The Long and Winding Road

The bus ride from Mombasa, Kenya to Arusha, Tanzania, home of Mt. Kilimanjaro, was exactly what we expected, yet nothing can really prepare you for it until you experience it. There is no such thing as a bus station. There is a bus stand which is an area of the street where the buses just stop to load and unload their passengers. Our bus was not quite the broken-down old school bus Stephanie had been hoping for, but it was not a whole lot more advanced. There was no air conditioning which didn’t seem to bother the locals at all – several of them were wearing coats or sweaters and no one at all (including me) had exposed legs. The difference of course was that we *felt* the heat and were sweltering. To keep cool, we relied on open windows, each of which had a curtain that could be pulled against the blazing sun. The message hand-written in Swahili above the front windows read: “Aribia Chunga Mzigo Wako Wandani.” It looked so romantically exotic, but simply was a reminder to all passengers to watch their own belongings.

Many smaller buses had passenger luggage strapped to the roof. We lucked out in that ours had luggage storage in the belly of the bus. This would protect our gear from being coated in the red, red dust that is endlessly kicked up from the sometimes-unpaved roads in Africa. Or so we thought. We later found out that nothing – including us – was immune from the dust, and everything – including us – was covered.

As we drove from the city of Mombasa through many small villages, we were endlessly fascinated by everything. The single-story buildings ranged from concrete structures to corrugated tin shacks to mud huts supported by a network of sticks. Many buildings were in partial states of construction, and we saw the same corporate logos fully plastered on many stores: Airtel, Rhino Concrete (Building Africa!), Tusker lager, “Nice & Lovely” (which we guessed was a line of cosmetic products), and even a few Coca-Colas.

The people too were everywhere. Everyone seemed to be doing something; even those who were doing nothing seemed to be doing so with a purpose. At one point I wondered aloud to Stephanie about the loitering groups of people, “Why do you think those people are sitting there?” When she shook her head in curiosity, I pointed out, much to her amusement: “They had to get up, get dressed, get there, and sit down!” so early in the morning.

The roads were paved at first, but we took many unpaved roads through the bush on our way to Arusha. Dust and dirt constantly flew everywhere, and Stephanie often had to look away or close her eyes. The roads were so bumpy that it was difficult to read, and all but impossible to work on the computer. We would sometimes end up behind long convoys of trucks which seemed happy to let us leapfrog between them. Sometimes when we were passing a vehicle, oncoming trucks would come bearing down on us, but they would always slow in the last moment and let us fall back in our lane. All the drivers on the road seemed well versed in this dance, and so we were not at all worried.

We stopped at several stations along the way to pick up and discharge passengers. Whenever we did, hoards of people would hold boxes up to our windows trying to sell snacks and drinks and even sausages. They would try to attract Stephanie’s attention by calling “Mzungu lady” to her. (Mzungu is the local term for white travelers such as us.) We had a few snacks with us as well as iodine pills with which we had treated three liters of water, so we usually politely declined. We figured the sausages would be great at lunchtime, but by then there were none offered through the bus windows at the “towns” we stopped in. We did get some bananas at one point, much to Stephanie’s satisfaction, who was having a difficult time already on this trip finding her “healthies”.

Our bus ride was supposed to take eight hours, but after seven, we were only at the Kenya/Tanzania border – still 3.5 hours from our destination. The border crossing was bureaucratic, yet completely unstructured at the same time. We showed our Kenya visa and got our exit stamp, and then walked 100 yards across the border to Tanzanian immigration. There were few signs and no real directions as to where to go, but eventually we were told a Tanzanian visa could be ours for some of our hard-earned greenbacks.

It turned out we could not board our bus until after it passed through border control. Our bus driver motioned us to wait a little way up the road where another bus was sitting, and since he spoke no English, we thought he was gesturing that we needed to board the other bus to continue our journey. Frantic, I got him to let me back on the bus to grab all of our stuff, and then sheepishly stood there holding it while he drove through the gate we had just walked through and picked us right back up. Where we waited was a Tanzanian lady grilling ears of corn that smelled wonderful. We changed a small amount of Kenyan shillings into Tanzanian shillings and grabbed some hot, dry, delicious roasted corn for only 400 shillings. A lot you ask? It came to about 25 cents. And at that point we were thrilled to have any food whatsoever since the sausages were hundreds of miles behind us.

We continued on our bumpy way and the closer we got to Arusha, the more the bus filled up with locals until there wasn’t even standing room. As we approached Arusha, one mountain looked larger than the rest. While Stephanie slept, I gazed at it thinking, “At last – Kilimanjaro!” It turns out I was looking at Mt. Meru, which despite its huge looks is 1000 vertical feet *lower* than Kili. *My* mountain, the tallest mountain on the continent of Africa, was shrouded in the clouds.

Arriving in Arusha, we hadn’t even left the bus when a man on the street caught my attention. He was holding a sign that read “Elliott x2. Private vehicle.” We usually don’t blog about our couch surfing hosts directly, but our host in Arusha – Maggie – would turn out to be instrumental in our stay for the foreseeable future. She runs a safari and mountain expedition company called “African Zoom.” She had said she would pick us up from the station, but we did not expect that she would send a private driver in an air conditioned van to wait for over two hours until our bus finally rolled in way behind schedule.

Our driver –Emanuel – took us to an ATM to get some cash, and a local market to get some groceries. He also pointed out a clock tower in the center of Arusha that marks the midway point on the continuous road from Cairo to Johannesburg. Then he took us to Maggie’s house which is also African Zoom’s office. When we arrived, we were treated like visiting dignitaries by Maggie’s employees, which always makes me a little nervous. After her office staff left for the day, Maggie prepared us a simple yet delicious local dinner of rice and vegetables, and we just sat in the humid night air and chatted.

The next day we sat down with Maggie and told her what we wanted to do as far as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, and she offered us many different options. She had a price for us that was below anything I had seen online, so I was thrilled. Since we were already guests in her home, it made the decision very easy for us.

The only snag we hit was how to pay. Credit cards here mean ridiculous processing fees that get passed on to us. We couldn’t wire money since our bank needed a notarized signature, and we could only take a certain amount of cash out of the ATM’s per day. It meant a slight delay in beginning our climb, but Maggie was happy to host us as we made the required number of trips to the ATM!

As we prepared for our expedition, we got to see a bit of Arusha. We hiked through the area where Maggie’s house is located, and down to the Usa (OOH-sah) river. Although her home is in what we might think of as the suburbs of town, it seems to get very rural very quickly. The surrounding roads are mostly dirt, riddled with potholes, and very bumpy. There is limited public power, so Maggie has solar collectors and backup batteries to run electric items. There is public water, but barely any pressure. There are homes in various states of construction that look like it may be a while before they’re completed, and there are even mud/stick huts in and around the concrete houses.

Downtown Arusha is not quite a chaotic as Mombasa, but you still cannot forget you’re in a developing country. No store signs are lit up, and most are hand-painted rather than being generated by machine. Tanzanians drive on the left which added to our disorientation. And, of course, we are some of the only Mzungus around.

Tomorrow we are off for our trek up Kilimanjaro – a bucket-list item I have been looking forward to for many years. We will be hiking for eight straight days up the *supposedly* beautiful mountain that I have yet to see since it keeps hiding behind the clouds! See you back online when we’re done…!

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2 thoughts on “The Long and Winding Road

  1. Hey, you two,
    I have been following your entire itinerary and think this is the best show of satisfied Wanderlust that I have ever seen, barring Columbus, Magellan et al. ( whoever HE is). Jim and I love the photos and , amateur writer that I am, I really enjoy your witty commentaries as well as the info you provide at every turn. Have fun, be safe, and keep on truckin’, bikin’, hikin’, drivin’ etc!
    Monica and Jim

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