Foreigners on Buses and Boats: Adventures on Matema Beach, Tanzania

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The only light in Madibira is a pair of headlights, coming quickly down the main road. We can see them approaching as we walk that way and, with this, we are running. It is dark-before 6 a.m.- the sand on the road is deep and our packs are heavy. We are determined to travel from Madibira (just outside of Ruaha National Park) to Matema Beach on Lake Malawi/Lake Nyasa in one day. I don’t know how many kilometers we will go, but it’s enough to mean getting on the first bus out of town. The first leg of the journey is so dusty I can hardly breathe. We stop so that the driver can pound away at something on the undercarriage of the vehicle in an attempt to fix whatever it is that’s broken this time. After this the rest of the bus rides blur together. There’s a beautiful winding road lined by tea plants, patchwork fields, homes settled in banana tree groves, dropping valleys, lingering fog, and nothing but the color green rolling over the land. I make my first out-the-bus-window purchase: avocados 5 times as big as those in the States, and four for 75 cents! We get off one bus to find the next, only to discover the bus we were just on is going where we need to go…we get back on to find the eyes of many Tanzanians looking at us. We are in need of a bank and visit one being run out of a bus, after I previously, and rather ragefully, stormed out of an ATM that wouldn’t give me money. There is one bus change where we tiptoe through tarps of corn and rice in a parking lot, only to find eager touts and subsequent fistfights at our bus stand. We eat dinner outside of a grimy building that looks abandoned but is actually a restaurant. And we scarf down the last bits of it rapidly in order to flag down our bus as its leaving town. Finally, we are on the last bus of the journey! But it’s not really smooth sailing on to the end. Multiple times we are made to get out of the bus and walk around gaping mud holes while our bus slides precariously through them, nearly ending up in a watery roadside ditch once or twice. We reach our hotel in the dark and it’s one of those travelling days that feels like three in the end. But we accomplished our goal! We made it in one day, and now we have two days to do as we please on the beach.
The first day is spent in 100 percent beach style: doing nothing but laying in the sun and swimming. We watch visiting university students playing in the waves, men and women mingling freely. We marvel at how much more Western they are than so many Tanzanians. We bring up the good and bad parts of an undeveloped country striving to be so much like a developed country. We talk about progress and about how sometimes culture itself can hinder progress. Sarah, who has spent a year and a half in Tanzania as a Peace Corps volunteer, thinks that Tanzanians would have to lose parts of their culture to truly make progress. The hours of this day dwindle by, as they should on the beach.
The next day we are feeling motivated and inquire at the Reception desk about the hotel’s kayaks, which Sarah has rented before. They don’t have the kayaks anymore, they tell us, but we can rent a wooden canoe for the day. It’s decided! We’ll give it a go. Once we have the boat in our possession, we are directed on how to use it by a local (possibly the boat’s owner… this was never clear). We shove the impossibly heavy rig off the safe shoreline in excitement. We giggle a bit after we nearly tip it over on our first attempt to get in. Soon enough we are in and are beginning to paddle. We don’t really know who’s supposed to be steering and who’s supposed to be driving us forward…the front person?..the back person?…we know nothing about canoes. We turn in a full circle. Then another. And yet another. All the while the white-capped lake waves are crashing into and over the boat and then we are riding one into the shore. Now, we are beached on a boat full of water. Good thing, or we probably would have sunk it! The trusty local, who was spastically running down the shore and in and out of the shallow water to help us, now throws off his shirt (his pants were long gone) fully exposing his green, cotton panties, and begins tipping the boat over and bailing the water out with a plastic bottle-turned-scoop. As soon as the boat is returned to a useable condition he insists on paddling us down shore to the market we were aiming for when we first began turning in circles. We arrive at said market with no troubles, other than that we are all three feeling queasy by the time we reach land. It is soon decided that we are not seafaring (or, rather, lakefaring) people and that we should probably walk back to avoid vomiting. The trusty local in his green underwear rows the whole way back, following closely our progress on foot. As Sarah pointed out at least once during this ordeal, this is what you get when you take Colorado and Wyoming people and put them in a boat: nothing good.
The day we almost sunk the boat was the last day we had with Sarah until she comes home in November. In an effort to end our journey together fashionably, we sought out a delectable dinner. It began with garlic bread topped with parmesan cheese ( OMG cheeeeeesssssssseee!!!!! In Africa!!!!!!) accompanied by a simple little salad of cabbage and cucumber. Next was the pizza, which we were more than willing to wait an hour and a half for. There was actually spices on this thing, which is pretty much unheard of in all the traditional Tanzanian foods we’ve been eating. Lastly was a sliced up banana dusted with cocoa powder and cinnamon and turned into a smiley face. Sorry if it bores you to read a whole paragraph about food, but after almost two months of travelling in Africa this meal felt like the most special and revitalizing thing on the planet, despite paying three times as much as expected for it! So it was with full bellies and good spirits that we ended our adventure-filled time at Matema Beach, said goodbye for now to one of our best friends (much less tearful and dramatic than the drunken goodbye a year and a half ago on the shore of some reservoir outside Cody, Wyoming), and began a two and a half day journey across the country and across the ocean to Zanzibar!

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