Sunday, June 24, 2007

A perspective on African public transportation

I thought I'd use this blog entry to describe what some things are like from my perspective in Africa. Specifically, public transportation is quite an enjoyable topic. Laura and I have taken 4 large travel buses, many taxis, many moto-taxis, and dala-dalas to get around. Each one has its own special story but I thought I'd just generalise the experience.

First, we've taken large buses to travel to the major cities we've gone to. We've been in Nairobi, Kampala, Kigali, Arusha... each city being in a different country. These buses are like the greyhound of the US but they have about 2 or 3 competitors. The clientel vary from business men to tourists to people traveling to see family. The bus is staffed by 3 men, a driver, a ticket checker, and a cargo guy. They never leave on time; everyone is at least a half hour early but it takes africans at least 1 hour to get on the bus. I have no idea what they are doing but it is immensely confusing. So far, every arrival time quote has been about 3 hours too early... which means bus trips are at least 3 hours longer than expected. What makes the bus so late? Well, the roads have to be the number 1 issue. There are potholes everywhere in the country and the driver needs to keep his pace slow enough to avoid them. The second issue is the random stops made along the way. The cargo guy is a busy guy as each stop, he's jumping out of the bus, dealing with some people, opening cargo doors... who knows what else he does. This happens at all hours of the day. From 3 am in the morning to 4 pm in the day. Very shady stuff... but our bags have somehow always made it with us. For the riders, we get a travel break every 3 hours or so which allows us to relieve ourselves and during the day, we have a lot of market people selling plantains and bbq kebabs right at our windows. Quite good food despite the probable danger of stomach aches afterwards.

Upon arrival by bus, the mzungus (white people, which on the bus has only been us) are attacked by taxi drivers. They are best avoided due to their incredible mzungu prices. The moto-taxis (all called pigi-pigis or boda-bodas) are the most fun but of course can only carry one person with any cargo that person is willing to try to carry. No helmet, just hang on and go for the ride of your life. An awesome experience but rough with a giant backpack on your back.

Finally, we arrive to the dala-dalas. These look like old volkswagen vanagons. These are the cheapest mode of travel and almost all of the public uses them to get around. They are staffed by a driver and a guy who sits next to the van door collecting payment, letting people in and out, and getting customers. They cost about 30 cents to ride. They hold 14 people total. There are 4 rows of 3 (one row squishes in the door guy) and the front seat holds 2 next to the driver. They never leave empty... so it will sit there until full. Amazingly cramped. The drivers are amazingly bold on the roads. They can hold chickens and all kinds of small wildlife. You never know what you're going to get. They can definitely be dangerous as a future anecdote will describe.

We spent our last day in Kampala at Oweeno market. This is the craziest market I have ever seen. They have top of the line products like Nike sneakers, Merrell boots, levi jeans, etc. all enclosed in these tiny booths. Prices are insane... 20 dollars for a pair of new Merrells, 5 dollars for a pair of levi jeans. Mzungus are mobbed in the dark aisles of Oweeno as vendors compete for their money. The aisles are as thin as an airplane aisle with vendors on all sides. They are constantly reaching out to grab any part of your body they can to get your attention. The market is just huge... you can easily get lost in it. Laura and I were so intimidated by it, that we basically walked very quickly by all the vendors just to get a glance but so that we wouldn't be stopped. Once stopped, you're in trouble!

As for us, we took a bus from Kampala to Arusha. Total time was 25 hours. The only interesting anecdote is we were stopped about 7 times just in Tanzania for some kind of police stop. The police patrol the inside of the bus ... I have no idea what they are looking for but for 4 hours driving time in Tanzania, 7 stops is quite a lot. We also had 2 border crossings, Uganda to Kenya and Kenya to Tanzania; these are always immensely entertaining.

Upon arrival to Arusha, Lema (our coordinator) was their to greet us. He had been waiting for 3 hours for us (bus was late). He greeted us, took us to our home and fed us, and told us to rest up from our travelling. The accomodations are interesting. It's a home with about 6 bedrooms. There are 2 guys who staff the home. Lema who is our volunteer coordinator and Babu who prepares the dinner table and shows us things around town. When we arrived, the place was full of volunteers, probably 10 total. Now, we are down to 4 people as many have completed their time. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are brought to us from Mama Gladness's home. She's the person who started the green foundation in 1998 and has been running it for some time. Lema is her son. The home is located in a town called Tengeru, about 12 kilometers from Arusha.

Laura and I spend our mornings learning basic Swahili from a man named Martin. Laura goes to the orphanage in the afternoon. I go to Mama Gladness's home to tend to the tree nursery. There are two nursery plots that need tending. So far, I've just seen them and been educated on the types of plants but haven't actually done any work with them. We work monday thru friday with weekends free. I'll talk more about the work in subsequent blogs; we've only worked on Friday so far.

I've spent some of my free time running up towards Mount Meru. It's amazing how the mountain community greets a mzungu along the way. Everybody greets me and wants to stop to talk with me, maybe to practice english, maybe just to talk to a white person, maybe to get me to buy something. So far, I've been invited into a home for tea and avocado, I've been taken to the local waterfall hidden in the forest, I've played some soccer at a school, I've been shown the family's bull and cow. It's really been a highlight of living in Tengeru.

This weekend, Lema took the 4 remaining volunteers to Arusha and then to Snake Park. Arusha is the major tourist center of Tanzania. Mzungus are constantly approached by street vendors trying to sell you a safari or trek up Kilimanjaro. It's actually quite awful compared to the other cities we've visited due to these street vendors. They are really aggressive and annoying. We spent our time in Arusha just purchasing basic toiletries and food products, then we got out.

On our drive to Snake park, we arrived upon a massive number of people gathered at a scene of an accident. Lema pulled the car over and we all walked over to see what was going on. The accident was MASSIVE!! A dump truck with a huge bed had collided with a dala-dala, the public transport vans. The dala-dala was crushed and the dump truck was upside down. Next to the destroyed dala-dala lay about 15 to 20 dead bodies. I've never seen more dead bodies lying in one place other than on the news. It was an awful scene. Many of the people's heads were crushed and bodies mangled... I'll leave it at that.

A somber mood brought us to Snake park which is a snake/crocodile/monitor zoo. There we saw the famed black/green mamba, known for it deathly venomous bite. The mambas are a danger in the town that we live in so we've heard quite a bit about them. We were given a tour of the zoo by a Maasai guide, who described the reptiles of Africa quite well. Unfortunately, during a part of the tour where he described how his people lived, he was told that a guide at the zoo and his entire family were in the dala-dala during the accident. The man and his family had died in the accident. The guide had a difficult time with the news but managed to keep giving us the tour after some time. A strange day indeed...


Greg said...

Hi Laura and Jeremy,

Your Post is quite thought provoking. I was reading along enjoying the informaiton more than ever when the Accident. Sure am glad you also included it. Makes for a better prespective.

We spent midnight with your mom and dad at the anual Cancer Walk. they were in fine health and spirits. Agood time again with the Pallottas. The Walk is to raise spirits and funds. It was from 6pm to 6am at the NCUHS.

May you two be safe, healthy and happy. What a mind changing experience.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jeremy and Laura,

Thanks for all the interesting adventures. It has been nice experiencing it through your words.
Thinking of you two lots:) Be Safe!!!

I also walked at the Relay for Life last night. It was great.

Be Safe, Laurie:)

tonyp said...

seems that your everyday experiences are quite eye oppening can't imagine the market experience must have been scary yet exciting take care of yourselves at those venues--your mom wishes she could be the one working at the tree nursery!! had the cats outside today for about an hour-BAILEY found a way under the back porch and stayed there 20 minutes--momtried to get some pictures but had mediocre sucess. LOVE DAD

Anonymous said...

Hola Mzungu!! Sounds like an amazing adventure so far...the only thing that will make this more exciting is if you wrestle a mamba snake...I expect that will be coming in the next blog!!


Ann said...

Thanks for your valuable contribution!