The weather here has been very wet over the last weeks and I have held on to the hope that it’s not the big rains starting, but rather just a small blip rather than the monsoons that occur every fall. It was fairly wet on my arrival yesterday, but with the fact that it rained heavily all night long, the roads have now become a bit more than just wet. Several years ago, I had traveled here in April, the normal month that the big rains begin, and had managed to become stuck in a Land Rover (not a simple task) en route to one of our mobile clinics prompting me to immediately move my spring trips to March in an effort to avoid a similar fate occurring once again. I have had other experiences in the mud and they are not exciting to say the least as there is no auto club here to call in an emergency. You are essentially left to your own resources and that is not a good thing when there are lions and leopards roaming about.
One such incident occurred very deep into the Tarangire National Park back country when the road I had driven numerous times before, but in obviously better conditions, suddenly disappeared and we became hopelessly stuck in the mud such that we had sunk to our axles. It was becoming dark and a light rain had begun and we had made no advance in any of the efforts to extricate ourselves from the mud. The tall grasses around us could have concealed anything save for an elephant or a giraffe, and a pride of lions could have easily slipped into our area without us even knowing about it. I barely had a signal on my phone, but somehow was able to send a message to Leonard (my family here in Tanzania ever since he was our safari guide in 2009), who was miraculously just coming into the park with a group of clients. I had taken the Little Serengeti Road and made several turns off, but somehow was able to describe to Leonard where we were by using directions such as, “turn left when you encounter the small herd of Cape Buffalo before you run into the trees.” Having been on many a game drive with Leonard in many different weather conditions, I had total confidence that he would not only find us, but would also be successful in getting us back on the road. Sure enough, despite the fact it was like looking for a needle in a haystack (yes, the grass was that high), he not only found us, but we were able to eventually pull the vehicle out of the muck, much to the joy of his safari group as they had now rescued another vehicle. I made sure to thank each of them personally, as well as give them money to buy a round of drinks at camp that night for the inconvenience of having had to take the detour it entailed. Of course, that wasn’t necessary, but it seemed only appropriate given the circumstances.
I had been up very late as I didn’t have an internet connection after arriving until Pendo loaned me one of hers, and had not gotten to sleep until nearly 1 am, hence having heard the rains beginning in the late evening. I did take the opportunity to do something I rarely do and slept in a bit until it was near breakfast time, but luckily was able to enjoy Pendo’s wonderful cardamom tea beforehand. Regardless of what I have tried at home, nothing has ever come even close to this tea and it is the first thing I go for upon arriving here each trip. Even though I rarely have breakfast at home, Pendo has always insisted on providing a wonderful first meal of the day, typically consisting of pancakes, eggs, and lots of fruit. It is a meal that is well worth the effort, certainly on my part, as it miraculously appears on the table each morning that I am staying at the Temba residence. My main chores today, though, were to get my sim card for my phone working , as they have gone to a biometric registration here recently, and to get to the airport by 2 pm which is an hour drive or a bit more depending on the amount of slow moving trucks on the road.
There is a wonderful Swahili word that I use quite often and it is, “shida,” which means trouble or problem. You can combine it with anything and people will often hear me saying, “hamna shida,” which means “no problem” when they’re asking me to do something for them. This morning and, for that matter, since I’ve been in Tanzania, I’ve had nothing but cellphone shida. There are several companies here and they have different geographic coverage, but basically the two companies are Airtel and Vodacom. Since there are no land lines here in the country, virtually everything goes over the cellular network meaning that the cell towers can get overloaded during times of the day when everyone is on the internet or their phones. Just to reiterate, there are no cable services or cables here, just cellular so that everything, phone calls and the internet, must go over the air with the cellular service. When each company decides to run some special deal, everyone begins to use that company and everything bogs down. Most people here have sim cards with both companies and switch between using them depending on who has the best deal. I have several numbers since coming in 2010, but have had my current one now for probably six years meaning that everyone here knows this number and calls me on it. It has been a struggle, though, and hence the cellphone shida, to keep my number active. Originally, it was the wild west and you just paid 1000 TSh (Tanzanian Shillings), or the equivalent of about 50 cents, to get your sim card and phone number. You needed no ID, no forms, no nothing.
About three years ago, they decided that all the sim cards needed to be registered requiring some form of ID such as your national ID card for Tanzanians or your passport for the rest of us. I had taken care of this and things were going along smoothly until recently when they have decided to use a biometric ID in addition to your national card meaning that they record your thumbprint to register the sim. Given I was in the US, this would be rather difficult for me even if I had known about it, which of course I didn’t. I popped in my sim on arrival here yesterday only to find that it said it was suspended. More cellphone shida! Pendo and I spent almost an hour this morning at both Vodacom (trying to switch my number to them though discovered that portion of the network was not working) and Airtel, where even though we went through the whole biometric thing, my sim still wasn’t working by the time we had walked out of the shop. As of tonight, I am able to use it to send calls and messages, as well as for the internet, but am still unable to receive calls as the caller hears a message saying that my number has been suspended. Such is life here where very little is simple in these matters of technology, that is, when the technology exists. When there is no technology, of course, things are much simpler. I’m sure there was no registration required for rock art.
I left from the Airtel store to head to the airport as Pendo and I had driven separately for that express purpose as the traffic driving in Arusha can be brutal at times and there was no need for me to go back to the house before picking everyone up. The airport is about an hour away along the main highway between Arusha and Moshi. Most of it is two lanes with incredibly slow trucks, speed bumps through the towns and 50 kph speed limits in the towns as well (that’s about 30 mph for those of you metrically challenged). It can be a rather boring drive and perhaps the most exciting thing you encounter is the traffic police, who are stationed along the road in areas of predictable passing over the solid while line or speeding. Those of you who are familiar with my driving will quite shocked when I tell you that now I always drive the speed limit here in Tanzania. My record of being flagged to pull to the side of the road three times in less than 24 hours remains a record that I’m not very proud of, though each was for a different offense. Passing over the solid white line was one, doing 57 kph in a 50 kph zone was another and the final one was for not wearing my seat belt as I had just pulled out from a restaurant and wasn’t quick enough putting it on when I had seen the police and was too honest when they asked me if I had indeed been putting it on as they had spotted me. Very often, though, the stop is merely random and for a safety check, making sure that you have all of your safety equipment in the vehicle and all of your insurance stickers. They usually just let me go as I don’t speak much in the way of Swahili and it becomes an exercise in frustration for them. In the old days, they very likely pocketed the fines, but now they must give you a receipt for the fine which is then written into a receipt book so it’s all accounted for, or at least that’s the idea.
I arrived at the airport after their plane had landed, but given the amount of time it takes to get through immigration, get the bags and then through customs, which has now become more of an ordeal at times, I still had nearly half an hour before they would emerge. The scene at the airport is always hectic as there are typically at least 50 or more guides waiting for their guests, each holding a sign up with their names on it, while each traveler exits the airport into the bright sun looking for their guide and name. This has become quite familiar for me as I have picked up and dropped off countless residents and others over the years I have been coming. Today, and for the first time I have ever seen it, one of the safari companies for a group of travelers from the Philippines has brought a contingent of Maasai to perform their traditional song and dance for them. Obviously, everyone there was able to also enjoy them which was an added benefit since we still had to wait for Angela, our friend and colleague from Ghana, to arrive on her separate flight. As always, despite the thousands of miles and multiple flights that everyone has traveled, they all arrived safely and were excited to begin their journey to this new locale.
Our first stop, though, once everyone and their baggage had been loaded into my Land Rover, or Turtle as it is affectionately known, would be to the Temba household in Arusha. It is an hour drive, back through all of the villages, with their 50 kph speed limits, and the slow trucks to drive behind, though no one cared as they were all new sights and sounds for everyone save Amisha who was returning for her second visit here. It never gets old, though, even for me as this is my 21st trip here and I’ve driven this road countless times. There is so much life here that one can never see it all and I have never tired of it. Pendo always insists on feeding us when we arrive back to their home, regardless of the time, which becomes lunch as there is another meal later that is our dinner. They are both incredibly delicious and most appreciated after the long days of travel for everyone. Their youngest children, Gabriella, age 5, and Gabriel, age 3, are both incredibly excited to see everyone as they have their undivided attention for an entire evening of horseplay until everyone, residents and children, finally pooped out and were ready for bed. It was a well-deserved rest given the effort required to make it here and everyone was incredibly excited for tomorrow we would be making the trek to FAME and traveling across the Great Rift Valley on the way. FAME will be their home for the next month and the staff, their family. And each of them will have changed, in some small manner, for the best for having made the effort to help others and make a difference in the world. And, most of all, each of them will have also left a small part of themselves behind with each of those they have interacted with along the way and the world will have become a better place for it.