This post also appears on my blog: madebykyle.blogspot.com.
Also, the kids blogs from the trip are coming soon.
We embarked on our five-day MAD University Tour in the early morning. As with all road trips it was imperative that a comfortable riding uniform was worn, so I chose the flannel. You can never go wrong with flannel. I walked around the living room, coffee in hand, barking about how we needed “to make good time” and “keep on schedule” and eerily reminded myself of my father before long car trips. Every trip though, needs that figure. We were headed on a five-day journey around Tanzania. In our bags we had warm clothes and hiking shoes for the mountains, bathing suits for the beach, nice clothes for the universities, and enough bags of chips and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to keep us content for at least a couple of days. Revo, Deo, and Edward were our older secondary school kids coming with us on the trip in order to see what universities were like and what lay ahead. They were all prepared with the appropriate clothes as well, even Edward brought along a pair of overly large leather dress shoes that looked like a clown would wear during a job interview. As this was a long road trip, I figured it needed a long post. I hope you enjoy.
The first destination on our journey was Lushoto, the “Switzerland of Tanzania.” Back in the old days when Germany had control over the region, they used to retreat to the mountainous area as a way of escaping the heat of Tanzania. After a five-hour drive, we began our assent up the mountain. Each sharp and blind turn was announced by the honking of our car horn. At times the road went to only one lane and going around a turn was a risk because of the dalla dallas that were speeding back and forth up the mountain, paying disregard to the prospect of plummeting, or head on collisions. I paid attention to the fact that we could die though, and I made sure, once again, to sit next to the door for a quick exit. The only problem with that was, my quick exit would have had me leaping off the mountain. I would have stood a better chance with that I think. We didn’t have any head on collisions though, but we did have some spectacular views.
We were staying at the Irente Farms, a biodiversity reserve situated high up in the mountains in little cottages that specialized in not only protecting nature, but also making their own butter, bread, jam, and other foods that they had for sale. They provided us with a tour of the area, given by our guide Jackson, where he talked about nature and how to protect the environment with all of us. At one point Jackson showed us the “Tanzanian equivalent of poison ivy.” Everyone was a little tired after the tour, and retired to their cottages to await dinner, but Theresa and I decided to go on a hike with Jackson to the higher parts of the mountain range and were treated to some really spectacular views of the region.
After the hike with Jackson we met Peter, the manager of Irente Farms. Peter was a stoic, morose fellow, who when engaged in a conversation that was packed full of open ended questions and instances where explanation would be necessary, chose to use one word where many would have been preferred. He would have made the perfect housekeeper at a mortuary with his somber expression and subtle South African accent that sounded more British. He greeted our enthusiasm about staying at his farm with a simple, “Yeah. Peter, that’s my name.” Initially, I thought the silence that followed each of his one-word responses would be awkward, but I realized that it was just how he was and that if he was okay with it, so would I.
Theresa asked him to come talk to us about the environment and what his organization was doing. She commented that he must get asked all the time to talk about this subject and he replied simply with, “Yeah. Okay.”
He came by after we had finished eating dinner, which we had taken outside on the patio of the cottage that the guys and I were staying, and after we cleared the table he took a seat. The conversation began slowly.
Peter pronounced each word slowly, as if it was physically draining with each passing word as he leaned forward with his legs crossed. “Do you guys know what a hotspot is? And, no, I’m not talking about temperature.” The silence after each statement was pronounced, but we were still trying to remain attentive. I don’t know if we were interested in what the next drawn out sentence held for us, or if it was the bat that zipped through the air above Peter’s head that captivated us more. I think it was more of the fact that Peter did not notice the bat at all and showed neither emotion, alarm, or even recognition that there was a tiny flying rodent darting just a couple of feet above his head and that we all were chasing it back and forth with our eyes in front of him. This guy was a brick wall, but this lack of emotion changed quickly and unexpectedly once he really started getting into the work at the farm and around the local area.
He began by asking us if we knew what biodiversity was, uncrossing his legs and leaning forward like he was letting us in on a secret. Peter explained that Tanzania was home to over 642 different species of trees, and that Europe in comparison has only 71. That the mission of the farm was to preserve the species native to Tanzania and make sure that no “alien” tree species invaded the mountains of Lushoto, and they were working to ensure such. All of Peter’s previous mannerisms dissipated in the telling of his work, and we could tell that this subject was what truly excited him, that he loved the work he was doing. Instead of chopping the trees down like I had assumed, he said they cut a fairly large section of bark off of the tree so that it would die slowly, but remain standing. That way, the birds in the area would still have a place to nest. As quickly as his excitement began though, old Peter was back, and he sat back in his chair at the end of his inspiring speech, crossed his legs and arms again, and quietly stated, “Well, I think I’ll be going,” and left.
One minute he was there, and the next he was gone, but it was remarkable the work that they were doing in the area in order to help conserve and protect the environment and the diverse species of plant life that were there. We left Lushoto with a better understanding of the environment, the area, and the rich biodiversity of Tanzania that we had all previously not known about. After killing the spiders in our rooms, we all retreated under the weight of the blankets, seeking shelter from the cold mountain air.
We left early the next morning, and after a brief breakfast of fruits, vegetables, jams and breads that the farm personally made we headed off. It was going to take about 8 hours to reach the coast and Bagamoyo, but everyone was excited at the prospect of the Indian Ocean that waited. It was on this stretch of road that I began to really notice the annoyance of being pulled over by the police in Tanzania. It’s not like back home where if you are speeding or if they suspect something they chase you down in their car with the lights flashing and get you to stop. Instead, they simply walk out into the middle of the road, gesture for you to pull over, and once you are pulled over they try and decide if there is anything that they can get you on. Most of the time, it was just routine stops make sure you have your license, permits, and fire extinguisher in the car, but other times they are simply looking for money by stating that you were caught speeding.
Bagamoyo, or “Lay down your heart,” in Swahili, was recently named a World Cultural Heritage Site for its rich history. From the church where the explorer Dr. Livingstone was lain to rest before being shipped back to England, the ruins of old slave quarters where they were kept before being shipping to Zanzibar just off the coast, to the oldest boaboa tree in Eastern Africa that, its rumored, if you walk around it counter-clockwise you’re supposed to live to be over a hundred years old. Bagamoyo had a lot to offer. And I did walk around the tree as well, but I’m a little nervous about this prospect of living to be 100, because they didn’t specify whether or not life style choices were a factor in this longevity. For being a cultural heritage site though, Bagamoyo did not really look like a city that was striving to make itself appear like it was taking the initiative to being conserved. The stone buildings seemed overrun with plants and grass and falling apart and no cleanup process was in site. Still, a very cool city.
We stayed on the beach at the Bagamoyo Country Club, and at night the lights from Zanzibar could be seen shining out in the distance. We were a bit spoiled for the two nights we stayed there, to say the least. The water was warm and the sand white, and each morning I went on sunrise walks along the beach and into the fish market where the fresh catches were being carried from the ships and onto the beach where they held an auction. There was red snapper, tilapia, blue nosed cod, barramundi, golden berches, salmon, great white shark, blue whale and killer whale, and any other fish I feel like making up for sale because I don’t know all their names. This was also the first time that Revo, Deo, and Edward had ever seen the ocean, and it was a site seeing them all standing at the shore, letting the water wash over their feet as they stared out over it.
We hired a tour guide to take us through the center of town and out to ruins left over from Arab settlers in the 13th century and explain the history of the town. His name was Monkey. And that is not a joke. It was difficult to get used to at first, but I adapted. After taking us through the town, pointing out the various sites of the cities past, Monkey brought us to a restaurant that he said was the best in town for fish and chicken, and in truth it really was not that bad. It was Deo’s birthday, so we bought him a cake at a store we passed by earlier in the day, and after having a debate about whether it was going to be chocolate or vanilla under the coat of frosting we were all a little disappointed to find out that it tasted like neither. Instead, it tasted stale and like sanitation, and I immediately realized that it tasted exactly like the store it came from. Delicious.
We stayed two nights in the cottages on the beach in Bagamoyo, finding that the accommodations suited us quite nicely. After spending the previous day touring the richly historical city, we spent the first half of the day driving into Dar es Salaam, where we had a tour lined up with a former employee of Make A Difference and student at the university, Erasmus. The University of Dar es Salaam is situated on the outskirts of the actual city with which it got its name. Established in 1961, with only seven students enrolled, the school now boasts the reputation of being the number one university in Tanzania, and former alumni include the current president of Tanzania, a past president, and members of parliament. After driving through the expansive and widespread campus, we met up with Erasmus and began our tour.
To say that he was not prepared for the tour would be a lie. We were all blown away by the preparation Erasmus had taken in showing us around his university. He had a notebook with itinerary, key places and buildings that he wanted us to see, and even a 500-shilling note that had a picture of one of the buildings at the school. It was the best tour we could have asked for. He showed us around the campus, where the students were in the midst of their final exams and their book bags were piled outside the lecture halls. The campus was large, but more modern than I would have expected. The newer buildings were painted white and stood out from the older ones and the hallways were not indoors like I was used to back home, but outdoors. Monkeys were running around the campus, and Erasmus said they were a problem because they would steal your lunch if you were not looking, and even sometimes came into the classrooms. I found that the bigger problem lay in the fact that these monkeys were not paying tuition and being allowed in the classrooms, but I digress. Looking at Revo you could tell that this was the place for him. He was shaking with excitement and when asked if he could see himself here in the future he nodded his head with a large grin and said, “Absolutely.” Revo wants to study civil engineering, and because the campus has a program for that he said it was the perfect place for him. We later headed over to a medical college in the heart of Dar es Salaam so that Deo could see a medical school because he wants to be a surgeon when he gets older. Erasmus had a friend, who had a friend, who could show us around the campus. After an extensive tour there and being shown around the grounds and nearby hospital, the same look that was on Revo’s face earlier about the prospect of college life seemed to become contagious and infected Deo with the same excited and giddy grin. We got back into the car worn out and exhausted from the day, and expected a nice easy drive back to Bagamoyo to prepare for our next day drive to Dodoma, but that just wasn’t in the cards.
It took three hours to get through the downtown of Dar es Salaam.
Half way to Dodoma we passed through the city of Mogororo, which had some of the most beautiful mountains that I have ever seen. And is the case with every mountain that I saw along the drive, I gazed up at it with the same primordial urge all males get when looking at elevated pieces of land in the distance, tracing the ridgelines with their eyes and all the while thinking, “I want to climb the crap out of you.” Every mountain we passed I asked Theresa if we could pull over and climb it “real quick” and she kept saying absolutely, but I think she was just toying with me because we never did. At one point we wanted to take a “shortcut,” and if there is one thing I’ve learned about Tanzania it’s this…there are no shortcuts, just hour-long detours out into the brush where the road is rocky and all the locals tell you that you should have gone the other direction. We made it back on the main road though, and after a while the mountains began to recede off into the distance, and were replaced with the rocky plains and short brush. Looking out of the window across the vastness and unending expanse of the plains, the mountains, though numerous and far rolling, were humbled in their comparative size and scale, and appeared in the distance like the arched backs and sharp spines of a thousand sleeping animals taking shade under the canopy of clouds from the harsh Serengeti sun.
For being the capital of Tanzania, Dodoma sure did not want people to be aware of its existence. We wouldn’t have even realized we were there and would have passed through the city in our road trip haze as if driving through the remnants of a mirage if it were not for the rows of taxis, the growing number of shingled roofs, and the faint rotting smell of the dead dog lying in the middle of the road. The city was literally in the middle of nowhere, with no signs showing that we were going the right direction except the constant rush of expensive looking SUV’s that were speeding down the highway in the direction we were going. We arrived late in the night, and took up refuge in a small hostel to sleep off the days drive and prepare for tomorrows tour and even longer drive home.
In the morning, after a light breakfast of hotdogs and tomatoes, we headed out to the University of Dodoma. On our way out though, we did encounter a scraggly looking guy on a bike and when I asked him if he was biking across Africa, like I’ve seen people do before, he replied calmly, “No, the world.” His name was Dave Conroy and for the past three years he has been biking across the world. When we asked him why he explained, “I worked in IT, and three days before my 30th birthday I decided that I was tired of it, sold all my belongings, and hopped on my bike, and here I am.” We asked him if he had seen some pretty amazing sites and he agreed, but also said one of the hardest things for him on his adventure was saying goodbye to all the wonderful people he met, and that loneliness is one of the hardest things for him. Quite the remarkable character, and I wish we would have been able to talk longer but we were on a tight schedule. If you would like to learn more about David and his travels though, you can visit his website at: www.tiredofit.ca.
The University of Dodoma, or as I appropriately named it, “The White City.” The campus was vast and never ending, and all of the buildings were the same bright white that reflected the sunlight to give them even more of a glow. The campus could have been a city itself, and was situated higher up on a ridge that overlooked the city of Dodoma and the desert beyond. It was windy and cold up there and all of us put on jackets for the tour that we had lined up with one of the professors at the school. By lined up, I mean we walked into a room and asked if anyone would be willing to give us a tour and this guy agreed to. We were on a time crunch, but even if we weren’t, we still had to drive in the car if we wanted to see even a fraction of the campus while there was still sun out. The University is new, only seven years old, and although it began as only one building it has expanded substantially in its brief time. Our guide told us that one of the things that the school is most proud of is the fact that it relies on no outside funding for the university, and is strictly built from Tanzanian dollars. Now, I don’t know for sure if this quick expanse can be associated with its relative closeness to the capital and political influence, but lets just say it’s a possibility. We had a meeting with the president of the Humanities Department at the school, and even inside his office the walls were the bright white of outside with all dark mahogany doors and furniture. The libraries we went to, because each department has its own library and there are five departments, were packed full of new computers and shelves of books. There was a swimming pool, football field, dormitories and workout rooms, and all the basic necessities for a university to thrive. The university was modern with a prestigious air, and if I had to guess I’d say in a few more years it would surely reach its student capacity of 40,000, but until then, many of the buildings remained vacant, or under construction. At the end of the tour, we asked the kids which university they preferred and were not surprised that they suddenly were all three fans of the White City and all its immaculacy.
We began the long road home. As is the case with all road trips, where at the beginning the enthusiasm is high and the need to “make good time” is crucial, on the way home it became, “I don’t even care how long it takes anymore.” The difference between arriving an hour later than previously thought loses meaning, because regardless of when you arrive you’re still going to be just as tired and just as groggy. That is why this leg of the trip we allowed for more bathroom stops, leg stretching, and eating on the side of the road.
The landscape of Tanzania changed dramatically from each city and region we passed through. We moved from the northern regions of Kilimanjaro and Tanga, with their smooth emerald mountains rolling through the clouds, to the sandy tropical marshes of the coast with the salty breeze that made me reminisce about Florida and how much I hate that state. We went through the bustling city of Dar, where it became apparent that traffic jams are more of a global problem, but made all the more better by street vendors patrolling the center of the road brandishing anything from ice cream cones to nightstands. I saw the heartland of Tanzania, where the heat is only matched by the sheer size of the desert plains. On the sides of the road the houses always matched the color of the ground on which they were built. The areas where there was more rain the ground was red with clay and the houses built with bricks of it. Towards the coast, where underneath the palm trees and rough grass was a layer of sand, the houses turned into the light gray below them. In the desert plains and rocky gardens surrounding Dodoma the houses were bleached the color of dried almonds from the intensity of the sun. Although the houses changed from location to location, from one stretch of road to the next, they all shared the common characteristics of simplicity. They were constructed from the raw materials that surrounded them. The leaves from the palm trees, dried grasses of the fields, and walls built from the hardened and compact dirt. There was nothing extravagant, no garages or swimming pools; just what was needed and what could be easily and cheaply obtained. Out in the distance where you thought nothing could survive or be built to last, small houses stood out amongst the brush and parched earth. On dirt roads that seemed to lead to nowhere, a community of houses could be found around a turn, and whole families would walk outside wondering the same thing that we were, “What are you doing here?”
In the night we pressed on, with the slit of the moon grinning at us like a Cheshire cat in the darkness, and the faint burning of far off fires glowed like stars meeting the curve of the Earth folding into the horizon. We arrived home late, tired and groggy, and went straight to bed after spending five days visiting only a fraction of what Tanzania has to offer.