Saturday, December 30, 2006

Africa: The 36 hour bus experience - oh yeah

I woke up at the Idube guest house in Melville and taxi'd over the bus station. Simon, my taxi driver, nicely escorted me over to where I was supposed to wait. I had to wait outside, in a line of 100 or so people with enourmous bags of stuff - the same plaid plastic zip bags they use all over Asia. Simon had explained to me that a lot of Zimbabweans come to South Africa to buy goods, and sell it there. I saw boxes of TVs, a refrigerator, huge bags of clothing... all things that people were taking on public transportation.

I looked around for other backpackers. They must not be here yet, I thought. I was a bit early - 8:30AM for my 9AM bus from Joburg all the way to Blantyre, Malawi, a 20 hour bus ride taking me through Zimbabwe and Mozambique along the way. My Dad and coworkers had heard me complain for a week about my last minute freak-out, I had to fed ex my passport to the Moz embassy in D.C. for a last minute visa. The bus company told me that they might not wait for me at the border if I didn't, but only after I called to ask.

I surveyed the people. I couldn't help but notice, I really stand out. I'm the only white person in the whole waiting area of hundreds of people. I did see an old Aussie lady in the bathroom, but that's it. Usually I wouldn't think of it, but being the only foreigner around is an isolating experience, a little bit scary. Even in Asia, there was always another traveller around, or someone who looked like me. I looked in people's faces. Can I trust everyone here? What are they thinking of me? People were reasonably dressed, I thought. There were no bums hanging around. Nobody was hassling me. (except for a teenage boy who kept hissing at me from above the balcony). OK, I thought. I'm not going to make an issue of this until it IS an issue. I wandered over to a couple - Lestor and Juliana. They made small talk to me between sitting on eachother's laps and kissing. I read my book, "no touch monkey", trying to keep the cover out of view to lessen my freakishness to the line of people! 9AM came and went. Oh well, this is Africa. I'll give it another hour. 10AM came and went. I asked someone if the bus was usually this late. One lady said (picture in a miss cleo accent) Oh, don't wooorry darling! This is City to City busses! It will come. It's always late!" The City to City bus company guards didn't know when it would come either. 11AM came, went. Noon, then at 12:30 I can't believe my eyes, the bus is here!

OK, let's get this show on the road, people! I ran over to the door, to ensure getting a seat by the driver. Passports were checked and they started loading all of the smuggled shit in the back of the trailer. Chaos an confusion for another two hours. Shouting, arguing, some people had the balls to put their stuff on the trailer and THEN go inside to buy a ticket. And it was clear that the bus was giong to be full. I sat on the curb in the sun, reading my book, trying to tune it all out. My patience is really wearing thin and I have nobody to comisserate with. Thank god for my funny book. The author, Ayun Halliday, reminded me of myself in some of the stories so it was like I did have some sort of company. I have renamed the City to City bus comany "Shitty to Shitty" in my mind. But there's nobody to share the joke with.

1PM came and went. 2PM, still there is arguing about loading the trailer. 3PM, it looks like people are getting in the bus! At 3:30, 6 AND A HALF HOURS LATE we get on the bus and it starts rolling through the station. We get to a gate and no... It can't be....we are stopping for another 20 minutes. Dear God. Finally. FINALLY we get on the road. I'm a little worried because the bus is making a tremendously loud sound. RRRRRREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! A loud, high pitched whine and the sound of metal parts grinding together. If this bus breaks down, I thought... I am going to lose my mind. 30 minutes later. Yes! It breaks down. We pull over at a gas station and wait for a mechanic to come "in 10 minutes!" 30 mintues later a mechanic comes. He works on the bus for awhile and we get back in. Apparently the bus is fixed but it is still making a deafining sound, and I couldn't help but notice that the floorboards under my feet were very warm. I moved my camera equipment, luna bars, and anything heat sensitive off the floor. It's kind of like the van in little miss sunshine. Like we might have to get out and push at some point.

At 4:30 we finally hit the road. I lucked out, I had a seat in front so I could stretch my legs. I still couldn't shake that total isolated foreigner, pasty white girl feeling. I can't ride 20 hours and not talk to anyone. I need someone on my side at border crossings, someone I can ask questions to if I need to. So I did what I always do. Make small talk with people and force them to like me. Next to me was a young guy in dreads named Geffrey and on the aisle was a nice girl named Jefunda. I read my book and the hours turned dark. Hours and hours went by. I couldn't help but notice that the funk on this bus is starting to get to me. But by this time, I stink too so I just embraced it. No a/c on this bus. I'm a little worried about the Zimbabwe border crossing, which we'll pass sometime near midnight. I'm the only non-African on the bus, the only one who will need a visa. I had reserearched this and apparently you can just get a visa at the border. But paranoid me didn't stop worrying. It looked pretty desolate out there.

At about midnight we stopped at the border, along with several other busses to some crowded, cinder block buildings in the dark. I exited south Africa and was so confused in the crowd. I found some people on my bus and stuck to them. We had to get to the Zim border and more confusion. A wave of panic and loneliness hit me like never before. I sat on the curb and just put my head in my hands, trying not to cry. I had just been such a trooper all day, for weeks, all the stress of this trip and this bus ride just overwhelmed me. I thought, why am I here? I could be home going out with my friends, I could be sitting on my couch watching little people, big world, or I could be in the grafton having a black and tan. I could even be at work planning what to have for lunch with my beloved coworkers. I thought about how much I missed my friends and home.

And for the first time since 5th grade camp, I experienced homesickness. Usually I have the kind of wanderlust that says "go anywhere, who cares, you can always go home later! hit the road, girl!" but I felt so beaten down. A woman on the bus came over, sensing that I was sad, and patted me on the back and said "it's going to be OK, what's wrong?" Her name was Charity (pronounced in that choppy, African way Cha-lit-tee) and I was so grateful. She, it turns out, is from Nkhata bay, Malawi, my final destination after all of this. She told me about it and comforted me and I felt so much better. I found some people I recognized and the whole bus went through Zim customs together. It turned out, my visa took only 5 minutes and it was very easy. But I will never forget how isolated and sad I felt at that moment, and how Charity talked to me. Sometimes you'll find that women look out for eachother. It was like the moment in Vietnam when I was so freaked out, couldn't cross the big, busy street of motorbikes (who do not stop - you have to walk into traffic and they swerve around) and yes, and old lady helped me across the street! That's an embarrasing thing to admit but it's true. But I will always remember the kindness in the old woman's face and how scary that was.

I keep having conversations with myself on this bus - whiny Sara and ballsy traveler Sara:

"I wanna go home....waaaaaa! This is hell! Why did I decide to come here? Is this even safe? waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!"

"Shut up dumbass. You wanted to see the REAL Africa, here it is. Stop complaining and just realize how amazing this all is."

"I'm hungry and homesick I all I have is a luna bar...waaaaaaaaa"

Zimbabwe looked like a scrubby desert at night, and in the morning we stopped to go to the bathroom and buy water. We also went through Hirare, the capital. Zimbabwe in general looks like it was having a going out of business sale. Lines for gasoline 30, 40 cars long. The stores were barren like there once was merchandise, and someone had cleaned them out. I changed a few South African rand into some very strange money (the bills say "this check is payable for 1000 dollars to payee) and bought some water and crackers. Zimbabwe is going through an economic crisis. The president has been accused of human rights offenses and a lot of companies have boycotted Zimbabwe. There is a huge black market and no more than three people can congrigate on the street or is it officially a protest and you can be arrested. The difference betwen South Africa and Zimbabwe was shocking. Africa in general is just mind blowing to me.

Through the day we drove, the bus so loud (and floorboards hot) that I couldn't even hear my ipod on the highest volume. I've been really sneaky with the ipod and camera, I don't want anyone to see it. Hence, my pictures of the bus ride aren't that great.

I noticed that more people on the bus were talking to me at the stops (6 border entries/exits all in all) and I realized that we were all in this hellish trip together, and I was just the strange white girl reading a book, with all the dumb questions, kind of like a pet on the bus. We shared snacks and chatted more. I noticed a flirtation growing between Geffrey and Jefunda. It was cute. The scenery got more lush and green - and hilly - and traditionally "African". Lots of women carrying things on their heads, lots of the round mud, beehive huts, children playing, more rural. Finally we reached Malawi and at around 11PM we rolled into Blantyre. I went straight to Doogles hostel from my guidebook, tried to use the internet and failed, drank a beer called "kuche kuche" and went to bed for 4 hours. So by the end of the bus ride, I just felt like everyone else on the bus - just someone trying to get to their destination. The bus ride kind of broke me down for awhile, but left me feeling good. I wished terribly that there had been another backpacker on the bus, but in the end it forced me to talk to people more, the Malawians, and get to know them a little. Had there been someone like me on the bus we would have stuck together and bitched the whole time, gaining nothing in the end. I got through it, it was an accomplishment - After it was all done, I felt good about the whole thing. Africa is just a series of little challenges and rewards. I have to just break it down into little segments. OK, just get to this border crossing, just get to Blantyre, just get to the bus station - if you think of it all at once it overwhelms.

On a side note, my theory on beer that sounds like a womans' body part being skunky holds true - kuche kuche beer tasted only a little worse than Vergina beer we drank in greektown. Can anyone think of any other gross beer in this category?

Anyhow, thanks for reading - if you comment anonymously, please remember to sign your name!

above - the joburg bus station and the south Africa countryside


Anonymous said...
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Ayun said...

Believe it or not, I'd kind of like to go on a 36 hour African bus ride right now! It's been awhile. Maybe I can have a gruelling bus trip in Croatia this spring.

I bet you'll remember Charity's charity for the rest of your life. Being on the receiving end is the best reminder to make a policy of showing kindness to strangers and travelers!

At any rate, Happy New Year and Happy Trails!

x Ayun Halliday
(PS - i like your taste in literature! Quit hiding the dang cover!)

Kate C said...

Happy New Year!!!

I've been thinking about you and I am so proud of you for doing this trip. Hang in there and keep up the great attitude. It's got to be so amazing to know that when you need it, there is always someone there to make the journey a little easier.

Oh so last night there was a DJ named Joan Jett Black (she was black - get it???) Anyway, she really hit some high notes by playing Man in the Mirror, Gloria and Bel Biv Devoe.

sara said...

Ayun - it made my day that you found my blog and commented! I LOVE your book! I hope you write another one