My guide book says international bus travel in the region is fairly awful.
They were right. The bus to Nairobi left at 7 am from Garden City in Kampala and arrived at a quarter to nine in the evening. We stalled eleven times. We were surrounded by Kenyan villages in many instances; the bus driver waited them out and shood local tomfoolery away with his horn and his menacing hand gestures.
I arrived to Nairobi in darkness. Dusty, littered streets and forlorn street urchins, eying the tourist vehicle like a bar of gold as we slowed to a stop on River Road.
"We can walk you to the ATM, sir. It's better..."
I was given a chaperone everywhere I walked in the hours I stayed in Nairobi. Across the street to the market, down the alley to the bank, back to the hotel. Black men with bloodshot eyes, pink scars running across their faces, surveyed me as a bachelor might a girl at a disco.
Seven hours later I was back on the bus, this time bound for Dar (es Salaam). The Dar Express (hardly the correct name for this trip) wove through early morning traffic, across the Nairobi river and then through the industrial, polluted, southside of the capital. Within a couple hours we were back in the wild, speeding past savannah and wild grasses, euphorbia and exotic birds. We would be in Tanzania before noon.
It was Masai country. Herdsman and women frequented the roads in their plaid red and black shukas, walking staffs and knives.
I haggled for a transit visa, cutting the cost from $50 to $30. Pleased, I ran to the bank to get my receipt and then sprinted back to the bus. I was the last to receive a visa and didn't want to make the rest of the bus wait any longer for me. They could have cared less. All the border merchants were still in the aisles, selling cold water, Fanta, Cola, sweets, gum, crackers, and nuts. I bought a box of coconut biscuits, a water and settled in for the bulk of the afternoon.
It felt good to be in Tanzania. Home of the humans! Kilimanjaro! The Serengeti. Ngorongoro Crater. Zanzibar...
But Kilimanjaro was clouded over and I didn't see a thing. Sigh.
The rest of the drive to the Indian Ocean was stifling, bumpy and dangerous. Our driver would stop whenever he wanted for as long as he wanted, as long as it suited his needs. When a fisherman appeared from a brook holding a perch, the driver applied the breaks in the middle of the road, stopping for a smoke and a chat with the local. We waited. When the driver had to pee, we followed, not knowing when the next stop would occur. If at all. Fifteen hours of terror followed by a much needed cold shower on the shores of Dar. I ate dinner at a classy bar in Oyster bay serving fried bananas and prostitutes. I couldn't avoid them if my life depended on it. thank God it didn't. Sitting down to eat dinner is a religious experience. Especially after a long bus ride. This night I had no peace, just trawling by the local ladies of the night, from Mozambique, Arusha, Moshi. No. Thank. You.
I woke up at eight the next morning to a screaming headache and a giant bug circling my cranium. I quickly showered and packed and found a taxi to take me to the southern edge of Dar where another crowded taxi park waited my arrival. I had to find a 15-seat mini-van to Nyamisati, the port city 2 1/2 hours down the coast from Dar, where a boat was leaving at 2pm for Mafia Island. When we finally left in the mini van, there were 24 of us in a 15 seat van. Smells and heat and sweat I can't quite describe. I had no back rest so it took all my effort to balance myself and my bag as I tried to avoid falling into the lap of the person directly behind me. The man in front of me was fast asleep, careening off my knees and into my bag as one would during a deep sleep.
Once at the harbor, I paid 4 dollars for a 4-hour boat ride to the island some 30 km from the mainland. The boat frequently capsizes. Soon I found out why. Waves the size of story buildings crashed on us for hours, drenching all the passengers and nearlytipping us over. The girl to my left retched her guts out overboard, the girl to my right: in a bucket. I had to stare out at the deep blue sea and concentrate on concentrating.
We arrived at sunset, 6pm, 500 meters from shore, but still 90 minutes from dry land. A canoe transported the 80-90 passengers by the dozen back and forth from the boat to the sand. Of course the five of us foreigners were on the last trip, making our way to shore at 7:40.
I stayed three nights at the Whale Shark Lodge, in a self-contained banda with king-sized bed, mosquito netting, and a shower that had hot water. Lovely. I went scuba diving the first day, then - one of the highlights of these four months - three hours of swimming with whale sharks 30 minutes from shore. Swimming below, in front of, and behind those creatures was something I'll not soon forget. Manta rays flew around us as the sharks fed on plankton and other schools of fish in the midst of our jaw-dropping observations in the water.
I left the island bound for Nairobi again. the same route back: canoe, boat, mini-van, sleep, bus, sleep.
I had a two-day safari to Masai Mara the following day, a four-hour trip from Kenya's capital. We entered the escarpment leading to the onset of the Rift Valley. Think "Out of Africa" and you can guess what it looked like. Gazelles, cows, sheep, and goats roamed the savannah and acacia trees as we sped towards the game park for our afternoon game drive. the rains hit and then relented just as we pulled into the park at four, giving us 2 1/2 spectacular hours inside the park. Prides of lions, families of elephants, buffalo, gazelle, one serval, two jackals, zebra, wildebeests, toppy, and eagles all within the span of that time frame. At sunset our 4x4 pulled out in front of an outcropping of boulders and there sat a lioness and one cub, calmly watching the red, African sun descend over the plains of Mara, completely bereft of fear or worry. The kings of their domain. It was another indelible image I took from the trip.
I came back to grade my students' final exams. All 246 essays. In 10 days. I have never read so much material in such a short period in my life. Digesting those papers made me microanalyze ever possible criterion for writing a good essay, over and over again.
Campus quieted down as final exams finished, leaving Kyambogo to the residents, administrators and professors.
I sorted out my visa permits the past few days as well. Meanwhile, around the homestead two items worthy of note: our mangoes have ripened. Delicious. And the garbage burning in front of my house has grown intolerable. I continually inhale smoke on a daily basis now that the rainy season has passed and sun soaks the baked clay for twelve hours. Lawnmowers dump their piles of grass behind the ruined building, where a local homeless man burns them in heaps. With the prevailing winds, the acrid black smoke filters right through the screen windows of my place, choking my lungs and polluting the air all. day. long. So annoying. I think - after talking with my superior, Dan, the mowers, and the burners, I have solved the problem.