Ferry to Car
After a week of Zanzibar living we were eager to get back on the mainland and venture back inland. We chose to take the night boat back to Dar Es Salaam. It was cheaper, plus it would save us a night’s worth of accommodation. We made the most of our last moments on the island by grabbing our favorite bites at the Forodhani Gardens night food market in Stonetown, then boarded the boat and were set to go. The boat ended up leaving the port about three hours after the “last call for passengers”, and in the meanwhile we had made bedding arrangements out of the hodgepodge of chairs in the ‘first class’ section of the boat (once again, we had no choice as tourists but to buy the more expensive ticket, but it was most definitely worth it). I believe we had all fallen asleep by the time the boat took off and it was a slow and not so steady ride to the Dar port throughout the night. Everyone was rocked to sleep by the boat except for Ben. About 2am the rocking got to Ben. He rushed downstairs, jumped over a bunch of people scattered across the ground asleep in the economy class and dove his head into a not so pretty toilet from motion sickness. This was followed by a second episode at 3am where Amanda was woken noisily by the sound of someone vomiting. She rolled over and tried to cover her head with the sleeping bag, thinking it was probably some other passenger. James eventually poked her and told her Ben was tossing cookies. With her help we managed to get the motion sickness bracelets on Ben (thanks, Edie!) and made a new space on the floor where he was able to sleep till we arrived at the port at 6am. Originally we had thought about taking the TAZARA train across the country. But instead we did this part of our overland trek via road. This was for two main reasons: the first reason being that at the time we weren’t certain on if we would be able to disembark the train near the Malawian border (which we later found out is completely possible), the second reason being we had stumbled across a profile for a couch surfing host in Morogoro that we couldn’t pass up. To top these reasons off Adrian (our host in Morogoro) had generously offered us a ride to Morogoro from Dar Es Salaam (200km). He had been in town for business and was happy to squeeze us (now being four people with James) in his car with him for our first leg of the journey southward. What would have probably been a five or six hour uncomfortable bus ride was instead replaced by a quick and easy three hour drive with a nice stop for lunch in the middle. The ride entertainment was enhanced by the game of ‘spot the cop’ while driving. Spotting the cop in Tanzania is very different from what one would imagine as spotting the cop in the US. Police in the country don’t have police vehicles that they lounge in while hiding and chase after cars. Instead they have one person standing behind some object on the side of the road tacking peoples speeds while the others some 300 meters further down the road jump out and wave your car over if you have been flagged. Thus when playing ‘spot the cop’ you are actually looking for people (who usually hide themselves behind bushes, trees, rocks, or other objects) rather than large cars. However, the spotting of the cops in Tanzania is made much easier due to the fact that all the cops wear bright white uniforms. James ended up being the master of this game — eager to spot the white uniformed men hiding up ahead on the road when he wasn’t sleeping. Overall, the trip was a very pleasant first leg to our cross country venture. During the ride we got to know Adrian a bit more and got to talk about his country with him. Adrian was born and raised a third generation ‘muzungu’ Tanzanian and had a unique personality paired with sharp whit and education. He currently was working in agriculture micro finance. Specifically he was working on a project that would allow lenders to directly link money to farmers via mobile payment. (This concept of mobile payment is actually widely used in Eastern Africa. M-Pesa, Airtel Money, and TigoPesa [pesa means “cash” in Swahili] are all examples of communication companies mobile payment systems. A user can load credit onto their SIM card or mobile communication account and then pay for a service or send money to another account directly with their Nokia phone. In some places like Nairobi we would see people paying for their matatu ride with their phones.) We discussed how it was interesting that basically this part of the world was skipping a generation in banking. Many of the people here had never even had a bank account or even been in a bank — and now they were using, in a sense, a mobile banking system.
The town of Morogoro is the administrative capital of Morogoro Region, full of NGOs and surrounded by agriculture businesses. However, as a tourist there isn’t much the town has to offer. The town is bustling with business and is primarily there as a hub for such affairs. But while there wasn’t much to do in the town itself we enjoyed the three days we spent there. Adrian had just moved to a new home which was a nice size and in a great location. Not only was it only 2km from town but it also was conveniently located just a couple blocks from Dragonaire, a local restaurant / hotel / pub that also had inexpensive hookah. After the long drive from Dar Es Salem and an afternoon rest, this was the first place we ended up to unwind and chat about life and the world. As a group we indulged in pizzas, beer, and hookah. Adrian also taught Amanda some new tricks to preparing a smoother hookah that would last longer. It was a perfect first night back on the mainland. Dragionaire would be visited again over the next couple days. Primarily due to the fact they had huge screen TVs that displayed the soccer matches giving James his Manchester United fix. Otherwise we spent the evenings taking advantage of Adrian’s large kitchen and making big dinners. We managed to prepare a large Mexican taco meal (starting to see a pattern?) one night and Adrian made some amazing shrimp, cucumber, avacado, and mango sushi another night. Seeing that he had the staples for sushi rolling in his home in the middle of Tanzania was a welcome shock to all of us when we arrived.
While we took some time during the days to walk around the town and admire the beauty of Uluguru Mountains, most of our time was spent ‘taking care of business’ and preparing for our next steps of our journey. It was nice to hang out with Adrian, have some space at his house, and get advice for how to continue through Malawi. Adrian was able to give us tips on the border crossing, and where to go in Malawi, which was a good way to help absorb the mountains of information in James’ Lonely Planet for all of Africa. In the time we were there James managed to schedule a safari with Adrien’s friend and old co-worker, Samson. He would be venturing through Ruaha Park near Iringa.
The following morning, Chris and Adrian woke early and went to a hill nearby to get a time-lapse shot of the sunrise. When they returned (minus one piece of camera equipment), the three of us were about ready to go to the bus station. Adrian gave us a ride to the station, and it was time to get our game face on again. Haggletime! Although we had been the previous day on a fact-gathering mission, we knew we would have to wheel and deal to get our bus tickets when we arrived to get the locals price. Adrian dropped us off at the gas station across the street, and by the time we made it to the entry gate of the bus terminal, we had about 12 followers. Each of us had about 3 people tagging along with us, as we represented the best chunk of money walking into the bus station. If the person could get us to go with the bus company they were haggling for, they would then try to convince the bus company they deserved a cut (which explains in part why foreigners pay extra). Eventually Ben got a good quote for the 4 of us, and parked his rear on the bus and sent word back to the rest to come join.
The ride to Iringa ended up being one of the most spacious bus rides we had. It also passed through Mikumi National Park where we were able to spot some roadside wildlife. James swore he saw a chetah, but we think he was just excited for his upcoming safari and visualising what was to come. We arrived to Iringa around 3pm, and our CS host Friedrik met us at a little restaurant by the station. Amanda was able to fill up on a local dish of ugali and sides while we waited. From there, he walked us to his office in the Iringa University College — which we found quite surprising since he was just 19. When we got to his office, we put our bags down, and got to chat with him and his roommate Felix, aka the 2-man IT department. Friedrik and Felix are Germans taking a gap year prior to university doing a year of service abroad. We found out that these guys, plus about five other students were part of a program that has been sending german volunteers to the Iringa community for the past 10 years or so. The program seemed to be very good — the volunteers would stay for 13 months, which included a month of overlap with the previous year’s volunteers to help them get their bearings. There were some volunteers teaching computer and German classes (this was Felix and Friedrik), some doing carpentry, and others working in social programs. Friedrik and Felix had a pad to themselves during the week (hence their being able to host), and on the weekends the other volunteers in the surrounding villages would come and hang out and crash in the ‘co-op’ like space. That night we hung out primarily with Felix, as Friedrik was teaching evening classes. We cooked dinner for the group, and then he showed us how to play a german card game, Yaniv. We found the city of Iringa to be much more interesting than Morogoro. Although smaller, it seemed to be more developed. Our first official morning in Iringa, Friedrik took us for a treat. He took us to a hidden hot spot for a local breakfast indulgence. Toward the center of town, there was a large covered marketplace, filled with veggies, grain, etc. Behind this market, halfway down the rabbit hole, we were led to a dark cement building filled with steam and tasty aromas where Tanzanian women were cooking up a storm. We sat down at a little table with one of the women cooking, and they made fresh chapatis for us, to which we added fresh bananas from the market and sugar. We paired this with some chai (the local tea) with milk. We spent a whopping $0.40 for this amazing breakfast of one of our favorite East African staples (chapati).
After this our CS hosts went to work, and we went to meet up with James at his guesthouse. He was staying at the Neema Crafts Guest House, a long established center for locals with disabilities who engage in arts and crafts which are then sold to help them make a living and provide for services they need. For example, the Neema house operates a cafe run entirely by the deaf staff (orders are placed by filling out a card with a golf pencil, mush as you would at a deli). We met James at Neema and checked out the new swanky rooms that the facility had just opened. After a bit of hanging out with a saucy cat on the terrace, we headed out to explore the Isimila Stone Age Site about 15km out of town.
We had read about this site online and also ran into Austrian trucker staying at Neema who had recently visited. After a quick fifteen minute ride outside of town we were dropped at a nondescript location.were soon hiking in a dry basin and checking out some ‘Cappadoccia-like’ formations. We walked toward the only dirt road we saw other than the tarmac we had beed dropped from, and found the entrance to the Stone Age site. We followed the Austrian’s directions as best we could remember from here, and managed to forego having to pay for a guide to the otherwise free site. We weren’t exactly sure that we were on the right track but kept on exploring through the basin. It was quite hot in the dry basin, and the lava red dirt and some interesting rock formations were there — but nothing that really seemed ‘stone age’. On the way back, Amanda expressed interest in checking out the museum to find out more about the Stone Age history of the area since we hadn’t seen any so far, so we headed back through the main gates. We did not find the museum, but Ben and James definitely caught the angry end of a local manager, who yelled quite a bit, and then followed our group for a half mile back to the road. Afraid the man had called the police for trespassing, we made our way out of there, and hung low by the road until our same minibus came back and picked us up for our return trip to Iringa. We dropped James off at his place, wishing him the best as he headed out for a two day safari with the well known and respected Samson (one of Adrian’s former colleges). From this point, the three of us chose to walk back to the Germans’ co-op. When we arrived it was about 4pm, but the guys weren’t home yet, so we found ourselves locked out with a dying phone battery. We managed to get about a 15 second phone call into Felix, in which we found out he wouldn’t be back till about 7pm. We managed to find a nearby window that sold cold beers (which was amazing to find COLD beers) and Ben hopped the fence to their backyard and letting the group in. We then spent the next couple hours hanging, relaxing, listening to music (we were glad they had a power outlet in the back), playing cards and talking while we waited for their return. Around 6:30pm it seemed as though one of the other Germans in the group had arrived at the house. He looked at us through the window on the back porch with a confused expression for a few moments before he found the key and they let us in. He happened to be one of the carpenters of the group. We spent some time getting to know him a bit more while prepping dinner for the whole group. When Felix and Friedrik returned around 8:30pm, we about had our asian stir fry with fresh mushrooms almost ready! they also had a treat for the group as well. They had bought a huge bundle of green bananas (or plantains) and taught us how to make the best banana chips we had ever had. After eating we played cards again for a little bit, this time playing the game Asshole (aka President) since we were six people. The night didn’t last too long, however. Many of us headed to bed at a reasonable hour since we would be waking at 5am for a trip to the town of Tukuyu as we worked our way closer to Malawi. With the extra man in the house, the three of us squeezed into the one double bed and slept cozy through the night.
And with that we said our goodbyes to Iringa and were ready to get as close to the border of Malawi as possible. The most common route is to go from Iringa to Mbeya, and the following day make the border crossing from there. However, Adrian in Morogoro recommended stopping in Tukuyu, which would involve less backtracking the following day. So with this plan in mind, we had spoken already to the bus operators and were told we could get a bus to Tukuyu for 16,000 TSH, leaving at 6am. Satisfied with this, we arranged a taxi to pick us up at 5am, and the three of us went to bed. When we were ready and waiting at 5:15am with no sign of the taxi the following morning, we woke up Felix to call the driver. The security guard hadn’t let him in to the residential area, apparently, but he had left a message and was waiting just beyond the gates. (Supposedly there were guards at night, something you would have never know was there while walking during the day). We loaded our luggage and ourselves into the car and were on our way. At least it felt like that. Only seconds down the road the driver realised we had a flat tire. Hurriedly he got our of the car and began to change the tire. Amanda started to get worried we would miss the bus at the station but he promised it would’t be more than fifteen minutes. Ben explained we had no other choice as walking would definitely take longer. So as a team of four (one holding the phone for light, another helping with unbolting the tire, others pumping jack to lift the car) we were able to change the tire in a record time of four minutes. We are thinking with just a little more training we could work as a pit crew for Nascar.
Of course there’s always a chance for something else to change on you. For one, the bus company that had given us the quote for a ride to Tukuyu leaving this morning at 6am was not open, and definitely did not have any busses leaving. Same with our backup bus. Eventually after ignoring the hustlers and talking to enough locals, we realized we would have to go to Mbeya first for 12,000 TSH and then change in order to get to Tukuyu. Reluctantly without another option, we signed up. The ride was one of the worst of our trip so far. The combination of having homemade brooms shoved under our feet, the constant cramming in of more people beyond capacity, the blaring local music videos on repeat, poor suspension in the vehicle, and the sliding door so old it almost fell off everytime it was opened made us one unhappy group. Eventually we made it to Mbeya, though, and found the bus to Tukuyu. Another haggler greeted us the second we got off the bus. He was a persistent one (in a nice way), and also very helpful.
With his assistance, Ben and Chris went to get money out and exchange some currency for our last day and transport into Malawi (where we heard there is not ATM at the border), and Amanda stayed with the bags watching the locals drink, eat, carry babies and luggage around, and board various buses. After eating a local lunch of beans, rice, and lots of peri peri (with our haggler still watching over us), we tipped the guy and got on the bus.
It was only a little over an hour until we arrived in Tukuyu. Tukuyu is approximately 45 km from the Malawian border and overall is fairly nondescript. We had looked up a hostel/hotel beforehand, and so we made our way toward the Landmark Hotel from the bus depot. The hotel seemed out of place in Tukuyu, as it was on the top of a hill, and much larger than any of the other buildings. It had a conference area, restaurant, bar, etc. – much like you would expect in the US. We were thinking about camping and perhaps Chris would get a single room, but when the staffperson showed us a huge double room with a huge bathroom (including a hot shower) for only $13 per person, we jumped on the opportunity. After the long day of transport this was like striking the lottery in small town Africa.
We spent the remainder of our day in Tukuyu taking full advantage of the large room and hot shower. For dinner Amanda and Ben filled their bellies with casava with spice and salt followed by sweet potatoes, all cooked on the makeshift charcoal grills the locals set up in the streets at night. Chris treated himself to mac and cheese that he found on the menu at our hotel (we won’t lie, it looked pretty damn good). The following day we figured we did not have to rush rush out the door in the morning because we were so close to the border, and we planned to sleep in until about 8:30am. Christ, however, had other plans. We were awoken shortly before 6am to the sound of African gospel music being blasted from very nearby. As it turned out, a church group was rehearsing and shooting a music video (much like the ones that had been on repeat on the buses we had rode the day prior) in front of our hotel.
If you haven’t read our previous posts on the music videos, here is a basic breakdown: There is a song about Jesus in someone’s life. There is a large refrain, and a group of three or four women will do series of very basic choreographed moves, and perhaps between this it will cut to the signer doing similar moves on their own, then cut to a group of 2-4 men doing other independent choreographed moves. The moves usually involve taking two steps to the left, shanking the hands (in an upward OR downward motion), and then turning to the other side and repeating. This is precisely what was going on for about 4 hours outside our hotel. Men in formalwear with silk shirts and ties, women in colourful wraps. As we spent the morning running errands we would dodge around the dancers trying not to ruin the video footage.
And with that, we had our final taste of Tanzania before crossing the border to Malawi!