298: Dice Spin Through Usambara Mountain Loop


Fly over the mountains with us. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli / Music: Glenn Simonelli

Daily Updates are not edited and function more as daily journal entries – so if the plot seems to be all over the place or missing entirely and the tenses changes faster than a kaleidoscope, well, that's just the way it is.

I DON'T think I'll be happy to eat one more meal alone. It's a strange thing to say, as I've only been back on the road for a little over a week. However, I'm already tired of eating alone. It doesn't help that the food has been less than glorious.

At 6:30pm tonight the cook will walk across the gravel parking lot of St Benedict's Hostel. I'll hear her feet and open the door to my room before she arrives. She'll be carrying a wooden tray with four or five thick slices of white bread, a thermos of milk tea, a bowl of sugar and a mug. This will be the third night in a row that I've had this for dinner. Last night, I found some butter and jam to add to the bread. It costs 4,000 Shillings, roughly two dollars. I could get a meal somewhere in Lushoto for the same price. But I don't. I don't have a good reason why not.

Two days ago, I woke up on the cement floor of the hotel in Momobo, packed my bags and rolled the die. It was merciful. It did not force me to continue my charge toward the orphanage I'll be volunteering at, but rather allowed me to drive north to do a rural loop that was recommended to me by a fellow biker the day before.

An hour north, climbing into the Usambara mountain range, I spotted St Benedict's Hostel. I thought a hostel might be a nice change of pace. However, it's not a hostel; it's more of a pleasant, Christian motel. The gravel parking lot is surrounded by buildings on three sides, two of which are long single story jobs, while the side I'm on is two stories tall.

Breakfast of bread, jam, butter, tea and eggs is served in a communal dining room. There are paintings of Jesus on the walls and a painting of the Our Lady of Sorrows. Hanging on the wall in my room, there is a tiny cross with a plastic Jesus that looks like it should glow in the dark.

A simple breakfast served up with an amazing, lonely book called A History of Love. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

When I arrived, only an hour or so into my journey, I curled up into a ball on the bed and slept. I slept and slept and slept. Yesterday, I'd intended to follow through on the Die's Will and do the loop. However, dark gray clouds blanketed the sky, occasionally spitting down on the mountain range. I wrote it off as a work day. I struggled. I was despondent, unenthusiastic.

Tonight, I eat dinner at the large wooden desk I've been working at in the room. I bought some bananas in town. I also had a few bites of marinated grilled meat and chips mayai, which is basically a French fry omelet – a staple in Tanzania.

I'm not starving myself.

You'd think that I'd be buzzing with positive energy after spending all day on a beautiful, luggage-free ride through the Usambara Mountains. I'd think the same thing.

This morning arrives with clear skies, a significant improvement on yesterday's weather. I put a little more air into Rafiki's tires, grab Dorsey II, the drone, and my camera for the road. Finally, we're going to complete the die's command of “doing the loop”.

The loop will take us deep into the mountains, we turn at the main road in Soni and then follow a rocky dirt road up to Baga Village. Making our way around to Bumbuli, we then move back down toward Soni.

The brochure I found at the tourist information office in Lushoto bragged about the region. I have high hopes for the Baga Village for no other reason than because it's on the map and labeled “village”. Without a doubt, I'm hoping to find something exotic now that I'm off the beaten path. There is tourism in the area, which is clear from the dozen hotels in Lushoto, but this is an area most people who visit Tanzania never see.

For a moment, I consider taking a left instead of a right at a Y-junction, as a closer look at the map reveals that a left takes me for a loop through the dense tropical forests. However, when I rolled the die several days ago, it was wanting me to do the loop that requires me to go right. So, I remind myself that I don't have a choice and get back to driving.

More than 70 percent of the mountain range has been stripped of its forest, which is quite obvious. Substances farm plots dominate the steep slopes of the mountains, folded up on themselves like a bundle of curtains thrown into the laundry room. Metal roofs glint in the full sun, as they lime the ridges.

Women and children carry buckets and goods on their heads. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

The high valleys are filled with greens. There are dark green vegetables and the icy green of cabbage plants. Woman are doubled over, breasts against knees, as they tend their gardens. Other women I pass on the road balance hoes, large sticks or baskets of goods on their heads. They are all dressed in swaths of vibrant colored, ornately patterned fabrics, their heads covered.

It's dumbfounding how clean their clothes are. Despite my riding gear being black, it's visibly filthy from a week's worth of oil, dirt, sweat and gas. A white smudge near my knee is mint toothpaste, which is the only part of my pants that don't reek.

The children out of school are out and about in unsupervised packs. A string of them stops what they're doing to blankly stare at me as I drive past. Nearly all of them are in uniform. The boys wear three-quarter trousers and dark blue sweaters. The girls wear skirts and wimples. The blue and white color of their uniforms and the obvious presence of Christianity at first makes me assume they're all going to catholic school; there's something about the uniforms. But the more children I see, the more I wonder if it's an Islamic school, as all the girls have their heads covered.

In fact, nearly every woman I see has their head covered, only a few wear a niqab. It's strange to think about it, but there's such a fuss about Muslim woman wearing hijab as part of their faith. Some countries, with France leading the way, banned Islamic face veils in public places. Yet, Christianity, specifically the Roman Catholic Church, has a history of women of faith – nuns – covering their heads.

Looking at all these beautiful, wide-eyed faces wrapped in white cloth, I wonder at what point Christian woman gave up head scarves or if perhaps it was never part of the faith.

The rough dirt road runs right up against the steep slope of the mountain, often offering the option of an interesting tumble down into one gully on the other side. Every so often the road passes through a small village. Baga Village is nothing to write home about. I don't even realize I was passing through until I'm lost and have to refer to a map.

At the major junction of each small town, complete with a butch and a few mud brick houses, there is nearly always a collection of Chinese motorcycles, one of which will have speakers blasting a local radio station. Men in their late teens and 20s loiter in the small towns. Groups of eight or ten of them are often hanging around the bikes or idly sitting on a porch. Their mothers and grandmothers are hard at work in a field or bringing bundles of scavenged fire wood home. I'm never sure where here fathers are.

A narrow strip of path slips away from the road onto a red-dirt knoll where a collection of a dozen or so mud houses are mixed with a smattering of trees.

We roll down the path and then up into what I presume is the center of the tiny village, an open, sandy area. In the sparse shade of a tree, I park Rafiki and unpack Dorsey II. Village women stand at a distance observing the stranger in their town, as a group of men approaches, curious about the drone.

Rafiki and I stop for selfie. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

They wear untucked button down dress shirts faded with age and sandals or galoshes. One of them speaks a little English. Dorsey II takes off, I show them a bird's-eye view of the village.

A woman with a toddler stands in the open, showing her the flying machine. The rest of the women, wearing vibrant, intricately patterned wraps press back against the wall of a mud house, taking what little shade they can from the over hanging roof.

I smile and laugh with the men, once Dorsey II is packed up.

Back on the road, a couple older teenagers walking home from school call out at me.

“Give me money,” one calls.

They turn to watch me pass. Then they are jogging behind me, their skin black against the white of their short-sleeve school uniforms.

“Give me money,” he calls again, picking up speed in an attempt to catch Rafiki.

Suddenly, they are running full speed at Rafiki. I can't imagine they mean any harm, but at the same time, I'm suddenly aware of how much the twisting roads limit Rafiki's speed. Nonetheless, I give her a little gas and we move on, leaving the boys in the white dust of the road.

With the first loop complete, I stop for a chips maya and a big bottle of water on a corner of a small town, where I parked Rafiki next to the Chinese bikes and watched the teens poke around her while listening to the radio.

We stop for chips maya at one of the villages. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Having checked the box for the die's loop, I head back to the Y-junction to dive into the mountain jungles.

At several moments, the jungle gives way to shaded plantations of dark-leaved coffee plants or bright green tea leaves.

But mostly, it was jungle. Big, old jungle. There's too much and yet nothing specific about the jungle I find myself in. It's tall jungle with enormous trees stretching way up into the sky. It's the kind of place you want to share with someone.

This way, when you get back from the ride, all you have to do is look at them and say: that was awesome. Having been there by your side, the “that” is understood. They know the essence of “that”: they remember the smell of the forest, the sound of river water dashing down a steep slope, the coolness of the forest.

But I'm not riding with anyone. I'm riding alone.

The low oil light comes one. I have about half a tank of oil and gas left when the light comes on, but it still makes me nervous, as a two-stroke won't run the hundred meter dash with no 2T oil. I could tear up the engine, and really leave myself in a spot if I pushed Rafiki too far. Unfortunately, I noticed about an hour into the trip this that I'd forgotten to bring extra oil. Part of the problem of carrying everything you own with you on a bike is the fact that you forget to pack things for day trips.

Miraculously, a wood paneled shop, nearly indistinguishable from a house, on the far side of the forest has 2T oil for sale. I stock up with a couple bottles.

I think we have enough petrol to get us back to Lushoto.

And we do.

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THE premise is simple: Allow die roles to determine the majority of decisions faced while motorbiking throughout the world with a limited budget for an entire year.      It’s 365 days of tempting fate, enticing serendipity and letting go of free will – if such things exist at all.

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