In October of 2013 I went to Tanzania for 23 days to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, go on Safari, and wander away the itch that is Africa. After the trek and the Safari I took a bus to the small mountain village of Lushoto in the Usambara Mountains. This is how I got there. You can find the second part here. Thanks for reading and enjoy!
I had a free ticket.
I had a girl to see.
I don’t remember what my money situation was. It’s pure shit now. It might have been better then.
I left her at her mom’s house in the Valley and we made love in her room some number of times I can’t recall. She left me a stone shaped like a heart. I haven’t kissed her in years but it’s still sitting on a shelf above my desk beside two shot glasses and three old notebooks. Before I left I sat in my car and cried. (My car has been home to more tears than any other place in my life including but not limited to: my room, underneath my bed, on top of my bed, the pillowcase, the shower, the toilet, the locker room at work, the shoulder of the friend who didn’t know we were friends, the nurse’s office, and any of the curbs nearby the streets where I sprained an ankle or scraped a knee.)
Something in my gut told me it would never happen. Your body knows these things before your mind can catch up. We talked on the phone as she waited at the airport and we talked even after she arrived but a week later she was gone. She vanished from the digital world, she vanished from my phone. She started her life. The next I heard from her a month later she had fallen for a Frenchman.
“But go,” she said. “Go somewhere. Don’t come here. It’s started to rain already and soon it’ll snow, but it won’t be pretty the way New York is pretty. It’s a dreary place. And sad. I’m sad. Don’t come here. Go. Go. Go.”
My grandmother once said she didn’t like astronomy because it made her feel so small, so worthless. If she looked too closely at a star she had to accept that her life was one mere blip, and not even that.
I joke to people that I made the decision to climb Kilimanjaro in about 90 seconds. What I say is this:
“I thought about where I could go that involved action. Not exploration. Action. A mountain I could climb that didn’t require technical skills. And I thought about the place I wanted to go my entire life. 90 seconds passed before I considered Africa, another 90 to think of Kilimanjaro.”
In reality this took 8 seconds. From France to Kilimanjaro. 8 seconds. The vacuum created by love needed to be filled by something, and I suppose travel and adventure was the only thing I had in me to fill it up. My heart had tapped out long ago.
I had to wait two months before a flight would become available. When it did I booked the flight and the trip up the mountain within 90 minutes of one another. All I had to do after was wait. And the waiting–let me tell you–that may have been the hardest part. Because all I did was wait for a way I could back out. Some meaningful excuse to say, no, I can’t do this. But it never happened. The back out never came. Nine months later I stepped off the plane and watched 200 foot high dust devils drag a swath of Tanzanian soil across the basin. I was someplace else indeed.
These last two thousand words or so ran through my head as I was pinned between my driver and my guide–Hamis–on a small motorcycle on a windy dirt road in the high mountain farm village of Lushoto in northern Tanzania. The driver had a helmet, a cell phone and enough confidence to talk as he rode, whilst dala dalas packed 30 deep and diesel run busses sped past us heading god knows where. A week earlier I’d been on the summit of Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa and a good 19’000 feet above my home in Los Angeles. In between I’d explored a small town, drank beer with friends, and spent five days on safari carrying the most honest smile I’ve probably ever had in my life.
Lushoto is about a six hour bus ride from Moshi. I had 400 dollars on me–in hundreds–about 30 thousand shillings, two credit cards, a debit card and enough confidence in the Tanzanian bank system that I wasn’t worried Lushoto might not have an ATM.
This confidence proved ill founded.
Lushoto had one bank in it’s central market but that bank didn’t take Visa. Likewise, though the entire country loves American dollars–and Americans it turns out (“Obama!” everyone said when they learned where I was from)–not all of them like OLD American hundred dollar bills. Mine, in fact, were a good three years too old. 2003 printings instead of the 2006 that everyone demands. The nearest bank was a two hour bus ride away but I didn’t have enough money to pay for the fair. The farm where I was going to stay only took cash. The guide I had booked to take me into the Usambara Mountains only took cash. The few random travellers I met in the city did not want to trade dollars for shillings. As far as I could tell I was stranded in this village with no way of escape and no place to even sleep. It was my first serious mistake.
The Tanzanians have a phrase. It might as well be printed on the money and sung in anthems–actually it’s sung quite often.
The guide had my back. The head of the farm had my back. Hamis would cover me for the bus and the trip and the local taxis. The head of the farm would cover me for the two nights I was in town. I’d take the bus with Hamis for two and a half hours to the nearest town, Korogwe, where I could get out some shillings and pay for everything after the fact.
“Hakuna matata, man, it’ll be okay.”
“In America we say, ‘All good.’”
“Poa. All good.”
I felt terrible about it. Ashamed. But it’s so ingrained in the culture. The cynical capitalistic American part of me thought they were only helping me because I was an American with American dollars. But from everything I understood about the culture I knew that wasn’t true. It’s just how Tanzanians treat their neighbors. Even when money isn’t a factor. Balance and peace are prominent.
And so here I was on this bike. I didn’t have a helmet or usable money. Lushoto wasn’t on my itinerary and so nobody in the States knew where I was. All I could think of were the stories my friend Javier told me about his motorcycle accident, when doctors had to essentially reconstruct his back. All I could see was the road ahead of me, the 500 foot drop to my right, and the Lushoto skyline, which resembles Switzerland in the Spring (no, seriously it does). The only knowledge of Tanzania I could muster was the report I read listing Tanzania as having one of the highest rates of auto fatalities in the world (per capita).
When Hamis asked me why I was laughing I lied and said I had remembered some silly joke I had heard. The truth was that I had had a vision. Right then, that very day. A vision of my end. I could die. With no money, no contacts, and a history of falling off vehicles with fewer than four wheels, it was a foreseeable consequence. A dala dala could clip us and we could careen off the edge. The driver could drop his cellphone or hit a pothole. We could skid. My head could bounce off the ground and give me brain trauma. I could get stung by a bee and tip over. A hundred different things could happen.
And it was okay.
I could die.
This could be it.
Death. Right now.
For the first time in my life I had done exactly what I set out to do. I hadn’t gone home crying. I hadn’t run away. I hadn’t turned around. I had done it. That thought right there on the bike in the Usambara Mountains, on a road from Lushoto with the smiling support of strangers, is what I took away from the entire trip. For a brief time, maybe just a few hours, I was okay with the end. If it was going to happen, it was going to happen then, doing what I wanted to do, living how I wanted to live. To live so hard it felt okay to die.
© 2014 Christopher Dart