Friday, January 12, 2007

On the Road

The first week of our honeymoon took place entirely on the roads. That meant long days on rough asphalt or longer days on dirt and mud and rushing water. The advantage of the overland travel is the view from the window, the constantly changing scene. So, at this point, our time on the road deserves a mention.

Rural Visions

Immediately out of Nairobi, we noticed a strange phenomenon. Many buildings near the roadway were marked with a giant "X." We learned from our guide, Dudu, that the governments of Kenya and Tanzania had passed regulations requiring buildings to be a certain distance away from the highway. Those buildings standing too close were marked for demolition. But the regulation is not that clear-cut and logical. Apparently buildings are demolished only to a certain distance: if the front half of the building is too close to the road, only the front half will be demolished. Thus, the roadway was littered with piles of rubble from the front portions of buildings while the rear portion continued to be a place of business or a home. The image was hideous.

We shook our heads at the sight of these ruins: partly in disbelief and partly because our vehicle was jerking on the roadway so badly that entire our beings vibrated with the force of the shock.

Eventually we reached the border crossing with an unusual immigration procedure. We left our bus in Kenya, filed a form at a Kenyan government office, and then wandered a half mile across the border to check in at Tanzania. The first image below shows the back-up of vehicles trying to deal with this absurdity, but we finally made our way through.

After entering Tanzania, we loved the colors in many of the buildings we passed. In a brilliant effort at corporate branding, CelTel, a Tanzania cell service provider, paints several buildings in each town with the corporate colors: red and yellow.

We also noticed the traditional, rural housing. The first image below features a couple of small homes and a small church made out of the same materials. The foreground is dominated by an acacia tree.

The scene was idyllic. We saw folks moving very slowly and steadily across fields carrying bundles, and our view from the roadway offered a good vantage point for catching these moments. We also noted efforts along the way to raise awareness about HIV, such as the trailer below.

But life on the road is not easy . . . if it were easy, we would have encountered many, many more travelers. Heck, if moving around East Africa were easy, why would we visit? But, boastful rhetoric aside, we now reach the longest day . . . ever.

The Longest Day Ever

We woke early on December 28th. 5 o'clock actually. We expected our full tour to stop off at the Miserani Oasis at 6 o'clock en route to Dar es Salaam. At Dar, we would crash at what had been described as a beach-front paradise. But, we were told, that paradise would come after twelve hard hours on the road. If only . . .

We packed our bags and sat on the porch waiting for the group to make their way to Miserani Oasis from the campsites at Miserani Snake Ranch. An hour of waiting on the porch to the sounds of Michael Bolton and Celine Dion (whose careers are very much alive and well in rural Tanzania), we were off.

Early on, the view was pleasant. We noticed bright flowers in the trees, and we searched for a view of Kilimanjaro that never came due to cloud cover.

Eventually, our guide pulled over for a bathroom break on an empty stretch of roadway. The day was long, so we did not necessarily expect an actual toilet at each break. What we didn't realize was that we would not see an actual toilet until almost midnight. It's a strange thing to long for a squat toilet like the one below . . . but, as they say, desperate times call for hiding spots in the bushes.

Lunch came at a random stretch of roadway next to a river. I stepped slowly out of the vehicle to admire my surroundings--mountains, a river, birds above . . . yes, quite, quite, an excellent picnic spot. Megan, perhaps oblivious to our surroundings, came sprinting out of the bus behind me. At the first bathroom break in the first pasture, Megan had passed on the opportunity to wait for a toilet that never came. Now, the situation was dire, and as she sped past me like a fidgety beam of light, I heard, "I am off to a hiding spot." Megan likes her privacy.

So Megan vanished. I was not concerned at that point. The scene was peaceful, and the menacing faces that had glared at us as we passed through towns were far behind. Time passed, and I eventually saw Megan walk toward me up an embankment near the river . . . her face glowed with relief. Just moments after she reached me, I looked over her shoulder to see figures emerging along the river bank. These figures were adult men, and, within minutes, these figures were buck naked and taking a swim a very, very short distance from Megan's hiding spot. She was happy to be back at the bus.

We made our best effort to ignore the show at the river, and we made sandwiches in the brutal sunshine. Soon a man appeared in the roadway a hundred feet in front of the bus. The man stood for a while and then quickly biked away. A half hour later, the man returned with four others, and they stood in a bush near the bus and whispered while casting glances our direction.

Normally, I would not care. In Honduras, Japan, and Tibet, I became used to being watched as a rare tourist that just did not quite fit in. But this particular road trip began in Nairobi with a clear warning from our guide. Apparently it has become common for tourist buses in Africa to be raided. While our guide did not mention physical violence, he advised using a safe in the bottom of the vehicle to avoid getting our valuables forever detached from our possession. We had not used the safe . . . and at this particular moment, I wondered if that decision had been wise.

Anyway, the men watched and whispered as my anxiety grew. I looked at the faces of my fellow passengers, and everyone else seemed oblivious. When two of the five moved from the front to the rear of the bus, Megan began paying attention. When the men all pulled machetes, our guide and other passengers started noticing what was about to go down.

In all fairness, men carrying machetes was a common sight, but these men made a decision to reveal previously hidden machetes, which seemed significant. And we spotted no agricultural work to be done in our general vicinity: no fertile fields with amber waves of grain, no pointy pineapple plants like the one below.

Now, I trusted the local knowledge of my guide. Sure, he was not from this country (he was from Zimbabwe), and, sure, he did not speak Swahili . . . but he had to have some method for deterring would be hijackers. Surely he would find a way to keep me and my beautiful bride from finding ourselves cashless and without passports in rural Tanzania. Surely Dudu would protect us.

Quickly, our trusty guide's strategy became apparent. In an urgent tone: "Everyone, pack up." Right. Good plan. Let's "quickly" load a dozen folding chairs and a mess of sandwich materials into our vehicle and speed down the road while simultaneously revealing our growing fear to these machete-wielding on-lookers who, did I mention, are standing very, very near. Yes, great plan.

But it was the only plan, so I jumped-to. I loaded chairs like it was my job. Megan hurried to help the cook, Pumu, stash away the food. Megan knew what she was doing having helped unload the food a couple of times (which also allowed her to observe the many dairy products that were not stored in any sort of refrigeration . . . which allowed us to avoid spoiled food . . . which one would assume would allow us to avoid intestinal woes. . . but that isn't a problem until later in this, the longest day ever).

Time was passing, and the men were slowly inching forward. I noticed an Austrian fellow on the trip parked at the doorway, arms crossed, looking strong. He was a tall guy, and I was also taller than the ruffians. That seemed like a better plan, so I joined him near the doorway, crossed my arms, and tried not to look like a former high school debater turned art history minor turned law student. I watched Megan finish loading the food and scurry on the bus. I soon joined her, and we were off.

Whew . . .

Eventually (okay, an hour of trembling later) my adrenaline had cleared away. I could now sink into the misery that accompanied my fellow travelers. At roughly 8 o'clock in the evening, after two more stops on the roadway sans toilet (Megan did not pass up any more of these opportunities), we reached Dar es Salaam. And then everything got worse.

Our vehicle was named "Freddie," and Freddie did not have air-conditioning. Normally, this was not a problem. As long as Freddie moved, the air flowed through the windows, and life was pleasant. But when Freddie stopped, the rivulets of sweat pouring off of my skin left me in soggy spirits.

When we reached Dar es Salaam, Freddie stopped. And no, Freddie did not stop at the beach paradise campsite with a bar stocked with cold brew. Freddie stopped in a traffic jam . . . for quite a while. But we reached the port. At the port, we would take a ferry to an isthmus. On the isthmus sat our beach paradise.

So Freddie stopped again in the line for the ferry. And an hour passed with no motion at all. Did I mention we had not seen a toilet in fourteen hours at this point? Did I mention the intestinal troubles that had been kept at bay by potent medications for fourteen hours? Now would probably be a good time to mention that.

Eventually, one of the Austrian guys produced a temporary solution for those with strong stomachs . . . a flask filled with something potent. Megan and I, dehydrated and cross, passed on the schnapps. Below, Louise the Australian celebrates this modest joy.

An hour and a half into our ferry wait came a moment of truth. Maybe it was time to ditch the tour. On our way to the ferry line we had passed a hotel that looked lovely . . . and looked air-conditioned. Maybe it was time to grab the bags, find a cab, and shout "adios" to Nomad Tours as we booked-it to more pleasant places.

But no cabs were nearby. Megan seemed thrilled at the half-baked scheme and asked a nearby police officer for directions to a cab stand. The officer stared at Megan as one would stare at a human child delivered from the womb of a reindeer. No taxi was a big problem.

And besides . . . we had already paid for the night's accommodation (which turned out to be roughly $15). And they would help get us on our ferry to Zanzibar and set us up with exciting things like spice tours once we arrived. This is how we justified sticking around. Moment of truth came and went in a flood of cowardice and justification.

Another hour passes and Freddie inches forwards (no cool breeze . . . sweat continues). For good measure, we wait through one more hour . . . digestive system grumbling, humidity actually rising (seriously, you think it would have stopped somewhere near 100%), sweaty Brad is sweating.

And then the ferry comes . . . and the beach paradise . . . which turns out to have bathroom facilities swarming with mosquitoes. In fact, swarms of mosquitoes were common in the beach paradise. They swarmed and devoured my derriere a moment otherwise dominated by relief. They swarmed the bar where we drank loads of water being far too dehydrated to consider the libations we had desired around hour 13. And the mosquitoes swarmed our dream beach room. The room had a thatched roof . . . sat on stilts . . . and soaked up the sounds of the ocean . . . sounds dwarfed only by the buzz of mosquitoes mercifully trapped outside our prison of mosquito netting.

Did I mention they have malaria in Dar es Salaam? Now would probably be a good time to mention that.

Morale was low among the troops. Sixteen hours of sweating off and reapplying 100% DEET insect repellent had left us with a nasty goo on our skin, and the swarms of mosquitoes at the beach paradise had left us unable to clean the DEET away.

But we had hope. In roughly twelve hours, we knew we would find ourselves in a true beach paradise. In less than the time it took us to make our restroom-free journey across Tanzania, we would be enjoy the land of sultans and spices, fresh seafood and sandy beaches.

For now though, with the view out the front end of our bus burned into our brains, we slowly sweated into uneasy sleep.

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