Land of the long greetings

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
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Trip End Mar 21, 2008


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Flag of Tanzania  ,
Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Today, the official half way point of our year-long trip, we take a bold leap out of any comfort zone we had remaining and splash down in the small fishing village of Pangani on the Tanzanian coast. 
 
The eight hour bus ride lurches us away from the tiring paradox of idleness and activity that is Arusha and out into the rich and varied scenery of Tanzania's Northern Highlands.  For a while we can see the solitary splendour of Mount Kilimanjaro, challenging us to climb it.  "We'll be back, Kili", we smile back, "just you wait". 
 
At various points in the day we pass through barren, flat, parched savannahs as well as the lushest, greenest areas of undulating fertility under the watchful eyes of the Pare and Usambara Mountains.  There are villages of bright red clay everything - bright red clay houses, bright red clay streets - and there are dusty roadside towns where men gather in the shade.  Wherever we stop, people charge for the bus to sell their products through the bus windows.  Some products are useful for the long-distance bus traveller: water, bananas, corn, pears; but you wonder exactly who is buying the belts, plastic dolls, toy guns, cutlery, torches and alarm clocks that some guys are desperately hawking.
 
Everyone told us that it will be very hot on the coast.  ("It's damn hot out there, man.  And by the way, don't forget to stock up on sim cards.")  And indeed it is roasting up a sweaty one as we bounce into Tanga.  Back in the day, Tanga was Tanzania's second largest city, on the back of the plentiful sisal plantations nearby.  But sisal is really only used for making rope and many synthetic rope-making materials were developed after WWII, leaving Tanga to fad meekly into the pack.  For us, Tanga's significance is based on its proximity to Pangani, our final destination and home for the next two months.   Waiting for us at Tanga bus station is Mr. Iddy, the local MondoChallenge coordinator.  He is a little chap with a low, soothing voice and a reassuring smile.  I am scheduled to spend at least a couple of days a week in Tanga with the Tanga AIDS Working Group (TAWG), so the two-hour, jolting, arse-breaking journey from Tanga to Pangani is a little worrying.
 
Pangani is totally stunning, a perfect little combination of all the things we dreamed Africa would be, short of giraffes loping down the main street.  It is a village, certainly not a town, that spreads out over a town-sized area, perhaps as a carryover from grander days gone by, or in anticipation of the same.  The streets, all unpaved, curl off in different directions but all eventually lead to the water.  Pangani's eastern border is the Indian ocean, a deserted beach of unbelievably warm water and low-tide sand banks that you can walk far out to sea on.  The southern border is formed by the Pangani River, upon whose banks are the decaying remains of colonial buildings from the slave trade days. 
 
This area, including the Zanzibar archipelago just to the south, was long a great zone for trade.  Diogenes, the Greek merchant, had his journeys around here chronicled in the "Periplus of the Erythraean Sea" as far back as AD 140.  In those days, this area was considered by mapmakers as the end of the known world.   Sinbad the Sailor visited these parts and then came the slave trade, for which Pangani was a significant pick-up point.  The Germans had an arrogant and ill-fated occupation of Tanzania (then called Tanganyika) in the 1800s, which is when many of the now-crumbling official buildings were constructed.  One building was constructed with a live slave buried in each of its four corners, as this was believed to provide strong foundations.
 
Nowadays the term 'sleepy' is almost too generous to describe the atmosphere in Pangani.  Everything, except the young children, is in ultra-slow motion.  If you order food at a restaurant, the cook will continue her conversation for a few minutes then lazily drag herself to her feet and slowly plod in the general direction of the kitchen.  Any activity is rare - understandable in this heat.  As soon as you are out of reach of any kind of breeze, you just begin to sweat.  I have begun carrying a bandana in my pocket to mop my brow with, just like a fat man in a heavy suit would after climbing a flight of stairs.  Every morning when we wake up, Jane sums things up succinctly by saying, "fuck it's hot".
 
The heat is strongest during the rainy season, which falls between April and June - i.e. now.  It is supposed to piss down with rain every day for three to four hours but is hasn't really done so in our short time here.  Things cool down a bit during the rain but then the temperature ramps straight back up again.
 
Thanks to all the rain, there are lush green trees everywhere.  Big-leaved banana trees, palm trees both tall and swaying and short and squat, and almost-ripe mango trees that drop the odd sample as a teaser.
 
Our house is known to all the villagers as 'The Pink House', probably because it is pink in colour.  Its primary resident, though not the owner, is a massive man named John - picture Michael Clarke Duncan with a moustache.  He stands about 6'4" and must be pushing 300lbs.  His enormous size 14 shoes stretch almost across the corridor between our bedrooms.  John spent some years living in New York City and he has this amazing half-African, half-New York accent.  His speech is coloured with Americanisms like "man", "yo" and "know what I'm sayin'?", all delivered with this great basso profundo voice.  John works for some customs office and is rarely in, but when he is home there is a constant beat of American rap music from his bedroom.  His wife lives in Dar es Salaam or something but he prefers to spend most of his time here with his girlfriend; "know what I'm sayin'?"
 
Our room is small and basic - a bed, a chair and a resident gecko named Lizzie - but completely satisfactory and better than the three other places we checked out first.  There was supposed to be an arrangement with the 'mama' in the next house to cook dinner for us every night, for a fee, but this has not yet materialised.  On the first night we learned, through sign language, that the cooking would start tomorrow.  When tomorrow came, we sat around half the evening waiting, then found out that Mr Iddy had not, according to the neighbour, not made the appropriate arrangements.  So we've been eating out every night, usually at the Stopover Bar, an ultra-laid back beach-side hangout.  They are getting to know us and, with a few hours notice, will cook up a delicious rice and fish or chicken and chips.
 
We arrived on a Wednesday.  Thursday is a public holiday and Friday never really gets going because it is wedged between a public holiday and a weekend.  Now, without having really done any work, it's Saturday and time for a bit of R&R. 
 
We cross the bridgeless Pangani River on the ferry, which is really just a motor-powered piece of metal, and arrive in the much smaller village of Bweni.  We rent a pair of one-gear ladies' bikes and ease off up the hill.  Two hours of beautiful scenery and sore backsides later, we find ourselves at the exotically-named, tourist-free and jaw-droppingly beautiful Coco Beach. 
 
This is the sort of beach you see on the cover of Conde Nast Traveller magazine or in those misleading holiday package brochures.  Imagine, if you will, a 10 kilometre arc of golden-white sand, with lazy palm trees leaning over the beach like nosy neighbours, shaped from years of ocean breezes.  Unoccupied outrigger canoes loll around just offshore and the distinctly Arabic shape of a solitary dhow's sail sits on the horizon.  Crabs with bulgy cartoon eyes scuttle sideways along the sand like a top-hat-and-cane vaudeville act exiting stage right. 
 
There is a comatose little village of thatched-roof huts and sand streets whose few villagers lift their heads just enough to smile hello as we walk past.  A few 'resorts' have found their way to this secluded paradise but they are quiet and unobtrusive, certainly not of the Club Med or Breezes variety.  That may only be a matter of time, unfortunately, and the serenity and atmosphere of Coco Beach will be forever destroyed by German speedo-wearers, obese Americans and pasty-white Brits.  Luckily, for now we have the entire beach to ourselves so we pick a suitable spot and settle into a rigorous cycle of sunbathing, reading, and floating like driftwood in the super-warm Indian Ocean. 
 
Once in a while a villager will stroll by, usually on some fish-related errand, and we will engage in the uniquely long and protracted Tanzanian greeting ritual.  Usually this begins with "habari" (literally, "news?") to which the standard reply seems to be "mzuri" ("good").  Then someone will say "mambo" (a slang "how are you?", kind of like "how's it going?" or "wassup?").  The answer to this is "poa" ("cool").  Then you may get "hujambo" ("problems?"), answer "sijambo" ("no problems") and finally "karibu" ("welcome"), answered by "assante sana" (thank you very much).  If the person is old and/or respected, then "shikamoo" ("I show my respect") is thrown into the mix somewhere, along with the appropriate title, e.g. "babu" for an elderly man or "bibi" for an elderly woman.  All of this takes place within the time it takes Person A to walk past Person B.  Therefore, if one or both parties are moving quickly, they may have to turn around and shout back at the other to complete the formalities.  It can all get quite tiring if you are passing from one end of the village to the other.
 
Mr Iddy walks us through some of the practicalities for our time here - bus stands, certain shops, rent costs, etc.  "And tomorrow we will stop by the Permit Office to buy your volunteer permits".
 
"Volunteer permits?"
 
"Yes, you need these to do volunteer work.  They cost $120 US dollars each."
 
On a combined daily budget of about $10, paying $240 for permits would account for nearly a whole month's spending.  "We have not been told about this before, Mr Iddy."
 
"Oh.  It's a new regulation.  Just started this year."
 
We explain that we simply cannot afford that kind of expense, even if it means that we cannot volunteer here.  Mr Iddy knows the official who is in charge of Pangani and can pull some strings here, but not in Tanga, where I am due to be working.  He says he will discuss with Andrew what the options are. 
 
It seems to us that all the volunteers are assumed to have come here with money falling out of their pockets.  We paid US$3000 just to come here.  In addition, we are expected to pay our rent, all meals, buy any supplies we need for our work, transportation to and from any places of work, plus all this mobile phone bullshit and now these exorbitant volunteer permit fees.  Our programme in Nepal was half the cost, included all meals and accommodation and even included a week's trekking, a jungle excursion and a two-week induction phase.  I know that a lot of our MondoChallenge money goes towards worthwhile projects but I also get the feeling that a lot of it gets tied up in the dozens of staff they have everywhere, including a head office in England full of people getting paid in pounds sterling.  Mr Iddy works full-time for Mondo as the Pangani volunteer coordinator.  We are the only volunteers here at the moment and there are often months when there are no volunteers at all.  Once we are settled in, we don't really require much coordinating.  I'd be very interested to see a breakdown of exactly where our money has gone.  Mind you, MondoChallenge is one of the cheaper organisations around, so perhaps I shouldn't complain too much.
Slideshow Report as Spam
Where I stayed
The Pink House

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