Monday, February 22, 2010

Biharamulo, Tanzania

Friends: A several hour hard rain last night has left me stranded in the middle of a 160-mile stretch of dirt road that has been turned into a river of mud. Luckily I spent the night in a hotel in the town of Biharamulo. If I had camped last night, I could well be stuck out in who knows where.

This stretch of unpaved road came as a complete surprise. Everyone I asked in Bukoba told me the road was fine all around the lake through Tanzania. My map did not indicate any lesser of a road after Bukoba than the paved road I'd been on. Nor did an American nun, who had spent the past ten years in a town 15 miles south of Bukoba, warn me of the unpaved road ahead. She only told me that the road was greatly improved from when she first came to Tanzania. At that time it was a rough dirt track through the jungle that wasn't very safe. Bandits would fall a tree across the road and rob buses. That no longer was a worry, she said.

I stopped off to see Sister Anna at the recommendation of Mr. Raza in Bukoba. He said she was a very interesting lady who was doing excellent work. She was a Franciscan nun who set up this mission ten years ago after doing similar work in Cambodia and Haiti and elsewhere. She had last been posted in Springfield, Illinois, the national headquarters for the Franciscan nuns. She was an older, most vibrant lady, who still retained a hint of a Brooklyn accent. She was a genuine self-less humanitarian, who had devoted her life to helping others. As isolated as she was, she still managed to keep up with worldly events. Tiger Woods had made his public apology the day before. She was well aware of his travails and felt compassion for him, commenting that everyone has their faults and that no one should throw stones.

We spent an hour or so chatting in the vestibule to her quarters that housed three other nuns, all from India. Before I left, she filled my water bottles and gave me an extra liter-and-a-half and also a handful of Kellogg breakfast bars and bananas. It was an hour very well spent with a most extraordinary person.

It was 30 miles before the pavement gave out as I approached the town of Mulega, big enough to have a few guest houses. It was an hour before dark. I could have stayed there, but there had been many patches of forest, some of them recently planted. All day I had been looking forward to a quiet night in my tent in my own private little forest. But the dirt road continued beyond Mulega and turned steeply hilly, greatly slowing my speed and limiting my range. I had to scratch out an encampment among some bushes all too close to a few homes. I could hear people talking in the evening, though none wandered through the surrounding bush protecting me.

I was very glad the next morning that I had pushed on an extra five miles, as the going continued very slow and every mile closer to pavement was precious. It took me two hours to go eleven miles to the next village where I could get some food and drink. It was already turning hot. I have had occasional cloudy days that made a considerable difference in my comfort-level. I couldn't count on such conditions today. I had three strong strikes against me--the rough road, the rugged, hilly terrain and the lack of clouds.

I debated if I could have one wish to make my day easier would I want the terrain to level or the road to turn to pavement or some cloud cover. I wished for the terrain to level, as that would require considerable less effort, keeping me from over-heating, and also knowing that when the road leveled it was generally less rough. Four miles later my wish was miraculously granted when the road turned inland a bit away from the lake. Within an hour I had upped my average speed from less than six miles per hour to over 7.5 miles per hour for the day. I would soon have it up to eight miles per hour and then nine.  It began to look possible that I could reach Biharamulo before dark. I didn't care to wild camp two nights in a row, longing for a shower and a substantial meal after another hard, hot, dusty day. But I could only guess how far it was to Biharmulo. I hoped it was no more than 70 miles.

It was another 20 miles before I came to the next village. Two shacks sold soft drinks, but no food other than oranges, mangoes and bananas. Just after that town I entered a national park. The road was just one-lane wide and not well maintained. My speed dropped. It was a Sunday, so there was hardly any traffic, about half an hour between passing vehicles. Near human-sized primates chattered in the trees and made occasional dashes across the road.

It was over three hours of non-stop riding until I came to another village of a small cluster of huts. I was really pushing myself to reach pavement and civilization. There didn't seem to be a store amongst them. I asked some men "Soda?" and they pointed at a building with a side window. The young boy at the window shook his head at my query of "Sodas." Looking in I could see an empty case on the floor.

He pointed at another hut across the way. It had a few bottles of soda and bottled water on a shelf, but no refrigerator. I opted for a bottle of pineapple Fanta, drinking it sitting in the shade of a tree, sharing it with a woman drinking a similar bottle. A couple dozen children and a few teen-aged boys ventured over and sat in front of me. After a few minutes a young man offered me a tube of biscuits. I wasn't sure if he was selling them or if it was a gift. He gestured towards my handlebar bag, indicating it was a gift, the first such offering I've had on this trip, and from perhaps the poorest people I've encountered.

After slowly sipping and savoring the soda, I bought a bottle of water. While I was up I retrieved my camera from my bike. After a few swigs of water, I pointed it towards the children without fully raising it to my eye. They quickly scattered, bringing laughter from the older folk. After I put the camera down, they crept back. A few minutes later, I tried again, but they once again fled. On my third attempt, a few bravely stood their ground. After I snapped a picture and nothing happened, the others returned and implied they wanted their picture taken too, some even flexing their muscles and clownishly posing.

I was down to two hours of daylight and still didn't know how much further it was to Biharamulo. About five miles later I came upon a stranded truck in the road with two men working on it. They greeted me in English. I stopped, hoping they spoke more than just a few words. They did, and they could tell me I was within five kilometers of Biharamulo. I was saved. I could have a shower and a good feed.

Birharmulo had several guest houses to choose from, but it was still not much of a town, no real center, just a network of rough dirt roads. I didn't notice any restaurants. When I asked a guy at a small hut that I bought water from if there was a restaurant nearby, a friend said he would take me. It was off on a side road. I never would have recognized it as a restaurant, though it was a thriving place. The 20-year old son of the owner spoke some English, but not as much as a 25-year old English teacher who soon joined us. This town was truly off the beaten track, even though it was on the road that circuited Lake Victoria. None could ever remember a Westerner stopping there.

It was nearly dark after I had finished my dinner of rice and beans and two hunks of beef. The two English-speakers accompanied me to the guest house next door. There was just one self-contained room with a squat toilet, but without any running water, just a bucket. I had been dreaming about a shower all day, but any water would do. I had bathed similarly at Bukoba two nights before. My benefactors said they would like to give me a walk around town after I had bathed. I told them I was very, very tired, and I truly was, but that maybe I had strength for a 15 or 20 minute stroll.

It was pitch dark with no street lights in the town when I returned to the restaurant. We decided to just have a cup of hot milk and chat some more. They were all looking forward to the World Cup soccer tournament this June, taking place in Africa for the first time. Like everyone I have asked about it, they will be rooting for Brazil, and watching as much of it as they could. There were already signs outside of bars in the town saying that the World Cup would be shown there, even though its nearly three months away.

I was told there was an Internet cafe here, but when I went in search of it, I was told it was not working, but the local government office would let me use their computer, where I am now.

Later, George


Gillian said...

Would LOVE to invite you to be a Guest Blogger on my "Monday Male" series of posts on my wee blog A Peek Into Our Lives. Would you be interested at all?

Love your blog..

george christensen said...

You can include whatever you wish of mine on your blog.