(Correction: in my last installment, I said we stopped for the night in Izinga. After more careful review of the maps, I realize we were actually in Itigi. Carry on.)
At the end of the last installment, we were in Itigi, Tanzania, having just enjoyed what in my opinion, was the best meal of the trip – eggs and chips, cooked in fresh local sunflower oil. After dinner we walked around town a little, our path lit only by the glow from our LED headlamps. Then, because there’s just not a whole lot to do in small-town Tanzania at night, we retired to our lodging, the Upendo Guest House.
At some point during the evening the lights went out in in the Upendo (and probably in all of Itigi), and we were once again reliant on candles and our headlamps. Having grown up in the States, where everyone is afraid of every hazard, all the time, I found it at once refreshing and unnerving to function by candlelight. There were candles on the floor and candles in people’s rooms alongside their bed linens and mosquito nets. It was very atmospheric but probably a fire hazard.
I showered and did my hand laundry by candlelight, but not before I accidentally stumbled into a shower room being used by another guest, who had left the door open, presumably to admit ambient light. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say that I was treated to some of Tanzania’s best scenery that evening.
So, moving on … the next day we set our sights on Mbeya, which was about 300 miles, via the most direct if also the roughest route. We had been told that the more developed route was actually almost as rough as the shorter route … apparently the pavement on the developed route was more an idea of pavement than an actual road surface.
One funny thing that happened – not sure which day it was, so let’s just say it happened on the way from Itigi to Mbeya. All day I had been seeing people selling mangoes by the side of the road. I was getting hungry so I asked K to stop at the next one. When showed the lady a 500-shilling note and asked how many, she said “five.” So, I gave her the note and selected 5 mangoes from the platter she was holding.
I couldn’t quite read her expression, but later, when I bought a single mango for a 5-centi coin (1/20 of one shilling) I realized that she must have meant I could have 5 trays of mangoes for 500 shillings, or five buckets of mangoes for 500 shillings. Or maybe she meant that one mango cost 5-centi. In any case, she hit the jackpot that day. Clueless tourist for the win!
Somewhere a bit south of Rugarat we experienced our first village bribe. To understand the bribes, it’s necessary to understand the setup of many of the villages. Most had some kind of checkpoint on either end of town. These ranged from an empty or populated guard shack to an unadorned tree branch set across the road, to more elaborate contraptions made from peeled branches, or even steel bars. Some of these had hinges and rigging to allow the bar to be raised remotely.
We came up with a system – if there was no barrier we would maintain speed. If a uniformed person approached the car, the driver would keep his or her eyes focused resolutely on the middle distance while the non-driver would bury his or her nose in a book. Mostly this was effective. The trick was to avoid eye contact at all costs.
This was the method for dealing with officers who came out into the road. During the hottest parts of the day, often we would simply wave at the officer(s) as they relaxed in the shade, and they would pull the rope that would raise the bar for us.
But, south of Rugarat, either one of us accidentally made eye contact, or we encountered an especially persistent police officer. Either way, the bar was down, there was no friendly officer pulling a lever from the shade. So, we had to stop. The officer was very polite. But, his message was, effectively, “you’re obviously pretty well off. I’m not. Please share.” You know, you really can’t argue with that, so we handed over some shillings and were on our way. For My First Checkpoint Bribe™ it was quite pleasant.