Feb 232009

NDUNGU, TZ– One of the benefits of taking the local shortcuts is that they often harbor unfathomed adventure. And one of the costs of taking the local shortcuts is that they often harbor unfathomed adventure.

Consider our first shortcut: Some local men digging an ominously large hole recommended that we ride through a nearby grove to carve a few clicks off our route, as well as to avoid the heat and dust of the main road during the noontime scorch. Three hours and 15 tire punctures later–all of which we had to patch, as we were running low on inner tubes–we decided that bushwhacking through a thorn forest wasn’t such a swell idea, after all. The bright side is that I can now fix a flat in my sleep–not to mention in a dehydration-induced delirium.

Upon completing our sojourn in the thorn forest, we decided to make up for lost time by boating across the lake in our path, rather than biking around it. The Maasai on the shore were more than happy to ferry us in their dugout canoes for the low-low price of $10 per person. What they didn’t mention, or maybe didn’t even consider, was that the dugouts were heavily patched, readily rolling tree trunks that could scarcely carry a single very thin Maasai warrior–let alone a hulking mzungu and her kit.

And so they loaded up the first canoe with my bike, panniers, and me. It took all my core muscles to counterbalance the load while remaining perched on the boat’s rim. Within moments, the canoe was one quarter full of water. The captain shouted at me to start bailing.

Meanwhile, back on shore, the 50 Maasai gathered for the free entertainment started laughing. My back was to them, and so I inferred that I was the source of the hilarity. I later learned that David and Jerome had capsized behind me. Disgusted, my captain paddled back to shore, where I fished my gear out of the half-full canoe and waded through the muck back to dry land.
In the end, we cycled around the lake with an entourage of the Maasai, who refused to reimburse the $30 but instead agreed to escort us to our destination. Needless to say, we didn’t take any more shortcuts that day.

Feb 222009

NDUNGU, TZ–When I chose this bike tour, I blithely dismissed the caveat that the route was for advanced mountain bikers. “I ride on Mt. Tam all the time, and the Coastal Mountains, too,” I told myself. Granted, on these rides I’m slicing my gazelle-like road bike along meticulously banked pavement. “But hey,” I asked, “how much different could it be to muscle a fully loaded Sherman tank through steep corrugated trenches?”

A lot different, I quickly learned on day 3 of our ride. The 40-mile journey started with a plunge down the side of a mountain and ended with a climb up the sheer wall of a 15-foot-deep ravine. Throughout, boulders bounced my bike hither and thither, sand sent its back wheel shimmying, and tight switchbacks added more torque and centrifuge. Meanwhile, gravity pulled the impending disaster ever faster and faster. In many sections I just wanted to get off and walk, but the path was so pitched that descending with my heavily laden bike was dangerous, if not impossible.

By the time we arrived at our guesthouse in Ndungu–a venue whose decor and clientele made it an excellent location for a war crime–all I could do was retreat to my room for a good cry and an orange Fanta. (Orange Fanta tastes just like St. Joseph’s baby aspirin, and so it is the perfect accompaniment for all post-traumatic regressions to childhood.)

As is so often the case, though, a few simple cycling rules–mental skills, really–kept me in my saddle, if not my right mind. They were:

1) Plan, and then have confidence in the plan. I bite it hardest when I doubt myself and then try to change the plan at the last minute.
2) Believe in the machine, and have faith in engineering.
3) Don’t look where I don’t want to go. The body follows the eyes, and so keep them trained on where I want to wind up.
4) Hills are never as bad up close as they seem from a distance.

Writing them out, I see these skills aren’t half-bad guides for living–another gift from the mountains of northern Tanzania.

Feb 222009

MTAE, TZ– Tanzania is a young country, with some 44 percent of its people under age 15, according to our friends at the CIA. (By comparison, 20 percent of the US population is under 15.) I felt this demographic fact on my first day of hard riding through the Usambara Mountains. The hills and valleys rang out with the high-pitched cry of “Mzungu!” as children announced our passage through their towns.

The sisters in this picture were so enthralled by my arrival that they followed me all the way up a steep 30-minute climb. Although I enjoyed the accompaniment of their footfalls and giggles, I found it difficult to feel like a bad-ass cyclist when four schoolgirls–all barefoot, none out of breath–could so easily keep up with me.

When we reached the summit, though, only the eldest remained. She spoke her first English words to me: “Give me money.”

As I would later learn, this is a familiar refrain among Tanzanian children. Someone, somewhere has taught them the following: 1) All wazungu are crazy rich, and 2) If you say, “Give me money,” they will share their wealth with you.

I’ve asked several Tanzanian adults about this phenomenon, and they shake their heads and say that the children have bad manners. They also warn me against giving money–even if the children are desperately poor, and even if their desperate poverty has something to do with my people’s enslaving their people and stealing their resources for, oh, the past 300 years. At least.

But enough of my white guilt, at least here, for now. I wanted to give this kid a treat because here she was, all brave and strong and fast, alone on a mountaintop with some strange white chick. From my pannier I fished out a small gift I had for just this occasion–a millefiore necklace that my ex-mother-in-law, a glass artist, made. I have about 20 of these left over from my marriage, and was looking forward to unloading them on the unsuspecting populace. (Agribusinesses, chemical companies, and pharmaceutical multinationals perfected this strategy long before me.)

The girl looked at the necklace, looked at me, and then said, “Give me money.”

By this time, Jerome, David, and I had regrouped and the three other sisters had caught up. The sun was beginning to set and we had a breathtaking view of the valleys tumbling behind us.

“What are we doing here?” asked one of the girls in Kiswahili. (Jerome translated this.) “These wazungu aren’t going to give us any money. In fact, they’re probably going to cut off our ears.”

Jerome chuckled and reassured the girls that we weren’t the ear-cutting kind of wazungu.

I told him about the money/not gift communiques I was getting from the eldest girl. He then quietly asked her about the necklace. She didn’t say anything.

“What an ingrate,” I thought.

But then Jerome explained that she really liked the present.

“How can you tell?” I asked.

“Because she won’t show it to me and she’s hiding it from her sisters.”

Feb 222009

LUSHOTO, TZ–Back in the U.S., I paid a cobbler $25 to repair the sandals I’ve worn on every trip since 2002. After splashing through Hawaiian waterfalls, floating in the Dead Sea, wading off the coast of Aceh, and pounding the Inca Trail, the sandals were having a hard time keeping body and sole together. But the cobbler reassured me that with a few dabs of hallucinogenic glue, my traveling shoes would be good to go.

By the end of the first week of myTanzanian extravaganza, though, I’d completely blown out both Birkenstocks–my only alternative to bike cleats and hiking boots.

“Don’t worry,” Jerome reassured me. “Africans don’t create anything, but they can fix everything.”

Neither half of this adage turns out to be true, but the latter is certainly more accurate than the former.

Jerome sent me to the shoe fundi (repairman) in the Lushoto market–a dark labyrinth of dried fish, plump produce, athletic chickens, and fat mice. David and I were the only wazungu (whities) in town, it seemed, and so the”Jambos!” were flying left and right. The fundi whipped out his needle and thread and proceeded to hand-stitch my sandals back together. I know he charged me the mzungu price–1000 Tanzanian shillings, or about 75 cents–but I was willing to pay extra for his artistry. Three weeks later, my Birks are still intact.

As for the adage: Tanzania hosts plenty of brokens that go unfixed. I high-five the toilet gods on the rare occasions when the hasp on my stall actually locks. I have yet to stay in a hotel room that has all of the following in working order at the same time: fan, mosquito net, hot water, and light. My jacked derailer befuddled the bike fundis in Same.

But creative genius is also everywhere. Passengers twist the laws of physics to use every inch of space on every local bus. Women defy heat and entropy to turn their bodies and cheap cotton into chic on two legs. Old men fashion marimbas out of electronics packaging. Children turn requests for directions into business opportunities (more on that later).

People pull so much function and beauty out of so very little. Is that not art?

Feb 042009

LUSHOTO, TZ–When rolling through the hinterlands of Africa, shrink-wrapping one’s womanly form in Lycra just won’t do. As it is, a white person is cause for much discussion in these parts. “Mzungu,” people announce when I walk by, using a Kiswahili word that roughly means “whitey.” A mzungu on a bicycle elicits even more comment, as people see the bicycle as rather lowly transport for the purportedly wealthy mzungu. Women on bicycles are likewise as rare as rhinoceroses.

And so a white woman on a bicycle is an event not unlike the circus pulling into town. Children rush out of schools to greet me. Women drop their chickens. Men marvel, and then discuss among themselves.

Mind you that all of this goes down in a really friendly way, with people smiling and calling out, “Jambo!” (Hello!) and “Karibu!” (Welcome!). Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want to attract any more attention, or any less wholesome attention, than I already am.

And so I’ve settled into my modest Muslim cycling kit–loose mountain-biking pants or cycling shorts worn under a black cotton skirt, coupled with long-sleeve cotton shirts that I picked up at FabIndia in New Delhi when I visited Lucy a few years ago.

My demure dress probably makes me a bit more approachable, as I am clearly (and for once) not some half-nekkid wench come to upset the social order. But the question remains: am I an inspiration to the ladies to take up their bikes and lay claim to the highways, or a cautionary tale of what happens when you don’t marry well? My guide, Jerome, (pictured here) and fellow-traveler, David, reckon that the answer is the latter, and suggested that we complete the scene by hanging a sign around my neck that says, “Woman for sale.” I recommended that they add “Long legs! Strong teeth! Good SAT scores!” to the sign.

Meanwhile, the people I roll past seem to admire my exertions. “No way I can do,” said a woman my age carrying about 50 pounds of firewood on her head. “You must be very strong,” several men have speculated. But the surest sign of respect is the term of address they use when I’m on my bike. On foot, I get called “dada”–that is, sister. But when I’m on two wheels, I become “mama.”

Jan 262009

This morning I awoke at 4 AM in Stone Town, Zanzibar, to the crowing of an urban rooster. I’m always amazed that no matter where I go, the roosters speak the same ridiculous Roosteranto. They sound like old men at a roller-skating party.
Jan 262009

Two years after the divorce, I sold my engage- ment ring, bought a used mountain bike, and set out for a bicycle tour of northeast Tanzania. Diamonds weren’t forever. The platinum also passed. And so I wanted to invest in something more enduring: experience.

Selling my besmirched merch took more than a year, as the market for used engagement rings is about as hopping as turtles in a tar pit. But eventually Craigslist revealed a buyer—a lawyer of the reduce/reuse/recycle set.

We met at a bank. He paid in cash. I hadn’t predicted the awesomeness of seeing so many Ben Franklins at once, and so all I had on hand to document the moment was my craptastic cell phone. Hence this classy snap, “Bens for Bling.”

I also hadn’t prepared myself for the small gasp of sadness in my heart when I parted with the last vestige of my married life. The feeling passed, however, when my beaming buyer turned to me and said, “Can I hug you?” I had not anticipated the tonic of his joy.

That night he proposed to his girlfriend, who promptly accepted.

The next day, flush with cash, I reserved my spot on the International Bicycle Fund’s “Tanzania Surf to Summit” tour, prowled for used mountain bikes on Craigslist, and started over, all over again.