The MV Liemba appeared from the south around the headland having made its way from Zambia. The horn blasted as it pulled into the Kasanga port. J and I looked at each other like children on Christmas morning and sprung from our chairs. Well ok, it wasn’t quite that exciting. Anyway – we got our bags and jumped into the tiny Liemba Beach Lodge boat for a lift over to the port.
We had a contact of a contact of a contact that we were to meet at the port who would help us get tickets. There had been limited and conflicting information online about the MV Liemba sailing schedule, so if you didn’t have a local contact, you likely wouldn’t sail.
We hopped off the tiny boat with our bags and found our contact, Kalugendo. He asked us to wait for a while. We’d heard there was cold beer sold on the Liemba, so we were uber excited to board, but we sat patiently in the shade leaning against the cool concrete columns of the port offices watching all the hustle and bustle around the port and the cargo being loaded into the hull of the boat.
We sat and we sat and we sat, waiting… A local woman came over and tried talking to me. I’d seen her twice in the village before and she had a certain affinity for me, I think. The first time I met her she walked straight up to me like I’d known her for years and began talking to me in Swahili while holding my hand. When I tried to convey to her that I didn’t understand Swahili, she kept on talking like she had a juicy gossipy story to tell. I tried to talk to her more in English and that obviously didn’t work. We just held hands and walked for a while, and then she left with no explanation.
As she joined me again there at the port we went through the same routine, trying to talk, holding hands. At one point I got J’s guidebook out of his bag to reference the Swahili dictionary section thinking maybe we could piece together a few sentences. The woman proceeded to take the book from me and continued on talking. Ohhhh the spaz attack that would’ve ensued had I not been able to retrieve the book and place it safely back in J’s pack. Thank goodness there were no guidebook emergencies that day. Whew! We carried on ‘talking’, I looking into her eyes, wanting to know so desperately what she was saying. I wondered if we spoke the same language would we be good friends? Or did she possibly have some mental illness or was she just really friendly? Either way she had a certain energy about her that I was drawn to. After an hour or so, the woman kissed my hand and off she went – never to be seen again.
Watching maize being loaded onto a ship is about as exciting as watching grass grow, but it was the best entertainment in the port. Finally, after hours of waiting, we boarded the ship, dropped our bags in our ‘first class’ cabin and began the search for the most critical thing – beer. Ahhhh at last, we had cold beer in our hands. We walked around, trying to get a feel for the ship and where everyone hung out. It’s not like there were lounge chairs or a swim up pool bar or a casino, no no.
We finally found a spot on the top deck, a corrugated metal roof covering the engine room. It wasn’t really meant for passengers. Surely we wouldn’t have been allowed to sit there if it had been a commercial cruise line. But there were a few other locals hanging out there playing cards. We hopped the railing and found a spot to watch the sunset with our beer. Ahhhh, yes. After all those bus rides, the confusion of trying to plan our timing to meet the Liemba, a boat that only sails twice a month, and the challenges of traveling western Tanzania, we had actually made it onto the Liemba. Cheers – we clanked our bottles.
The horn blew again signaling our departure and we were off, beginning our two-night journey to Kigoma up Lake Tanganyika. A few facts about Lake Tanganyika: it’s the longest lake in the world, the second largest, and is between 9 to 13 million years old. It’s shaped like a green bean with Tanzania on the eastern long side of the bean and the Democratic Republic of Congo along the other, with Zambia and Burundi at the ends – DRC and Burundi considered unsafe to travel.
I’d looked at the map of Tanzania seeing the dividing line splitting the lake with DRC on the left. I had paranoid visions of the 100+ year-old boat breaking down and having pirate ships come from DRC side to ‘rescue’ us, taking us hostage. Oh Eryn, stop with the crazy paranoid thoughts, there are no pirates in the lake, that’s only a problem on the Somalia coast in the horn of Africa.
We’d read that there would be food on the boat to purchase, but we were skeptical of what would be available and we wanted to be prepared, so we stocked up on cashews, cookies, (biscuits for you UK folks) and bottled water. Anything of substance we could find that was packaged and portable – just in case. We munched on some cashews while drinking our beer on the deck, careful to ration them out to last several days.
After all that beer – ok, it was really only 1 each – time finally came when I had to go to the loo… Yes, I think I will adopt the British term, ‘loo’ instead of bathroom, sounds so much better… I knew going to the loo would not be the most pleasant experience, but it couldn’t be avoided any longer. I made my way to the 1st class bathroom – no we didn’t have bathrooms in our cabin – this is no Royal Caribbean, remember. This is a German boat from the First World War, deliberately sunk in 1916 then raised in 1924 and put back into service as the Liemba to use in Lake Tanganyika. Shared bathrooms it would be for the next few days.
The bathrooms were like what I envision them to be in prison, except maybe less clean because they’re on a boat. Things are somehow always exponentially dirtier on a boat don’t you find that to be true? The toilets were stainless steel, no seat – not that I’d be sitting, no way. The floors were wet – ya’ never know if it’s water or something else, and the fluorescent lights flickered like in a horror movie in the scene just before you get stabbed. Oh, and of course it smelled of urine. Needless to say I didn’t want to touch anything and I always had my hand sanitizer at the ready when I exited.
One time I somehow got myself locked inside a stall. The broken latch on the inside just would not open. I pushed the latch and slammed my hips against the door several times – nothing. There were very few women in first class, come to think of it, so I guess this bathroom wasn’t used all that much, and I hadn’t seen anyone else in the bathroom, which included 3 stalls and 1 shower. I can’t imagine what the 2nd and 3rd class bathrooms were like in the deck below – I wouldn’t be going to find out. I repeatedly yelped for someone to help but no one answered. I just about gave myself a heart attack at the thought of dropping to the wet floor to shimmy under the door. Stay calm stay calm… Finally, after about 5 minutes, a wet bare breasted Tanzanian woman quietly opens the door. “Asante sana, asante sana” I tell her with a big smile and a hug – thank you very much in Swahili. Had she been there the whole time? In the shower maybe? I wonder if she’d deciphered my loud American expletives as I slammed my hips to the stall door.
Needless to say, the bathroom experience led to less alcohol consumption. Neither of us was eager to make excessive trips to the bathroom, so we drastically reduced our fluid intake after one trip to the toilet – I mean the loo. And as it turns out, a diet of cashews and cookies with limited other intake will also keep you out of the bathroom. If you’re ever in a situation where you need to bind yourself up to not use the loo for several days, cashews and cookies are the way to go.
I felt really uncomfortable with the class delineation on the boat. It just seemed so archaic. First class had small cabins with a washbasin and a two bed set up in bunk bed fashion. I believe second class must’ve had beds down below in the belly of the ship and third class had no beds at all, they just slept on the deck wherever they could find space.
The decks around the first class cabins were common areas and that’s where the majority of second and third class passengers hung out during the day. People lined the deck floors leaning against the exterior walls of the first class cabins, sat in the restaurant or wherever else there was open deck space. We were constantly tip toeing around, careful not to step on anyone while they slept or on the children crawling the deck floors. It felt so wrong to pass women on the dirty deck floors breast-feeding their babies while we went into our private cabin. Should we have given up our room to the breast-feeding mothers? Did the first class Tanzanians ask themselves the same question? Is it only a thought to me because I’m a foreigner? Are the locals just content in what they’re used to?
There was an open deck above the common area/first class deck, but it only seemed to be open to first class passengers because there were only 40 or so people up there at any given time. We spent a fair amount of time up there. Being the only mzungus (white people) on the boat there were times when, how shall I say, it felt uncomfortable – people looking at us like we were extra terrestrials visiting from another planet. We may have seemed that way to some of the locals who may not get any mzungus in their small villages. Occasionally we’d hear, ‘Hey mzungu!’ It seems like the longer we were on the boat and the more crowded the ship became, the more we seemed out of place. We never felt like there were any malicious looks, more curious or maybe just talking about us. Either way, we definitely stuck out.
The main entertainment on the ship was when we stopped in the lakeshore towns to pick up more cargo and passengers. The Liemba would blow her horn to signal to the villages that we were approaching. Dozens of people would jump in their canoes, rowboats and motorized vessels to come meet the ship. It seemed to be advantageous to be the first boat to the ship to take disembarking passengers and their cargo to the shore. The first boat gets the most people, i.e, the most money. As the first boat would arrive, men would jump from their small boat and scale the side of the Liemba to grab bags and suitcases of disembarking passengers thereby securing a ride on their boat. Most of the time it was a fairly peaceful yet chaotic endeavor, but a few times there was some aggressive behavior to fight to get passengers on certain boats.
Our intended 2 night 3 day journey ended up being 3 nights as we got delayed in one of the ports. Although we did eat in the restaurant a few times, we primarily grazed on cashews and cookies for those 4 days. By the time we reached the port, depleted of our food stash, we were hungry, weak and tired. We made our way to our guest house and gorged ourselves on veggie curry with mashed potatoes – and beer of course.
I call this hardcore traveling, although I realize the irony having spent our 3 nights in a first class cabin. It was trying, both emotionally and physically, but it was a great experience and I’d do it all over again. I remember thinking when we made it onto the boat we had achieved something. When we made our way off the boat, it felt as though we had survived something. What a wuss I am. This is the life these people live every day.
Here she is – the MV Liemba waiting for us at the Kasanga port
Boats come from the small towns on the coast to board the Liemba
This is the main entertainment on the ship, watching all the chaos that goes on when boats come to load passengers and cargo from the small towns.
These two guys were passengers on the Liemba, but got thrown onto one of the small boats when their owner disembarked. I think they were someone’s dinner that night.