Borders stitch two worlds together at a rough seam. Rarely are they pleasant or placid. Transient places on the furthest edge of a plane, they often draw the dregs from the outer fringes of separate societies; those misfits most in need of, well, any lucky break at all. Some seem to be straight-up circling the drain.
The line separating Zambia and Tanzania is that quintessential border scene. Rough riders on ear-splitting Chinese rattletrap 150cc motorcycles, zipping like filth flies over dusty surface roads. Vapid vendors crouched inside plywood boxes, peddling cheesy plastic doohickeys. Women from the wrong side of the tracks, not-so-subtly working the long row of cargo trucks; flirting with those lonely truckers, themselves on a tough road to whatever may come.
Borders thicken the skin. They have a way of making one feel pretty alone in a tough world.
This border is particularly porous. Looking for information on the Tanzania side, I am free to wander back and forth, just a wave and a nod to soldiers in drab green fatigues and sharp red berets, AK-47s at hand.
- The immigration agent tells me “Corona test.” Curtly, she jabs her finger in the air, over towards a dark green tent, one straight out of a MASH unit.
Inside, a worker covered head to toe in plastic whips out a long, skinny 8-inch wanger and jams it up my long nose.
“Open your eyes!” a male voice insists, forcefully, twice. My saline ducts pouring, that cotton swab banging into my brain.
The swab removed, relieved, wiping away my tears, I plead, “When do I get the result?”
“We call you.”
“When we call you.”
That night, in the hotel canteen, a bookish fellow speaks clear English in his heavy Swahili accent:
“Easy. Go tell the Tanzanian health ministry officials you took the test. They write you a pass.”
First thing next morning, a medic looks me up and down, scribbles on some paper, and sends me straight into the queue for a passport stamp.
I’m legally in Tanzania now, home to nearly 60 million souls. A nation that officially denies the coronavirus. No word on how my Covid test turned out.
While Zambia was mostly a flat, Texas-sized savanna, in Tanzania there’s an abrupt transition to short, steep hills, plastered in pine trees, towering mountains on the farthest horizon.
The scenery is sublime, but I’m eating diesel dust all day. Forward progress is a high stakes game. Dodging every hole and hazard, it takes no time to wear me down to the nubs.
Everywhere are squirrelly three-wheel tuk-tuk taxis. The roads are narrow, rarely a safe shoulder. Along with the orgy of raging truckers and erratic motorcyclists, I contend with bicycles and pedestrians and livestock, to boot. There is a yellow center line but usually no side line to establish something of a consistent space in a lane.
I manage to force the pedals for 65 miles to Mbeya, a small city built into lumpy foothills.
Trucks and buses have messages printed all over. In Swahili, usually, in English, often, and occasionally in Arabic or even Chinese. They’re usually religious. “God Is On My Side” and “Full Jesus” come to mind. One passing truck has nothing more than “Struggle Every Day” etched across the top of the windshield. That’s my kind of sermon.
When I think I’m really struggling, I cast my mind back to days stuck at a desk. I tell myself these hard days out here are better than the best days in there.
It doesn’t change the fact, though, that it’s tough out here.
The Advance / The Retreat
Northbound from Mbeya, I tackle the topography in earnest, quickly ascending over 4,000 feet of vertical, drawn like a magnet over the summit, then descending into an imposing desert landscape.
Villagers, scratching out a living, dot the roadsides. Nearing Makongolosi, the road turns to loose dirt. Asphalt can’t be too far into the future — hardy highway crews are out building a bridge in the blazing desert sun.
There’s a guesthouse in Makongolosi. By my mean standards, it’s passable. Inside, a shared bathroom with a five-inch hole in the floor, framed in a long porcelain oval, foot treads for traction on either side. Try and take aim, but it’s just a game. Miss the hole, there are buckets of water at the ready to flush the strays away.
The shower head is positioned above. This is an all-in-one hygiene efficiency system. Just don’t drop the soap.
This hotel is hosting a televised soccer match. Men from town gather in plastic chairs around a grainy image on a small screen. I’m tossing back some Serengeti and Kilimanjaro lagers, oblivious to the Swahili that surrounds me. It’s getting too easy to be alone in my own head.
This direct route towards Mt. Kilimanjaro initially seemed like far less of a death wish than riding the gauntlet on that main highway to Dar-es-Salaam. I’m out here in the wide-open spaces of Tanzania hillbilly country.
Hardly anyone speaks much more than the most rudimentary English. We’re just pointing and miming. I did manage to pick up my first Swahili phrase, thanks to a hillbilly hipster kid, clever enough to gauge me, clever enough to know I’d recognize it if he said it slow and straight:
It rings a bell, but it takes me a moment to connect.
“Hakuna Matata” is straight out of Disney’s “The Lion King.” It’s Swahili for “no worries.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d soon be hearing it again and again, all month. It’s practically the national slogan.
Ahead, due north, there are 115 miles on rolling desert dirt to Rungwa. I can’t even confirm if there’s a flophouse in Rungwa. The route runs adjacent to two wild game reserves, beasts on the loose, another source of unease.
This backroads route has me feeling weak knees, and not in the romantic sense.
Late that afternoon I cycle out north out of town, then pull over under a tree in the mercy of some shade. I’m out on a test; just monitoring the flow of traffic. Any trucks? Buses? What are the odds I pedal most of the way to Rungwa, hit a wall of exhaustion and dehydration, and there’s nobody coming to bail me out?
Time passes, but no vehicles pass. Not one.
A weathered gent steps out from behind some brush. He has a hut back there? I’m glancing around. I give a phony smile and wave hello. He’s wearing what might’ve once been a fine suit. Trousers and a pinstriped jacket, mismatched, covered in desert dust, lapels frayed, pockets ripped, coming apart at almost every seam. Pink flip-flops on his filthy feet.
He cooly lights a smoke, his bald dome in that laser sun, the one burning a hole in my brain. His movements, his kinesiology, even his two fingers’ gentle hold on the cig butt. Somehow, he radiates pride and elegance.
People find dignified ways to exist almost anywhere, under almost any circumstances. Even here in this blaring, godforsaken equatorial desert, about as inviting as a red-hot machete to the face.
I admire this old fellow. I just wouldn’t want to be him.
If he speaks English, he doesn’t speak it to me. He might not even speak Swahili. There are a hundred tribal languages out here.
Who knows. Everything is a mystery. I don’t know anything anymore. I’m bluffing all day, every day.
I haven’t felt this lost in awhile.
Later, reflecting on the risks of forcing this route forward, I made the decision to abort; to ride back over the mountains to Mbeya, the direction from whence I came. A full-on retreat.
Back in Mbeya, I begin having doubts about everything. “When’s the next flight home?,” I wonder, pathetically.
Passage to Dar
In a moment of weakness I jump the passenger train to Dar es Salaam, the “Place of Peace,” five million people stationed in a seaside metropolis.
Riding the rails now, I’m chugging through charmed mountain villages. Crops rising in tiny valleys, orchards clinging to the sides of steep hills. This is the slow train making all local stops. Cash crops in bursting burlap bags go into cargo. Other sacks come out.
Women and children walk the length of the parked train, bunches of bananas balanced on their heads, buckets of fruit, nuts, and sardines on offer. Boiled corn on the cob, too, still in the shucks, still warm to the touch. There’s a certain pleasure in working a few rows of naked yellow corn, chomping neatly around and around, tossing the spent cobs out the train window, out into that picturesque countryside, knowing nature will soon devour every trace of waste.
Riding the rails, window open, head out like a happy hound, warm breeze on the face. Dozens of tunnels, countless bridges and ever more villages roll by, each with their own rhythm.
The whole scene carries a lot of weight in every way.
Most archaeologists say Homo erectus originated near here around 1.8 million years ago.
We Homo sapiens followed another million years later.
We’re all African.
Arriving into the main station at Dar es Salaam at 2 a.m., I recover my bike from cargo. The porter gives me a stern look. “Don’t go out in this city now.”
I’m listening. I make my way to the station’s main waiting hall. Dimly lit, perhaps two hundred people of all ages, whole families, strewn out on the filthy concrete floor. I take my position in a corner, all eyes on me. Women and girls in colorful shawls, many wearing a hijab, some peering out through eye slits in a full-on burqa. I don’t suppose they see many soft-skinned honkeys sprawling in shorts on dingy train station floors.
The sun rises and I’m in luck. At the docks, I learn the fast ferry flies in 30 minutes. Jam-packed with locals, onboard televisions stream Muslim prayers. Next stop, Zanzibar.
The Islamic Isles
Tanzania derives its name from the long, deep freshwater lake at Tanganyika on the country’s western side, and the picture-perfect Zanzibar island archipelago on the east. Think: Tan-Zan-ia.
Dockside now in Stone Town, on the fantasy island of Zanzibar, I grab my bike, pack my luggage and start pedaling, post haste.
Zanzibar is a drop-dead gorgeous tourist island, but with few tourists in sight. Mainly locals, Muslims, ladies in colorful hijabs, men in monochrome thawbs, like long tunics, heads donned with kufi caps, all living in an almost enviable world: Poverty … but with a view.
Oh, those Zanzibar beach towns! Miles of white sands and teal blue waters. Fruit stands and beachfront bungalows. Hand-sawn, weather-ravaged wooden canoes with short masts and wide stance outriggers anchored just yards offshore. Laundry out blowing in the breeze.
Young Maasai men, as natural on the beach as they are herding goats, appear resplendent in sandals made of recycled tires, draped in dark red togas, adorned with necklaces and bracelets, almost always cheap fluorescent-framed sunglasses. These are good-time guys. Hustlers, in the right way, I suppose. They know how to ply the tourist trade. Anyone can have instant friends. Just add cash.
Nowadays they’re as bored as anyone else in tourism. I’m no help.
The other big island in the Zanzibari archipelago is Pemba, around 70 miles due north, or six hours on the slow ferry. I hear there’s not much there, and that’s all the invitation I need.
After docking, it is evident that Pemba is an austere world of modest Muslims living among steep rolling hills and lush green pastures.
After cycling through and beyond the capital city, Chake-Chake, I’m on the lookout for a spot to sleep this night away. I pull over, asking a row of men sitting on a log, “Do you know a little place where I can string up my hammock and sleep tonight? I leave at dawn,” met with blank stares.
I mime it. Tie up hammock. Go to sleep. Point at setting sun, then point at eastern sunrise. Point up the road. More friendly faces and blank stares.
Exasperated, I keep pedaling. I spot a steep hill with a thick grove of trees above. Pausing, I glance around, then dash up a steep grade, where I hoist up my hammock. Then, I sit in silence.
The sun couldn’t sink fast enough. When it’s still light, I can be spotted. After dark, I’m all but invisible, to humans, anyway.
From my jungle perch at dusk I see men milling around on the narrow road below. Men in those long tunic robes. Women pass too, never in the company of other men, in their full coverings they look almost ghostly.
Pemba Island reminds me in many ways of rural Central America, or perhaps Colombia’s lowlands. It’s hot, steamy, and tropical; the roads are narrow, steep and winding, with lots of places to hide, dotted frequently with simple Mosques, much as rural Latin America is dotted with little Catholic Churches.
I tell myself again that it’s all culture. These Islamic peasants are no more dangerous or odd than Catholic peasants. Humans are humans.
Still, I lay up there in my hideout hammock bivouac, utterly silent except for the mosquitoes in my ears. There’s enough dry leafy detritus and sticks on the ground to give me early notice of an approaching mammal, human or otherwise.
It’s the jungle sounds, though, that capture the imagination. A fussy monkey overhead, he chilled out a little before midnight. A beastly purr, distant, off and on all night, like the sound of The Predator in that old Schwartzenegger movie, keeps me puckered up a little.
Times like these, one tests the depths of discomfort. The only reply is to survive, to drill deep into one’s own psyche. Like that suited man in that godforsaken desert, I too can find ways to exist almost anywhere, under almost any circumstances.
At 04.30 I wake from a sweat-soaked sleep to that now familiar sound: The Call to Prayer echoes in Arabic all through the forest.
I am up and away at sunrise. I catch the ferry over to the Tanzanian mainland. It’s the last one out for a week.
Lost in every way for most of the past month, suddenly now a plan is coming together. After a long night in a bed that smells like I’ve felt, I’m suddenly sensing a little skip come back into my step.
I pedal out of the port city of Tanga, inland through gentle hills and pastoral landscapes. Orchards of apples, bananas, coffee, mangoes. Bricks baking in charcoal-fired earthen kilns. Happy children shouting and whistling at me all the way.
Korogwe is a bustling mountain city nestled in a valley beneath a number of peaks, with a slow river running through. Lumberjacks in lumberyards, roughnecks roughing it. The sweet smell of sawn timber. The sublime sight of handmade furniture.
I rest here for two nights. For dinner, I even sample some cow hoof and porridge.
Dreaming tall, aiming high, I’ve found a respectable guide at a reasonable price for an attempt at the 19,300-foot Kilimanjaro, the stunning Empress above the Serengeti, the highest point in Africa.
Pedaling with purpose now, in two more days I cycle 160 more miles to Moshi, the city at the base of the massive mountain.
I’ve joined forces with a two-man Swiss expedition ascending the Marangu route. We have retained two mountain guides, a camp cook, and four strong sherpa porters.
As I hit “send” on this Dispatch, we are at 6,000 feet, geared up and ready to walk first thing tomorrow morning.
I’m finding that old resolve, fast.