Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Bongo Series: The Nairobi Connection

After my short stay in Arusha, I had to fulfill my schedule. Shirati was calling. When in Arusha or Moshi, the easiest way to reach Tarime/Musoma/Mwanza, believe it or not, is through Nairobi. Though passing through Kenya is a long distance, the paved road allows for a quicker trip. I had to follow the crowd.

Being unaware of which buses actually provide a better service, I had to allow my hosts to do the searching. I don’t recall the name of the bus, but I was promised this is one of the best buses on my intended safari. Man, I learned very quickly that quality of service is all subjective.

For one, I had no guaranteed seat. According to the ticket office clerk, the Arusha office could only figure out seat availability once the bus landed in Arusha from Dar. When the bus finally arrived in Arusha, I was given the very last seat at back end of the bus!

Why do I talk about my sitting allocation? The ride from Arusha to Namanga was the bumpiest ever! The bus was “sophisticated” with seatbelts and all (I guess the bus owners knew what passengers typically go through and providing seatbelts would ease the pain a bit), but I had to hang on to bars on the seat in front of me, otherwise I would have even crashed my unmentionables.

So I had just to figure out what my hosts meant by this bus being “great”. It meant it got to Mwanza faster, but not necessarily safely. Since a portion of the Arusha-Namanga road was dusty, I wish I had a mirror to see how much dust my eyelashes had collected by the time we got to Namanga.

Crossing the boarder was uneventful. I just felt that the immigration folks at Namanga were bored going through the same routine, probably night after night. They spend very little time looking at passports, even temporary travel documents. I couldn’t figure out why the Namanga area had so many Somalis.

I have to admit, the culture in Kenya is way different from that of Tanzania. I think Tanzanians exude this aura of gentleness, while Kenyans a bit rough on the edges. On our way to Nairobi after crossing the boarder, we got stopped by the Kenyans police at one checkpoint. One of the passengers had to go, so they went behind the bus to ease the pressure. Well, a female Kenyan police saw him and grabbed him for “polluting the environment”. I thought that was crazy, given that there are no rest areas, both on the Tanzanian and Kenyan side!

We had to spend additional ten minutes or so for the passenger to be rescued. Given the culture in Tanzania and Kenya, I am sure some currencies exchanged hands for the release of this poor passenger.

We got to Nairobi close to midnight. I was hungry and I wasn’t sure if the bus would stop anywhere for a late dinner, given a sense of urgency the driver and other bus operators were exhibiting all the time. Luckily, they stopped at a restaurant where the owner spoke very good Swahili and accepted both the Tanzania and Kenyan shillings.

Trust me, everything could be an experience. The restaurant was a “self-serve” type of joint. You pick what you want and you head to the counter to pay. No one was waiting tables. I picked what I wanted and headed to the cashier and I was surprised at the way the guy behind was shoving and pushing me, competing with to get the cashier’s attention. I had to ask why he wasn’t giving me my personal space, and he just gave me a puzzled look asking me in return, “we vipi, nimekubana wapi”?

It just hit me that I was looking at life through different lenses. Personal space? I felt embarrassed for demanding a personal space in a situation where it was OK to breathe on someone else’s neck.

We got back to the bus and headed towards Sirari. Upon reaching Nairobi, I was fortunate enough to secure a better seat. I don’t recall much on the way to Sirari as I was dosing off. I only woke up when the bus conductor made the “passport” announcement. I obliged, getting off the bus to face a chilly weather in Sirari.

At around five o’clock in the morning there were actually ladies selling porridge and tea at the boarder. I guess they have been there long enough to know that there are customers who would buy porridge that early in the morning. Honestly, I didn’t care for no porridge, I was just anxious to get to Tarime so that I could find my way to Shirati. Furthermore, I was just glad to cross over to the Tanzanian side, it just felt comforting to know I was in a place where I belonged.

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