Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Geita, Tanzania

Friends: I don't know if I've inspired any of the many, many local cyclists I've encountered to ride their bike around Lake Victoria, as I'm doing, or even to go for a ride beyond the next village, but I have inspired quite a few to ride a bit harder or to continue biking up the long hills they ordinarily walk up. I regularly whiz past walking or leisurely-pedaling cyclists, and then moments later hear their grinding bikes fast closing in on me, then tagging along or even sprinting past.

Rarely is it more than one or two at a time, but yesterday, in the late afternoon, I was a veritable Pied Piper of cyclists with an ever-evolving posse of seven or eight swarming along with me for a good half hour or more. After one sped up to join me we accumulated more, one by one, as we overtook another or others slipped onto the road from the fields where they had been working. We shed some when we reached their destination but soon were joined by another.

We were a symphonic cacophony of rickety bicycles with rattling fenders and kick stands and unoiled chains and clanking tools, as just about every bike had a tool of some sort, machete or shovel or hoe, lashed to its rack. But no loose or mal-functioning derailleurs added to the clatter, as these were all heavy-duty one-speeds. I never overtly try to outrace a cyclist when he latches on to me, not wishing to unnecessarily expend energy, but I am often tempted to stop and oil someone's chain that is getting on my nerves. If I had made oiling chains the mission of this trip, I would have dispensed several gallons of lubricant already.

Most of the guys in this group hung back behind me, but occasionally some one would feel frisky enough to show-boat and spurt on ahead, often just before he reached his turn-off. I am always inclined to do some drafting, but my nostrils would not stand for it here. These young men were all in desperate need of a shower after a hard day in the fields. Their ragged clothes were saturated with dirt, and may not have been washed for weeks. I'm not sure who'd had the harder day, they laboring in the fields or me laboring on my bike since before seven a.m. and having come over sixty miles, much of it on dirt.

If I could have taken a photo of my accompanying gang of desperadoes, those seeing this ragtag band of ruffians would be alarmed, fearing for my safety. Were they my captors or my protectors?  Our cultures, our backgrounds, our dreams could not be more different, but we were united by the bike and sharing in a gallant, carefree romp.  

Having once been attacked in Africa along the road by a pair of guys who looked no different than many of those beside me, I couldn't help but think of that incident and feel at least a pinprick of concern, knowing that I'd be completely at their mercy if they chose to close in on me. There was very little traffic and we came upon many an isolated bend with no one else about. But if I gave much weight to such concerns I'd be back in Chicago stuck in some sedentary job, fearful of even messengering.

Whatever wariness I may have felt that they might be hatching a plot was continually short-circuited by the lively and animated Swahilian chatter laced with unmistakable levity and good cheer that was nearly loud enough to drown out the clatter of their bikes. Their non-stop banter was periodically broken by a shout of delight to those we passed along the road, also reassuring me that they were just having a rollicking grand time riding along with this crazy white man. I knew they most certainly had to be wondering what untold treasures resided in my panniers and what it would be like to ride such a thorough-bred of a bicycle as I was riding, but the occasional smiles we exchanged allayed whatever concerns I might have had about them having any untoward designs.

People frequently comment how poor they are and what a poor country they live in. Isoufou, the kindly, gentle-mannered 20-year old who befriended me in Biharamulo, was far from poor by local standards, though he said he felt as if he was mired in poverty. His parents ran a thriving restaurant that was always packed. He had a cell phone and wore nice clothes. His English was very good, much better than I initially realized, before he overcame his timidity and truly opened up. We shared a couple meals together and he showed me around his village. He stopped by my hotel a couple times to check in on me and came by my last night to say farewell, hoping we could stay in touch. Like many, he would love to come to America. As he rose to say goodbye, out of nowhere, he blurted out, as if it took all his courage, "Could you give me 10,000 shillings (about $8)?"

I told him I really didn't have any shillings to spare, partially not wishing to encourage such behavior. I have the impression that everyone assumes I have more money than I know what to do with and would happily give them some if they asked for it.

Still, I encounter many acts of generosity, though nothing on the level of China. The government office that allowed me to use their computer for two hours in Biharamulo did not ask for any money. Nor did Mr. Rasa or his cohorts ask for a donation to their charity, though they hope I will in the future.

I am presently closing in on Mwansa, the largest city on Lake Victoria and close to the half-way point around the lake. I feared I would have dirt road all the way to Geita, but the dirt gave way to pavement 47 miles out of Bhiaramulo. After two days of dirt, it was a glorious moment to regain pavement.

I was able to polish off the final 40 paved miles to Geita just before dark. There were quite a few small guest houses to choose from as Geita is a thriving gold-mining town. Tanzania is the third leading gold-producer in Africa behind South Africa and Ghana. Tanzania's largest gold mine is just outside of Geita.

I had to pass up miles and miles of first-rate forest camping as I didn't have enough water to get me through the night. It was another hard hard day on the bike. I was dying to pour a bottle of water over my head, but I had none to spare. I put in nearly nine hours in the saddle in less than twelve hours of light, to complete those 87 miles. I was rewarded with an ice-cold liter-and-a-half bottle of Dasani water, my best and coldest drink these past two weeks. After I polished it off I returned later for another, but that was the only one the small shop owner had. Its always nice to have the flavor of a soft drink, but cold water is the most refreshing drink I can have, and what my body truly craves.

Later, George

1 comment:

Stan said...

I lived in Europe for a while and often visited the country of Romania. It was and still is considered one of the poorest European countries. Most of the Romanians I had contact with were subsistance farmers. I admired their skill at growing crops, raising animals and making home-made cheese and wine. It was a hard life and I sensed that they hated it. All wanted to leave and find work in Italy, Spain or Portugal. Young Romanians complained there was "nothing to do" in the small Romanian villages and wished to leave for bigger and better things. This they said while many of the farm fields on the surrounding hills lay fallow. Always one would be asked for money or specific items like washing machines, refrigerators, old cars, etc. I guess "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence."