Usambaras Part 3: Back to Africa

Our final day in the Usambaras and the long trip to the Indian Ocean coast were a heavy dose of Africa after that hallucinatory respite in the sheltering arms of the Rangwi sisters.

The following day we hiked through forests of pine and cedar planted by Europeans — not so African after all. In a region of rainforests, it was strange to see the lack of undergrowth beneath the invasive trees.

Women carried huge loads on their heads, following our trail to and from market. Men and boys carried umbrellas or machetes, the odd man in Muslim cap with a heavier load. In response to a question from Madalena, Isa admitted that the women work harder than the men in the Usambaras, and many places in Tanzania. We had seen the women with their loads, and whacking hoes into hard earth, and chopping at the stubborn roots of trees to clear land for crops. We had also seen the men sipping chai at midday, or texting on their phones, or sitting in the shade on their motorbikes.

As we walked through another village, children greeted us with “Happy Easter” (something Pasaka). Apparently the holiday stretches beyond Sunday. Kids were out of school and eating suckers that must have been a special gift of the season. Isa says Muslims and Christians, who are split 50-50 in the Usambaras, celebrate holidays together, but there are signs of a more fundamentalist Islam taking hold – a few women dressed in black with only their eyes exposed.

On the end of the walk, we didn’t take the road to Mambo Cliff Ecolodge, heading instead toward the village of Mtae. We passed a bunch of Europeans on the road – more than we’d seen in three days – all headed toward Mambo. I grived a little that the other Wazungu had more Western lodging ahead. Mtae wasn’t western at all, and our lodge was a brick structure in the middle of town, with bars on the windows and cell-like rooms. They brought us hot water to bathe, but it still felt a bit like prison, with a great view of the Kenyan plains.

We walked to a viewpoint for the sunset on the other side of the ridge, and the streets along the way teemed with children dressed nicely and eating suckers. We found our spot on a rock and watched the sunlight glowing from behind a cloud and fanning out over the Pare Mountains, the plains, rice paddies, and a lake. Kilimanjaro showed itself briefly, and as the sun set dipped below the Pares, the sky turned orange and red.

We walked back to town and ate supper in a dim, cold restaurant. Behind me on the wall was a 2014 calendar with the heading “Giants of the World” and pictures of Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, and Moamar Khadaffi. As the only Yank in town, I felt a tad self-conscious. We went home to our cells, alarms set for 5 a.m.

A long day on buses and a final stretch on the back of a motorbike ended with me watching the tide coming in, a hot and cool breeze coming off the Indian Ocean. Two wooden boats, sails, down, were moored off Peponi Beach Resort, where I had a tent for the night, cold beer, fresh fish, and prices halfway between the Tanzanian ones I love and the Western ones I’m accustomed to.

The bus from Mtae to Lushoto took three hours to cover 60 kilometers – stopping way too often to gobble up way too many passengers. By the end there were 60 of us jammed in three to each 2-person seat, and sitting or standing in the aisles. The Africans took it in stride, and I tried to do likewise. I gave up my seat to a heavy-set woman who was practically sitting on Madalena’s lap.

In Lushoto, we had breakfast with Jerome and Isa. Jerome was kind, saying our visit to his farm was almost like having family there. We caught a smaller, faster, and less crowded bus the rest of the way down the mountain, but I gave up my seat again and ended up wedged between two men, one of whom told me of his work as a teacher of children with special needs. He invited me to visit his school in Tanga.

In Muhezo, we got coffee and a roll, and I used Swahili to track down the bus to Peponi – or so I thought. The old beast rattled its way over 50 kilometers of bad dirt roads, through villages on the coastal plain. I enjoyed every minute because I was seated right by the windshield on the left, with the cheerful driver on the left. Houses had roofs or thatch or steel, and yards were worn bare by footsteps. Behind each was a garden of banana trees, maize, beans, tomatoes, and greens.

We were told the bus would take us past our resort, but it didn’t. Instead, we were dropped 15 kilometers south, at an intersection peopled with the usual gang of young men on Chinese motorcycles, gabbing in the shade. I asked in Swahili how much it would cost, then teased them that they were giving me the “Wazungu” price. We gladly paid 10,000 shillings each (just over 5 bucks) to give us a ride in the sun and wind to our home for three days.

Where I’m now sitting in a plastic chair on the sand, waiting for a supper of fresh fish, exhausted from a day of travel, and happily dreaming of home.

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