A chance meeting, a change of plans, and turning Tanzanian

When I sent my mom off to the airport, it officially became time to relax. A new crew had descended on Hunch to hang with, and I figured I deserved some downtime before I continued on. The plan was to head out in a few days to Kenya to try and find a spot to do some teaching for awhile, but, as they say, the best laid plans…

Things started off pretty chill. I hung out and used the internet to catch up on writing and my late night political comedy show vices. On my first day, I only ventured out to get a burger at my favorite burger shipping container in Dar and some spicy Portuguese chicken down the road. The next day, just to the supermarket for cheaper eats. Many beers and much Jenga was played on the roof deck with fellow hostel-goers. Eventually, some of the folks in the hostel convinced me to tag along to Bongoyo Island, a small uninhabited idyllic island just off the coast of Dar with a small bar and restaurant. There we spent the day lazing on the beach, swimming, hanging out with hermit crabs, and hiking through beautiful coral jungle and isolated inlet beaches.

There were a few more days of relaxing, tweaking my bike, and indulging in the moderate joys of culinary diversity in Dar (Italian-style pizza, discount sushi, and tasty tapas). One day, I once again decided to snag a burger at the local shipping container with a couple of fellow hostel folks, including Reggie the South African biker and artist. We took our bikes over, and spotted a big BMW 1150GS ridden by an equally large Tanzanian man, also waiting in line to get a burger. Reggie tried to start up a chat with him but he was brushed off when the guy responded that he didn’t speak English. We got our burgers and sat down.

A few minutes later, the large biker came over and started up a chat with us, telling us he didn’t realize Reggie was a foreigner (he’s black), and when locals engage him in English he presumes they think he’s foreign, and hence an easy mark. When he saw our group and heard us conversing in English, he understood. He exchanged info with Reggie and we made plans to go for a ride the next day.

The Tanzanian man’s name was Mrusha Jones, and when he came over to the hostel the next day to chat, he asked me what I was up to. I explained my trip and my plans to head to Kenya to teach computer science, and his eyes lit up and he got really excited. He explained that while he works at a bank, he also is a co-founder of a technology incubation space along the small stretch of Bagamoyo road that serves as the locus of technology for Tanzania. He then went to work trying to convince me to stay in Tanzania and do my teaching there, using his space. He’d help me find an apartment and students, the space has fast free internet, and we seemed to have similar visions of how it would go down. I said I’d think about it.

Reggie, Mrusha, and I then headed up to Bagamoyo, a cute little “beach town” (the beach is definitely nothing to write home about) about 60km north of Dar. Battling the usual traffic, and lane splitting like wild men, it still takes nearly an hour and a half to cover that ground. Once there, we took a little tour of the incredibly rank fish market, walked a bit of what passes for a beach there, then headed to a backpackers hotel built into the beautiful ruins of a once incredible house. A large courtyard with a pool wrapped by crumbling masonry and adorned with large palm trees sat in the middle of the place, and we sat, chilled, drank beer, and bullshitted. As the day wore on, we eventually turned around and headed back to Dar. I made plans to check out Mrusha’s space the following Monday

En route, we passed this truck says “Trump U.S.A.” and “Father pray for us” in Swahili
Ruins along the beach
The Bagamoyo fish market. Trust me, it smells worse than it looks.

Monday came around and I met up with Mrusha for lunch at his space, which has an attached restaurant that helps support it. We ate a good meal and talked about our plans. By the end, I was convinced I’d found a good place to set up shop and work for awhile. We talked logistics. To make the most effective use of my time, I’d go on a visa run to Kenya over New Year’s (and attend a festival there called Kilifi New Years) and he’d find me an apartment for when I got back. I’d get started on the coursework upon my return.

Now that I had a plan, I had a couple weeks to kill. I decided to head to the backpacker’s spot in Bagamoyo (called Firefly) for a bit for a change of scenery (and to get out of the nightmare of Dar’s weather and traffic combination), and I was pleasantly surprised to find a couple of friends from Hunch who I’d gone to Bongoyo Island with staying there. Days were spent walking the beach, scoping out the ruins, eating, swimming in the pool, and even getting a couple massages. The owner of Firefly is a super nice woman from Zim, and we became friends. She even introduced me to a local teenager who wanted to learn some programming and I sat with him a couple of times and we built some basic graphical applications using web technologies which got him super excited. I stayed for Christmas, where there was a feast of a meal, champagne, and good times.

Afterwards I headed back to Dar for a night to snag my camping gear and headed up towards Kenya for New Years. Traffic was terrible through Bagamoyo but no far after my path veered off the main east/west road and onto a less-traveled one heading up to Tanga and the border. I spent an uneventful night in Tanga at a cheap little hotel in town then headed off to the quiet Horo Horo border an hour and change north.

Leaving Tanzania was a breeze. Entering Kenya, however, proved slightly more difficult… Kenya is one of two countries in Africa that sometimes demands a Carnet de Passages en Douane, a super-old school vehicle passport that most of the world has long since retired. I’d read conflicting reports of folks passing through without issue, but today the folks at Horo Horo weren’t excited about letting me through… Or maybe they were, as they made it abundantly clear that all they needed was a bribe to grease the wheels and I could be on my way no problem. I tried my best to argue, but as in many border situations, I had none of the power in the situation, so eventually I had no choice but to cough up $10, which they scoffed at but eventually accepted. Then I had to buy a month worth of insurance for the bike because they insisted that was the smallest time frame they allowed, and I was finally on my way.

Things in Kenya began pretty quietly with a quiet road through small villages and verdant fields and forests. Eventually the tiny road to the border met a more major one and I was once again assaulted by veering minibuses (now called matatus), barreling trucks, and zooming Chinese motorcycles flying every which way. Compared to Tanzania, things industry seemed to be a bit more booming, and even in smaller towns the structures looked a little more modern and fancy.

I ended my day veering off the highway and into hardcore vacation traffic in the destination town of Diani Beach, which was buzzing. I pulled into a spot called Stilts that was recommended to be by the owner of Firefly in Bagamoyo and checked into a little hut on stilts. After running down the road for some mediocre pizza, I headed back and hung out catching up on my writing and chatting with a ripped Indian soldier on vacation from guarding a UN base in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. He talked nonchalantly about the insanity he’d seen there in the past 2 years. Eventually there was a nightly Bush Baby (small, adorable, big-eyed nocturnal monkeys also known as Galagos) feeding where a troop of the things descended on the lounge area at stilts and we were given bananas to hand them skittishly from the railings.

This was the best I was able to do photographing the adorable buggers in the dark.

The next afternoon was the opening of the festival, technically only 100km away, but the road is busy, goes directly through Mombasa, and includes a ferry with an enormous clusterfuck of traffic to board. Staring blankly at my bike, eventually catching my eye and giving a thumbs up was a very popular pastime on the ferry. Traffic was heavy and brutal from Mombasa on. The lumpy, dusty 2-lane road was constantly choked with heavy trucks, matatus, and zooming motorbikes. I struggled to weave my way through traffic at something vaguely resembling a decent clip. I passed “The Watergate Hotel” as I neared Kilifi, then proceeded to wildly overshoot the festival grounds, which had moved from their previous home at the Distant Relatives Backpackers (where the festival originated), and had to backtrack to a poorly labeled dirt track into the forest where I eventually reached a gate.

On the ferry to Mombasa.

The staff were kind enough to let me park permanently in what was intended as the loading zone, near the campground, and I was able to check in and snag a wristband. Camping was packed in tightly in a shady forest, and I ended up next to a friendly crew of potsmoking locals from Nairobi. Alone at a big festival, friends proved remarkably easy to make, with my neighbors working hard to keep beer in my hands whenever we’d run into each other in the festival grounds.

Kilifi New Years was fantastic. It was a dramatically more diverse crowd of people than AfrikaBurn, and despite a very different setup (presence of money and vendors, separate campground and festival ground, orientation primarily around musical acts), the art, inclusiveness, and vibe struck me as more burner-friendly than AfrikaBurn had. There was even an enormous organic effigy of a bird that was burned in fabulous fashion on the last night of the event. The art department of the festival had done a fantastic job integrating lights, sculptures, chill spaces, and more into the forest and neighboring river valley. One of the “vendor” spots was even occupied by a hippie-type dude who was constantly cooking up food and serving a tea made with a local herbal stimulant and giving it all away.

One night, I spotted a Burning Man DPW shirt and struck up a conversation with the guy wearing it. It turned out he was an old school burner (14 years) who split his time between the Bay Area and Kenya, and was starting a local Kenyan regional burn called Wild Burn. Known as Roamer, it turned out we had tons of mutual friends from the community, and we were getting along fabulously in no time. By the third night of the festival, I felt like everywhere I went I ran into new friends. My expectations were greatly surpassed.

The bird begins to go up in flames.
The other AfrikaBurn.
A Jambulance-d partygoer sleeps off the festivities.

When things wrapped up after New Years, I was in no rush to leave. Additionally, the Kenyan government had sprung an unwelcome surprise on travelers by banning overnight bus travel the day after New Years, causing absolute chaos for those planning on heading back to their regular lives afterwards. I headed instead to the origins of the festival, the Distant Relatives Backpackers, which was fully booked but always had room for a tent. A bunch of my friends from the festival had had similar ideas, so I was once again surrounded by familiar faces, including Roamer. Some even stayed on a neighboring sailboat built locally by madmen craftsmen and constantly sailing up and down the Kenyan coast, which enabled me to spend an evening relaxing onboard the vessel with some very talented musicians until the sun went down.

After 2 nights, my back was ready for a bed, and it was getting to be time to head home. I once again stopped in Diani Beach, but this time at a different backpackers to rest my head. I got an earlier start the next morning, and since I was entering Tanzania (which ended up being much easier than Kenya had been) instead, was able to make it all the way back to the Firefly in Bagamoyo just before sundown. I spent one additional night at Firefly (since I loved it so much), then set off back to Dar es Salaam, where Mrusha had utterly failed in his promise to find me a place to stay. Instead, my good friend and former travel partner Corey had made his way across Malawi and western Tanzania to Dar, and I met up with him at a cheap hotel there, then dragged him to Taste of Mexico, a restaurant nearby with some of the best Mexican food I’ve managed to find in Africa.

Heavy rains triggered my first bout of hardcore flooding in Dar, a concept I would become intimately familiar with in the intervening months. Corey had beaten the crap out of his bike in western Mozambique, and I was looking for a reliable motorcycle shop to eventually change my timing chain, so we made our way to the local KTM dealership, who did some free work on Corey’s bike and allowed us to test drive an F800GS and KTM 990 Adventure they had for sale.

This gorgeous bike made for a remarkably disappointing test drive.

I managed to find a couple apartments to scope out but nothing I was excited about, and I was surprised by how expensive places were, some running up to $500 for just a decent bedroom. Unwilling to start working until I had a real place to stay, instead I hung out with Corey. We headed a bit out of town to a pretty decent water park on a week day (when we basically had the run of the place) where we proceeded to mess around like a couple of high schoolers. This went well until one trip down the highest slides in the park with our inner tubes stuck together, Corey’s knee went slamming into my rib cage as we hit the pool below, knocking the wind out of me and giving me a deep sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’d broken another rib (taking my tally for the trip up to 5). Sigh.

It was still a great day at the water park…

Eventually, I met up with Mrusha at the office and he got me hooked up with an enormous and extremely active Facebook group called Team Tanzania, which has over 47,000 members. I wrote a post asking about apartments with a bit about who I was and what I was doing in Tanzania and clicked post. The only response I got was from a local journalist curious about possibly writing a story. Later that eve, I spotted an apartment within my price range advertised by a French and Congolese couple and shot them a message. The next day I was scoping out their apartment and found a perfect fit. I moved in a day after that, started work on Monday, and three days later had a morning interview near the beach with an independent journalist outfit that was selling an interview with me — complete with drone footage — to the Chinese state run English language 24 hour satellite news channel CGTN about my Tanzanian teaching project (despite not actually having done anything yet). My life in Tanzania had officially begun.

The new apartment
Gettin’ Interviewed

Mother, Africa, an introduction

On the evening of my mother’s arrival, everything seemed to start off easy. She touched down 30 minutes early at 2am and checked in with me. I passed the info along to the driver, who said he was still 10 minutes away. I warned my mom. 20 minutes later, she said she’d found the driver and was on her way. Fabulous!

30 minutes later, I get a message from the driver. He tells me no one is left in the baggage area and he hasn’t met my mother. My heart skips several beats. I immediately reach out to my mom…

Wait… What? The driver says he hasn’t heard from you…

Who are you with?

Mom??? Where the hell are you?

Several excruciating minutes later, she gets back to me. She’s with the wrong driver. He also had a sign that said “Linda W.” Meanwhile, the kinda driver I’d sent is pissed. He’s up in the middle of the night at the airport with no fare. I was freaking out worrying where she was going and who the hell she was with. It was a small disaster.

My mom ends up at a fancy hotel I’d never heard of called Serena. I send my original driver there. Eventually she manages to get the right car and get to the apartment. It’s 5am by the time she arrives, and it costs a small fortune, but she made it safe and sound. There was much rejoicing. Welcome to Africa, mom!

The next day we took it easy, really only venturing out to find my mom a watch. This ended up being pretty easy, as we were near the central market and major dolla dolla (shared taxi) stand, which absolutely exploded into activity during commuting times, which was when we went out. I warned my mom in advance to let me do the haggling when she spotted a watch to avoid paying the mzungu (white person) tax, but to perhaps our collective surprise, when she spotted one she liked, the seller quoted a price to low I felt bad for haggling. I got him down by a dollar anyways, then my mom paid him the price he asked for. We all left happy. To maximize the jet leg amelioration, we even ordered delivery for dinner.

The next day we took an uber to the bus station to get tickets to Arusha, where we’d begin a 5 day Safari I’d booked by wiring money to a dubious character I’d found on the internet (but who was substantially cheaper than the alternatives), and went out for a nice meal. Then we had one more day of taking it easy in Dar to stash my motorbike and my mom’s extra bag, eat some discount sushi, and hit the sack early, because the next morning we had to be at the bus station by 5am. Thus began the first of many brutally painful all-day bus experiences.

Mashed in the rocking machine without a toilet, sweating, and exhausted, we bounced along for 15 hours, with only a couple stops to stuff food quickly into our faces and use the toilet, before we arrived at our backpackers in Arusha, our bodies and minds lightly poached. They’d made a mistake in our booking and lacked the room we’d booked, but with some hard negotiating, we were able to get two individual rooms for our original budget price due to their mistake. It was going to be another early morning being picked up in a Land Cruiser to start the next leg of our adventure. Mom was handling it all remarkably well.

Our trusty Safarimobile

We were picked up at 8am at our backpackers and taken to an office where we forked over the remainder of the price of our safari in a huge pile of cash. We were joined in force by a random smattering of strangers to fully fill the Land Cruiser and off we went. First stop: Tarangire National Park. Right off the bat, we saw monkeys, baboons, zebra, dozens of types of antelope, warthogs, giraffes, fish eagles, vultures, ostriches, and an army of elephants. We saw groups of hundreds of antelope migrating in force across rivers and through fields. We passed glorious baobab trees and miles of savanna. We saw an adult male lion alone with a tiny cub. At the end, we even stumbled upon a chaotic scene: a new elephant no more than an hour old, placenta still on the ground, bloody umbilical still hanging off, trying to take its first step surrounded by females, as a greatly aroused bull elephant tried repeatedly to mount the mother who’d just given birth and was chased away repeatedly by the rest of the group. It was a wild start.

The sunset from our first safari home.

After a full day of park broken only by a mediocre bag lunch, we headed up a mountain to a beautiful spot called Panorama Safari Camp and Lodge, where we were surreptitiously upgraded to huts from tents, and my mom and I even got spots of our own. The spot overlooked Lake Manyara, and offered a gorgeous view of the sunset over the valley and lake below. We were fed a wonderful spread from the lodge, and after dinner a troop of local acrobats and performers put on a raucous show with juggling, stilts, dancing, drumming, and impressive acrobatic acts. My mom even got pulled in and laid down some moves on the dance floor.

The next morning, it was once again time to pile into the Land Cruiser and head out. We descended the mountain, traversed some valley, then headed once again up to the lip of the Ngorongoro Crater, then down into Serengeti National Park. The steppe was teeming with life, with buffalo, zebra, and antelope herds extending off endlessly into the distance. The landscape itself was relatively stark, with a single dirt road cutting through a vast grassy plain. To add to our list were a smattering of hyenas, dogs, hippos, and a small group of cheetahs (one of which was roadkill on the road, a truly depressing site). At the gate, we stopped for paperwork and my mom got hang with some Maasai women and children. They seemed to find each other pretty interesting. Lunch was the same crummy box of food we’d be eating the next 4 days.

Mom and me at the Serengeti park gate.

We eventually stopped at a relatively tranquil campground where my mom and I had our first of several nights sharing a tent. A handful of inscrutable Marabou Storks also shared our campground, looking like lunatic old men with unsettling unblinking eyes. There was more disappointing food.

Plenty of gnus.

The next day was literally a backtrack out the way we’d come in, with armies of animals marching on in all directions once again as we bumped painfully along the rough road. Our bodies ached from the cramped confines of the car and the constant effort to keep your head from being launched with the bumps into the steel ceiling. In the evening we pulled up to a campground overlooking the vast Ngorongoro Crater, offering a more exciting end to the day than the previous night.

The next day, we bumped our way down a long winding road and into the Ngorongoro crater, which is actually the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfilled volcanic caldera. It’s absolutely stunning, and like many of the parks, near the Olduvai Gorge, home to the earliest discovered evidence of homo sapiens, meaning the area has been inhabited by people for around 3 million years. Covering 250 square kilometers, descending into the caldera feels like entering a long lost and magical world. The early morning haze, coupled with fantastic visibility, resulted in a surreal landscape whereby the animals that dotted the landscape, frequently miles away, seemed to hover midair in murky space. Massive fig trees grow on the fringes near the walls of the caldera.

Here, we saw more buffalo, tons of zebra, a smattering of ostriches, packs of hyenas, and dozens of lions lazily prowling. We also stumbled upon a pride with distended stomachs still munching on the carcass of an enormous buffalo who’d managed to invite himself to breakfast as the main course. The surrounding scenery was as appealing as the animals.

After a full day in the crater, we trundled over close to Lake Manyara, stopping to buy some red bananas (which art short, fat, and other than the color of the peel, thoroughly banana-like), and bid farewell to most of the gang from our Land Cruiser who’d only signed up for 4 days to our 5. We once again got lucky and got beds in a room, and while this time there was no delicious food nor acrobatics show, there was a pool, and our backs were happy to not be on the ground. The next morning we hit Lake Manyara for our last day “on safari,” which billed itself as where lions sleep in the trees. It wasn’t long after entering the park that we saw that the advertising was accurate, and we came upon a tree packed with female lions, legs draped over branches, sleeping peacefully in the heat of the day.

Eventually we made it to a large wooden walkway (proudly paid for by Japan) over and onto a hot spring bubbling on one side of the lake. There we suffered our final round of boxed lunches before bouncing our way back towards civilization and a night once again in beds in an Arusha backpackers.

We had a full day of downtime in Arusha, where we did some haggling for clothing to replace the shirt my mom had lost, and for me to get a pair of shorts repaired. We also secured bus tickets to the next phase of my master travel plan: an eco-lodge deep, deep in the Usambara Mountains called Mambo Viewpoint. The route there was long and painful, and consisted first of getting to the Arusha bus station at 6am to board a large bus headed to the city at the base of the Usambara Mountains called Lushoto, which only took about 6 hours on what passes for a highway in Tanzania. Then we continued up a long and winding dirt road, the large bus careening through tight turns, through rain forests and farmland, eventually being dropped off another 6 hours later at a dirt intersection where we were met by a man in a truck who drove us the last handful of kilometers through wildly rough and beautiful mountain terrain to a lodge tucked onto an impossible cliff, offering a mind-blowing view of the surrounding area. Equipped with a tent, we were convinced to upgrade to a hut of our own. Buffet meals of local, organic, fantastic foods were offered and we were happy to indulge. The owners and staff were all phenomenally friendly and hard working people bettering the area. My mom was in love.

The viewpoint part of Mambo Viewpoint.

The Usambara Mountains are often referred to as the bread basket of Tanzania. Home to the densest population of people in the country, nearly all work as subsistence farmers, growing an enormous range of produce in tiny terraced plots covering the rugged landscape, and taking advantage of the rich soil and extremely high rainfall. Remote areas of the region still have ancient virgin rain forests, though they’re being increasingly encroached on from the dense population. We hired a guide from the lodge to take us on a hike through town the day after we arrived, and one of the neighboring rain forests and waterfalls the next day. At the end of the second day, we were treated to another acrobatics performance, this one put on by local kids who were being trained by Mambo Viewpoint. It was adorable.

Terraced farmland

After two days of wearing out our legs to match the rest of our bodies, and thoroughly enjoying introducing my mom to a slower, pastoral African setting than the cities, it was time for the final phase of my great motherly travel plan: relaxing on the beach in the fabulously-named Zanzibar. Some incredibly friendly locals who happened to be passing through the lodge with a European girl who’d been working with them offered to greatly improve our lives and drop us off in their 4×4 at the Lushoto bus station, saving us nearly 4 hours of nightmarish bus travel, and at 8:30 in the morning, we were off. We had an hour to kill at the bus station, where we miraculously managed to get a damn fine cup of local coffee, and then had a 6 hour bus ride back to Dar es Salaam, with a long painful stop to deal with a tire blowout on the outskirts of town. By 6, we were situated back at the Hunch Backpackers for my mom’s first night ever in a proper 12 bed dorm room.

The next morning we were up and off to the ferry terminal by 8:30 once again. By late morning, we were lugging our bags over to another dorm room in downtown Stonetown, the beautiful old city on the west coast of Zanzibar. Once checked in, we spent the day wandering through high and narrow ancient alleys, drinking frozen drinks, and scoping out the markets.

Finally the next morning, it was properly time to head to the beach. I’d booked us a bungalow near the beach on the outskirts of a popular tourist town on the north coast called Nungwi, and rather than pay for an expensive private car, we tracked down and hopped in one of the shared minibuses (dolla dollas) for about a buck a piece. We got dumped a mile away from our destination, and the going was tough through mud and huge puddles of water given my mom’s enormous rolling luggage. Eventually, she happened upon a local who stuck the ungainly thing atop his head and ported it over, greatly alleviating my bellyaching. We were checked in in early afternoon and greeted by beds with friendly messages written out in leaves. The excitement for a few days of beach relaxation was palpable.

We traded our walking shoes for flip flops and hit the ocean, wandering down the perfect silken white beaches, wading out into the water, and enjoying a western-ish meal under umbrellas, next to monkeys, and to the sound of the waves. We watched a glorious sunset with our toes in the water.

Three days of beach bumming came and went quickly. Our batteries were blissfully recharged. Then, sadly, it was time to head back to reality, which for us was another big day of travel: a dolla dolla to Stonetown, a ferry to Dar es Salaam, and a car back to Hunch Backpackers. It took over 8 hours door to door. Another motorcyclist had showed up in our absence, this time a South African guy on a BMW F650. My mom and I had dinner then wiled away the night playing Jenga (which was made by a Tanzanian guy, and is the Swahili word for build) with fellow hostel-dwellers followed by a tearfilled sendoff. I was back on my own.

So long and thanks for the wonderful memories!

Mozambique to Momma, my first stint in Tanzania

Soaking wet with river water, caked with sand from the waist down, my bike gritty from the adventure, I took my first breaths on Tanzanian soil. The two people who’d fortuitously dragged me the final inches over the bluff pointed me towards the “border,” and I briefly took stock of my situation. I was on a grassy bluff with a dirt path heading vaguely west through what seemed like people’s yards. I started down them slowly.

I’d left Mozambique at the last possible minute on my visa, and had entered Tanzania with a little over a week to kill before my mom, who was coming to visit me for three weeks, arrived in Dar es Salaam. This left me with a decent amount of time to work things out on my own.

Eventually, I arrived at a proper dirt road leading to two small brick buildings that were apparently the customs/immigration complex. Approaching the first building that seemed official, a surly gentleman in an official outfit motioned me to the other for immigration. Meanwhile I was approached by a standard-issue border tout who offered to help me through the process. Though I declined, he followed me to the other building and waited outside. No one was in the building, and the tout told me to wait and the guy would be back in a few minutes.

About 10 minutes later, another man, much friendlier (not saying much), came and we went through the standard tourist visa rigmarole, lightening my pocket by $100 (exactly double what any non-American visitor pays for a visa to Tanzania). I left and took the motorcycle (and tout in tow) back to the first building. The surly man brought me in and asked me for my bike papers. I obliged. He scowled at the documents and asked me for my carnet. I told him I didn’t have one. He responded in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t bring the bike in at all. He said I’d have to leave it here, but that I could go in without it. I pled my case, but he was having none of it. Without explaining more, he got up and walked out of the office and away.

Confused and worried, I waited outside the office and the tout came back to talk to me. He assured me everything would be okay and asked where I was heading after. 30km north of the border was the city of Mtwara I told him I was planning to head to. He told me there was a Lutheran church that offered cheap safe accommodations and drew me a map. While I was sitting with the tout, the border agent returned and proceeded to lose his mind. He began shouting at me for talking with the tout, yelling that I should be talking to him not to this guy. I tried to diffuse the situation, but once again, he was having none of it, storming back and forth and shouting at me for a couple minutes before once again leaving.

The tout seemed nonplussed, again insisting it would all be fine. 30 painful minutes passed with me camped in front of the border post. Eventually, the agent once again returned, saying nothing to me as he passed inside and took a seat at the table. I came in a minute later and he continued to chide me nonsensically for talking with the tout instead of him. I asked him if it weren’t possible for me to get a Temporary Import Permit (TIP), and he produced the TIP document, showing me the language on it that stated it was only for vehicles registered in Southern African Development Community (SADC) member countries. We went back and forth for awhile and he asked for money, stating that he needed $40: $25 for the permit, and $15 for him. Not seeing a lot of options, I handed over the money. Then he took out his phone, made a call, and walked away again.

When he came back, ending the call, we filled out the SADC TIP with my information and he gave me my money back, scowling the entire time. He then let me leave.

Confused, exhausted, wet, and sandy, and with the day quickly fading, I hopped on the bike and proceeded down the dirt track north. I wound through some villages and forests for about 40 minutes, eventually hitting a tar road with lots of traffic, mostly trucks, minibuses, and motorcycle rickshaws. The Lutheran church was at the beginning of town. It was a large gated complex with a large roofless concrete church structure, lots of shrubby vegetation, and a few squat buildings connected to each other. I pulled up to the entrance to the largest one. There was no signage about rooms, but when a man appeared and I asked him, he assured me they had rooms, and they were cheap.

I guess I should have made this website BishopLev?

He led me through some small weird hallways and into the visiting Bishop’s quarters. There were a few rooms, and he led me into a large and shoddy one with threadbare furniture, windowless windows, and holy (perhaps in both senses of the word) mosquito netting over the bed. A desk that looked like it had been through a war was nestled in the corner. You bet your ass the Bishop’s room came with a bible. The heat, oppressive and humid all day, continued to tear into me, with buckets of sweat pouring off of me as I lugged my baggage into the hot room. Midway through a load, a young man came out of one of the other rooms and asked me about my plans. I told him I was hungry and he offered to accompany me next door for food. We were about halfway there before I deeply regretted his presence.

A large outdoor restaurant/bar with plastic tables and chairs strewn willy-nilly through an unkempt field neighbored the church compound. I ordered a beer, and the African standard meal: chicken and chips. The guy from the hostel talked to me about religion and generally just made me a little uncomfortable. He wasn’t eating, just watching. It felt like I had a religious minder. Positively, the beer was cold and pretty decent for a large national beer, and my oppressive heat-exhaustion slowly faded into a hum. After dinner, we retreated back to the Bishop’s housing and I took a much-deserved shower and slept on the shitty bed with the joyous restfulness of true exhaustion.

My motorcycle also slept in the Bishop’s residence.

In the morning, I headed to the same next door restaurant for breakfast, but was intercepted en route by my “minder,” who once again followed me for what would have otherwise been a peaceful meal. But newly equipped with a full tank of cash and a pocket full of thousands of Tanzanian Shillings, I was excited to get the hell out and hit the road for my first real day in Tanzania.

The roads from Mtwara north were pocked and windy. Heavy truck traffic was pervasive, and they drove with an aggression that was truly terrifying. I was ran completely off the road on more than one occasion as one heavy truck barreled head-on towards me attempting to pass another, seemingly completely uninterested in my presence in the lane. I passed through dense vegetation covered mountains, a brief stretch of ocean vistas, and endless small villages made of sticks, bricks, and thatch roofs.

Traffic and poor road quality made the going slow. The sun beat down through clear skies, and the pure-humidity salty breeze from the ocean made me need frequent stops to hydrate. Dar es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania, was going to take far too long, so I decided to swing off the main road onto a peninsula that terminated with the town of Kilwa Masoko, with the UNESCO World Heritage Site on the island Kilwa Kisiwani a short boat ride away. Off the main road, the traffic died down, and the thoroughfare, still pocked with intense potholes, was then covered in sand and lined with palm trees. The 300km to get there took a stunning 5 and a half hours.

The small town of Kilwa had a number of hotels, and as I stopped by one after another, I found no vacancies or exorbitant prices. I could see on Google Maps a spot 5km from town on the coast, but Google Maps showed it nearly that far from any listed road as well. My kinda place. With frequent stops to look at the map, I found a crazy complicated series of sandy tracks winding through people’s yards, around palm trees and dense vegetation, construction sites, and confusing dead ends, but eventually I pulled up at a gated beach “resort.” It seemed old and desolate. I drove inside.

A group of folks were sitting around having dinner under the shade of thatch umbrella. They greeted me as I arrived and invited me to join them. Super friendly and engaging, the patriarch was a 20-year veteran of the UN and the owner of the hotel. He continued to force his food on me and regaled me with stories of living in Cambodia for 7 years, as well as Sudan, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, all during their troubled times. He presented me with a super cheap seaside cabin complete with air-conditioning. I was home. After eating with his crew, I parked in the sand next to my cabin and unloaded in the blinding heat of the day.

Photo of the author upon his arrival and unpacking.
The view from my villa.

I relaxed, showered, read my book on the oceanside, and booked a tour guide to the UNESCO site the next morning. The patriarch of the place had more diplomats in town visiting that I chatted with, some of whom were 20+ year veterans of the US foreign service. Unsurprisingly, the diplomats were incredibly interesting, engaging, and charismatic. I was fed another meal for free and got to sleep in the 1st world comforts of both machine-cooled air and privacy, plus the addition of the sound of waves through the window. Full, content, and comfortable, I slept.

The beach bar by night.

In the morning, I rode my unloaded motorbike down the endless sandy paths back to town. I met my tour guide at the small port. He was a friendly if moderately distracted gentleman who’d grown up on the island of Kilwa Kisiwani, a former Sultinate and once one of the richest and most powerful settlements on the Swahili coast. We boarded a small motor-powered longboat and bobbed 15 minutes across the channel.

Heading to the island.
Landfall, Kilwa Kisiwani.

Large stone ruins peaked through mangroves, baobabs, and lush vegetation as we approached the island. A small fort named Husuni Ndogo greets you near the port, a glorious ruin of lumpy chunks of coral cemented together with limestone, complete with fading crenelations and rocky arrow slits. My guide and I headed towards it in the hot morning sun.

Husuni Ndogo
The primary entrance.

Thought to have been built in the 7th or 8th centuries, and possibly also used as a mosque, much of the structure remains, with only the wall facing the ocean and some of the ceilings crumbling into the sea. We walked around the building to where one of the huge meter+ thick walls was missing allowing us entrance.

Thick walls
View of the missing oceanside fortifications, and the structure’s well in the center.
The inside of the fort, my guide to the left.

After the fort, we wandered along the coast, past various old and new structures, some inhabited some gone to ruins. The island had gone through quite a few big changes over the years: subjugated by the Portuguese in the early 16th century then later taken by Arabs, again conquered by the Omanis in 1784, the main city was abandoned in the 1840’s, and the island finally fell into German occupation until 1918. Hints of this storied past was littered throughout, some hidden under lush vegetation.

Old and new living structures  
A baobab growing in the ruins of the former city.

Eventually we made it to a large complex of tall and crumbling coral walls, the remains of the old city. In places, plaster still clung to the structures, showing hints at the impressive decorative elements that once adorned the structures. The familiar Arabic window shapes peaked out in places.

Close-up of the coral wall construction
Inside one of the large structures in town. Note the rusted canyon on the ground on the right.
Surviving Arabic window details
The outside of one of the largest remaining walls of the Great Mosque of Kilwa

Wandering further inland across the island, we reach the Great Mosque of Kilwa, one of the oldest surviving mosques in East Africa. Began in the 10th century, and with several distinct stages of construction, it’s still quite impressive to wander through the columns and gaze at the few remaining domes.

The outer structure of the Great Mosque
The underside of one of the few domes still standing shows a hint of the craftsmanship
One of the fallen Domes

After the mosque, we set out across the island toward the former palace. We tromped through villages and jungle. On a narrow path in the forest, we came upon an old Muslim man pushing an old steel bicycle. Attached to the back was a bag of freshly roasted cashews. He greeted us, then reached into the bag and dumped a generous double-handful into the hands of me and my guide. They were charred and delicious, tasting sweet in a way that seemed altogether foreign to me. In the villages, I noticed chalk writing on the doors of all the houses. My guide told me this is how the villagers leave messages for one another. I found this to be pretty freakin’ cute.

We passed more stone ruins with ancient trees bursting through their mortar and slithering around their stones, hardworking women drawing endless water from a well, others carrying large bundles of sticks atop their strong heads, hungry and ornery goats, and many colorful tableaus of drying clothes laid out upon the grass. Eventually, we came upon the grand palace itself.

Perched upon a tall bluff, the massive grounds offered an unparalleled view of the sound. Walls, halls, and doorways, with only occasional ceilings, peeked out every which way. An very deep but dry well yawned under the shade of a large tree. More phenomenal baobabs ringed the excavated landscape. Numerous courtyards, great halls, playing fields, and rooms poked out from every which way. Several broad staircases have survived. Even an odd 10-sided room remains perched on one side. I wandered around gazing in awe at the sheer scale of the place for awhile, but the full heat of the day had arrived, and this was our final stop.

A massive original staircase sits at the end of the property leading down the bluff and into a mangrove-choked beach. A few minutes after we arrived, our boat slid between the mangroves and picked us up from the shallow water.

Upon returning to the mainland, I once again got lost a dozen times trying to get back to my hotel. I was now the only guest there. The staff invited me to join them for lunch, which I did. I relaxed in the beachside paradise awhile before heading back to town to have a couple beers at a small local bar where the lady running it joined me and chatted me up for awhile. Dinner was once again free and in the company of the friendly staff at the resort.

In the morning, they’d set up a small table for breakfast for me facing the beach. It was adorable. I ate a feast with a view and packed my things in the tropical sun.

A fitting farewell.

It was bittersweet leaving the tranquil quiet of Kilwa and rejoining the main coastal highway, which was choked with aggressive heavy truck traffic belching endless black sooty diesel into my face. Swarms of tuk tuks, motorcycles, and “dolla dollas” (ubiquitous Toyota vans jammed with people that cost $1 to take in town, hence the name) and private vehicles joined the din as I closed in on Dar es Salaam. The road was abysmal, with deep ruts, rocks, holes, and diversions. Things slowed to a crawl as the massive vehicles attempted to pick their way through the wreckage. Where possible, I wove through the carnage, but things were tight. The last 50km was a dirty war in the street.

Eventually, the coastal highway battleground, marked by jungle, villages, and hills, gave way to an urban apocalypse. The streets buzzed with activity: colorful kufias (fez-like hats common in the Muslim community in East Africa) atop white robes bustled pushing large wooden hand carts atop truck wheel and axles, chickens darted, goats lazed. The traffic had caused me to arrive at the worst possible time. I was baptized from day one in the horror that is Dar’s traffic. “House of Peace” it is not (during rush hour).  Particularly brutal were the dolla dolla stops, where they would double and triple park, choking traffic to a crawl and spilling people, animals, and luggage out into the streets. As I made my way past one of these which was a particularly brutal jumble of man and machine, a police officer in an argument with a man on the street, grabbed his billy club and swung it at the man’s head, the tip of it came no more than 6 inches from my face as I puttered by, assuredly with a look of stupid shock slapped across it. It all seemed almost allegorical.

I crossed over the harbor on a big gleaming new bridge that rises high into the air, granting an impressive view of the hodgepodge Dar skyline. Immediately upon arriving on the other side, I was dumped onto a lumpy dirt road. It boggled the mind. Traffic remained heavy as I continued through town on one of the major thoroughfares (and infamous Selander Bridge choke point). Eventually, I turned off into the neighborhood of Kinondoni, not far from the French Embassy (always a good sign), to reach a spot called Hunch Backpackers. As I pulled up, I came upon a kitted up KLR with South African plates. Immediately afterwards, I met a bearded white male American software engineer in the pool who was riding it. I guess there’s a type.

Hunch was a nice place, open just a few months, with air conditioning, a new building, and a tasty breakfast included that actually changed every day. The owner was also a super friendly chap — full of stories — and after getting checked into a room with a dozen beds in it and unloaded, I got a drink and began chatting up the biker. I ended up out to dinner with him and his friend, learning how small a world we live in, as it turned out he was applying for a job at Google and the hiring manager he was talking to was a friend of mine. He now works in my old building on my old floor in my old office. Small world, and maybe even more specific type…

Hunch was willing to store my bike, taking care of my primary concern before my mother’s arrival (we weren’t about to go traipsing across Tanzania two-up on my motorbike), which left me with a handful of days to kill in Dar preparing and checking out the city. I ate discount sushi at Cape Town Fish Market, had a true western-style breakfast, had a night out at the Alliance Française watching a huge traditional Tanzanian band show featuring over a dozen old men in matching outfits playing instruments and dancing, stumbled upon the filming of a Congolese music video, checked out the main government museums, and even found a burger place that made a half-decent cheeseburger out of a shipping container. I also made a logistical plan for my mom’s time in Tanzania, taking advantage of Hunch’s decent WiFi.

Disaffected models littered the production set.

When the time finally came, everything was ready. I’d moved into a quiet 2 bedroom apartment downtown that my mom could sleep off her jetlag in, and via the diplomats I’d met in Kilwa, I even had a driver meeting her at the airport with a sign. Everything was set for her middle-of-the-night arrival. I just sat back, relaxed, and steeled myself for three solid weeks of mom time.