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If you've enjoyed reading about my experiences in Tanzania here, check out the new blog I've started on Wordpress as of November, 2017. It's called "Back to Tanzania" and you can read it here. All new adventures in Tanzania from an older, wiser, more experienced expat.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

House Hunting Again

In a  previous post complaining (again) about water supply, I talked about my desire for a new house. Although I love this house, I can't adjust to the new bar 100 meters from my bedroom window. Business is booming, and every day they play loud music from about 2:30 or 3:00 pm until midnight or 1:00 am. I hear the bass line throughout my house. Kind of  a bad flashback to life in the dorms at college back in the 1970's. Disco vs rap, but bass notes sound pretty much the same, no matter the musical style. Things I also would like to leave behind: the slippery muddy road, the lack of household water for the last four months, the pneumatic-powered cinder block-making machine right outside the compound, and the Lutheran Church. Things I will hate to leave behind: our sweet Maasai askari Saitoti, my front porch, the sunny sitting room, the open view of the sky to the east and the Hadada Ibis flying over at dawn and dusk. I've adjusted to most of the bad things, but the bar is just too much.

So, off to look for a new house. And, like everything in Arusha, house hunting is an adventure. I started by responding to a couple of ads in the Arusha Mailing List, an email gathering of expats and Tanzanians buying and selling things and announcing events.

I went to see a town house, advertised with a fancy French name, which I've since forgotten. The price was $500/month, which is pretty expensive here. It was in PPF, a very nice section of town where many United Nations employees live. I was expecting it to be really nice. But it wasn't. Anna went with me to see it, and she summed it up succintly, "This reminds me of married student housing at university." Right down to the worn out industrial carpet and the overgrown garden. As we fought through wayward vines to reach the front door, the owner was telling us that the gardener is included in the rent. Hmmm. No thanks.

Next, I made an appointment to see a guest cottage in a nice part of town, also at $500/month. I drove through a gate into a spectacular terraced garden full of bougainvillea and royal palm. A white-walled, red-roofed mansion sprawled across the bottom terrace. An elegant Indian gentleman dressed in a long white robe greeted me and walked me around the end of the house. Where we proceeded to climb 29 very steep concrete steps to a tiny guest house. Standing on the veranda, I wanted to take this house. The garden dropped away below me and Mt. Meru presented a glorious view. My host pointed to some clouds off to the right of Meru, and told me you can see Kilimanjaro there on a clear day. That's a recurring theme around Arusha. But it's always cloudy and you never actually see Kilimanjaro. Inside, the rooms were so tiny that my sofa and arm chairs would have been crammed together and my dining table would have blocked the entrance to the kitchen. I briefly thought about just spending all my time on the veranda, but then envisioned making three trips to carry my groceries up the steps in the rain. Also, Africans and Indians here in Tanzania maintain quite a degree of social separation. I've found Indian merchants (the only Indians I've dealt with) to be polite and pleasant. But without exception, my African friends tell me that Indians look down on them, and are nice to me because I'm white. I have no idea if this is true. But true or not, it's a strongly held perception on the part of many Africans here. I thought about K2 living in the little guest house behind the Indian gentleman's grand mansion, and decided no. Plus, it was too little to be worth $500.

For the next several days, the only rentals on the mailing list were roommate situations. So I called Jerry, the agent that helped us find the house we're in now. (You can read about that here.) He also found the house that my friend Martina is in now (read about that here). She's also planning to move. Her dream house wasn't as dreamy as it seemed at first. Jerry was really helpful before. But both Martina and I had trouble getting him to take the time to show us houses this time around. Maybe he's really busy. Probably with clients who will spend more. Anyway, over the course of three weeks, he showed me five houses. Always, the customer uses their own car, so each time I met him somewhere, involving a wait of up to 20 minutes, then he parked his car and I drove mine.

One was in a compound with four duplexes. The apartment was not in good condition, and the current resident told me they have water every other day, and that it's enough if you don't do laundry on the wrong day. I wasn't interested in the apartment, but I did enjoy seeing it because her four-year-old son, who was very excited to have an mzungu in his house, announced to me in perfect English, "This is our sitting room."

Next, we saw quite a nice house with large rooms, tile floors, and big windows. It wasn't too far away from where I live now, which is good. I like this part of town. Jerry told me that side of the road has a good water supply, because it's on an old water system built by the Germans (who left after World War I). But I've realized that Jerry, and any other agent, will always tell me that the water supply is good and there is no noise in the neighborhood. The owners had taken out all the wooden interior doors and replaced them with reflective glass, metal-framed doors more suited to a restaurant or hotel. And it was across the road from the former garbage dump. And the courtyard was completely paved with blocks, not a speck of green. So it was a maybe. But once I told Jerry "maybe," he became more reluctant to show me other houses.

While I was waiting for him to come up with more houses, a friend told K2 about a neighbor's house for rent. I went to see that one, and it was perfect. Airy rooms with big windows, pretty tile and paint, nice garden, located in a quiet corner of a banana plantation, brand new. So new, in fact, that it wasn't quite finished. And the owner demanded a year's rent in advance to be used to finish the house so we could move in. I kind of wanted to do it. It's not that uncommon an arrangement here. But K2 pointed out to me that if the owner spent the money elsewhere, we'd be moving into an unfinished house. Or, if we moved in and didn't like it later (maybe a bar would open in the other corner of the banana plantation), we'd be stuck for a whole year. So we didn't do it.

Back to Jerry. Still no activity. Martina told me his associate had mentioned a house in a compound with a pool, again for $500. I asked Jerry to show me that one, because I could so see myself lounging around the pool on hot afternoons. Plus, it would make me popular! I could invite everybody! The house was inside what must have formerly been a lovely tropical resort centered around a large lawn with pretty flowers and hedges. Six hotel-like guest rooms lined one side. A small bar adjoined the pool. The pool was big with an infinity edge and plenty of concrete apron for lounging. But the water was murky with bugs floating on top. When I commented on it, Jerry indignantly told me he'd seen people swimming here just the day before. Yeah, and a view of Kilimanjaro, too. The wooden lounge chairs all had broken slats and the canvas cushions were moldy. The house for rent sat across the lawn. The veranda was tempting, wide and roofed on two sides of the house, with views over the lawn and pool. But inside, the house was in bad condition, with water marks on the ceiling and weird linoleum. Plus, the caretaker told me people from the neighborhood rent the garden for weekend barbecues and sometimes hire bands. (Jerry had just told me that only residents used the facilities, because he knows I'm looking for someplace quiet.) So, the tropical house with a pool was not to be.

Next, I drove Jerry halfway to Nairobi. Well, at least it seemed like it by the time we made our way through the massive road construction project on the north end of town. Then another couple kilometers up a horrendous rough road to look through a locked gate at a lovely, large white house with upstairs veranda. But when Jerry asked if I wanted to wait for the owner to show up with keys, I said no. I couldn't picture making that drive every day.

Next, off to Moshono, on the opposite side of Arusha. But only after I begged Jerry to show me more houses, so I could have more selection. He was still hoping I'd just pick one, now. Moshono's a quiet area on the edge of town. We drove out a rough road, not horrible, through typical African neighborhoods of small houses and shops with lots of people walking along the road and banana trees and bougainvillea all around. Two new houses, modest but nice, were waiting together in a small compound. About this time, Jerry realized that Martina, his other customer, and I are friends. He pitched the idea that Martina should rent one house and I should rent the other, and we could be neighbors. That actually sounded like a good idea to me. But meanwhile, Martina was on her way to Zanzibar for a week. The next day I drove back out to the two houses, and began having second thoughts about the location. I really like being able to dash up the road to the restaurants and shops in Njiro, where the foreigners eat and shop. Out in Moshono, I'd be somewhat cut off from that.

I'd left Jerry with the request to find more houses for me to look at. Also, with the stipulation that I wouldn't choose a house until K2 came home from the mountain to see it. So, three days passed with no news from Jerry.

K2 proposed a different strategy. We should drive around in an area where we'd like to live and ask whomever we see about empty houses. I was skeptical, but ready to try it. Yesterday we headed out early in the morning to a neighborhood of nice houses and pretty landscaping about half a mile from our house. K2 asked a couple of people, who said they were visiting and didn't know. He drove past several people. I was thinking why don't you ask them? But apparently, he knew what he was doing, because after about 20 minutes, he pulled up to a group of three men chatting outside a big house. They pointed to a man in a purple shirt walking with a hoe over his shoulder, saying that he might know because he walks everywhere in the neighborhood. We waited for his approach, then K2 posed our question. He called somebody else, who came right over and got in the car with us, along with one of the original three. Then we drove down to the corner, and a woman came out and got in the car with us. It turned out all three of them are "local brokers," or middlemen. They keep track of available houses in an area, and then take one months' rent as a fee, from the renter, if they find something for you.

Within three hours, these local brokers showed us five houses around Njiro. The woman, Mama Q, and K2 were telling each other jokes and laughing. She's the mama with the big personality that always makes me wish I could understand all those Swahili jokes. By the time we reached the third house, K2 told me she was calling me "mzungu kwetu," which translates as "our white person." It meant that she had taken me under her wing and was protecting my interests in dealing with the landlords.

The first two houses she showed us were in a nice area with pretty gardens and big houses. The first was next to an array of huge steel electrical transmission towers. I said in bad Swahili, "So this house must have electricity every day." Mama Q didn't get it at first, but when K2 translated into real Swahili, she liked it. The house had a huge garden, recently planted in corn. It was two separate houses joined by a covered porch. One side was in total disrepair. The other side was pretty bad, but could have been made liveable with some work. Next! The second was in a lovely old garden, big trees and bougainvillea, with a veranda bordered in vines. But the house was old, too, and had not aged as well. It was all peeling linoleum and mildewed wood.

The third house she showed us was closer to our current neighborhood and really, really nice. It had two turrets in the roof line, one over the sitting room and one over the master bedroom. There was a nice veranda in front, and a little one tucked into the back. The floors were tile, some with a leaf fossil design and some with a seashell fossil design. Which caught my attention, because a few years ago I went through a phase of thinking I should remodel my kitchen and use stone with fossils in it from Wyoming. Which probably would have been quite expensive. Anyway, the house had a nice garden, just planted but already growing enthusiastically in rainy season. Lots of windows and light. It seemed like a quiet spot, with only other houses and a flock of goats nearby. The walls were mint-green, which I didn't love, but could get used to. The price was 700,000 T-shillings (about $500), but in the course of our visit and several discussions and phone calls, it went to 500,000, then to 400,00, then back to 450,000. It wasn't quite finished, but the owners were asking the standard six months' rent in advance. I didn't catch most of this. K2 always instructs me to stand aside and be quiet during any bartering, which is good advice since I'll never get as good a bargain as a Tanzanian. We left that house, admitting that we liked it, but saying it was too expensive.

Next, we crossed the main road, to the side with the German water system, and wound our way back into the neighborhoods. We viewed a house with a scenic location on the edge of a ravine, but with holes in the walls, a caretaker smoking cigars, and a stray cat nursing a litter of kittens. No thanks. On to a nearby pink house, almost finished. Less fancy and cheaper than the mint green one. It looked nice from the outside, and from peering in through the big windows, but no key to let ourselves in. However, no need to get inside because I could hear loud music the entire time we spent there, and found its source at a neighborhood bar (three times bigger than the one I live next to right now). Mama Q assured me that it wasn't a bar, just someone's house. Then, as we stood looking in at a wooden bar with shelves full of beer behind it, that the owner was away and it was just his badly behaved assistant who would play music this loud. Yeah, and where's the view of Kilimanjaro?

We met up with our local brokers again early this morning and looked at four more houses, one of which we couldn't get inside. One of those looked quite nice from peering through the windows, except for the kitchen which looked worn and inadequately equipped. A house behind it was still under construction, although the man who let us in insisted it could be finished in one week. And they could add the view of Kilimanjaro, too. The house seemed as if it would be modest, but nice, but it wasn't close enough to finished to really know. Also, there wasn't a real road leading to the gate, although we managed to drive the car almost to the gate, and the owner promised to install a culvert. A white mansion loomed over both these houses, and Mama  Q found someone who let us in. It was a classic haunted house, complete with a swarm of bees coming out from under the eaves when we tried to stand on the balcony.

We crossed the main road again, and wove our way through twists and turns deep into a lovely neighborhood with all the roads lined by hedges. We stopped to see a large house, where we waited first to be let into the garden, then another 20 minutes to be let inside the house. It had servants' quarters in the back, with three rooms and a shared bathroom. I doubt I'll ever have three live-in servants, but we briefly discussed a scheme of renting out the servants' quarters to foreign volunteers and recouping our rent every month. But when we eventually got inside the house, the walls were a bright lime green, which I detested and couldn't expect to get used to. A hundred dead cockroaches and their detached wings littered the empty rooms. And, no view of Kilimanjaro.

At this point, I had serious low-blood-sugar issues from rushing off with no breakfast, and K2 was feeling anxious about getting to work. So he headed off to work and I headed home with no clear idea of what was next. I did tell him I liked the mint green turret house the best, although he thought it was too expensive. He called me back an hour later and said he and the owner had agreed on a good price with six months paid in advance, and the price to go up after six months if we stay. Yay!

So how did I do overall with the house hunt? First and most important, I found a house that invited me in--it's something about the light through the windows and the shape of the rooms. I can't pin it down anymore than that. Comparing the new house to the current house? There's no bar nearby. The road at the new house looks just as bad as the one here. Water was running from the tap. Probably no block making machine, although I don't know for sure. There's a church, but it's farther away, and a neighbor said it's a church for wazungu Methodists and it's not as noisy and only open on Sundays. Also, that the music is slow wazungu music. Not sure that helps me, but it's kind of funny how he phrased it. So, we'll see! But the house is lovely and finding it was, as always, a bit of an adventure. By the time we finished, Mama Q was telling me Swahili jokes directly and calling me Mama Salome (my Tanzanian nickname from the Muslim island of Pemba, don't ask), and pinching my arms at the points where I should laugh.  And Jerry still hasn't called me about any more houses.

Keep your fingers crossed! I haven't moved in yet, and it could still fall through. After all, I thought I was going to be living in splendor in a banana plantation before now.


  1. I'm assuming reliable water comes with the turrets and tiles?

  2. I hope so! It's still in the general part of town where water delivery is bad, so can't be sure until we live there awhile. But our current house still has no water, and there was a good flow from the outdoor tap at the new place--and all the other houses we saw, too, so I guess where we are now is just dry!