Tanzania… How to describe biking in Tanzania…
One story sums it all up for me:
A few days into the country, Anna and I stopped for our afternoon break under a tree outside a village. We read and napped, and all the while among the dozens of people who passed along the road, no one bothered us.
As the afternoon wore on, we realized we needed water, and I went back into town to fill up our 10 liter water sack. In town, I asked for the well, and after (an indication of the quality of my Swahili) a dozen people tried to sell me bottled water, I finally found it on my own, a giant concrete cistern in the front yard of a family compound on the edge of town.
A small crowd gathered as I dipped the rope and bucket into the well, and being still in my Ugandan frame of mind, I kept my eyes down and was tense just waiting for the first insult, the first joke, the first person asking me ‘What’s the problem? What do you want?’ – which never happened.
What happened instead was that my sunglasses fell off and into the well. My prescription sunglasses, I should add.
I shouted “Shit,” of course, and looked up at the faces of the crowd staring at me. I shouldn’t have cursed in front of the kids maybe, but this was serious, and they probably didn’t understand I figured. I laughed and shrugged my shoulders to cover it up.
They didn’t laugh back or do much more than look confused…
I was in a state of crisis though, preparing to bike blind to South Africa as I started pulling up on the bucket – and how I was going to explain it all to Anna? I kept heaving on the rope, preparing myself for how she would give me grief about having left the sunglasses in my pocket, where everything always falls out… I could picture the look on her face already and I slowed some on the bucket – what was the rush?
But then! Then! You won’t believe what happened then: I pulled up the bucket, the rope tight with the weight of water, only to see my sunglasses! With all the space of that huge well, they had fallen INTO the bucket! What are the chances?
I pulled them out of the bucket and held them up high for the whole crowd to see, and laughed and almost danced and… And they all smiled back and didn’t seem to get what all the fuss was about.
Without my asking, a young girl came forward to help me empty the bucket into our water sack.
And that is biking in Tanzania. Biking in Tanzania, everything turns out for the best.
Which is not to say it has been an easy month of biking – far from it! This is something else we have learned since we started this trip: there is no such thing as an easy day.
For a long time, we biked peering around every bend and climbing every mountain (there’s that pesky Julie Andrews again…) waiting for the huge downhill that we imagined in our dreams, or for the open plain with a 50km/h tailwind… And of course it never came. It has taken us four months, but we’ve accepted this now: the giant downhill doesn’t exist; the only 50km/h tailwind is in our dreams; there are no easy days.
Once we resigned ourselves to this though, things actually got a lot… well… easier…
Though maybe this is just because we resigned ourselves to this while biking in Tanzania, where the people are so nice and welcoming that everything is a bit easier. Over the past month, our standard routine of arriving in a village and looking for a place to eat while a horde of villagers (up to 50 people sometimes) follow us at a close distance, has had to change – we just don’t draw that much attention.
Which is not to say that people don’t stare, or that they don’t ask us questions about where we’re going – it’s just that they stare from a distance, and they ask and then leave us alone when they get an answer – in short, they act as if touring cyclists pass through ten times a day – they treat us as absolutely nothing out of the ordinary…
We love Tanzania.
Though no, it hasn’t been totally without challenges.
One has been the roads. Tanzania has a bit of a sand problem, and any road which isn’t paved is likely to be covered by several inches of loose sand, which makes biking all but impossible, and once we got off the tarmac road, I don’t think there was a day we didn’t wind up pushing our bikes at least once.
The worst stretch came between Kwamtoro and Kondoa (note to any cyclists passing through Tanzania: don’t take the road between Kwamtoro and Kondoa!), where the inches of sand were combined with a steady uphill and a major infestation of tse-tse flies.
Biking in sand is one thing, biking in sand uphill still another: doing both while holding the handlebar with only one hand and trying to swat at the flies that are biting your back (and they hurt!) is a whole new sport, and it was just about the limit of our balancing ability. We pushed a lot that day, taking five hours to cover a stretch of about 50 km, running out of food and water along the way. Our map had told us there would be a village after about 15 km, but that wasn’t so much the case (note to any cyclists passing through Tanzania: if you do take that road, there’s no village after about 15km)…
We decided to take two rest days in Kondoa when we finally made it – an easy decision since we met some American expats there who invited us to their home and fed us pizza and cheeseburgers and brownies and ice cream. The two days turned into a week though soon enough, when advice from locals and quick phone conversations with parents sent us up north to Arusha to see if we had caught sleeping sickness. We hadn’t (note to any cyclists passing through Tanzania: if you do take that road, and pass through that village that doesn’t exist, don’t worry, you don’t have sleeping sickness), but the detour led to us meeting the craziest Frenchmen in Africa and to seeing Kilimanjaro, so it wasn’t all bad.
The other challenge we’ve had has been sleeping. This is one we hadn’t expected when we set out for the trip – usually after a long day of biking staying awake is the problem. But since we keep such strange hours here (ideally asleep by 9, awake by 5.30), there is always some noise to keep us from rest.
In towns, this is often the local mosque. Now, we have both traveled in the Muslim world before (Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan…), and before this trip we both felt that the call of the muezzin really was a beautiful sound.
But in Tanzania, not only are the singers just absolutely atrocious, but they have the habit we haven’t encountered anywhere else of broadcasting by loudspeaker to the entire town not just the muezzin, but the entire prayer service. This means that with our ridiculous sleeping hours we are generally woken up twice a night by an hour long Arabic-language religious service.
Not only is this hard on our sleep, but it does nothing for inter-faith tolerance…
And then there are just the sleeping arrangements. We had started out doing some bush-camping – pitching our tent in the woods along the road whenever it got dark. We had a few very nice (religion-free) nights this way, but then the farther east we got the harder it became to find truly secluded spots – for all that Tanzania seems to be sparsely populated, there are actually people everywhere you go.
And so we settled on local guesthouses, which can be quite fine actually – dark, but clean and with mosquito-nets. For the price of about two dollars, we certainly can’t complain. But then there was the night we spent in Korodiga, which our map had assured us was a decent-sized town. It isn’t a decent-sized town. But there is a guesthouse – it just happens to be the private room of the proprietor of the local bar.
He was nice enough (or drunk enough) to let us take it over for a night though. I’m not sure if we should thank him for that or not. We settled in to our beds around 9, having reconciled ourselves to the desiccated frog-carcass in the middle of the floor, to the insect nest on the wall at the foot of the bed, and to the 700° (Celsius!) temperature in the room only to hear a heavy scampering on the roof. I promised Anna it was something outside, nothing to worry about, and she actually believed me until she turned on her flashlight…
On the ceiling beams above our head there was a family of rats peering down at us, not scared or the least bit concerned, just seemingly wondering when we would turn off that pesky light so they could jump down the bed and get to work…
Anna announced that she wasn’t going to sleep that night, but we both drifted off some. Later we heard the rats running between our bags, and we lit our lights again, which scared them off. Anna announced once more that she wasn’t going to sleep – but then somehow we drifted off and we were both deep in dreams when the alarm went off. Which just goes to show I guess…
All of that is behind us now though – it’s amazing how the body can forget! We reached the Indian Ocean at Bagamoyo, and then worked our way down the coast to Dar where we have fallen into the ideal house-sitting situation, and our only sleep problem is when the power goes out and the ceiling fans go off and the house starts to heat up.
We have fallen into a great volunteer situation as well, helping out around the office of ATD fourth world, a wonderful organization so different from all other NGOs that it really doesn’t even deserve that epithet. We’re planning on resting here for a few weeks and then heading to Zanzibar and then on to Malawi. We’ll write more before we leave, and we’ll make a concerted effort from now on to post more regularly.
In the mean time, we’ll also be updating some things on the site over the next few days, so feel free to check them out – and as always, don’t hesitate to leave a comment! All the messages and encouragements we get really make a difference – thank you all!
Otherwise: so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye!