Friday, May 6, 2011

Dar to Mbeya – 26th April 2011

Since Irfan and Omar were going on a business trip to Mbeya I decided to tag along to see a countryside that is normally not on a tourist’s radar.  We left Dar es Salaam (Dar) at around 8 am.  Irfan told me that hiring a car in Tanzania is a costly affair.  For the two day trip that we were embarking on we could be spending up to $35000!!  The driver of the car that Irfan hired for the trip, Steve, is a boxer. His biceps could make Salman and Co feel like ill fed kids.  Immediately as the journey began, Steve stopped to buy a fire extinguisher and the attention triangle.  I was told that the Police are quite tough on the non-availability of safety items on the vehicles.  Nice to know that such traffic requirements are ‘in vogue’!  Talking about the Police, it did not take long to be waved down by a batch of traffic policemen.  On the hand held radar the speed of the car was registered as 64 kmph against the permissible 50 kmph on the highway!! The normal fine for traffic infringement is Tshs 20,000.  A suitable compromise was struck after a combination of tough talking, groveling and invoking the names of the people in high places.  We got away with a fine of Tshs 5000.  The police officer wrote out three copies of the booking record as he did not have carbons.  More than the money spent it is the time that was a matter of concern for we had ahead of us more than 800 kms to go.  Adding to the delays en route was the strict application of traffic rules by Steve behind the wheel.  He refused to overtake unless the visibility was clear and even when the driver in front permitted him to.  It was exasperating at times.  We had to pay one more compromised fine of Tshs 3000 for not having a safety sticker on the windshield.  As it is, the front windshield was full of statutory stickers.  An additional windshield may be in order to comply with all the regulations.  With the stoppages and the exasperating driving techniques of Steve we were well short of the intended destination for lunch.  However, I gave me a wonderful opportunity to take in the landscape and understand Tanzanian way of life a bit better.
In Dar city ladies can be seen moving about their chores wearing brightly colored head dress, called Kilemba in Swahili.  But exposure to the western life styles has introduced modern hair braiding which is meant to be flaunted rather than be concealed beneath a Kilemba.  One of the common sights in Dar is the amount of commerce that happens at road blocks and traffic intersections.  Vendors with Chinese made cheap items, food and fruits do brisk business.  From one of the vendors Omar asked for ‘gazetee’, a newspaper.  He got me an English newspaper, ‘The Guardian’.  The newspapers are full of the 47th Union Anniversary, a Union that is not without its problems.  The perceived neglect of certain regions of the Union of Tanzania and regional aspirations contribute to the fissiparous tendency.
The road from Dar to Mbeya was mostly a two lane road, but certain portions had three lanes and almost all through there were service niches that could be used for overtaking or temporary parking.  Advertisements along the way suggested that the mobile data cards are cheaper in Tanzania than it is in India.  On arrival in Dar Irfan had got me an Airtel prepaid connection.  While SMS costs slightly over Rs.3 per message the international calls are cheaper – I was told that Tshs 10,000 (equivalent of Rs. 300) could get you a half hour call to India.  In the suburbs of Dar one could see a few Bajaj autos.  However, here again the Chinese have gone a step further.  They have marketed auto-like dump trucks that operate hydraulically.  They are a big hit for marketing farm products.  The prices of diesel and petrol are the same with minor regional variations – a litre costs between Tshs 1950 to 2150 (between Rs. 60 and 65).  All fuel is imported into the country by private companies, who operate fuel stations too.  Most of the fuel is transported over land routes in humongous trucks specially manufactured for the purpose. The majority of cargo vehicles on the road are from Scania and heavy duty too.  There is substantial movement of containers on the Tanzania-Zambia highway moving to the port of Dar.  One fact must be highlighted here.  The drivers are extremely conscious of traffic regulations and safety.  They are ‘well behaved’ in the sense that rash and negligent driving is not something that you see on the highway, which makes driving less stressful (cannot say the same in Dar, though).
The countryside is dotted by mango trees, paddy fields and unorganized farming of tomatoes, potatoes, sunflower, sweet potatoes, cabbage, passion fruit and other fresh fruits and vegetables grown organically.  The road side sale is brisk.  A bucket full of tomatoes weighing about 20 kilos is sold for less than Rs. 50.  The abundant fertile lands call for organized farming with upstream and downstream industries to produce good seeds for the farmers and process the produce after harvest.  The 40 million Tanzanians can be induced into entrepreneurship, farming and marketing.  Despite the presence of large lakes and water bodies and more than abundant rainfall irrigation is largely absent.  There is a crying need to ‘stitch together’ a network of canals and bunds so as to bring the fertile lands to life.  Power supply is another problem area for Tanzania.  The country produces less than 1400 MW of which nearly 600 MW is produced using gensets.  The availability of large deposits of coal has not been exploited till date.  There is scope to enhance hydel generation, which also is lagging behind its potential.  The government needs to act expeditiously on these issues so as to leverage the benefits of natural wealth for its citizens.  As one drives through the rural landscape one cannot but appreciate the clean villages.  You will not find garbage and muck thrown about.  Even in the rural areas there seemed to be good civic sensibility amongst the citizens and an efficient collection and disposal system.
Omar turned out to an eager teacher.  I picked up a few words of Swahili, which has more than a smattering of Hindi in it.  One can appreciate it from words like Duka (shop), Dawa (medicine), Safari (travel), etc.  The blue skies against the Uluguru Mountain gave me a lot of photo ops.  The route from Dar to Mbeya passes through the Mikumi National Park for 50 kms.  ‘Hatari’ has remained one of my favorite movies.  This day I realized the meaning of the word after nearly 40 years of seeing the movie – at the entrance to the NP was the word ‘Hatari’ painted in bold letters, meaning ‘Danger’.  The NP, established in 1964, covers an area over 3200 square kms and is the fourth largest NP in Tanzania. The landscape of Mikumi is often compared to that of the Serengeti. The road that crosses the park divides it into two areas with partially distinct environments - alluvial plains and imposing rock formations of the Rubeho and Uluguru mountains.  The fauna in the NP includes many species characteristic of the African savannah. The park contains a subspecies of giraffe that biologists consider the link between the Masai giraffe and the Somali giraffe. The 50 km drive gave me an opportunity to appreciate elephants, giraffes, zebras, gnu, black antelope, baboons, wildebeests and buffaloes.  The small Museum at the entrance to the NP has skeletal exhibits of elephant, hippo, buffalo and antelope.  The road traffic that passes through the NP is fairly high.  Hence, it is not uncommon for wild life to be run over and killed by passing vehicles.  Photographs of such ‘accidental’ deaths are on display in the Museum.  The Mikumi NP is not normally on the map of international tourists to Tanzania and therefore, is better protected from the environmental point of view.  We had lunch at the NP, with Omar obtaining special permission to enter the NP.  I utilised the chance to observe and commit to camera baboons, birds and elephants.  Accommodation at the NP is frightfully expensive - $165 per night.
A hand raised in greeting, a warm ‘Karibu’ on their lips and an ever smiling face is what describes Tanzania for me.  The Tanzanians mean their ‘Karibu’ (Welcome).  Wherever you go in Tanzania you feel welcome and never threatened.  It makes Tanzania all the more attractive for foreign tourists.  After more than an hour over lunch in the Mikumi NP we resumed our journey to Mbeya.  We reached there after 9 pm, after more stoppages to buy tomatoes and passion fruit.  I was told that Mbeya would be cold.  I did not have proper winter clothing.  But the air was just a wee bit nippy and I weathered it.  We were booked into the Mbeya Hotel, in the city centre.  It is a railway property that has now passed into private management.  It is a no frills accommodation.  The rooms are adequate but the water in the tap was not the color of normal water!  Omar ordered ‘Ugali’ and chicken tikka masala for me.  Ugali is a steamed powdered maize preparation.  It is very heavy but easy on the digestion.  I fell in love with it.  The combination with the chicken curry, which had a strong taste of tomato, was fantastic.

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