2015 was the year that I truly unleashed my wanderlust, I find myself looking back to mostly fond memories with the hope that the future holds more of such escapades filled with curiosity and fearlessness. In the last quarter of that year, I embarked on an East African backpacking adventure that had me experience the best of both worlds of budget and luxury travel.
I traveled by bus from Kampala on a Friday evening, made my first stop at dawn the following morning at a fuel station in Naivasha, Kenya. That’s where the adventure started. I stayed in a dorm at Camp Carnelley’s with strangers traveling together, they wondered how I could be brave to travel on my own. While in Naivasha, I walked through Hell’s Gate National Park, I made other friends so I wouldn’t look very alone.
From Naivasha, I went to Nairobi and stayed at Nairobi Serena Hotel. I was pampered like I was a princess of a small island. I gained comfort weight from the goodness of the place. The beauty of staying at Nairobi Serena Hotel is its strategic location, right in the heart of the city and yet it still gives off a sense of a hideout – a walking distance from major banks, cinemas, a national park, an animal orphanage…
Five hours away, I crossed into Arusha, Tanzania. With all my meticulousness, I left my Yellow Fever certificate at home and I had to pay Kshs. 1000 to get a Kenyan one before I entered the “Soul of Africa”. There, I had my first experience of Airbnb staying with Godwin and his family. His Dad was last in Uganda in 1979, he asked me questions about the Uganda I couldn’t relate to. He showed me how to make bio gas from cow dung and urine, it’s a messy process but produces one of the cleanest energies. I was supposed to milk the cows (I’ve never milked a cow or a goat for that matter) but I overslept on both occasions. I became part of Godwin’s family, we fondly call each other Kaka and Dada, Swahili terms for brother and sister respectively. We still check on each other from time to time.
From Godwin’s, I went for yet another Serena pampering at Lake Duluti Serena Hotel. I was transported back to an African homestead setting with grass thatched round huts offering first class service.I had great banter with the staff there. One of the ladies asked me, “Aren’t you afraid that something terrible could happen to you?”
“I never think of such things,” I replied, unperturbed. Maybe that jinxed my trip in a way. I didn’t want to leave but the journey had to continue to Moshi town. It was a 2 hour drive but felt like 6 in a minibus. I learnt that as long there is space for one to stand on both legs, the bus is never full. My legs were so pressed together I feared I would get cramps or blood clots or both. I felt pins and needles for the better part of the journey and the other part, my legs didn’t feel like they were my legs. Someone rested part of of their luggage on my back. It was one of the longest journeys of my life.
Centuries later in the evening, we arrived in Moshi, a clean airy old small touristy township in the Kilimanjaro area. It serves as a station for many expeditions up Mt. Kilimajaro with adventurers and hikers taking up lodge in hostels and hotels close by and employing citizens as cooks, guides and porters to accompany the hikers during their trek. Moshi’s biggest source of income is tourism.
I had booked to spend two nights at Karibu Hostel mainly because their website boasted that they were only a five-minute walk from the city center and indeed they were. Gingerly walking from bus park to the hostel because my legs hadn’t fully returned back to me, I passed by a basketball court filled with good looking people having a good time getting their sweat on. The things that warm my heart. I asked for directions and one of the good looking people was kind to point me to my home for the next couple of nights. I wondered if I would find time in my schedule to watch them play the following evening.
Karibu Hostel is owned by a group of Spanish folks who run an NGO, Born To Learn, an initiative to educate street children. It was mostly filled with volunteers from Spain, Italy, France and Belgium. Besides the staff, I was the only African and whose English was near fluent.
“Are you American?” One of the volunteers asked.
“No, I am Ugandan from Uganda,” as I watched her place Uganda on the world map and failing.
“It’s in Africa, right?” Right, as I fought the urge not to roll my eyes in awe as to how someone visits Tanzania and not have the slightest idea who Tanzania’s neighbors are. To be fair though, who was I to judge? It’s not like I can draw the map of Europe. I hang my head in shame.
At the time, there were power cuts from 6 am to 9 pm daily. Without solar, hostel dwellers moved around with all kinds of lamps and torches. My favorite being the iron-man torch that’s strapped over the chest. It was my first time to see one of that kind. Dinner time was self service on a huge dining table lit by different shades of torches strapped on heads or chests, the food wasn’t memorable but we had to do our own dishes. It was like home. Conversations in broken English to include me until it completely disappeared with the exhaustion of struggling to express oneself in another language.
My dorm room housed 6 girls, the 5 already had a connection since they had been together for over a month. I felt left out in conversations, I wished I were with my friends. I guess that’s the downside of solo travel, meeting groups of people and fiercely missing your own. I remembered to plug in my phone before I fell asleep on my top bunk bed.
The following morning, I woke up to chatter and a promise of a great day to explore Moshi. During breakfast of cereal, bread and fruit, people noted on the board what they would be doing for the day in case anyone wanted to join, most of which involved spending money. I decided I would just walk around, eat somewhere nice, book my bus ticket to Dar es Salaam for my last Serena experience at Dar es Salaam Serena Hotel.
It was a good day to wear shorts, a vest and rock Ray Bans. Passport in one hand, phone in the other and money in the back pocket, I left the hostel for my leisurely walk through the old small town. I passed by the basketball court which was disappointingly empty, went by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The streets were empty, it was beautiful.
The beauty changed as I started meeting people that gave me strange looks. At first, I thought they were having a bad day. But once I met more ahead as I entered the trading center, I got concerned. I quickly texted Godwin, “Godwin, people are staring at me.”
“Well Dada, I would be very worried if no one did,” came his swift reply.
“It looks like I’ve done something wrong.”
“That’s not good.What are you wearing?”
“Shorts and a vest.”
“Oh. That’s bad. Didn’t you know that African girls don’t wear shorts?”
At that point, someone whistled at someone and a group of men started walking towards me menacingly. Another whistled and more came forward. It was like a swarm of ugly men. My heart started racing, fearing the worst. I clutched my passport and phone tightly in the event that if my body was found, it could be identified. A stench seemed to accompany them with each step towards me. Terrible hygiene and stale cigarette smoke. The leader was a skinny shirtless fellow with bloodshot eyes, dirty shaggy hair and coiled scanty chest hair with veins running along his arms and skinny legs in shorts and sandals.
They surrounded me, shouting Swahili things that sounded far from compliments. I coward, passport and phone pressed to my chest. Blood making deafening waves to in my brain, I was dizzy from fear. They poked and prodded my body from all angles. I still can’t tell what was more overwhelming, their combined stench or the fear of meeting my Maker in a foreign land. I screamed soundlessly. I was engulfed by the stench and just when I thought I was about to pass out, they dispersed at the sound of a fired gun. I could breathe.
The police came to my rescue! I wailed in relief. I was engulfed again, in a motherly hug. I buried my face into the nook of her neck, cried and hiccuped until my heart resumed its normal pace as she rubbed my back comfortingly.
I was asked who I was and where I was from. Between hiccups, I managed to answer. The police officer was furious. Apparently, they had come at me thinking I was a prostitute. I was so sad and humiliated. No woman deserved that. They asked me what I had to do in town, I only wanted to purchase a ticket out of that place at the earliest chance.
I was escorted to the bus office by the police and back to the hostel. The next bus was leaving at 8 the following morning, otherwise I would have left that very instant. I entered my bed, the girls gathered around and asked what had happened. Between sobs, I recounted the ordeal.
“But we wear shorts everyday!” One claimed.
“You’re not African,” the other reminded her.