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Travel Image: Tanzania
 Photo: Ogen Perr
Travel Image: Tanzania
 Photo: Paul Tooze

Tanzania: 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 tabu."

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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