Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ol Doinyo Lengai

Posted from Arusha, Tanzania

We had reached a flat, higher part of the valley east and north of the Ngorongoro Crater when the clouds broke up enough to reveal Ol Doinyo Lengai. There's grass there instead of just shrubs and it supports herds of zebra, gazelles and wildebeest, as well as cows, donkeys, sheep and the Maasai who herd them. The loose gravel grabbed our tires and misdirected them. To pedal was exhausting. To walk through the gray stone, flecked with sparkling volcanic residue, too slow. We stopped for lunch, peanut butter and jelly under a small thorn tree, the only shade around. Crimas towered over us and Ol Doinyo Lengai brooded in the distance, calling us closer with its outstretched arms.

A young Maasai walked up and shared our little shade, just staring at us. The wind persisted and so did she; the mountain and the Maasai watched over us until we had rested and gone.

Ol Doinyo Lengai loomed closer and closer as we continued to follow directions given by Mohammed, a friendly bicyclist we met in Mtowambu (Swahili for "mosquito river"). From the turn to Gilai, Crimas is on the left and Ol Doinyo forward and to the left. Between them is a crater that we took to be "hole of the God," as Mohammed drew in my notebook. Straight ahead, at the top of the hill, a single baobab was silhouetted. We rode up ahead just to be sure of the turn and at the crest of the hill is another crater. This too could aptly be named "hole of the God." Only a couple hundred meters off the road, I ran up and took a look

It is an almost perfect circle, hundreds of feet deep. Would it be irreverant to climb down, I wondered? I didn't have the time anyway. MinWah was waiting with the bikes, and we had to find our turnoff and a place to camp.

Our group had split further. Quinn was on a safari with his visiting parents, so MinWah and I took a week to make a loop near Tanzania's most popular safari areas.

Back we went, past the baobab and down the hill. A left on a sandy dirt track took us down to the valley floor. The Maasai disappeared and our only companions were herds of zebra, wildebeest, gazelle and a few ostriches.

The wind was still whipping as we made camp under another thorn tree. It was near a watering hole, dry even though it's the end of the rainy season. The sun set behind Ol Doinyo Lengai and I thought about how lucky we were to be there.

Nobody brought us to that spot. We just looked at a map, got on our cycles and went. Nobody told us we could or could not camp there. Nobody even said we should or shouldn't. We're not on anybody's safari but our own and the rays reaching up over Ol Doinyo Lengai are so much sweeter for us having found it. How many before us have been so lucky to set up their tent in the shadow of the volcano to the tune of grunting wildebeest?

As it got darker still, two thunderheads, lit up from inside by lightning, marched around Ol Doinyo, but they never reached us. Maasai torches flickered on the distant hills like fireflies throughout the night.


The fear grabs you and it won't let you go, no matter which way you turn. No matter how many times you roll from your side to your back to your side again you still lie awake listening for sounds of your impending demise.

Then the inevitable: footsteps outside the tent. I lift my head and look, not willing to turn a blind eye to my doom. Whatever it is is startled and gallops quickly away; a goat or a small gazelle.

Occasionally there are voices on the road. Usually we're concerned about getting caught or molested, but now the voices have a soothing effect; others are out in the night as well.

A jeep goes by on the road. The headlights are on the tent and it slows. Maybe they'll stop and tell us we can't camp here, we must follow them into town. But it's just a trick of the road. The lights curve away and it speeds up. My secret wish for a savior fades with the engine noise.

It started with two Maasai warriors. They spotted us from the road as we finished dinner and hailed us.

"Tuna weza kuwa hapa?" MinWah asked. "Can we camp here?"

I didn't understand a lot of the following conversation (MinWah's Swahili is much better than mine). I was able to discern at one point that they wanted us to go with them rather than camp there. And I did understand the word "simba."


This was the African bush. Literally, it was almost all thorn bushes.

"Lions like where there's more grass," MinWah said. I wasn't so sure.

We were just 50 kilometers from the the Ngorongoro crater and beside it is the Serengeti. These are places people go to look for lions. In fact, if you want to see a lion in the wild, you are probably more likely to succeed on a Serengeti safari than anywhere else.

The Maasai herd cattle, sheep and goats. We've seen them - even at night - with their animals. They couldn't do that if there were lions, MinWah suggested.

"Yes, but what do you think those spears are for?" I thought to myself. "Those aren't just for show."

Many of the Maasai carry long spears. A foot-long spike adorns one end and a flat, feathered blade maybe twice as long tops the other. I was told a Maasai can kill a lion singlehandedly with one of these.

With the dawn, the fears fade. The rationalizations that were so ineffective in the night seem more likely. Lions don't hunt humans, and even if one came by, what would she think of our tent? The spears are probably more for rustlers or the Maasai-Chagga war than for wild animals. And our two acquaintences, who were friendly and jovial characters, who laughed and smiled in our presence, well, they could have been putting us on.

Better to wonder than to see a silent feline shadow pass between the door of the tent and the stars and know for sure.

Friday, April 10, 2009


Posted from Moshi, Tanzania
It was one of those mistakes anyone could make. For the lucky, it's a near miss. For the hapless, it's disaster.

I thought I'd be clever. I'd pull Minwah's stick-stand off her rack while we were riding and hang onto it until she wondered where it was. The theft was perpetrated unnoticed, but I paid too little attention to where I was going. When I looked up I was facing the only rock in sight big enough to be a problem.

"Thou shall not pass," the rock said to my front wheel, and in an argument between a wheel and a rock the wheel is rarely the victor.

The rock, however, issued no such mandate to my person and therefore my body paid no attention to the abrupt halt enacted on my bicycle and continued its forward progress without the benefit of any supporting apparatus save the breeze.

Air molecules provide but brief support for airborne cyclists, so my continued easterly progress was short lived and I quickly got acquainted with the boulder's many smaller cousins that inhabited the gravel shoulder of the road.

The cousins, however, were much friendlier than their larger relative and welcomed me as though they were so many feathers convened specifically to gently receive any airborne cyclists who may be searching for an innocuous location to finally succumb to gravity and reacquaint themselves with terra firma.

As I sprang limberly to my feet, I gazed back at my bicycle. Parts and gear were strewn everywhere as though someone had set up a roadside stand selling cycle-touring equipment. But the tragedy lay with the fork.

It had snapped clear in twain within the head-tube, and now the fork and handlebars, like partially severed limbs, dangled by the brake cables.

Along with my miraculous escape from injury, my front wheel showed more resilience than I thought possible. When Ian from the Recyclery built my wheels, I could tell they were good. But I never expected a head-on collision with a rock would fail to dent the wheel or even knock it out of true.

Quinn, Minwah and I had split from Orian and Karen upon leaving Lusaka, Zambia, to ride at different paces. We stood and stared at the wreckage.

There was no way to continue. The fork must be replaced. We were in the country about 60 km east of Lusaka. We could find a farm, we decided, and I would leave my bike and bus back in to Lusaka to find a replacement while Minwah and Quinn continued on. A lone cyclist can travel much faster than a pair, and I would hopefully be able to catch them before the border to Malawi.

Then, as if fate or God provided, a lone cyclist rode up on one of the black "World Bicycle Relief" bikes that are so common. He noticed immediately that we were in trouble and introduced himself.

Absalom's farm was located just under a kilometer from there, he said, and we would be more than welcome to rest there while we sorted things out. Absalom's father, Michael, is the patriarch of the family, with eight children and many grandchildren who fill the farm with life and laughter.

I met Jessica first. She was walking home from school and stopped in Absalom's wake to help me roll my fractured bicycle. Soon she was joined by brothers, sisters and cousins and an entourage of kids wheeling or carrying pieces of my bicycle escorted me to Mr. Nkoloma's Farm. Quinn, who had ridden ahead with Absalom, returned to see our troupe.

"It's hard not to believe in fate when Absalom came along first, and then the kids were all with you when I came to get you," Quinn said to me. I don't believe in fate or karma, but it's hard not to see this as a strong argument in favor. The welcome I received from the gravel brethren was only exceeded by that which I received from Michael's family.

No less than 11 members of this family sat with us as we cooked, then around a candle and a corn roaster into the night. Michael's oldest daughter, Ruth, adopted Quinn because he's the same age as her eldest son, though she thought his habit of cooking made him very unmanly: "You cook like you are not a man."

From age 4 to age 70 they welcomed us in.

"I'm so happy to have met such strangers," said Michael. "I will do a dance for you." He got up and did a little three-step shuffle, swinging his arms back and forth, and it was hard to believe he was a 70-year-old man.

Later, one of Michael's sons arrived home from the bar. I could smell the shake-shake on him (see previous post), and he was in full-on broken-record mode.

He gave a benign and welcoming talk, though his proposals to Minwah became more and more frequent. The family was visibly uncomfortable with the repeating drunk in our presence. He asked Quinn if Quinn took alcohol. Quinn tried to respond "sometimes," but nobody seemed to understand what he meant. In the rural parts of Africa we've seen, you're either an alcoholic ("booze-bag," Quinn would say) or you don't touch the stuff. This lack of middle-ground, of responsible use of alcohol was further evidenced by the repeater's next question for Quinn: "what did you drink today?"

The next day I set off for Lusaka on my own, my frame and broken fork in tow. The Zambian countryside disappeared behind the minibus I rode in, the miles I'd just covered eaten up in rewind. The door of the blue Toyota squeaked open and closed, the hatchback rattled and someone smelled. I hoped it wasn't me.

In the space of an afternoon I found a fork and fit it to my frame. By nightfall I was back at Michael's farm working on my bike. His grandson Patrick sat with me while I worked late. Patrick didn't speak enough English for me to really explain what I was doing, but he gamely held my torch, eyes fascinated at my task.

Michael called me in to sup with him while his two youngest granddaughters watched and giggled. I thought I heard the word "uncle," but I wasn't sure; it may have been a word in the local language that just sounded similar. But Michael translated for me: "Uncle, will you come and visit us again?"

Michael's family sent me off in the morning with breakfast, a bath and bags of boiled peanuts and maize. But the most powerful memory of their kindness was from the night before.

As I carried my bike in the twilight from the bus stop to Michael's farm, his grandson Chris rode past in the other direction. He stopped his bike to say hi and welcome back, then continued on his way. Before he rode 10 meters, he stopped.

"Here," he said, and handed me a half-eaten cob of boiled maize he'd been chewing on.

He couldn't have known that in my haste to repair my bicycle I had barely eaten that day. I nearly broke down, right there in the road with gladness to be going back to Michael's farm in beautiful Zambia, and to experience such unknowing, uncompromised kindness when I needed it so badly.