After six weeks in Kenya we awoke early one morning (4:30am), we headed to downtown Nairobi, hopped on a bus, and were headed to a new country – Tanzania. Our first stop in Tanzania would be the small town of Arusha. Arusha is located about 270km south from Nairobi at the base of Mount Meru. The other more famous Mount Kilimanjaro (which is the highest mountain in Africa and highest free standing mountain in the world) is also nearby, located only 82km from the town.
Arusha is known for the numerous safari and tour companies that base themselves in this town for business. It is a starting point for both Kilimanjaro climbs as well as safaris in the northern national park circuit (including parks like the Tarangire, Serengeti, Nongorongo Crater and Lake Manyara). Again, our stop here was based off the opportunity to connect with another wonderful soul that was on CouchSurfing. After reading the profile of our host Ben was intrigued and had singled him (also with the name of Benjamin) out with the desire to get to know him and the work he did more.
The journey from Kenya to Arusha was relatively painless – about 5 hours in the bus with the one border crossing. We found it funny that Kenya took so much time looking over our passports and taking our fingerprints on a glass scanner for our exit considering they didn’t even look at our visa forms we had filled out upon entry. This could have something to do with the terrorist attack that happened while we were there and mostly committed by foreigners. Entry to Tanzania was pretty much the same. While they did look at our forms and go through the formalities of fingerprinting here as well, it wasn’t more than two minutes and the guy smiled and said “welcome, $100 each please.” We are definitely looking forward to the next border crossing which should allow us to pass GO without paying $200.
Benjamin lives in a beautiful and large home complete with multiple hammocks and surrounded by nature (which includes avocado trees right in his front yard). When we arrived there were another three surfers staying at Benjamin’s home (which again, was very large). There were two Austrian guys who were headed out that evening having done Kilimanjaro before coming to Arusha, as well as an Argentinian named Alejandro who we soon became very good friends with over the next few days.
As Arusha is a town bordering Meru mountain and beautiful jungle lands we decided to take one day to go for a hike and hopefully check out a waterfall. Benjamin opted to stay home to catch up on some work, which left the three of us (Alejandro and us) on our own to find the way and communicate with the locals on our journey. Even though Alejandro had done the very same hike only a week before he still had no idea where he was going. This wasn’t a major concern for us, however, so we headed out toward the hills, periodically practicing our Spanish which gave Alejandro a chance to relax a bit, as he has only been learning English for a few months. We initially went up the main dirt path toward the mountain, armed with the name of the town that was near the waterfall. It was a hot day, and everyone was outside. The road was mostly uphill, of course, and sometimes there would be patches a couple hundred meters long that were so dusty your entire shoe would disappear. It was bizarre, and it felt like we were walking on the moon. The only downside was that we were without an astronaut’s typical oxygen tanks, so the hot, dry and dusty climate made the walk seem much longer.
But as we walked we got to meet perhaps half of the villagers living along the way as they went about their daily lives. Moving up the hill, we passed many plantain groves, with women sitting below the trees watching over a table full of cellphone sim cards for sale or a card table full of fruit. Girls were doing laundry in the streets, and almost all the boys were playing soccer, seemingly. At one point when Ben was feeling a little tired we stopped in the shade on the side of the road and Alejandro played some soccer with a ball the kids had made out of used plastic bags. This futbol innovation had 2 benefits: something to do with all the littered plastic bags, as well as never getting kicked too far away from the group and rolling endlessly down hill.
After hiking for a couple hours, we began to get great views of Arusha. The last town cleared away, and soon we found ourselves at the edge of a pine forest. When we got here, a well dressed motorcycle taxi boy (17 years old maybe) insisted on helping us, which in part meant following him to his office and buying a ticket to the waterfall. We did not go for this. Alejandro was a master at just making it seem like he didn’t understand the concept of what someone was saying (“Ah, asante sana thank you so much man but we just want to walk where it is beautiful. If it is beautiful maybe I will walk this way. Maybe instead we will walk home. We don’t know. We go where wind goes you know man”). This seemed to work and he let us continue on our own into the pine forest. In the pine grove, the landscape had mostly plateaued, and the shade was refreshing. The grove was also littered with raspberry bushes, and we used a couple bags we had brought to pick raspberries for a cake. After walking through the pine forest, we took a turn hoping to find the waterfall. We walked another 30 minutes, and it became more jungle-like with overgrown bushes and climbing vines over large trees.
The beauty was stunning. We found a creek, but it did not lead us to a waterfall, or “waterfallsi” as we learned to ask for along the way. Eventually, as even Alejandro didn’t recall where to go, we relaxed, and then headed back down the mountain. We found a couple girls who said they knew the way to the village where Benjamin lived and followed them for a while. Amanda shared her water and practiced her little Swahili with them while we descended, a steeper and more direct route. Finally the girls pointed in the direction we should continue and we began to recognize a path we had started on hours earlier during our ascent. This made us all happy as our energy levels were running low by this time. We may not have found the waterfallsi but we did make it home before sunset and the journey (or ‘safari’, which in swahili literally means journey) was a fun one filled with beauty.
Nourishing our bodies and minds
Our other highlight in Arusha was the time we spent with Benjamin, Alejandro, and Johanna (a volunteer living with Benjamin). As we mentioned above, Ben had singled out Benjamin’s profile on couchsurfing because he was immediately intrigued by it.
Benjamin was such an interesting person we felt we had to stay with him. For starters, he was Persian, but lived most of his life in Sweden. After Sweden, he spent a few years traveling, before landing in Tanzania. Over his years of traveling, he became what Ben refers to as a ‘humanist,’ with such radical ideas as all people are equal, and that everyone should be able to work enough to live comfortably and enjoy a basic standard of living, that included safety, a roof, electricity, running water, food for their family, and the ability to take a week off from work each year. He had started a company, Fair Travel Tanzania, with a local Tanzanian friend which provides travel experiences to travels at a fair price while maintaining fair wages for the employes. This simple model provides a great safari experience to people while providing real living wages to everyone involved, and making the money 100% transparent to consumers. (We really found it amazing that more companies don’t offer this.) His company hired about 40 people, and he paid himself $300 USD/month, which was enough to cover all the aforementioned prerequisites.
Benjamin had so much wonderful knowledge and many ideas to share with us. He was was an inspiration through he actions as well as his words. There was much time spent laughing, dancing, eating the delicious foods (like chapati and Bagia) the locals would make just 400 meters from his home, making our own homemade feasts with the fresh veggies and fruits that was sold from stands or simply from blankets the villagers laid out to market their produce (fresh avocados, mangos, eggplant), and sharing our connection and time together. We reflected on the different systems in the world, and reflected how we relate to them in comparison to how we relate to each other as humans. The importance of impact as individuals and a community combined with our connection to nature and others as humans was and underlying theme that ran under many of the conversations.
It was apparent that all of us believed that there were shifts that need to be made in many of the global systems operating today. Witnessing how Benjamin was currently doing this and exploring our pre-constructed concepts and the paradigms we used to view the world was exhausting at times, but otherwise was refreshing to ask questions about the world we live in that we’d previously taken as unchangeable.
Crossing into Tanzania we could feel some small differences, despite the short distance we had traveled from the border. First, right away we felt the difference in how many people spoke English. It was fortunate that we went to Kenya first for the benefit of having a chance to learn some Swahili words and phrases before coming to Tanzania. We were told this difference is due to Tanzania not teaching English in school, whereas Kenyan education is in English with Swahili class as well. We also learned that often locals, when speaking in Swahili, count time differently. What’s normal for us is to have midnight be the daily reset for the clock. In Tanzania, when someone is addressing you in Swahili, the zero hour of the day is 6am. That is because year round, sunrise and sunset are very close to 6am and 6pm. Therefore, using these the way we use 12 noon and 12 midnight makes more sense to them: when the day starts (measured by the sun rising), you count the beginning of the day. Therefore, when catching a bus at 8am, someone at a bus station would tell us it leaves at 2. Yes, it can be confusing.
Overall the infrastructure seems to be slightly further along. The roads were in good condition, there were fewer run-down wood and tin sheds used for selling items on the side of the road, and we saw more signs advertising wifi in the restaurants and cafes. Perhaps this was due to the fact that Arusha caters to so many tourists that pass through this town.
Otherwise the land, people, and food pretty much remained the same. Since Africa is originally a land of tribes, many of the differences one sees among people can be more accurately attributed to tribal differences, and not the constructed nation states that have evolved in the post-colonial era. For this reason we have possibly seen more variance in people while within Kenya than when crossing the border to Tanzania – especially when one considers they both speak Swahili.
While the sincerity of the people was still there you couldn’t help but feel that things were somewhat more shifted toward the foreigners that have flocked to see the iconic African sites of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar, and wildlife parks such as the Serengeti. We wondered if this would be a common underlying feeling we would see throughout our travels through the country. Or perhaps we just missed our Kenyan community and roots we had slowly began to grow while we were there. Either way, we had crossed the border, were taking it all in, and after a few days rest in Arusha we pushed onward. Next stop would be the capital and our first views of East African coastlines in Dar Es Salaam.
To see photos from our first stop in Tanzania, click HERE.