Coming to Africa
After some thirty two hours of travelling in which the highlight was a nine hour airport layover that acted as a reprieve between two long, sweaty stints in too small economy seats; the rattling, shuddering halt of the Soviet era bus in front of me rolled off me like water off a duck’s back.
Once you’ve endured a ten hour bouncing, piss reeking bus ride in provincial China, public transport has very little left with which to frighten you.
More asleep than awake, I shuffled through my introduction to Robert of Leave Your Daily Hell and threw myself into my seat, only to have it bottom out from under me and dump me chin first onto the back of the seat in front of me.
If that chair was too far forward, my second choice was too far back – toppling me back into the knees of the unfortunate passenger behind me.
It was an inauspicious start, but soon enough I’d settled in and set my eyes to the window so that I might soak in the charms of Kenya and Tanzania during the trip between Nairobi and Arusha.
I’m not sure what I’d expected to see.
Perhaps, naively, I’d thought to see the animals of Africa out along the sides of the road. In my wildest imaginings, the six hour trip south would be one spent enraptured by the stunning landscapes and impressive creatures of the African Savannah.
The Realities of a Developing Nation
What rolled by was an introduction of an entirely different sort. This trip has not been my first foray into developing countries. Thailand, Cambodia, and even industrialized China exposed me to some of the hallmarks of poverty such as the crowded and ramshackle housing and the underfed animals listlessly foraging along the roadside.
Coca Cola branding was as ever present and opportunistic as the flies that lay thick around the eyes and noses of children tired to wave them away.
Here you won’t find the basic things about life in the developed world that you’ve become used to. Garbage is left to fade by roads that periodically switch between surfaced bitumen and rough patches of rock and dirt.
Houses that would be condemned in Australia stare hollow eyed out at dusty roads crowded with people perched precariously on rocks or battered milk cartons. Their windows hold no glass; their door frames no doors.
It is here that you find people living in close quarters with their livestock. Here that meat is left to the attentions of flies and the unforgiving sun as vendors wait for customers to come by. Carts drawn by tired donkeys vie with sputtering motorbikes and cars overburdened with too many passengers – and all of them overtake, swerve, merge, and stop as if road rules don’t exist.
Perhaps they don’t. Certainly, the police here feel more like a disruption than keepers of law and order.
We have several interactions with the police along the way. In their camo green uniforms and with weapons slung over shoulders, they cut imposing figures. Here and there, makeshift strips of spikes are thrown across the road to force travelers to stop.
Our first encounter happens minutes after passing through a dusty town in which a sign proudly proclaimed “This is a corruption free zone”. After a brief discussion with the officer on duty, our bus is turned around and we return to town.
While the passengers are left to swelter on the un-irconditioned bus in a dusty carpark, our driver is taken away for twenty or thirty minutes of questioning. We’d been stopped for a damaged windshield, apparently, but the driver’s record meant he needed more questioning.
I’m not sure what brought the questioning to an end. He returned, the bus shuddered back into life, and we were on our way again.
Crossing the Kenya – Tanzania Border at Namanga
We’d been on the road about three hours when our bus came to the border crossing. Like every other town and village we’d passed, it was a dusty and daunting mess.
Without much ceremony, we were directed to get off the bus and proceed to the Kenyan visa office. As I approach, a gaggle of leathery faced local ladies descend upon me to thrust their wares under my nose.
“Good price! Good price!”
“Sir, sir! Want to buy?”
It’s another hallmark of a developing nation, this opportunistic and aggressive verbal battery of the pale face. Like seagulls fighting over food left unattended, they pull and tug at me for attention. One of them, in a fit of enterprise, begins to physically force a beaded bracelet over my hand.
It takes a layer of skin with it as it goes on, but fits snugly behind my Rise for Alex wristband.
“I don’t want it,” I try to explain, “I don’t have any money”.
The second part is a lie, and an unconvincing one.
“No charge! No charge!” she assures me.
All at once, they’ve left my side and I am inside the relative order of the visa office. They check my visa, look with disinterest at my WHO vaccination card, and usher me back out into the blinding light of the midday sun.
Nobody from my bus is about, and nobody seems in a hurry to help the dazed foreigner find his way.
The woman who thrust the bracelet upon me is at my side soon enough, and begins to show me various necklaces and bracelets as she leads me up to where Kenya becomes Tanzania. I see no signs or line to indicate when the crossing happened, so I’m left to assume it was when I walked across the sun baked road.
“This necklace,” my guide assures me, “is very beautiful”.
It is far from beautiful – a garish orgy of ingredients that don’t amount to much more than an eyesore.
“Only $5!” she promises me, “Please! I give you a free bracelet”.
A sturdier heart than mine might have said no, but I’m nothing if not a pushover. I hand her $5, take the ugly necklace, and hurry into the Tanzanian visa office – pleased to be out of the sun and away from her over-enthusiastic sales pitch.
I needn’t have bothered getting a Tanzanian visa in advance. Robert pays for his on arrival and is through much faster than I am able to extricate myself from the stern glare of the immigration officer who checks my passport.
To Arusha! (Eventually)
We return to the bus but are told we cannot board. Ants with AK-47s and camo green uniforms are currently picking over our bus like it is carrion.
Soon enough we’re instructed to board the bus, but it’s a full hour before we lurch into motion again. It’s already 2pm – the time we were told we’d arrive in distant Arusha.
I am a man of near infinite patience when it comes to hiccups on the road. I’ve endured enough lengthy layovers, too long bus rides, and unplanned stops in my time to let them concern me.
But, sweaty and tired, I begin to feel my patience tested as a veritable herd of locals suddenly enters the bus and begins to take seats.
Far from being a private shuttle, our ride from Nairobi to Arusha has become some kind of free for all. I’m soon sandwiched between the window and the sweaty mass of humanity that is the rotund lady beside me.
The space I offer her clearly isn’t adequate, as she wriggles and flails her flabby limbs about digging herself out a more comfortable space.
I spend the remainder of the trip somewhere between human pretzel and well versed practitioner of the Karma Sutra’s most supple moves.
All that being said, I’m nothing if not capable of sleeping in even the most uncomfortable of positions.
I’ve just dozed off when we are once again stopped by the police for a visa check.
No problem! I dig out my passport, hand it over with a smile, and begin to go back to sleep.
Moments later, shouting jars me awake. One of the ladies who joined us at the border is travelling with an expired passport. She’ll have to get off the bus.
Her friends – of which my too large companion is one – argue with the man as if they’re completely unmoved by the automatic weapon he has slung across his shoulder.
Twenty or thirty minutes later, she seems to have accepted that it is not possible to travel between countries without a visa. In a show of remarkable solidarity, her friends decide to stay on the bus rather than accompany her back to the border.
Perhaps they’re just used to it, but I’d have been wary of letting my friend get shoved into a van and taken away by armed men.
The landscape – scrubby desert occasionally broken up by towns of identical poverty – gradually begins to change as we draw closer to Arusha. The distinctive peak of Mount Meru towers overhead and the reds and browns of the desert give way to a more welcoming carpet of lush green.
If I had expected Arusha to be like larger cities in developing nations such as Thailand or the Philippines, I was sadly mistaken. If these South East Asian nations are at one end of the developing nations scale, than Tanzania falls at the opposite end of it.
The streets of Arusha are no less chaotic than those of the villages and towns our now eight and a half our trek took us through. Some of the buildings are taller and in a better state of repair, but the poverty that existed outside of Arusha is very much on display in the city of just over 400,000.
Our journey is at its end. We’re sweaty and tired and probably not in the best of moods, but it certainly was an experience.
“This is Africa,” our host later explains to us, “It just happens”.
It certainly does. My frustration in the moment passed quickly, and I can now look back on the trek as just one more in a long list of unique and memorable experiences I’ve had on the road.
You can never have too many of those, and even the unpleasant travel experiences teach us something.
What was the most arduous, confusing, or (dare I say it?) traumatic border crossings you’ve ever had?
Have you even experienced a long and entirely unpleasant bus or train trek?
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