Hey everyone. Today is my birthday! My second one while abroad. I’m remembering last year on this day, I was only 5 days into my trip and I was blessed with the most amazing birthday gift – my soul sister Siggy. I didn’t know it then, but she would turn out to be a pivotal person in my life. Siggy’s back home now in Australia and I don’t know when I’ll see her again, but she’s always in my heart and I know we’ll always be soul sisters.
Ok, back to your regularly scheduled blog post…
We left Kigoma, Tanzania heading northeast – on a bus, of course – making our way towards Rwanda. We decided to skip the Serengeti and hiking Kilimanjaro in northeastern Tanzania because it was too expensive. Plus J would never agree to hike Kilimanjaro since it was such a tourist trap. “Why would we want to hike something that’s been hiked by so many others? Walking the trails with hundreds of others? No thank you.” J would say. “But it’s Kilimanjaro, we have to!” I’d argue. Didn’t much matter who would be the most persuasive in this debate, it was just too costly for the 5-day round trip climb, so we waved goodbye to Tanzania.
We had the most painful of bus rides yet, although it has to be said, it was also the most entertaining. The bus itself was the most ghettoy to date. It was a huge coach type bus – you know the kind – but it looked like it was born into the world about the same time I was, back in 1977. Ancient! The ceilings were lined with faux oriental rugs – classy. The dashboard and front window were adorned with strings of fake foliage in various shades of bright green, complete with a layer of dust on them as is typical of any plastic greenery. The exterior window sported a massive decal saying, “God is Good” which in Tanzania, is widely believed to ensure a safe bus journey.
We spent eight jarring hours on a clay road with potholes the size of VW Beetles that kept us regularly catapulting from our seats. The constant vibrations and rattling caused by the numerous smaller potholes was so severe, I couldn’t keep my sliding window closed. This caused a number of comical challenges throughout our long day. #1 – It was fairly cold for the first few hours in the morning and the cold wind increased as the window continuously crept open, 1 inch to 4 inches to 10 inches. Brrrrr. Oh, and my hair was a tangled crazy mess! Luckily J let me where his rain jacket to warm me up a bit. #2 – It rained for a while – several times. No problem, I’ll just hold the window closed. Unfortunately the water collected in the window track and the bumpidy bump bumps made the dirty clay colored water jump vertically from the track onto my face and my right arm. Except when the track was really full, it would just overflow down the sidewall of the bus interior and onto my right leg. #3 – The dust from the other traffic on the dirt road was continuous. By hour 6, it wasn’t cold or rainy anymore, and I was tired of closing the window every 3 minutes, so I decided to embrace the open window and happily enjoy the wind in my face. I didn’t hang my head out of the window like my Griffy Magoo would’ve, but I didn’t mind the wind coming in with the heat of the day. Ok, I did hang my head out once when I bought bread from one of the vendors.
Have I told you about the bus stop vendors before? It’s quite effective roadside commerce. The bus pulls over in small villages or bus terminals every few hours and is instantly rushed with locals selling all sorts of things; soft drinks, boiled eggs, ears of grilled corn, peanuts, toothpaste, bushels of onions, bananas and other vegetables. They come right up to the side of the bus, sometimes just a few people, maybe 4 or 5, then in larger towns it could be 20 or more. They balance their products carefully on top of their heads in large plastic bins or cardboard boxes. Often the women have babies strapped to their backs as they work the buses. I couldn’t imagine buying boiled eggs in a situation like this. Hmmm, hot African sun, no refrigeration, no thank you! But bread, we figured was a safe bet. Turned out to be our best roadside purchase yet – spectacular! J and I scarfed it down like it was the first bit of food we’d seen in days.
What about the roadside potty breaks, you ask? Well, the bus would stop on a country road, we’d all exit the bus, “women on the right, men on the left” they seemed to say in Swahili. J went left with the men to find a suitable bush. I went to the right and found myself a nice tree to squat behind. Then we all loaded back on the bus, and off we went. Anyway, back to #3 the continuous dust. My face was starting to feel a bit gritty as we carried on the last few hours down the dirt road. I didn’t think too much of it, except that I could not wait to take a shower!
We finally arrived to Nyankanazi, our last stop before Rwanda and we exited the bus. Hmmm, why is everyone looking at me and snickering? Oh, I’m a mzungu, they’re always laughing at me. We opened the undercarriage luggage compartment to grab our bags. They were hardly recognizable. Our black and blue bags now were the color of sweet potatoes, covered in a thick layer of clay. Lovely.
We hoisted the dusty bags onto our backs and walked up the small hill to the first guesthouse we found. I caught my reflection in one of the mirrored windows. OMG I look like a sweet potato!!! The gritty layer of clay covered my face! No wonder they were laughing at me. We had no energy to search out the best guesthouse. How bad could it be? “We’ll take it.”
Oh how I wish we’d mustered up the energy to find another place. This bathroom was the worst I’d seen since I’ve been traveling. There were dirty socks lying across the top of the bathroom door; there was no sink, no shower and a not-so-clean squat toilet. The white tiled floors and walls were chipped in countless spots showing black underneath the chipped areas making you wonder if it was really just the chipped tile or if it was something else. I certainly wasn’t going to look too closely to find out what dark colored something it might be.
We desperately needed to clean ourselves but the thought of bathing from their bucket of water that had been there, since I don’t know when, full of mosquitos and bugs and probably the bilharzia snail disease too – no way! Neither of us showered that day. I cleaned our faces with our bottled water and some cotton swabs I carried. We cleaned our ears with about 16 Q-tips. I couldn’t bare the thought of sleeping on their sheets, but I was too dirty to sleep in my own cocoon sleeping bag sheet, so I just slept in my dirty clothes.
As it turns out, our guesthouse was next to the police station. We had the unfortunate experience of hearing someone being tortured through our glassless screened windows. We repeatedly heard the ‘thwack!’ of something hard hit his skin and his yelps would follow each time. I peeked through the crack of our curtain to the window in the building just 15’ away. All I could see was the light brown skin of his palms against the screen of his window. J and I lay in bed looking at each other in horror wishing it would stop – for the man’s sake and for ours. We lay there feeling morally inclined to do something, knowing we were powerless. I don’t know what that man did to deserve such punishment. It felt kind of surreal to be exposed to something so terrible right next door. Sometimes I have these moments where I have the profound realization that I am NOT in the United States. This was one of those moments.
The next morning we woke up early, brushed our teeth spotting into the floor drain of the dirty bathroom and then caught another bus into Rwanda. I sat in the bus wondering what would become of the man next door.
Griffy, J and I near the Rwanda border. Big day!