A Trip to the Usambaras: Part 1

Madalena and I woke up early to catch a taxi to the bus station for three days of hiking in the Usambara Mountains, home of the Samba people. The driver was right on time, wearing his Maasai shawl to keep warm in the 75-degree “cold.” As we got out of the cab, the ticket sellers gathered around but were disappointed to hear we’d purchased our tickets the day before. Still, one of them escorted us to the bus and showed us the seat behind the driver.

The bus, Chakito, was probably nice once — before the TV stopped working, and the patterned carpet on the ceiling turned dark from the exhaust, and the blue flowered paper on the walls chipped and peeled, and the door latch broke and a new one welded on to replace it. As we waited to go, the bus filled up, and a boy filled the radiator with water through a hole in the floor. The bottle of transmission fluid behind the driver’s seat gave me pause, but after all, Jake, it’s Africa.

We left early and drove fast on the highway toward Tanga and Dar Es Salaam, stopping often to pick up passengers until they filled the aisle. Construction zones and gravel stretches turned to new highway eventually, and we cruised fast to Mombo, where the bus turned off on the road to Lushoto and the Usambara Mountains — the kind of winding mountain road that would have my wife digging her nails into my arms, and perhaps screaming to be let off. I didn’t think about how close we were to the edge, focusing instead on the high green mountainsides, and the stream dodging and falling through rocks and fields. I gave up my seat to a pregnant woman and stood most of the way to Lushoto, talking to a mountain guide like the one who would be taking us on a three-day trek. He must’ve heard me buying a sambusa out the window, because he said, “Mister, do you speak Swahili?” I said I was trying to learn, but as soon as he started to speak, I was lost. “Sielewi,” I said. I got my seat back for a moment, but then another woman with baby came on, and I stood again. Her baby looked at me and started to cry, and everyone laughed. “Something something Mzungu,” the woman said. I laughed too. Another woman and her adolescent daughter were seated in the aisle, throwing up into plastic bags. Behind them, an old woman, also throwing up.

Six hours after we set off we were in Lushoto, the largest town in the Usambaras, home to the Samba people. The guy I’d emailed to set up the trip was there to meet us. Jerome is the son of a Pentacostal minister and one of the originators of cultural tourism programs in the region. He and his partners give 40 percent of their fees to Friends of the Usambara, which works to preserve and improve the environment. We were scheduled to spend the night at his place, a nice guest house at his 140-year-old farm, which was built by German colonists. First we stopped for lunch, and at the market for food, and at the electric company because his power was out. Outside the restaurant I talked in Swahili to the bota bota drivers, one of whom stepped in and spoke in slow Swahili, helping me to understand. I was able to answer some of his questions: Where I was from, where I was going, and what I was doing in Tanzania. He said, “Something furahi something Kiswahili” – it makes people happy to hear me speak Swahili. I thanked him.

Jerome got us set up in clean, new rooms with private bath and shower, then went off to church for Good Friday services. He told us the Rangwi Sisters, with whom we’d spend Easter night, would have a big party when they were there. I was doubtful, but interested. I wandered the grounds, followed by a dog and Jerome’s toddler son Johnson. I ate a banana from a bunch sitting on the ground, and looked across the valley to mountainside cut into terraced gardens and dotted with metal roofs.

I read a book and took a nap, then had a beautiful supper of chicken, rice, spinach, and a curry sauce with small eggplants. It was a hard day that ended well, with a hot shower, a good bed, and a quiet family home.

Today we got up when we got up and after a breakfast of eggs, watermelon, fresh tomato and cucumber, toast, and the usual Africafe instant coffee, we met our guide, Isa. At breakfast, Jerome told us that last year he got a call from his brother, who was sick. Jerome drove to Dar Es Salaam and picked him up, and on the way back to Lushoto, he died. It was one nightmare after another — taking the body to the coroner, who showed no concern, bringing him home to bury him, and the aftermath — fear of his own mortality. A strange story, but it was nice that Jerome felt comfortable telling us about it.

Jerome drove us up the road a ways to shorten the hike for the day, and Isa took it from there. We saw Colobus monkeys in the trees as we walked up the road through the rainforest, then we took a small trail down a steep hill to the outskirts of the village of Lukozi. Cries of “Mzungu” rang through the valley, and children came running yelling “Picha picha,” and then ran away when I got my camera out, yelling “Hapana! Hapana! (No! No!).” On the path, Isa made us a lunch of fresh guacamole in chapatis, and the children gathered round. I tried to talk Swahili with them, which they seemed to find entertaining, but after lunch they threw rocks at us as we walked away.

It had been threatening to rain all morning, and finally it did, in buckets, soaking my daypack and my pants because I was too optimistic to put on rain pants. It cleared up before we reached Lukozi, but then it came again. Fortunately we were right by a building with an overhang and a nice old guy selling coffee with ginger. We drank and talked and waited out the rain with a dozen African men. After that it was a short walk to the next town and Papaa Moze (Papa Moses) Guest House. He had hot water, warm beer, and a nice supper for us of beef, rice, the usual tomato sauce, and a vegetable dish that tasted suspiciously like mayonnaise. I read for a while and slept soundly.

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