No more wandering for the time being, at least not in the corporeal world. I do occasionally pause to reflect on my wanderings...

Tuesday, December 4

Africa vs. USA: Cycling Challenges

For those who have never read my posts (does anyone read these?): In 2006, I spent nearly six months traveling by bicycle with a friend through seven countries of Southeast and East Africa. Our journey began in Beira, Mozambique, and followed Africa’s Great Rift Valley northwards to Nairobi, Kenya. The distance covered was 2,100 miles by bicycle and 1,200 by bus and boat. One year later, I returned to the bike saddle for a shorter, but more concentrated trip across the states of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. That trip started near Carson City, Nevada, and ended in Tucson. It spanned seven weeks and over 1,500 miles, nearly all of which I cycled.

It may come as some surprise that, as a whole, traveling through Africa was no more difficult than traveling through this country. In fact, in many respects the challenges posed to me in Africa were less severe than those here at home. Of the myriad trials I faced on the road, most were related to three general elements common to travel anywhere: geography, logistics, and society.

For obvious reasons, the geography of an area has a profound effect on touring cyclists and their travel experiences. It can make a given trip seem consistently pleasant, easy, dull, and aimless, or consistently arduous, painful, and in the end, very rewarding. In Africa I passed through a great variety of ecosystems and terrains that included flat scrubland and savannah, hilly agricultural areas, and mountainous rainforest. We never traveled far without having to ascend a mountain, and some stretches of the road weaved through mountain ranges for days, but my overall impression of the trip is one of rolling hills. There was always plenty of easy riding between mountains to allow us to rest and prepare for the next grueling climb. In contrast, the terrain in the Western US followed a pattern throughout almost the entire length of the route: mountain, valley, mountain, valley. In the eight days that I spent crossing Nevada, I negotiated ten mountain passes. The remainder of the trip followed suit, and increased in physical difficulty all the way until the very last climb of the very last day.

In spite of the variety of ecosystems we encountered in Africa, the region’s tropical latitude provided for a surprisingly uniform climate throughout the trip: hot and sunny. Being a native of the desert, I found the heat relatively unbothersome and greatly preferable to a cold climate. In this country, the weather presented an even greater challenge than the terrain. First, there was the problem of my poor preparation; I incorrectly assumed that traveling through the desert at the end of spring and beginning of summer would be a warm and sunny affair, much as it was in Africa. On the contrary, the nighttime temperature was regularly in the 30’s for the first few weeks (a significant discomfort when camping with cheap summer gear), and on several of my daytime rides I was beset by rain, hail, and snow. My dogged insistence that “the warm weather will come tomorrow” prolonged the suffering for weeks.

The most important logistics to consider on a cycling tour are the availability of supplies, especially food and water, and the roads that will be traveled on. One of the most common questions people ask me about my trip in Africa is, “What did you do for food and water?” The perception of Africa that persists among Westerners, that of a dusty and fruitless desert, is a product of our highly selective media coverage and is far from the truth. It is true that there are huge expanses of desert on the continent, but on the route that I followed, which would have spanned the USA from coast to coast, there was not one area of true desert. Food and water were easily available even in the most rural areas, where only the wealthy could afford to ride around on rickety bicycles imported from India. Community wells provided pure, refreshing groundwater and small family farms supplied the village with fresh produce, eggs, chicken, nuts, and beans. Granted, the diet was limited and came to be quite monotonous, but it was always fresh, gratifying, and cheap. On the unusual days when we didn’t pass through a village, we would get water from a stream or pond, and simply pack extra food. In the Great American Desert, on the other hand, I learned very early in my trip that I couldn’t afford to be haphazard in planning for provisions. On the second day of that tour, I arrived at a location marked on my map where I intended to refill my near-empty water bottles. The location turned out to be a locked up brothel. There were faucets in the compound, so I slipped through a gap in the gate to try them for water. They were dry. As I was leaving, a sheriff raced up to the brothel. I defused his initial anger and reasoned my way out of getting arrested, but I was told to leave the area immediately and that I would have to return to the last town to get water. Fortunately, on my way back to the town, two other cyclists coming my way told me of a truck stop 40 miles down the road with supplies. I barely had enough water to make it. I was unfamiliar with the concept of having to travel up to 120 miles between water and food sources. After that incident, I usually carried extra water, but the remainder of the trip was not without an occasional spell of thirst.

Although Africa certainly had a greater availability of sustenance, the roads were generally shoddy, and sometimes appalling. About one third of the roads we took in Africa were unpaved, which equates to 700 miles. Many of those roads were rocky or sandy tracks, which made short work of our bicycle chains, and our energy. The worst road of the trip, however, was the main highway linking Kampala, Uganda with Nairobi, Kenya. Incessant heavy traffic had torn the asphalt to pieces, leaving the highway without a shoulder and riddled with gaping potholes. After Africa, the roads here seemed smooth as butter. Only when I intentionally strayed from the pavement did I suffer a jolting ride. Aside from these more obvious physical challenges to overcome, there is another aspect of travel that can have a crucial impact on the traveler: society.

When I refer to society, I refer particularly to the people encountered along the way and the general disposition that prevails among them. To generalize for the sake of this essay, I will say that Africans are warm, friendly, and very helpful. Yes, there were exceptions; as my friend put it, every village has a jerk. Vendors consistently tried to overcharge us. However, to expect otherwise would be naïve. I was sometimes astounded by the generosity and hospitality that those usually poverty-stricken people extended to us. From the first day of the trip to the last, we were invited to stay in homes, offered the finest meals that could be offered, and regularly guided selflessly by local inhabitants. Africans are fully aware of the long and bloody history they share with the West. They know that white people have been a cause of their woes for generations. Yet, when confronted by two representatives of the West on bicycles, they chose not to be vindictive, but to express their cultural hospitality. Perhaps the most bothersome aspect of the society was the sheer number of the people. It was rare that we cycled for more than a few hours without passing through a populated area. Africans are very vocal and expressive people, and they found the sight of two white guys cycling through their villages very novel indeed, so we were constantly hailed, greeted, beckoned, and yelled at, though it was almost always done benevolently. In the States, I was again blessed with consistent hospitality and generosity from the people. Several people extended a helping hand along the road, whenever I needed it. I will always carry a fond memory of the man who, while I was soaked, covered in snow, suffering mild hypothermia, and enervated, plucked me out of the harsh Nevada elements and drove me to the next hotel several miles up the mountainous highway. However, the question I always carry in my mind is, “What if I were a black African cycling through the States? How would I be treated?” Although there are those who would disagree, claiming that “racism is dead,” I am certain that my experience would have been decidedly less agreeable.

I hope to have cast Africa in a somewhat more positive light than how it is usually seen. There is an element of fear associated with Africa, and I certainly was not immune to that at the outset of my journey. However, as I spent more time there, that fear was gradually replaced by an undying faith in the humanity of humanity. The fact of the matter is that every place and culture in the world has its advantages and disadvantages, with no one locality inherently better or worse than another. I had both positive and negative experiences on both trips. The overwhelming impression they share, however, is a positive one.

Tuesday, May 29

On the Road Again

Actually, I've been on the road again for the last five weeks. For those who may not know, I've been riding my bike through the great deserts and mountains of Nevada, Utah, and now Arizona. I started the trip near Carson City, NV in a humble town called Yerington, then rode to Salt Lake City, south into Arizona through Monument Valley, and to Sedona, where my brother picked me up and took me to Tempe. Check out the map for a visual on all this.

Now that I only have two or three days of riding left before I get home to Tucson and end this 16-month phase of compulsive cycling, I decided it was time to add a couple posts to my long-ignored blog. This will be the first of two or three covering my Great American West tour, the ideas for which have been brewing on the road over the last couple weeks of pedaling.

And now, a quick discussion of the highlights (unfortunately my digital camera retired on the second day of my trip, so I can't offer you any photos):

Sagebrush Land

Route 50 cuts right across the center of Nevada on an east-west axis, following a simple topographical pattern of wide valley, short n' steep mountain range, wide valley. It took me eight days to cross the state and I went over a mountain pass every day, sometimes two, and one day three. Needless to say, it was hard work, but excellent training for the rest of the trip, which generally increased in difficulty.

Nevada is sagebrush land. The plant is everywhere. The huge valleys that typically run north-south between frequent ridges of mountains carry the sweet, spicy aroma of the brush like mammoth incense holders.

Although it may sound monotonous and tedious, crossing sagebrush land was full of pleasant surprises. Every one of those mountain passes afforded brilliant, sweeping panoramas of the valley and mountains to the east and west, as well as wizened forests of juniper and pinyon pine sparsely covering a jagged landscape of boulders and cliffs. A few rare oases of streams and small lakes nestled in the rugged mountains made for lovely, cool campsites and rest areas, while tiny mining towns perched on mountainsides, such as Austin and Eureka, made for welcomed refuges from the elements, which proved to be surprisingly cold and harsh a number of times.

Great Basin National Park was the climax of this stage of the trip, a little-known park on the eastern edge of NV that encompasses a full sampling of the landscapes of the Great Basin Desert from the 5,000' sagebrush valley floor to the 13,065' stone crown of Wheeler Peak. In addition to the park's great variety of forest and shrub land, pristine streams and fantastic mountain scenery, Lehman Caves is an other-worldly labyrinth of surreal limestone formations that can be visited through tours offered by park rangers.

Capitol Reef National Park

In south central Utah sits this stunning national park that seems to get very little attention compared to its neighbors to the south and west (Glen Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion), which of course was advantageous to me as a cyclist in search of peaceful natural beauty.

In Cathedral Valley, a line of serrated red sandstone monoliths tower over a vast arena of sand and scrub flanked by red, orange, and white layers of sheer cliffs. The Temples of the Sun and Moon, two pyramidal towers of differing size, expertly arranged by nature to face the same direction and perfectly catch sunrise and sunset on opposing faces, provided me with one of my most memorable sunrises ever.

In Fruita, the Fremont River provides a lush oasis that contrasts splendidly with the surrounding red and brown cliff faces topped with pale domes. Nearby, Grand Wash gradually narrows until you find yourself besmurfed by tremendous vertical walls at a choke point just 16' wide.

The whole park abounds with geologic magnificence in multi-colored rendering. My 10 days of camping and riding in the park ended with a series of 10% grade switchbacks on the Burr Trail Road that cut through the southern end of the Waterpocket Fold, a colossal, multi-layered crinkle in the earth's crust that is one of the most distinguishing features of the park.

Lake Powell

Following a chain of unfortunate and uncomfortable events at the end of a hard day's ride, I had a spirit-lifting encounter with a fellow who invited me to dinner with his group of friends, which led to an invitation to spend the following day cruising Lake Powell with them on their boat. It turned out to be a perfectly-placed rest day, preceding four consecutive days of long, exhausting rides. It also turned out to be a perfectly enjoyable day in general, touring one of the most scenic lakes I've ever seen, picnicking, swimming, and cliff jumping. Although Lake Powell, a reservoir, has flooded out one of the most remarkable and extensive canyon networks in the country, and is therefore a menace to nature by some standards, it certainly has created a marvelous recreation area. The abundant tributary canyons and endless nooks and crannies provide innumerable areas to explore and enjoy by boat and land. All the while, soaring cliffs and amphitheaters and vaulted overhangs shoot skyward out of the water and loom overhead.

Monument Valley

Unfortunately my enjoyment of this impressive region was marred by a stiff headwind that drained my energy and motivation over the course of a long day, but still it was impossible to overlook the grandeur of the monumental red buttes jutting out of the plateau. The clarity of the air and the expanse of the plateau made it possible to enjoy the monuments for nearly the whole day, and I was surprised by the number and variety of them. From spindly spires to gargantuan mittens and long, toothy ridges, the curious formations dotted a region of the plateau spanning at least 50-60 miles along the highway.

Grand Canyon

The climax of the whole trip, GC inspires, bewilders, humbles and awes. I camped my first night there at Desert View Campground, a refreshingly small and quiet place compared to the much more popular area around Grand Canyon Village. Now, I've come to the conclusion that sunsets differ little around the world and a truly exceptional one is a rare and lucky treat, but my first night at GC was one such treat. A heavenly arrangement of clouds and color presided over the underworld of the shadowy canyon, and silhouetted a stately, but unobtrusive, stone watchtower perched near the canyon edge. It was an excellent recipe for a truly exceptional sunset. For the morning after, sunrise was pretty darn cool, too, and started a full day of absorbing as much of the GC as I could from every vantage point I could, until sunset again.

Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon

The day I left Grand Canyon was a record-setting distance day: 103 miles. Not coincidentally, it ended with the final highlight of the trip (I have two more days of riding, but don't expect to hit another highlight that would compete with these babies). Oak Creek Canyon starts about 15 miles north of Sedona, between there and Flagstaff. Coming straight from the Grand Canyon, I could imagine Oak Creek nestling comfortably within the Inner Gorge of the Colorado River - the lowest and smallest canyon section of the whole GC. Regardless, I was taken aback by the scene when, in late afternoon, I began descending the switchbacks that would drop me about 700' in three miles to the floor of the majestic canyon that stretched before me.

The canyon was a fine mix of substantial forest covering most of the rocky slopes but for a few tasteful accents of barren, pale yellowish-orange and grey cliffs and rock formations on the upper portions of the mountains. The forested flanks dropped steeply to the narrow floor and the clear, bubbling waters of Oak Creek.

As the canyon dropped steadily toward Sedona, the forest thinned out to scattered desert vegetation and the pale rock was gradually replaced by more dramatic buttes, ridges and peaks that were red ochre in color. What a superb final highlight!

Monday, November 20

The Finish Line

It was anticlimactic, really, but that´s normal. As I´ve read on multiple occasions, it´s the journey, not the destination, that matters. This was especially true for my six-month trip, which, until the last two months, never had a specific destination. The last week of cycling from Kampala to Nairobi felt like an unimportant appendage to the body of the journey that, like a pinky toe, was necessary to properly conclude it but that, if overlooked, wouldn´t have been missed much. Adding to this feeling were plain scenery, appalling road surfaces, heavy, fast traffic, and an impatience to reach the end of the road. In the end, it proved too unenjoyable and unnecessary for us; after a week of riding, we took a minibus for the final stretch to Nairobi.

The most exciting and interesting point of the last haul was standing at the beginning of the Nile River, just outside of Jinja, Uganda on the northern edge of Lake Victoria. However, like many tourist attractions, it looks more exciting and interesting on paper than in the flesh. In fact, if it weren´t for the toll booth, convenient handifcraft shops, restaurant, and tasteful billboard telling us that we were at a somewhat important place on earth, we might not have given it a second thought. A huge bust of Gandhi, who´s ashes were apparently cast into the source of the Nile, lent an air of dignity to the scene. More interesting was the group of Indian Hindus dressed in ochre robes praying with the water. As the man leading the prayer explained to us, the source of the Nile is a source of life, and therefore sacred.

The extent of Africa´s poverty continued to surprise me, even after six months of travelling there. The highway we followed for a large part was the main link between Kampala and Nairobi, two of the largest and most important cities in the East African Community (Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania). This made the highway arguably one of the two or three most important roads of the three countries, and it was the worst paved road I´d cycled on during the whole trip. Choppy and pockmarked with gaping cracks and potholes often the size of manholes, and long bereft of any shoulder, it looked as if the asphalt had been poured from a crop duster and simply left to dry.

My dissatisfaction with the last days of riding was, like most dissatisfaction, largely psychological. In my mind, the journey had already effectively ended over a month before when we cycled out of Queen Elizabeth National Park in western Uganda and boarded a bus to Kampala. That was the conclusion of the adventure for me, after having cycled through three national parks, numerous wilderness areas and countless archaic villages. Being back on the main highway and at the epicenter of Western encroachment was just part of a dull but inevitable shift from 3rd world adventures back to 1st world obligations. Nairobi, the largest and most modern city of my trip, served as a suitable finish line and helped to finalize that transition.

Africa Was Boring

Genocidal maniacs, civil war, disease, starvation, Kwashiorkor, Kalashnikov-toting rebels, where was it all? I didn´t see it. In Tanzania and Burundi we witnessed some refugee movement from the civil war in neighboring DRC, and I passed through a country that had a genocide 12 years ago, but I never would have guessed it if I hadn´t known the history. Disease I saw a bit of, mostly in the big cities where the afflicted take to the streets to beg. The images we normally associate with Africa as reported in the media are isolated incidents that typically affect a tiny area compared with the vastness of the continent. Basically, I saw loads of strong, healthy people going about their daily lives in relative peace and happiness, regardless of the undeniably poor and simple conditions. My biggest complaint was that they always tried to overcharge me, but, as a passing representative of the wealth-endowed culture, it was understandable that they wanted to seize their oppurtunity. Even that was easily brushed off most of the time as "the bargaining challenge," offset as it was by the unfailing friendliness and helpfulness that we encountered everywhere.

Note: This post is pretty late. I flew out of Nairobi on 9/26/06, after 3500km of cycling and at least 2000 of bus and boat. Now I´m in Germany focusing on my future, but although I´m out of Africa, Africa is not out of me, so check back in a few months for retrospective posts.

Saturday, September 16

Capital Night Out

Kampala, capital of Uganda. For those of you who know, it's La Paz on steroids. For those of you who don't, it's difficult to describe; standard descriptive words for cities such as "bustling", "hectic" and "choked" are far too generic and overused to apply. Kampala is all of that and more. Here's one night out.


Time to go out. Mario and I have been hanging out in the hotel for the last few hours, talking and having dinner. A quick cold shower and we're ready to go. Jeans, T-shirt, shoes (no sandals tonight, we're going upmarket). We walk down the four flights of stairs of Pacific Inn and out to the street, where there's no power and no light, just typical.

"Let's walk in the middle of the street, there's more light," Mario suggests.

"Yeah, and less garbage, potholes, puddles, and sleeping bodies to step over," I add.

Once we get to the main street, the night comes alive, despite the late hour and power cut. Traffic and pedestrians mill about, while salespeople sell bread from parked vans and display snacks, candy, cigarettes, and condoms from blankets on the sidewalk, their wares lit by candles.

Just a block away we find a cluster of boda-bodas, small motorcycle taxis that can squeeze one or two passengers onto a colorful, cushioned seat.

"Hey, how's it going?" I address one.

"Ahh, good evening bahs, to whea?" he responds in his quaint African accent.

"We go to Silk, you know it?"

"Sil....? Sik? Uhhh....Ahh! Silkee, yes I know eet."

"How much?"

"Two-five." (That's 2,500 Ugandan Shillings, or $1.25)

"Ahhh, come on, how about one-five?"

"OK, bring two and we go."

The three of us zoom away, the bike's motor buzzing like an overstressed lawnmower. It's a bumpy ride, especially in the roundabouts, where heavy traffic has made a lava field out of the asphalt. It's also a bit of a rush - three of us on a little bike zooming through the unlit city with no traffic lights, no evidence of traffic laws, and plenty of traffic.

He drops us off a couple blocks from the disco; boda-bodas aren't supposed to run at night, and the clubbing area is one of very few that sometimes has a police presence. The street, 1st Street, is busy with clubbers, as Kampala's two most important discos - Silk and Ange Noir - are located only a block apart on the same street.


We approach a metal detector that looks like a wooden bluff. The gorilla-chested doorman receives us and asks,

"You want to entah?"

"Yes, of course we want to enter," answers Mario.

"But here is just niggahs, you should go to VIP," he motions to a separate entrance that we hadn't seen. "There is another level, other people, nice people."

Mario looks back at me with amusement.

"So Derek, you want to enter here? There are just niggers."

Chuckling, we go on to the ticket counter.

"OK, but I'm telling you, you should go to VIP level," the doorman says after us.

The motivation is obvious: VIP costs more, we're white, so we must have more money to spend on the club. At the ticket counter, they convince us to go VIP by giving a discount and the freedom to move freely between the two levels.

(Note: for those of you who found the above language offensive, think again. Africans are very open and tolerant about speech and behavior. The word is used regularly with no offense intended.)

We walk up to the VIP room through a gaudy, mirrored hall that makes us feel rich and special. Everything's top-notch: nice sound system, plush lounge areas, wooden dance floors, fantastic disco lighting, clean, organized, and completely boring. Apparently, it's a bit too special for all but a handful of people.


We go sub-level. It's packed, hopping, and full of fun. The music is mostly hip-hop and R&B: Shaggy, Sean Paul, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, among others, and a host of African artists. Most people are packed onto the dance floor and any other space large enough to move in. Clothing is typical city-going African style: jeans and nice long-sleeved shirts or blouses for youth, and business suits for the older crowd. Some sport shades, caps, and enormous medallions hanging from equally huge chains. One such rapper has Bugs Bunny on his jeans.

We go to the bar for a drink, and within a minute we find our first friend. It's very easy to find friends when you go out here, all you have to do is be white, and therefore look like you have money. With very few exceptions, such quickly-acquired friends are only in search of a free drink. This one was no exception.

"Hello! Welcome, welcome! Welcome in Uganda! I am happy to see you heah, I am James."

"Ohhh, thank you, thank you. I'm Frank."

"OK! Good, welcome, you are most welcome! You are from wheah?"

"USA and Germany."

"Oh, I love States and German. I don't know why, but I love them. I want to go theah someday."

More artificial chit-chat ensues, then when I tell him I'm going to the bar for another drink, he makes his pitch.

"Oh, Ok, I go with you, we can buy one togethah."

I ignore his request.

"And me, you don't buy one for me?"

"Sorry man."

He's gone within five seconds, never to be seen or heard again - short and sweet.

Sometime Around 0200-0400

A pool table holds the interest of a sizable group, some just watching, others waiting for their turn. We play a few games. Here, the winner holds the table and a challenger pays for the next game. If that challenger deposes the champ, he gets to hold the table and play for free until another challenger takes the prize. The guys here are good, so we don't get to play much.

Africans have a wonderful, contagious spontaneity that makes any group of them lively and entertaining. The pool players never forget where they are; whether a brief trip to the dance floor between turns, or a few moves between shots, they always combine dancing with pool, often using the cue stick as a dance partner.

I ask another pool spectator how much he paid for his drink.

"I don't know, something like three or four thousand."

"Oh, well I just wanted to know because they always try to overcharge me because I'm white." (Not a joke).

"What? Really?!"

"Yeah, all the time." (Not a joke.)

"Ohhh, sorry, sorry! I am very ashamed!"

"Ahh, don't worry about it."

"No, that is not good!"

With my faith in the overall goodness of humanity partially restored, we return upstairs to see how the VIP section is going. The situation has improved a lot, so we get on the dance floor for a while. A couple guys approach and start dancing with us. Weird? Gay? Hardly. Perfectly normal here. Unlike our first friend, these guys are dancing buddies, they just want to move, and it's always more fun to dance with others. Guys here really get into it. If there's no girl to dance with, they'll dance with each other as if they were a couple, with no homosexual overtones whatsoever. Our dancing buddies actually invite me to a beer - it's happened a precious few times in Africa, and it always lifts my spirits.

Sometime Around 04:00-06:00

The top level is dying out, so we go back downstairs. After some more pool, we move to the dance floor. By this hour, most of the people left on the dance floor are really into it, which is great fun. People hop this way and that, exchanging dance partners and moves. Some guys battle, challenging and pushing each other to show their best. Everyone does his or her own thing without any regard to whether it's ridiculous, funny, sleek, cool, childish, or whatever. And, in turn, everyone respects everyone else's interpretation. It's a fantastic and simple notion that I've found to be refreshingly abundant here, in comparison with other continents where most people are overly concerned about the image their peers may have of them.

Back on a boda-boda, we cut through the crisp, pre-dawn air and stop at another club near our hotel, Sax Pub. A budget-level bar, restaurant, pool hall, disco and hooker joint all in one, it has free entry and is a far more typical African nightlife destination. Packed like a sardine can, and not much bigger, it's impossible to dance without pressing against at least two other people. Regardless, everyone gets along and has a good time. Well, mostly. Fights break out nightly, but are generally quickly subdued and forgotten.


The sun is up and is our cue to walk home. The streets and sidewalks are already clogged with the daily flux. We walk in the street mostly, it's the fast lane compared with the sidewalks, which are so cluttered with pedestrians, vendors, boxes, and other random obstacles that the pace is uncomfortably slow. Of course, walking in the fast lane means dealing with the haphazard traffic of buses, trucks, cars, boda-bodas, bicycles, hand carts, and other fast walkers. But, that's just one of the many lessons to be learned in this African capital!

Friday, August 4

The Lagosa Project

Prepare yourself, this one's long.
There was no road on either of our maps. A small mountain range lay between us and a tiny town named Lagosa, on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, another of Africa's Great Lakes and the second largest after Lake Victoria. Regardless, we had inside information of a small road cutting through the mountains; a Swiss cyclist Mario met in Zimbabwe had come through there seven months before. His stories of a truly off-the-beaten-track experience sparked Mario's lust for adventure, and, in turn, my own.


We left Mpanda on a typically sunny Sunday morning. Puny and dusty by our standards, Mpanda was a major stop halfway along western Tanzania's only north – south road, a rough dirt road that traversed one national park and countless villages that didn't figure on our maps.

At the town pump, where we stopped to fill our water bottles and bags, a disgruntled young man circled us, yelling unpleasantries in Swahili and broken English. Apparently, he felt he was eligible to receive handouts from us because of our differing socio-economic backgrounds, or differing skin colors. We ignored him, just as all his town mates did, and cycled out of town without further hassle.

After the population had already thinned to sparse homesteads, we found the turnoff for Lake Tanganyika, and, presumably, Lagosa, with the help of a tough and tiny old woman. She had one good eye and maybe eight good teeth, carried a bucket of fruit on her head and had a wizened look of confidence that surely came from an uneasy life. Although she spoke no English, with hand signals, the name of our destination, and a bit of patience, we were able to get the point across.

A restaurant in a hamlet at the junction made for a convenient break. It was a typical African hamlet restaurant: shack-like and spartan (but for a calendar with large-breasted girls sponsored by either the national beer or Coca Cola), with a dirt floor, a few simple wooden tables and benches, a closet-sized kitchen of wood coals and banged pots, and a grimy counter displaying some deep-fried pastries to eat with tea. A giddy old man was delighted to see us and repeatedly welcomed us, which offset the earlier experience with the disgruntled young man.

Heading down the single – lane track toward Lagosa, we stopped several times for confirmations of the route. Many people eyed us suspiciously or fearfully, no doubt wondering what in the world a couple of mzungus (East Africa's word for “whitey”) were doing cycling through their remote neck of the woods. At the same time, many others greeted us hospitably.

The tiny villages and settlements became less frequent as the road entered increasingly virgin woodland, where trees sprouted from a thick, rough carpet of drying grass. I always half expected, and hoped, to spot a buffalo or zebra peering at me over the chest-high grass, but never did. It was blissfully peaceful: no people for several kilometers at a time, no annoying insects, just the occasional chirping bird, fluttering butterfly, or rustling breeze. It was the first quiet we'd had for days, and I enjoyed it immensely.

From flat, grassy woodland we gradually ascended to lush, hilly forest, and passed through a village that was the largest since the junction. It was nestled on the gentle slope of a hill surrounded by petite mountains wooly with vegetation. We stopped for a drink at the only shop in town. The shopkeeper was a city-educated businessman who'd moved there to start a new life and spoke English well. He was one of two people in the village who spoke decent English, the other being the schoolteacher. The teacher was an older man who'd apparently lived in Michigan for seven years as a kid and even sang me a couple folk tunes - an awkward moment because he sang with heart but still sounded terrible and all I recognized from the tunes was the word Tennessee.

Put at ease by their enthusiasm and effusive hospitality, we chatted with the two for over an hour, while the rest of the village inhabitants, or a large part of them, gathered around and watched. During this time, Mario and I decided to buy a chicken for dinner, so I went with the teacher's son to catch a hen, which he sold to us for 2000 Tanzanian Shillings, or $1.40.
As evening approached, their hospitality, initially comforting, gave us a sense of urgency. We had slept in other small villages under similar circumstances and it was an experience I preferred to avoid; the overt friendliness and curiosity of the villagers translated into a complete loss of privacy. With the hen tied by her feet atop Mario’s rear rack, we cycled out of the village into a small valley winding between unimposing, verdant peaks in search of a campsite. We crossed over streams and passed small banana plantations and homesteads. Children gathering water at a stream vanished into the bushes as we approached; perhaps we were the first mzungus they'd seen.

Ten km from our last stop, we followed a rough-hewn path off the road and through coarse grass to an open, rectangular, thatched-roof shelter. It was made of a mish-mash of sticks, grasses, bamboo and corn leaves, and overlooked a lazily-planted field of some maize and tomatoes being overrun by wild grasses and bushes. A simple fireplace of three stones in the center of the shelter provided us with a place to roast the bird. It was home for the night.

While I gathered firewood and fashioned a wooden spit for the hen, Mario killed and prepared her. Skinny and tough, like all the free-range, semi-wild chickens here, the bird was nonetheless delicious, if only because of all the effort to cook her.

After dinner we took turns playing my pygmy djembe drum, while the faint but clear rhythms of festive drumming from a nearby settlement drifted through the night and commingled with our own. As we prepared for sleep, an obviously perturbed individual walked by, moaning and wailing contorted sounds that faded as he passed down the road. No police around to lock him up and no one who wanted to take care of him, I guess. But, as Mario put it, the village is the police if they decide to burn or stone him. I drifted uneasily to sleep, lying on the ground in my sleeping bag, next to my bike.


A late start – 11:30 – and rough road meant we covered little ground today, only 50km, compared with yesterday's 72. The first 15km of the day we passed a lot of people, which was strange considering there were no villages to be seen. Most of them carried loads on their heads or bicycles, so I reasoned they may have been on their way to a market somewhere.

After passing the majority, we stopped for a break under a tree where two young boys had a tray full of miniature bananas for sale. They eyed us with curiosity and caution from behind the tree as we devoured the yellow treats. Mario wanted to get a photo of them, but when he took out his bulky camera, fear overcame them. Both sprung to their feet, the smaller one melted into the wall of grass behind, and the other stood at a distance, poised for flight. Mario put the camera away. Still, the younger boy never reappeared, and the other stood still until after we'd dropped some coins into the tray and left.

For a couple of hours after that, we saw no one. The road became very rocky and climbed sharply up the forested hills; we were forced to push a number of times. All was quiet. A particularly steep and rocky climb had me panting like a dog before rewarding me with several kilometers of level riding. Highlands of tangled, untamed forest stretched out as far as we could see. A tall, slender cattle herder in rubber boots and tattered clothes made space for me to pass through his herd, driving the docile cows apart with whistles and a simple stick. Poor saps, I thought, so easily maneuvered and without a clue of the fate awaiting them.

After descending into another valley, I entered a village where Mario was waiting for me with a diminutive old man. He was dressed sharply in slacks, buttoned shirt, huge spectacles and a Muslim cap. We tried asking him where we could find water and a place to sleep, since it was getting late. He didn't know a word of English, but was more than happy to deliver us an engaging monologue in Swahili, unconcerned by the fact that we had no idea what he was saying.

A little farther on, we found a group of men repairing a bicycle, one of whom knew basic English. He led me to a marshy water hole and walked knee-deep into the murky water to fill up our water bag, not wanting me to get wet. He then drew us a surprisingly detailed map on a scrap of old paper showing the way to the nearby village center. There was only one main road and then a fork just 50m before the center, but, in typical African fashion, he took great care to explain the route to us multiple times, lest we got lost. Funny, but appreciated.

Before reaching the center, we followed a lightly-trodden footpath a short distance off the main road and camped in semi-sheltered shrub land. Peace and privacy were secured once again.

While contingents of fortunately pacifistic ants scouted our belongings and the tent's interior, we ended the day with a delicious dinner of burned spaghetti and over-spicy sauce.


Each day was slower and more challenging than the previous. I awoke with sore legs from yesterday's ascents and broke my fast with banana, cardboard-flavored biscuits, and murky marsh water coffee.

The village center was only 3km away and demanded a stop to fill up on bottled water, as well as for Mario to try to replace his pedal, which had broken off the day before and left just a thin, round shaft to pedal on. For twenty minutes, while a group of kids stared with keen interest, we tried, unsuccessfully, to remove the shaft, which had been left untouched for so long it was practically welded on. He was forced to continue pedaling with only one pedal.

Rust-colored adobe homes on the village outskirts stood out sharply against a deep green background of banana palms, and looked as if they had magically sprouted straight out of the reddish earth from which they were made. As they were left behind, the single-lane 4x4 track degraded into an eroded livestock trail. Twice, it dropped steeply to cross easily forded streams, once with a herd of goats and their boy pastor, and then climbed equally steeply away from the water.

After numerous short but demanding climbs, the track began a long, precipitous, and painfully rocky descent from the mountains that made yesterday's rocky stretches seem like light warm ups. From semi-arid scrubland through bamboo forest and into shady jungle, I coaxed the cumbersome bike of burden down the quarry-like track, riding the brakes the whole way, suffering many an uncomfortable jolt, and dropping the poor mule multiple times.

The few guys I passed, pushing their bikes up the mountain, looked weary and less than satisfied with their lots in life. Others were clearing land with flame and machete, most likely for cultivation of banana and cassava, while some gathered bamboo, which grew in 8-10m tall clusters like the leaves of a gargantuan carrot.

By the time the track leveled out on the jungly valley floor, it had turned into a simple path. It cut through the cool, shady forest, periodically over pristine, bubbling creeks, through 1-3m tall grass, and past settlements with humble plantations of banana and cassava. Whenever we passed settlements, some kids would sound the alarm, shrieking, Mzunguuuuuu!! Mzungu! Mzungu! while others darted out of our way and into the vegetation.

Tired and at the end of the afternoon, we entered a village and, right on the main "road," or path, were lucky enough to run into probably the only person there who spoke English. He was 20-25 years old, smaller than me, enthusiastic and always spoke with a beaming, contagious smile. Peter was his name, and he almost instantly became our village guide for the day, though not without a modest fee, it turned out.

He took us to a bush restaurant, as he called it (the village's only one), where we snacked and drank tasty, super-sweet tea, to the fascination of the 20-plus onlookers who stood around us for over an hour. Eventually, after we proved to be quite normal and boring, most left us for more entertaining subjects.

Dinner was served about two hours after we ordered (campfire cooking isn't the most efficient): rice and beans for me, and antelope with chima (see My Bike the Teacher – Good Diet) for Mario. My beans tasted expired but the antelope was tender and savory.

Following dinner, a young man sitting next to me introduced himself to us. He spoke English fairly well (had even read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, for those who know) and studied in Kigoma, a relatively large city in the north of Tanzania, and our next major destination. Taking advantage of an opportunity to practice his English, he explained that he was on his way to visit his parents. They lived in the village we had passed through in the morning and he hadn't seen them for over two years.
On our road network, the 240km trip would be an easy afternoon in the car, while here it was a three-day journey by ferry and foot over lake and mountains, and apparently, considering he hadn't made the trip for over two years, prohibitively expensive. Or maybe he just didn’t get along with his cattle-herder parents.

That night we camped just behind the bush restaurant. A small group of observers quietly discussed the alien tent and our curious necessities for the night while we unpacked. Our distance after four hours in the saddle: 49km.


The sounds of roosters crowing and the village stirring to life woke us early. Doing our best to ignore the starers, we broke camp and had a simple breakfast of sugar tea, cardboard biscuits, and papaya, which could be seen growing on trees all around. On our way out of the village, we turned down the wrong path. Peter caught us a minute later on a bike and led us to the proper one. It was the first of many wrong turns that day, which turned out to be a long, frustrating battle against the language barrier. It was also a day of varied scenery, ranging from palm forest to hilly jungle to flat, sandy grassland, to tall rainforest and sunken rice paddies before ending in a village on the beach of Lake Tanganyika.

A dangerously steep but short descending path took us clear of the small mountain range we'd been in for three days and down to the level of the expansive lake. There on a plain, an overshadowing wall of grass contained us in a shoulder-wide, twisting corridor fraught with blind turns. Around one such turn, a local came speeding on his bicycle and nearly crashed into me; I hit the brakes and swerved into the forgiving wall of grass.

As the beach grew closer, the path grew sandier and the human presence more pronounced. As a result, a growing network of crisscrossing paths continually complicated our navigation. Several times, we were led by homeowners through their gardens and behind their houses to the correct route.

Like a couple of confused parrots, we repeated our destination to people at every fork in the path, in hopes of directions or confirmations of our route, Lagosa? Lagosa? Oddly, many people didn't seem to have a clue where Lagosa was or that it even existed. Perhaps they didn't know the official name or were too flabbergasted by our sudden appearance to try to communicate with us. Either way, Lagosa appeared to grow more distant with our every query of its whereabouts.

Some streams had to be forded, and one had to be crossed by walking the bikes precariously over two unevenly-laid logs, the larger of which was no more than 15cm/6in thick. The muddy pool 1m below, out of which two boys were fishing catfish with bamboo poles, threatened to engulf us and our belongings in foul sloppiness. Fortunately, it did not, probably disappointing the bystanders who'd gathered on both sides of the crossing.

Upon entering a village, we stopped and asked a guy how far Lagosa was.
"Two – hun – dred," was the answer in broken English.
"Two hundred what? Meters or Kilometers?"
"Two hundred kilometers?"
"Oh, no, uhhh…..one thou – sand."
"One thousand kilometers?"
"No, 1000 meters."
"So, one kilometer?"
"Two thou-sand."
"Two thousand kilometers?" we confirmed jokingly, now that it was clear he hadn't any idea what he was saying.

"Oh…don't know," he confessed with resignation and a modest smile.

"OKAY," we chuckled and carried on.

Making a break to eat some oranges we'd bought from a roadside vendor, we attracted the usual crowd.
I sarcastically addressed the group, "Don't know how to eat an orange?"
My only response, from the man at the front of the crowd, was an enthusiastic OK! with a huge smile, nod, and thumbs up. As if in a classroom, Mario held up an orange and histrionically demonstrated how to cut it. Then, just for fun, we moved out of sight behind a tree. Some repositioned to peer around the trunk.

With much-needed help from several folks, we found our way out of the village, through more sand and grass, and between rice paddies to…Lagosa?? No, this was Mgambo, or, who knew? We tried to communicate with hand signals, drawing in the dirt, and Mario's international picture book.

An old lady in the town center, while organizing piles of drying beans on a woven mat, motioned that Lagosa was farther up the lake, nodding apologetically and lamenting, mzungu, mzungu, as if to say, "Poor, poor clueless white child."

Yes, others confirmed, this was Mgambo.

Shucks. But the ferry to Kigoma stops here?

Yes, the ferry stops here, maybe tonight around 21:00.
But no, others interjected, that one is going to Zambia. The one to Kigoma will be tomorrow or the day after.

Weary and frustrated with this uncertain conclusion to a long day, we were at our wit's end about our next move. Then, a student showed up to make sense of it all. Like the last student we met, he spoke English relatively well, studied in Kigoma, and was visiting his parents.

It was true, he reconfirmed after asking some friends, that we were in Mgambo. But, he learned while he translated for us, Mgambo and Lagosa were actually two names for the same place. He also confirmed that the ferry would be leaving for Kigoma the day after tomorrow. Although the information was slightly relieving, we were not relieved to find out we'd have to spend the following two days in this quiet, dull town full of bored people with little to do other than loiter about and catch sightings of the mzungus.

The student led us through the town (relative term) to a place with the uncommon luxury of refrigerated drinks. There we received the bad news that there was no guest house in town, but that we could stay with him in his parents' spacious home. I wanted to pedal away. Staying with his family would lead to the same issues of privacy I've already mentioned, and would no doubt end with a pitch for cash; he was city-educated and therefore wise to the ways of the white world (in large part confirmed by his urging us to visit his sick grandma - a common ploy).

Finally, some good news from a friend of his ended our gloom: there was a guest house in town; they just had to find the man with the keys. It didn't take long before we were each checked into our own white, stained cubicle just large enough to accommodate a single bed and our gear. Each had an open window hole, covered by cardboard in my room and a grain sack in Mario's, locking doors and that most elusive and cherished quality: privacy. We rejoiced and celebrated with a bucket bath (a bucket full of water and a cup to dowse yourself), partially removing four days of bodily filth. It was glorious.

From my bed that night, at nearly 2am, I heard the blasting horn of an approaching ferry. I jumped out of bed and knocked on Mario's door, prepared to throw my things together and rush out to catch the transport. Mario didn't answer, and I decided it wasn't a good idea; we had no idea where on the endless beach we were supposed to catch the boat, nor whether it was going south to Zambia or north to Kigoma. Furthermore, we didn't know how to glean that information, after the locals had proven to be quite uninformed earlier that day.
The Lagosa Project was threatening to become a rather drawn-out affair. Music helped ease me back to sleep, distracting me from the ferry's parting horn and the fear that we'd be stuck there for another week.

Thursday, June 8

Life on the Lake

We first saw the lake at Venice Beach, just south of Monkey Bay on the lake's southern border, after having cycled three days from Blantyre. The heavenly climate, attractive waters, and mountainous surroundings made me look forward to spending some time on its shores. Ilala, the old, well-known Scottish steamer that's been servicing Lake Malawi for decades, carried us for two days and three nights from Monkey Bay to Nkhata Bay, where we found the little paradise that was Mayoka Village.

The Lake

Lake Malawi is 560km/350 miles long by 75km/45 miles wide at its widest point, which ranks it as the third largest lake in Africa and tenth in the world, by surface area. It is one of Africa's Great Lakes, located in the Great Rift Valley that runs about 5,000km/3,000 miles from Syria to Mozambique. The rift will eventually, they say, split Africa in two.

The lake is renowned for its variety of endemic fish species, supplying a large number of the freshwater tropical fish sold in aquariums in the USA and Europe. In particular, there are around 500 or more species of cichlids in the lake (photo).

Diving in the clear waters was what I'd imagine diving in an aquarium would be like. The fish life was prolific and the underwater landscape rocky and barren, although covered with algae. We saw mostly small cichlids, 2-10 inches/5-25cm long and sporting an impressive array of colors, from dark blue with black stripes to bright yellow and white.

Much deeper below in colder water are the fishing grounds. The local favorites are chambo (tilapia) and butterfish, delicious staple foods that are served in any restaurant. The fishermen do their work from traditional dugout canoes, carved from a single tree trunk and driven by carved paddles. Some people fish during the morning and evening, but local wisdom suggests that nighttime is the best time for catching the two favorites. After dark, an entire town seems to materialize on the lake - lamps from a fleet of fishing canoes.

The Dugout

I have never seen a boat more challenging to handle, more uncomfortable, and more difficult to remain inside than the African dugout. Picture a felled tree trunk, stripped of its bark and branches, and hollowed out from end to end with a hand axe t
hrough a slot-like opening just large enough to accommodate the motions of the axe, and you have a dugout, or floating log. It is extremely heavy and cuts through the water with all the efficiency of, well, a giant log. In addition, every one is unique and therefore learning to paddle one effectively is astoundingly difficult.

The only way to remain seated for longer than 10 minutes without your legs and butt going numb, or rolling off into the lake, is by straddling the trunk, feet dangling in the water. Otherwise, to keep entirely dry you must wedge yourself between the two hard edges of the narrow opening, your legs squeezed inside.

Always eager for a unique fishing experience, I took a canoe out a couple of times in the early morning. They were the most unsuccessful fishing forays I can remember. Trying to keep the balky hunk of wood on any given path was a frustrating and futile effort that involved several sluggish and derisive 360-degree spins. A current constantly pushed me out to open water and waves from the huge lake jostled the round, roll-prone canoe, allowing me little time to attend to the lines. The results of the two attempts were two lost hooks, lines, and sinkers, and a dose of seasickness.

The Village

Without doubt the most enjoyable place I've stayed at so far on this trip, Mayoka Village is a microcosmic tourist haven on the lake. It's situated on a narrow forested peninsula, a 10-minute walk from Nkhata Bay, the nearby town. Small private huts, or "chalets" overlook the lake, nestled amongst the trees on a steep hill and on the rocky shore of a small bay. A large open-air common area, covered by a vaulted, traditional-style roof of tree trunks and bamboo, serves as the bar, restaurant and dining area, as well as library and lounge space. Food and drinks are fantastic, the staff is friendly and fun, and the surroundings peaceful and idyllic. Canoes are free to use and it is a pleasure to swim and snorkel in the warm, clean, alluring waters of the lake. A massive boulder also provides a 4m/15ft jump into the crystal clear water below.

Apart from the obvious charms of the "village," I had a particularly memorable time there because of the artisans who operate a small shop in the compound. Selling the full gamut of Western-tourist-oriented paintings and wood carvings, their most interesting products for me were the many djembes they had for sale.

The Djembe

From my limited experience on this huge continent thus far, no instrument better embodies the spirit of Africa than the djembe drum. Hand carved from a single piece of wood (in this case, teak, mahogany, or softwood) and covered with cow hide fringed with tufts of hair, the instrument exudes the earthy, raw-material proximity to nature that I associate with the cultures of Africa. It can be made to any size, from a huge bass drum to the tiny travel djembe that I now carry on my rear rack. A multi-toned group of djembes playing in concert exerts a force on the body, mind, and soul unlike any I'd experienced.

I participated in several djembe jams during the 10 days I spent at Mayoka Village, but the first one in particular had a lasting impression on me. Sometimes, the sound was akin to popcorn; everyone played their own beat, none strong enough to rally the support of the others. But when we played in synch, the result was electrifying (to me, anyway).

I remember leaving the session to fetch something, hurrying so as not to miss too much. As I walked back, the infectious, primal rhythms seeped into my flesh with the growing volume, drawing me in as would the sirens. By the time I resumed playing, I was floating on sound waves.

Thursday, May 4

My Bike the Teacher

The cycling was tough and the diet repetitive, but the challenging ride from Beira to Blantyre, Malawi taught me a number of lessons. Some may not be so inspiring (such as the fact that my bike, having survived such abusive roads with 100lbs/45kg of equipment, is a proven workhorse), but below I've highlighted a few of the more important ones.

Out of Poverty Springs Ingenuity

We were 45 miles/65 km from Beira on the side of a dirt highway, enjoying a Fanta that we bought from a tiny kiosk made of sticks. We sat on one of several logs neatly arranged on the sandy ground inside a skeletal structure of sticks and trunks, roofed with tattered black plastic and dried grass. A small radio played tinny music, wired to another radio for reception and powered by a long line of batteries taped and cabled together. In front of the logs was a makeshift stick table, which, as it turned out, was the preacher's table. After some conversation with the proprietor we learned that he was a Protestant missionary. The skeletal structure was the church, and the logs we sat on were the pews. He lived with his family in three adobe huts around the church. Chickens, cats, and a small goat roamed the compound at will. Most of the food they ate grew around the buildings: corn, manioc, pineapple, sweet potato, papaya, and greens. At left, Mario and preacher, center right, with family inside church.

While we talked, the preacher attempted to repair a leaky bicycle tube that had already been repaired so many times it resembled a rubber quilt. His glue had long since run out, so he employed a standard African method of tube repair: tying off the puncture with a salvaged strand of plastic, essentially creating a nipple on the tube. It looks funny but it seems to work. His pump looked like it was hand made from scrap parts in one of the little bicycle repair shacks occasionally found alongside the highway. It didn't form a seal around the tube's valve, so he created the seal by wrapping those same salvaged strands of plastic around the valve and forcing the pump onto it. This connection only lasted for one or two strokes of the pump, then had to be repeated. His progress with the tube was so painfully slow that Mario fetched his pump and repair kit, and with the help of the preacher's knife, which was, again, homemade, they applied a patch and pumped up the tube in no time.

"Mozambique is very poor," the preacher lamented after seeing the efficiency of Mario's pump.

"But not poor in ideas," Mario returned.

There Is Always Something More to Challenge One's Patience and Will

During the first night away from Beira, while we slept in our tent pitched in the stick church, it began to rain, setting the mood for the following three days. The dirt highway we were following, which was quite smooth and hard packed the day before, turned to poison for our bikes. Huge puddles and mud pits were interspersed along the increasingly sandy and bumpy road. Our average speed dropped from 18 km/hr the day before to about 10, as we had to repeatedly push our bikes through mud and sand. Frequent bouts of rain kept us wet, but at least cool and shaded from the sun.

Eventually, the tse-tse flies began to attack. An amazingly tough fly with a painful clothes-piercing bite, the tse-tse is attracted to moving objects (like a couple of worn out guys on bicycles), is only escapable at a speed greater than 20 km/hr, and is unfazed by anything but a firm, focused swat. With sand continually grabbing our tires and wresting control of the bike with a force that made me wonder and curse aloud, the tse-tses dive-bombed us from all directions like kamikazes zeroing in on a stranded battleship. It was enough at one point to make me hurl my bike into the sand and launch my helmet into a nearby tree. Mario found it entertaining at least, but helped me regain my composure.

"Scream all you want Derek, I know how you feel. There aren't many times when you really get tested like this."

Good Diet is Key to Good Health

OK, I've known this one for a long time, but I'd never been in circumstances where it was so self-evident. Having a variety of food to choose from is something I had always taken for granted, even while travelling in very poor areas of South America. Here, however, access to a healthy and varied diet outside of the cities is reserved only for the economically sound. People in the rural areas live on chima (or nsima, sadza, mealie-meal, depending on the language), an exceedingly bland filler food made of corn meal and water. Heavy and with a sticky, gelatinous texture somewhere between jello and cookie dough, it does a wonderful job of filling the stomach, but not much else. Women can be seen everywhere pounding out cornmeal in huge mortars and pestles to make the staple food (in photo).

Most of the time, it was the only complement we could get with dinner (one night it was dinner). It really made me wonder how the people could live their whole lives eating chima every day when I was sick of it after two days. However, they grow up eating it and therefore no dinner seems complete without it, just as I accompany nearly every meal with bread.

We at least were able to afford chicken, which is out of reach for many families. Chickens are probably the most common domestic animal here, and can always be found foraging freely around any settlement. Having a chicken for dinner is just a matter of catching one, killing and plucking it, grilling it over wood coals, and presto! Fresh chicken! The whole process takes about two hours, so an early request or a lot of patience is essential.

Throughout the course of the eight-day ride, at least four chickens were slaughtered on our behalf, usually served with chima, or, just to mix things up whenever we could, rice or noodles. Sending someone to butcher a chicken for us wasn't a particularly appealing notion to me, but after cycling for five hours my body craved hearty sustenance, and a chicken was generally the only source of protein. The implications of this are that a large part of the population here, perhaps the majority, have little nutritional intake beyond the relatively nutritionless starches of corn, which helps explain the slender bodies and bloated bellies of many of the kids. Still, in spite of the hardship, the kids are just like kids anywhere: curious and eager for play. Perhaps there is another lesson to be learned here.

One Must Experience Rain to Enjoy Sun
At left, a bit of sun over the Zambezi River

The beauty of this maxim is that it can be applied to so many situations. During the eight days and 425 miles/630 km of cycling from Beira to Blantyre, two such situations come prominently to mind.

I rounded a bend in the rocky road and started to roll downhill, as the sun came into view. Mario was already laying on it, soaking it up like a snake freshly emerged from its winter den. It was a paved highway, and after three days of riding through sand, mud, rocks, washboard and potholes, the overcast sky did nothing to shade my sun. I joined Mario, and the two of us sat on the pavement and ate cookies, relishing the end of the rigorous dirt road.

Alem Ethiopian Restaurant, Pizza Palace, Nico's Gelateria, People's Supermarket, ATMs, flushing toilets, hot showers, and a kitchen! It was all here in Blantyre, Malawi; the splendors of civilization were once again at my fingertips! Don't get me wrong, cycling through villages and wilderness, where troops of baboons hang out in the road and people use bicycles without pedals or brakes to transport their goods is a truly fantastic experience. And as a result of the discomforts inherent in such an experience, I am able to enjoy the simple comforts of a city to an extent that would otherwise never occur to me.