The strange soundtrack of Moshi

Posted on 21 October 2011


“˜Squishy taps’, I thought, as the clicks of reinforced steel toes clattered out of earshot. At least, that’s what they sounded like. We had been travelling for twelve hours and had finally found ourselves on the stretch of tar to Moshi, Kilimanjaro‘s base of operations, and Tanzania‘s most annoyingly charming town. The mix of gumboot stomp and tap-dance had split the midnight stillness in two as a thousand police trainees marched past our minibus. ‘Welcome to Kilimanjaro’, I thought – land of fresh air, abundant moonlight, and a soundtrack unlike anything I’d ever heard.

Our hotel in Moshi was our sanctuary, and the only reprieve from the indelible buzz of the surrounding town. Tarantinoesque by nature, the hotel had been decorated by a cat on a hot tin roof with a fetish for red. With its palm-lined terraces and airy veranda, Bristol Cottages embodies the plantation-feel of the surrounding region, and one could easily be mistaken for thinking we were patronising the den of a retired Colombian drug kingpin. Tin roofs, palms and delicately-trimmed hedges provided a sense of calm as patrons clustered around the region’s iconic Kilimanjaro Lager, contemplating the climb up the dormant volcano that surveyed the town from above. I slept well under a thick tepee of mosquito nets.

And then, at around 4am, Moshi spoke. Up until now, Moshi’s daytime rhythms had been a distant hum of rickety cars and sporadic shouts. But, as is customary with a town that straddles the fringe between rural and urban, the instigator of our wake-ups was a rooster with vocal cords strained by a lifetime of mischief. A few hours in and things livened up as a local preacher, riding upon the back of an open van, took it upon himself to translate the audio clips of a cantankerous US evangelist into Kiswahili, armed with a very, very loud loudspeaker. It was a strangely rousing experience, albeit one that denied the simple pleasures of soft pillows and lethargy.

Walking through the town itself, Moshi has the usual assortment of spaza shops and sidewalk merchants selling sim cards, sandals, Britney Spears posters, Masai blankets, reggae music and the smallest bananas you are likely to ever see. Curio stalls lodged between narrow alleyways boasted identical shelves of souvenirs that were, as their salesmen attested, constructed out of the finest natural materials man could afford (despite appearing strangely plastic in origin). Yet Moshi’s saving grace is the mass of rock that dominates the region like a giant pimple thrust into the sky. As an intermediary to the continent’s highest peak, the convenience of the town’s proximity to Kilimanjaro enables its inhabitants to scrape a living by punting merchandise that is overpriced to locals, yet pocket money to foreign tourists. Subtle references to ‘Mzungu’ became just another way of hailing that common breed of traveller: the European backpacker wandering aimlessly down the town’s cosmopolitan streets, armed with a favourable exchange rate and a lust for mementos.

Yet for all its hustle and harassment, Moshi has an uncomfortable appeal that had me hooked because it sounded so damn weird. It was a charmingly noisy mess by day and a sleepy hollow by night. As we departed through the maize fields and coffee, tea and banana plantations, my lingering tinnitus provided some breathing space from the task at hand. Throughout our stay, I had noticed a growing sense of unease among our hiking party as the uncertainty of the climb formed around us. The fact that relentless cloud cover had disguised the mountain above had heightened my own anxiety. It wasn’t that I was afraid. It was that I couldn’t even see what I was afraid of, and that made me uncomfortable. The din of Moshi had played its part in sufficiently distracting us from our fears, jettisoning us towards our first destination: the cloud forest of Kilimanjaro’s lower slopes. We were nearing the gates of the Machame Route, and in a few days time, when the batteries of our iPods had either died or frozen and the only sounds were of wind and panting, the memories of Moshi’s contagious buzz would prove a welcome respite.

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