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One Tough Bastard at the Metropole

Tanzania

by Frank Bures

 

"One Tough Bastard" is playing this Saturday at the Metropole Bar & Cinema.  The title is intriguing, but today is only Tuesday and it's not really the cinema I'm interested in as much as the bar upstairs.  It's been a long day of trudging around Arusha--the city in northern Tanzania, where I live and teach English--getting groceries and trying to figure out if Balkan Airlines, my ticket holder, really has closed its Nairobi office.
 

On the second floor of the Metropole Bar & Cinema is a balcony.  It runs along the building's facade and looks like an oasis from the street where I stand.  I go inside and climb the stairs to the bar, where a Tusker Lager is cheap and surprisingly cold.  I bring it out to the balcony and take one of the stools in the corner.  

Below me, the city bustles.  Arusha is a town of 100,000 or so people, and few tall buildings.  One of these is the Arusha International Conference Center, where the Rwanda War Crimes Tribunal is being held.  Another is the Novotel, a large French hotel for European and American tourists.

 

On the road beneath the balcony, the cars and trucks never stop.  Each one slows down in the same spot as its front end pops up over the speed bump, then the back, and hurries off.  People stream along the sidewalks.  The lager goes down nicely and I feel my nerves calming.

 

Suddenly, I notice that I am invisible for what feels like the first time since I came to Tanzania months ago.  Here I can watch life as it goes on without being a spectacle myself, a distraction, a splash of white in a sea of black , an island of wealth in an ocean of struggle.
 

Here, for the first time since I left America, I can forget who I am.

 

On the far sidewalk, a beggar sits on his blanket with shrunken legs twisted underneath him.  Near him, an Indian shopkeeper leans against his doorway and looks blankly outside.  Perhaps he is looking at the Land Rovers packed with tourists going to and coming from the Serengeti.  Down the road, a group of lepers sit near the river and hold gnarled fingers out for people to see.  For once I can let my gaze linger.

 

Often here, I feel naked under the stare of strangers.  I keep my eyes to the ground or just ahead and try not to draw attention to myself.  But on the balcony of the Metropole Bar & Cinema, I am removed.  I can wonder, reflect, pry, peer, admire and loathe anything below me without risk of my stare being returned.

 

I know that once I step outside, I will be a curiosity again, an mzungu to be puzzled over.  And it is only after a long time of sipping my beer that I feel ready to go back down the stairs, and walk out into the dusty streets.

 


Frank Bures now lives in Portland, Oregon.  He has written for Feed, Tin House, and Salon.

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