So, to train for Kilimanjaro, I decided to hike part of Mt Meru, in Arusha National Park. A friend of mine from church, Roger, is a guide and said he’d help set me up with a two-day hike. A couple days before the trip, Roger got sick and set me up with his friend John to organize and guide me on this trip. I don’t know the trails or the park, and of course not much information about Meru is online, so John and Roger organized the trip for me. We settled on a (pretty cheap) price because I wanted to carry my own gear. But of course there are park fees, hut fees and a ranger fee. The ranger is a national park employee wears army gear and carries a gun to protect guests from wildlife. It is required by the park that a ranger accompany every group hiking Meru.
John and I left Arusha at 9am and took public transport to the Momela gate at Arusha National Park. We arrived around 10:15 and I waited while he checked into the administrative desk, where we had a booking for our hike and ranger. I sat down at the tourist picnic tables and waited. By 11, I was getting bored and anxious to start. I had been hoping to hike quickly for the day, go past the hut and gain more elevation in the afternoon before hiking down to sleep. John said we were still waiting for the ranger and park administration big man said that he was coming. But to me, "he is coming" in Tanzania could mean in five minutes or five hours.
I put on my pack and starting saunter down the trail to explore a bit. Then John comes along and tells me we really should go back to the gate, it’s not safe out here without a ranger. I grudgingly follow him back to the picnic tables where we are greeted by park administration big man who yells at John and I about the dangers of wandering off alone due to aggressive buffalo. I inform him that I looked and did not see any buffalo.
I ask park administration big man when the ranger is coming and he tells me fifteen minutes. I may have rolled my eyes. Eventually, more other tourists show up who are also planning to hike to the same hut. John tells me that we will be joining this group with their ranger and then taking a different ranger on the way down tomorrow. I’m disappointed and tell him that this means I am paying a redundant ranger fee and joining this other group means we’ll have to take their pace for the day. He agrees that it’s not ideal, but doesn’t exactly agree with my comment about “money going straight into the deep pockets of the corrupt park administration” (and as the words are coming out of my mouth, I realize I sound exactly like my dad).
By noon, park administration big man tells me to sign the guest logbook. This seems like progress. I’m skeptical of this entire bureaucratic process, so I don’t take it very seriously. Every time I visit a village administrative office or dispensary for work, I’ve signed one of these administrative guest books. I’ve probably signed fifty guest books. So, just like I do in my study villages, I sign my name as my Swahili name, Tabasam McCarthy. I write a fake address (actually I write that I live on Privet Drive, HP shootout). And where it asks for my ID number, I draw a line, just as I’ve seen my Tanzanian colleagues do. The following conversation ensues.
Park Administrative Big Man: Where is your passport?
Me: It is locked up safely at home. I don’t hike with my passport.
PABM: You must have your passport. Write down the number here.
Me (In Swahili, trying to be charming): Oh, I don’t know my number because the passport is new! But there’s no problem, you don’t need it here.
PABM (In English, not charmed): To enter this park, it is necessary to inform the officials of your passport number. This is for your own safety. If something dangerous happened in the park, we need your information.
Me (In English, not so charming): So you can do what? Mail a letter to my parents using the Tanzanian post? Right, that will definitely be useful.
PABM (In Swahili, pissed): I don’t like this. I don’t like this. This is not appropriate.
He storms off. I write down an eight-digit number. It is not my passport number.
Me: There! I wrote down my number. Now let’s go.
PABM: Do you think this is a game? This is the Tanzanian National Parks Authority! This is for your own safety. It is required that you follow the rules of this country because you are a visitor here. When I come to your country, I follow your rules and respect the authority! It is the national park authority who will decide if you can enter the park today, do you want to come to Arusha National Park?? Do you realize the importance of safety information?
By this point I realize that I have crossed a line. A thousand sassy responses are flying through my head, but I want to go hiking.
Me: Yes, I understand.
PABM storms off and is arguing with John and two other guides about my behavior. I only pick up “white person” “game” and “problem.” John then asks me to please sit down on the picnic benches and stay quiet for a little while. I tell him that the other tourists do not have their passports and they encountered no problems. PABM is now yelling into his cell phone. I glare and sit on the insults in my head. It’s 12:45. Then, Roger calls. Apparently PABM called the booking agent, who called Roger.
Roger: Tabasam, what is going on?
Me: This man is on a power trip and we have been waiting for two hours for a ranger! Also, you didn’t tell me that I needed my passport.
Roger: Pole (sorry for the situation), but you need to respect this man. Go write your English name.
Me: That’s it? Why didn’t he just ask me for my English name??
Roger: Because this is serious. I’ll call you back. Bye.
I walk over to the book, watching PABM who is clearly pretending he doesn’t see me, and cross out Tabasam and write Aine Seitz McCarthy. Full passport name. I sit back down.
Finally, PABM gathers all the guides, tourists and myself into a group to tell us that we are about to enter the park and hike to Miriakamba hut, that the ranger will lead us and we have a five hour hike (so, absolutely no new information). He points to one group and says “you will have a four day trip,” to another group “you will have a three day trip” and then to me and says “ah-een-ay sats will have a two day trip.”
Me: Nice pronunciation, ridiculous authority man. Now you know why I wrote Tabasam. [Just kidding, I didn’t say this.]
The hike finally began and I was distracted by chatting with the other friendly tourists. John cautiously apologized for the situation and encouraged me to be respectful. Be submissive and bow down to this crazy man on a power trip? Never!
Of course, that was my immediate reaction. But today, I reconsider. He is right that I am a visitor, a guest, in this country. I’ve been here for long enough that I think I know how the world works. I don’t. No Tanzanian would ever get away with that kind of arrogant disregard to official procedure in the states. Was my passport number necessary? I still don’t think so. Did the ranger ever save me from any threatening wildlife? Absolutely not. But frankly, being a rich guest, barely functional in the national language, does not empower me the privilege to override leadership and do whatever I want.