Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mwansa, Tanzania

Friends: I could have taken a ferry across Lake Victoria from Bukoba to Mwansa, as Mbasa had encouraged me, and avoided the dirt road, but I had no regrets in remaining faithful to my bicycle. But I couldn't avoid a ferry to cross a long, wide arm of the lake just before the large city of Mwansa.

I had the option of two ferries, one up near the shoreline of Lake Victoria, or a shorter ferry 15 miles or so down the arm. Taking the longer ferry would have cut ten miles from my ride, but it required twenty miles of riding on a rough dirt road. I wasn't entirely opposed to that, but just when I came to the junction with the dirt road the skies opened with a deluge, the third such I have experienced in the past week, turning the dirt road into a quagmire.

There is so little traffic crossing the inlet the ferries run only every two hours and only during day-light hours. Night driving is so discouraged in Tanzania, buses don't even run after dark. The 1500-mile bus ride from the capital city of Dar es Saleem to Mwansa, the country's second largest city, stops at dark giving the passengers the option of sleeping the night in the bus or slipping into a hotel.

I had no idea what the ferry schedule was. I luckily arrived just minutes before the second to last ferry for the day was due to depart. If I'd missed it, I wouldn't have been able to make it to Mwansa that night, 20 miles from the ferry. I could see the ferry loading up from a hill as I approached the lake. The final mile was on a rutted dirt road. That was a nervous last mile. I was the last one to board the ferry moments before it departed. It wasn't very big. Six trucks and four cars filled it. One truck and one car were left behind, waiting for the next ferry. I had been hoping to have at least a few minutes to spare so I could buy some food and eat during the half hour crossing, but I had to be satisfied with my last couple of bananas.

There was a white man gazing out over the side of the ferry, the first white I had seen since Sister Anna a few days ago. He wasn't dressed as a tourist in faux safari wear, nor in the sterile attire of a missionary, though he was a missionary of the economic sort, a representative of Caterpillar. He was an American who had been based in Johannesburg the past three-and-a-half years, traveling all over Africa selling and servicing equipment. He was a native of upstate New York, but had worked in Peoria, Illinois, the international headquarters of Caterpillar.

This was his first visit to Tanzania, and he had been impressed by how "tidy" and orderly it was compared to most of the places he had been in Africa. His only quibble was being charged $100 for his visa, when he had been told it was ordinarily $50. His Tanzanian contacts told him that what one is charged seemed to be up to the whim of the customs people at the time.

He was accustomed to such things in Africa, where bribery is an accepted part of doing business. It was most flagrant in Mozambique, he said. Mozambique borders South Africa to its northeast. I bicycled through it last winter and visited its once magnificent capital Maputo. I enjoyed my time in Mozambique very much. The Caterpillar man commented too on how impressive Maputo must have been back in its days of glory with wide boulevards and stately tall buildings before it gained independence from Portugal.

The Caterpillar man, whose name I never learned, though we did shake hands upon parting, had just come from the gold mine in Geita. He greatly enjoyed his job visiting such places and very much liked living in South Africa. I asked him how many times he had been robbed in South Africa. Not once he said, though just about everyone he knew had. He was very much looking forward to the World Cup. He said it had been good for his business and South Africa's economy. The country's infrastructure had been greatly improved. Highways and rail lines were being built all over and quite a few new stadiums were constructed as well, including one in Soweto, the black township outside of Johannesburg, where the championship match will be held. He had tickets for five of the matches.

The first six miles of the road beyond the ferry were dirt, though I was able to ride on a new road being constructed that was much smoother. I came to one section with a road crew working and was halted. I was told I couldn't continue and would have to divert to the old one-lane wide dirt road down a steep embankment. Just as I began attempting it, the Chinese foreman of the crew came over and waved me on. I made it into Mwansa just as dark settled in. It was a veritable city with several modern twenty-story tall glass semi-skyscrapers. There were stop lights and round-abouts and an array of Internet outlets, though still exasperatingly slow.

I've had to push it hard the past two days and am happy for some idle time. Its less than 200 miles to Kenya. I'll pass by the Serengeti on the way. Not even motorcyclists are allowed to ride through.

Thanks to Robert for posting a bunch more photos sent to me by George in Bukoba.

Later, George

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