The International Writers Magazine: East Africa
Tanzanian Bus Travel
...the bus that almost broke me
At the bus standi, being a Mzungu counts for everything. Small town, big city, it makes no difference, once spotted, I am automatically the most popular guy within a four bus radius.
It’s the early mornings that really get to me, those 4:30 am departure times… I’ll still be sleep walking and the whole standi is already up and buzzing with activity. It’s hard not to have one of those “they’re all gonna laugh at me moments” when everyone and their mother’s mother decide to set up shop, stadium-seating style to watch the half asleep white boy stumble through his bus ticket negotiations. It’s kinda like being really famous except everyone thinks you’re dumb and have no talent… Like a Kardashian. In the Tanzanian bus standi, I’m the traveling equivalent of Kim Kardashian.
With a crowded bus lot, and multiple competing rival companies, sometimes it’s difficult to know just WHICH bus is going to give me the most bang for my… Tanzanian shilling. I mean, how do you choose ONE, when EVERY bus is promising a good time…? They are all so flashy… and brightly colored, with exotic names like “Business Time Express” and “Adventure Connection” handsomely displayed across their rusty exteriors… In Africa, EVERY bus is a “luxury bus”, and, according to the 30 odd ticket touters that come running en masse, there’s always a “special price” just for me!
Now, every bus experience in Africa is unique, and special, but they all tend to start out the same… With me, climbing that slender muddy stairwell, stepping over some 85 bags of luggage and… maybe a chicken or two, while I make my way down the long, slippery aisle. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to get a window seat, but more often than not I find myself on the aisle side, or even worse, squeezed into what’s left of the dreaded middle seat… sandwiched between 300 lbs of sleeping African man on one shoulder and the unabashed insistence of a momma/baby combo on the other… “Oh… you want me to hold that baby for you? ….I’m only asking because, well, you just put your baby in my lap…. So….I guess…yes..?”
||As it turns out, the concept of a “Luxury bus” is surprisingly subjective. I have, on more than one occasion, had my sleepy ass greeted by a seat completely soaked from an overnight downpour and a leaky roof, awarding me with 15 hours of underwear drenched discomfort and a new found sympathy for victims of diaper rash everywhere.
Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I get a broken seat and I have to hold it in place to keep my butt from sliding into the slowly expanding crack that widens with every bum-breaking pothole. And sometimes if I’m really lucky, I get to stand in the aisle for 15 hours along with 20 or 30 other late arrivals, sharing with them a degree of intimacy I generally reserve for people I really, really like… or at least know a little. Let me tell you, standing upright on a moving vehicle for 15 hours is a hell with which no man should ever be acquainted. It’s torture, in its truest form, like eating your own limbs…. or watching a marathon of “Everybody loves Raymond”. Yeah, I learned that lesson real quick. No matter the departure time, these days I make sure I get there early. I sit my ass in my broken, wet seat and give a happy thumbs up to the drooling guy sitting next to me…
I know this may all sound a little bit dismal, but the truth is… it’s worse than that. I prefer, and HIGHLY recommend, taking a train, boat, hitchhike, bicycle, camel, or ANY other mode of ground transport when at all possible in Africa. But the truth is, sometimes, there is just no other way. At some point in the journey, not matter how hard I may fight it; I always come back to the bus. When this happens, for the sake of my sanity, “looking on the bright side” becomes increasingly imperative, and I try very hard to see things through the proverbial rosy lens.
Like, for starters, it’s a shared communal experience. An opportunity to meet locals on a level I otherwise wouldn’t get to. Like having their elbow in my eye socket… or finding their discarded chicken bones in my day bag…. Real personal, intimate stuff!
Also, it really helps me turn it way down, to take my time. That slow and steady pace of the bus gives me time to think, to expand my mind with deep thoughts… thoughts about life, thoughts like, “Awww, these cockroaches are so cute!”… or “I wonder how many more tsetse flies have to bite me before I get dengue fever…” or, “Fuck this music is loud.” Every cloud has its silver lining, and every Tanzanian bus driver has their favorite Swahili hits mixed cd on repeat for 17 excruciating hours…
Yes, African bus travel leaves a lot to be desired in the ways of comfort, and I totally understand why I meet people on the road all the time who snub all forms of overland travel, choosing to fly to every destination instead…. bourgeois bastards. For these guys, there are no breakdowns or bumped heads or bruised buttocks, no complete absence of personal space. No, these people, they don’t deal with any of that. They have their fancy rolling-wheeled backpacks and their inflatable pillows and their in-flight magazines… and their clean hair… They got all that stuff, and they get everywhere they want in a fraction of the time it takes me to do the same…. And they have air conditioning…and good god do I envy them their air conditioning.
But the truth is, there IS something that they don’t have. There’s something real and powerful and raw that these well-intentioned, but poorly misguided souls are missing entirely. It’s something they can never get up there at 30,000 feet. Something only given to those of us down here on the ground, rumbling around in the big metal rust buckets with the cracked windows and the rattling overhead compartments.
|There people never get to experience the cooperative effort of pushing a 12 ton motor coach out of a 2 foot mud sinkhole in nowheresville East Africa. They never get to see the children who wave, smile and scream out “Bila Bila Bila!” as they race each other along the side of the bus. Or see the sneaky subtle changes in the ever-dramatic constant movement of the landscape.
They don’t get to jump off the bus in the height of the night and pee in the middle of the star-lit jungle. They don’t get to see the herd of elephants crossing the road, or the family of vervet monkeys swiftly navigating through the trees to satisfy their curiosity with a closer view. They don’t get to feel the last warm breeze coming in through the window of the bus and see the grass change colors as the sun unfolds into another dynamic African sunset. They don’t get to have any of that. No chickens on their head, no fruit bearing, machete holding 12 year olds, no impromptu gospel sing alongs… no story. No experience.
Now I’m not saying my way is the best way, everybody travels different. And the bus has done me wrong a number of times… I swear it off after just about every mind-numbing, sanity-stretching, 17-hour, backbreaking time I ride it. But given the alternative… a trip through Africa without Africans… A journey through that wild, and beautiful, chaotic mess of a land without the people who inhabit it, grew up with it, are connected to it? A venture through a foreign land without the opportunity to listen, learn, and feel the internal rhythm through the ground… witness how it’s heart beats? How its blood flows? No, I’m just not sure I see the point in that. What does that even leave me with? The same boring, placid, uneventful, quiet, pest free, comfortable, and ultimately, forgettable experience I can have anywhere?
Maybe for some people that’s enough. Maybe for some that’s just the kind of adventure they are looking for… But for me, this is Africa; it isn’t meant to be comfortable, or convenient… It doesn’t bend for any human ambition. It can’t be tamed, tempered… or conditioned. It is simply, what it is: the most beautiful, frustrating, harrowing, eye-opening, soul-rocking continent I’ve ever set foot on, and the most deeply profound travel experience of my life… At the end of the day, all that frustration, all that obstruction… thats the stuff I’ll keep etched on my belt… At the end of the day, despite all it’s trespasses, I think I just can’t hold it against the bus…. because for me… there will be no forgetting this.
© Timothy Snow September 2013
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