After our COS conference, I still had about 3 weeks before classes started up again for the last push to October when I’d be leaving my site. To fill this time, me and 3 other volunteers decided to do a trip down the southeastern coast of Tanzania, known affectingly here as “the dirty south”. Apparently this name is derived from the fact that food is scarce (other than cashew nuts and mangos) and because it is dusty as all hell. You may be wondering, based on this description, why we decided to visit this area in the first place. Valid point. However, like I mentioned, we would basically be traveling down the coast, visiting other volunteers and seeing if their claims of “the best Italian food ever”, “a beach bar”, and “a beach house” were actually true or if they were urban legends.
We started our journey by getting ripped off on bus tickets down there. You would think that after almost two years in the country we’d be immune to such gimmicks as the guy telling us one price (which we paid) and writing the actual price (which was obviously lower) on the ticket. It’s basically like scalpers buying all the tickets, marking them up, and then selling them. The difference here is that there are still tickets at face value available and the guy here is actually trying to scam you. Anyway, after overpaying by a few shillings (1-2 dollars; doesn’t seem like a lot but when your monthly salary is somewhere near 170 dollars, it’s a large percentage). We boarded the bus which like most buses here in Tanzania looked like it was about to fall apart, and started the journey down south. The first third of the trip was enjoyable by African travel standards, that is, until we hit the road construction. This consisted of us weaving across the road and literally riding on dirt trails through the bush on the side of the road that was under construction. These side roads through the bush were not well maintained, and I literally had to hold onto the seat to stop from being thrown out of my seat as the bus listed dangerously back and forth. Normally when you encounter construction, it lasts for a small part of the duration of your trip. However in this case it lasted for the next two thirds of the trip. I thought to myself “this is the second worst bus ride I’ve ever been on in Tanzania” (the worst being the dirt road through the narrow gorge on my way from my village directly north to visit my friend in Dodoma; here the worry was falling off the cliff whereas the worry traveling down south was simply the bus tipping over and doing a few barrel rolls). After a tumultuous ride down to our first stop, we had lunch at the rest stop just outside Kilwa, where we were meeting another volunteer who was going to show us around. The other thing about the “dirty south” is that there are way less ex-pats, wazungu, and virtually no tourists. Which isn’t surprising considering most sane people would take a range rover to reach the destination. So when I rolled into the rest stop and proceeded to order my lunch in Swahili, the workers were blown away, and were trying to talk my ear off. Anyway, we were able to finally get to the “town” that we were meeting our friend at, get setup in a small guesti, which actually more closely resembled a set of large cardboard boxes, and get some rest in. That evening, our friend took us to one of the only resort-ish places for some drinks. As I mentioned, there are virtually no tourists in this area, but if you are looking for paradise off the beaten track, this was it. The place we went to was full of lush vegetation, had an in-ground swimming pool, cabana area, and private beach front with an unobstructed view of the aqua-blue water that gently lapped the shore. To top it off they had cold beer. It’s amazing the places that I’ve been able to find and experience since being in this country; places that no normal person would ever find, mostly because they aren’t “Hilton” or “Marriott” properties but also because they don’t have things such as “websites” to advertise. They are just amazingly well kept secrets, secrets that are kept by the few people who frequent them, maybe for fear that if the true beauty of them was discovered; there would be a rush to develop them into something more, which would utterly destroy the amazing low-key vibe. After enjoying a few cold ones at this place, we headed back to our guesti and got some sleep for our planned excursion to Kilwa Kiswani the next morning, which is a small island off the coast of Kilwa where there are ruins of an old Arab trading outpost only reachable by boat. At the hotel the previous night, we had negotiated with a guy to take us over at a discount price. When we met him in the morning at the hotel, it turns out there were other guest staying at the hotel which were coming along with us. As Peace Corps volunteers we immediately, thought “oh damn, are we sure we are actually paying the low price or is this guy going to try and charge us the actual price, which we literally couldn’t afford on our salary”. As it turns out, we saw why there was the difference in price. As we got to the dock, a large, nice looking pontoon boat pulled up. Us Peace Corps volunteers started to walk toward it, but our fearless guide stopped us and pointed to the little wooden carved out dingy that we would actually be boarding. We couldn’t help but laugh as we watched the luxurious pontoon boat pull away, and us, in our tiny canoe-like boat with an outboard motor follow behind. It got us there same and sound, so that’s all we really cared about. The tour turned out to be amazing and well worth the price we paid. After the tour, we hurried up to the bus stop to continue our trek down the coast to the next town of Lindi.
The ride to Lindi was probably worse than the ride from Dar to Kilwa because the road was in the same condition but the mini-van we got into was jammed to capacity. After another short 8 hour ride, we reached Lindi, the land of discount cashew nuts. A quick note about the cashews in Tanzania; the cruddy cashews you buy from planters don’t even taste like actual cashews. Tanzanian cashews are the most tasty treat you could ever imagine. After an overindulgence of cashew nuts, we proceeded to the rooms that our friend booked at a church mission in town. God bless our friend who booked our rooms, because they were dirt cheap (2.5 USD) but we got exactly what we paid for. There was no running water, the lights didn’t work in m any rooms, no soap was provided, no towels were provided, etc. It was no Holiday Inn. However the guy who ran the place was just so darn nice, we couldn’t bring ourselves to mention anything. He also did come up big when he called us a taxi and gave us directions to the famous “best Italian food”. As you can imagine, we were more than a little skeptical. However, upon arriving at the place, it turned out to be the guys house with a small outdoor seating area. He was indeed Italian and it turned out the food was pretty damn good. My friends and I couldn’t believe that you could find such good Italian food in the middle of nowhere. To celebrate, we ordered a bottle of French wine, which I have also never seen in my 2 years in country. After stuffing ourselves to the limit and thanking our gracious host, we retreated back to our luxurious rooms for the night.
The next day we spent exploring the town of Lindi. True enough, there isn’t much to it. It is more of a sleepy town, but with beautiful views of the water and mangrove forests. After a while, we finally found the famous “beach bar” that all our friends were talking about. True to the myth, they put us literally on the beach and began serving us ice cold beer. Eventually, after buying fresh coconuts and drinking up the coconut milk, we started pouring our beers into the coconuts and drank out of them. As we sat there drinking beer out of coconuts on the beach, watching the tide roll in, we couldn’t help but wonder if the name “dirty south” was some kind of sick joke to try and keep the place a secret. Thus far, we had experienced hidden beach resorts, gourmet Italian food, fresh cashews, and now beers on the beach in coconuts. All these luxuries made us wonder if the volunteers who lived down here were straight up lying to us about how “difficult” it was.
The next day, we continued our journey down the coast to the last large city, Mtwara. This would be the final test, where we would see if the infamous “beach house” lived up to the hype. After arriving at the bus stand, and with a slight difficulty in finding the actual beach house, we walked through the doors. What we found was nothing short of miraculous. It was maybe even better than our friends had described. The place had about 5 bedrooms, a dining room, a full kitchen, a sitting room, a porch off the back of the house facing the ocean, its own back yard, and a palm frond cabana in the yard. The house was immaculately kept up by a mama who had been working there for over 15 years. It had the vibe of a beach house cira 1970, a retro beach house if you will. It was fantastic. After walking through our personal yard (which had actual grass growing; yea this was a big deal) we opened the gate to the beach and were just in time to see the beginning of the sunset. The beach was pristine, the water clear as glass. We couldn’t believe our eyes. Over the next two days, we just lounged around the beach, enjoying this hidden gem. We were also able to meet up with two of our friends from the Njombe area (hear where I live) to work for 6 extra months in Mtwara. Despite the travel woes, the trip up until this point had been amazing. After the two days were up, our group of 4 decided to split up. Me and my friend Sarah decided to continue even further south to visit a friends’ house which was right on the border with Mozambique.
Sarah and I boarded an afternoon bus to the town of Newala, where our friend lived. At the time however, she was way out in west Tanzania traveling with some other friends. Despite this, we still explored the small banking town and walked around her school. Literally 500 feet behind her school was the “Shimo la Mungu” or “Hole of God” which is a huge valley which is cut by the Ruvuma river. As we stared out into the valley, across the river we could see Mozambique. After finishing our visit in Newala, we continued our journey to the west to complete the full loop of the dirty south and stopped in the town of Masasi where we were able to meet up with another 3rd year extension volunteer who volunteered to house us. He was able to show us around the town which is affectionately known to the volunteers who visit it as “a truckstop” for the lack of things to do/places to eat. We found the statement to be fairly accurate, but the scenery was beautiful, with hills rising above the town on all sides. After our one day stay, the next morning, Sarah and I boarded a bus from the deep south, Masasi all the way back up to Dar es Salaam. Sarah and I stayed one night in Dar, then boarded the 6am bus down back south. Sarah got off to return to her site while I continued down to Mbeya to meet up with some of the new volunteers which I had met during their training but hadn’t seen them in a while.
After finally experiencing “the dirty south”, my fellow travelers and I decided that everyone who lived in the dirty south was a liar, and that it was actually one of the more enjoyable regions in Tanzania (minus the travel) and thus we renamed it “the gold coast”.