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last post Friday, November 5, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 45
WEEK 17: On our way to Mbeya, Tanzania and to Dar Es Salaam
(repeated for the SGN online)
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WEEK 17: On our way to Mbeya, Tanzania and to Dar Es Salaam
(repeated for the SGN online)

It was Monday morning and Louis and I were up at 6. The sun had been up for about an hour and the locals down by the beach and traveling by boat, were very noisy as usual. We packed up quite quickly, met Jack just before 7 to say our goodbyes and were off.

Our plan was to reach Mbeya in Tanzania in one day. Mbeya is where we would meet the train which travels from Zambia to Dar Es Salaam, the TAZARA line. There are only two trains a week going in each direction. We needed to be on the Wednesday train to reach Dar Es Salaam by Thursday afternoon so I could prepare for the SGN online on Friday.

We walked out of Big Blue Star and down the road where all the chapas waited to pick up people. We were quickly approached, asked where we were going and helped into a nearly full chapa, our bags placed in the back. We found ourselves sitting in the front seats next to the driver. This made Louis very happ. Not so crowded for the one hour ride to Mzuzu where we would find a Daladala (larger bus) to take us to the near border town of Karonga. It also made me a little apprehensive as our mode of transportation, needless to say, wasn't the safest Being in the front seat only made it far more dangerous. The danger of traveling in the chapas now was even stronger as often I would think of Augustine (the orphaned student we are sponsoring to go to school) and how both his parents were killed in one, 7 years ago. It seemed to take forever before the chapa was completely filled and were off up the highway.

I felt as though our visit to Malawi was "complete" but in my mind I was looking forward to a return visit when we would be heading back to Joburg from Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar. Our plan was to travel back through Malawi, stay a couple of days in Nkhata Bay and make sure everything was "working" for Augustine. I wanted to visit Liwonde National Park in southern Malawi to canoe through the hippos, crocs and see rhinos and elephants, all very up close. There is also a bus from Blantyre, direct to Joburg, via Mozambique and Zimbabwe. You leave about 8am and arrive (I am quite sure exhausted) in Joburg late the next afternoon.

I was also hoping to meet with the LGBT activists in Blantyre. I had been in contact a number of times shortly after the release of Steven and his partner from prison. Now there was no contact either by phone or by email. I wondered if something had "gone wrong" and the government had shut them down.

Off we went in the chapa, chugging up the big hills on our way to Mzuzu. I had made the trip three times in the last week as we worked on getting Augustine admitted to school. The scenery is quite beautiful and the landscape and vegetation of the low rising mountains most inviting. As we traveled the chapa seemed negotiate each hill slower and slower. Finally we pulled over and I watched everyone jump out of the chapa and start to run up the highway with their belongings. Louis and I got out of the chapa and walked around to the back. Our bags were alone on the dirt behind the van.

I suddenly felt great anger. I had just paid the chapa driver the fare to Mzuzu (something Jack never did, until he was at his destination) and everyone including the driver and the ticket taker had disappeared. There were some locals sitting around a road that branched off from the highway and some others waiting for transportation to go the other direction. A couple of the men came over to chat and to see if they could help. I explained that we had just been abandoned, the chapa had seemingly died and we wanted our fare back. The men were most sincere and assured us they could help us get help as the driver reappeared with a sparkplug wrench and some sparkplugs. He apologized and said he would get us a ride in one of the chapas running up the highway. Everything was full including the chapas, the pickups, the transport trucks and the gravel trucks. About 90 minutes later, the driver had gotten the chapa to fire up with the new spark plugs and we were again on our way, in the emptiest chapa I had ever seen.

We arrived in Mzuzu where the buses congregate. Louis was focused on coffee and something to eat. After getting a couple of snacks from the local vendors we found a bus going to Karonga. About an hour later we were on our way in a large AXA bus, reasonably comfortable, and glad to be moving. As we traveled north, the scenery continued to get even more stunning. It was a combination of mountains and large valleys with a very green tropical feeling. I kept wondering why travel documentaries keep repeating the same Serengeti, Kilimanjaro "stuff" when there is so much other wonderful scenery to be experienced.

We arrived in Karonga about 3:30, a little later than we had planned and got ready to get off the bus and get other transportation to the border. I had chatted with a woman behind us who was on her way to Mbeya and a funeral of her sister. She asked where we were going. I explained and she told us the bus went all the way to the border. This obviously made us happy and it was one less thing we had to work on to get to our destination. We did arrive at the border, but the last part of the ride seemed to take forever.

It was now around 5 and I believe the border only stays open until 6. I had my notes from chatting with Jack and they were similar to the following. Walk 500 metres to Malawi customs. Then walk the 1.5 k across the bridge to Tanzanian customs. Do not exchange money with any of the exchange people who approach you. Most likely you will get ripped off. Go through Tanzanian customs and then exchange money on the right where a policeman operated an exchange office. Then walk (or get someone to ferry you on their bicycle) to the bus going to Mbeya.

We cleared our exit from Malawi. There were few people there and the immigration officers, true to Malawi demeanor were very friendly and talkative. I was glad I had chatted with the officers as I did not know then that in one hour, I would be back to get my exit visa from my American passport canceled and a new one stamped into my Canadian passport.

Visas are always a big hassle in Africa. Many countries want them paid in American dollars. Sometimes it seems you pay more than you feel the official rate is. Often visas (so true of Mozambique) can be different prices at different border crossings. I thought I had done my homework and even chatted with some Americans who had come to Nkhata Bay from Tanzania. I believed the visa for an American was $50 and I had exchanged money with AJ for this purpose. We gave the Tanzanian official our US passports. He looked at me and told me it will be $200 for both of us. I objected and told him that it must be a mistake. Visas for US citizens were now $50. He said no and got out a book from 2007 to show me the $100 charge. I asked how much for a Canadian. He said $50.

I proceeded to get out my "virgin" Canadian passport. I had got my Canadian passport about 6 weeks before we left Seattle only because I was so pissed off at the Blaine crossing at how US customs had treated me on my weekly drive to Seattle. I more US citizenship; I will travel as a Canadian. Well, my anger did not change me for long. For those of you (and I suspect most) who are reading this, I prefer to travel with my US passport. It is a question of who might support me best if I encounter a big problem in my travels. I have great faith in my Congressman Jay Inslee and the US government to help me get out of a bind. I have little or no faith in my MP in Vancouver and have no belief that the Canadian government in Ottawa would do anything to help.

Anyway, the Tanzanian official looked at my "blank" (no stamps) Canadian passport and asked where my exit visa was for Malawi. I showed him the exit visa in my US passport. He told me that this would not work. I needed the exit visa in my Canadian passport. He told me to walk all the way back into Malawi to immigration and get it stamped. It all felt very strange to me. Now I would have an entry visa for Malawi in my US passport, but no exit stamp. I would now have a Malawi exit stamp in my Canadian passport but no corresponding entry visa. I asked him if this would cause me problems in the future and his answer was to make sure I had both passports.

I walked all the way across the bridge and into Malawi. The officers remembered me and were quite happy to oblige, canceling the exit visa in my US passport and stamping my Canadian one. Then I walked back across the bridge, the currency changers all hounding me, and back into Tanzania. I still had one more problem. I only had $112 US and needed $150. I explained this to the immigration officer. I had about $100 worth of South African Rand with me, but they refused it. The immigration officer then got out his cell phone and called a money exchanger (of dubious distinction). He arrived quickly and I was ushered into an empty back office to do any kind of money transaction so I could come up with the $150. It was dark by this time and the border was shutting down. I decided that although I wasn't getting scammed by this guy, the rate of exchange was very poor that it was in my interest to exchange my Malawi Kwacha for Tanzanian Schillings and have some money for the trip tonight and perhaps a place to stay. I was glad I did. We walked out of Tanzanian immigration and found that there were no more buses for the night. The taxi drivers though were more than happy to drive us to Mbeya for $150 US. We declined their offer and found a room in a nearby hotel for the night (cost about $6). It was actually quite clean, but no running water. I was very happy with our "good fortune". Louis was not happy and let me know it.

The next morning we were up and gone, hiking up the highway about 6:30 am looking for the location of the buses. It was about a 1.5 k walk and we found a chapa which was going to Mbeya. Jack had told us the ride was about 1 hour. It turned out to be a little more than 2. We arrived at the bus center in Mbeya, Tanzania. Our plan was to stay at the Millennium across the street. Both Jack and our Rough Guide recommended it. It was full and we had to walk around the centre of Mbeya checking out hotels until we found the Sombrero. It actually was quite a nice place but at $35 was quite hard on our budget.

After we got settled into the hotel, our priority was to get train tickets for the next day (Wednesday) to Dar Es Salaam. We negotiated for a taxi (through our new "friend" James Bond), to take us the 20 minute ride to the station, pick up the tickets and take us back. Unfortunately, we got there at lunch and had to wait almost 50 minutes for the ticket office to reopen. I was in line as the office opened and close to getting our tickets when our Australian friends Sean and Jess arrived in the lineup. Their travel companion Libby had not shown up yet and we were concerned she might miss the train. When I asked the ticket person for four 1st class tickets, preferably in the same compartment to Dar, I got somewhat of a blank stare and then "for tomorrow?" he said. "I will have to call the stationmaster". My heart jumped. I waited patiently and listened and watched. He then started to fill out the tickets which took "forever" and I felt so relieved.

We made arrangements with our Australian friends to all travel to the station tomorrow together and then went on our ways. On Wednesday, we negotiated for a taxi and got to the station about 1, expecting to leave around 2. Now this is Africa and things can be delayed. We had not expected to have a 20 hour wait. (We did not know a freight train had derailed only 25 km from Mbeya and caused problems with the track). We camped out for the night between the station and the tracks. Libby had made it and we had met a new travel companion Joe from New York State. Both of them were truly wonderful travel companions.

The train left for its overnight journey about 10:30 in the morning. The train trip to Dar usually passes through a Nature Reserve early in the morning. It was somewhat like a safari by train and we all were really looking forward to it. Now with the time change we unfortunately traveled through the park in the darkness of night.

The trip was fun, partly because of the people we were traveling with, and partly because the train was good (for African standards) and the scenery often spectacular. We arrived in Dar Es Salaam about 9:30 in the morning and all checked into the YWCA.

Dar was not quite what I had expected. It is large city and sort of mishmash of African, modern, rundown, poor, rich and new, with construction cranes everywhere. I had expected much more of a Muslim/Arabic look and feel. Louis and I spent the next morning exploring Dar. I found a couple of great phone stores which sold Blackberries. Mine had quit about 10 days before and would operate only very periodically. I left it for repair and hoped it could be fixed.

On Friday afternoon I walked the ½ hour to the internet cafe I had found to download the files for the SGN. No files and the internet cafe would close in a couple of hours. I knew though that the internet speed would be so much better than Malawi, that was so refreshing. It would be the first time in 3 editions that I knew I could upload, download and change things on the site as needed.

The next morning I went to pick up my phone on the way to the internet cafe. There was my old Blackberry, working like a charm. Needless to say I felt ecstatic. It was short lived. I went to change SIM cards and the phone would not restart. No matter what we tried, the phone was back to being very intermittent and would not stay running. So it was on to the net cafe and the SGN. I was a little apprehensive about people watching me build the website. "Gay" in Tanzania isn't much "better" than Malawi and it seems a "Gay relationship" can get you many years in prison. Thankfully, I had some privacy with very few other people around for the 10 hours I was there.

We spent some time traveling around Dar in the next couple of days using its system of vans. It really does work quite well. On Sunday night we went off to DDC Kariakoo Club, a music club with a live band. The music was great and dancing with our Australian friends and the locals was fun. Again it was typically "African". Men would often dance alone, with women and very often with another man. It did not take all that long before a local man came over to ask me to dance. We danced individually and as groups. We certainly could learn something about dance clubs from our African friends!

Tomorrow we are going to take the boat to Zanzibar, one of the highlights of our visit to Africa. Looking forward to telling you all about it.

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Is there room for us?
We camped out at the train station, waiting for the train
Sean unloading our bags from the train
Joe playing with a boy on the train
The harbor in Dar Es Salaam
One of the many Mosques in Dar
Christian church in Dar

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