Hop on a plane or train or bus, or even into the seat of a car, and you are transported from one distinct place to another distinct place. That place was dry; this place is wet. That town smelled like manure; this one smells like mint. Earlier it was hot; now it is cold.
One of the lovelier aspects of bike touring, then, is exploring these subtle changes in landscape and culture on a continuum. Cycling is (typically) fast enough to not get (too) bored, but generally slow enough to recognize and register these in-between places. It's a wonder to wake each up morning in a slightly different place, to look back a week in time and space and find that things weren't so different, but they weren't just the same, either. Gradually, we uncover changes. The rains are coming. It's getting more scenic. There really isn't as much wildlife as there was back there. Our favorite biscuits aren't as easy to find in these markets.
So for us, borders can be jarring. You cycle a long way along a slowly changing planet and then you cross a line in the earth, often arbitrary and manmade, and quite suddenly things are not as they just were.
Tanzania, it feels different almost immediately. There are the obvious changes borne of political reality. The language is now Swahili. The currency is now the Tanzanian Shilling. Our greetings morph from muli bwanji to mambo, and our rate of exchange roughly triples.
There are the signs of a larger economy. In Malawi, most homes were simple: mud, brick, tin, wood. Single-story, nature tones. The color of earth and dirt. In Tanzania, we pass much larger houses, plaster painted in bright pastels. I'm struck by the right angles and the glint of glass in the window frames, and it's not until now that I realize there wasn't very much glass in Malawi. Hardly any at all.
We cross the Songwe River and we enter Tanzania and we begin ascending. We climb from five hundred meters above sea level to nearly three thousand, and here is the greatest difference we discover: the land is green. The cool air and the mountain rain have turned Tanzania's highlands into a verdant tapestry of tea estates and mango groves. We enter a village and our eyes widen at the market's selection: not just mango, not just the usual onion and tomato, but avocados. Enormous, plentiful, selling for between twenty-five and fifty cents depending on how large we want them.
Our diet improves quicky and dramatically. We stuff our panniers full with green peppers and bulbous garlic and fat carrots and hefty avocados and, for good measure, plenty of onions and tomatoes too. We quickly learn the Swahili words for these staples: pilipili hoho, vitunguu saumu, karoti, mparachichi, vitinguu, nyanya. Our pronunciation isn't very good, but merchants seem to appreciate our effort. We get some smiles. Certainly a few chuckles.
We grill avocado toast and colorful vegetable stirfrys. We make toasted sandwiches overflowing with produce. We supplement our pasta with spicy peppers or creamy avocado sauce. We cook pancakes plenty. One morning, we find some strawberries, and we whip up a homemade strawberry syrup on our campstove.
Through most of our travels, we've skipped breakfast and made a stale, cold lunch. Now we're pulling out our stove three times per day. We're taking more breaks, which is a pleasant consequence of all this cooking, and we feel healthier than we have in some time. Despite all the climbing, we're relaxed and happy.
We cross our highest pass to date and careen down the other side into the city of Mbeya. It's growing dark and stormy. We pedal frantically through the hectic streets in search of a cafe that we heard also offers camping. A sign points us down an unpaved alleyway. We follow it on our bicycles but come out the other end with no luck. Ahead, there's another alley. And above, those ominous clouds. In the distance, thunder cracks.
Lauren dismounts and walks down the rutted backstreet a little further. I stay with the bikes. I'm standing around picking grime off my bicycle frame when a vehicle pulls up next to me. A woman rolls down her window. "You okay?" she asks.
"Oh sure," I say. "Thanks. We're just looking for this cafe." I tell her the name. "We hear they offer camping. Do you know it?"
The driver nods. "It's right down there," she points, "but they're probably closed, and I haven't heard anything about camping there."
"But hey," she adds. "If that doesn't work out, I live right here." She gestures to the house in front of us. "You're welcome to come camp in my yard."
Ten minutes later, once Lauren has returned and we've confirmed that the cafe is indeed closed, we knock on the gate to this stranger's house. She warmly welcomes us inside. We talk briefly. She's Dutch, but has lived in Tanzania these past five years. She's done a little bike touring herself, back in Europe, and so she knows how far a little generosity can go. "Camp anywhere you'd like," she says.
She pauses a moment. Reconsiders.
"Oh, on second thought. If you'd prefer, you're welcome to use my guesthouse right here." She tilts her head back to a cabin behind us, off in its own corner of the yard. "It's pretty basic, but it may be more comfortable than your tent, especially in the rain."
We thank our new friend profusely for her trust and kindness. She just shrugs and grabs us the keys. "No problem at all. Enjoy."
The day after reaching Mbeya, we had planned to treat ourselves to a few nights in a budget hotel. Just somewhere with a little privacy, a place to do laundry, and decent enough wifi to replenish our dwindling supply of podcasts. And so after breakfast, we pack our things and greet Janneke, our generous host, in front of her house.
We thank her again for her help. She asks if we're headed onwards, and we say not really, that we figure we'll take a few days off to rest our legs after the big climb from the border. "Well hey," she interjects, "a hotel may be nicer, but you're more than welcome to keep using the guesthouse if you're okay with it."
We certainly are. It's cozy and quiet and has everything we really need: a comfortable bed, a working toilet, even a shady patio on which to cook our meals. Not far from the window, some horses are grazing in the stable. "You sure you don't mind?" we ask.
"Not at all."
We head to a cafe. Incidentally, that same one we couldn't find yesterday. We strike up a conversation with a few Peace Corps volunteers, and as the morning draws on, maybe a dozen more spill in. It's a Friday, and once every few weekends a bulk of the volunteers from the greater Mbeya region leave their villages, make what might be a six-hour journey into the city, and spend a few days socializing and partying.
We spend most of the morning talking to the volunteers. In the afternoon we set off to run a few errands—buying a local SIM card, picking up some vegetables for Janneke and ourselves—and Adam, one of the longer-serving expats, kindly offers to guide us around town. He's become fluent in Swahili and well-oriented to Mbeya during his eighteen months in Tanzania, and we're appreciative of his help in navigating the trickier details of activating a local SIM.
The Peace Corps cohort will be playing games, eating dinner, and drinking beer at a lodge nearby this evening. Adam invites us along, and we join for the latter activities. The next day, we spend a little more time with everyone before the group dissolves, each boarding a bus or dalla-dalla in one direction or another to begin the hours-long, multimodal slog back to the more remote villages tucked away in the mountains outside Mbeya.
We spend one more day enjoying good food, journeying to the market, and chatting with Janneke before we, too, leave the city. Panniers literally overflowing with mparachichi, maembe, mkate, and pilipili hoho, and water bottles topped off with several liters of maji safi, we pedal east.
The days pass pleasantly enough. The topography of the road toward Iringa is jagged, like a shark's lower jaw, all steep climbs and sudden descents. Then right back up again. Right back down.
So too is the road itself. It's a narrow thing, two lanes, with a shoulder that can hardly be called a shoulder. Sometimes wide and smooth, the edge of the highway will then give way, unexpectedly, to crumbling tar, corrugations, sand and dirt. It's a lane for walking at best, cycling to the next village, maybe, but by no means one on which to cross a country.
Truthfully, I'll take a road with no shoulder over a road with a poor shoulder any day. Drivers rush down the latter and they may be as petulant as drivers typically are, peeved at having to slow down for a few moments and tilt their powered steering wheel a few degrees to the right, but at least they recognize that they must. There is nowhere else for us to ride. We have no choice but to be here.
But give a road even the slightest hint of a shoulder, a yellow line demarcating the asphalt from the ditch, and suddenly all bets are off. Hurried people in fast-moving automobiles hurtle down the barabara and spy two loaded cyclists pedaling right at the edge of that line, right on that line, and then there is rage. Indignation. Do they not see the shoulder? There is a shoulder, and they still choose to be in my lane? Out of my way, at once, or I will run you over.
And it's not exactly an idle threat. We pedal calmly for a minute at a time and then we hear the aggressive drone of a large engine. The frantic staccato of a horn. By all measures, you'd think the vehicle behind us has no working brakes. No ability to slow down. We stand our ground, wave a hand to make our presence known, but of course it is already known. Of course it doesn't matter. Because there is this "shoulder," and if we wish to continue living then we best sidle over. And at the last second, we always do. Furious, shaken, but ultimately pragmatic. This is not a battle we can win.
It goes on like this for several days. Beautiful views, not terribly unpleasant weather, splendid lunches, everything just great except for the drivers. Thankfully, we survive.
And then some justice. Back in Mbeya, Janneke had mentioned roadwork. Plenty of it on the way to Iringa. It's made the drive a nightmare, she'd said, but the roads are basically done. Smooth and empty. They're still not open to vehicles, but locals are walking and cycling across them just fine.
We reach the roadwork. Dozens of segments of several kilometers each are closed off to traffic. Large signs announce detours along a terribly corrugated access road. It's more potholes than road, really. We check with the first road worker we see and he waves us on through. We have the highway, fifteen meters wide and pristinely smooth—not yet torn up by automobiles—all to ourselves.
We glide along, coasting without a care. It's nice to be able to move about the world without the tension and fear of being just one misstep away from sudden death. There are few places to do that anymore. Meanwhile, the drivers who have aggressively and dangerously overtaken us just minutes ago are queued up to our left, bumping slowly and violently through the detour. It's so common to see the opposite—cyclists and pedestrians pushed to the margins of public space the world over—that I'm not ashamed to allow a spiteful little smile across my lips.
Anyway. We survive the narrow road and enjoy the wide road and eventually the TanZam Highway reaches a compromise. Automobiles are given a lane and the rest of us are given a decent, even shoulder, and everyone goes about their way east without too much confrontation.
The mountains are windy, and we spend days fighting the wind. We camp at a petrol station. Though it's out of petrol or anything else for us to buy, the kind owner goes out of his way to make us feel at home. We camp at a lovely farm that smells of tea and juniper. We camp in the courtyard of a shopowner's home, and the next night we spend sheltered from the wind by the crumbling stone walls of an old hut. We reach the Iringa junction, and we continue east.