I told myself when I left Arusha that this trek around Lake Victoria wasn’t going to be a vacation.
It was an adventure.
I’d be okay with delays and discomforts; they were all just part of the experience. The upshot: this mindset allowed me to also be open to any opportunity that came along. And as if the universe listened to my decision, I was presented with the opportunity to float across Lake Victoria.
My man Daniel, the thin, young fella who had showed me around Mwanza, had an in with a cargo ship captain. The captain would be waiting for me in Bukoba the next day to take me to Kampala, Uganda.
Another early bus departure; another hours-long delay. The first was was at the Arusha bus station; this time it was along a city street in Mwanza. The Arusha delay was legal–the bus pulled over for speeding. This morning was mechanical–an engine belt, I discovered. I didn’t know which delay was more ominous. But hey, adventure travel, right?
At word of the delay, all of us passengers disembarked the bus that was squeezed into a small parking lot just off the street. As we all sat or stood on the sidewalk, enterprising street salesfolks came by to sell tea, bread, and store-bought cookies.
After a good ninety minutes, the bus engine started, the driver revved her up, black smoke farted out the tailpipe, and we were one our way.
Here was our route:
The highlight of the trip actually happened right away and served as a sample of what my upcoming boat ride might be like. Rather than go around a long, narrow bay, the route ferried over it–buses and all.
Then we made our way in our own long line to the passenger waiting area.
They served food in the waiting area as well.
Soon the ferry came and we watched people and cars disembark.
Then it was time for us to load up.
Off we went, floating to the other side.
After maybe thirty minutes, we reached other side and then hopped back onto the bus and back on the road.
Hugging the fertile, rocky coast the whole way, and breezing through what could have been some interesting, old colonial mining towns, I had to choose whether to miss a good part of the action outside the window, or see it but then pay a physical toll. The busses here seemed to be engineered for children. The windows were interrupted with a broad crosspiece right at face height. To see out the windows, then, I had to hunch way over into awful posture that began to ache after several miles.
Tight seats, bumpy roads, having to hunch over: riding these busses were literally a pain in the neck. But the views were nice.
The day before, I had told Daniel to tell the captain I’d meet him in Bukoba in the early afternoon. But what I was told would be a 7-hour trip, and an arrival by 1:00pm, ended up being an 11-hour ride arriving in the late afternoon.
As we made our way, I tried to call the captain. He didn’t answer. As we pulled into the Bukoba bus station, I tried calling the captain again. No answer.
Off the bus and with all my luggage, I wobbled over the lot of the bus stand into one of the bus ticket offices lining the lot. I enter the white tiled floor, livingroom-sized space of the bus company I had just used. I asked the two young men in street clothes standing behind the glass if they would offer me a refund for the tardy service. No luck. Then losing track of my adventure travel mantra, and getting tired of the lousy service in Tanzania, I said to them through the glass, “This is not how you treat customers.” But evidently, it was. No other passengers from the bus came in here to complain about a four-hour delay.
Thinking my phone was the problem, I asked these guys if they could call the captain. But they couldn’t get through, either. Looking back, the whole thing had seemed sketchy, but this was just part of the experience I thought. Getting on the cargo ship was illegal, but Daniel said a lot of people do it. “There’ll be other Europeans on the boat with you,” he had said, adding that we’d play pool and have a great time.
I mostly wanted to experience being on a big cargo freighter, see what this lake-shipping culture was all about, and then observe how the logistics and trade operations were performed between neighboring countries in East Africa. But it would all be just a fantasy unless I could get a hold of this captain, who had told Daniel that we’d be leaving early the next morning. I thought I might even be sleeping on the ship this night, but having not contacted the captain, and wanting a place to rest, I referred to my travel guide for a few hotels in town. Then I walked back out to the bus stand lot, hopped on a motorcycle taxi, and looked for a room.
The driver took me to a section of hotels along the lake edge, where at this part of Lake Victoria, the coast was a fine-looking beach of yellow sand and distant green shores across the bay. I went to a place recommended by my guidebook. This particular, five room tiny hotel could have been a quaint place on an idyllic beachfront if not for the drab conditions inside.
The worker, a tall, 35-year-old lady in a cobalt blue skirt, walked me a handful of paces away from her small desk to reveal a room with plain, large bed and plain bathroom. (An in-unit bathroom, which is a selling point.) It also had electricity. This is all I really cared about. But I did take notice of the conditions.
The toilet seat was disconnected.
Then, unfolding the top blanket on the bed, I took note of the unwelcome life under the covers.
I walked out of the room and asked to see another. I knew this would be alright. I’m pretty sure I was their only guest. The tall lady in the cobalt blue skirt showed me another room with a bed that didn’t look as comfortable. But it was bug-free, so I said okay. There were other hotels in town. I could’ve spent a little more for them. But I didn’t want to. Nor did I really care. The cramped bus ride, the tardy arrival, me not meeting the captain. I was short-fused and downtrodden.
I lost track of my adventure pledge. Actually, I just didn’t care. Screw this adventure. I wanted to go home.
The next morning, I’d gain insight into why I was being so negative.
I awoke with a pounding head, stuffy nose, and chills.
An onset of illness had influenced my emotions. There was actually some relief in having something to which I could peg this negativity. But I also knew the emotions weren’t invalidated by the illness. Lonely and bleak. I felt stranded in this room in this ratty motel in this nondescript Tanzanian city. I had no energy to do the things I would ordinarily do to overcome the fact that I’m often alone in these types of situations.
No exploring; no interacting; not even in a hostel with other foreign travelers.
Emotionally and physically, all I wanted to do was be alone and rest–and get better so I could get on that ship. I called Daniel. He answered and said he would contact the captain. In my dark room on a saggy bed, I watched a movie on my computer. I actually published a blog, as it happened to be a Sunday. Bukoba was big enough to have half-decent internet.
While online, I was prompted to check out the website of a fellow writer. I saw the man as a peer in the pursuit of telling people’s stories. And his success is incredible–admittedly making me jealous at times. I hadn’t seen his work in awhile, and when I visited his page, I was shocked to see that he had become bigger than ever. His fans were in the millions. He had the backing of prominent, global organizations.
Meanwhile, here I was in the condition that I was–a condition made evermore stark when contrasting it with the success of this guy. It was a punch to the gut. But the punch was also backdoor inspiration. That’s what success looks like, Brandon. Reach for it. Get out of this room.
Having been holding out hope that I might still get on the ship the next day, I decided to let go of my expectations of Daniel getting back to me. It had been a couple of hours, and dropping that rock felt good. Daniel wouldn’t call me back anyway. I’d never hear from him, nor find out what happened to the captain. I didn’t have the satisfaction of even a whimper of a resolution. I got nothing. But the relief of looking ahead outweighed the frustration of lost opportunity.
I decided to get a ticket out of town the next day. I was sick, but this wasn’t a great place to be so, and I trusted that my health would start improving tomorrow. I left the hotel for the bus station offices. It was a good two miles away, and I had many motorcycle taxis stop to offer me a lift. But I declined, choosing to see the city on foot.
Bukoba is actually a lovely place. Out the back door of the hotel, the Lake Victoria beach is soft sand. Behind the beach and the coastal road sit lush green hills that stretch toward the city, making for a picturesque, geologic, naturally-refreshing charm. This city, like others in this country, are hideaways, a bittersweet product of Tanzania’s undeveloped travel infrastructure. Tourism has downsides, but more people should enjoy this place. And it would be nice to see the rooms of the hotel being used–after they are exterminated, that is. (Or maybe even after they bulldozed the building and started over.)
I walked past the beaches and hills and got into the city featuring blocks of one-story retailers and service businesses, many of them closed on this Sunday. I made by way to the bus stand, bought my ticket for the next morning, found a grocer on the way back to my room, and rested until leaving the next morning.
It was a rough 24 hours. I hoped things would start looking up the next day.
My hopes would be fulfilled when I entered Uganda…