Posted by: Dana | 2010/03/29

March 28 – In Tanzania in a Sea of Sunflowers

Seriously, I am not sure it gets any better than this. 128 glorious kilometers from forest camp to bush camp on a route lined by sunflowers at least fifty meters deep. We woke up in a forest covered with dew on an unseasonably cool morning and cycled on rolling hills all day, passing the village of Makambako on our way to Mbeya in Tanzania. I maintained a pretty peppy pace today, still relishing the paved roads we will now enjoy for the next few weeks. Tanzania continues to amaze and impress me with its natural beauty, its simple way of life, its magnificent sunrises and sunsets, and its calm, polite, and friendly people.

Sitting here in camp this evening, I’m watching riders relax and read, some are drinking beer and soda that a local entrepreneur brought to camp and sold. Most are hudled under tarps that hang from the roof of the trucks because a rain cloud just passed a dumped about two minutes worth of rain. Staff are in the “kitchen” preparing an gargantuan amount of food—some 50 kilos of potatos for mashing (including buckets and buckets of butter!) and a pork stew (I’ll eat the veggie option tonight.) The number of riders swelled as new sectionals joined us in Iringa—11 in total, which makes the group too large, in my opinion. I see how the numbers are burdening staff who are pretty short-handed to begin with, especially the mechanic and nurses. In any event, we have some nice new riders with us for a couple of weeks and most of our riders who took extended trips to Zanizibar and Kili back with us, too.

This country is gorgeous and for anyone who travels here for safari or to climb Kili, do yourself a favor and travel the countryside. As I ride past, children stand in clusters along the roadside and often say, “Good morning, teacher.” It cracks me up. Clearly they haven’t learned to differentiate the greeting from the salutation, but in any event, they are eager to practice the English they learn in school, and I respond, “Good morning, students!”

Our time in Tanzania has been so varied. First was the incredible safari and few days of rest and amazement in Tanzania’s incredible national parks. Then we spent the week on unpaved roads traveling from Arusha to Iringa, which took us through Tanzania’s capital, Dodoma. And now, through the sunflower-lined paved roads in the southern part of the country. Each day is more beautiful than the next.

Because my last blog entry was cut short because of a power outage in the internet shop where I was writing it, I feel like I short-changed the week riding on dirt in Tanzania, but now that it is over, it’s almost like I want to move on and forget about it. But, that isn’t exactly true, because those horrendous roads took us to magnificent places, which could never have been experienced from the comfort of a vehicle traveling on paved roads. It was a tough week, second to the stretch in nothern Kenya. It was hot and humid, and days were long and punishing.

The day after the 120 km Mando Day described in my previous posting, I was completely exhausted when I woke up in the morning. There simply isn’t enough time to recover sometimes when the riding is tough and long and you go to bed only a couple of hours after the ride ends only to wake up and have to get on the bike again. In any event, I got on the bike and suffered through the first 30km, taking a pretty big fall very early on, around 7km. Erin, riding directly behind me, saw the mess unfold in slow motion. We were riding on loose and rocky terrain and I hit a patch of deep sand. Erin says I flipped upwards and backwards and I jammed my right knee on the fall. Covered in dirt and sand, I pathetically shouted “self-pity, self-pity, self-pity” because saying it versus just feeling it can somehow make the whole situation seem absurdly funny. Once Erin made sure nothing was broken, she did what a good friend would do which is to continue to ride and leave me in the dirt with an opportunity to regain my composure and dignity. “Take a moment,” she said and she rode off.

So I did, with some help from another rider who helped disinfect and bandage me. I continued on for approximately another 25km. I was totally miserable and saw a way out—a passing pick-up truck which was about the only car on that road all day. The vehicle stopped when I raised my hand, looking to hitch. Four people jumped out of the cab and quickly lifted my bike up and into the bed of the truck. (The benefit of losing my EFI status, I suppose, is that bailing is an option when I absolutely feel like I’m going to die.) As I lifted myself to hop in, I saw that the flatbad was already full with a chain-link fence which was rolled up, but my bike was already laying on top, and I crouched on the fence and the truck sped off before I could contemplate how wise or unwise this move was. As we passed the first few riders, also struggling on the currogation and loose and chunky rocks, I smiled broadly and waved and they looked at me with dispair and jealousy on their faces. One rider raised her arm in hopes to jump aboard, but when she saw the fence and, by then, the uncomfortable look on my face, she passed and continued to cycle.

I bounced around on the fence and on the barbs sticking out of it. The vehicle bumped and sped and nearly launched me and my bike over-board. I held on tight but was being squashed by the bike in between the barbs and just when things couldn’t get worse, I heard the release of air from the front tire—a giant puncture caused by the barb that ripped the tire and the tube. Finally, we crossed paths with a TDA vehicle and I gave the thumbs down signal that I was in need of help (from the back of the pick-up truck!). I signaled to my driver that I wanted out, and finally got aboard a much safer and more sane vehicle, with my bike and my ruined tire. But this wasn’t even my tire! It was a tire that another rider generously loaned me because my fat nobby tires were inadvertantly thrown away by a TDA staffer—long, boring story for another day. So, I made it out alive, my bike wasn’t as lucky…and now I’m relying on the kindness of yet another rider whose girlfriend is bringing me a new pair when she meets up to join the ride in Victoria Falls. We learn that good riding kharma is returned so it pays to be generous with our limited resources and be kind on the road. I am grateful for the loaners and the new tires coming to meet me in a few weeks and learned a tough lesson not to hitch a ride in a pick-up truck that is already carrying a full load of sharp, barbed fencing.

Food has become a little more varied lately and the most noticeable change is the increased availability of fruit. We are now eating fresh mangos, pineapple, guavas, passion fruit, and the biggest, most scruptious avocados in the world. I had never been a huge fan of mangos or avocados before now, but here, these are such treats—maybe because they really are better, or maybe it is because there have been long stretches in the desert with precious little fresh stuff. In any event, the fruit is more varied and abundant.

The food you find along the streets is cheap and often fried. In Tanzania, a tasty local favorite is chips mayai, which is basically an omelette filled with french fries. Yum! With approximately 10km to go on today’s ride, a bunch of us found a roadside chips mayai shack and enjoyed the tasty and salty snack.

Before I forget, I had another incredibly memorable experience early last week in Tanzania just before we hit the unpaved part. After a ride which was relatively short, Erin and I decided to go for a very short run—just long enough to shake out our legs and use different muscles. That night, our camp was located a couple of kilometers off from the main road, along a dirt path, in the heart of Masai country. The Masai are semi-nomadic tribespeople, who look similar to the Samburu, encountered a few weeks back in Kenya. Like the Samburu, the Masai live off the land with their herds of animals, they erect short-term housing consisting of sticks for the walls and a thatched roof, and they are lavishly decorated with beaded jewelry. They typically have droopy ear-lobes with big holes in them from which long dangly beaded jewelry hangs.

Anyhow, on this short run, Erin and I ran past dozens of tiny Masai shacks and within moments, we were accompanied by about one dozen Masai children, running after us. They were excited and friendly and fast! Some were wearing barely any clothing, others were wrapped in fabric, and a few were ornately decorated with the Masai beads. Young children carried even younger children in slings on their backs. And, they all joined us for a run through Masai territory—babies and all. With absolutely no way to communicate with these children, other than through facial expressions, body movements, and crazy sounds, Erin and I led the kids on a 30 minute run, hop, skip, jump, They mimicked our every move and every sound. We would throw our arms in the air and make loud whooping sounds, and they did the same. We stopped and did jumping jacks, and the kids followed along laughing. When Erin ran in the front, I ran in the back of the pack to watch the kids from behind. We all laughed and laughed.

One quick rider update–we’ve lost several riders due to injury. One broke his collarbone in Ethiopia; another suffered multiple concussions (one from a cycling accident in Sudan, which I described earlier in the trip and a second from being hit by a bus along the road while walking in Nairobi); the oldest rider in the group suffered a fall on the wet tar I described in Kenya and was covered with it from head to toe, but also unfortunately injured his hip; and a fourth rider left the tour, somewhat mysteriously, but obviously this trip wasn’t what he expected. The rest of us seem to be rolling along in fairly good health. There are still some bugs and parasites that make their way around, plenty of bumps and bruises, and a few infected injuries, but on the whole, riders seem to be in good shape and spirits. One crazy reality, that has proven itself year after year on the TDA, is that men drop weight at alarming rates while the women do not. How unfair is this! There are men who have already lost nearly 40 pounds without trying, and most of the women are exactly the same weight as when they started (like me) or have gained! It goes to show you just how tough it is for women to lose weight. If exercising eight to ten hours a day doesn’t take the weight off, what does? I guess the french-fry omelette doesn’t help. Obviously, we eat huge amounts but we are ravenous and need the energy.

As we begin the second leg of the tour, I’m conscious of how quickly time is passing, how much ground we’ve covered, and how fast the remainder of the trip will go. We’ve adjusted to some of the most extraordinary conditions—hundreds of kilometers of biking each week, the daily routine of setting up and then dismantling our tents and our camp, the challenges of keeping clean, safe, and healthy while traveling through some of the most remote parts of some of the poorest countries in the world. It is truly amazing that the extraordinary has become somewhat ordinary—this is our daily life. I examine my shoes for scorpians and other bugs in the morning before putting them on and I watch out for snakes when I walk into the bush to go to the bathroom. The absurd things we see no longer startle and surprise me the way they did in the beginning. Yesterday, I saw a woman riding her bike down the road with three live chickens squeezed under her arms. At a coke stop, a bunch of men congregated at the side of the road to slaughter a cow and hang its body parts from the limbs of a tree while they fired up a grill and prepared to eat. The women knelt along the road and boiled the cows’ feet in a pot of water. I didn’t even take pictures because these scenes have become the stuff of everday life. TIA: This is
Africa, and I am loving it.

My bike is holding up well, and so is my gear for the most part. For the bikers among you, I changed my cassette, chain, and brake pads the other day, and probably could use some additional maintenance on the bike. I am still happy with my choice of the Salsa Fargo, but certainly would have benefited from some suspension on the rough roads. The folks with pure mountain bikes certainly fared better than those of us on other types of bikes. Mine is more an adventure touring bike, able to accommdate fat tires and carry heavy loads (if I do self-supported bike touring in the future), but it doesn’t have built-in suspension.

One final word about our half-way status: It must have been a couple of weeks ago already that I reported that we were “half-way”. What I didn’t realize then was that while we were half-way in terms of the time spent on this trip (120 days total on the TDA), we were far less than half-way in terms of distance. So, if you do the math, it means we will cover longer distances, on average, for the second part of the ride than the first. While we are in better shape and can generally ride faster than before, I’m also hoping that this means road conditions will improve which will allow us to cover more ground faster. We also have one week later in the ride, in Botswana, when we will do six back-to-back century rides (over 100 miles each day) which includes the longest day of the tour, a 207km ride (which is over 120 miles). The roads are generally flat in Botswana but headwinds could make those days very interesting! I’ll worry about that when the time comes.

For now, I look forward to the next few days, including our next rest day at Chitinga Beach in Malawi. I’m excited to jump into Lake Malawi for a swim and will cross my fingers that some weird parasite doesn’t swim into my body and get me! If it is as hot there as it is here tonight, there is no way I’ll be able to forgo a swim. Until my next posting, you can trust that I am still very happy and safe, loving the biking and the discovery, and I am thinking of friends and family back home and missing you. Keep up with the emails because I love hearing stories and updates (and of course, gossip) from home.


Responses

  1. Hi Dana,
    Greetings from DC. It sounds like you are having such an amazing adventure!! Stay safe, and keep the updates coming.
    –Jeanne

  2. Dana
    Loving your blogs. Jessica Lianne and I will join as sectional riders in Lilongwe.
    Bill

  3. Dana,
    Since only the men lose weight, I don’t think I’ll train for TDA! Ha…I am so very proud of you. Your experiences are so rich and your journey will fill a lifetime of stories. I’m envious, but so impressed by your determination, stamina and your upbeat attitude, in spite of many obstacles and difficult situations. One mosquito in the tent on the first night in a bush camp would have had me begging to get on the plane to go home.:) You’re tough!!!
    Love you,
    AM

  4. Dana, This is Dave Lujan, Ginger More is my Aunt, I am also a Farrell since my Mom was a Farrell. I have been following your trip very closely. I am a AF Operations Group Commander here in Balad Iraq, and I have to tell you, there are a lot of Colonel’s that are following your trip as well. We all love your blog and we discuss it regulary when we spend some time just hanging out.

    You are simply impressive, your determination and stamina are impressive. You go girl! You have been very motivational in my life and I would like to thank you! Enjoy Africa! I spent three months south of Cairo with the AF and I saw a lot of TIA! My wife and and daughter will be on vacation next week; we are visiting Tangiers, we will be thinking of you!

    Take care of yourself, I have satellites taking pictures of you to make sure you are ok!

    Dave

  5. Another incredible journal entry, Dana! With all of the amazing stories that you share, the images that you describe, what sticks out most from this entry is that you have SIX, yes SIX back to back centuries! That is impressive! I can’t wait to hear about how you feel after that. Keep up the great work!

    Scott


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