Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Wild West

My best stories almost always go untold because I wait until I have the time to tell them properly.. and that never happens! One of the main stories of my recent trip to West Tanzania is quite a yarn, and my girlfriend wanted to know what I'd gone through as soon as possible, so I summarized it for her as quickly as I could... and then realized that it's not half bad, so I'm just going to post it unpolished here, and leave it at that! Enjoy!

Hitching a ride with some
truckers, SLOWLY transporting
a massive amount of beer to Kigoma
for New Years Day.
 So the most exhausting thing physically I already told you, sitting on buses or trucks for 12-18 hours a day, on roads you wouldn't believe! Even Greg (French traveler, MUCH more experienced than me) was aghast at these roads, I don't think I'd like to WALK on them! From Kigali in the north, to Mbeya in south Tanz, covering over 1600 km ( 1000 miles), by bus, truck, and boat, the AVERAGE speed was about 19 km/hour (12 m/h). It's not just about sitting and waiting, it's about holding on to not fall off your seat! It's so bumpy (and the vehicles have no shock-absorbers) that usually my teeth hurt at the end of the day. Often the bus was jumping too much to even eat! Imagine that for 15-18 hours a day...

Always a sense that anything
could happen...
So THAT'S pretty exhausting! Mentally the greatest stress was that in Kasanga (the village at the Tanz end of lake Tanganyika), where you can see Tanzania, Zambia, and Democratic Republic of the Congo at once, we stayed with the wrong person (or maybe the right person, it's still hard to know!). This realization came very slowly, and it was rather scary when the truth finally pounced on us! We'd heard about criminal activity in the area: there were raids from the DRC into Zambia, all kinds of violence in DRC (happening just over the mountains we could see across the lake), and on the ferry we heard from some foreigners who decided to not leave the ferry in Kasanga because their friend claims he got kidnapped and held for ransom in Kasanga. It's a tiny VILLAGE, but so far from anywhere (by boat, road, or even plane, you'd need two days to get there from anywhere on the map); this IS the Wild West, for sure! Nothing is stable or certain. Well, you never know what information to believe around here, even from westerners (all the locals assured us it was safe (also not true), so we decided to believe the middle-ground and be very careful). We were careful, and maybe it helped.... or maybe not...

We're not in Kansas anymore!
 It's more rural than anything I've seen, and Greg and I were both looking at each other like "what have we done!". Still, it's a little like Eden; no electricity, happy children playing in the dirt and NOT begging, bare-chested women doing laundry in the lake, just a few huts, fishing boats, and the lake shore...
Beachside at the hotel
Anyway, this hotel on the beach about two km away from the docks was the only decent place, though the owner had a particular "Indian" attitude I didn't like (If Indians think they have any authority they'll make it very clear that they don't need to waste their time with you, like they're the most important person on earth. This guy had a little of that attitude). He had a very nice new speed boat that we thought could get us to the falls the next day, pretty nice facilities... strangely we noticed in the guestbook that this nice "beach resort" had had about 80 guests in two years... how could it possibly survive?!
Well, I didn't think too hard about it because I was focused on how to get to the falls in one day and then as far as possible out of town the next day. I'd spent nearly a week just to get here, and though it was more about the journey that did not mean I was going to let the destination slip away! However, within four days I needed to get back to Arusha, so we only had one shot at the falls and it was not going to be easy. They're in the middle of nowhere, on the other side of the Zambian border, either an hour by car and four hours on foot, or two hours by boat and two hours on foot, one way.
So, especially because I was pretending to be Russian (you have to sign your nationality into everything, and an American and French would be good targets, so I was Russian and Greg was Greek) I got into the role and did some very strong negotiations with the owner guy (Oscar was his name, but EVERYONE called him "Boss"). About accommodation prices (really expensive, considering it takes two days minimum to get there from ANYWHERE and the place was empty. I ended up paying $5 to pitch my own tent on the sand; at least better than the $12 he wanted!), and about renting the boat for the trip (from about $85 down to $60). The next day when he sent his speed boat off for his Indian friends (who run a trucking business... remember this), and our replacement boat was 90 minutes late, I was especially hard on him and pushed him a lot to fix the situation.. which is pretty normal; NOTHING gets done here unless you MAKE it happen, but because I was Russian I was a bit more direct than usual, and I didn't notice that his reactions to it were a little different than usual.. Russians don't care.
So Oscar finally recruited a passing fishing boat to take us (we were NOT pleased to see that one of the crew members was assigned to perpetually bailing out the leaky boat with a cup!), and I noticed that the HUGE muscular fishermen were standing with their heads down, nodding submissively to the orders of this short, fat balding man... strange.

Now we're sailing!
 The 90 minute boat ride in the sun and the two hour hike UP through the hills was exhausting (though beautiful), and expensive! $60 is close to the average salary for a MONTH in this region! Oscar told us we'd also have to pay 5,000 shillings ($3) each as entry to the waterfall as well.. We were both reaching the limits of affordability, especially since I had no access to cash until I got back to Arusha and was running very low (in the end I arrived in Arusha with about $30 left!). So, money was tight.. so when we finally arrived at the gate for the waterfall (in the middle of freakin' nowhere!!) and saw the sign saying "entry $15 per person" (we didn't know at the time they'd try to charge for our guide also!! $45 after the major headache and expense of getting there!!) we were not pleased.

Kalambo Falls!  Finally!

BUT, no one was at the gate, it was new years day and a saturday, so we thought we might get lucky, and hurried past and down to the waterfall!! And there it was!! and SO amazing! We ignored the villagers washing their clothes in the river and started taking pictures, enjoying the success of our plans (for me made two months ago!). After 10 minutes when we tried to move higher up the trail one of the shirtless villages came to us, and said we must pay him the entry fee... THEN it got interesting. He demanded $45 dollars, we refused, he got angry, we got more angry, I was stupid and tried to move up the trail ignoring him, he got more angry and violent, I got more stupid and tried to intimidate him (works in India and sometimes in Tanz, but we were in Zambia now and the different character was clear). This guy did NOT like being challenged! I've never seen a Tanzanian get truly aggressive, but a few miles over the border was enough to make a big difference. He was pretty wild.

So, we kept trying to leave, he refused to let us leave, even grabbing our bags to stop us. He was screaming and flailing his fists so wildly for a while I was ready for him to attack us ( i would have been worried without our HUGE fisherman guide standing calmly and stable at our sides, with arms crossed and muscles bulging. With him there I wasn’t much worried about a fight, so we just held to our position. But he physically stopped us from walking away, and even though after a while it was clear he wouldn’t try to punch us (this probably would get him into trouble), the only way we could get away would be to fight him, which we were also of course not going to do. Stalemate! Then when he sent a boy to the village to call several men from there it got more interesting, everyone shouting and shaking fists and looking like murder. I actually got some of it on film, and it’s amazing and very frightening (more than being there!).
This went on for about an hour, with no end in sight. We tried EVRYTHING, and used every argument, constantly trying to just start some kind of negotiations (offering 5,000 shillings like we’d been told, making the case that he didn‘t tell us the price immediately, and when he did we tried to leave, that it was entrapment, etc.). Nothing, they all still talked like they were going to kill us, eat us, and then turn us over to the police to be beaten, killed, and eaten again. It got very tiring after a while. It was like arguing with a brick wall that is screaming at you and shaking its fist under your nose...
Greg did heroic work trying to resolve the issue and calm him down, and was just beginning to get a little success until suddenly the guard seem to think of something...
“Look, sometimes people are coming with note from that man..”
Greg: “what?”
“From the Big Boss, they come from him. You know? You have note?”
Greg: “Big Boss?”
“Yes yes, where you are staying?”
Greg: “In Kasanga, a guesthouse”
“Yes, that place! you stay with Big Boss?”
Greg: “What, Oscar?
“Yes Oscar! He’s my friend!”
Me: “He’s not a good friend! He told us 5,000 shillings for the waterfall, he’s made this problem for you!”
And suddenly, he transformed. It was like an angry demon mask was ripped off and an innocent baby face was put on. Seriously, Celine, I’ve never seen such a transformation ever. It still gives me chills thinking about it.
“Oh, no problem my friend! If you say this from beginning, I give you right price!!”
Did it seem like he was shaking a little bit?
“Come come, I show you all view point, please welcome!”
“NOW we can see it for 5,000?!”
“Yes of course! Please come! You know, you must tell me you are coming from Big Boss at first time, and no problems!” And he took Greg’s hand, put it around his own shoulder like his best friend in the world, and pulled him back to the gate.

Back to the Falls!
This time under the
protection of the
Big Boss!
 And in a second he became the best tour guide ever. He brought us back to the waterfall, he gave us fruit that was probably his lunch, he took us to extra views of the waterfall off the trail, he told us all about the history, he virtually laid down over puddles and had us walk over his body!! And Greg and I were officially in shock. All because we’d said one name....
And then it all made sense. In the tri-border region, with no control on the lake between borders, a sharp businessman has a shiny speedboat and control over a swarm of fishing boats... running a nice hotel with no guests... with enough power and influence to make a government employee 100 km away in ANOTHER COUNTRY tremble and talk quietly about “The Big Boss”... yes, we were staying with the mafia smuggler of the entire region. If there was any serious crime going on in the region (and that’s not a question, it IS the Wild West) we’d knocked on its front door and demanded to come in, at half price.. It was a scary moment, and I’ll never forget when the guard parted with us: “so, paying 5 is correct please” Me: “okay, you mean 5 dollars, 5,000 shillings, Zambian money?” “Oh, all okay sir!” (the difference is at least double). So we paid 5,000 each, and signed his book.. Then he looked each of us straight in the eye, one at a time, and almost whimpering said “and please, no need to speak about our discussion, yes? Please say nothing, okay? Yes? Please.” I don’t know what he was afraid of losing, but this big, strong, confident (and 20 minutes ago FURIOUS) man was terrified. Terrified that he’d insulted guests of the Big Boss, who lives farther away then he’d probably ever traveled, in a different country. THAT’S the man we were staying with.

The dark peaks of the DR Congo were never far
from our sight or our thoughts.. I'd rather walk into
North Korea than over those mountains.
That evening, we had a nice chat with Oscar, while his 2 year old daughter slept on his lap and he told us about the “many very good possibilities for business here!” Turns out he’d spend two years in DRC searching for “ornamental fish” to export. Right, THAT’S what you do in DRC! Nice export cover, though! He said that ministers from Dar es Salam come to visit him in Kasanga, one was his partner in the hotel (the empty hotel... politics and crime are rarely separated here, and major criminals can’t survive without partnering with powerful politicians)... Fortunately, he seemed to like us, and of course he had no reason to ruin the tiny trickle of tourism in the region by foreigners having bad experiences and reporting it unsafe, so he was eager to please us, even cooking our dinners when the cook had to go to the village!
Still, that was VERY emotionally and mentally stressful, and I realized how careless I’d been to assume I knew how things worked in these places. The whole way back from the waterfall Greg regaled me with stories from his 10 years living and working in South East Asia, about westerners who refuse to play the game of bribery, or to submit to social hierarchy, or who try to throw weight around in a context where it means nothing... none of these stories ended well... considering our fight with the guard would have happened regardless, maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing we’d stumbled under the roof of the Big Boss...
So many other things on that trip, like being left at 11:30pm in the middle of a dangerous border town on the Zambian border, and having to stay at an obvious whore-house in a very insecure room...

...or spending two nights on a 100 year old ferry going to the same unchanged villages, and being “attacked” by motorboats FULL of screaming people in the middle of the night all trying to catch the racing ferry and climb aboard...

...or taking a decrepit mini-bus packed with people and chickens in a FLOOD of a storm, and the insane driver racing over the turns until suddenly there’s an explosion and he starts to hydroplane straight into a 2 meter (6 ft) ditch, dodging just in time and skidding 20 meters (60ft) down the road, were we can’t start the engine and wait in the storm for other buses to take 1 or 2 of us at a time (if we‘d crashed off the road, I THINK I would have survived, but the people in front of me had about a 10% chance... In the same storm Greg‘s bus went into a ditch, but it was a big bus so everyone was okay, and some foreigners on the ferry said their bus tipped over on a turn and they had to climb out the side windows... NO ONE knows how to drive here, especially in the rain!)...
...or exploring into caves in Rwanda with candles, where in 1994 thousands of people hid during the genocide and were trapped there and slaughtered, and we found the bones to prove it, just laying there where they fell 16 years ago
.... and many other things! It was a challenging, rewarding, exhausting trip, and some of the most adventurous and actually a little dangerous situations I’d ever been in!
But those stories WILL have to wait, because I’m still catching up on sleep, and have a full day of work tomorrow!!  Good night for now my Love!


  1. no comments on this yet? Wow. Maybe everyone's as speechless as I am. So glad I didn't know what was going on until after the fact Caleb! A great story, very captivating, but...don't do it again please. Too many people love you. :-)

  2. What an adventure! I'm amazed you still have both of your kidneys...give one for a pass out of the country...
    Great stories though. Love to hear more or your adventures.