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Bush, rain & borders – A different sort of night out in East Africa

13 Sep 2017, Posted by Verity Norman in Travel Diary

It was one of those trips during which I frequently found myself thinking, “Thank goodness my mother doesn’t know I’m doing this.”

2006. Nairobi. Arusha. Mombasa. Nairobi again. Overland. Overland was the part that was tricky. I was working on a project with a school in Arusha, Tanzania and another one in western Kenya. I wanted to meet with the two lead teachers for the project. However, the school in western Kenya was on break for school holidays, so the three of us agreed on meeting in Mombasa, where the Kenyan teacher was participating in a drama festival with three students.

My itinerary was fly from Harare to Nairobi; drive from Nairobi to Arusha with the Tanzanian teacher, Maximilla. Spend a week in Arusha, part of which was spent visiting the Serengeti Park, since it was Easter weekend and the school was closed for four days. Next was another road trip from Arusha to Mombasa. And finally, a bus trip from Arusha to Nairobi, where I spent my last two nights in East Africa sleeping in a convent opposite the Israeli Embassy.

When I think back on it now, given my then lackadaisical planning and naïve trust in other people to make “sensible” plans, perhaps it’s unsurprising that things got a little crazy.

When I think back on it now, given my then lackadaisical planning and naïve trust in other people to make “sensible” plans, perhaps it’s unsurprising that things got a little crazy. What’s surprising is that I escaped the trip unscathed. I probably shouldn’t have.

The plan was to meet Maximilla at Jomo Kenyatta Airport. I had never spoken to her; we’d communicated only over email and she’d generously offered to trek the four-plus hours from Arusha to Nairobi to meet me at the airport and travel with me to Arusha where she taught at a Catholic mission school located at the bottom of a very muddy road in central Arusha.

Maximilla had my name scrawled on a sign and waved wildly when she saw me exiting the airport. She recognized me from the photo on our project website. She wrapped me in a hug before bundling me into a taxi with exclamations of “adventure, adventure!” This wouldn’t be the last time I heard her say this phrase on this trip.

I hadn’t realized it was Kenya’s monsoon season. Or perhaps I had realized, but didn’t really know what it meant. I quickly found out that it meant that when the clouds opened, the roads were instantly transformed from their dry hustle-bustle to raging rivulets that forced the shoes from pedestrians’ feet as they waded across the street to their destination.

As I watched this torrential transformation from the taxi window, I felt mildly concerned that it was also starting to get dark. The one thing everyone had told me about Nairobi was to not drive after dark. Not safe, my mother had said.

The already stagnant traffic on the airport road had now become a honking, hustling, soaking wet gridlock of cars, boda-bodas, matatus, all vying for those extra 3 inches of road space that would get them to their final destination. Our taxi inched along and when we finally reached the taxi rank an hour later, it was officially nightfall.

Our bags were grabbed by eager hands and squished onto the roof of a Peugeot station wagon; I clutched the backpack with my laptop, camera, and video camera to my chest, determined not to let that too be put on top of the taxi, exposed to the soggy elements. Maximilla and I stuffed ourselves into the back seat of the vehicle, two of the nine people wedged into a vehicle originally designed to carry five passengers.

“Thank goodness my mother doesn’t know I’m doing this right now.” It was a sentiment that would return many times throughout that night. Throughout the whole trip.

I tried to hide my anxiety about the road-trip in my silence and pretended to doze off. I also felt a little awkward as the only muzungu in the taxi and felt the sideways glances of the other passengers. KiSwahili conversation murmured around me as I watched the rain continue to spatter down outside.

After what felt like hours, the Peugeot got moving. Finally we were on our way to Arusha. So much for not traveling after dark. We passed roadblock after roadblock, my passport pressed against the window in response to requests for identification by soldiers waving AK47s.  It was as we sped along the deserted road to the Kenya-Tanzania borderthat  I was first struck by the notion, “Thank goodness my mother doesn’t know I’m doing this right now.” It was a sentiment that would return many times throughout that night. Throughout the whole trip.

After countless roadblocks and miles of rainy road, we finally reached the border. Maximilla and I joined the other passengers and piled out of the car, hauling our luggage through passport control and immigration. In my sleep-deprived, disorientated state I heard Maximilla again saying “adventure, adventure.” This time not quite as enthusiastically as she had earlier in the day. Or was it yesterday? I was horrified as it slowly became apparent that the Peugeot was not coming with us to Tanzania. We – two women – were being dropped off at the border. In the middle of the night. I was at a border crossing, an unknown border crossing, with a person I hardly knew, in the middle of the night. I tried not to think too hard about how this could play out. Or what my mother would say if she ever found out!

We dragged my enormous bag across the pitch dark kilometer of “no man’s land” between Kenya and Tanzania. Faces would pop out of the dark asking us if we needed sim cards, forex, help with our bags, a place to stay. “No, no, no, we are OK, we are OK.” We weren’t really.

We got through Tanzanian customs and passport control and soon realized there was no transport leaving the border at two in the morning. Apparently even the taxi drivers knew it was unsafe to be on the road at this time. So we wandered out of the border compound in search of accommodation.

“Muzungu, muzungu, we’ve got a hotel over here. Come this way, come this way. Let me take your bag. It’s just here. Nearby, nearby. Just over here. Come, come. I’ve got your bag. It’s just here. Short short, not far, not far.”

Maximilla and I hurried after our bags and approached the “check-in desk,” which seemed to be at the end of a street. I insisted we inspect the rooms before we paid the $10 for check-in.

Our eager guide flung open stable doors that seemed to have padlocks on the outside. For a second I wondered how you locked the door from the inside. It didn’t seem to matter since there were no windows.

We entered what looked like it may have once been a horses’ residence. We looked through windows with no glass, just mosquito netting, into rooms that all held two single beds under ragged mosquito nets. Beds covered with sheets that may never have been washed and looked like they had experienced some intense nighttime activities. Our eager guide flung open stable doors that seemed to have padlocks on the outside. For a second I wondered how you locked the door from the inside. It didn’t seem to matter since there were no windows.

“Could we see the bathroom, please?” I asked, trying to buy time before I found a polite way to say, “Absolutely no way are we staying here; we would be robbed and raped in our sleep!”

“Yes, yes, of course. There’s one bathroom for the whole hotel to share.”

I guess you could call it a bathroom. But more accurately, it was a hole in the ground, with a showerhead over it. No curtain. No door to speak of.

We did not pay the $10, and soon were dragging our luggage back to the brightly lit border compound.

Exhausted, we settled down on the pavement underneath a bright security light. There were other stranded travelers in various states of repose. Some sleeping on the ground; some leaning against their luggage; some speaking in hushed tones, trying to not attract too much attention. I was grateful that it had stopped raining. And for the tropical temperature that even at 3AM felt warm and soothing. I was also again grateful my mother was peacefully oblivious that her firstborn was about to spend the night sleeping on the ground of an east African border. Essentially on the street. I hoped that the security offered by the border control’s lights would ward off any would-be thieves.

After some discussion about our limited options, Maximilla offered to find out when the next taxi would be leaving. While I kept watch over our pile of luggage, Maximilla ambled over to a small cluster of cars. Any hopes I’d had of us making it to Arusha by dawn were dashed when she returned with the news: “There is a bus leaving in an hour, but I’m not sure you’ll want to go in it. They are transporting a dead body. Inside the bus.”

That settled that – we’d had enough “adventure adventure” for one day. We stayed in the border compound. On the ground. Draped over our luggage. Taking turns to sleep or keep watch. At daybreak, the taxis started stirring, gathered their passengers, and we finally made our way to Arusha.

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