Tanzania Trip- Part One:
Kigali to Dar es Salaam (aka the longest bus ride of my life) and the ferry ride to Zanzibar
Our adventure started on July 17th with a cab ride through the dark streets of Kigali at 3:30 am. We arrived at the surprisingly deserted Nyabugogo (the bus station) and found a place to sit near the buses.
Heather and I went into the office to confirm our tickets and get seat numbers and had a not so pleasant conversation with a rather cranky employee who apparently woke up on the wrong side of the bed. We eventually got the seat situation under control and headed outside to load our bags on the bus. We were fortunate that our seats were near the front so we climbed on early and settled in for the long ride.
Despite the fact that I was running on two hours of sleep I was able to stay awake the entire drive to the border that took about three hours. It was beautiful to watch the sunrise and I had never been out east before so that was a new experience for me. The Eastern Province of Rwanda can be summed up in two words: banana trees. They are everywhere- way more bananas then people out east! Once we arrived at the border we got off the bus to get our passports checked on the Rwandan side of the bridge and then trekked across the river, taking a moment to pause and enjoy the waterfalls that cascade down into the river, and then continued up a hill to the building where the Tanzanian people checked our documents.
Other volunteers had told us the visa would be $50 so when they demanded $100 we fought them for a while but eventually caved and paid $100 for a multiple-entry visa. The area outside of the office was swarming with men trying to exchange our money for us and to describe them as aggressive would be a massive understatement. I tried to find the least obnoxious man who happened to be near the back of the crowd (patience is a virtue and can pay off in times like this) and managed to exchange some of my USD for Tanzanian Shillings.
The exchange rate was 1500 Shillings for one dollar in case you were wondering. After exchanging money we had a few minutes to find food and a bathroom before we climbed back on the bus. Here is one of the many welcome signs- Karibu means welcome and is also a commonly used word in Rwanda.
The drive wasn’t quite as bad as I had anticipated but it was painfully long! I listened to music, took a few naps, watched three movies, played battleship with Heather, read two books, and still had time to stare out the window and be bored out of my mind. The first difference I noted between Rwanda and Tanzania, the physical landscape, was blatantly apparent from the minute we crossed the border. While Rwanda is full of rolling green hills and very densely populated (11 million people crammed into a country the size of Maryland) the first portion of Tanzania was the exact opposite. The minute we crossed the border the lush green landscape and hills gave way to a dusty and dry savannah that was vast, mostly flat, and sparsely populated with the occasional community every 20 minutes.
Our driver would stop every couple of hours for a quick bathroom break and this task proved to be quite a challenge for us. All the men on the bus had it easy but for the women it was far more difficult to find some type of appropriate shrub to hide behind and, since the driver was male, he would start honking the horn as soon as all the men had come back from their strenuous journey that involved walking maybe two feet from the bus. Well it was not so easy for the women and we often spent the first few minutes jogging along the road looking for somewhere to hide. On one trip Heather and I found a dilapidated brick shack that looked promising but turned out to be inhabited by snakes that were not thrilled by the prospect of sharing their shelter with us. I tell you- the things we women go through just to pee! Once we had been driving for a few hours the bus started picking up new passengers who appeared to be waiting for us along the road. I found this development rather odd since all the seats had been filled in Kigali but no need to worry- they just sat or stood in the aisle of the bus. Just when you think one more person cannot physically fit into a tiny space Africa will defy your expectations and fit not one person but two or three! One woman sat on a little wooden bench for the entire night- I cannot even imagine how uncomfortable she was. I suppose she was more comfortable then these poor fish we saw dangling from a tree at one of the stops- it seemed unnecessarily cruel that they were still alive. Tanzania is a rough place for fish.
I struggled to sleep for most of the night for a multitude of reasons. A woman who was sleeping on the floor had her legs intertwined with mine which was uncomfortable, sticky, and also limited my mobility. In addition to this many of the windows were closed so for parts of the drive it felt like I was trapped in a smelly sauna- not a desirable place to spend 30 hours. With all of this I think my favorite obstacle was the man sitting on the floor who fell asleep with his head in my lap for almost five hours. I really wanted to inform him that sleeping in a stranger’s lap (especially a young female foreigner) is not really appropriate but I doubt he would have cared much.He seemed quite cozy all nestled up with my travel pillow and I am actually a bit surprised he didn’t ask for a head or neck massage, but I suppose he was too busy snoring away and splattering drool on my skirt to vocalize the request. Even without sleep I was grateful to see the sun come up because it meant we were that much closer!
We had one long stop from 11pm to 3am because there is some type of regulation on the number of hours the bus can be driving during the day. One of the main dishes they sell on the road is an omelet with French-fries mixed in that they call “chipsis mayai.” They have the fries cooked already and toss them in a pan, crack a few eggs over them, sprinkle on some salt and then throw it all in a black plastic bag once it is ready to go. You use a toothpick to eat this concoction but you usually have to wait a few minutes for it to cool down before you can dive in.
After the long break we continued on and at this point, about 17 hours into the trip, I was starting to really lament the fact that our society has yet to develop some type of teleportation device. With all of the money and intelligent people you would think someone would have figured it out by now. I managed to pass a few hours in a state of sullen contemplation, feeling grumpy and frustrated about the world’s inability to utilize our advanced knowledge of science and technology to spare me from the agony of a 30-hour bus ride. Luckily by the time I was finished throwing myself this splendid pity party it was time for another break! Towards the end of the trip I was starting to have some issues with motion sickness and just as I began a frantic search for a bag to throw up in the bus pulled into the Dar es Salaam station- perfect timing! We found a taxi to take us down to the ferry and luckily the driver had called ahead to reserve tickets for us. Tanzanians are very friendly people and go out of their way to offer whatever help they can so we could always find someone to assist us. We bought our tickets and eventually made our way through the sea of people and onto the boat.
We had seats on the top deck that gave us a nice view and a lovely ocean breeze that soon turned into a rather intense and cold breeze once we made it out of the docking area. The ride was nice at first but part of the way through all of the local people were standing up and looking back towards Dar with worried looks. Some of our group was speculating that perhaps there were dolphins so when we stood up to join in we were horrified to learn they were watching a ferry capsize and sink. By the time I started looking I couldn’t see anything so I think it went down very fast after it capsized. The captain of our boat was waiting for orders regarding the rescue and in the end he had to take us all the way to Zanzibar before he could load the rescue crew and return to search for survivors. By the time it could return 146 people had drowned (according to the last article I read) and they managed to save approximately 40 people. It was a tragic accident that could have been prevented since it turns out that the boat was not technically a ferry and not even authorized to be that far out in the ocean. It also had too many people and it was really windy that day which probably added to the problem. After all of this we were happy to finally be in Zanzibar and feeling very grateful that we had decided to pay more money to go on a legitimate ferry. It is scary to think that we could have been on the boat that capsized since we used local transportation throughout the trip and were constantly looking for ways to save money. I am eternally grateful for the fact that our taxi driver insisted we use the Kilimanjaro ferry that was more expensive ($70) but very safe.It never ceases to amaze me how unpredictable life is- just when you start to feel like you have some semblance of control over things something happens to remind you that you are not the one calling the shots.
Here are a few shots of Zanzibar from the boat:
Well I think this entry is sufficiently long so I will pick up where I left off for the next installment!