Getting Swindled, From Start to Finish

Disclaimer: This post reveals a bit about the unsavory parts of travel Chris and I experienced in Tanzania. It was a hard three weeks of travel and we wanted to share this as we wanted people to know that backpacking is not all fun and relaxing on the beach. However, I want to emphasize that this was one small part of our amazing trip through 5 different countries in Africa and cannot emphasize enough how awesome so much of this trip was and how much I would encourage people to go. Traveling in parts of Africa is not always easy but its rewards far outweigh the costs.

One of the facts about long-term, backpacker style travel is as amazing as it is, it is also exhausting, dirty, and draining. You accept this and try to fit in some times of relaxation and re-booting (i.e. McDonalds for Chris and hot showers for me) but once in a very great while it gets to be too much and you kind of just want to go home, where everything is safe and familiar. And NOTHING makes this happen faster than getting swindled.

While I am not actually ready to go home, sorry Mom but there is still too much world to see, the weeks in Tanzania, on top of an already stressful month in Malawi, put me close to the edge. At the very least it made me want to go hang out on a beach for a week. While Tanzania is a beautiful country, full of amazing natural beauty, interesting cultures, and warm people, it also has its fair share of swindlers, dirty dealing business, and people who only see foreigners as ATMs.

From almost the moment we arrived in Tanzania via the Malawi border, we were getting touted, swindled, lied to, or extorted. We first got men touting taxis to the nearest city (costing about $50 US), telling us that the buses weren’t running as it was Sunday (never mind that the majority of southern Tanzania is Muslim and their day of rest is Friday). Even after we said to him that that we know that wasn’t true, as we had been travelling in Christian Malawi with no problem, he wouldn’t give up. On top of that no less than 10 guys were hounding us about exchanging money. We had already stopped in the border bank to exchange a bit (for about half the cost of what they were touting I might add) so we told them we didn’t need them. However, they would not give up and kept giving us the lovely “why don’t you want to do business with a black man?” line.

One thing we did need was to get a moto-bike to the bus stop about 3kms up the road. We first got offered a bike for 1,000 tsh, about 70 cents US. However, this guy was quickly pushed out of the way by two guys and was told what I am sure was equivalent to f*** off in Swahili. These two new guys, who spoke great English, kept pushing us that the cost was 5,000 tsh each. Yeah right dude, I know what a moto-bike cost, go away. They wouldn’t give up and as we tried to approach other moto-bikes they kept stepping in front and telling us they charged the same. Finally Chris talked them down to 5,000 Tsh for both of us (we had to take two bikes) and as we were exhausted and just ready to go, we gave in.

However, it soon became apparent that they were not done. First, Chris’ bike driver took off with him as my bike got “stuck” for a few minutes. My bike then proceeded to park in a different place, where I couldn’t see Chris. A bit creepy and nerve-racking, however as there were other people around, I wasn’t too worried. Immediately the driver started hounding me for the 5,000tsh (my share would have been 2,500). I knew something was up and refused to talk to him till he walked me around the corner to where Chris was. Turns out they wanted 5,000tsh for each of us, claiming that was the deal we agreed to. Chris’ guy was hounding him (in perfect English I might add) and saying he hadn’t understood what we meant when we said both and he never would have agreed to that price, blah, blah. My guy kept hounding me, saying I was a liar and trying to cheat him, blah, blah. I actually didn’t have any money on me as we had only exchanged $20 at the border and Chris had it, so I was able to play the my husband has all the money card. My guy even threatened to call the police, to which I told him to go ahead, being fairly certain the police would be on our side. (Tanzania’s government is nothing if not friendly to foreigners, especially Americans.) He, of course, immediately backed down on calling the police and kept calling me a cheat. I probably should also add that there were about five extra people surrounding us, very intrigued on who would win the argument.

This is the part where as a tourist you go, how important is that extra couple bucks and your principles/ the hassle. You know these guys need the money more than you, the average salary a day is $1-2, but at the same time the fact they are lying and cheating to get it, just rubs the wrong way. Plus, above all, it makes you feel more and more like a dollar sign. It feels like in their eyes we can afford it, so why shouldn’t they cheat us.

On the flipside you know they need the money and if you have studied history/the modern day, you are aware of just how much the US, Europe, and now China are taking advantage of countries like Tanzania and in turn how often the governments are then taking advantage of the people. The corruption runs deep and is the way of life. Plus on top of this, let’s be honest, you probably also have white guilt.

So we gave in and negotiated meeting them in the middle, 7,500tsh, roughly 5 bucks for a ride that probably should have cost $1.50. I think overall the worst part for us, besides this being our introduction to Tanzania, is knowing they are going to continue to do the exact same thing to the next tourists and so on.

That was our first hour in Tanzania and it just continued from there. We didn’t take a single bus ride where someone didn’t outright lie to us, “of course it is a big bus with only four seats across,” oh wait it’s a medium sized bus with a fold down seat in the middle, making it a very squished 5 seats across, or massively over charged us, of course we wanted to pay 30,000tsh more than the accepted price on a “air-conditioned” bus that only runs the air-conditioning for 5 minutes during the whole 10 hour plus ride.

Now these issues probably don’t seem that extreme. After all when travelling you kind of expect to pay a bit more than the locals, we had experienced this in Malawi and Ecuador as well, but this was the first time while travelling that we experienced outright lying and the constant idea that we were just bags of money. Maybe we had been lucky in South America and the other parts of Africa we visited but it really felt like we crossed a border and something just changed. Unfortunately the worse was still to come.

Moshi is a small, but busy town that is at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro and the start of most Safaris. As such, it sees a LOT of tourists, though most only from behind the glass of the fancy Land Rover Safari jeeps or behind the gates of the luxury resorts outside of town. So when a tourist is staying in town, especially the young, backpacker tourist, it is open season. Chris and I could not walk outside for more than a minute without having a tout latch onto us. We would explain that we had already booked our adventures and no we weren’t interested in art but they would not give up. If we went into a store they would follow hoping to escalate the price of what we were buying in the hopes of receiving the difference. Or worse, in some ways, were those who were incredibly helpful. One guy literally walked Chris around for an hour helping him find what he needed, the whole time Chris kept saying he was okay, only at the end to try to get him to come buy art. Leaving Chris and myself when similar things happened, feeling guilty that we wasted the guy’s time.

Every transaction also requires numerous people, making one always feel like prey. For example we got a taxi to the airport and for some reason we needed a driver and a baggage handler. Or when Chris went into a local’s restaurant to get some dinner, he had a guy step in, Chris originally thought he was the waiter, and act as the go-between between him and the proprietress, thereby causing the price to almost double. (Luckily Chris got smart and asked the price ahead of time, saving himself a buck.)

After the travel and a few days in Moshi, we were a bit tired of going it alone and ready to start our packaged tourist plans. Little did we know, dealing with the owner of the company David, would be by far our biggest challenge. He met us for a Coke at a coffee shop after we arrived and we hashed out the plans for the next twoish weeks. Granted he brought an entourage, something we soon realized was completely normal, and had his two cell phones, which he was continually answering while we were talking, but overall it sort of seemed good. However, I have to admit from the beginning I had a weird vibe as he was always talking in circles and speaking a lot without saying anything, i.e. specifically answering our questions. We had experienced a lot of that in southern Africa and just chalked it up to cultural differences. There were also a couple distinct “miscommunications” that Chris and I, being generally people who always think the best of people, let go. However, I now think this branded us an easy mark.

Over our next week and half of dealing with David, he would:

  • Continue the lovely talk around, never just answering our questions, always reiterating what a great operator he was, “I’ve never had a complaint,” and constantly stating how busy he is, as he makes us wait around while he talks on his phone. And when we would try to get him to be direct, he would say my now least favorite words, Hakuna Matata. (Seriously going to punch the next person who tells me to not worry.)
  • “Accidently” place us with people on the 6 day trek instead of 7, then refuse to compensate us for the difference, minus giving us a night in a hotel. He then lied to us, saying the people we were with paid the same price as us. Of course we found out later that that was not true.
  • Forget some of the clothing/equipment we asked for and provide us with ill-fitting/ not correct clothing.
  • Mysteriously raise the number of porters we needed for Kili. Yet when we were on the mountain we never really saw them. (I found out later this was not an uncommon tactic of extricating extra money through the tips we give them.)
  • Show up with his entourage at the hotel bar and start ordering drinks on the tab we had opened up as a thank you for our guides and cook. Thank god Chris caught on and talked to the waitress/proprietress who turned out to be super nice and stepped in to make them pay for their share.
  • Dirty deal with our flight to Zanzibar. He would tell us one price, we would agree, and then hours later the price had gone up. Even when he finally booked us (after we tried to book online, which he kept insisting was too dangerous and those tickets never materialize), he booked us on two different airlines, meaning we had to re-check-in in Dar, and just didn’t bother mentioning this to us. Chris only found out after the Boy Scout in him made him call to confirm the flights.
  • Mislead us, promising us a full day in Ngorongoro Crater when we were actually only getting a half.
  • Ask us to let another couple join us on our safari. Then when Chris and I started to ask about a discount for it to be a group, he again outright lied saying he had charged the other couple a $100 less than us and offered to refund the difference. We thought it was so nice that he was being honest and upfront. Then we found out later that he had again lied and they had paid hundreds of dollars less.

I will say the tours themselves turned out to be great. Our guides were wonderful and the groups we were with were incredibly fun. However, all the issues just put us in a horrid place with David and made us feel like crap.

The night we got back from the safari, we tried to talk to David about all of this. I already knew I was giving him a bad review on TripAdvisor, he was constantly asking us to review him, but we wanted to be upfront and let him know that we knew he had lied/mislead us throughout our time with him, just incase it was some crazy mistake. What ensued was an hour long runaround from him where he used phrases over and over again, like that’s business (in reference to the lying) and asking us if we really wanted to get upset, i.e. give him a bad review, over a just a few small things. He also blamed EVERYTHING on everyone else. We knew he was still lying and as his lies equaled close to a $1000 (UGH!) for us, we were done. We were so upset that we didn’t even take him up on his “free” ride to the airport and paid for a taxi ourselves so we didn’t have to deal with him again.

Needless to say while we have had some amazing experiences in Tanzania, we left with a bit of a bad taste in our mouths. I think one of the saddest parts is that while I made some great connections with local people in other countries, here I had none. While I have no doubt that the majority of Tanzanians are wonderful people, we had wonderful hotel operators, nice seatmates on the buses, and a lovely immigrations officer who gave us a free coke because it was so hot, the stress of having to deal with the touts and tourist-business men made me shy away from reaching out and talking to anyone. Plus it stopped us from spending money in other places. There were times I wanted to purchase fresh fruit, (something I did once, only to have two men step in front of the women selling the bananas and demand double the price, I really hope she got some of the money!), or maybe even a souvenir and I just didn’t have the energy.

I do still think I would recommend Tanzania as a must do travel destination. There is no way to get past the fact that climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or seeing Elephants and Lions from a few feet away are just too amazing of experiences to pass up. I will say however that unless you are a truly experienced and hardened traveller, that I would recommend booking with an American or European travel agency and letting them plan everything out (and shuttle you back and forth in an air-conditioned car). This is something I would never recommend with our other destinations, as I believe in keeping money in the visited country and that independent travel allows you to see the country in ways that packaged tours don’t. But I’m just not sure if I feel independent travel in Tanzania was worth the hassle. And while I am sure there are good Tanzanian run tour companies, David appeared online every bit as one of them, (should have realized that almost all his reviews on TripAdvisor were from “people” who had never done any other reviews, i.e. probably fake accounts). And when you are spending this kind of money, especially for a once in a lifetime experience such as Kili, you really want to know you are getting what you paid for. If you do book with a Tanzanian company, just do your research. We definitely should have done a bit more!

Overall I have loved my time in Tanzania and if nothing else Chris and I have learned some incredibly valuable lessons about dealing with the unsavory aspect of travel. Something tells me those lessons will definitely come in handy as we head to India.

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6 Responses to Getting Swindled, From Start to Finish

  1. Mom says:

    If India turns out to be like tanazania th. en leave early and head for Tailand. Beautiful, cheap and a great place to spend Christmas. Or you could come home to me. Love and just kidding about coming home.

    • msuerupley says:

      Absolutely not! While traveling in Tanzania was difficult its rewards far outweighed its costs. We had an incredible time!

  2. Chris nordone says:

    You two are amazing! I knew before reading this post-although the post confirmed it for me-I’m happy to get a taste of Africa from National Geographic and PBS and you!!…not from first hand experience. At least for me. Lots to learn from reading about your adventures.
    Keep sharing!

    • msuerupley says:

      Oh no Chris! Africa is an incredible continent filled with some of the most amazing things we have seen. While Tanzania definitely had some rough spots I cannot say enough nice things about the people in Malawi and Zambia. They were some of the warmest people we have met on the road and getting to see their cultures first hand was such a great experience! It’s definitely a land of places to not miss!

  3. Jan Black says:

    Thanks for sharing all your wonderful adventures … good and bad!

  4. Pingback: The Great Africa Transit | Big Folly

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