By the time our truck slowly made its way through the Dar es Salaam traffic to take us out of the city I think it would be fair to say that I wasn’t particularly enjoying my time in Tanzania. Whilst there were a few highlights I didn’t always feel safe, I was growing tired of long days stuck in traffic or road construction, I was disgusted at the openly corrupt police that kept pulling us over to bribe our driver and along with some of my tripmates I hadn’t been in great health; not enough to leave me bedridden but enough to distract me from having a good time. All of that was about to change when the next few days in Northern Tanzania becoming one of the great highlights of my 6-week African journey and one of the best experiences of my entire traveling life. But it wasn’t all plain sailing.
Seven people finished the trip in Zanzibar leaving five of us plus three crew to finish the last leg from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi. We got on well and we were all looking forward to enjoying each other’s company in what we hoped would be a peaceful and drama-free trip to Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park. As we left Zanzibar to head back to our camp in Dar es Salaam our Tour Leader informed us that a last-minute booking had come in so that someone would be joining us in Dar. Immediately I got a sinking feeling and I was right to have it.
I’ve debated whether or not to include this in my blog at all but I think the issue of caring for a stranger with serious mental health issues when you are traveling in remote and challenging parts of the world is worth mentioning plus I’m confident that their identity is safe. This was the latest in a long line of situations just like this that I’ve found myself in throughout my career and traveling life. A person who needs proper care and support somehow makes their way into a travel situation away from their home so that people like me who are totally unqualified strangers have to try to provide that care and support. That is okay in itself and a normal part of being a member of the human race. We are a diverse species and I don’t expect everyone to be the same as me nor would I want them to. Luckily most of us will step up and give the support needed just like my tripmates did in this instance but I always worry about what happens if people choose not to or, even worse, if they decide to take advantage of such a person.
I’m not going to go into the details of what happened because it isn’t right to do that in a public blog but I will say that their presence was extremely challenging, upsetting and sometimes a little scary for all of the travelers and tour staff involved. It included racism, accusations of theft and indecent exposure. The only reason I’m mentioning it at all is because it brings up interesting points about how this kind of thing impacts a group of travelers, the staff managing that group, the wellness of the individual concerned as well as questions about what should be done to prevent this kind of thing if anything. It was also an important part of my experience during that last week in Africa so I didn’t want to gloss over it and I’d love to hear about any similar experiences people have had with difficult individuals they have traveled with along with their general thoughts on situations like this. But for now let me get back to the trip…
It seemed to take forever to get out of Dar es Salaam but when we did we turned away from the coastline and took a northwesterly course for the small town of Korogwe, a drive that would take about 5 hours in total. We were soon on a fairly dry flat plain that was dotted here and there with subsistence farms and villages. One thing we had begun to notice in Tanzania was the sheer volume of unfinished buildings. Many times we’d see the shell of a building, sometimes a small brick house and sometimes a larger concrete complex that had never been finished.
Whilst this type of thing is seen in many countries it was unusually prevalent in Tanzania and a quick Google search came up with this website that explains why. Firstly it is because it takes so long to build a brick or concrete house due to the funds required but it is also because the government has a strange law that says if you don’t do anything with your land within 5-years of acquiring it then they can repossess it. So apparently people start building a house just so they can show that they are doing something with the land and therefore keep it. I can understand a law like that in land-starved cities but it seems an odd law in a vast country like Tanzania.
We pulled over for a roadside lunch under a tree and out of nowhere a young Maasai man appeared and stayed for a chat with our crew who shared our food with him. We were slowly but surely entering Maasai territory and began seeing more and more young men herding animals in the open land beside the road. Evidence of their cooking fires, places to tether animals and temporary shelters was frequently seen on the roadside and would become more common as we headed North. One thing I found interesting in Africa was that in the absence of paved streets and pathways humans still tended to use the same routes through vegetation and farmland with pathways clearly visible purely due to so much use. You can see one of these to the left of the tree in the bottom image. I guess this is what the pathways all over Europe looked like before we discovered concrete and gravel.
As we got nearer to Korogwe the landscape quickly became lush, tropical and hilly. We were heading into the foothills of the East Usambara Mountains that sit near the Indian Ocean and are covered in virgin tropical rain forest. Our campsite was in the centre of this small town and it was a Muslim holiday so it seemed as though the whole town was celebrating around us as we set up tents and prepared dinner.
The next morning we started out early for a roughly 6-hour drive to Arusha. The lush hilly landscape continued but soon we were passing vast fields containing a plant that looked distinctly familiar to me from my time living in the American Southwest. I correctly guessed that these were a species of Agave and they turned out to be Sisal plantations. When harvested the fibres are used in a huge variety of products including rope, paper and clothing. In between these huge farms we still saw many subsistence farmers and young boys tending to livestock.
Later in the day we passed by the incredibly famous Mount Kilimanjaro but I’m afraid that it was shrouded in cloud so that only the lower slopes were visible meaning I don’t have much more to say about that incredible African icon. A short time later we were entering the city of Arusha, an important city that not only serves as a diplomatic center for East Africa but as the tourism gateway to arguably three of Africa’s most important destinations; Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Crater and Mount Kilimanjaro.
Arusha took an important place in history as the location of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and many trials relating to the Rwandan genocide were held here. Whilst those trials are over it remains the home of the African Court on Human and People’s Rights. I had no preconceived ideas about Arusha so was interested to find that it was a cosmopolitan and vibrant place. It is a major labor center for Northern Tanzania and the fact that it serves as a diplomatic hub for East Africa means that it has a large American and European expat population as well.
We needed to stop for supplies so we found ourselves at a kind of outdoor mall or shopping precinct that had a distinct whiff of America or Europe about it. It was still very much an African experience in terms of the way things were being done but we were surprised to find an almost hipsteresque deli-come-butchery, a trendy cafe and a hipster bookstore from which I finally managed to obtain a map of Tanzania.
After stocking up in the supermarket a few of us had a pow-wow. Once again I won’t divulge many details in order to protect the person involved but one of us was suffering from a health problem that required very specific drugs. The person in question would not come right out and say what was wrong with them and what they needed but we had all guessed. They had been deteriorating over the past few days before our eyes so we decided that we should just try to get the drugs they needed, find a subtle way of handing them over then hope that they actually took them. That meant leaving the expat mall and venturing over the road into the Central Market, something we were fine with doing but the various security guards around the Mall weren’t too happy about.
We managed to dodge them along with the busy traffic on the road to get to the market. It was incredibly different to the quiet hipster-like atmosphere we had left behind. This was a proper working market jam-packed with all kinds of individual traders selling everything from bananas to cell phones. Due to the reaction of the security guards at the mall I was feeling slightly concerned about what was going to happen next but I needn’t have. We had the usual approaches to buy stuff but most people just ignored us as they went about their business.
Image sourced from Wikipedia
I had noticed back in Dar es Salaam that shopping areas tended to consist of a main thoroughfare that pedestrians and motorists used that contained a few pop-up traders and both sides of this thoroughfare were bordered by deep narrow ditches designed to filter away overflow rain water and general waste. Planks were put over these by store owners whose shops flanked the ditches so that in order to get into a shop you had to walk over these planks that led you directly through the door of a shop. It was over one of these ditches that we entered a pharmacy which was a tiny tin shack where just a few customers and staff could fit either side of a surprisingly modern glass cabinet where various drugs for malaria, birth control, pain management and HIV were displayed.
Two staff were behind the counter in crisp white pharmacy uniforms and they were incredibly well-informed. They understood all about the illness we mentioned, were able to accurately explain the medication options along with dosages and possible side effects. In fact they did better than any Walgreens or Boots pharmacist I have ever met. And just like in Malawi we were able to pay a small amount of cash outright for a very powerful and very effective drug that would probably cost several thousand dollars per dose in the United States even though both countries were using drugs from the same manufacturer. We checked and found that this drug was made in the US and I’m pleased to say that it did the trick on our friend very quickly.
After the shopping was done we made the short drive north to our very cool campsite at the Meserani Snake Park in Duka Bovu, a settlement not far from the city of Arusha and considered part of the wider area. The Snake Park is better than it sounds and essentially comprises a campsite with a restaurant/bar along with a health clinic for locals and what is essentially a snake zoo, all of which border a large Maasai market so it also has a Maasai cultural museum thrown in for good measure. I agree it is an odd combination but it works very well to the point that pretty much any overland trip that passes through Arusha will stop here for the night.
We pitched our tents then enjoyed drinks and dinner at the park until a little later than usual because for once we didn’t have to be up at the crack of dawn. We were going to Ngorongoro Crater the next day but not until later in the morning so after enjoying a lazy start to the day some of us ventured over to the snake education center. It was a pretty awesome place because not only did they have just about any African snake you could imagine behind glass but there were a whole bunch of lovely local school kids there on a class trip. They decided that any white woman they saw was ‘teacher’ so for a lovely 30-minutes I became ‘teacher’ and had a gaggle of enthusiastic kids following me around the various snake exhibits and all of them were fascinated yet terrfied by the zoom function on my camera.
I’d use the zoom to take very up-close photos of the snakes then show it to the kids who would all let out an enthusiastic ‘aaaahhhhh’ or just scream in terror before dragging me to the next snake for another go. These kids were great at sharing particularly when it came to my hands because despite having only two I managed to have at least four kids holding on to each one with the occasional child on my back and at least a couple hanging onto my leg. To be honest I loved it and would be happy if the snake park gave me a job guiding kids like this all day.
The one thing that really sticks out about meeting any kids in Africa is how readily they hug total strangers, something that is actively discouraged in our society. I don’t really have an explanation for that and it isn’t something I’ve discussed much with other people who have traveled there. A cynic could easily say that these hugs are to get something from a foreigner such as money but I don’t believe that. I have spent many weeks and even months of my life working and traveling in Africa and when I think back to those times I realise that I was hugged by adults and children alike more times per day than I was per year back home. I think that the benefits of hugging haven’t been forgotten in Africa, at least not in the parts I have been to. And if I’m honest they were probably some of the best hugs of my life even if they did come from total strangers. Perhaps that is why they were the best.
I had to say a sad and hasty goodbye to the school kids in their neatly pressed blue uniforms because we were being rounded up by our tour leader to depart on one of the most incredible trips of my life to Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park that I’ll be discussing in detail in my next few posts.