Off The Beaten Track

Pemba Island, Tanzania; January 2007

In the winter of 2006-2007 I spent 5 months wandering around eastern Africa.   I flew into Nairobi, Kenya, and flew back from Capetown, South Africa.   In between those two endpoints I had many interesting adventures.   I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya, went on several safaris and visited a couple of semi-forgotten ancient ruins.   For the first month or two of my trip, I traveled with a Polish guy named Marius who I met during my flight layover in London.    He’s a short and stalky punk rocker with a shaved head, lots of tattoos and a fondness for camouflage fashion.    If you know what I look like (tall and gangly with crazy long hippie hair), you might appreciate the humorous image of our traveling partnership.   Perhaps never before has black Africa been subjected to a more ridiculous representation of the white western world.   Indeed, the amount of laughter we seemed to cause everywhere we went was enough to make the entire journey worthwhile…

We arrive in the town of Tanga on the coast of Tanzania shortly after finishing our safari in the Ngorororo Crater.   Our original plan is to go directly to the island of Zanzibar for some rest and relaxation on the world famous beaches.  But when we learn that it is possible to take a ferry to the smaller island of Pemba from where we can connect to another ferry for Zanzibar we decide to take a small detour.  Unfortunately, the ferry from Tanga only runs on Tuesdays and we arrive on a Saturday so we have to wait for a few days.    No matter, we buy ourselves a nice bag of local weed, get a room with a balcony overlooking the ocean and proceed to amuse ourselves by socializing with the good citizens of Tanga. When Tuesday arrives, we ditch the marijuana before catching the ferry because there is supposed to be a customs inspection on the island.   Hopefully, we’ll be able to get more after arrival.  The boat trip across the ocean takes about 5 hours.  Docking the boat on the island, however, takes another 3 hours because there is no jetty or dock and its low tide.  We end up having to slog through ankle deep mud in order to reach the shore.    Customs inspection is minimal.  A single officer in a plain wooden shack has to process all the hundred or so people who disembark from the ferry.   He looks at my passport and waives me through without searching me at all.  Nevertheless, I’m still glad I got rid of the contraband before the process.   Formalities complete, we follow the crowd up a steep path and into the town of Wete on the North side of the island.

Wete is a Muslim place…a very Muslim place.  All the women wear a dark black covering over their whole bodies except the tiny slits for their eyes and all the men wear long pants and long sleeve shirts even though the temperature is around 100 degrees F.   The Koran teaches that both men and women should be modest in dress and these people take their religion very seriously.   Wandering around in shorts and a tee shirt while looking for a place to stay, I feel like I am half naked.   Nevertheless, the people don’t seem offended by my attire.  To the contrary, they seem amused by my strangeness and they all greet me with smiles and nods.  Ultimately, we find a nice but inexpensive place to stay where we are welcomed by a very friendly older man.    He’s not the kind of guy to ask about marijuana though so instead we ask about swimming.  He gives us directions to a nearby spot and that’s where we go after dropping our backpacks in the room. But the swimming hole is a shithole that no sane person would immerse himself in.  No doubt, the local kids are taking the plunge but I am not the least bit tempted even though the temperature hovers around a hundred.    It’s just a tiny opening between the mangroves with lots of floating plastic bags and bottles…no thanks, I think I’ll pass.  That’s the thing about Pemba which separates it from Zanzibar.  Zanzibar has perfect blue waters, endless white sand beaches and an almost infinite number of tourist hotels to choose from.  Pemba is covered with overgrown mangroves so it has almost no beaches and therefore no tourists…  It’s a totally different universe.  Pemba is also 99% Muslim and alcohol is not a part of their culture so finding beer here is nearly impossible.  So we are on an island but there are no beaches, no grass, no booze and the women are covered from head to toe…  What in the hell can we possibly do for fun here?

In the evening time, the hotel owner informs us that there is indeed a beach on Pemba.  It’s called Vumawimbi beach but it’s very hard to get to.  There’s no public transport; it’s 25 kilometers away and the road is very very rough.   We can rent bicycles if we want but the journey will be extremely difficult.    I, however, disagree with the assessment of difficulty.  50 kilometers round trip on a bicycle should be easy.  That’s only 30 miles.  I do that almost every day back home.    So we agree to rent the bikes and plan the excursion for the following morning.

50 kilometers in one day is no problem on my nice 20 speed expensive American made bike on well paved roads in comfortable temperatures in upstate NY.  50 kilometers round trip on a one speed, very old, half broken, very small, Chinese bicycle with a basket on the front on the worst roads on the planet in hundred degree temperatures is a whole different transportation reality.   Visualize the absurdity….  A peaceful African village on an island in the middle of nowhere calmly going about it’s day to day activities when all of a sudden, two crazy Muzungus (Swahili word for white guy), come pedaling through on shitty old bicycles that are way way too small for them.  In the first hour or so, we pass through 4 such villages and the following conversation takes place no less than 100 times. Local man:  “Jambo!” (which means hello in Swahili). Pat and Marius:  “Jambo” Local man:  “Mambo vipee?”  (which means how are you?) Pat and Marius:  “Poa”  (which means good or fine). Local man:  “karibu sana” (which means very welcome). Pat and Marius:  asante (thank you). Admittedly, the conversations are extremely short because my knowledge of Swahili is limited and I am speeding by on a bicycle (well, okay, not exactly speeding).  But just imagine having literally hundreds of people welcome you to their island.  Real welcomes too; not just words, but smiles and gestures with honest enthusiasm.  In addition to the remarkably friendly adults, there are the kids.  They all shout “Muzungu! Muzungu!” or “hello, hello,” or “good morning.”    Oh what a bizarre sight Marius and I must be.  But they have no fear whatsoever.  Nothing but openness and welcome.   I can’t help but think of my own country.  What would happen if two black Muslim guys came riding through a suburban neighborhood on bicycles.  How would they be received?

About an hour or so into the ride, tragedy strikes.  Marius gets a flat tire on his bicycle.  Now what?  We have no spare and no pump.  We are stuck.  We have to walk the bicycles.  But we manage to make it to the next tiny village where we have a classic traveling experience.  I am not exaggerating in the least when I say that the entire village comes out to help Marius fix his flat.  They all gather around us to shake our hands and welcome us….  “No problem the bicycle.  We can fix…”   About ten of them actually work to take the tire off and patch the leak while the rest just gather around and smile and pat our backs and shake our hands… “Look.  How cool?  There’s Muzungus in our village…”

Eventually, they fix our tire and we continue on our way.  After several more hours of very hard riding we come to a forest.  The trail goes through the forest and past several more villages.  The further and further we go, the more and more primitive the villages become.  By the time we get close to the beach, the villages are nothing but houses made of reeds and lots of half naked children running around.  But still, it is the same…  “Look at those crazy Muzungus.  What are they doing here?  Welcome strangers.  Welcome strangers.” When we finally get to the beach, it’s downright amazing.  It’s several kilometers long with gorgeous white sand backed by palm trees and forest with absolutely nobody on it.  The water is shallow so we have to walk a ways out on a sandbar to swim.   I can hardly believe that a beach of this size is absolutely empty….  Yeah, that’s right, life is very very good.  Why haven’t the western developers taken over this place and spoiled it with big fancy hotels yet?  I don’t’ know.  But I hope they never do.

The journey back from the beach is more of the same except that I am absolutely exhausted and somewhat overwhelmed with heat exhaustion.  The crazy Muzungu thing takes on a whole new dimension as I start to hallucinate.  Who needs marijuana?  Just push the body to absurd extremes in torturous heat; wow, what a buzz…. Muzungu!  Muzungu! Welcome! Welcome!  Smiling happy faces jumping up and down.  Is this really the planet Earth?  I didn’t think people could have so much fun.  And these people have nothing… absolutely nothing…no electricity, no television, no indoor plumbing, no computers , no i-pods…  They do have food; plenty of it I think: fish and fruit and rice…  But they have nothing else.  Yet they seem so damn happy?  How is it possible?

Somehow, we make it back to the guest house and I don’t die from the effort.  I have a good meal and then lie on my back in the room under the ceiling fan.  A day like today makes me think.  I’m not one who idolizes the primitive, subsistence lifestyle.  I don’t exactly believe that we should abandon all western luxuries and live simple lives.  And I do realize that people in these villages have hard lives and they suffer and they die and it’s not all paradise…  But still, there’s something about it; something pure, something beautiful; something that I’m having a difficult time expressing…  I guess it’s this:  In the western world, we are taught by the media and the government and the religious institutions that we are supposed to pity and feel sorry for the suffering in the Third World.  Theoretically, the rest of the world needs the First World to help them progress and develop.   But the reality I experienced explicitly contradicts this notion.  Honestly, I see more happy smiling kids in one day on Pemba than I have seen in the U.S. in the last 40 years.    If the purpose of our constitution and government is truly to help citizens pursue happiness, then maybe, just maybe, we have as much to learn from the Third World as they have to learn from us.

The next morning, we leave Wete and travel by very crowded mini-bus (dalla dalla) to the town of Chake Chake in the middle of the island.    Once again, it’s a Muslim place so there is no beer or weed anywhere to be found.  What the heck can we do?  The guide book recommends some stone ruins on the end of Mkumba peninsula as a good destination.  It’s only 40 kilometers round trip but the road is really bad and there is no public transport.  Should we rent bicycles again?  If only we could get some decent ones.  Surprise, surprise; we meet a guy who says he can get us mountain bikes…real mountain bikes.  All right then, that’ll be easy; only 40 kilometers round trip is no problem on a mountain bike.

Rather remarkably, the guy is true to his word and shows up at our hotel with decent mountain bikes.  So once again, for the second time in three days, we set out on a long bicycle journey through the villages of Pemba.  I don’t think it’s possible but the road on the second journey is even worse than the first.  Imagine the most difficult mountain bike course possible with steep down hills, jumps, sand traps, potholes, mud holes, rocks and everything else.  Then throw in some hundred degree African heat and you pretty much have the scenario.  Not only that, this time, the villages we go through are even more and more remote.  The further we get from Chake Chake, the less and less they seem to have.  I mean; these people have nothing.  Nothing but straw houses and food and hot sun.  But shit, they sure can smile.  And they can shout Muzungu very loudly.  And they all wave and jump up and down.   A crazy Muzungu on a bicycle riding through their remote villages is a very uncommon and very exciting occurrence.

But it seems like a lot longer distance than twenty kilometers from Chake Chake to the ruins.  It feels like the peninsula points out into the ocean forever and ever.  “This has to be the last village.”  “No, there’s another one up ahead.”  And then another one and another one.  On and on we peddle; through the heat, the intense unbearable heat.  I sure hope there’s a place to swim near the ruins or I will never be able to make the return trip. Finally, we reach the last village and people in the village point towards a path that leads to the Ras Mkumba ruins.  As we head towards the path, two teenagers follow us.  We keep on going as they run along beside us.   After a while, the trail splits into two trails and the teenagers have to show us the way.  We keep on peddling.  Again, the path diverges and the two chasing teenagers show us the way.  After what seems an eternity, we reach the spot.

Truthfully, the ruins aren’t much; just a couple of fallen down stone walls.  I like ruins and all, but this is pretty mediocre.  Nicely though, there is a small but perfect beach right next to the ruins.  So we go for a swim and relax as the two teenagers try to make conversation with us.  They don’t speak English and we don’t speak Swahili so the conversation is rather limited.  Mostly they just point and laugh as crazy Marius goes through his karate routine in the sand.  After an hour or so, it’s time to head back…  And that’s when the miracle happens.

Marius has the idea so he deserves the credit.  As we head back the way we came with the teenagers running along beside again, he stops his bike and offers one of the teenagers a ride on the crossbar.  Accordingly, I offer a ride to the other one.  Have you ever experienced a spontaneous eruption of pure joy?  You know what I mean:  A baby is born, you discover love, you sink the winning shot in the championship game…   Something happens that is so wonderful, so terrific, so fantastic the good feeling bubbles forth and expands until it seems to take over the entire universe.   When we ride into the village with the two teenagers on our bicycles it is truly one of the most amazing experiences of my entire life…

It’s like a parade or carnival and we are the stars of the show.  The entire village comes running out of their huts.  They are all jumping up and down and laughing and smiling and god… I can’t hardly explain it.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  I feel like a hero coming home after victory.  Joy…happiness…glory…  Can the world really be this wonderful?  They shout out the names of the teenagers.  They shout out “Muzungu! Muzungu!”  The old people are laughing, the adults are laughing, the young people are laughing…  It’s like some kind of miracle and that’s all I have to say.

Sure enough though, all that goodness, something is bound to go wrong afterwards.  After we leave the village behind, we still have a long ways to go.  We are descending a steep, bumpy hill when the accident occurs.  Truthfully, I’m not really sure how it happens, but a complex thought runs through my head as I fly head first over the handlebars…fuck…it’s a long goddamn ways to a hospital if I break a leg….  The bicycle flips over on top of me and the gears slam into my shin as I crash more or less head first onto the ground.  The pain is intense and I think for a second that it might be broken…oh shit oh shit…very bad place for a broken bone….  But it’s nothing; just a flesh wound.  I have a nice big gash below the knee and the blood looks rather gruesome as it drips down my leg but nothing is broken.  Yeah sure, I spilled a little blood on African soil…but at least it didn’t kill me.

The last 15 kilometers of the ride back are quite a challenge.  If I was a crazy Muzungu riding through the villages before, just imagine how much more crazy I look as blood drips down my leg.  But we make it back.  And the gods reward us for our efforts with some double bonus points.  As we return the mountain bikes to the guy; thank him and express our surprise at the quality of the bicycles in such a remote place, he responds, “no problem.  You want mountain bikes.  I get mountain bikes.   This my island.  I born here.  Anything you want or need, I can find….” “Anything?” I say, thinking about the fact that we have been marijuana and alcohol free since we arrived on Pemba four days ago. “Anything!” he replies with a knowing smile… It sure is a beautiful universe.    God damn I love this island…

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