Twenty eight hours on buses and somebody around here is stinky. Oh, wait! That’s me! I know I talk a lot about bus rides, but I swear, you can’t make this stuff up. And, by my estimation, I have spent at least fourteen days* on buses…some not full days, some a full 24 hours, and not even counting small bus adventures along the way.
I have decided that you learn a great deal about a country just by being an observer on public transportation. I have stayed away from tourist types of buses and whenever possible have opted for local options. Not only are they better priced, but the experiences are far more interesting.
Just by watching, you can see how people treat others…especially the elderly and pregnant women. In some places, special seats are allotted. In others, people have to fend for themselves no matter their circumstances. You learn a lot about how children are respected and disciplined and some general child rearing techniques. You get a general sense of how people respect cleanliness…on some buses, trash bags are provided and on others the floor is covered with trash as you depart. You get a general sense of hospitality, too. On one bus in Chile, an employee was designated to host the guests and serve coffee. On others, you have to climb over the driver’s feet to get on the bus because he is too busy talking on his phone. You also get to see people in action and how resilient they are. Circumstances arise on buses that need reconciliation and I have watched people jump in to deescalate potential fights. Really cool cultural observations are everywhere if you keep your eyes open.
At the same time, bus rides have gotten more mentally challenging as the trip has gone on. When I first started in the journey, I had a lot to think about….nothing sensational, just taking time to really think after years of busyness. Well, guess what? I might be done with self reflection, life analysis, and general thoughts. I have spent so much time THINKING on my own, that my brainometer is on empty. Sometimes, I still get lost in thoughts of past events, but more likely, I am just reading or dreaming. I haven’t run out of books or dreams yet!
So…let me start at the beginning and how I got to this stinky state.
After visiting Victoria Falls, I had to head toward Tanzania and Kenya..which look close on a map, but are not. Not too many airlines want to work in Zimbabwe, so the cheapest flight would have been almost $500. Big ouch on my desire to maintain a budget and avoid purely comfort costs when possible. So, I took the three taxi and bus route from Vic Falls, Zimbabwe to Lusaka, Zambia.
Since arriving in Africa, I have met a vendor named Honest, a tour organizer named Knowledge, and my third border crossing taxi driver was named Gift. And….as far as first impressions, they all lived up to their names. Gift was an especially special gift to me. Knowledge told me that when I crossed the border, I should look for a blue taxi. As I was, I encountered a man who assured me that his friend’s taxi was just as safe as the blue ones. I was reluctant at first, but didn’t see a blue taxi in sight, so I got in. Sometimes, you hear about taxi drivers who harass women traveling alone, especially in Egypt and India. You also hear stories of drivers who take you by gunpoint directly to the ATM to get money for them. It is always something I am cautious about and my strategy for addressing that discomfort is to face it head on. Instead of sitting in the backseats, I ask drivers if I can sit next to them so we can chat. I look at them with big smiles and usually ask about their day. I figure that if they are going to do something bad to me, at least they might reconsider, and besides, taxi drivers have the best scoop on a city and usually are great storytellers.
When I jumped in the taxi. I asked the driver how he celebrated the new year. He told me that he was in church and during our five minute ride, he gave the most beautiful testimony I have heard…telling me about a troubled childhood, spiritual awakening when he attended a movie and church service in his town, immediate life changes, subsequent leadership in the church and community, times he has fallen away from God, and his desire to constantly work on being a faithful servant to Jesus. He was a powerful evangelist and I felt like he lived up to his name and really was a Gift to me. Zambia has a strong Christian influence wherever you look, many churches, religious schools, and people praying are all around.
In fact, this bus ride starts out with some prayers, too! When I knew I had a 24 hour bus ride ahead from Lusaka to Tanzania, I felt moments of dread. Instead of a direct bus that was sold out for the next three days, another bus company sold me a ticket to the border of Tanzania and told me it would be “easy” to get a bus on the other side. I should know better, but saving three days and getting on a bus the same day seemed like a good option…even if accompanied with a bit of drama. I told Jason that my attitude was not so good, but we should pray that someone named Optimism was sitting next to me! Sure enough, I swear, I got on that bus, and sat in front of Betty…who should have been named Optimism because she was an angel of optimistic spirit. She was traveling with her sister and niece to Tanzania for some shopping and would stop for a day at the border to get her hair done…which would take all day. She chatted about everything…she was a teacher….and we just had a lot to discuss while waiting for the bus to get moving. We laughed and chatted easily like old friends.
When the bus got going, a preacher got on and started to deliver a message. I recall times this has happened on the blue line, and everyone uncomfortably looks down. In Zambia, people participated with Amens and Hallelujahs. As another answer to my prayer for Optimism, the preacher ended his message (about 45 minutes of “just one more thing”) with a repeated message of “I am blessed. I am blessed. I am blessed” and everyone joined him. Personally, I felt like he was there just for me, but I guess others may may have felt so, too because they started to pull out money for him without even being asked. People who seemed to have far less than we do, giving so jubilantly… inspiring. I also appreciated when he gave out his phone number and told people they could call him whenever they felt a need for counsel or prayer.
Well, the bus was crowded and I sat in a row of three. Picture me by the window, a tiny guy in the middle, and a very very tall man on our aisle. He was so tall that he had to slightly bend his head when he stood so it didn’t touch the bus ceiling. While awake, we were all comfortably in our own spaces with tall guy’s legs in the aisle. However, one other thing I have learned on buses is that people spread out when they sleep. And, in this case, when Tall leaned into Tiny, the pressure was too much and Tiny ended up practically on my lap with my cheek pushed firmly onto the window. With every twist and turn, I was nudged a bit deeper onto the window, and sometimes had to push Tiny’s head off my shoulder. Each time, he would wake with a startle and apology, but he had nowhere else to go. Tall guy was like a ton of bricks, so he wasn’t moving anywhere. Anyway, he ended up sitting on the floor between us with his head on his seat…kind of awkward I think for Tall to have Tiny’s head near his lap, so all of a sudden he just kind of picked up Tiny and pushed him into the aisle and laid him down while telling me I could stretch my legs now. This lasted for an hour or so until our bus stopped for a break.
I really had no chance of sleeping on this first 14 hour bus ride…not just because of Tiny being in my bubble, but also because they music blared all night with the same five or six songs. They weren’t in English but I knew them by heart before the ride ended. The air conditioner must have also had a leak because it dripped on my head all night like a form of water torture. So, I sat under my damp blanket, pushing Tiny back to his space, and singing to myself for most of the ride.
The easy border crossing and catching another bus was my hardest of the trip. Luckily, Betty was not letting go of me until I made a safe transition. In true teacher style, she even scolded a few boys who tried to carry my luggage by asking them, “Do you know how to behave yourself? What is she going to think of our country if you act like that?” I love teachers!
We arrived at the border at 5:30 am but the office did not open until six. Everyone lined up, I mean pushed into a pile near the gate, and like a scene out of the movie, people started sprinting to be first in line when the gate opened…hundreds of people, over muddy terrain, and while pushing others away. We walked along…muddy water crawling up our legs, to a dignified “women only” line where people waited patiently. The actual immigration process was fast…$100 for the Visa, a photo, and fingerprints, and I was ready to go. Betty came with me while her family held onto my luggage. Travel books would say it was a critical error to leave my luggage out of my sight, but I felt fine with it and often choose trust over guidebook advice when I feel good about people. Betty helped exchange money for me, bought a bus ticket, and hugged me goodbye before sending me off with the guy “sold” us a ticket and promised to get me on a bus. What he did not tell Betty was that he sold us a ticket he did not have, just the dream of one he planned to buy. So, his “follow me” became more frantic as each bus told him they were sold out. It got to the point where he asked a friend for help…one had my luggage on his head and the other had my ticket money…and as they RAN, I huffed and puffed to keep up over the mud (yes, flip flops) and through the crowds. It wasn’t too hard until they started running in different directions and I had to choose if I would follow the money or luggage. I stuck with the luggage and the money showed up as soon as we found the last available bus. I was relieved!
So…I am now on the second 14 hour part of this ride to Dar El Salem. Even though we were stuck behind a wreck for two hours and had to traverse a steep cliff to get around it and we had a mind blowingly loud flat tire that took an hour to repair, the ride seems uneventful! If that happened at home, people would complain and be indignant…here, people take life as if comes and move along. My driver seems to be making up time by driving 100 miles per hour around twisty roads and only seems to slow down so people can stand up and “ooh” and “aha” every time we pass a jack-knifed semi or wrecked car on the side of the rad. That has happened three times. Personally, I make a connection between the fast driving and this little pastime, but I seem to be alone in that thought.
One other thing about buses…I always wonder who chooses the movies they show because the selections are crazy. I thought I encountered the worst in Nicaragua when I watched a graphic rape scene as children watched from their seats, but today’s selection takes the cake. The DVD must have been broken because we only saw the last ten minutes of the same movie…THREE TIMES. And the big ending? We watched a family whose car was stuck on a safari as they watched their dad’s friend get eaten by a lion and trap their dad under the car until they eventually blow it up. Really? Who shows that movie in Africa…and especially just a few days before I do a safari of my own? I would have preferred ANYTHING else. Lion King, anyone?
Well…six hours to touch down in Dar. I hope the rest of the ride is uneventful** but I have my doubts.
*Guatemala to Belize
Belize to Guatemala
Guatemala to El Salvador
El Salvador to Nicaragua
Nicaragua to Costa Rica
Costa Rica to Panama
Ecuador to Peru
Peru to Chile
Chile to Argentina
Johannesburg to Cape Town
Cape Town to Johannesburg
Victoria Falls to Lusaka
Lusaka to Dar Es Salaam
**The rest of the ride was uneventful outside of one detail, I learned my breaking point….34 hours was when I officially was ready to cry. I felt like a character in one of those torture scenes from 24 and Jack Bauer had found my weakness. It came on suddenly, like I was all “in the moment” one minute and the next I would have given up any information for my freedom. Not because of anything other than the music blaring…I couldn’t take it anymore! So…if it ever comes up again, I can only travel by bus for 33 hours and 59 minutes.