to the front of the building, where he picks up an older woman.

“Okay, this is it,” he said after about five minutes of driving. “Just go past the Immigration Office and they will take care of you. Welcome to Zanzibar.”

A fat faced woman behind the counter of the Land Transportation Office, or at least that's what I think it is, wordlessly shifted the muscles in her face to ask what I wanted.

“Driving permit?” I ask.

To my relief, she took my International Driver's License from me and quickly filled out a form and handed it to me. Farther down one side of the building a crowd of men pressed in on a door. Thankfully, I don't have to deal with that.

In a stroke of brilliance, Tanzania – and in this case also Zanzibar – doesn't allow government officials to handle money. When I paid for my visa at the border with Kenya, the money was paid directly into a National Bank of Tanzania account. Here, I'm to wander for about five minutes to reach the People's Bank of Zanzibar to make the despot of 15,000 Shilling – seven dollars.

Because the officials don't handle money and the payments are made directly into the bank the motivation for overcharging for services is completely negated. It's a lovely system I mused as I walked to the bank.

Nearly two hours later, I'm considering giving myself a one in six chance of screaming at the top of my lungs and storming out of the bank without an explanation. I don't roll, as I it would be writing off the last two hours of my life, if I did hit a six.

The tension is compounded, not only by the pain in my back, hunger and thirst, but the fact that I'm going to miss my Skype interview with Top Journey. The travel video platform wants to bring me on board for a long-term project of producing drone videos in Africa. They said that they needed an African Team Leader. If I could establish a steady revenue stream between that and random drone jobs in Nairobi, I might be able to justify coming back to the content a couple times a year to work.

There are about fifteen people ahead of me when I check my phone again. The Skype meeting is in 15 minutes. Well, that's not true. The Skype meeting as awhile ago, but I'd already sent Michael a message telling him that I would be 45 minutes late – for which I will now be late.

The middle-aged man who was trying to edge in front of me had taken a seat, but now politely asks if he can cut in front.

“No, but you can go in front of him,” I say, indicating the guy in front of me. It's illogical, but it's a residual fear of being taken advantage of because I'm a muzungu. He laughs it off and cuts in behind me.

Every minute counts.

Teller Three takes a long break – well, okay a two minute break – from dealing with the never ending line of men to wrap up a brick of red 10,000 Shilling notes. The stacks come loose as she attempts to secure them, forcing her to start over. The bills thunk against the counter behind the thick glass. My back continues to ache.

Once, I'm at the counter, the transaction is quick. I put my name in the wrong place. She says something, but between the glass and my bad ear I can't make it out. After repeating it a couple times, she changes the paperwork for me, indicating where to sign.

Out of the building, I rush back to the Land Transportation Office, in hopes that things will be smooth from here on.

They're not.

Not even close. The fat-faced woman who originally helped me, bounces me over to another window.

A jolly guy starts speaking at me in Swahili.

“Why don't you speak Swahili?” He asks.

“Because I'm American.” “I'm from Zanzibar and I speak English,” he says.

I'm not in the mood. It's past 1pm. I'm super late for my meeting. I've not eaten anything. I've not drunk anything.

“It's not that good,” I say patting him on the shoulder.

“Okay, I'll stand back,” he says, recognizing my ill-temper.

The man at this window looks at my paperwork and points me around the corner of the building. He comes out to explain: Go to Room 12.

About eight men are pressed up against the bared doorway to Room 12. Their hands cling to the bars, faces pressing in as a layer of people behind them push closer as well. They're calling into the room.

I press in, but can't see what's happening. The office is stripped down with only a couple desks and women in hijab working on laptops. They ignore whatever the guys are saying.

I have no idea what I'm supposed to accomplish here, but it's pretty clear that nothing is being accomplished. I tall, younger man in a checkered shirt and glasses, who looks like a bit of an intellectual, is calling out the most.

“Lunch time is over,” he yells at the women.

This is monkey bullshit, I think, immediately chiding myself for what sounded racist as it echoed around my skull.

A big guy starts to push me out of the way. I hold my ground and he relents. This is the African “system” I learned to hate when I was living in Ghana. I once remember paying someone to crawl through a ticket booth window to buy me and my fiance at the time tickets to a Lesotho versus Ghana football match. Three people were killed in the stampede as the crowd rushed to leave the stadium following Ghana's win.

Three people were killed.

Let that sink in.

“Fuck this shit,” I mutter and step away from it all. I can't handle anymore waiting when the purpose seems so obscure and I've not had anything to eat today.

The first step is taken care of, I'll deal with the rest of it tomorrow.

An open-aired dalla-dalla, which is exactly like a Thai songtawi picks me up from the side of the road. It's packed with passengers. A couple of the Muslim school girls in their blue uniforms with yellow hijab, move to the dusty floor between the two benches to make room.

The purple 5,000 Shilling note I attempt to hand the call boy flutters out the back of the vehicle. He bangs on the roof to stop the driver.

“Asante sana,” I say when he returns with the bill and gives me my change, 4,700 Shilling for the road into Stone Town.

Once in Stone Town, it doesn't take long for me to find my way to the balcony of the grand old Shanghai Post Office, which is now occupied by three chic restaurants: Taperia, Cafe Miwa and Lemongrass.

Up on the balcony, I allow the die to choose Cafe Cubano for me, which is two shots of espresso infused with sugar cane.

“Is this a local Zanzibar drink,” I naively ask.

“No, it's from America.”

Ah, yes, the exotic fabled land of America.

A Cuban coffee in Zanzibar does the trick. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

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