Traveling by Bus in Tanzania
I’ve spent this fall in Tanzania on the Associated Colleges of the Midwest’s “Ecology and Human Origins” study-abroad program. The program has three distinct phases. During the first seven weeks we stayed in Dar es Salaam, living in dorms at the University of Dar es Salaam and taking classes in Swahili, Evolution, Ecology and Research Methods. The second part was the field component, during which we did research projects in and around Tarangire National Park. Now, during the last phase, we’re living with host families back in Dar, taking exams and writing papers.
Between the first and second segments of the program, we had a week off for fall break. People did all sorts of things: a few climbed Kilimanjaro, several went hiking in the Usambara mountains, and some spent the time on Zanzibar. I would have loved to do any of those things, but am very happy with what I did end up doing-traveling around alone by bus.
I had several reasons for doing this. In most travel, you face a trade-off between seeing a lot of places superficially, or exploring one or a few places in depth. I wanted to get as much of an overview of this huge country as was possible during break, since the rest of my time here has been geared more towards getting to know a few places well. Traveling by bus would allow me to cover relatively large distances while looking out windows and thereby seeing a lot, as well as being rather fun in and of itself. I’m fond of bus travel – something exciting always seems to happen!
Going alone made sense because, surprisingly, not a whole lot of people seem to think spending multiple days on various low-cost buses flitting from city to city is the most appealing way to spend a weeklong break… This is just as well, really, because I sometimes enjoy traveling independently: it is much more of a challenge, and in the end it is supremely satisfying to know that you’re capable of handling all those unexpected, somewhat troublesome situations that inevitably occur.
Before break even started, the fun and frustration of travel began as I had to get my initial bus ticket. Actually, at first I’d planned on taking a train, but after much running around downtown Dar I was told that that train no longer existed. It took about four hours to find that out, as opposed to what might have been a 5-minute Google-search had I been traveling in Europe or the US. So the next day I went to the bus station instead. I’d decided on going to Mwanza, by Lake Victoria, on Spider Bus. I’m glad I knew that in advance, since as soon as I got to the bus station I ended up with an entourage of salespeople all trying to get me to go to some city or another on their bus companies; it was total chaos, and as I was still recovering from malaria it was somewhat overwhelming. I got a ticket without any trouble though.
The bus left at 6 am on Saturday morning, and at about 6:05 am we nearly hit a car with a “baby on board” bumper sticker. Other than that the trip was fairly uneventful until the Tanzania/Kenya border. It was dark at that point, and after filling out some paperwork we had to walk across the border to get back to the bus. There’s something special about crossing a border alone on foot under a gorgeous night sky, and since I was mostly paying attention to the stars it took me somewhat by surprise to see two men approaching me determinedly. “You have to pay a gate fee of $25,” one of them said. “No,” I replied and kept walking – I’d already paid $10 for a transit visa and was fairly certain that if I’d been required to pay another fee I’d have been told in the immigration office. “You have to pay a gate fee, just like everyone else,” he repeated while they both followed me.
At this point I was feeling both annoyed at being lied to and amused that 10 meters into Kenya people were already trying to scam me. I think the exasperation showed more, and when I turned around and started walking back to Tanzania, saying “well, then I guess I’ll go ask about this fee in the office,” they hastily told me it was okay and to return to my bus. In fact, they became rather helpful and pointed me in the right direction of the bus, which was quite a ways off and not visible. The rest of the journey went well, and we rolled into Mwanza late in the afternoon the next day.
When I’ve traveled in the US and Europe, I’ve thought $15-20 a reasonable price for a bed in a dorm room in a hostel. In Mwanza, I got an en-suite single hotel room for 8,000Tsh, or about $5 – that’s about the price of a European fast-food meal, making it actually cheaper than spending a night in a McDonald’s (which I’ve done numerous times to save money when traveling). The room was extremely basic and the bathroom a bit suspect, but it was perfectly adequate. Sleeping in a bed felt luxurious after a night on a bus, and I woke up eager to explore the town.
Mwanza itself was pretty. The town center was quite compact and easy to walk around, and I spent many hours wandering; walking around a city is my favorite way of getting to know a new place. In the afternoon I was getting a bit tired though, and figured that sitting in a park by Lake Victoria and reading would be a pleasant way to pass the rest of the day. It didn’t turn out that way. First, I had a little boy follow me for a while, telling me to give him money. Once he gave up and I sat down, two or three men walked past and tried to get me to give them my phone number. Once they’d disappeared and I had read a few pages, a gaggle of six 10-year-old schoolgirls descended upon me.
They sat down in a circle, me at the center, and proceeded to try to talk to me in a mixture of Swahili and English. Meanwhile, one of them took off my hat so she could pet my hair, another one braided my hair, and one of them was touching my arm and giggling. They invited me to go to the beach with them, but Lake Victoria does not seem like an appealing place to swim, although it is beautiful to look at. After ten minutes or so they left. A few minutes later someone else approached, and I realized that if I wanted to read this would not be the place, and left soon afterwards.
My next bus ride was the highlight of the week. As we left Mwanza, bound for Moshi, the drivers lit incense. A nice start to what was only supposed to be a 14-hour trip. A few hours later, the bus broke down by the side of the road. We all piled out and used it as an opportunity to use the “restroom” (bushes that didn’t quite hide you from the houses down the road) and stretch our legs. After 15 minutes or so we were on our way, but it wasn’t long before we had to stop again. This time it was in a small town, so I got a few bananas and sat and read for a few hours. It was rather pleasant.
The next time the bus had problems was less enjoyable. This was at a bus stand in another town – and bus stations in Tanzania are absolutely chaotic, especially if you’re a semi-blond European girl traveling alone and therefore have zero chance of blending in. As soon as I ventured out of the bus I had a crowd surrounding me, trying to sell me various products or begging for money.
Consequently, I spent the next six or so hours in my seat. I was in the front, so had to move my legs out of the way when the drivers removed a chunk of the floor, exposing the engine, while they worked at fixing it. It was rather interesting to watch, and the extra ventilation was welcome. It got extremely hot in the bus, and the baby sitting across the aisle from me puked a couple of times so the smell wasn’t too nice either. The first time the mom cleaned it up, but the second time the puddle sat there until it had mostly evaporated, which actually didn’t take that long. Since my Swahili is still far from good, especially when people are speaking at a normal conversational pace, I wasn’t quite sure what was going on most of the time.
Things have gone wrong many a time when I’ve traveled, but in the past I’ve almost always been given information – a loudspeaker announcement, an airline representative prepared to answer questions, or, if nothing else, fellow passengers to discuss theories with. My lack of knowing enough Swahili to communicate some basic pleasantries and information meant that I hadn’t a clue if we were almost done, nowhere near being close to repaired, or beyond hope and waiting for a replacement bus. After some initial frustration I realized there wasn’t any point in worrying about it, and tried to settle down and get as comfortable as possible.
As it was getting dark we finally rolled out. Not long after leaving, we heard an ominous snapping sound, and the bus broke down for the fourth time that day. Thankfully it didn’t take long to fix, and we spend the next few hours racing down the road. In Babati we stopped, since buses in Tanzania aren’t allowed to travel between midnight and 4am. A bunch of people got off and had food and beer. Others, me included, tried to sleep. We were very crowded so people were leaning all over each other; I had a stranger’s head on each shoulder at one point. It was kind of nice to not have to worry about intruding on someone’s personal space. You tried to minimize your discomfort, and if that happened to include leaning on someone, then no one minded. Sleeping once we got going again was not an option, however. The road was unpaved and rutted, and our driver severely sleep-deprived and stressed. I’m almost surprised we didn’t have an accident; I’m incredibly glad that I don’t suffer from motion sickness. In a terrifying kind of way, it was almost fun to be speeding down the road bouncing all over…
About 13 hours after the scheduled time of arrival, I finally reached Moshi. This is probably the nicest city I’ve been to in Tanzania. It is pretty and full of appealing little coffee shops (with real – not instant! – coffee!), and the streets are perfect for strolling down.
The one problem is that it is crawling with flycatchers, and they can be obnoxiously persistent. I don’t mind most of them – if I’m not interested I’ll say “no” or simply ignore them, and they’ll look elsewhere. Occasionally it is even fun to chat with them. My first day I met someone who could speak Finnish and a bit of Swedish – not what you expect from someone you meet on the streets in Moshi!
While I wasn’t interested in climbing Kili with his company I did buy some paintings from him, and it was on the whole a positive experience. Sadly, some people refuse to take a hint. Having someone follow me down the street, despite having been firmly told “no” and subsequently being ignored, and then stand and wait for me to come out of a shop and resume tailing behind me, makes me rather mad.
I found out that the best way to get them to disappear was to act really angry and practically yell “NO,” to which they’d usually shrug and wander away to harass some other tourist. One asked me “why are you so complicated?” before ambling off, which was a nice comical end to an otherwise disconcerting encounter. Aside from those types of people, I really liked Moshi. A few days later I went to Arusha, and the next day met up with the rest of the people from my program.
In some ways, I’ve never been more uncomfortable in my life than that week, both physically and culturally/emotionally. I’m pretty sure I’d have had more fun joining one of the groups of students from my program for the break. Nonetheless, I can without any reservations say that I’m so incredibly glad to have spent the week as I did, and that it turned out as it did.
When I’ve told most people about the bus breaking down 4 times and being delayed so long (which was actually still only half as long as I’ve been delayed on flights twice in the past few years), they tend to respond with “oh, I’m sorry.” I suppose that’s a polite, appropriate answer, but I have one friend who knows me well enough to have instead said “great, I’m so happy for you!” Traveling is awesome for a variety of reasons, but that sense of adventure is among my favorites. For all the frustration and discomfort, my break was exhilarating and I loved it!