Tanzania, by Boat

February 13, 2015

Human touch, while comforting at times, can be much less so when one is dangling from a plank above a floating death-trap that houses seventy-something persons, dead fish, and various bags of agricultural product. The experience I describe is that of the Lake Tanganyika passenger boat, a humble, wooden vessel that travels from southern Burundi to Kigoma, Tanzania in a once daily round trip. When the stores of Nutella run dry and the Gombe research cohort is forced to seek alternative forms of sustenance, we reluctantly creep from out our forest home and make the beleaguered journey into town for groceries, toiletries, and other necessary items. The most necessary of items is whiskey, which, for its mind cleansing properties, allows any and all passenger boat-related madness to be (almost) forgotten…

Sloshing through the waves in what I believe to be a stylish, town-ready ensemble (cargo pants and an oversized tank top), I wince at a boat that is full far beyond the carrying capacity of its tiny motor. I silently thank my parents for the years of swimming lessons and hope that I have time to strip off the shilling-laden cargo pants when the hull starts filling with water. Much to my enjoyment, the only place to sit aboard the S.S. Disorganized is a frail, wooden board that reaches from one side of the boat to the other, whereupon several already rest, legs swinging below, narrowly past the heads of women, children and fowl who rest within the ship. Yes, adding to the madness is an unruly chicken who has been freed of a plastic shopping bag and now, making its way franticly about the boat, lands on and beats its wings against the faces of unsuspecting babies. I am mistaken in believing that this is the most noteworthy occurrence within the three and a half hour trip, as soon I become the photographic subject to a hoard of mobile phones (my only explanation is that one day I will become the face of a Tanzanian PSA about women with poor shaving habits). As the boat rocks against the waves, thrusting people from their already unsteady positions, hands grasp for any surface, human or otherwise, that might provide stability. Seated unsuspectingly upon a natural grip surface, my bottom soon finds itself to be the ill fated recipient of poorly-placed fingers and fists from several unwitting strangers. And the greatest of minds thought that love was the cure for loneliness…

As the gods of public transit would have it, my role in this most chaotic of experiences is far from over. Somewhere between fishing villages, not long after my internal pleas to the universe for the invention of Aves-specific Xanax, the chicken begins to control its outbursts and slinks away into the depths of the boat. When we finally arrive and the mad rush to the shore begins, I manage to hold on to the shaking plank until most of the passengers disembark. Anticipating the joy of outstretched legs, I jump joyously onto the cargo below and find several feathers– the last remaining relics of the terrorist chicken. Only as the boat begins to pull away do I hear the muffled squawk of a bird, who was perhaps tired after a long day of sea travel, or, more likely, was recently smothered by a girl in cargo pants. I hope for the former, and when I finally make it back to the research house that night, exhausted from the day’s travel, I take a moment to reflect on just how outrageously bizarre life in Tanzania can be. Where else, on earth, would I ever find myself cavorting with such a strange blend of boats, bodies and birds?

And then, just before I jump to a somewhat logical conclusion, it dawns on me: the Lake Tanganyika chicken was not my first cold-blooded bird-murder. In fact, I once donned an all-orange jumpsuit and matching hat and, in a corn field in Pennsylvania, fired a spray of pellets into the sky before wrestling pheasants from a dog’s mouth. I conclude that “bizarre” applies to many of my life experiences, both at home and abroad, and with fond memories of birds loved and lost, I tip my glass to the absurd.

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