Friday, February 19, 2010

Bukoba, Tanzania

Friends: Unlike Uganda, where nearly everyone speaks at least a modicum of English, hardly anyone I've encountered so far in Tanzania speaks the mother-tongue, even though Tanzania too is a former British colony and most signs are in English. I'm 50 miles into the country and other than at the immigration office, I have met only one English-speaker so far, the 50-year old manager of a gas station here in Bukoba, as good-hearted a person as I've met in my travels.

As I paused in the heart of this good-sized, lakeside city, looking this way and that hoping to spot a restaurant, a tall, bald-headed gentleman wearing a white shirt asked if I needed help. This was no tout. His sincerity was unmistakable. I had a number of things I was looking for beside a meal--a bike shop, an Internet cafe, a bank, a grocery store. My new friend Mbasa said they were all nearby, but before searching them out, I had to eat, as I was starving.

I had camped in a small forest 25 miles back and hadn't had any food other than a couple of bananas and an energy bar. I stopped at the first two restaurants I saw as I entered Bukoba, desperate to get some food into me, but neither were serving yet. That's when I learned how scarce English-speakers are. In Uganda I could have easily coaxed some eggs from those cleaning and prepping the restaurant, but not here. Mbassa confirmed that few Tanzanians speak English.

After a hearty breakfast of eggs and chapati and orange juice we headed to the nearest bike shop, just a block away. I quickly learned that Mbasa seemed to know just about everyone in Bukoba despite its size as the second largest city on Tanzania's portion of Lake Victoria, longer than Uganda's and Kenya's combined. We had to go to half a dozen bike shops before we could find what I was looking for--a 700 by 28 tire. Surprisingly most had 27" tires, and a couple of the shops tried to sell me that. If I were desperate, I could have settled for a 700 by 35, a fairly common size for the heavy-duty bikes that predominant here.

Even though I'm not even 500 miles into these travels, I needed a tire as I had unknowingly scraped a small hole in the sidewall of my front tire and suffered a blow out on a steep descent when the rim overheated and the tube slightly bulged out through the rupture. I could hear a scraping sound moments before the explosion. I figured I'd picked up a thorn or a nail and began braking to extract it before the inevitable flat, but not soon enough.

If it had been a normal puncture through the tread that would have been easy to patch and not so calamitous. But a ruptured sidewall is a different matter. I could temporarily cover the hole in the sidewall with a dollar bill, but the tire was weakened and slightly bulging at not only that rupture but at another thin point in the sidewall. I managed 80 nervous miles since the flat to Bukoba, and hoped I didn't have to push my luck any further.

I was also in need of a couple of spokes. I broke a crossing pair on the non-freewheel side of my rear wheel, no doubt thanks to the pounding of those all too many fiendish speed bumps. I had brought three spare spokes, so was down to just one spare. When the spokes broke, I can't say. Early one afternoon I heard a clinking sound coming from the back of my bike. I stopped to investigate, assuming something had come loose. But no, it was a pair of broken spokes. I could have been riding in such a condition for any number of miles.

Other than having to tend to my bicycle's woes and the shortage of English-speakers, Tanzania has been treating me well. I was able to easily wild camp for the first time on this trip. Tanzania is nearly four times the size of Uganda, which is the size of Oregon, but has only 37 million people, six million more than Uganda. Immediately upon crossing the border I was greeted by patches of forest and wide open unsettled countryside. I could breath easy knowing that I wouldn't have to luck into a wild camp site, as I only manged to do twice in Uganda.

It was no fun though having to pay an unanticipated $100 in US currency for a visa at the border, twice what Lonely Planet said it would cost. Lonely Planet was also wrong about the location of the border post. It said it didn't come until the first town 30 kilometers into the country. When I stopped at the first immigration office I saw at the border I assumed it was the Ugandan office. But I had managed to cross into Tanzania without realizing it. It was actually Tanzania's immigration post.

The Tanzanian official went outside with me and pointed out the Ugandan office a couple hundred meters away. When he noticed where I had parked my bike, he cordially said, "When you return, could you park your bike somewhere else. Your bike is leaning against the national flag."

It was the quietest, most nonchalant border crossing I have ever experienced. I was the lone customer at both posts, small two-room cottages that were easy to miss. Nor was the border teeming with money changers. One offered his services, but I had already managed to change my money with the friend of a woman at a small grocery store where I had stopped for a final drink and loaf of bread on the Uganda side of the border. I had discovered the night before my few remaining slices had grown some mold, not surprising since they were several days old and no doubt preservative-free.

There was no shade outside the store, so I asked the woman if I could sit on a stool behind her counter. She was happy for the company. Like everyone I have encountered, she couldn't conceive of what I was doing. She asked me if I was doing research. I told her I was in a way, though not in any official capacity." She blurted out to each of her customers, "This man has bicycled all the way from Entebbe."

Bicycles are quite common, much more so than present day China, but only for short excursions. The vast majority of bicycles are Heroes from India. Few riders are strong enough to power these one-speed tanks up the hills. As I approach the longer, steeper climbs, I frequently see a string of people pushing bikes, some with loads of a hundred pounds or more of bananas or water or wood or passenger.

Mbasa has just come by and said the owner of the gas station would like to meet me.

Next up: goat and rice lunch with 60 HIV orphans, who I've been invited to give a lecture to on my travels.

Later, George

1 comment:

stephen said...

grrr...frustrating to have to repair blow outs and broken spokes.