Sunday, March 23, 2008

Tanzania-Part 2

Jambo from Iringa, Tanzania. After 7 days straight of cycling from Arusha, we arrived in the quaint, verdant, and hilly place Tanzanians call "Iringa Town." Our schedule went as follows: Day 1-115 k, Day 2-120 k, Day 3-90 k, Day 4-105 k, Day 5-100 k, Day 6-90 k, and Day 7-77 k. We passed through the towns of Bereka, Kondoa, Dodoma, and finally Iringa. Talk about exhausted! 7 days takes it toll. While the countryside is absolutely gorgeous and incredibly verdant (something I didn't expect), the roads are something left to be desired. Although, the sad state of the dirt/sand/mud/rocky roads does make for some challenging mountain biking. Most tour members don't like the off-road part of the expedition because they say that you "can't look at anything" because you are constantly watching the terrain in front of you so you know when to dodge the large rock in your way, which line to take in the sand, and how to best bump along the small rocks that line the roads. Occassionally, you get an awesome patch of road that is packed down hard, hardly any bumps and you can fly! I have enjoyed this section but it has taken its toll on me.

I fell hard the other day. I was biking on a well-worn bike path that the locals use and thinking nothing of it and expecting safety I started cruising. All of a sudden I saw a ditch but it was too late. I shouted an expletive and knew that I was going to hit the dirt but not "pay dirt" unfortunately. My whole left side landed hard on the ground including my head. Thank god for the "brain bucket" we are wearing! I sat up right away and knew nothing was broken. I came away with a couple of deep gashes on my elbow, a scrape on my shoulder and knee and some amazing road rash on my thigh. And, my bike made it through unscathed! My riding partner helped clean me up with antiseptic for the wounds. Just recently, a few people have gotten severe infections due to open wounds. One person even wound up in an Iringa hospital bed because her wound on her knee was not responding to antibiotics. Our own Dr. Luke recommended that she receive an IV drip full of antibiotics. The official diagnosis is "cellulitis" which another person came down with as well and hasn't been able to ride as a result of it. It's Africa, our doc says and for some reason the wounds are becoming infected fast! Because of this, Dr. Luke is now prescribing antibiotics for open wounds.

To change topics, the people of Tanzania are lovely! In contrast to the Ethiopians you don't have to greet them first, they greet you. And, if you do greet them first you invariably get a positive response such as "safi, salama, poa, mzuri" all of which translates to "awesome, good luck, cool, great!" It is so nice to be cheered on as we pass through tiny sand road villages and even larger cities. Tanzanians are a friendly bunch and readily give you a smile. The best is when I get greeted with "jambo mama." I just like the sound of "hi mama" even though I am not a mother yet but their greeting is a sign of respect. Sometimes from the men I get greeted by "jambo dada" or "hello sista." Again, so welcoming for me and it immediately brings a smile to my face. I try to reply with "jambo brother." It is nice to think of the whole world as getting along as brothers and sisters! I know, I know, I am dreaming!

Before we left Arusha, I met this guy who is an independent researcher with a PhD in Anthropology. We got to talking and he told me he is researching these rock paintings in Kondoa. Looking at the map, I saw that we passed through there. I was hoping to see them in person but had to settle for the museum as they were still 90 k away. However, the museum was great and was a highlight of my day. I was able to see pictures of the rock paintings which date back 2,000 years and possibly older as well as a hippo shield, spears, ceramics, and stone tools. Archaeology being my first love, I was in heaven.

The weather has been hot and humid but we have avoided most days biking in the rain. Out of the 7 biking days in Tanzania we have only been caught in the rain twice. Not too bad for what is known as their rainy season. It has rained a lot during the night however. My tent is still leak proof. It is in our best interest to leave early in the morning to try and get as many miles in before the hot suns bakes our skin. This means that we have been getting up earlier and getting to camp earlier as well. That is good for me as I can conduct more interviews. Thus far, I have completed 20 out of 40 people. I have thought of additional questions that I would like to ask the riders at the tail end of our trip. Hopefully, they won't be sick of me in their face by then!

What I have learned while cycling through the middle of Tanzania is that the landscape could be anywhere: a lot of it looks as if we are in the green valleys of Montana or the Alps of Switzerland. I certainly didn't expect this. I could live in this country; it is that beautiful! Also, I found out that most people are involved in agriculture and are subsistence farmers. They mostly grow: sunflowers (a bag goes for 35,000 Tanzanian schillings and on a 50 acre farm you get about 5 bags--translation: $35 per bag of sunflower seeds--not a LOT of money but he and his family survives!), sorghum, alfalfa, tomatoes, beans, eggplant, onions, and CORN! Corn seems to be the main cash crop--ahh the staff of life! The sunflower fields were a surprise and boy are they welcoming. You just can't feel bad when you are in a sunflower patch! Oh-I also learned about a new fruit; that is, a new fruit to me! I don't recall the name but these boys were vigorously shaking a tree and I was so curious as to what they were trying to get I went over and asked them to try one. They are small, grape-like size with white, sweet flesh with a seed in the middle. Yum is all I can say. I am kind of a fruit fanatic so it was fun to "discover" a new one! We saw a perfect chameleon on the road one day and took some great pics with it in our hands and arms. Also, we saw a dead black snake. Could it be the deadly "black mamba?"

Another random observation: COCA-COLA is EVERYWHERE! Whoever was in charge of the marketing and distribution campaign did a tremendous job. Seriously-you can find it everywhere. It is a wonder that anyone still has their teeth left and it seems that babies are breast-fed on the stuff! All the riders comment that they don't drink this much coke at home but here on the tour a soft drink is a welcome aid to hot and humid biking days! I couldn't agree with them more!
Our rest day in Iringa was spent getting our bikes ready for the next section. Apparently the road stays tarmac for the next three days to Malawi! I was very, very proud of myself today as I changed two tires, a chain, and had a bike part welded by a Tanzanian! It is Easter Sunday and perhaps that is why the "fixing" of the bikes went so well. When I get home, I hope to be the bike mechanic and help "my girls" with their bikes. My skills are indeed progressing!
One last thing: it is amazing how heavily loaded the bikes are in this country. Bikes are everywhere here but they aren't used for just getting around. NO-they are used to load firewood, charcoal, bales of cotton, corn stalks, and just about anything that they can tie to the bike rack in the back! Wow-I am constantly amazed.

As mentioned before we have 3 days to Malawi and then we head toward Lake Malawi. Yet another country on this amazing journey! Kwa Heri and Safari Njema!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tanzania-March 3rd-March 15th

Jambo from Tanzania! I hope everyone is doing well that reads this blog! As mentioned previously, we had to skip Kenya because of the unstable political situation that started around the beginning of January. So, MOST of us flew from Addis Ababa to various parts of Tanzania for our two week hiatus. But, one daring person (can't mention the name yet but I can tell you it was a male) decided to brave the notorious northern Kenyan desert and impassable roads to test his might! We are not sure if he has made it through yet. Kenya represents the crown jewel for this chap and he has dreamed of coming to Kenya as a little boy so he decided to go alone and see this crazy wilderness and risk the Somalian gangs (shiftas) for himself. I can't wait to hear his stories...that is, if he makes it to Arusha in time. We have only 2 more days in Arusha before we depart.

So, what have I been doing with my time off? I took a couple of rest days in Arusha just to sort out gear, use the internet and try and get some sleep without being woken up to the IPOD music that goes off at 6:30 am every morning! We saw an amazing acrobatic show at the Masai Lodge where we are camping for free (TDA has organized this as our base camp) where 5 men took turns doing cartwheels, back flips, swallowing fire, handstands on blocks of bricks, all to a galvanizing drumbeat! We sampled vegetable curries as there is a fairly large Indian population here. Besides chilling out in Arusha, a fellow rider and I decided to visit Kigoma and Lake Tanganyika (the second deepest freshwater lake besides Lake Baikal).

The main objective was to see the chimpanzees of Gombe Stream National Park, the area that Jane Goodall made famous through her chimp studies since 1960! It was quite the expensive trip as it turned out! But, like most expenses on this trip, I can always justify it with "well, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity" and "I'll probably never get back to this part of Africa." With that said, we bought tickets to Kigoma, the main city on the Tanzanian side of Lake Tanganyika and we were off on March 6th. We stayed at the Kigoma Hilltop Hotel which sits in a strategic piece of land in a gorgeous setting. The Hilltop sits on a "hilltop" which is like a small peninsula; you have a great view of the city of Kigoma and you can see water 270 degrees around. It was/is paradise. For $80 a night, you get a great room, with a bath (yep, mom-finally had a bath), a balcony over-looking the lake, mini-bar stocked with water (no alcohol is sold on the premises b/c the owner is Muslim), and they have a pool and beach. We organized our "chimp safari" for the 8th. You have to charter one of their boats for $400 and then pay a $100 fee at the park entrance. Of course, you also have to pay for guides and have tips available as well.

The trip to Gombe was great. So serene. We didn't have a fast boat and that is why it took 2 hours and 10 minutes but at least it was pretty quiet as we didn't have a loud motor. We passed fishing villages that have no roads connecting them to Kigoma. It is hard for me to imagine being SO isolated but at the same time it sounds romantic. They have to "boat" over to Kigoma to get supplies every week. And, literally, all they do is fish. You see men coming back in the morning from their overnight jaunt on the lake. We exchanged thumbs up signs and they showed us their catch. It never seemed that much-like 10 fish or so-but it must add up somehow and allow them to at least have a subsistence living. Steep, green hills greeted our view as we motored to Gombe. I have figured out why things are so green here: it rains a heck of a lot--in fact, we experienced a severe pounding about 30 minutes from the entrance to the park. I don't know how the captain could see anything but luckily we were pretty close to the shore.

By the time we reached the shore it had abated to a slight drizzle, we were led to the "luxury tented camp area" to pick up our guide and waited with a nice cup of coffee (I haven't suffered on this trip for lack of coffee-maybe for lack of GOOD coffee, but not for instant--which in my mind is better than nothing). We paid our fee, picked up our "official chimpanzee tracker" and our guide, our tracker, and Joachim and I were off to see the famous chimps! Gombe National Park is only 52 square miles and is the smallest park in Tanzania; however, it hosts quite a bit of diversity: baboons, monkeys, snakes, chimps, lots of birds, mongoose, and insects. It is a series of steep hills (highest is approx. 4500 ft) and low valleys. And, it is ever green. This piece of land and lake is at a nexus too for you can see Burundi to the north (very close to Gombe), the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) to the west, and although you can't see it, you can take a steamer to Zambia to the south.

We immediately ascended a steep hill to a clearing area and heard the chimps! Exciting to hear their hoots and howls. We laid still for an eternity to hear their next call so we knew where to go. We up and continued along the steep path. Along the way, our guides would point out trees and local fruit that the chimps like to eat. The mubungu fruit littered the forest floor; it is a small, yellow fruit that turns bright red when too ripe, whose insides are like a tangerine yet the flesh is skinny and you have to eat around a pit or eat the pit which is very sour. I must say that this fruit is delicious and has both a sweet and sour taste. Seeing half-eaten ones is one clue that chimps have been around here. Here and there, our guides would motion for us to be silent, we would wait for a seemingly long time, and start again. They said it is tough to find the chimps and if they go to the valleys then it is a lost cause. I was hoping that we would be successful not only b/c we paid so much money but I wanted to come back to NCMC with pictures for my students. And, of course, I wanted to see these famous chimps that I was captivated by when I was an undergrad taking Anthropology classes at Univ. of Michigan. There are clients who pay all this money without ever seeing one chimp.

All of a sudden, the tracker's radio went off and another tracker was relaying information about a chimp sighting. We immediately ran up this steep path but didn't come across anything. We went down again to intercept them another way but were out of luck. The radio went off again, we hurried up the incline, and this time we saw GAIA, a female, idling walking up the path, showing us her swollen butt. How exciting! We tooks pictures, followed her, and then she joined another male, Apollo. We lost them in the dense forest. Our guides told us that since we weren't having much luck sticking to the well-worn paths, that we would hack through the forest. Great! I almost fell several times due to the small strangler vines that find their ways around your legs. It was all worth it though as we came upon two more male chimps: Wilke and Frodo. We had about 15 delightful minutes with them. The chimps here are habituated b/c of all the people that have studied them so they didn't seem to mind our presence. Wilke was the closest one to us; we were about 10 feet away. He was super-relaxed, had one foot balanced on a tree, groomed himself repeatedly, and occasionally would look our way to see what we were doing. To actually look in their eyes and have them do the same is magical: you have an instant recognition that we are not too far off the evolutionary chain. Most of the pictures that I posted are of Wilke, who at one time was an alpha male: now, he is 34-my age!--that is considered a bit old in chimpanzee life!

I can't say enough about chilling out with the chimps. Go if you have a chance. I would go back in a heartbeat. And, the forest itself, is unbelievably gorgeous. Not too buggy at all. The only thing that bugged me were the little safari ants that somehow crawled up my pant leg and began biting me. Oh well--I squished those little suckers!

Our guide and our tracker invited us to have a drink with them afterwards to celebrate and share comraderie. It was fun. There were two other people from Tanzania that joined us and wanted to ask me about American politics. Surprisingly, they were well-informed and were voting for Obama! I told them that he was a likely winner.

We got back to the hilltop hotel late; I lost track of time because I was enjoying the bantering and we didn't leave until 6:30 pm. That meant one hour on the lake in total darkness. You would think that the boat has lights; of course not!-we are in Africa. Luckily, the captain and his mate know the lake very well.

The rest of the time in Kigoma, we relaxed at the pool, went swimming in the lake, and read! I am almost finished with Paul Theroux's "Dark Star Safari" which recounts his overland travels from Cairo to Cape Town. He tooks trains, buses, taxis, and planes whereas we are taking much slower transportation. Amazingly, a lot of his observations are dead-on! A book to recommend.

While 23 of my fellow riders are on safari for the remainder of our vacation, I am in Arusha, having some alone time, catching up on email/blog, and thinking about my research and the next plan of action. I couldn't afford to go on a safari. Bummer, but thankfully I did go on safari here with my team of Mt. Kili climbers 2 years ago! It was an incredible experience then and in some ways I didn't want to "ruin" the memory.

We depart in a few days. For the rest of the time, I will be organizing, reading, figuring out my research, and enjoying some unparallelled alone time!

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Ethiopia-Part 2

We arrived in Addis Ababa on Feb. 18th! Surprisingly, there was quite a climb throughout the day to reach the meeting place where we assembled into a convoy to begin our descent into the city. The fastest cyclists arrived at our meeting place at 11:30 with the last one arriving at 2:30 pm to the roar of cheers from other riders and the Ethiopian riding team. The patriotic Ethiopian cycling team led the way down to Addis with their flags draped around their bodies. Before our group of 60 left we enjoyed taking pictures with them.

We spent two rest days in Addis before our 8 day trek to the border of Ethiopia and Kenya. Rest days are really not "rest days." They are filled with chores like: laundry, internet, cleaning and fixing your bike, and repacking. However, we do enjoy the more relaxed pace. The highlights of the rest days in Addis Ababa were a fabulous Indian restaurant and a massage. The massage was unlike any other massage I have received in the past. You first jump into a huge bath tub (Mom-my first bath in Africa!) and they fill it with hot spring water. You sit there soaking and then this lady comes in and uses a high pressure hose to give you an underwater massage-feels good on your pressure points. Afterwards, you are led to the massage table where you receive a full-body massage. I was in heaven! She worked hard on my cycling legs and I could feel a difference afterward!

From Addis Ababa we traveled 1166km or 722 miles to the border town of Moyale. To me, I enjoyed this section of Ethiopia the best. The views as you ride are just amazing; once you get up one hill you usually have a wickedly fast and curvy downhill which is exciting, it is totally green (unlike Sudan), and there are lakes in this region. The soil color changed a bit to this deep and rich volcanic red which made the landscape more brilliant. And, the people changed: we saw many different ethnic groups as we passed through the southern section of Ethiopia: the Borno and Sidamo. As someone interested in anthropology, I totally enjoyed witnessing the differences in dress (long pieces of fabric draped around them), jewelry (lots of beaded necklaces with metal watch bands hanging down the center), hair styles (short braids on the top and long braids from their neck on downward) and behavior (much more reserved) than other groups located in the north and west. I also got a chance to see a World Heritage Archaeological Site which consisted of a group of upright slab stones with symbols of axes, headdresses, and circles carved on them.

One highlight in this riding section was going an extra 2km down a dirt road to visit a crater lake (Ara Sheta). It is like a hidden jewel of this small village. We biked up the dirt path to the top to see a huge crater filled with bright green water. Wow! Some people went down the precipitous path to enjoy a cold dip, others biked around the crater, while some of us were content to gaze down upon its beauty. What had just preceeded this beauty was a terrible event.

Apparently, one of our female riders crashed into an Ethiopian girl. The TDA (Tour d'afrique) staff told us that every year one of our riders "takes out" an Ethiopian because there are so many of them to begin with, lots of them can't hear us coming, and some plainly step into our path. Our fellow rider was badly shaken, ended up having to have stitches put in by our team doctor on her arm and leg: she couldn't ride for 4 days. The TDA staff had to pay the girl's family $100 birr which is about $11.00. Things got a little harry because people want to cash in on this mishap and soon there were lots of people who had NOTHING to do with this girl surrounding one of our trucks with big rocks threatening to smash the truck. It was at this point that Duncan, our tour leader, showed up and told us to leave the crater immediately because he didn't want us getting stoned. Stoned! What? But, you know mob mentality and things can happen quickly. In the end, everyone was ok except for some bad road rash. The Ethiopian girl was ok too.

So, this is our 2nd serious injury of the trip. As I mentioned before, all of us have been subjected to rock-throwing children. A couple of people have incurred large and deep bruises and hurt egos. Luckily, I was never hit hard. It is a weird thing for all of us to comprehend, this rock throwing. We don't know why they do it as this is the only country that we will go through where this happens. Our tour director even went on national Ethiopian TV one time and talked about how dangerous this is to our riders. Even from the Ethiopians that we ask we don't really get satisfying answers; they say, well, those people are not educated. The kids don't know where we come from so it can't be animosity towards the U.S. Perhaps they are bored or angry at their deprived conditions. What I try to do whenever I see kids or adults (which is the majority of the time we are riding) is to say "hello" in their language and "how are you." This seems to disarm them for a while until you can safely pass out of rock throwing distance.

Some of the pictures I am posting are of the Ethiopian cycling team and me, me with a bottle of Tej (traditional honey wine that men drink by the gallons), residential huts which is the main architectural style for homes, the stone slabs from the world heritage site, the crater, kids, and "qat"-a plant that the locals chew and swallow which acts as a stimulant.