I held on tight. Closed my eyes and begged my brain to imagine one of my happy places, often invoked while at the dentist. My brain did not cooperate – it was too busy forming the words “holy crap, we’re going to die!”
Looking back, I think my brain was over reacting. True, buses that wind through the twists and turns of the Usambara Mountains in Tanzania often tumble down the slopes, ending in twisted wreckage, but that only happens every month or so. My friends who regularly braved these death traps had theories on the best place to sit. One recommended sitting directly behind the driver, as he will instinctively try to save himself when disaster strikes. Another suggested sitting in the middle of the bus – so if the bus gets hit from either the front or behind, your survival odds were best. One more said “just get a window seat. If you crash, you crash, nothing you can do, but with a window seat you’ll get first dibs on the samosas from the vendors.”
One of the tough lessons I learned about riding the buses, or any transit in Tanzania, is that if you’re small and a girl, you are not entitled to an entire seat. Even if you grill the bus driver before buying your ticket, his assurances that they don’t oversell the seats is simply not true. There will be about 30 more people on the bus than there are seats for. And I don’t mean to sound all spoiled princess about this, I’m quite happy to immerse myself into local culture, but it’s always nice to have an idea of what you’re getting yourself into. Like having to stand, crouched under the above-seat racks which banged my head at every bump, smushed up against the windows, socked feet in a puddle of what I suspect was warm vomit, bracing myself as we whipped around hairpin turns along the mountain’s edge. Had I known, I would have been better prepared – Valium or booze. Or both.
Buses are often personalized and brightly coloured. I didn’t panic at all when the one I boarded for Lushoto had “To God” written in bright orange letters, where you often see the destination listed.
Even buying your bus ticket can be an adventure. My travelling side-kicks and I had been warned about the bus station in Lusaka Zambia. The cab driver, in his broken English, offered his advice. “Just say no. No, no, no. You stay with bags, she buys tickets, only from the stand, not from boys. You must be very brave.” Rhonda is such a trooper. She lost the rock paper scissors game and went to buy the tickets from the tiny little booth while Maria and I watched our bags. We were instantly swarmed by young men eager to sell us bus tickets. “No, thanks, our friend is getting our tickets.” We were broken records, and they tried their best. “Oh your friend, she’s no good. She’ll only buy a ticket for herself. She’s at the wrong booth. She’s only allowed to buy one ticket. We’ll sell faster, look at the lineup. It’s more expensive over there. You need to buy from us. Want to buy a ticket?”
And I get it. These guys need to make a living. They work hard, just as we do. So it’s an understood arrangement. They try to sell, we try to resist. And every so often you can sneak in a conversation, ask them about their families, places we should check out, talk about the weather. They’re brief little snippets that level the playing field, the bits that I crave to show we’re all just human.
In Havana, there are a few bus options. The well-behaved tourist hops into the double-decker tour bus and gets a lovely rooftop view of the city. The locals don’t travel with quite the same style. Their buses look like they were magically transported from the 50s or some sort of people carrier fixed to the back of a Mack truck. Castro feels it is important that transit be accessible to all, so grabbing a bus is inexpensive – the smallest denomination of a Cuban peso – about a penny. My informative guidebook had promised me that I would be mugged, groped, harassed, squished and lost forever should I be foolish enough to ride one of these. So, I charmed a local into taking me aboard. He thought I was a lunatic. He could be right. It was an interesting feeling, traversing the city standing, while my feet didn’t actually touch the ground. They weren’t touching anything at all. I was so sardine-packed in, I merely hovered, and giggled the whole time. No groping or thieving at all, just some strange looks from the Cubans.
While the bus adventures aren’t for the faint of heart, I highly recommend them, and hope you don’t crash. They offer so much more insight into the culture of an area than you can get from your glossy travel guide, or from an air-conditioned coach. Sure, you’ll be subject to toothpaste sales from the bus stewardess, you’ll gasp for air that doesn’t smell like 100 vile armpits, you’ll be stared down by the confused roosters, but you’ll also have wonderful moments too. I was handed a squirmy new baby to give a mother a chance to buy a bag of tomatoes through the window. On the fancier buses you can catch up on your East African soap operas. Your neighbor will share his greasy samosas with you. Passengers laugh, sing, and sleep. They don’t even mind when you get off the bus and immediately kiss the ground, weeping thankful prayers of survival.