Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Hills Before the Foothills

[Dar Es Salaam --> Arusha]

Eyes open to sunshine, ears awaken to the perennial construction outside Hamsa’s window where a team of laborers demolish a building brick by brick. We breakfast, strap our backpacks on—click, click—and wait downstairs for Hamsa’s friends Katana and Gloria, students at the nearby Muhimbili Medical School who are traveling north with us to Arusha, the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The taxi ride is a jostle of bodies and giggles; if our overstuffed hiking packs aren’t enough, 2 containers of Katana’s fish swish in the trunk. The bus station is expectedly but not overwhelmingly crowded. Exactly as the digital clock behind the bus driver blinks 7:30 we set off, inching our way out of the throngs of the bus depot and onto the main road. What follows is 10 hours of pure, relaxing entertainment. We chat, snooze, and are treated to a cocktail of local soap operas, vintage MTV—O Town, Tina Turner, Celine Dion, Michael Jackson, Boyz II Men, Enrique Iglesias— and refreshingly popular Bongo Flava. The Angrezi—English—soap opera subtitles, Gloria informs us, are mostly inaccurate. Regardless, we deduce that Richmond, one of the characters, is quite notorious.

Our fellow passengers are couples, older women—traveling solo, to their credit—and young boys in crisp white and navy uniforms, their tickets folded neatly in their shirt pockets. They watch the TV open mouthed and bounce along to the music, and when they get off the bus at Moshi 8 hours later they skip and stride like determined students not yet corrupted by adolescence.

The weather cools—feeling like early Fall in New York—and Gloria is prepared with a sweater; she is cold in 60 degree weather, how quaint!

The landscape tells a story of geography, history, culture: I stare into farming horizons, maize farms grow brittle post-harvest and baby coconut trees proudly brandish their bouquet of daggers bursting out of the ground. Villages remind me of the Three Little Pigs: huts are made out of brick, sticks, hay; roofs are thatched and made of cement. Larger villages boast cars and their signs boast a surprising array of services: car mechanics to stationery stores to schools to pubs. “Tanzania Department of Infrastructure” boards pop up frequently, near construction sites and railway crossings, as do signs for Primary and Secondary schools—several English medium. The more urban centers boast tall buildings and Montessori schools. Everywhere people are lounging, talking; the women are bursts of color made even brighter by the bold fabrics they are washing. A mother carefully places a bucket on her young child’s head, he clutches it with excitement in his eyes. How long will that excitement last?

We wind our way north and the ground rises too, upwards into grassy hills. When distant, they are 2 dimensional jagged trapezoids, each layer a lighter shade of grey. Up close they are invitingly green; the trees standing on the silhouetted surface look like humans and animals in different postures—standing, walking, crawling, crouching; an evolution of/by Nature? Each tableau interrupts the next: half-built huts stand next to schools with colorful murals which swallow up parts of hills. The brown remnants of farms muddy the lush green adjacent to it, readying our eyes for the red earth surrounding the villages lined parallel to the highway. Hills approach from the left and encroach on the right. The vastness is intensified by railroad tracks that seem narrower than usual and rivers that, now in dry season, are diminished in level and current.

At bus stops big and small our windows are crowded by baskets of wooden tools, oranges and jewelry, held up by hopeful arms eager to make a sale. The old woman across the aisle buys a pack of oranges through her window. It is unclear if she pays the seller in time because the bus is moving again and she still clutches money in her hand, her window still open. I wonder how often a transaction like this goes unpaid. She does not seem too concerned, and is soon asleep again.

Residential patches of landscape announce themselves with a tantalizing poster of a woman drinking a bottle of Coke—her head tilted back, her eyes closed, the anticipation of pleasure thick. At first this poster is attached to signs for pubs, restaurants and the odd hostel; then I see it liberally announcing teashops, markets and fax/photocopying stores. I think about it long enough to accept and interpret the sign as representing beverages, efficiency, ease, entertainment—applicable to a stationery store and a pub. Brilliant in its versatility!

Our lunch stop, about 5 hours into our journey, lasts 20 minutes. Tables laden with fresh fruit arrest our eyes, the smell of cooking meat and fried snacks tugs at our noses. Back on the road, we pick up speed, darting between the 2-lane 2-way highway the way Indian truck drivers do, except without any honking. Impressive.

At a major fork, after unloading half the bus at Moshi, we turn right and Katana promises us Mt. Kilimanjaro past the clouds. For now, it is hidden.

Katana’s father greets in Arusha where our bus journey ends, and we walk a few minutes through banana plantation to his beautiful home. Katana’s parents repeatedly greet and welcome us, karibu, and we repeatedly greet and thank them with respect, shikamo, and they repeatedly acknowledge our formal greeting with their own, marahaba, and welcome us again, karibu, and we thank them again, asante, and this goes on until Hamsa and I have been shown to the guest room, taken showers and are seated in the dining room with plates full of steaming, freshly made, fully vegetarian food warming our laps. There is nothing like coming home after traveling for 10 hours!

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