Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Rolling into Lushoto

Finally, we were on our magic bus, er, I mean truck and pointed north in the direction of the Usambara Mountains. By tearing down camp early enough to be on the road by 5am, we had successfully avoided the truly frightening fate that is Dar traffic and were now speeding past small villages and vast empty stretches of land.

Cruising along, enjoying this scenery with plenty of room to stretch out, not feeling like I have to keep an eagle eye on my belongings (as I did on the chicken bus) or worry about getting left behind on any stops- these are the some of the things I did not think I could pull off, traveling solo in Africa and were  amongst the top reasons I signed up for a group tour.  Now that our first real Overland day was finally happening,  I was loving it.
As I mentioned earlier, our truck had a unique capability to attract children from all corners.  This was doubly so if we were standing still for any period of time, for example at weigh stations or at speed traps or due to minor collisions...all of which we happened to experience on this first day.

This was taken during post fender-bender negotiations, which proved to be lengthy, giving the entire village a chance to come out and gawk at the muzungos.
Add to that, stops for breakfast and lunch (both requiring a full campsite set-up and tear down), and it made for a long day yet no one stressed over the delays since the closer to the mountains we got, the lusher the scenery became.  Some members of the group opted to ride on rooftop seats during this portion of the journey but I already had a black eye (as a result of getting kicked in the face during the dive trip), did not have as much faith in my tree ducking ability and had my sister's wedding coming up in a few weeks, so in the interest of familiar harmony and not wanting to task some poor make-up artist with covering up two black eyes, I stayed safely below.

By the time we arrived in the town of Lushoto and the quaint Lawns Hotel, we only had time to set up camp and prepare for dinner.  As with most of our campsites, it was on the grounds of an actual hotel, giving us all access to the same amenities as the guests with sturdier, more wall-based accommodations.  In most cases, this included a lounge of some kind and this was one of the better ones we encountered.  With our chef, Patrick, doing double duty as dj and the Cypriot owner being a gregarious host, we drunkenly danced into the night, all under the guise of celebrating our first day aboard Neema.

This should not have been a problem, we had easy day in Lushoto planned.  Here is what the Intrepid trip notes had to say about the day's itinerary:  As beautiful as the place is, its real jewels are the local peoples and villages. The area has a reputation for gentle hospitality and we will visit some of the small communities. From our base we will organise a short day's walking trip out to the beautiful Irente viewpoint. On our way back we'll visit a local village.

And here is what I wrote in my journal the following evening: I want to meet the fine person responsible for writing Intrepid's trip descriptions and discuss in utmost detail what a "short day's walking trip" means to him or her.  Granted the inclines were gradual enough that it could conceivably be categorized as an easy walk, but short?!  That shit was 18 kilometers.  We set off at 8am and returned at 3:30pm.  What the fuck is short about that?  I want to punch that writer in the face  But it will be a short punch.

I would also have accepted as a descriptor, a 'lovely' walk, because it certainly was that.  Invigorating, informative, hell even, slow-paced would have been accurate.  But, c'mon now, 18 kilometers is 11 miles!  Normally if someone is going to walk that much, they are going to choose a charity, collect signatures and make an event out of it.

I don't want my rant to imply that I didn't enjoy it, because I truly did.  I just might have a called it a night earlier if I had known what lay ahead. (Note to anyone that knows me: Yes, I know I probably would have stayed out just as late, but play along with me here.)

The Irente viewpoint alone was worth the trek.  No photo will ever capture how expansive the view is from this point.  You feel like you can see clear across Tanzania.

Photo credit:  Kristin Black, who rightfully pointed out that I would regret it if I did not get a photo here.

Along the way, our local guide proved expert at spotting chameleons in trees, no small feat considering that these things specialize in camouflaging themselves.  I had never thought of chameleons as cute, but I think that is because I had never seen one and its world-weary facial expressions up close. Now I find them puppy-level adorable.

Towards the end of the day, we were asked a question that, at least in my experience, does not come up often.  "Would you like to see orphans or blind children?"  In that bizarre match-up, the orphans took it in a landslide.  I, myself, am not very comfortable with tragedy tourism (ie visiting slums, orphanages, shelters, et al) yet I completely see the value in it for both sides.

This particular visit was, for me, the optimal possible experience.  We got to meet the lady who runs the orphanage; a woman whose kindness and compassion crossed all lines of age, race and language.  Just listening to her speak about her work and her devotion to the children, all under the age of 5, was as touching an experience as one could hope for.  The children, mostly infants and toddlers, were napping, meaning all we did was briefly view them through a window, leaving them unburdened of any forced interaction with yet another tour group.  At the end, we made our donations, our tour leader presented them with a Dragoman specified group amount and everyone was the better for it.

While it is entirely possible that one could hire a guide and do the same not-short walk that we did, I think it is highly unlikely that absent either an overland tour or a private vehicle, a traveler would find themselves in the remote town of Lushoto, to begin with.  And it was this unexpected benefit that finally lay to rest any lingering concerns I had as to whether I had made the right choice by joining a group, even if it was a group that employed some lying-ass writers...

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