Steerage Class Luxury

Though impossible, this day had started more than twenty-four hours ago, on another continent, in an airport where they greet you by taking your sunblock. “This is bigger than three ounces,” they say, shoving the bottle in your face like teaching a dog not to shit indoors. “Next time put it in your checked luggage.”

I didn’t bother to explain that I didn’t have any checked bags, a personal policy that makes me feel pious and self-aggrandized. Like I’m closer to God, more saintly because I don’t carry my Earthly possessions with me as I travel the world. Like I’m some kind of minimalist travel expert, when in fact it’s simply that I don’t have the clothes for a nice night on the town, that I don’t know how to accessorize unless it’s for an 1980s theme party, in which case I pull out all the stops and even lend my treasures to my contemporary friends who have put in effort to keep up with the times.

It was the first time I’ve ever taken a pill on a flight – just some generic CVS “sleeping aid” that I pulled directly off a shelf – and it worked like a dream, pardon the pun. Tanzania is an eight-hour difference from home on the East coast, which meant I’d need to figure out how to adjust quickly, lest I need to overthrow another one of my personal policies – that I don’t believe in jet lag. Sure, you can be tired and disoriented after thirty hours of travel, but staying that way is a choice, so suck it up and get back on schedule.

We flew fourteen hours in economy class –because face it, that’s our social standing–

before connecting in Johannesburg and taking another three-hour flight north to Dar es Salaam. We exited the plane and went into the basement of the airport, which was exactly the type of torture dungeon I’d design for impatient Westerners, particularly Americans and Germans. It was sweltering hot and humid, and there were two lines, but no one knew the difference between them until it was too late. It sounded and smelled of chaos and indifference, and led only to another line, for immigration and then customs.

With my visa in-hand, I walked up to a desk fully enclosed in glass, the kind you might see at a sketchy gas station convenience store, and gave a woman my documents while placing my four fingers on a device to take my fingerprints. She yelled at me to put my fingers closer together, and I obeyed, holding it there until the device’s lights turned green and the woman gave me a thumbs up. I gave her a thumbs up right back. But then she yelled at me again. “Put your thumb on the screen!” I did so, remembering that I’m an idiot.

I wanted to laugh – look at this precious moment of cultural misunderstanding! – but the woman gestured at me aggressively with a new assignment: to go retrieve some man, a stranger, who had his back to us and was walking away.

Now, the thumb thing, I’ll cop to that. But this was not my fault. I didn’t know who she wanted me to retrieve, or why I was being sent on this mission. So I just gave up and went back to her, where she punished me by letting ten people cut in front of me, none of whom needed to give her the fingerprints or deferential respect I’d been forced to lay at her throne.

I didn’t want to make a scene.

I only wanted to get out of this pit of doom, and so when she finally processed me and sent me away, I bowed my head, picked up my bags, and headed for the door without asking to see her supervisor or writing a mean-spirited TripAdvisor review. I later learned those poor humans had already waited in a line and done the whole fingerprint thing, but the idea of process optimization and queuing theory that I’d learned in grad school hadn’t made it to the Dar es Salaam airport immigration office.

Fourteen minutes in country and already I wanted to show the blazing power of American Exceptionalism, without once thinking that I came here to escape that very same American Exceptionalism. And I certainly hadn’t considered that the poor immigration official’s brain had been melting in the torture chamber for a full shift.

We escaped into the airport exit, which is like every airport exit, with a crowd of excited people looking for their family members, or overdressed guys scanning the crowd while holding signs with strangers’ last names, or entrepreneurs rubbing elbows with weary travelers saying “hey taxi taxi,” showing the true meaning of opportunism, hustling, and demand-side economics.  Not for us.

Nope, instead we found our way to a storefront for Coastal Aviation, where a petite, dreamy woman walked us to a van, which drove us to a smaller airport, where we walked out onto a runway and into a Cessna jet that looked like it was the innermost figure of a Matryoshka nesting doll.


The same young woman who had taken our signatures in the office at Coastal Aviation climbed into the pilot’s seat, told us where the first aid kit and fire extinguisher were, and put on her communication set headphones while turning the ignition. She was no older than we were, but she was twenty times more confident, which is exactly what you want when boarding a baby jet that looks like it had been birthed by a real jet that morning.


We took off 🛩 and ten minutes later landed on a dirt runway, where we jumped into a safari jeep 🚙 that drove us to a rowboat 🚣that paddled us to a dock at the Ras Kutani hotel.

Tanzania, you sure know how to make an entrance.



2 thoughts on “Steerage Class Luxury

  1. This was quite the initial sortie into Tanzania. I would love to see the movie of your encounter with the Customs Agent starring Lupito Nyong’o and Idris Elba directed by Spike Lee.

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