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Boat Ride to Chimpville

A few of my boatmates. We're all Facebook friends now.

A destination reached with difficulty feels earned, even if only out of a sense of personal obligation. After two days on the bus, today I hopped the 3.5-hour public ferry along the shoreline of the world’s longest lake and second deepest, Lake Tanganyika, to Gombe Stream National Park, the chimpanzee park extraordinaire where Jane Goodall performed her famous research.

I know that last sentence is too long; get off my back.

Today I was the only foreigner on the 30-cent boat ride. Colorfully clad swarms of humans congregated on the shore of a town just north of Kigoma and funneled onto the oversized rowboat with an outboard motor inserted. As I wondered if this was my boat, a man walked up to me and asked, “Where are we going?” “Gombe.” “Yes. Let’s go.”

Yeah, let’s.

The belly of the beast is about five feet at its deepest, with people piling onto the rim and crossbeams for seating. I was ushered toward the front where a small spot between a woman breast-feeding her child and a man in an Arsenal jersey awaited me. My escort turned out to just be a friendly helper and after I got a spot, retreated to the rear.

After the boat was full (I couldn’t see everyone but counted 137 people from my vantage point), with bags secured to nails in the walls, giant sacks of grain stacked in rows, and two solar panels delicately placed on the bow, we maneuvered through the ropes of other boats and petered north.

I tried to absorb and appreciate the fitful conversations going on around me but eventually put on Guns ‘n Roses’ Use Your Illusion II album as background to the active scene as I perused the crowd. One military man who made several gestures not to take his photo. Three young men scattered about who each seemed to be preaching sermons to semi-interested onlookers. Many football jerseys: three Arsenal, two Manchester United, four Manchester City, and a few I didn’t recognize. Other t-shirts: Eminem, Nuggets, MDA Camp America Issue No 2002, Fishing Klinics for Kids, and a Hugo Boss button-down with images of cologne and a giant eyeball. A Chicago White Sox cap and a yellow NY Yankees cap. A Southern Miss Golden Eagles tee complementing a bedazzled Hannah Montana baseball cap.

After about two hours, after we’d made a couple stops, I was beckoned to the back under a hail of “Mzungu!” At this point though, that seemed near impossible. There was literally not more than a few inches of free space at a square between me and the stern, about 50 feet away, and the territory was hardly stable.

But I did as commanded and snuck like a cartoon jewel thief across the boat, stepping on a lot of luggage and at one point grazing my crotch across the D&G wool hat of a woman sleeping. At the end of it, I was suspended from a beam—my little backpack on and camera bag hanging below me, making it difficult to swing my body up to the level of the stern. So it was that an older man grabbed me by the scruff and deposited me safely on a board in the back. At which point he flexed his muscles for the audience and shouted something with “mzungu” in it.

When we reached Gombe, I was surprised to see just a green gateway and half submerged dock, like something from the Dharma Initiative. The fellow who helped me aboard came over to me before I stood up, held my hands and said sternly, “I will see you when you see me.”

Hopped off the boat, got many giggles and waves and made my way into the hostel where now I’m writing from, as the only guest here. Tomorrow: chimps.

tanzanian sports boy
Boy on a broom on bags of grain on a boat
people on a boat
Boat ride to Gombe, just before the tickling epidemic started
boat departing gombe
And then they were gone. But I will treasure always our three-and-a-half hours together in a secret compartment of my heart of hearts. Right next to that thing I did with the stolen puppies in Kazakhstan.



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