I lived in Arusha, Tanzania for less than a month last year and actually ended up shortening my trip because I was not enjoying it as much as Kenya. To be honest, I was glad to leave and didn't think I'd go back anytime soon.
Sometime in June last year, when heading back to Nakuru from Nairobi on the matatu, I met two Canadian backpackers. They were looking for a backpackers place neither me nor my piki guys (motocycle drivers) knew of. Long story short, they spent the night at my friend Farah's place and continued their travels the next morning. They came back a week or two later and told me about their plan to go to Mwanza. Again, I wasn't too much into the idea of going back to TZ.
Sally and I had been talking about going to Mombasa to do a diving course but even our Kenyan friends told us not to - not safe. Well, the only other option for diving in East Africa other than the Kenyan coast is obviously Zanzibar. I had never really considered going because it seemed too expensive, but turns out it is just a bit more than Mombasa! The only on-top cost was the VISA.
When hearing about the girls going to TZ, I started thinking about my time there and how weird it was that I couldn't quite fall in love with the place. Fair enough, I thought, I can't like every single place I travel to. However, the thought of them going to the one place that was recommended to me before (Mwanza) besides Zanzibar was a bit intriguing. Also, knowing that I'd have to spend $50 on the Tanzanian VISA for Zanzibar anyway and that going back and forth to Kenya with single entry VISAs wouldn't be a problem got me thinking: Why not go with them?
The random idea quickly turned into a plan (more or less) and the girls and I decided to leave Friday - three days after I first thought of going. Miri was still here but her flight was Friday morning around 8am. After visiting Farah's projects in Gilgil and Naivasha which turned into a small roadtrip to Nairobi, an exhausting hassle at the Maasai Market in Nairobi and finally picking up a copy of Lonely Planet East Africa, Miri and I checked into a cheap but not too dodgy hostel in central Nairobi on Thursday. For her final night, we HAD to go enjoy at least one Tusker at the ba although we had to get up and leave for the airport at 4.30am the next morning.
Needless to say I was super exhausted when I arrived in Nakuru around 9am after dropping Miri at the airport. Nice drive though, leaving at 6am before dawn and watching some baboons at the weight bridge near Gilgil. I grabbed some clothes, picked up a dress from my tailor (only waited for it for about 3 months!) and met the two Canadian ladies at Java.
Our route was very different from my previous trips to TZ, I had only taken the bus from Nairobi to Arusha and back. This time, we planned to take a matatu to Kisii, then a bus straight to Mwanza only stopping at the border to get the VISA. According to our plan, we would have arrived in Mwanza Friday night.
Of course it took a bit longer, we didn't end up leaving Nakuru until noon and arrived in Kisii after a five hour matatu ride. Plus the three hours from Nairobi to Nakuru, I was counting eight hours on public transport so far. Not too bad.
Lonely Planet describes the Kisii matatu stage with the words "all hell breaks lose" and I very much agree with that. Trying to find the right bus to Mwanza was difficult because just like in Nakuru, everyone will tell you different things and everyone will try to get you to choose their vehicle. Apparently there was a bus that didn't leave from the central stage which made sense to me, as all proper buses I had taken before (Uganda) didn't leave from the same place as the matatus either. On a piki and to the bus company. Go go go.
It turned out that none of the companies were crossing the border. Our option was another matatu that would go there, then a new matatu from the TZ side of the border to Mwanza. Back to the stage then. We found a matatu and after figuring out how much they overcharged us and making sure we'd pay the right amount not the mzungu price, we only had to wait until about five more people got on the already crowded matatu.
By the time we reached the border in Isebania it was dark and people told us there was no public transport after dusk and we should just stay on the Kenyan side of the border overnight. Thinking that might just be a way of trying to get us to pay for a hostel, we proceeded to cross the border on foot.
Reaching Sirare, Tanzania, we discovered that there were actually no buses. Dodgy hotel it was. 10,000 TSH for one bed for three people and getting a padlock after discussing the fact that we would not stay in a room you can't lock, not too bad. Sadly, the only food we could find was either fried or meat. Or both. I was actually happy when I found some ugali with sukuma wiki (greens) - the cook wouldn't believe I ordered for the food most wazungu dislike. The bus was supposed to leave at 7.00AM the next morning. Without a shower or place to have breakfast, we put our alarms on 6.50AM.
Due to African time, plans changing all the time or the fact that they thought we would take forever to get ready, we were woken up at 6 o'clock. The bus didn't actually leave until 7.30 or even later but the eight hour ride was fine and the scenery was absolutely beautiful! I kept hoping the bus would stop or drive more slowly (the speedometer went up to 140km/h and it was way beyond that) so I could get a picture of the rock formations I spotted every now and then. Little did I know what Mwanza would look like...
Basically, the entire city of Mwanza is built in these rocks. Houses were built on them, backyards have been set up around them. Our host's garden was full of them and I spent the entire morning reading on one of the massive rocks with the view of Lake Victoria realizing how much I miss nature in Nakuru. Of course there's nature in Nakuru. A lot of nature, actually. The Rift Valley in one of the nicest parts in terms of nature and Lake Nakuru is right next to us, but I usually cannot spend time outside without being constantly approached by people. Reading? Definitely not an option!
One of the most famous parts of Zanzibar is called Stone Town and although I have never been there, I am pretty sure Mwanza deserves this title way more! The two ladies, Emma and Kari, knew someone who has lived his whole life in Mwanza and could therefore take us to the most interesting and breathtaking parts. He didn't seem too impressed but I guess that just comes with the place you've grown up in. For some reason the scenery reminded me of the setting of Jurassic Park. With the view of the city full of rocks yet very green and Lake Victoria around we watched the sun go down and turn the sky from blue to orange and pink.
We only had a day and a half in Mwanza and especially since the trip was not planned at all, we tried to keep costs as low as possible. One of the Lake Victoria islands supposedly had a national park with chimpanzees but especially for non-residents the price was tremendous. My Kiswahili helped a bit when bargaining but the Tanzanian version is much more polite and unlike Kenya they do not mix it with English at all. In the end, we decided againt the park but found the local ferry going to another part of Mwanza for 1,000TSH. "Inasema ni mia tano - mimi ni mwanafunzi!" Managed to pay only half, student price.
The ferry is not a regular tourist spot and there is literally nothing on the other side than matatus. We walked around for a bit and sat down for chai. I later had Tilapia - fresh from the lake! While Emma and Kari were looking for beer or just a cold drink in general ("hakuna - we don't have") I chatted with the Mama making the food and watched a little girl I had talked to earlier carrying firewood. We had booked our buses in the morning and had to run from company to company to find the cheapest - I think I could have paid maybe 2,000TSH (about 1 euro) less and was a bit frustrated I had given up so fast. Thanks to people I met on the bus the day after that regret quickly disappeared from my mind. Emma and Kari were going to take the bus to Dar es Salaam while I was heading to Arusha.
By that time, I was counting about 18 hours of public transport - definitely more time spent sitting in a tiny, of sweat smelling vehicle going over speed bumps and maneuvering around potholes than time spent sleeping. Exhaustion caught up with me and I fell asleep with my book and the light on after the girls had left to watch the World Cup final.
After almost missing the bus due to the usual circumstances, I managed to find the right one and we departed around 6.00am. Driving up north-east around the Serengeti I actually saw less animals than I do when on a matatu from Nairobi to Nakuru. At a stop-over I briefly spoke to a Tanzanian lady and her children who I had overheard speaking German. They live in Düsseldorf! It didn't seem like living in Germany for the last 17 years had changed her much, she immediately invited me to come stay with them and her grandmother in Moshi! African hospitality!
I considered my options for the rest of the drive and had more or less decided I would go to Moshi after Arusha before I even got off. Back in Arusha I took a pikipiki (motorbike) to Elihaki family, my former hosts. They actually remember me although they have loads of volunteers and I barely spent three weeks with them last year! Talking to them and especially the twelve year old daughter now that I am not just a volunteer that leaves anyway showed me how much has changed, how much I have changed. And how I couldn't be happier about my decision to stay in East Africa. Seeing two of the PA staff again, Kanette and Jackie, was just as lovely. After meeting them for lunch and getting some Tanzanian kitenge and kanga for my Kenyan friends I took the bus to Moshi. I had never gone and was excited to see Kilimanjaro from close distance but it was so cloudy by the time I reached, I couldn't even tell on which side the giant was supposed to be. The lady from the bus, Joyce, picked me up from the bus stage and then shared with me that her grandmother was living a bit outside of Moshi. It was dark when we got there and I can't say for sure as I did not ask about it, but I think they live in the slums or at least the poorer outskirts of Moshi. No electricity, no running water and the constant smell of sewage and waste. The friendliest, most hospitable family to welcome me into their home. Wonderful dinner and conversation and contacts I will definitely get back to when the organization is established a bit more. From experience I have learned to be careful with promises and I didn't say a thing when asked about projects for children there but I will consider going back to Moshi in the future. I felt bad about leaving that early the next morning but had to catch my bus to Nairobi. The bus was full of tourist wazungu I assume were in Tanzania to climb Kili. Luckily, I sat next to a nice British lady who is working on her PhD in Kenya/TZ and we talked throughout the entire journey to Nairobi.
Only another three hours from Nakuru to Nairobi, then home.
It has taken 44 hours of public transport in less than a week, old acquaintances turning into friendships and new faces and their hospitality to finally make me fall in love with Tanzania.