On September 15, 2014, my two-week, three-country East Africa trek began.
Though much of my previous activity in Tanzania had been off the cuff, these final two weeks were planned even before I left the U.S.–thus my departing flight from north-neighboring Kenya.
This grand finale tour of East Africa was to include all the countries. (“East Africa” means different things in different circumstances–geographic, political. I refer to the East African Community, a political affiliation of five countries. And I wanted to hit them all.) I knew that though we Americans have a stereotype of the region, that there was also great variety within this part of the world:
But I also realized about halfway through my time in Tanzania that getting to East Africa’s little sisters of Burundi and Rwanda was going to take more than a dream to realize. Like my mother often said when I was a boy about my eyes being bigger than my stomach and taking a plateful I’d never be able to finish, my adult travel self tried to swallow too big of an idea that–when faced with the reality of time, logistics, poor travel conditions, and financial restrictions–had to be parred down to a more reasonable effort: hugging Lake Victoria.
Too bad, too. I heard wonderful things about the clean, lush, organized nation of Rwanda, a country only 20 years removed from incredible bloodshed, but coming out the other side with more order than ever before. The idea of such a place reminded me of Cambodia in Southeast Asia, whose own genocide in the 70s was felt in the population. I wanted to compare these small, scarred countries. I wanted to compare Rwanda to Burundi, a supposed real wildcard in the region–hard to get to and the ying to Rwanda’s yang according to a coffee shop owner in Minneapolis, who told me of his travels to the region to see where his beans originated. Crossing the border into Burundi from Rwanda, he said, was like entering a new world. Trash everywhere, poorer residents. I was curious.
But alas, I’d have to go without. And that was okay. There was plenty to see on the road ahead. This post deals with the trashy/lovely, yin/yang just within Tanzania.
I woke early the morning of the 15th of September, 2014, to catch the bus to Arusha, a city with much tourism appeal and a good first stop before starting around the giant lake. It wasn’t too terribly far on the map, but with Tanzanian roads, plenty of stops, and an indirect route, the ride stretched over 12 hours.
The bus was fine by most standards. It wasn’t as plush or spacious as some I’ve ridden in the U.S. and elsewhere, but it wasn’t bad. Here’s a shot of a similar bus I’d take later in this trip:
With 12+ hours of driving ahead, I guess the driver wanted to make good time out of the gate. With daylight breaking, a long construction zone greeted us just outside of Iringa. No matter. The driver took the temporary dirt frontage roads when need be so to not be interrupted by pesky heavy equipment or mounds of gravel. I was fine with the nonstop progress but did wish he would have progressed at what I would have considered a more reasonable speed. There were frequent weaves around the obstacles, the driver handing the bus “like a jeep,” I remember thinking. The tall, long vehicle had me worrying the thing was going to tip when going through shallow ditches between the frontage and main dirt roads.
As dark blues of dawning sky turned to lighter shades, I grew even more concerned as I could now see everywhere and everything the driver was doing. Rocks, overhanging tree branches–he swerved to miss, and I became angered at the stunt driving.
Thankfully, the construction ended after only a handful of miles, and when the day was in full shine, the asphalt road was once again the comforting foundation of our path. I could look out the window and enjoy the new terrain and new villages of new regions of this beautiful country.
And things in Tanzania change quickly.
My village just south of Iringa was wavy hills of crops. Here just north of the city, things were flat and more barren. Then came an elevation shift. Iringa sits on a giant plateau, and an hour into our journey came the winding road down to the central Tanzanian plains. Similarly dry and sparse as it was atop the plateau, it was nonetheless a novel experience being someplace new within Tanzania. After descending, we stopped along the road at a small town. Suddenly, people in the same clothes as those in my village, selling the same items as those I’d seen in Iringa, felt more objectively “Tanzanian.” I guess I had gotten used to the settings in which I lived the previous months, forgetting or losing the freshness of such a different home than the one I had known. All it took was a few miles to re-energize and refresh this idea that I was in East Africa.
On we went, mile after mile after village after bus stop.
Then came the filthy…
I’m not sure the exact point I recognized it, but passing through a town about halfway to Arusha, I thought to myself, “Man, there’s a lot of litter here.”
The space between the road and the buildings was peppered with plastic bags, styrofoam food containers, plastic bottles, etc. Just a bunch of trash–as normal in these spaces between foot and vehicle traffic as was the grass.
Immediate thoughts came to mind–”How do they live with all that trash?–supplanted with imagining myself in their shoes and how normal it would be if having grown up in within this environment.
Though Iringa wasn’t this littered–and so having me realize not all parts of Tanzania were this way–this stretch of strewn trash also wasn’t restricted to this town. For a good hour to two, my eyes were peeled to take in the consistency of this decoration.
I looked out into the fields to a remarkable display of litter. I assumed it collected from passing cars. But perhaps it simply blew from the nearest town, across the road and then caught up in the first lucky bush. Thus, the bushes and trees nearest the road were the heaviest freckled with bags so regular, they looked like an uglifying, unkempt fruit. And litter so dense in the shallows of the fields that it seemed a crop to harvest as well.
Then came another town that upped the ante on the first and offered their own demonstrations of litter like leaves in the fall.
In all, I look back with a montage of memories, seeing more litter in any one plane of sight than I had ever seen outside of a landfill. And how it stretched! Mile after mile. More than once, I thought that it looked like a dumpster exploded. If so, there must have been a good thousand dumpsters in a row, set off in succession. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Litter like confetti.
I had to just press record and shoot some video:
More likely than exploding dumpsters, this was simply a population with a way of life undeterred by what people in my culture would deem an offense to the senses.
I thought back to my time in China, where I also saw pollution worse than I was used to. I learned there that litter, and the distaste thereof, isn’t just an argument about health. It’s aesthetics. I thought the litter was ugly. The people in China and here in central Tanzania didn’t seem to. And really, a lawn of plastic bags isn’t going to hurt anyone.
But they certainly do clash with the aesthetic ways of the West.
Thankfully, there are also many areas of the country untouched by the hand of man, allowing for more varied beauty in one country and area this size than anywhere else I’ve been–perhaps ever will see.
As we continued north into less population and more structure, the land became picture-worthy for another reason.
Indeed, I would at this time text an American friend back in Iringa and encourage him to trek cross-country. The terrain was so lovely that my admiration for the landscapes blanketed any remembrance of the recent blanket of litter on the central plains.
Finally, we reached the northern plains: the Serengeti, as you may have heard of it as.
The day gave way to dusk. Darkness stole my views outside. But I began to look ahead through the windshield to see spattering glitter–rain reflecting on the lights of oncoming cars before being swept to the side by the windshield wipers.
It was yet the dry season. I didn’t think that traveling to the north part of the country would alter the rainy/dry season rhythm I had been used to. It turned out it was odd timing on the part of nature to offer a shower. And it turned to be bad timing for my sake. Bus belly compartments aren’t waterproof. And my suitcase was also getting a shower.
After a good chunk of minutes, the darkness of night was interrupted by more than just oncoming vehicle headlights. Buildings were frequent as we entered the outskirts of one of Tanzania’s largest cities, Arusha. I texted the people I’d be staying with, a young husband/wife members of a Web travel community.
I’d have two days to enjoy this city of the Serengeti, the Maasai tribes, and the distant–though visible–Mt. Kilimanjaro.