This Bus Departs at Nine in the Morning
By Kelly N. Patterson
"This bus is going to fall,"
I stated and asked concurrently in my remedial Swahili.
The buddah-bodied, sarong wrapped woman to my right
laughed at my big worried eyes.
"No, young sista," her
electric white teeth glowed through me. "Hamna
Her corpulent arm, the size of my
thigh, fell on my shoulders: a universal gesture of
comfort. Hamna tabu, no problem. I was unaware there
are six different ways to say "no problem"
in Swahili, depending on the degree of the problem.
It is not desirable, in Tanzanian society, to be the
harbinger of discouraging news.
In a car, you could travel from
Iringa to the mountain-nest village of Pommerini in
four hours. In a bus, it may take up to ten hours
to travel the same distance. The authorities tell
you, "this bus departs at nine in the morning,"
while pointing to a crude, archaic map of your destination.
However, the bus always leaves well
after midday, except the one time you cleverly arrive
at noon, to evade the bus vigilance in the blistering
fumes of the arthropod-infested marketplace. They
nod their heads at your disbelief.
"I told you many times, this
bus departs at nine in the morning."
When you purchase a bus ticket this
does not guarantee you a seat on the bus. One voyage,
I stood for four consecutive hours, with the physical
support of other passengers' bodies. And no, they
would not let me ride on top of the bus, with all
the cargo and the bus attendants, despite my begging.
"It would not look good to
have muzungu on the roof," the bus driver concluded
and then sipped his Tuska beer.
Tanzanian buses are really motorized
community centers. Some passengers organize a chorus
to drown out the clamorous juju music (African dance
music which parallels Caribbean music stuck on fast-forward),
selected by the driver and his attendants. The driver
will play his single cassette repeatedly the entire
ten-hour journey. I became an instant celebrity the
day I introduced Bob Marley's Legend on a bus trip.
In the back of the buses men are
gambling with a deck of cards, drinking bamboo juice
(a lip-numbing inebriating brew with a Whiskey Sour
tang), or exchanging entertaining personal narratives
and dirty jokes. Women socialize, breast-feed cloth-attached
infants (who never cry), sew, coif one another's hair,
and generate beaded jewelry. Children amuse themselves
by watching me or agitating the omnipresent livestock:
do goats and chickens purchase bus tickets, too?
The African "highways",
elaborately decorated with lunar-crater sized potholes
and decomposing vehicles, do have Rest Areas. These
oases in the naked bush greatly resemble American
truck stops: they offer a bar, restaurant/disco, and
a flophouse. But there are no souvenir shops, refueling
stations, or toilets.
The length of one's visit is solely
the discretion of the driver, and often the driver
does not feel obligated to notify his customers of
departure. At the sound of the engine, individuals
abruptly drop their meals, chase the bus, and leap
onto a rambling bus. The passengers, securely on board,
enthusiastically encourage boarding attempts and
generously applaud on success.
During the trek, if you must relieve
yourself, it is custom to yell, "Choo!"
This is vernacular tongue for "john" or
"toilet." The bus does not actually stop
on account of your need to recycle your last meal.
However, if the driver favors you, he will slow the
bus down significantly and continue in a dull roll.
You alleviate your burden alongside the route, often
without bushes or ravines to conceal your private
biological functions. This means you and often a few
peers, are urinating (or worse) in full view of the
bus and its occupants.
You adapt quickly to this
humbling situation, eluding a kilometer jog to capture
the bus. I wish not to mislead you; the drivers are
not sadistic. They reasonably fear the decrepit, hand-me-down
buses of the West will not survive frequent stops.
In the African country, a defunct bus becomes a fossil
and the occupants are fully exposed to Nature's impulses.
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