Thursday, 8 November 2012

50 Oranges & The Near Drowning of Henry - Arusha

Banana Boats in the Caribbean - Banana Trucks Here

Having done major damage to my fitness level after a very indulgent summer trip home following the Kigali Marathon in May, I decided to sign up for the Safari Marathon in Arusha, in early September.  They market it as a marathon when in actual fact it is a half marathon and a 5K run through what is a most unattractive route.  However if you have a fetish for dodging huge transport trucks and boda bodas (motorcycle taxis) while running, enjoying the smell of rotting garbage,  inhaling copious of dust and insects and having to beg for your race t-shirt from the organisers when you finish the race, then this is the run for you.

The Road to Arusha is Long and Dusty
Arusha is about a 10 hour bus ride from Dar es Salaam, which was about 10 hours more than I would have liked to spend on any bus.  But being the team leader (again) for a group of VSO volunteers running the race, I decided to turn down a discounted flight and rough it with the two other team members that were bussing it Arusha. This time around we only attracted a team of six (6), as opposed to the 25-odd volunteers we attracted for the Kilimanjaro and Kigali marathons.  It might have had something to do with the fact that each volunteer had to raise a minimum of US$500 for our Mobile Health Programme in Zanzibar, in order to benefit from VSO-paid transport and accommodations. I think the real reason though was the fact that there would be no free food! For like everything else here, if you don’t have free food and drinks, no one will participate or help you.  Try going to the police station to report being mugged and the first thing you will be told by the officer taking the report is “I need 10,000 shillings for a soda.”  At that price they must be buying designer sodas.

You Can Basically Buy Anything From Your Bus Window Here
Only three (3) of us ended up on the bus ride to Arusha on the Friday, with two others driving from Dodoma and one deciding to fly in on the Saturday (smart girl even though she almost missed her flight, forgot to pack underwear and slept in the morning of the race).  One person cancelled at the last minute so we had an extra seat on the bus which we protected with zeal from other passengers for our bags and other stuff.  I took great pride in flashing the ticket for that seat to any passengers who dared to try and sit there. The ride was quite scenic with occasional rest room stops, where if you spent too long in the nauseating “toilets” or used the nearby bushes, the bus driver would have no qualms in leaving you behind.

Barbara With Our 50 Oranges
Although the ride ended up being a tedious 12 hours, a spur of the moment purchase of 50 oranges through the bus window for Tshs 2,000 (US$1.25), provided us with much sustenance and entertainment for hours.  We gave away oranges to our neighbours on the bus (particularly the ones with the very green skin), taught my seat mate Barbara how to peel an orange properly with a Swiss Army Knife and peeled and ate about twenty (20) of them, and practiced throwing the peel and waste out the window from the moving bus, hitting many  unsuspecting bystanders.  More entertainment was provided at the lunch rest stop, where we witnessed a raven like bird swoop down in the car park and grab some roasted meat off the plate of an unsuspecting young lady, who stood perplexed for a couple minutes wondering what had just happened.  I felt sorry for the raven and not the lady, since I had bought some of that same meat and eating it was like trying to chew rubber bands.  Again though, with a long bus ride it was something to do to pass the time.    

We Should Have Read This Notice
We got to a very cold Arusha just before dark and after a not so encouraging taxi ride through a side street that made Kimwheri Road look like Bond Street in London, we got to the L’Oasis Hotel, where VSO was putting us up in the backpacker rooms for the weekend.  Thankfully, our Dodoma colleagues who arrived earlier in the day had stayed there before, and because the hotel was quite empty, they decided to upgrade us to the fancy cottage rooms at the backpacker price.  This was quite fortunate on my part, having vowed never to repeat my lone hostel-staying experience of 1997 in Amsterdam. The property was indeed an Oasis compared to the rest of the neighbourhood.  There were beautiful gardens, a fountain area, a comfy lounge and bar with overstuffed sofas, a swimming pool and free wi-fi.  The biggest surprise was the rustic looking cottages which looked a bit mshamba on the outside but were very quaint and luxurious on the inside. I ended up in a cottage with 4 beds, with beautiful Tanzanian furniture and artwork. 

The Rescue of the Flightless Henry by the Brave Juanito
But the absolute highlight at L’Oasis had to be the golden crested crane and pet dog that inhabited the grounds – Henry and Jeffrey.  Or at least so we thought.  It was only the day before we left we discovered that the dog’s name was actually Skippy, which incidentally was on a big sign posted at the front desk.  Henry’s wings were clipped and lazily walked around the compound, which provided us with ample opportunities for photo ops, once with almost disastrous consequences. I tried to get a shot of Henry and I in front my cottage one afternoon, and my VSO colleagues decided to help out by trying to corral him towards me and the cottage.  Basically they spooked him, he tried to fly which ended up being more of a leap, and he ended up falling into the fountain.  With clipped wings he was stuck there and started frantically flapping his wings in an attempt to get out of the fountain, which only resulted in him banging his wings against the concrete sides of the fountain.  Thankfully disaster was averted when Juanito, our brave Philippino colleague sprung into action and rescued Henry, despite being pecked on the arm.  For the next hour Henry stood next to us in the garden, screaming and trying to dry off his drenched feathers in cold 16°C weather.  Skippy, aka Jeffrey, got lucky that we didn’t get his name right for most of the weekend, for who knows what mishaps we might have gotten him into.

The Coffee Is As Good If Not Better than Its Famous Big Brother
The day before the actual race, we ventured into town to register and do some sightseeing.  After giving up on finding the registration office for the marathon, we had a nice lunch at Stiggbucks (we also have Darbucks and several other variations of the Starbucks name in Tanzania) and some even better coffees.  Arusha sits in the foothills of the impressive Mt. Meru and has some of the best coffee in Tanzania.  After eventually finding the race office and registering, we walked walk through town, and came across the Rwandan War Crimes Tribunal building and compound.  As we were walking past I explained to my colleagues that I read somewhere that this tribunal had spent close to US$1.5 billion but only convicted about 50 persons. Whereas the Gacacas (community based trials) in Rwanda had convicted about 500,000 persons in about 15 years and had cost just over US$40 million.  Armed with this knowledge, we had to pose in front of the building for photos – another photo-op idea what ended up going awry.  Someone casually commented that we were not supposed to take photos in front this compound, but we ignored this and did so anyway.  

My Mug Shot Before the Real Mug Shot
As soon as we strolled away a policeman came hurling up the street and told us that we had to accompany him back to the security office for breaking the no-photographs rule.  We protested untruthfully that we were not aware of this rule - another bad idea.  You see the grounds and the fenced area of the compound are full of surveillance cameras and microphones, and so our conversations were all caught on video and audio tape, including someone mentioning that we should not take photos and my little rant about the exorbitant costs of the tribunal.  After viewing and deleting our photos, we got “released” by the security personnel.  But not before they found out I was Trini and made some remark to the equivalent of “damn Trinis again”.  That was not the end of this story though, for later that evening poor Juanito went to meet one of his country-men who lived in Arusha, who immediately recognized him even though they had never met.  He turned out to be the head of security for the War Crimes Tribunal and had seen the tape!

The VSO Tanzanian & Rwandan Team
Race morning approached and I was not feeling well.  Before arriving in Arusha I was a bit flu-ish and the cold weather there (it dipped to 14°C in the evenings) did not help.  So on race day I struggled through the half marathon, especially since the first half which was all uphill.  The dust and unattractiveness of the route did not help either.   Good thing my nemesis and VSO-boss Jean was not competing, so there was no need to push myself too much to once again win bragging rights.  I eventually finished in about 2 hours and 10 minutes, thanks mainly to my colleague from Dodoma who ran with me for most of the way.  Two of the four female Rwandan VSOs that made the trip finished way ahead of me, even though they had quite a bit of wine the night before, and also were competing in their first half marathon (must be their Irish genes).  Oh well, I guess the sins of the summer had caught up with me.  

Poor Skippy - We Drove Him to the Bottle
After the race we chilled at the hotel, drank some wine, played asshole (my new favourite card game), drank more wine and then went out to dinner at an Italian place. As soon as we got there they announced they had a chef from Las Vegas in the kitchen.  Wow we thought!! Turns out he has been living in Arusha for several years, failed at operating a Mexican Restaurant and was moonlighting at this place.  The dinner ended up being was terrible, and to keep us in the joint, they offered us free special desserts, which they claimed were ready.  After 20 minutes passed and there was still no dessert and we attempted to leave.  They insisted we stay, which we reluctantly did and when the dessert came, it turned out to be some horribly sour-tasting strudel type thing, which would have been more useful for pelting mangoes in the Caribbean.  After the trauma of that dessert we decided to stop briefly for a drink at a local place with a live band.  Our two Rwanda-based VSO colleagues got into the music and started dancing (they don’t get out much in Rwanda), while the rest of us headed home for some shut eye.  I needed some rest for the next day I was going on my first safari to Lake Manyara and the famed Ngorongoro Crater.  Here I would see another animal struggle to get out of water alive.  But this time around it was a water buffalo and the culprits were nine (9) hungry lions.  But this will be my next blog. Stay tuned.


  1. Poor Skippy! Very interesting stories...and your pictures are great!

  2. That was a great adventure. I hope to see the place up close.

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